In wrapping up the October Horror Challenge, this penultimate post is dedicated to the most wonderful time of the year: Halloween. Halloween is like Christmas to me, but with less gift-giving and more horrifying things. Christmas does have Krampus, though, which is pretty terrifying. Anyhow, Halloween is reserved for the traditional viewings of three films, one of which only squeaks past the horror smell test, but since it’s so inextricably linked in my mind with the best month and holiday of the year, I have to include it. But let’s go back to 30 October first, and to a film that kicked off the seasonal love-fest for so many horror fans…
Directed by John Carpenter
Hailed by many as the origin of the slasher film craze (although Bob Clark’s Black Christmas  should probably hold that title), this early John Carpenter film holds up incredibly well over time. I hadn’t watched Halloween in full for a while, and never in a theater setting before, so when ScreenVision teamed with Halloween Movies to bring the original film back to the big screen, I had to take the opportunity to go see it. After a particularly awful and poorly-made retrospective on the Halloween franchise, the film started, and I was completely blown away at how scary the film is after all these years. It has an absurdly basic plot – a young boy, Michael Myers, who killed his older sister escapes the asylum where he’s been for several years and returns home to terrorize a young woman on Halloween night – but the simplicity of it is where the horror lies. There’s no explanation for the killer, aside from a line spoken by his psychiatrist (Donald Pleasance) explaining him as “pure evil,” and there is no connection between him and his primary target Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), a misstep that the sequel makes when it’s explained that she is his little sister.
Halloween is almost a primer for how to make an effective horror film on the cheap and in less than a month. Although it does rely on several stingers for its scares, Carpenter really knew how to use the entire frame, positioning characters in a such a way as to create tension.
“Just the two of us…”
I’d forgotten how much foreshadowing takes place in this film, something that adds to the overall sense of dread that permeates the atmosphere. It’s nearly too heavy-handed in the beginning, particularly the scenes of Michael stalking Laurie at school while her teacher drones on about fate, but it also neatly identifies us with Laurie. We can’t change her course of events any more than she can, and so we’re forced to watch, helpless and impotent. And damnit, it works, even decades later – I found myself completely unnerved driving home alone in the dark. Halloween never disturbed or really scared me before, so I think I can safely say that yes, there is something to be said for watching horror films on a big screen, especially something like this film that isn’t a gore-fest or a constant stream of terror forced in our faces. Halloween works best in the dark and in the silence, and in a setting where our eyes never stop scanning the entire screen for a glimpse of the faceless killer who lurks about the edges.
Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
Directed by Michael Dougherty
There’s no tradition like a new tradition, so every year since I bought Trick ‘r Treat on DVD, I’ve watched it on Halloween night after handing out candy to the kids and stuffing my face with anything that’s leftover. There is no film that captures the spirit of the season better, no film that is as much of a love letter to All Hallow’s Eve as Dougherty’s film. He manages to uphold classic Halloween urban legends, like the one about poisoned candy, while weaving them into entirely new ones in a story that loops back on itself several times. It’s a perfect treat with a handful of tricks – both delightful and delightfully nasty – that never fails to entertain me. But it isn’t all just marshmallow fluff; there are scenes in Trick ‘r Treat that are emotionally powerful as well, including a flashback to a story about a bus full of mentally challenged kids whose parents no longer want to deal with the burden of caring for them.
The wheels on the bus go down, down, down…
That story has a particularly satisfying conclusion by film’s end. The fun of Trick ‘r Treat comes primarily from all of the surprises, twists, and developments. Everyone gets what they deserve, and if you don’t respect the spirit of the season, you get the biggest, deadliest surprise of all.
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
Directed by Frank Capra
Okay, so this movie isn’t really a horror film, but it does have two murderous old ladies, a Boris Karloff lookalike, and Peter Lorre playing a creepy plastic surgeon. It’s also set on Halloween night, making it a sweet companion film to Trick ‘r Treat. Arsenic and Old Lace is the tale of one Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant), a publicly confirmed bachelor and drama critic who just got married to his childhood sweetheart. He returns home to tell his two sweet little old aunts and finds that they’ve been doing their idea of charity work – poisoning lonely old men with no families who rent their spare room. Not only that, but they’ve been employing his brother Teddy (who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt) to dig graves in the basement under the premise that he’s digging locks for the Panama Canal. Into this fray comes another, creepier brother, Jonathan, who is on the run from the law with his alcoholic sidekick and bears a resemblance to a popular horror actor…just don’t mention his name.
Don’t call me Karloff.
Like most Frank Capra comedies, this film can best be described as madcap, but with the added bonus of being a little spooky on the side. I mean, think about it: two adorable little old ladies, serving poison with a smile. It kind of ties back to the poisoned candy urban legend. And a brother that cuts worms in half with his teeth? That’s just gross! So okay, it’s not a horror film, but as a Halloween film, Arsenic and Old Lace is perfect, like a handful of fun size candy bars in the chill of an October night.
That wraps up this year’s October Horror Challenge. Thanks for sticking it out with me, and look for my wrap-up post in which I list my favorite and least favorite films of the Challenge. Also don’t forget to listen to the latest Dreams in the Bitch House podcast, in which we go over the Challenge as well as other horror films good and bad.
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