Tales From The Kitsch: 3 Films To Watch This Halloween
I might be a little biased since my career goal as a child was to be a vampire, but in my opinion, Halloween is by far the best holiday. People of all stripes can enjoy it. Jews, Christians, Muslim, Atheists, Hellenists, and toad lickers can all come together, dress up, and enjoy free candy and drunken revelry. Seriously (pronounced “SIR-US-LEE”) who doesn’t love Halloween? I’ll even admit that costume creation comes before my academics during the last week of October (you didn't read that, USC Law). Like other holidays, there’s an entire culture that surrounds Halloween. There are only two types of music you should listen to during October: Béla Bartók’s Hungarian/Transylvanian folk music -inspired string pieces, or the music of Bernard Herrmann. The only appropriate cookies to eat this time of year are ginger-molasses, the only appropriate beverage is apple cider, and the only appropriate movies are horror movies.
The following films are not all terrifying, though some are genuinely scary. And all are camp classics that are perfect for the Halloween season.
Before Sam Raimi did the god-awful Spiderman movies, he made these bizarre, low-budget films. They follow the misadventures of Michigan State student Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) as he fights demons from ancient Sumeria that have been released by the Necronomicon ex-Mortis, flashes of H. P. Lovecraft.
Plot: In the first, lowest budgeted, film Ash and his three friends go into a remote forest cabin in the hills of Tennessee. There they find “The Book of the Dead” (which does not become the Necronomicon until the next film), a book whose pages are made of human flesh and inked in human blood. They also find taped recordings of the professor who initially found the book reading incantations from it. The recording, in turn, releases a horde of demons upon the house and surrounding woods. One by one, Ash’s friends are picked off and possessed until he alone has to fight the evil spirits (with moderate success).
Thanks to new funding, the sequel is more of a re-imagining of the first film than a traditional sequel. The events of the first film are sort of ignored and it begins with Ash and his girlfriend going to the same cabin and, again, finding the book and tapes and releasing the demons, all in the first fifteen minutes. His girlfriend is taken over by the demons and he must battle her until the aforementioned professor’s daughter comes looking for her father, along with a few locals. In the course of this everyone except for Ash becomes possessed and Ash loses his hand and replaces it with a chainsaw. Eventually he seems to defeat the demons…but is then transported back in time.
The third film, “Army of Darkness,” finds Ash back in the Middle Ages, where Lord Arthur and his men are searching for the Necronomicon so they can defeat the demons that are plaguing their land. A wise man declares that only Ash can find the book, so off he goes, eventually accidentally releasing the Army of Darkness. Obviously he and Lord Arthur’s small band of soldiers must now fight this demon army, yada yada yada.
Cast: Oh sure, there is a cast, but do you need to know about anyone other than Bruce Campbell?
Highlights: If you only have time to watch one of these movies, I recommend the second most highly. It has the perfect mix of comedy and horror, plus the stop-motion animation, head-less body (of who I won’t say) doing a ballet dance is pretty hilarious. Also inspired is the casting of Sam Raimi’s brother Ted as the head demon “Possessed Henrietta,” mortem wife of Professor Knowby. That said, all these movies are classics in their own right and deserve your attention at some point.
Scariness Rating: 7/10 Sure, things jump out at you a lot and a tree rapes someone (don’t ask), but honestly, these effects are so hilariously bad you should not get that scared.
For a truly scary movie perhaps I could have recommended “Mommy Dearest,” but instead of mocking Joan “Eyebrows” Crawford, I decided to include one of her most sympathetic roles on my list. Anytime you get Betty Davis and Joan Crawford in the same movie you know that you are in for a treat. Throw in murder, intrigue, and sadism, and you just might have a perfect Halloween camp classic.
Plot: In the prologue we learn that back in the old vaudeville days, Baby Jane Hudson was a star, worthy of a Sarah Siddons Award. She was spoiled and cruel and picked on her sister Blanche. As the two grow up, Jane’s celebrity fades and Blanche becomes a film star. One dark night, a car accident, seemingly Jane's fault, cripples Blanche and permanently forces Jane to take care of her hated sister. Cut to the “present” (the early 1960s when the film was made) to a dilapidated Hollywood mansion where reclusive Jane (Davis) is a cruel keeper to her crippled sister Blanche (Crawford). Blanche is a virtual prisoner in the manor and we quickly see that Jane is losing her grip on sanity as she shows increasingly violent, murderous tendencies. Obviously this movie has a twist ending. Obviously!
Cast: Not since Paris was forced to decide which goddess to give the golden apple to have two divas of such magnitude competed in so close a forum. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are both powerhouse actresses and titans on the screen. Victor Buono, Anna Lee, and Maidie Norman are all on hand, but they are little more than set pieces, eclipsed Davis and Crawford. That’s generally a good thing.
Highlights: Jane serving the horrified Blanche cooked rat for “din-din” and Jane’s disturbing rendition of “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” certainly typify this film.
Scariness Rating: 7/10. Betty Davis’ make-up, a cross between a banshee and Medusa, will make even the manliest, red-meat eating lumberjack cry for his mama.
When I was little, I would peruse the horror section of my local video store, Video World. Usually reading the backs of the boxes would give me a sort of cheap thrill; at 6, 7, and 8 I was too young to rent the movies, but the pictures and descriptions on the back were usually enough to freak me out. “Sleepaway Camp,” I remember, had a particularly hokey motif for its back-of-the-box summary. It was written as a letter home by some poor camper who is implicitly killed midway through writing. Even as a 7-year-old I knew this was lame. This movie, however, is terrifying — by far the scariest on the list. I watch a lot of horror films and this is the only one I can remember since I was about 12 that really unnerved me.
Plot: Made in that heyday of slasher films, the early 1980s, the film has a really strange beginning. Young Angela is at the lake with her brother Peter, her father John and her father’s male lover (this was pretty shocking for the ‘80s). In a freak water-skiing accident, Peter and John are killed, and the orphaned Angela must go to live with her weird Aunt Martha and her cousin Ricky. Eight years later, Angela and Ricky head off to summer camp where Angela is subsequently harassed by the other kids, though she does find a summer crush. A string of murders hits the camp, and young children and employees alike are brutally murdered in graphic and sadistic ways. Honestly the movie is all pretty standard fare until about the last 5-10 minutes, when this bizarre trolly takes a sharp turn from “ho-hum horror” to “What the eff just happened?! Get Dr. Rosenzweig on the phone; I need to talk to her now or I won’t be able to sleep tonight” territory. I don’t want to ruin anything for you; just watch the movie and prepare to be traumatized (although this warning might be enough to pre-empt the otherwise traumatic shock).
Cast: Sienna Miller, Matt Damon, Lily Tomlin, Lucy Liu, Sir Ian McKellan, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jane Lynch….just kidding. “Desiree Gould, Christopher Collet, Felissa Rose etc.” Have you heard of any of these people? Obviously not. They’re completely irrelevant to the point of this movie.
Highlights: The end; this moving is nothing without the end. Well that and Aunt Martha, who should have gotten her own spin-off.
Scariness Rating: 10/10. I considered honoring the hokey VHS box with a “666/10” rating, but that seemed a little much.
There you have it, a number of films to go out and watch. Just head on down to Video Paradisio in the Village (support local business!) and fill your Halloween weekend, all with varying levels of laughs and loathing. Thanks to daylight-savings this week you all have an extra hour, which means there is no excuse for not watching one of these to get into the spirit of Halloween.