Today is hands-down my favorite holiday. Why can't other holidays take their cues from Halloween? Let's be scary, let's be silly, let's dress up and pretend. C'mon, President's Day, ya suck!
From horror novels to creepy movies, I love stories inspired by the dark side. If you're having a party and want to throw on a fun flick, here are some suggestions for Halloween entertainment. The first one's a little different, however, because it's an unforgettable movie you can only watch inside your own skull!
The War of the Worlds (1938). On Halloween
night eve many decades ago, Orson Welles and the Mercury Radio Theatre scared the shee-yit out of America with their radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. Nearly 70 years later, this is still a knockout piece of entertainment. Welles and company adapted the story of a Martian invasion as a live, "you are there" radio newscast. At the time, Germany was beginning its march across Europe and American paranoia was so ripe that many listeners who'd tuned in late, thus missing the show's introduction, mistook this for a broadcast of an actual attack. It's a fascinating piece of media history you can learn more about here.
From the quietly interrupted musical performances and increasingly alarmed interviews to frantic radio reporters screaming as Martian death rays cut them down, this gives me chills even today. I'm not surprised that so many people in 1938 thought the world was coming to an end.
And for a limited time (shh, don't tell on me), you can give it a listen right here: (click to download 10 MB MP3 file).
Dig this crazy cool monument that now stands in Grover's Mill, New Jersey ... the site of the first Martian landing in this historic radio drama.
And now ... on to the movies!
I love a good scary film, but for Halloween I try to choose fun ones that play well in a social setting. Two of the scariest I know both came out in 1973 (The Exorcist and Don't Look Now), but believe me, these are so emotionally heavy that if you watch them with a crowd, the last thing you wanna do is go out and party.
Here are some fun horror movies that give guaranteed chills, but leave you refreshed enough to go out and scare up a good time later.
THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956). This movie keeps getting remade (Nicole Kidman is the latest to give it a shot) and it's easy to see why. Novelist Jack Finney's creepy concept of alien pod people silently replacing humans hits a primal chord no matter what the era. This chilling 1956 version acutely reflected the Red Scare, a time when America stood terrified of Commie infiltrators. Philip Kaufman's 1978 take was a shrewd and bitter wail against the social and sexual excesses of that decade. Even the least of these, Abel Ferrara's 1994 re-telling, was a decent cautionary tale about the military industrial complex (gee, I wish we'd listened). All three are worth seeing, but Don Siegel's low-budget original is the true classic.
THE EVIL DEAD (1981). Everyone likes the sequels in this series because they're very funny (they get me laughing, too), but it's easy to overlook the ferocity of Sam Raimi's directorial debut. He takes the oldest setup in the world (a bunch of kids in a haunted house) and manages to truly shock and awe us despite obvious budget limitations. I took a date to see this when it played theaters, thinking it'd be just another lame slasher flick we could make fun of -- something to keep a girl tight on your arm, right? Within a half-hour, we weren't making wisecracks at the screen anymore. We were pressed back into our seats, popcorn and soft drinks forgotten, as a horde of horrible demons burst forth from another dimension to wreak havoc on a helpless, hapless guy named Ash. No, we weren't laughing anymore because this evil, possessed film was cackling at us instead.
(If this movie was so horrifying, how can it be the source of a new musical comedy? Well, technically it is .. .and it isn't. See, Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn was nothing more than a remake of the first movie, with splat-stick style humor, and I'll wager that's what theater-goers will see on stage. But somehow that sequel's title doesn't have quite the bite on an off-Broadway marquee ...)
RE-ANIMATOR (1985). Okay, you want funny? You want gross-out violence? You want something that's less than 87 minutes? This one has all that in spades. A character from a minor series of H.P. Lovecraft stories serves as the inspiration for this balls-out zombie bazaar. Jeffrey Combs stars as Herbert West, a twisted, nerdy medical student who develops a serum that reanimates dead tissue. When he's expelled from Miskatonic University for his unorthodox research, the bodies start piling up ... and coming back to life. The politics of academe have never looked so squishy (and that's well before a jaw-droppingly hilarious sex scene with a severed head). It's the bloodiest, funniest 86 minutes you can spend on Halloween. Still not convinced? Pauline Kael gleefully slapped this underdog on her "year's best" list for the New Yorker. A close-second in this category: The Return of the Living Dead.
THE CALL OF CTHULHU (2005). Based on the classic H.P. Lovecraft short story, Cthulhu is the story of a sleeping godlike demon awakening to rule the Earth, and the psychic shockwaves this sends across the globe. Embracing their budgetary limitations, an intrepid band of Lovecraft aficianados made this one-hour movie as if it were produced in 1928, the year Lovecraft published this seminal horror tale. It's a black-and-white silent film that stands as the most faithful adaptation of the author's work to date. The clever special effects are fantastic, and the retro production values -- acting, music, even the title cards -- are impressive. I raved about Cthulhu last year and it's worth repeating. If you've ever seen any movie based on Lovecraft's stories (including the above-mentioned Re-Animator), you've been watching something far, far removed from the man's work. Short of reading the actual story, this is the best way to experience Lovecraft's dark and paranoid vision of titanic demons who regard mankind as nothing more than pests.
NEAR DARK (1987). A great vampire film that neatly sidesteps all the tired, overdone trappings associated with those creatures. If you're looking for hokey black capes and bats and pallid, Romanticist whiners with fangs, you need a good stiff drink and the angry kick in the ass this film gives ya. Director Kathryn Bigelow (with writer Eric Red) serves up a sand-crusted family of undead nomads who skirt the edge of civilization in a battered Winnebago, prowling for blood. When the "daughter" of this immortal band takes on an innocent lover (Adrian Pasdar, currently enjoying newfound success in NBC's hit series Heroes), the feral family unit starts to fracture in violent ways. There's a flat-out amazing barroom fight scene, a great score that includes Tangerine Dream and the Cramps, and some really neat twists on an old legend. If you're a fan of James Cameron's Aliens, you get three key cast members reunited here just one year after that smash hit: Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, and Bill Paxton. Because it effectively subverts a monster legend in need of some fresh blood, Near Dark goes down as one of my favorite vampire movies.
Jesse Hooker & his vampire gal Diamondback wanna know: What the hell are you watching this Halloween? Sound off in the comments section!