Tuesday, October 26, 2021

31 Days of Scary Movies: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1949)


Next up we returned to Disney and returned to the village of Sleepy Hollow. Disney’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was made in 1949 as a short film, and packaged with the other, unrelated short film adaptation of “The Wind in the Willows,” and released together as one film, “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mister Toad.” In later years on television, they were shown separately—with Ichabod’s segment titled “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” For the purposes of our film series, I watched only the Ichabod portion, which clocks in under half an hour. 


Bing Crosby narrates—and sings--  this beautifully animated tale. While the songs are whimsical—“Katrina,” for instance—Disney does not, thankfully shy away from the spookier elements of the story, with the “Headless Horseman” song in which the ghost story is related to Ichabod, and culminating in the spectacularly animated conclusion of Ichabod riding home through the woods—and being chased by the Horseman himself. The animation is so detailed and wonderful—from the Horseman’s cemetery, through the woods, and over the bridge. The Horseman himself and his horse are fiendishly perfect.


Something I appreciate a great deal about this version, is while even the Horseman’s chase gets a little—well—cartoonish, they do not shy away from its ultimate conclusion, and in fact embrace the original story’s ambiguity as to Ichabod’s fate. Did he fall victim to the Horseman that night? Did he leave to start a new life? Is the Horseman a real ghost story or not? Disney leaves all of Irving’s original uncertainty—and becomes one of the best adaptations of the Horseman’s tale in the process.  

Monday, October 25, 2021

31 Days of Scary Movies: “Halloween: H20” (1998)

   For the 31 Days of Scary Movies project, I tried not to repeat too many different types of movies, and was careful to avoid series. The “Halloween” films being the exception. With last weekend’s “Halloween Kills” having just been released this year, I wanted to at least revisit the original 1978 film, because I never wouldn’t at least once in October. And with the hype around the 2018 film and its now sequel, I wanted to revisit Jamie Lee Curtis’ original return to the franchise, in 1998’s “Halloween: H20.”

Set twenty years after the origial film, Halloween: H20 is, still for the Ghost, one of (if not the) strongest of the sequels. Right off the bat, it gets the look of Haddonfield right and matching the first film, with the late Dr. Sam Loomis’ house resembling most of the homes in the first film, as well as the iconic Meyers house. The opening montage— where Joseph Gordon Leavitt in celebrity cameo is dispatched as Meyers ransacks Loomis’ files clearly looking for information on Laurie Strode, does a tremendous job of explaining away the convolutions of the films that followed without Curtis, in which she was apparently killed in a car accident. Laurie has gone into hiding under a new identity, now teaching at a seculted private boarding school in California; in symmetry to the first film, that took place in Illinois but was filmed in California. Laurie teaches English and has a terrific scene with a class whiel she teaches Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” harkening back to when young Laurie discussed similar topics of fate in an English class during the first film.

In addition to the homages and call backs to other “Halloween” films, “H20’s” cup runs over with the inclusion of Curtis’ real life mother, Janet Leigh, in a small supporting role at the school. Immortal in horror film for her starring role in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” Jane Leigh’s call backs (dirivng home on Halloween in the car from Hitchcock’s film) are a delight, and seeing Curtis and her mother act together is such a gift from the horror gods. This film is also otherwise filled with 1990s nostalgia; including young heartthrob Josh Harnett as Laurie’s son, and Michelle Williams as his girlfriend. Comparisons are often made to the “Scream” films, as they were huge success in the 1990s; but aside from the celebrity making a cameo and quickly getting killed off in the film’s openings, the conparisons aren’t really there. Of course, Janet Leigh’s “Psycho” invented that, and the film seems to be having great fun with that.


This film also gets right Michael Meyers’ portrayal. In so many of the seuqels, he is often stalking random teenagers; but what “H20” reminds us, is that the “Halloween” films are at their strongest—and most tension filled— when he is stalking Laurie Strode, and she is fighting back. In this film we get Michael driving again as he does in 1978, and the way he is constantly coming toward Laurie is so affective, and something many horror films in more recent years have followed. Among my favorite things about this movie is Laurie and Michael’s final confrontation, that is no less powerful and empowering today as it was when first watched over twenty years ago. Also of note is John Ottoman’s score, that smartly uses much of Carpenter’s original music, and expands orchestrally on the basic themes for the perfect ambiance of a “Halloween” film.


For too many years, I have not included “H20” as necessary October viewing. We are going to change that going forward.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

31 Days of Scary Movies: “Witch’s Night Out” (1978)

 It was time for “Witch’s Night Out,” yesterday night. The 1978 Canadian animated television special looms high in the haunted hearts of many children of the 70s, 80s and early 90s, when this was heavily played on TV. It was extremely formative for yours truly, and while in more recent years DVD releases and fanfare has seen this gem recognized, it still has not been given its just credit in my book.


The plot of the half hour special is simple, the animation zany and kooky, the theme song spooky and the voice talent brilliant. Led by Gilda Radner as the title witch—a Norma Desmond like character who has been forgotten by the world, no one connecting with the real magic and witches of Halloween anymore—the case also includes the great Catherine O’Hara (seen previously in the film project as the voice of the Frankenstein’s monster Sally from “A Nightmare Before Christmas) as the aptly named Malicious. Gilda’s witch is legendary, and her voice performance is absolutely a result of that. Her comedic timing, in just her voice work and adapted by the animators is something special, and always beautiful to watch. As her Witch gets her groove back, which consists of loosing her wand and finding it again, all while teaching everyone in town the true meaning of Halloween—that for one night a year you can embrace the darkness and be whatever you want—will never not be perfect.


I don’t know if there is a year I have been alive that I have not watched this, but among what stood out the most to me this viewing was, as always, just how detailed and beautiful Jonathan Rogers’ animation is. While some of the characters don’t have detail beyond colors (until they learn the meaning of Halloween and are transformed, that is), the scenery—the Witch’s abandoned haunted house, the woods, even the town—are so beautifully drawn and painted and an absolute love letter to all that is Halloween. Here’s to the true October classic, “Witch’s Night Out.”

Saturday, October 23, 2021

31 Days of Scary Movies: “Sleepy Hollow” (1999)


While I have tried to be diverse about my selections for the film project, some names can’t help but show up multiple times. Some are just too essential to Halloween viewing to only make an appearance on one night. Director Tim Burton is one of those names, and he returned last night with his wildly October 1999 version of “Sleepy Hollow.” Starring Burton standard Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane and Christina Ricci as Katrina Von Taseel—with a wickedly beyond perfect performance by Christopher Walken as the Headless Horseman—“Sleepy Hollow” is what is now quintessentially a Burton film, but one that stands all on its own.

  There is precious little in the film that is faithfully adapted from Washington Irving’s definitive American ghost story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Ichabod is not a school master but a detective from New York City, and there is no ambiguity over whether or not the Horseman is supernatural or Brom Bones playing a trick on Ichabod. But that is okay. This is a wild amalgamation of an American Halloween film—using Irving’s immortal ghost story as a jumping off point, this is part Halloween film filled with jack o’ lanterns and scarecrows, part mystery, part witch legend and part slasher film. The atmosphere of this film is dreamlike and brilliantly contained. The dreary October woods and Colonial villages are painstakingly recreated, and always a beautiful sight to take in. The Horseman himself is scary while being over the top but not too much so; in Walken’s few flashback scenes where he has his head, you know while watching them that no one else could play the Horseman like him. Depp is also spectacular, brilliantly modeling his detective Ichabod after Angela Lansbury’s “Murder She Wrote” character; a perfect choice for Ichabod as a detective, if there ever was one. Miranda Richardson is also wickedly wonderful in her role.

The physical horror here is also played up to a degree that Burton has rarely touched, but when he does he gets it perfectly right. The decapitations happen quick and furiously, and creates a world where at any moment the world turns still and the Horseman can charge out of the road, removing anyone’s head who is in his path. This effect could have misfired, but it is so effective and, truly, scary. Burton knows what he is doing, and uses blood the way the old Hammer horror films did; not constantly,  but when present shockingly over the top. Danny Elfman’s score for the film is also iconic, and used to great effect in this village of “Sleepy Hollow.” I have watched this version every October for many years, and will always continue to do so.

Friday, October 22, 2021

31 Days of Scary Movies: “Halloween” (1978)

 I have watched a lot of “Halloween” films this October. But none have the spot on my list the original John Carpenter film from 1978 has. Last night, it was finally time to revisit the classic that launched a thousand horror films—and quite a few of its own sequels and reboots of its own. Much ink has been spilled over the discussion of the sequels to this film—but for all the debate over which sequels are the best, or even good, even though I enjoy many of the sequels (Halloween 2, H20, the 2018 film)—the first absolutely can, and often should, stand on its own. 


I have watched this film more than a dozen times, and will watch it more than a dozen more. Young Michael Meyers murders his teenaged sister in cold blood; is institutionalized for it, and breaks out years later to return home and terrorize his small town of Haddonfield, Illinois. For all the fear in the films that come after, nothing will ever be scarier than Meyers stalking Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie and her friends through the streets of Haddonfield on Halloween night. While the low budget film which became a mega smash hit was famously shot during the summer in California—with leaves on the trees and fake fallen leaves littering the ground—I can’t think of many other films that get the feel of Halloween night as right. While the main action with Laurie takes place on a lonely street between two houses, the tension and terror is genius, and not only holds up, but delivers every time. As someone who first saw this at home and much later at the theater, this is one of the best horror films to watch in a theater; no matter how many times you have seen in, there is nothing like the rush of an audience after Michael Meyers sits up behind Laurie’s back after she thinks she has killed him.


Things that struck me again watching, as always, is how good Donald Pleasance is in this as the doctor who tries to get the world to believe Michael is evil—only to be constantly dismissed. Also, especially with the more recent sequels, what stands out most powerfully about the original is how scary Meyers is as the unknown; all we know about him is what people see as he stalks and terrorizes him, and absent of any narratives telling us he is or is not supernatural, Laurie’s question to Loomis at the end, “Was that the Bogeyman?” lingers. We don’t know if Michael  I’m ok Meyers is the bogeyman, supernatural or not; we only know that he has terrorized us, and that he is still out there. And that is the way Michael Meyers should be.



Thursday, October 21, 2021

31 Days of Scary Movies: “The Wolf Man” (1941)

  You didn’t think I wouldn’t go back to the Universal Monster movies this October, did you? I began the month with earlier Universal monster classics like Dracula, Frankenstein and his Bride; and now I watch my last official one of the project, with the star studded “The Wolf Man.” The film has a cast that reads like a who’s who of Universal Monster Movie stars. It of course has Lon Chaney Jr as the title role, but rounding out the cast in supporting roles are Bela Lugosi himself as the first Romani werewolf who passes down the curse, and also the Invisible Man himself Claude Rains as Chaney’s protective father. 

While all of the Universal movies have a special place in my haunted heart, this film is one of my favorites. That is true for many fans, and it is clear to see why. This is a tightly paced, involving and very watchable film with the terse runtime that most of the Universal films have. Coming in at under an hour and a half, it is easy to get drawn into Larry Talbot’s return to this small home town, and fall under the curse he falls into when he takes Gwen and her friend to have their fortunes told by Bela in the woods. Watching this again this year, the main thing that struck me was the romantic subplot with Gwen. Larry’s overtures to the engaged Gwen seem brazen and inappropriate by what is acceptable today, but while it would be easy to dismiss these as a product of their times, when judging the whole film, one can see that the discomfort was intended--- as everything that seems dangerous about Larry turns out to be true. Gwen’s attraction to him reads more like the complicated notes that horror characters like the Phantom of the Opera and Christine have, and their courtship is so complicated and so interesting.

 Chaney’s presence in and out of the wolfman makeup—which he wears only briefly in the film—help carry the film into horror history, and it is always a delight to watch. The supporting performances are great, as well—and how could they not be? An actor of Claude Rains talents brings so much depth to the family dynamics with Larry and his father, and while only in the film for a few scenes, Bela Lugosi as the Romani fortune teller Bela has his signature intoxicating presence as his Count Dracula—but with a fully formed and fleshed out character all his own. There is also so much atmosphere in here, with the Talbot manor, woods and Romani camps. “The Wolf Man” is, as every year, absolutely essential October viewing.




Wednesday, October 20, 2021

31 Days of Scary Movies: “The Night of the Living Dead” (1968)

Up next on the film project was the immortal classic that launched a whole new horror film genre: George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” from 1968. This film is one I have watched for over a dozen Octobers; and it never gets old. For a 53 year old film—or any film, for that matter—this one holds up surprisingly well.

 “Night of the Living Dead” has one of the best horror film openings in history. The atmosphere starts appropriately macabre, desolate and creepy— we open in a black and white world, entering an empty cemetery. Brother and sister argue about having to drive for hours to lay flowers on their father’s grave for their mother; after they do, brother teases sister about being frightened by a lone man stumbling in the distance. “They’re coming to get you, Barbara,” he teases, and enters film history as he is quickly dispatched by the man, the living dead, leaving his sister to run in terror and take refuge in a house nearby.

 Every zombie film, novel, tv show and all around story anywhere that came after owes a debt to Romero’s film. By now in 2021, we have see this zombie survival genre so many times. “The Walking Dead,” in more recent years, became one of the most successful television show of all time using this formula. So much of what is popular horror is a commentary on the time. In 1819, Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein” and fear of modern innovation drove that to become one of the greatest horror novels ever written. In the 1890s, epidemics like cholera and syphilis—as well as a fear of the other—drove Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” to similar success. And in every era that the zombie film takes off, the timeless fear of becoming mindless slaves—to our society and lives—and the fear that it could all end in an apocalypse seems to strike such a nerve.

 Watching the film again, what struck me, in unison with how well this holds up, is how simple and well-constructed this film is. In 1968, this pushed the boundaries of acceptable taste; and while a modern audience might not think twice about how horrific it is to watch a woman learn that the crisis happening involves people eating other people, the modern audience is nonetheless horrified along with the characters, as the dramatic beats the horror film hits are so successful.

 Like so many films we’ve watched on the project, “Night of the Living Dead” is the perfect way to set the mood for Halloween, and get scared—all over again—that they are coming to get you.