Out of the Crypt: Nine Hidden Fright Films for Halloween

Horror film lists annually timed with Halloween often center on the usual horror subgenres and the usual suspects are rounded up — which is fine, my favorite out-and-out scary films are ghost stories like Poltergeist, slashers like Psycho and Halloween, and supernatural creepers like The Thing (the first two). But what about the indefinably creepy? The films that have a haunting air about them but in which the horror elements are present but subtle. These films are often overlooked.  Shall we open up that creepy cabinet in the corner?

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The Call of Cthulhu

Loving homage to the chilling, thrilling tales of early horror meister HP Lovecraft, this 2005 silent-film style oddity is as amusing as it is creepy but certainly captures the author’s sense of dread. Andrew Leman and Sean Branney’s adaptation, despite what may seem an affectation of using a faux silent style, is admirably faithful to the story of an investigation into a mysterious cult. Low-budget and shot on digital video yet through trickery and cinematographic skill — and restricting themselves to early film techniques (stop-motion animation, forced perspective, etc) and the spirit and feel of silent expressionism is well-captured. It is full of nightmarish images, of demonic dreams and grotesqueries. At 45 minutes it’s just right — any longer and and Cthulu would have started to push it’s narrative limits into impatience. The music score is also a perfect match at all the right times. an underscore as it were.

The film would make a good double-feature with…

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary

Guy Maddin’s romantic, balletic interpretation of the Bram Stoker classic is surprisingly faithful in a number of ways.  As with Cthulhu, it’s a stylistic rendition of classic silent film with a splash of modernity (and splashes of blood red dappled on the black and white, and sepia, and purple, film) Adapating the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s choreography, and over Mahler’s first and second symphonies, this is no stagey exercise: Maddin’s Dracula is almost as much a multi-media installation — in the most sophisticated, pleasing way — as it is a movie. While one does not need to be a ballet aficionado (I admit I am not) to appreciate the film, it will no doubt add somewhat to the enjoyment.  In fact, this sort of hybrid film would seem a recipe for pretentious failure, but Maddin pulls it off. Full of energy and movement: on the film’s “stage”, and with camera flourishes and in the performances.

As with much of Maddin’s work, the film seems to exist in some netherworld era, existing in a hidden chamber connecting past and present. The behatted mental patient Renfeld looks like he was transported from Caligari’s cabinet and with early cinema montages and mechanics out of the Eisenstein toolbox. Just when the film threatens to flag a few times in its 74 minute running time, there are several suspenseful, beautifully shot and, yes, scary, set-pieces that bring the film to a close. Ultimately the film’s portrayal of the vampire is everything Stoker originally intended: Romantic, dangerous, erotic.

Mystics in Bali

An Indonesian horror film that absolutely needs to be seen to be believed, if not necessarily ever relived, this 1981 bit of insanity by exploitation director H. Tjut Djalil was originally banned in Indonesia. I expected Mystics in Bali to be more like the goofy Danger on Tiki Island (an unscary Filipino horror film I saw in with the aid of the Rifftrax guys), but instead this supernatural tale is unusual and appealing despite its own goofiness. Sure the effects and makeup are rather cheap but it gets props for creepy atmosphere: full of black magic, unforgettably insane witches, a flying head (that manages to be alternatively funny and frightening), a flying vampire, and many other oddities. The film is shot in almost documentary style, which just adds to the unnerving effect, and manages to make better-than-expected use of its small budget. “It’s kinda weird, isn’t it? It’s really unbelievable,” says one character, summing all this up. The film was shot in Java instead of Bali, because the Balinese were superstitious they’d be cursed by its production given the rituals performed. Hopefully nothing terrible has happened to the Javanese due to the film’s existence.

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The Masque of the Red Death

Roger Corman is famous for churning out extremely-low-budget exploitation and genre fare for decades, as director and producer, but frankly, many of those films never exceeded their budgetary limitations. But this Edgar Allan Poe adaptation – one of eight that Corman would attempt — is one of his best, a far cry from the schlock and proof that he could make a good film when provided the right fit with material. While Masque still has its share of sixties-ish silly moments, it also has Vincent Price, perfect as cruel Prince Prospero, a devil-worshipper who tries to protect himself against the coming plague, forces guests in his castle to attend a depraved, masked ball, and awaits the arrival of his master Satan. But, hey, that rarely works out for anyone. The bizarro “dance of death” scene is a particular highlight, and the macabre film is awash with eerie, blood-tinged color and exotic costumes.

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The Seventh Victim

Of many fine Val Lewton-produced horror movies, while the two Cat People films remain my favorites, director Mark Robson’s first feature is an unappreciated treasure. Kim Hunter, in her debut, plays an orphan schoolgirl who goes to look for her missing sister in New York and suspects a Satanic cult may be involved, in which the city itself becomes a sort of Dante’s Inferno, where you can’t help but feel anyone she meets could be involved in the underworld.  While the script is occasionally a bit too on the nose, or even odd, and it doesn’t have the out and out horror of much later satanic worship films like Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out (and the presence of Hugh Beaumont doesn’t make it creepier), but it’s full of shadowy atmosphere and a penny dreadful of suspense. There is also fascinating unspoken lesbian subtext. And the film has a famously vulnerable shower scene surpassed later only by Psycho.

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The Ossuary

Along with the films of the Brothers Quay, Jan Svankmajer’s experimental shorts rank pretty highly to me for their ability to both mesmerize and puzzle, Many of the experimental Czech filmmaker’s short works have an otherworldly edge to them, but The Ossuary (Kostnice) is special in how it both chills and warms the soul. Despite being a “horror documentary” of the then Czech Republic’s bleak Sedlec Monastery Ossuary, a collection of more than 50 thousand bones and skulls dating back to the Middle Ages, the 10-minute film surprises by being more beautiful, if haunting, than disturbing. The camera zooms in on the nooks and crannies of the skeletons as a living snail winds its way through them, then darts around the church. The filmmaker uses montages, pans, tilts, intercuts and other devices to move in and out of this unforgettable setting. That this was shot in 1970, when the country’s regime was at its most repressive following a brief uprising, adds to the film’s power – and the feeling that despite the government approval of the film due to what seemed “safe” subject matter, there’s most certainly a subtext to all this. And Zdeněk Liška’s haunting, conflicted (ethereal voices play alongside jazz) score adds to the complex feel of this living portrait of death.

The Black Pit of Dr. M (AKA Misterios de Ultratumba)

I desperately wanted to get at least one Mexican horror in here and this gothic 1959 treasure is seriously underrated. Take a little bit of classic Universal Pictures horror here and a little bit of British Hammer Horror there, add Mexican-gothic atmosphere and grotesqueness, and (voila!), you have Fernando Mendez’s unfairly neglected, unforgettable Black Pit. Mendez (The Vampire, The Vampire’s Coffin, The Living Coffin — do you see a theme here?) was one of the better Mexican directors during that country’s horror heyday. Rafael Bertrand’s increasingly deranged Dr. Masali belongs in the Mad Scientist hall of fame, and the Peter Lorre-like Carlos Ancira playing a sniveling victim to the letter. Utterly hair-raising in tone and full of indelible images that are hard to shake off (the orderly’s freaky face, Aldama’s ghost, a waiting noose), buoyed by Victor Herrera’s vibrant black and white cinematography, Mendez created a mad, fantastic work.

“Not since the The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has the screen been so filled with the eerie!”

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[As a sort of appetizer, check out the Mexican silent horror creeper The Red Spectre, which is on Fandor.]

Trick ‘r Treat

An affectionate homage both to ‘80s horror and to classic horror anthology films–and about the only recent attempt at the latter worth a damn. Given the cast involved (lead by the ubiquitous Brian Cox, Anna Paquin and Dylan Baker) and the intelligence on display here, it’s a shame Michael Dougherty’s smart little film went direct to video in 2007. But it’s already developing a cult following and deservedly so. The film is several interwoven stories, all set in the same small town on Halloween, including Paquin’s virginal college student in a Little Red Riding Hood costume plans a party with some friends that goes…awry; Cox’s old-timer hermit with a dark secret; a creepy legend about a terrible tragedy (the horror version of The Sweet Hereafter); and a bully who could use some comeuppance. Meta-referential films are trick-y to pull off, often erring too much on the side of too jokey or in-jokey, but Trick r’ Treat, while it has a sense of humor, manages to walk the tightrope, much more treat than trick.

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Island of Lost Souls

There have been several films based on the H.G. Wells novel Island of Dr. Moreau but this 1932 adaptation is the only truly effective version, yet for decades has sadly remained the most obscure. (I have not yet viewed the pending Criterion DVD, but after years of obscurity and unavailability its arrival can’t be anything but great news.) Because the film was made before the production code took hold and took the more overt sexuality and violence out of films for decades to follow. Erle Kenton’s film is rather dark and disturbing for the time. It was actually banned in the UK for years and Wells himself hated the adaptation (what does he know?) but it gained a cult following over the years.  It’s the story of a man (Richard Arlen) rescued at sea who ends up on a mysterious isle, meets a seemingly charming scientist (Charles Laughton, as Moreau) who has just one little secret: he’s conducting experiments on man and beast, not to mention woman-beast — which gives the film some of its creepy, spicy undercurrent.  Bela Lugosi has a key supporting role as one of Moreau’s…er, patients, who gets to utter the famous line, “Are we not men?”

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