10 essential atmospheric films for Halloween, including some on 35mm playing this weekend in Miami

October 30, 2015

large_eraserhead_blu-ray_03With Halloween around the corner, the lists of top scariest movies have begun popping up again on the Internet. The usual suspects are there, of course. But some of us might want a little more than typical genre recommendations. As someone who has grown out of looking for thrills in monster movies and ghosts stories in cinema, allow me to present you with something a little different for the season, some of which will be screened on Halloween on 35mm in my town, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema by the Secret Celluloid Society, in a marathon night of screenings (see the line-up and get your tickets here). Check out their trailer for the evening below:

Many of the films below offer something more than cheap scares, gimmicks and gore. I’m talking about a sustained sense of eerie gloom. The problem with a lot of horror is that the films often fragment the story into these moments of thrills that feel cheap if the rest of the plot, story and performances fail to hold the mood together. To me, there’s nothing like sustained dread for creating an off-kilter atmosphere that will keep you hooked to a horror movie. I want a movie to tap into a deeper, primal sense of fear that feels truly otherworldly, the more irrational the better. There is nothing more disturbing than a film that tests logic, maintains mystery and heightens a sense of confronting the unknown. It’s all about the dark, and nothing is darker than that place in the mind that holds our fears.

My choice of some of the most successful movies of terror that sustain this sense of dread are presented in no particular order, as all achieve an atmosphere that never seems to let go. Following each entry you can find a link to the best format to find the film in via Amazon.com. If you click on those links and make a purchase, you help support this non-commercial blog.

Eraserhead

Though full of startling moments, this debut film by the master of cinematic surrealism, David Lynch, creeps under your skin with its soundtrack and lighting. All sort of eerie things occur that do not necessarily seem startling, though they are quite unsettling. The main character’s sensuous neighbor lady comes out of the pitch black shadows, emerging from the depths like a creature conjured from the dark. “I’ve locked myself out of my apartment … and it’s so late,” she says in a soft, droll voice. The strange industrial/suburban setting, and those sounds by “the baby,” just build to play with how we react to sounds.

There’s a Criterion blu-ray for this one, purchase here.

But, if you are in Miami on Nov. 1, the best format to see it: 35mm. Buy your ticket here (Yes, it’s at 4:30 a.m.). Nayib Estefan (indeed, the son of Gloria), the founder of the Secret Celluloid Society, assures an amazing sonic experience with the 35 projection. “Take a dip in the analogue hot tub,” he messaged me via Facebook just yesterday.

The Ring

Just before finding success as the director of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, director Gore Verbinski took the job of remaking the cult Japanese horror film Ringu. It was about a cursed VHS tape that held an abstract short film featuring grisly, statling scenes. If you watched it, you would die a week later. I saw it alone, during its theatrical release with only a handful of people in the movie house, 13 years ago, and it was the last movie I saw that conjured up an irrational sense of dread I had not felt since childhood. The grinding, screeching atonal music of on the cursed short film still played in my head as I headed home that night. The bushes next to my stairwell never looked darker or held more mystery. What I like best about The Ring is its dreamlike logic. One moment the investigative reporter played by Naomi Watts is in the hustle of the newsroom, the next she is off to a cabin in the woods with trees glowing a surreal orange. Even the sets look staged an unreal, recalling the design of many of the early J-Horror movies like Hausu (1977) and Jigoku (1960).

There’s a blu-ray for this one, purchase here.

Hausu

Speaking of Hausu, it’s another that was screened on 35mm by Secret Celluloid Society, earlier this month. I have seen some odd Japanese movies, but this stands as one of the strangest. It’s not so much frightening as it is surreal. The characters, all female, are stock archetypes to an almost clichéd extreme. There’s a karate expert and a chubby girl who is always eating something, for instance. They are part of a group of teenagers who head out for a stay at a friend’s mother’s mansion, only to meet a gruesome demise while — in a strange salacious quirk — they lose their tops, as they struggle for their lives. The lighting always seems to be twilight with an orange sky, and the effects, many of which are super-imposed animated images, are primitive but heighten the unreality of the movie to jarring effect. I’ve heard it described as a “Scooby Doo” cartoon as Japanese nightmare. The story is so out there, it’s no surprise it came from the mind of the director’s prepubescent daughter.

There’s a Criterion blu-ray for this one, purchase here.

The Shining

It’s a predictable choice but worth noting the cinematic power that has made The Shining a classic horror film. Stephen King, the author of original novel, famously griped about Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation, going as far as producing a two-part television remake. It hardly rose to the level of Kubrick’s masterpiece. The gliding tracking shots and inventive Steadicam use created a new way of capturing on-screen action. It felt alien and unsettling. Couple that with Wendy Carlos’ eerie but low-key score of creeping, high-pitched strings, sporadic rumbling timpani and terse xylophone hits, and The Shining becomes a masterpiece of sustained unease. Beyond music, sound is also important. The score also mingles with the sound of little Danny riding his big wheel in the Overlook Hotel’s hallways. The rhythm of the plastic wheels skipping from carpet to wood to carpet to wood mingle with the music, keeping the audience grounded and tense. The Shining stands as grand testament to the tools of cinema to create a mood that builds toward well-earned startling moments.

There’s a blu-ray for this one, purchase here.

Ju-on and Ju-on 2, the shorter Y2K TV movies

Above you will find a short, creepy film in the Ju-on series by Takashi Shimizu called “In a Corner.” It was around this time that the Japanese director made the first in a long series of Ju-on (a.k.a The Grudge) films, which had its start on Japanese television with these two tightly connected films. It’s basically about the bad vibes left in the wake of domestic horror. It’s a classic haunted house story. However, what made Shimizu stand out was his non-linear storytelling, which relied on foreboding plot developments. For example, in one part, a pair of detectives stand in an attic, staring down at an unseen object hidden between the rafters. As they speak elliptically about the remains, one finally says something to the effect of, “If this is the jaw, where is the rest?” Cut to a scene at home where a woman is walking up some stairs calling out to someone in the house to no response. Then, a shadowy figure of a girl in her school uniform, with black hair draped over her face, appears behind her, slowly creeping up. Could that be “the rest” the detective asked about? We will have to wait for the reveal, when the woman finally turns around to let out a long scream.

Purchase the 2000 version of Ju-on here and the the 2000 version of Ju-on 2 here.

John Carpenter’s The Thing

Another movie that has a Halloween screening in Miami at the Coral Gables Art Cinema on 35mm (again, here’s the link): John Carpenter’s version of The Thing. It’s one of those rare remakes that actually improves upon the original. In Carpenter’s version, the creature from outer space is never given a cohesive form. Whether it is implicitly felt hiding in plain sight as one of a group of scientists on an Antarctic research station, or bursting forth from their bodies becoming an array of primal, startling and often dangerous parts: teeth, claws, tentacles and black eyes, The Thing always has a presence. Even as an amorphous mound of viscera, it has personality, thanks to a masterful group of artisans behind the monstrous special effects. In between harsh scenes of gruesome appearances from the sorry bodies of humans and even dogs, there is a haunting sense of paranoia. It’s an element that was so key to the ’80s brand of Cold War weary American culture, but it also infuses The Thing with a disquieting sense of dread.

There’s a blu-ray for this one, purchase here.

But, if you are in Miami on Oct. 31, the best format to see it: 35mm! Buy your ticket here.

The Exorcist

I have vivid memories of being a child entering a Radio Shack with my mom and younger brother in the late 1970s and seeing the images of Reagan (Linda Blair) levitating off the bed and twisting her head around on a tiny TV screen on the counter, near the cashier. I couldn’t keep my eyes off it despite the horror it was imprinting into my sensitive, innocent mind. I would finally see it at a more appropriate age, later in life. The mix of the mundane and the supernatural that constantly appear in the film always creeped me out. Even many years later, when I caught it after it was re-released in theaters as “the cut you’ve never seen” in the late 1990s, it still worked. Before any of the horror starts, the film brilliantly explores a sense of the foreboding horror that was to come, from the use of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” to that scene when Reagan’s mother (Ellen Burstyn) hears an unearthly sound in the attic and says it’s probably just rats.

There’s a blu-ray for this one, purchase here.

Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Nosferatu the Vamypre)

Werner Herzog’s version of Nosferatu, a remake of the German expressionist silent film classic, has to be my personal favorite version of the Dracula story, and I got to write about it in Reverse Shot for its “Great Pumpkins” series. Read it by jumping through the RS logo below (scroll down to the “sixth night” in this post that is a collaboration with many great writers on this site who have their own recommendations for terrific horror movies for the season):

RS logo

Best version to buy: The new Shout Factory Blu-Ray release with both English and German versions (no dubs; both shot simultaneously)

Bonus, as for the soundtrack, skip the soundtrack CD, and get Popol Vuh’s Tantirc Songs, which has the 16-plus minute version of “Brothers of Darkness – Sons of Light.”

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

Speaking of the “Great Pumpkins” of Reverse Shot, it all rightly began with this essay by Michael Koresky on this little TV special, which has become an icon for Halloween. It goes to show Halloween is about more than frights of the supernatural or horror and violence. It’s also about the turning of the leaves and the deepening of the shadows. So what if “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” is not scary? It still oozes Halloween atmosphere for many generations. For this writer, a child of the ’70s, before cable and VHS, it was an annual event to watch on TV, where the special interrupted regular programming to announce the start of the holidays. Even Miami felt cooler back then. Maybe we had fall back then? Who cares? Even if it’s all an illusion. It certainly always feels real with this short animated delight from the mind of Charles Scultz.

It’s a shame that much of the music was never released on CD, but at least there’s this. Listen for the flute parts, they’re amazingly dark for the instrument, including the closing iteration of the “Linus and Lucy.”

There’s a blu-ray for this one, purchase here.

Hans Morgenstern

Still image from Eraserhead courtesy of dvdbeaver.com.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

3 Responses to “10 essential atmospheric films for Halloween, including some on 35mm playing this weekend in Miami”

  1. table9mutant Says:

    Great choices! Some favorites here. 🙂 I really want to see Hausu – sounds bizarre!


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