BMD Picks: Our Favorite Halloween Movies
It's almost time kids. The clock is ticking. Make sure to gather 'round the television to see what BMD has to show you on this Halloween Night. And don't forget to stick around after the show for the big giveaway...
There's been no official poll taken, but it's pretty clear that the evening where boys and ghouls rule is the very favorite holiday of the Birth.Movies.Death. staff (except for Phil, because he hates kids, visitors and candy). To celebrate accordingly, we've come together to share our picks for the pictures we just cannot get through the month of October without watching at least once. So, after you're done trick or treating for the evening, maybe head back home and pop one of these into your player. We guarantee that you'll have a spooky ball, which is what Pumpkin Day is all about...
Dracula  (d. Tod Browning, w. Hamilton Deane & John L. Balderston)
Back when all the definitive histories were being written about Universal’s Golden Age of Horror, it was fashionable to call out the shortcomings of Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931). Based on a stage play, the whole second half of the film seems static and stagebound, its camerawork shown up by the Spanish language production which filmed on the same sets at night. An early talkie, the soundtrack is largely bereft of music, unsure how to implement a score during scenes. The actors, too, seem to have one foot in the silent era, resulting in strange, stilted performances. Indeed, the eponymous central role seems to be performed by someone who at times seems unfamiliar with human behavior. Everything in Dracula seems strangely unnatural.
But that’s why it’s so amazing. To an open mind, the strange dream-state in which Dracula dwells offers pleasures not found in even its closest cinematic relative. It’s too quiet? Nah; its sparse use of music allows “Swan Lake” - played over the titles - to linger in the memory, and frees up the soundtrack for a plethora of unsettling sound effects. (Renfield’s laugh is still chilling today.) It’s too stage-y? It’s true that cinematographer Karl Freund seems hamstrung here (just look at his directorial debut two years later with The Mummy). But intentional or not, the stillness of this film feeds its quiet nightmare vibe, lulling you as you watch a creeping evil descend ever so slowly on the film’s characters. Stiff acting? The deliberate performances are trance-like and trance-inducing, the actors moving like somnambulists through Charles D. Hall’s impossibly looming structures. And Bela Lugosi? His Dracula is indeed something not quite human, but this is some 35 years before the “sympathetic vampire” came into vogue, and it’s a weird, freaky choice by the actor. He’s a sinister, hypnotic, ancient predator, and there is nothing familiar in him. Strip away 85 years of overfamiliarity, and Lugosi’s bizarre performance stands as a nearly avant-garde revelation.
Every sight and sound in the film is telling you: this is not the world you know. And that’s the main value of Dracula: it’s a movie that transports you if you let it. Not to another place and time, but to a realm of people, places and things that have no real analogue on earth. That’s magic. - Phil Nobile Jr.
Trick 'r Treat  (d. & w. Michael Dougherty)
I live in Texas, and Halloween in Texas is generally pretty warm and evergreen. It's fun, but it's not fall. I've always wanted an autumnal Halloween, a New England Halloween, a Halloween drenched in fall colors and pumpkins and scarecrows and cider and ghouls.
Michael Dougherty's Trick 'r Treat gives us all of that and plenty more. It's scary, yes, and it's fun, for sure, and it features some reasonably excellent gore and one of my favorite werewolf transitions of all time, but more than that, it's a movie that delivers the spirit of Halloween. It feels like a caramel apple stuffed with candy corn and just the tiniest sliver of a razor blade, to boot. It's simply not Halloween without a screening of Trick 'r Treat, featuring that most perfect Halloween avatar of all time in a scarecrow sack and a patched orange onesie. You can keep your Michael Myers. Make Mine Sam. - Meredith Borders
The Fog  (d. John Carpenter, w. John Carpenter & Debra Hill)
Yes, I know John Carpenter has made at least one movie that's a bit more synonymous with October 31st, but there's something about his follow-up that somehow feels more true to the atmosphere of the holiday. Its tale of a ghostly legend - literally told around a campfire - is right out of any "Scary Stories for Halloween" kind of book, and the chilly Antonio Bay (actually Bodega Bay and Sierra Madre) scenery gives you that proper autumnal feel, unlike Halloween which frequently just looks like another day in sunny, season-free Los Angeles. Plus it's a bit creaky and hokey in spots, which to me is perfectly fitting with Halloween, a season that's often filled with flimsy costumes and questionably assembled haunted houses.
To me personally, there's just something about the film's spooky mood that recalls pleasant adolescent memories of watching horror movies on local TV during October - I almost wish the Blu-ray came with an option to overlay the logo of my local syndication channel in the corner to give it the full effect. Originally seen as a somewhat disappointing follow-up to Halloween, the film has been thankfully re-evaluated over the years (most of Carpenter's films are) and now usually lands somewhere in the upper tier when someone ranks his filmography, likely due in no small part to the terrific theme music, also some of his best work. If you, like me, have Halloween memorized by now anyway, pull this one off the shelf tonight - it might become a new tradition. - Brian Collins
The Invisible Man  (d. James Whale, w. R.C. Sherriff)
When it comes to classic Universal horror, it’s not James Whale’s Frankenstein or Bride of Frankenstein that I turn to most (though they are both incredible). Instead, I always find myself in the loving arms of James Whale’s The Invisible Man.
“He’s invisible, that’s what’s the matter with him. If he gets the rest of those clothes off we’ll never catch him in a thousand years.” The Invisible Man is a comedy, though a surprisingly violent one. It’s clear through dialog and performances, particularly Una O’Conner’s, that Whale is playing for broad laughs. He finds a perfect instrument in Claude Raines, whose invisible man has to narrate his actions since audiences can’t see him, and does so with a juvenile glee that is absolutely infectious. Raines’ invisible man is not just a killer, but an all-around asshole: petty, inconsiderate and self-absorbed. It gives the film a modern edge the other Universal horror films lack and keeps me coming back year after year after year. I just can’t stop looking at the man you can’t see. - Evan Saathoff
The Guest  (d. Adam Wingard, w. Simon Barrett)
Most Halloween movies are horror movies. I get it - they’re like Christmas and family movies. They just go together. But just as any genre of film can be set during Christmas, so too can any be set during Halloween - it’s just that few non-horror films go there. The Guest is in no way a horror film, despite director Adam Wingard’s previous project You’re Next: it’s a straight up-and-down character thriller, with other elements thrown in that I won't spoil. But it happens to be set at Halloween, which only amplifies its weird suspense and deadpan sense of humour.
Telling the story of a family visited by David (Dan Stevens), an insanely handsome man claiming to be a former squadmate of their dead son, The Guest starts off uncomfortable and ramps up its tension from there. Its Halloween setting grants its characters an excuse to dress up and party, and presents a fitting backdrop for the story’s stranger turns. When it becomes clear that the final act is to be set inside a high school’s Halloween horror maze and ballroom, it’s a stand-up-and-cheer moment of absolute glee.
Upon exiting the film’s Fantastic Fest screening, I cancelled all my other screenings for the rest of that evening, because I knew nothing could top it. The Guest may have launched Adam Wingard onto studio execs’ radars, and Dan Stevens onto many a James Bond fancasting thread, but to me it’ll always remain a plucky, hyper-entertaining Halloween movie that trades chills for thrills. More of those, please. - Andrew Todd
The Shining  (d. Stanley Kubrick, w. Stanley Kubrick & Diane Johnson)
Having grown up with neither Halloween nor horror movies as a cultural staple, my "Halloween movie" simply happens to be whatever makes its way back to American theatres any given October. That isn't a complaint mind you, given that it's almost always my favourite horror flick (one I'll probably be sitting down to watch in 35mm for the umpteenth time as you're reading this), Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.
You'd struggle to find too many folks dressing up as Jack or Danny (the twins are another matter; hello Bruce Willis!) but the iconography of The Shining sets it worlds apart from your average American horror fare. Nothing ever lurks in the shadows - good luck finding any shadows to begin with - because the scares aren't meant to startle you. They're meant to meet your gaze in the halls of the Overlook and burrow their way beneath your skin, like past sins taking corporeal form. Nothing beats sitting in a darkened room to peer through a giant window at Kubrick's vivid fever dream. Well, except maybe doing so amongst fellow ghouls and goblins all looking to have a spooky time. (For a frightful double feature, chase it with Room 237 to see just how many folks this film has driven mad!) - Siddhant Adlakha
Halloween III: Season of the Witch  (d. & w. Tommy Lee Wallace)
For decades, Halloween III was the black sheep of the series - masterminded by creators John Carpenter and Debra Hill as a means to get rid of Michael Myers forever, while still allowing the Halloween franchise to continue until the end of time (providing a platform for upcoming filmmakers to tell their own scary tales). But nobody wanted a slasher-free Halloween movie, and the picture was roundly rejected by both audiences and critics alike. Nowadays, true fans recognize Halloween III for what it is: the crown jewel of the sequels, and one of the absolute best seasonal treats any holiday has to offer.
Sporting the definitive remix of the already classic score (a darkwave done from Carpenter and Alan Howarth), and showcasing some of the best cinematography in Dean Cundey's career, Season of the Witch is a bizarrely beautiful horror film, full of quirky characters (Tom Atkins' boozy, sex machine doctor is an all-timer) and wacky plot twists in its demented tale of deadly masks and an Irish industrialist (Dan O'Herlihy) who wants to play the ultimate prank on the world's children. But the tone of Halloween III is the real marvel, deftly navigating between hilarious and horrifying, blending comedic elements with genuine scares, and leaving on a downright destructive note that caps Carpenter's "Apocalypse Trilogy" better than Prince of Darkness. It's the ultimate Pumpkin Day picture, transforming a joyous celebration into the end of all things. Happy Halloween. - Jacob Knight