Halloween is one of the best times of the year to get reaccquainted with the movies that scared, traumatized and delighted you as a kid as well as discovering some new and exciting ones. So, I've decided each week to give you all the benefits of a lifelong addiction to vintage horror by telling you about ten great films in the genre that might have escaped your notice. While some of these first ten are movies genre buffs and keen observers of late night monster shows have seen, many of these are new to casual fans.
1.) The Abominable Dr. Phibes
For those extremely squeamish about gore, Vincent Price's magnum opus might not be for you, but if you don't mind a bit of bizarre bloodletting and can chill out and respect some cringey fun, my personal favorite horror movie comes highly recommended. Inept but well-intentioned Edwardian police inspector Trout has been assigned to a series of truly bizarre murders; a man is stung to death by bees in his library, another is bitten by bats and another is exsanguinated. Finding a strange amulet at the seen of one crime, he begins to investigate, finding a biblical link between them and a link to the deformed and deadly Doctor Phibes. The Phantom of the Opera-like Phibes (Vincent Price) is a brilliant organist, a mechanical genius and a hideousy twisted madman who wears a fake skin mask over his burnt face and seeks vengeance against the doctors who couldn't save his wife alongside his lovely and devoted assistant. The strange murders persist and Trout , with the aid of one of the doctors (Joseph Cotten) seeks to outwit Phibes before it's too late. This brilliant cult film avoids Gothic cliche with humor, gore and a touch of aberrant sexuality. Highly, highly recommended. Available in a reasonably priced Vincent Price boxed set from Midnight Movies.
2.) House on Haunted Hill
I am of course speaking of the original, not the recent FX-stravaganza with Geoffrey Rush. At first glance, House on Haunted Hill is dull, hackneyed and silly. Further glances might not liberate of these perceptions. But, for a Halloween party, the best film ever about a Halloween party is full of laughs, unobtrusive atmosphere and moments of fun vintage overacting from the Maltese Falcon's Elisha Cook and the brilliant Vincent Price. The relatively benign scares are kid friendly and a delight to watch and the cast and director's enthusiam might turn out infectious in spite of the film's faults. In dollar bins and in movie valuepacks, this film is nigh ubiquitous.
Italian cult cinema savant Mario Bava put together three excellent tales of horror with wraparound material from horror maestro Boris Karloff. It goes without saying this is a must for horror fans. Though stylish and sexy thriller "the Telephone" is fun and has a solid twist ending, the movie shines the brightest with its second story "the Wurdulak" with Boris Karloff. A sinister, apocalyptic wintery pall hangs over this tale of a dark Russian night where a family's patriarch comes home as something more and less than human and menaces both his family and a lodger. Never again is the vampire's Slavic folk roots so well portrayed on film. Karloff is incredible as a vampire. The last story revolving around a woman who steals a ring from a corpse is visually appealing and intense, but not quite on the same level as the middle story. Black Sabbath is a must and can be purchased invidually from Anchor Bay or as part of a boxed set of Bava films including the excellent Black Sunday.
4.) The Black Cat
Director Edgar Ulmer was a set designer was a set designer for German Expressionists who became a fixture in American horror and Film Noir. The Black Cat is considered his horror masterpiece and might even be considered Universal's. Although the studio made many of the iconic monster classics such as Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man, the Black Cat is a moody masterwork. A dull American couple vacationing in Hungary meets a friendly well-intentioned Bela Lugosi on the train. And Bela Lugosi is the nicest person they meet on their trip. While this movie does not play up Hungary's tourism potential, it does play up the talents of Boris Karloff, whose gloomy castle the travelers and their new companion Lugosi must stay at following an accident. Lugosi and Karloff have a past together, which includes Lugosi knowing that Karloff is the eerily transgressive magus of a devil cult. To give away more of the Black Cat's secrets would be shameful, but just know this: Karloff and Lugosi are at the top of their game, and to many vintage horror buffs, Karloff and Lugosi are the top of THE game. Available on a five movie Lugosi set with Murders at the Rue Morgue, the Raven, Black Friday and the Invisible Ray.
Imagine a whole film that feels like the foreboding inn at the beginning of Nosferatu or the spooky video from the ring. Vampyr is beautiful, chilling and awe-inspiring. One of the first arthouse scares and to this day one of the best. It is available from Criterion and is worth every penny. Better experienced than described.
6.) Horror of Dracula
In spite of my love for Stoker and my appreciation for his original vision of the Count, there is no escaping it, like death and taxes, Christopher Lee hijacks the Dracula in my mind every time I think of Dracula. He plays Dracula not quite as charismatic and suave (though an underlying sexuality comes through) but as bestial and desperate. Every action is too quick and harsh, every word is spoken almost too fast. Lee's Dracula does not have time to be part of polite society, although he needs to insinuate himself into it. He doesn't fly, he pounces, runs and throws his weight around and it's a great portrayal. Cushing's Van Helsing supplanted the archetype in my mind as well with his grim determination, kindness and intellectual cache. Cushing is pure grit, pure confidence, human ingenuity brought against evil and capable of conquering it with only willpower. Horror of Dracula took Dracula into the sexual revolution and upped the stakes (no pun intended) for monster movies forever.
It's a giant ant movie where the ants don't really look much like ants. So, why bother? A wonderfully ominous feel hangs over this movie until the ants show up, with an introduction that is oddly scary without revealing anything. When the ants do arrive, in spite of their inauthenticity, they're great to watch. An artifact from when special effects were made with pure ingenuity, not computers.
First off: Tenebre is full of violence and sexuality. Do not show your eight year old Tenebre and then send me a nasty letter. Second of all, it's Dario Argento at his best. If you have not heard of Argento and you ask a horror movie buff who he is, you will be treated as if you were clearly raised in a cave by Amish Martians. He's the violent cult director Juno likes. Tenebre is about a writer whose books are being imitated by a mysterious killers. The killings are lush, poetic and brutal, the mystery is a nailbiter and the camerawork is amazing. Available on its own from Anchor Bay or in a nice steelbook with four other Argento movies. Artsy, perhaps a tad misogynistic, but great nonetheless.
9.) Monster On Campus
Dated and very much a product of its time, but as campy fifties monster films go, this is one of the greats. An anthropology professor turns himself into a neanderthal Mister Hyde. The arch fifties sci fi atmosphere and often misdirected acting might partially alienate viewers from a cult sci fi gem, but it's still a lot of fun.
10.) Mad Monster Party
A classic Halloween gem for kids and adults alike. Boris Karloff, Phyllis Diller, whimsical Universal monster puppets and sometimes insufferable songs dominate this infectious Rankin/Bass effort. Good for the young and young-at-heart, and great for a self-conscious postmodern chuckle.
That's ten for this week, I'll be back with more classics you may not be familiar with next week. Until then, Happy October.