Every year, sites like this one like to run their own take on the ultimate and comprehensive list of seasonally-appropriate flicks to watch on Halloween. And as an absolute Halloween devotee, I read every single one of these lists hoping to gleam at least one new title to add to my ever-growing Halloween movie collection.
It’s very rare when that happens.
If you’re someone like me who’s a little tired of the norm, and of reading through lists that have John Carpenter’s Halloween as the inevitable number one, here’s a list of obscure, unknown, or less obvious choices to watch on Halloween night after the sun has set and the trick-or-treaters have disappeared (hopefully the non-lame ones who knocked on doors instead of peering into car trunks).
Halloween means something a little different to everyone, and everyone has their own little traditions of what they like to do, eat/drink, read, listen to, and watch during those last couple October weeks. Having said that, some of my own personal recommendations might not make a whole lot of Halloween sense, so be forewarned about the list to follow, which represents a culmination of years spent writing, reviewing, and blogging Halloween. There’s old stuff, new stuff, and cult classic stuff, so grab your Halloween candy and dive in.
Director Lucky McKee made a big splash with his indie horror flick May back in 2002. The film – a Frankensteinian tale about a deeply lonely and withdrawn girl – became immediately beloved by horror fans everywhere looking for something new, and so they eagerly looked forward to McKee’s next title. Sadly, to some degree, The Woods doesn’t fully represent the film as McKee intended to make, though he does get full final credit. Whispers of studio meddling preceded the very delayed release, and after a couple years of sitting on the shelf, it was released quietly to video.
The film, set in the 1960s, focuses on a young and troubled teen named Heather (Agnes Bruckner) who is sent to live in an all-female boarding school in the middle of the woods to get her act together. While there she butts heads with other students and members of the faculty, although one of them, Ms. Traverse (Patricia Clarkson), sees that Heather is special…in the practical magic kind of way. Soon, Heather realizes that there’s much more going on at Falburn Academy than just reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic – something dangerously approaching witchcraft – and she learns she’s got two options: escape, or surrender her soul.
Even all the witchy stuff aside (although it’s a big boost, because witches = Halloween), The Woods drips in Halloween environment, and a large part of that is the very foliage-driven trees which surround their school (and in some cases, creep inside). The wardrobe choices even seem somewhat inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Crucible, about witchcraft and mass hysteria sweeping through Salem, Massachusetts.
Ultimately The Woods isn’t a rock solid production and the ending feels rushed – not just how we arrive there but the actual execution of it – but it does offer a fairly appropriate Halloween experience, some cleverly constructed scenes, an excellent performance from Patricia Clarkson, and of course, some Bruce Campbell.
The Houses October Built
Another quiet release comes in the form of this 2014 found-footage flick The Houses October Built, produced by Paranormal Activity’s Steven Schneider. The concept is simple enough: a group of friends who heart Halloween rent an RV and begin a cross-country tour to check out various haunts. Naturally, after going to one haunt in particular, an eerie, pint-sized haunt actor with a dreadfully creepy broken doll mask begins to follow them…as do her fellow haunt “actors.” The friends eventually find themselves forced to enter a very different kind of haunt — one that turns out to be real.
The Houses October Built isn’t a great film; in fact it probably hovers somewhere around satisfactory. As usual for found footage flicks, the characters aren’t particularly likable and the film spends just a bit too much time fucking off before getting to the fear parts. Having said that, The Houses October Built excels at the Halloween aesthetic, boasting several sequences where the camera follows our characters throughout many different haunts, offering a first-hand account of all the long-legged beasties that wait for them in the dark. It easily resurrects your own memories of having gone to such haunts in the past, and if you’re someone like me growing rapidly older and losing patience for standing in long lines just to pay $50 for a 20-minute scare, let The Houses October Built do all the work for you before removing it from your queue.
Lady in White
It’s Halloween, 1962, in Willowpoint Falls. Two bullies trick Frankie (Lukas Haas) into the classroom cloakroom and lock him in for a Halloween prank. After beating against the door, Frankie falls asleep…and later awakens when he hears the soft voice of a young girl. She’s in the closet with him, singing and dancing — and Frankie can see right through her. Soon her singing comes to an end, and she begins fighting off an invisible attacker who has slowly begun strangling her. Frankie passes out and later awakes on the floor of the cloakroom, his father before him. Frankie is taken home…with that same ghost girl following close behind him. Lady in White then unfolds as one big mystery with lots of small subplots figuring in, with young Frankie solving a years-old murder, but which puts him directly in the path of the murderer.
To be fair, Halloween is a device that kicks off the strange and twisty-turny events that make up Lady in White (it’s Christmastime exactly halfway through the film), but the supernatural elements are consistent enough to safely label it horror, and thus, appropriate for some Halloween watching. Not to mention that the first third of the film does feature leaf-strewn rural roads, and Main Street shop windows filled with decorations, costume-clad kids, and buckets of candy corn. As someone who has loved Halloween since I was a kid, seeing Lady in White at a young age, on Halloween, has permanently locked itself into my heart. What keeps me coming back isn’t only the machinations of the plot, the legitimacy of the characters, or the performances of the ensemble, but the healthy injection of nostalgia for which I yearn more and more as the years go by.
Lady in White isn’t a perfect film, but the ambiance it creates, and the feeling of childhood nostalgia it sets out to establish, is. (Read my full write-up on Lady in White.)
Pay the Ghost
Look, I know. Saying the name “Nicolas Cage” as it relates to films these days is like saying “McDonalds” when talking about cuisine. He makes an awful lot of garbage now, we know this. I know I do because I have to watch a lot of it. But quietly, in 2015, he made a little Halloween movie called Pay the Ghost, based on a short story of the same name by Tim Lebbon which appears in the gigantic Halloween anthology October Dreams. In the film, Mike Lawford’s (Cage) young son disappears in New York during a Halloween parade, leaving Mike to solve the mystery himself before his son’s case gets lost in the system. As he begins to sift through the clues, he stumbles upon a string of kids gone missing on previous Halloween nights, an ancient Celtic group very aware of the dangers of Halloween, and the powerful spirit of a witch bent on revenge.
Pay the Ghost is rare for a handful of reasons: one, it’s a small-scale/direct-to-video Nic Cage film that’s actually pretty good, and two, more importantly, it’s that rare Halloween-set film that takes place in a city environment. That may sound like a trivial detail to commend, but so many Halloween-inspired films are set in small towns, rural areas, and the suburbs; rarely do we get to see the big-city landscape dressed in Halloween lights, crepe paper, and decor. Plus the Halloween parade sequence is pretty satisfying.
It’s not just set dressing and the day of the year which make Pay the Ghost seasonally appropriate, but the film also includes modern day equivalents of age-old Halloween celebrations before it was ever called Halloween. The Celts, the sacrifice, the pre-Satanized version of the witch — these are deeply rooted in the origins of Halloween and they are fully on display here.
If you’ve bypassed Pay the Ghost a number of times because of Cage’s face on the poster, let this be the year you dive in and give it a shot. You may be in for a…treat? (Halloween!)
The Barn takes place on Halloween night, 1989, and feels every bit like it. After its excellent opening, which lays down the legend of Hallowed Jack, Candycorn Scarecrow, and the Boogeyman (aka the Miner), we cut to “the present” and meet our usual group of kids who will get into kid hijinks and come face-to-face with an array of evil Halloween spirits.
The Barn, the newest in a long line of throwback slasher films, has its heart in the right place, which allows it to transcend the problems that most low-budget filmmaking inevitably displays. If The Barn gets anything right, it’s the loyal devotion to Halloween. The first five minutes alone exude more October ambiance than all of Trick ‘r Treat, and the party store design of its movie maniacs easily call forth Conal Cochran’s trio of now-iconic masks from Halloween 3: Season of the Witch. When the screen is filled with costumed kids, cornfields, pumpkin patches, and those midwestern small town surroundings ripped straight from images conjured by the abstract term “Americana,” Halloween permeates through every square inch of the screen. That the legend of these monsters are told and retold through “ghost” stories — one of Halloween’s many traditions — elevates the Octoberness.
The Barn may not stand toe-to-toe with its Halloween-inspired brethren, but it’s a worthy addition to the sub-genre and a more-than-welcome guest at the yearly Halloween party. Several participants of The Barn are currently collaborating on a new Halloween-inspired anthology titled 10/31. Let’s just say they’ve got my attention. (Read my full write-up on The Barn.)
At some point, Edgar Allan Poe became synonymous with Halloween. And I’m totally cool with that. With Extraordinary Tales, five of Poe’s most famous stories are told, with very different animation techniques utilized to help suit each story as well as stress the anthological nature of the project.
The Fall of the House of Usher kicks things off with its use of what looks to be wooden models, made both blocky and somewhat angular with heightened features. Christopher Lee provides the narration as well as the voices of the story’s sole two characters. The original text, much like the other stories to come, has been pared down, but also kept mostly intact. The Tell-Tale Heart switches to an all black-and-white aesthetic and is complemented by archival audio of Bela Lugosi. In terms of guest narrator impact, this one just might play the best, as the pops and hisses from the original recording (purposely left intact by the director) add an old-school charm and somehow helps to heighten the tension of this story. The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valedemar utilizes the most clever of animation techniques, implanting the story in an EC Comics-come-to-life design in which every panel is colored relying only on vivid comic book colors. The most surprising aspect of The Pit and the Pendulum is how much of a good job guest narrator Guillermo Del Toro does in bringing the story to life. His is not a voice one would typically think of in terms of narration, but he does a tremendous job in bringing a lot of emotion and tension to the story (and being that the story is about a man taken prisoner during the Spanish inquisition, he’s also an appropriate choice). The Masque of the Red Death caps off the anthology in beautiful watercolor and is largely narration-free. Roger Corman gets exactly one line in the entire thing, but the beauty of the images and how the camera moves about them more than aptly propels the story.
Extraordinary Tales has nothing Halloween about it, and except for The Fall of the House of Usher, none of the stories offer even a particularly October/autumnal experience. But, with this being in Poe territory, and with Extraordinary Tales being beautifully (and horrifically) realized, this is still an easy recommendation. (Read my full write-up on Extraordinary Tales.)
Boys in the Trees
Every year I do the same thing: I go to IMDB or Blu-ray.com’s search page, put “Halloween” in the keyword field, and sift through all the well known titles and DTV garbage that inevitably follows. But I do this hoping to find some secret little film that slipped below my radar.
This year, it was Australia’s quiet indie Boys in the Trees.
It’s Halloween night, 1997, in Australia, and a group of bawdy, troublemaking kids take to the streets to engage in teen pain-in-the-assness, including a campfire at a nearby cemetery. One of these numbers, Corey (Tobey Wallace), crosses paths with Jonah (Gulliver McGrath), a close friend from his past from whom he has grown estranged and who has since become a frequent target for Corey’s friends’ torments. The boys organically end up spending that Halloween night together, traversing dangers metaphysical, emotional, and very physical, resurrecting a painful past and confronting a very sad truth.
Boys in the Trees isn’t fully a horror film, and some might argue it’s not at all. It belongs equally to drama, fantasy, and thriller, as much as it does to horror. Tonally very similar to Donnie Darko, it plays almost like a darker update of Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree, as it sees two young men grappling with death within the confines of a Halloween environment. Together they embark down streets dotted with illuminated jack-o-lanterns and trees decked with toilet paper as Jonah tells “ghost” stories about the houses and people they pass.
Boys in the Trees is a touch too long, its genre-hopping might frustrate those looking for something more straightforward, and there’s a strangely introduced aspect of sexual identity that doesn’t seem to go anywhere, but beyond that it’s a beautifully told and very atypical story that uses Halloween (and even Day of the Dead) in a strong manner to convey its themes.
The Monster Squad
There are two kinds of people: those who love The Monster Squad, and those who are total turds. Far, far superior to The Goonies, The Monster Squad is the quintessential kids-on-bikes film, the absolute precursor to Stranger Things, and the perfect kid-friendly horror title. Set in the days leading up to Halloween, the classic Universal monsters (which were pared down to their generic versions to avoid a lawsuit) descend on a small town in Baton Rouge, led by Dracula (Duncan Regehr), in order to bring about the end of the world because of course he would. And because the adults are too busy caught up in their own adult bullshit, the kids have no choice but to take care of the threat themselves…these kids, “The Monster Squad.”
I’ll be honest, The Monster Squad, except for taking place on Halloween, has little to do with it, but damn it all if it’s not a perfect title to watch on Halloween, anyway. With a typically sardonic screenplay by Shane Black, filled with all the kinds of gay slurs and body shaming that have since gone seriously out of style, The Monster Squad, though lacking Halloween iconography, at least embodies its spirit: facing down the terrors of the night with your childhood friends by your side while confronting your mortality. (Also, Frankenstein.)
Don’t ask me what Psychoville is because, beyond it being a sarcastic and odd British television show, I have no idea. But during my yearly scouring, this title popped up, and without many other new options I figured I’d give it a go.
I was, again, pleasantly surprised.
Told in the anthology format, Psychoville: Halloween tells four different stories (not including the wraparound) mostly set on Halloween night. Psychoville derives from the more well known The League of Gentlemen, so that’s a good indicator of the kind of humor (dark, odd, and a little icky) you’ll be getting. As for the Halloween of it all, among the tales, a clown gets harassed by some eerie trick-or-treaters and a mother and son get picked up by a motorist on their way to a Halloween party who may or may not be a serial killer. The tales play out with your usual brand of Tales from the Crypt irony, but this time married to a helping of odd and absurd British humor that both complement and somehow heighten the fear. (That clown story, especially, is kinda spooky.)
Psychoville: Halloween is about 85% standalone, so you don’t fully need an understanding of the series to enjoy the stories, but because it also happens to the the season finale, it ends with a WTF cliffhanger that won’t make a lick of sense to you. My advice? Turn it off after the conclusion of the insane asylum wraparound.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014)
In Texarkana, a revival showing of the original The Town That Dreaded Sundown is in full swing. Pretty Jami (Addison Timlin) isn’t really enjoying the morbid film, and her boyfriend Corey (Spencer Treat Clark) notices and suggests they both get out of there. Get out of there they do – and end up in the desolate, tree-lined Lover’s Lane. After a few gropes and gooses, Jami spies someone standing off in the trees watching them – someone wearing a burlap sack, much like the killer in the film they had earlier been watching. The sack-wearing figure kills Corey and leaves Jami to escape. To confront her survivor’s guilt, Jami begins diving into the past in an attempt to solve the sixty-year-old murders of Texarkana.
This incarnation of The Town That Dreaded Sundown is an impressive feature debut by director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. Dreamlike in its depiction and unrelenting in its bloodletting, it is a screaming example of how to make a good film based on preexisting material and still make it fresh, unique, and not just another cash grab (although the ending is an absolute copout).
If I wanted to be cheap, I’d say that The Town that Dreaded Sundown is a good Halloween night candidate because the killer wears a mask and it opens on Halloween night, but there’s more than that. Though the film really has nothing to do with Halloween, the very rural and cornfield-strewn Texarkana strikes the same tone as Haddonfield, Illinois throughout the Halloween series, and the strange, dreamy tony fits right in with Halloween’s strange, dreamy traditions. That the film opens on Halloween night and the killer wears a mask, well, that doesn’t hurt.
The Town that Dreaded Sundown is probably the least obvious title on this list, but also one of the worthiest. (Read my full write-up on The Town that Dreaded Sundown.)
WNUF Halloween Special
Purported to be “ taped off of WNUF TV-28 on Halloween Night, 1987, this strange broadcast follows local news personality Frank Stewart and a team of paranormal researchers as they set out to prove that the abandoned Webber House – the site of ghastly murders – is actually haunted.”
The WNUF Halloween Special is a painstaking recreation of the following: a news broadcast, broken up by commercial breaks, which then leads into the actual “live” special, which is also broken up by commercial breaks. It looks as if someone literally hit “record” midway through a news broadcast and let the tape capture everything that followed, and it’s obscenely clever. The WNUF Halloween Special is also peppered with numerous horror and Halloween homages: the haunted house’s murderous past echo that of the “Amityville horror;” the characters of Louis and Claire Berger are clearly based on Ed and Lorraine Warren (of recent dramatized fame in James Wan’s The Conjuring) who investigated the Amityville house, with the latter character being a purposeful recreation of legendary writer and Halloween enthusiast Ray Bradbury. There’s even a shout out to The Monster Squad’s Shadowbrook Road.
Important to note is that, despite the film’s marketing campaign, the WNUF Halloween Special is actually pretty hilarious. And it’s supposed to be, as it takes a page from the mockumentaries of Christopher Guest (Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman, etc.). More comedy than horror, the WNUF Halloween Special’s best aspect is its desire to resurrect a time in our not-so-historic history where things seemed purer — when people bought heavy metal compilation CDs or took in-store lessons on how to use “floppy discs” — and this forgotten time also includes Halloween, as our society simply doesn’t seem to care as much about October 31st as it once did. WNUF Halloween Special has carved out a chunk of our lives, called it “Halloween,” and preserved it for all time. And for doing that, it’s beautiful. (Read my full write-up on WNUF Halloween Special.)
Millennium: “The Curse of Frank Black”
You might remember Millennium, The X-Files creator Chris Carter’s second series, a Red Dragon-ish thriller starring Lance Henriksen as a serial killer profiler working for the mysterious Millennium Group. Following a critically well received but not highly viewed first season, which was fairly grounded and straightforward, season 2 began exploring more paranormal themes in an effort to nab that X-Files audience. While this became the catalyst for Millennium sadly losing its way, it also directly led to episode 2×6, “The Curse of Frank Black,” which aired on Halloween night back in the dark ages of 1997.
Frank sits at home carving a jack-o-lantern and waiting for the right time to go pick up his daughter, Jordan, to take her trick-or-treating. Somewhere between grabbing his keys and sensing something a little bit off about this Halloween night, he sees the Devil outside his home. And his nightmarish, unending Halloween night of terror begins, during which he recollects a terrifying Halloween past and sees that he’s in danger of that becoming his future.
“The Curse of Frank Black” is the creepiest episode across all three seasons of Millennium, heightened by its dark, windy, and foggy Halloween night weather. The Halloween ambiance is immense, along with its use of “ghost” stories, mischief, and the juxtaposition of fun Halloween scares and real, absolute danger. All that aside, the atmosphere is immensely effective and encompassing. It’s the type of night we Halloween enthusiasts wish for every year. On top of that is the creep factor: the brief couple sightings of the devil are legitimately unnerving, and happenstance has Frank on foot in his old neighborhood where he stumbles across some teens egging the house he and his family lived in during happier times. Inside the empty house, he stumbles across more kids: these in the basement, spooking each other with ghost stories relating to someone from Frank’s past that died there.
For non-fans of the series, the episode is still a very effective watch. No, you won’t understand all the references and the ins and outs, but for its mood, tone, and imagery alone, it’s a more than worthy Halloween night watch.
Seventeen-year-old Dora Vogel (Chloe Rose) is having a bummer of a Halloween. Not only has she found out she’s pregnant, but a swath of demonic trick-or-treaters have descended upon her family’s isolated rural home intent on stealing her unborn baby. A one-location siege unfolds, with Dora fending off one attack after another from these costumed monster kids.
In the interest of honesty, my initial reaction to Hellions was not a positive one, but as time went on, I changed my tune. Hellions serves as a fun Halloween-infused action/horror hybrid, but also an allegory for Dora’s fears as a potential mother. That she finds herself battling evil children on the same day she finds out she’s pregnant is too on the nose to ignore, but soon the straightforwardness of the plot begins to dissipate and slowly transforms into a Lynchian nightmare, aided by the story’s surreal developments and the use of pink infrared film.
Hellions makes great use of the October aesthetic, littering the screen with pumpkin fields, Halloween decorations, and an army of deranged trick-or-treaters, and its very loose plot seems to be harvesting Halloween’s own history rooted in sacrifice and pagan worship. Every trick-or-treater’s design has the power to pulse with appropriate shiverage, and seeing them stand in crowds outside windows, in front of a flaming police cruiser, or idly on a swing set, is effortlessly eerie. Their manipulated childlike voices that whisper through their scarecrow burlap masks or oversized button-eyed doll faces cause the hair on the back of your neck to prick up.
Hellions isn’t quite a new minor Halloween classic, but it’s an interesting and worthy endeavor and deserves your fair chance. (Read my full and original not-positive write-up on Hellions.)
Soldier David Collins shows up on the doorstep of the Peterson family, who are still reeling over the death of their soldier son, Caleb, to pass onto them Caleb’s premortem expression of his love. The Petersons invite David to stay with them until he can find a more permanent place to live. The always-smiling and perfectly polite David Collins, who inserts himself into the family’s lives, seems to be the perfect guy, until it’s revealed that he has an uncanny knack for killing — all, it would seem, without any hesitation or regret. It’s soon revealed that David Collins isn’t David Collins at all, and by the time everyone finds that out, it’s far too late, because he’s very, very dangerous.
Take the “living with the killer” concept popular in the 1990s, add the You’re Next team of writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard and a healthy dose of 1992’s Universal Soldier, and you’ve got The Guest. That the film takes place at Halloween isn’t its only tie-in; The Guest is a hyper-violent and hyper-stylistic horror/thriller/action/comedy inspired by Carpenter’s late-’70s/early-’80s output, especially Halloween (and even Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, the unfairly maligned, non-Michael Myers Halloween sequel). Collins embodies The Shape, including his soulless, expressionless demeanor, but this time, the mask he wears is that of humanity, and those around him can’t see him for what he really is.
The Guest offers a bit of counter-programming to your Halloween watching; it definitely satisfies in the horror department, but those wanting a little action will have an awesome time.
Kenny & Co.
Don Coscarelli’s sophomore effort, Kenny & Company, is not an obvious choice for a Halloween movie. It’s actually not even a horror film! Instead, it’s about childhood – one fully formed by the freedom felt on Halloween night as you and your friends walked your neighborhood streets in your secret identities. It’s about the misadventures you got into, and the trouble you avoided (or nearly did). Coscarelli, most famously known for the Phantasm series, Bubba Ho-Tep and his newest, John Dies At the End, writes, produces, and directs this slice-of-life nostalgia piece about a small, nameless community in the Southern California suburbs, told through the eyes of the titular Kenny, in the week leading up to Halloween. Refreshingly, the kids act, talk, and think like kids. And it all works to the intended comedic effect because it feels very real, and this includes the sequence in which the kids put on their Halloween costumes and go trick-or-treating, ending up at a neighborhood house’s garage of horrors. (It is during this sequence where the kids are pursued by a costumed man in the dark that inspired Coscarelli to go on to write and direct Phantasm, citing his extreme lack of enjoyment in watching his audience become fearful of the events occurring in that haunted garage.)
Is Kenny & Company a Halloween film? Not really—at least not in the traditional sense. But Halloween is on the film’s horizon, and it certainly nails that nostalgic look back at childhood, of which Halloween was a very big part. It wouldn’t be the first film you would think to watch as we approach that late October day, but Halloween wasn’t only ever just scary, either. (Read all of Cut Print Film’s previous Halloween Marathon.)
After being excommunicated from their colony, a 1600s New England family embarks to their new home in the middle of the woods to begin anew. But there’s something in the woods that doesn’t let them live in peace. And, at night, it comes for them — one by one.
The Witch isn’t interested in being a typical horror film. But that doesn’t mean it’s not interested in getting under your skin. It’s not a spoiler to say that this isn’t a case of “Is there a witch, or is it all in their heads?” The very real threat exists among this displaced, God-fearing family, looming over their new patchwork home in the woods like the night sky. Quick and hazy sightings of the force haunting them, rarely glimpsed but ever changing, heighten its malignancy. The thing going bump in the night is never made a primary on-screen force. It’s not hiding behind closet doors or hovering in the background of a mirror’s reflection. Its existence is felt in every frame, even if its visage is hardly sighted—a masterful accomplishment for any filmmaker, but especially writer/director Robert Eggers, making his directorial debut.
On its surface, The Witch has nothing to do with Halloween, but like The Woods, it still feels incredibly appropriate for some late-October watching. Something about colonial-era New England, the Salem Witch trials of Massachusetts — witchcraft in general — easily lends itself. As a bible thumper will be quick to remind you, Halloween has become “Satan’s holiday,” and boy oh boy does that make The Witch even more appropriate.
The Witch is very quiet and permeates with instant dread, and it’s classily and faithfully executed. It’s not a Friday night party film like The Evil Dead. Not only does it make for an ideal Halloween film, but it makes for the final film of the night, when all is quiet, everyone’s gone to bed, and it’s just you, the silence, and the dark. (Read my full write-up on The Witch.)
Halloween 3: Season of the Witch
Once Michael Myers returned to the Halloween series, Halloween 3: Season of the Witch officially became the black-sheep of the franchise, but while its black-sheep status remains a fair label, it’s certainly not the turkey that many series fans like to say it is.
Halloween 3, lacking Michael Myers, instead features: Tom Atkins (rocking the mustache this time!), rumination on old Celtic beliefs/traditions as they pertain to Halloween, an evil corporation, Stonehenge, booby-trapped bug-filled Halloween masks, and, fuck yeah, robots. Here’s the thing, though, and hold onto your butts: While Halloween 3 is nowhere near a better film than the groundbreaking original (ha ha; lord, no), it does a far better job of incorporating the actual day of Halloween – and all the myths and iconography and history that come with it – directly into its storyline. We’re not just talking about some guy walking around in a mask on the day/night of Halloween and getting away with it because Halloween = masks. We’re talking about a revisitation of old-school Halloween; how it was celebrated and observed in lands foreign from our own; how the very idea of Halloween itself – one whose enduring popularity is credited to legions of children – is both the inspiration behind and the vehicle through which Halloween 3’s antagonist will carry forth his dastardly plan. If you know the legends and lore of Halloween, you know that the Halloween of today is a sanitized and watered-down version of what it used to be. It is this embracing of genuine Halloween that makes Season of the Witch an entertaining watch.
You might be looking at this selection and thinking, “How is this ‘obscure’ or ‘less obvious?'” If so, GOOD FOR YOU. Most Halloween series fans tend to hate Halloween 3, and these people tend to be awful.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow
It’s Halloween season in a nameless mid-western town where a young girl named Marylee and a simple-minded man named Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake) play together in the middle of a field. Bubba is harmless, but Otis (Charles Durning) and his cohorts believe he’s dangerous. After Marylee is viciously attacked by a dog, rumors spread that Bubba is to blame, so Otis gathers his hateful posse and heads out to the Ritter farm to exert some private justice. Bubba, attempting to hide within a scarecrow, is killed, and Otis and his posse are tried for Bubba’s murder. Without evidence, the men find themselves free, but then each of the men begin seeing the Ritter farm scarecrow planted in the middle of their fields. The men are picked off one by one by an unseen killer…perhaps by the ghost of Bubba himself…
Somehow, scarecrows have become infamous iconography of Halloween. Go to any Halloween party store and you’re likely to find a scarecrow mask or costume, or even a decapitated and blood-dripping scarecrow head. (I’m still not sure this make sense, but just go with it.) Despite this, the scarecrow has been used only moderately throughout horror cinema, which is a shame, because their visage is effortlessly creepy and could make for a good on-screen threat given the right approach. Dark Night of the Scarecrow is absolutely the best of this sub-genre, along with being one of the all-time greats in general.
In Dark Night of the Scarecrow, all the gruesomeness is left to your imagination. The men are killed, oh yes, and in imaginatively painful ways, but never on screen. It is old school in its execution because it is old school. And as the kids in town prepare for the Halloween dance, and as gusty, eerie winds pick up and blow dead leaves and trash cans down Main Street, the Halloween aesthetic will bring a smile to your face. (Read my full write-up on Dark Night of the Scarecrow.)
Ghostwatch is presented as a live BBC on-air special that spotlights an alleged haunted house on Foxhill Drive in London. The host of this show is Michael Parkinson, a well known (and quite real) British journalist. Next to him sits Dr. Lin Pascoe, a parapsychologist who fervently believes that the spooky events occurring at Foxhill Drive are genuine signs of a haunting. And in the cursed house live the Early family; mother Pam and daughters Suzanne and Kim. Much like modern ghost-hunting shows of today, a camera crew enters the house to investigate the events the Early family claim to have been dealing with for months. Leading this crew is Sarah Greene, another well-known British personality. Sure enough, the house is haunted for real, and as the investigation unfolds, the events within the house steadily increase into utter chaos.
Ghostwatch is tremendous for many reasons, but most of all because it was planned, written, and executed simply to have something fun to play on Halloween night. Added to that, the Early family within their house still try to celebrate the night; the decorations are hung above the chimney with scare (haw haw), and the kids bob for apples in the kitchen. Outside, curious bystanders watching the production crew trade ghost stories about the house, or the surrounding areas, and one also very real TV personality, Craig Charles, cracks awful but awesome jokes about how difficult it would be to interview the Headless Horsemen because, “Where do you point the microphone?”
Ghostwatch caused a huge stir following its one and only airing because many viewers thought it was 100% real, despite the BBC’s many attempts before, during, and after the show’s airing to make sure people knew it was entirely scripted. It even led to a young viewer, who suffered psychological problems, to take his own life after he believed his house to be haunted by the same ghost featured in Ghostwatch, leaving a suicide note to his mother which read: “if there are ghosts, I will be … with you always as a ghost.” It’s for this reason that Ghostwatch has never aired again in England (or anywhere), although the “real” story behind the film — known as the Enfield Poltergeist — has been dramatized several times since then, most notably and recently in The Conjuring 2.
Ghostwatch has never enjoyed an official U.S. release, but you can watch the whole thing on Youtube. (Read my full write-up on Ghostwatch.)
The Halloween Tree
Author Ray Bradbury provided the teleplay adaptation of his novel (which earned him an Emmy award) and also provides the narration for his tale about a group of kids and the very mysterious Mr. Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud (Leonard Nimoy) pursuing the kids’ friend, Pip, across time and the world – from the pyramids of ancient Egypt to the cathedrals of Notre Dame – with each providing a bit of history on Halloween’s beginnings.
For obvious reasons, The Halloween Tree is essential Halloween watching, although it’s fallen into obscurity over the years since its award-winning release. Not just set on Halloween night, it’s a trip back to a real history that provides a perspective on how different cultures honor and celebrate death. (Both the novel and the film are an allegory for death.) This adaptation sees some minor changes from its novel, but the spirit of the story remains in place. Famed studio Hanna-Barbera provided the animation, and while it’s a reflection of the time it was made, it’s still beautiful to watch. Meanwhile, Nimoy does a good job with voicing Moundshroud, going for a strange, almost bird-like screeching voice instead of the deep baritone for which he was well known.
Regardless of when you discovered this movie – whether in your youth or your adulthood – it contains the power to enthrall and fill you with that certain kind of nostalgia that only usually happens by accident. But The Halloween Tree works in this regard. It will fill you with the kind of melancholy that only occurs when revisiting your childhood, but you’ll also laugh and maybe tear up as you watch these kids tumble through different lands and time periods, all in hopes of saving their friend. By the end, you’ll be wishing your friends were as loyal and devoted as Jenny the Witch, Ralph the Mummy, Wally the Monster, and Tom Skelton the you-know-what. (Read my full-write up on The Halloween Tree.)