Monday, October 29, 2007

Where have all the ghost stories gone?

I don't really get that into Halloween. Carving pumpkins is fun, and trick or treating is okay for little kids. But I really hate giving candy to the adolescents who show up at my door having put minimal effort into a "costume" consisting of a hoodie and a mask they bought at Spencer's.

And I hate spook houses. Nothing but a cheap trick designed to get girls to grab onto guys who lack the guts to actually make a move. The same goes for horror films---a genre which these days has degenerated into one of two things: 1) a boring, not-scary, not-suspenseful blood fest, or 2) uncreative occult creepiness. It has been many years since we had a horror film that stood on its own two feet for suspense. The common practice now is to use gore or satanism as a crutch for scariness.

But it was not always so. There used to be ghost stories. Most of the great scary stories are folktales too old for authorship. Look at the Brothers Grimm (the real brothers, not that filmic abomoination)---their collection of Germanic folktales isn't all princesses and fairies. In fact, those fairy tales go more to the gothic and the sublime than the picturesque. Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle, a classic spook tale, drew heavily on this Germanic legacy. So also did Lord Byron when he proposed a ghost-story-telling contest to his guests one dreary Genevan summer. That challenge spawned both the Frankenstein and the Vampire traditions---now Halloween staples. These stories create fantastic worlds of supernatural mystery that ooze the essence of the gothic and the sublime. They are a far cry from the contemporary blood-soaked and gore-splattered plotless excuses that make their perennial appearance on HBO.

But before it devolved into that, there was a golden age of horror film. The Wolfman, the Mummy, Frankenstein's monster, and Count Dracula were the golden boys of that golden age. Those films struck a perfect balance between spooky and fun---just spooky enough to make your skin crawl, but not so violent or evil that you feel sick. Most importantly, they had characters and plots. And they had their stars as well. Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi stood astride the narrow world as two legs of the great campy colossus that was the horror genre. Vincent Price wasn't far behind.

Aside from also redefining the music video genre, Michael Jackson's Thriller is also a great tribute to that golden age. Watch the video. It's chock-full of the landmarks of camp: the 50's dress, the convertible, the misty night, the frightened girl, and Jackson's agonized transformation into a were-wolf (although if you ask me, it looks more like a were-cat, which is odd, but somehow fitting). If you pay attention in Thriller, you see Vincent Price's name on the marquee outside the theatre. And yes, that is Vincent Price doing the spoken word incantation that brings the zombies out to dance.

Thriller is a nice tribute. But my favorite is the granddaddy of Halloween horror spoofs, Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein. Ghostbusters is of course genius, but can that count as a Halloween flic? I'm not so sure. The gothic darkness of Batman jives well with Halloween, I suppose, but I think its safe to say that the Bat fits more squarely in the superhero genre than the Halloween pile. I suppose the two Halloween greats of the 1990s were Interview with the Vampire and Blair Witch, but neither one takes my breath away.

So what are the best Halloween movies of all time? What was the last Halloween movie that wasn't a plotless slasher?


The Shark said...

I agree: if you want a good, spooky flick, you gotta go with the older films. They did a much better job of being scary without leaving you feel empty and cold inside at the end, and they were creative to boot.

"Nosferatu" is one of the earliest horror flicks, the predecessor of every vampire flick ever made since. It's a silent movie, and it starts off somewhat boring, but I have to admit that it had me on the edge of my seat at times. The monster that haunts the characters in this story isn't over-the-top scary, but the filmmakers worked with the limits of early cinema to effectively tell their story (for example, the monster's makeup is nothing compared to what we can do today, but the limits of lower-quality cameras back then cover this up; I also feel that this brings a refreshing sense of simplicity to the tale).

More recently, "The Mummy" (2000, I think) is one of my favorites of the monster-dramas. It's more of an Indiana Jones-esque action/adventure film, but the first few times I saw it I was on the edge of my seat with anticipation at parts, and the Mummy can be a spooky character at times. Too bad the movie has resulted in an awful prequel and a horrible sequel (and a third part, which will MAY be more watchable thanks to a new mummy villain portrayed by Jet Li... but don't count on it).

"It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" is also up there, but that's a given.

Cabeza said...

It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is by far the best Halloween movie ever. And it's only 30 minutes! My favorite parts are those involving Snoopy acting as a downed Allied WWI flying ace behind enemy lines in the French countryside. I love the eerie music and the intensity with which Snoopy imagines everything. And his march to Sherman's rendition of "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" is classic.

I also really, really like Arsenic and Old Lace, another comedy. It wasn't originally intended as such, but the film version opens with titles reading "A Halloween Tale," so I count it. A classic comedy about two charitably murderous old aunts.

As far as actual spooky, suspensful thrillers go, I would probably say that The Sixth Sense would get my vote for the last great "Halloween" movie made. It was sincerely creepy without being gratuitously violent, and featured top-notch performances by Haley-Joel Osment and Bruce Willis. When I'm in the mood for a scare, I watch that one, or perhaps Wait Until Dark. Alan Arkin is arguably one of the greatest creepy movie villains of all time.

Cabeza said...

Another mark for Arsenic and Old Lace: when it originally ran on Broadway, Boris Karloff acted in the role of Jonathan Brewster, the character that everyone else seems to think looks like Boris Karloff.

bwebster said...

My top three Halloween movies of all time are:

The Lady in White (1988) with a young Lucas Hass (the film actually starts at Halloween);

The Changeling (1979) with George C. Scott (this remains my favorite ghost story movie of all time); and

The Haunting (1963) with Julie Harris (the most terrifying movie I ever saw as a kid, though it seems quite a bit tamer 40 years later).

Speaking of The Haunting...the novella it's based upon, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, may well be the finest English-language ghost story ever put to paper. Opening paragraph:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Gives me gooseflesh just typing that. ..bruce..

JKC said...

It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is definitely on the list.

I like The Mummy, but I don't think it can fairly be called a Halloween movie.

Arenic and Old Lace is definitely a good one.

I guess Sixth Sense is a Halloween movie, but my first reaction was to call it a generalized thriller. It deals with the supernatural, but in a very sterile, almost scientific way. You don't really get the mystery and spookiness of the golden age of horror.