“I do love a good joke. And this is the best one ever… a joke on the children! You don’t know much about Halloween … you thought no further than the strange custom of having your children wear masks and go out begging for candy. Halloween…the festival of Samhain. The last great one took place three thousand years ago when the hills run red with the blood of animals and children…” - Conal Cochran (Dan O‘Herlihy) , Halloween III : Season of the Witch .
“Don’t try any of that Halloween shit on me…” - Bucky, ill-fated power station worker in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers
Christmas looms around the corner yet again, like a boss-eyed rapist lurking outside the Somerfield car park late on a Friday night. Consumerist hell awaits us all. Christmas carols in November. Endless soap opera specials with well-timed tragedies and feature length episodes of scrotum-sucking tripe like The Vicar Of Dibley. One whole day of being ridiculously nice to folk you’ve spent the whole year plotting to kill while they sleep.
But wait! Don’t kill yourselves for at least another week! Here’s Halloween, knocking on our respective doors like a bright-eyed underage nymphet dressed like a particularly classy whore and without a brain in her pretty head. Rejoice! For horror fans, this is our Christmas, our time to shine and mingle with the outside world and celebrate the very darkness that festers in our hearts the rest of the year. Or, more likely, it’s an excuse to re-watch our favourite horror movies again while moaning that Christmas is coming far too soon. Jeez, what an existence.
You will, of course, have your own favourite movies to watch at this time of the year. Perhaps you’re going to revisit John Carpenter’s original 1978 Halloween , a movie so timelessly great and perfectly tuned to the season that the following top ten deliberately excludes it in order to allow space for movies it inevitably outclasses. Maybe you’re going to don the brown trousers for an annual return to The Exorcist , that rare scary movie that doesn’t date and never fails to shock. Or possibly you are a fan of bonafide hardcore horror, of images so terrifying and gruesome and sickening that you can only indulge in them once a year as an endurance test… in which case you’ll be rewatching the footage of Elton John singing “Candle In The Wind” at Princess Diana’s funeral. Shudder…puke…etc.
What follows is a listing of ten movies with a Halloween theme that would make ideal viewing for this most wonderful time of the year. One of them is merely entertaining rubbish and is included because cheap tack is as big a part of the horror genre as tits and bathroom mirror scares. A couple of movies have been chosen to represent the Halloween franchise itself, and have been selected largely because they deserve more love than they have, thus far, received. And the movies at the top of this top ten are here because they perfectly encapsulate everything Halloween represents in one 90 minute slab of cinematic horror.
If you have lots of time on your hands this Halloween, you might also wish to delve into the archives of TV Halloween specials. That would largely be U.S. TV since the scariest thing British TV tends to offer at Halloween is usually a Rovers Return scene with the gruesome twosome of Gail Tilsley and Deidre Barlow - whom scientists have proven will outlive even the mighty cockroach in the event of Nuclear War. This scribe recommends you revisit the “Pinkeye” episode of South Park , any of the earlier Treehouse of Horror specials from The Simpsons and Joe Dante’s “Amityville” episode of CSI : New York . All good atmospheric fun for the scariest night of the year.
10 .Halloween Night (2006) Here’s that cheap tack we mentioned a few paragraphs ago. It’s from The Asylum, a production company whose main demographic is viewers too dumb to enjoy Full Moon Pictures releases. Occasionally, amidst the array of unwatchable guff they routinely put out, they release tack that’s actually enjoyable after puffing on a few joints. Case in point, this back-to-basics cheapo slasher flick, which revels in sub-genre favourites like rubbery slashed throats, bare boobs and lots of moments in which characters mistake the killer for a masked friend (“Jeff is that you?”, etc). It’s also, according to the opening titles, “Based on actual events” - but we can safely assume these are “actual fictional events” rather than, you know, the kind of actual events that actually happened in a world representing reality.
So, ten years ago this kid was left facially scarred and psychologically fucked after watching his mom being raped and murdered. Worse still, this event meant that he missed that key episode of “Two Point Four Children” in which the posh stroppy teenage daughter was caught being buggered in a landrover. He escapes in the modern day from a low-budget asylum (on Halloween night, wouldn’t you know!) and attacks a pranks ‘n’ sex party full of horny twentysomethings.
Scripted and disowned by “Fangoria” writer Michael Gingold, who should know better, this makes up for its shortcomings with intestine spillage, enthusiastic unpleasantries, two scenes of hot topless lesbians frolicking and a frustrated dude assuring one of the lesbians : “You get tired of the taste of tuna, you call me - right?”. Talking of lesbians, the highlight involves one of them kicking the killer’s arse with applause-worthy finesse until he shoves a coat hanger into her eye. Bravo!
9 .Murder Party (2007) In this droll low budget horror comedy, Chris Sharp is a lonely parking meter warden whose plans for Halloween look set to involve watching DVDs of the frankly unpromising “Scarewolf” and “Zombie Vs Unicorn’s Horn” with his devoted cat. He happens to pick up an invitation to a “Murder Party” in the street, and dusts off his best cardboard knight costume for the occasion. He winds up at a warehouse party with pretentious coke-snorting amateur filmmakers crafting their “masterpiece” and not worried about causing real death in the process (“When the coroner’s report is in, it’ll read : “cause of death - art”).
Wittier than it first appears, this is a neat, inventive take on the then-fashionable torture movie format, nicely puncturing the pompous art crowd in a way that may have been influenced by Roger Corman’s fifty year old A Bucket of Blood . The script keeps getting distracted by amusing detours like a recitation of Poe’s “The Raven” and a discussion of the word “nigger” and horror highlights include a head trauma caused by a chainsaw embossed with the legend “Ol’ Painless”.
8 .Night of the Demons (1987) It’s the 80’s in horror comedy-land, which means an animated title sequence, groovy synth music, an abundance of loveable stereotypes (“hey there oddball goth, meet ditzy vain bimbo, obligatory black dude, fat guy, virgin and self styled stud…and have a good night!”), Evil Dead inspired demon p.o.v. camerawork and of course Linnea Quigley bending over showing us her panties and lovely bottom! (For the 2009 remake Adam Gierasch got her to do much the same, but this time out the scene proved to be the scariest moment in the film).
Class weirdo Mimi Kinkade invites her pals to the infamous Hull House for Halloween, years after it was the setting for a massacre. Director Tenney, who made a handful of under-appreciated low budget horrors in the late 80’s, shows some technical smarts (especially in a cool dialogue sequence where the characters are depicted via scattered reflections from a broken mirror) and generates real atmosphere as the young folks have their eyes gouged and tongues bitten off. It’s also nicely framed by the rantings of a cantankerous old geezer (Harold Ayer) whose catchphrase is “Damn rotten kids” and who gets a real kick out of lacing his Halloween “treats” with razor blades.
This movie has always been a guilty-pleasure must for Halloween, if only to watch Quigley - not fooling anyone that she’s a teenager - inserting a whole lipstick into her nipple, a party trick that will never, ever get tired. Incidentally, the aforementioned remake is worth catching on a slow note if only to enjoy a scene of unrestrained demon anal sex.
7 .Lady in White (1988) Time for something altogether more innocent than Linnea Quigley shoving lipsticks into her tits…in fact, this evocative old fashioned ghost story from the under-valued director of Fear No Evil could even be considered family friendly in some respects. This is normally a sign that, rather than consider watching it, you should contemplate gouging out your own eyes with sporks and feeding them to the Big Issue salesperson you keep chained up under the stairs. But in this case, it’s actually worth your time.
Framed in the form of flashbacks narrated by a horror writer reflecting on his own childhood experiences (giving it a definite Stand By Me nostalgia / rites of passage feel), the movie has big-lugged little Lukas Haas locked in his school classroom on Halloween night as part of a malicious prank. He witnesses the killing of a little girl and the murderer’s desperate bid to locate a piece of damning evidence. The girl turns out to be one of a dozen child victims over a period of time, and her mum (who killed herself after the event) haunts the sea cliffs as the titular lady in white.
Don’t be put off by the Nancy Drew-ish notion of Haas solving a whodunnit and trying to reunite mom and daughter in the afterlife - this flick, which dabbles in the racial disharmony inherent in its 1962 setting, is beautifully restrained and absorbing. It’s ultimately a perceptive portrayal of a child’s simultaneous fascination and utter terror at the prospect of the paranormal…and the Halloween backdrop just adds to the atmosphere.
6 .Wacko (1982) “This is the classic cast-suspicion-on-the-perverted-school-gardener-scene!”. Amidst a spate of not very good early 80’s slasher movie spoofs like Saturday the 14th and Student Bodies , this scattershot genre parody is the most consistently funny. If you don’t laugh at the prospect of George Kennedy cast as a pervy, incestuous doctor who performs hysterectomies on men ; or a key character named Norman Bates who makes sounds like a lawnmower when aroused, then you are clearly either dead or a Daily Mail reader.
Julia Duffy, the last remaining virgin in her high school, had a sister who fell victim to the infamous “Lawnmower Killer”, a nutter who wears a huge pumpkin as a mask and rides around on a floodlit lawnmower ranting “Death to all teenagers” while humming the theme to Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The bulk of the movie takes place on a night that happens to be Halloween night, Prom night AND the anniversary of the old killings. Comic red herrings abound, the local lawnmower shop has a 13th anniversary Halloween sale and there are inspired spoofs of Donald Pleasence’s deadpan Halloween monologues : “13 years he’s been locked in his room watching TV talk shows…The only people he knows are Merv and Johnny”.
The movie is never as clever as the Zucker brothers classics it clearly apes, but it does have fabulous gags at the expense of the slasher cycle (an on-screen caption reads “Dream sequence coming, unnecessary to story”) and there is a show stopping scene in which obsessed cop Joe Don Baker consoles a mom about her murdered daughter by making her an impromptu balloon giraffe.
5 .Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) An underrated sequel if ever there was one, this revival of the Michael Myers legend (seven years after his last movie appearance) takes a back to basics approach, de-emphasising sex and gore, reducing the number of dumb teenagers and building upon John Carpenter’s original notion of a credible small town under siege by an unstoppable evil force. While Carpenter focused on a single central local character, this one catches up with the Haddonfield law enforcers, teens, children and beer bellies.
The story admittedly revives Myers via a throwaway slasher sequel gimmick (he escapes during a “routine” transfer), stages a potentially awesome police station massacre off-screen (noooo!) and has ridiculous scenes of local rednecks over-reacting (they form a lynch mob and shoot an innocent man by mistake, all because they got no answer from the cop shop : “The phone never just rings in a police station!”). But it also does nearly everything else absolutely right, from the decision to make Donald Pleasance crazier than Myers (“He’s evil on two legs!”) to the presence of Kathleen Kinmont as a busty Sheriff’s daughter who has her own “see anything you like” moment and refreshingly acts like the biggest tart who ever lived.
Director Dwight Little (who later made the pretty awesome Steven Seagal vehicle Marked for Death ) vividly captures a sense of a haunted town and stages some ballsy, scary set pieces, including a gang-busters rooftop chase and a jolting twist ending that brings the series full circle to the prologue of the 1978 film. It also has an outstanding title sequence : a Haddonfield montage shot in perfect autumnal hues that, accompanied by Alan Howarth’s marvellously ambient music, really captures the chilly anticipation of Halloween night.
4 .Halloween III : Season of the Witch (1983) And talking of the Halloween franchise, this is the other outstanding sequel in the long-running series that eventually devolved into scenes of Busta fuckin’ Rhymes yelling “Trick or Treat muthafucka” at Michael muthafuckin’ Myers. It represented John Carpenter’s admirable efforts to shed the Michael Myers element and turn the series into an anthology showcasing different Samhain-set horror stories. It got dissed by fans and shat on by audiences while original writer Nigel Kneale got into a huff when Carpenter added head-rippings, eye gougings and (an implied) drill-kill to his otherwise mostly intact script.
Sporting the great sour tagline “The night no one came home”, it revolves around Santa Mira - based Celtic toy making genius Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), who resents America’s commercialisation of Halloween so much he plays the ultimate “joke on the children”. Cochran, who invented the sticky toilet paper gag and the “dead dwarf” joke (the film never explains what this actually is!), plans to revive the much-missed art of mass human sacrifice via the modern day’s most odious soul-sucking medium : television. This means a mass séance created by a live network broadcast (much like the one in the Kneale- influenced Ghost watch ) designed to turn your brat’s head into mush and thus save a fortune on Christmas presents.
The flick cannily appropriates the aural landscape and scope camerawork of the Myers Halloween flicks while throwing in left-field ideas (a monotonously knitting robotic old lady steals the show) and giving a welcome leading role to the man, the legend…ladies and gentleman, Mr Tom Atkins! Mr Atkins gets his finest screen showcase here, particularly in a wondrous final scene that implies Cochran’s plan to annihilate America’s kids has succeeded : we last see our alcoholic, womanising hero yelling “You gotta believe me” and “Stop it” impotently down a phone line as the TV networks fail to stop the broadcast in time.
Most impressively of all, Halloween III ends up sympathising with its own villain’s hatred of how the U.S. has crassly adapted old traditions. The Typical American Family Unit, for instance, are given short shrift in an early “test room” sequence in which a deliberately horrid sitcom-like family are briskly decimated and the camera lingers with relish on their brat’s squishy, worm-laden demise. A moment to treasure, folks.
3 .Satan's Little Helper (2004) A great, and still overlooked, comeback picture from the talented director of Squirm and Blue Sunshine , this anarchic, jet-black horror comedy has a disarmingly light first hour that gives way to totally twisted final reels in which a dad has his guts ripped out in front of his kids and a cynical 70’s style ending sees the uber-smart killer merely moving on to his next town.
It’s Halloween and precocious young Alexander Brickel plays the video game “Satan’s Little Helper” and becomes fixated on the idea of meeting Satan himself. Mom is the cider-quaffing stoner Amanda Plummer, sis is the comely Katheryn Win nick - who spends the whole movie in an awesome Renaissance Slut costume, and Brickel befriends a guy in a Satan “costume”, asking him to kill Winnick’s boyfriend, unaware that this dude is actually an image-changing serial killer.
Key to this film’s success is its playfully nasty, unique killer. Sporting a shock of white hair, fake horns and a malevolent fixed grin, this memorable figure of fear sniffs Winnick’s panties, fondles her boobs, poses for goofy photos with people he’s killed and buys lots of knives and sticky tape during a Halloween shopping spree. There’s a terrific sick-humoured sequence in which Brickel inspires the killer to mow down a pregnant lady, a baby carriage and a blind man with a supermarket trolley.
As with all of Lieberman’s flicks, there’s a pointed subtext at work - here, the main theme is about how all kids are far more interested in genuinely evil stuff than wishy washy crap - and moments of inspired insanity : our favourite is a bit in which Winnick discovers the killer has dressed as Our Saviour to trick them and yells “Jesus Is Satan”!
2 .Ghost Watch (1992) Arguably the most genuinely frightening thing shown on British TV in the 90’s (not including Noel’s House Party or anything with Eamon Holmes or Vanessa Feltz), this audacious fake “live” broadcast from a “real” haunted London house tricked a decent portion of its Halloween night BBC1 audience into believing they were watching the genuine terrorisation of familiar TV personalities. Some of us were content just to shit ourselves in the comfort of our own home and move on with our lives. Some viewers complained that it shouldn’t have been shown just because THEY found it too scary. And the usual scummier elements of the tabloid press tried to blame it for paranormal phenomenon, teen suicides, rail strikes, etc.
The War of the Worlds of the MTV generation, the script by Stephen Volk looks more and more prescient as our TV screens get ever more deluged with “reality” shite : few would argue that, among many others, it prefigured the success of faux-documentaries like The Blair Witch Project and the equally fake “real” spooky shenanigans of Most Haunted . It takes the form of a live broadcast from Foxley Drive, where the Early family have been consistently terrorised by what will turn out to be the ghost of a schizophrenic child molester who killed himself in the house and decomposed under the stairs. Host Michael Parkinson, reporter Sarah Greene, outside broadcaster Craig Charles and (manning the phone lines) Mike Smith all get embroiled in escalating horrors as they unleash the best of 1992 TV technology on the haunted home.
The only TV show in history to end with a possessed Michael Parkinson reading “Round and round the garden like a teddy bear” from a supernaturally controlled autocue, this ingenious confidence trick overcomes some self-conscious acting by being extremely frightening at regular intervals. The ghost - nicknamed “Pipes” - is used to remarkably potent (usually subliminal) effect, the horrors wrought upon the teenage daughter of the house are surprisingly unpleasant for a mainstream BBC production, and the climax is wonderfully unsettling. “We don’t want to give anyone sleepless nights” notes a knowing Parky at one key point, failing to mention the diarrhoea-soaked bed sheets many of us original viewers had to explain to our mums on the morning of November 1st. Smug bastard.
1 .Trick r Treat (2007) Dumped by its studio (Warner Bros, that’s the studio that released the remake of One Missed Call ) following an abandoned original release date of Halloween 2007, this perfectly pitched old-school horror anthology has wound up going straight to DVD where it will share shelf space with gems like Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus (the movie equivalent of having a stinging nettle wrapped around your balls while Jeremy Kyle slides a screwdriver slowly into the eye of your cock). Such is the fate of an original contemporary horror film that isn’t a remake, a Saw movie or something with the cast of The O.C. being menaced by CG creatures.
Gorgeously shot in widescreen with a rich, scary score (by Douglas Pipes), this is a truly rare horror picture that captures the look, feel and spirit of a great, frightening Halloween night. Only Carpenter’s original Halloween achieved this level of Samhainian ambience with such impressive results (though some of the films on this list came mighty close). Wearing its influences on its sleeve (including lovingly illustrated comic book titles a la Creepshow ) and owing an affectionate debt to 80’s funhouse horror films like The Monster Squad , this is a movie destined to be a genre classic in the not very distant future. Embrace it.
Dougherty dispenses with the usual structure of the portmanteau format in favour of a circular narrative structure like Pulp Fiction that just happens to interweave four separate spooky episodes into one satisfying whole. It unfolds in a small American town on one long Halloween night. Dylan Baker is a warped school principal with a sideline in killing trick or treaters ; Anna Paquin is a 22 year old hottie about to undergo a key rite of passage ; a bunch of kids invoke the old town legend of a school bus massacre and fall victim to the risen dead in a wonderfully eerie tribute to The Fog ; and grouchy old bastard Brian Cox is menaced by a pint-sized, sack-masked trick or treater from Hell.
The Cox story, offering a clever twist on the legendary “Amelia” episode of Trilogy of Terror is arguably the most rewarding, but none of these stories disappoint : all possess the creepy, chilly, funny feel of a scary story really well told. Bucking the trend for sadism and suffering, Dougherty makes sparing use of gore and FX, balances the humour and frights perfectly and refreshingly doesn’t hold back on taboos like the killing of children. Consider it a must-watch this (or any) Halloween.