October- my favorite month, and, in a sense, place. I have a form of synesthesia in which the months of the year are perceived as twelve separate places. October is the place where Halloween is located, and Horror films become ubiquitous. Horror- my favorite genre, along with Noir. And so, in no particular order, I share with you thirteen of my favorites:
(1) “The Haunting”- This 1963 black and white gem, based on the Shirley Jackson novel “The Haunting Of Hill House” and directed by Robert Wise, is a masterpiece of evocation and suggestion. Some truly terrorizing moments, and nary a drop of blood spilled.
(2) “The Pit And The Pendulum”- Of all of the Poe stories on which Roger Corman based his films, in my mind this 1961 production is the best. Pre CGI, the dream like image of Castle Medina seen from afar at the movie’s beginning, and the thundering waves crashing against the rocks are indelible in my memory.This film blends elements of Gothic, Surrealism and Expressionism, with unnerving music rivaling anything heard in Psycho- and, of course, there is Vincent Price in his operatic prime.
(3) “The Cat People”- In the Forties Val Lewton, perhaps the most artistic of all producers, partnered with the brilliant director Jacques Tourneur in creating a series of black and white horror films. All are slow paced and noir-like, and the sense of dread ferments at a crawl, until…. As in the “Haunting,” the carnage awaits in the shadows of the viewer’s mind. “The Cat People” is the duo’s nocturnal masterpiece.
(4) “The Innocents”- Another black and white from 1961, this film is based on Henry James’ enigmatic novel “The Turn Of The Screw.” The great debate: is the estate in which Miss Giddens is governess to two very odd children really haunted, or is she a sexually repressed hysteric? You make the call- and don’t miss perhaps the most controversial screen kiss of all time.
(5) “The Wicker Man”- From 1973 and written by the great Anthony Schafer, famous for creating characters who act as dueling ideologues in their dialogue (in this case, the Christian vs the Pagan.) We’re in the month of Samhain- guess which side wins.
(6) “The Exorcist”- I almost don’t need to say anymore. This movie has become archetypal, with ludicrous imitations ad nauseam. Again, less is more, with the big pay off reserved for the end.
(7) “The Ninth Gate’- An almost sinfully underrated horror flick, perhaps due to the director’s moral taint. Filmed in multiple countries, with Johnny Depp and Frank Langella at their best. I’ve actually deluded myself into believing I alone truly understand this movie.
(8) “Rosemary’s Baby”- Another Polanski masterpiece, from 1968 before he became a moral pariah. Based on Ira Levin’s novel. Think evil disguised as mundane. Who knows what your obnoxious neighbors are really up to. Surely Mia Farrow’s best work.
(9) “The Bride Of Frankenstein”- James Whale’s exquisite and superior sequel to his 1933 classic. The image of the electrified bride played to Gothic perfection by Elsa Lanchester is indelibly etched in the collective psyche.
(10) “Dracula”- The 1979 John Badham version starring Frank Langella. The charming count, finally redefined by Langella as a capital R Romantic tragic hero, played to the hilt with Byronesque panache. And that incredible score.
(11)”Curse Of The Demon” – Jacques Tourneur at the end of his horror mastery (1957). A skeptical psychologist (Dana Andrews) investigates Devil worship and curses in Britain. Tourneur’s flare for dreamlike night scenes and understated horror was never any better.
(12) “Freaks”- Tod Browning’s infamous masterpiece. A pre-code black and white, circa 1932, utilizing actors with actual abnormalities (microcephaly, conjoined twins, people born sans limbs etc.) Just short of banned, the film was suppressed for several years. Basically a betrayal and revenge movie, the original ending would be considered horrifically excessive even by today’s standards.
(13) “I Walked With A Zombie”- Another Lewton/Tourneur tour de force effort from 1943. The story is based on Jane Eyre, and displays an elegance unusual even for Tourneur. Many of Tourneur’s films were given tawdry, lurid titles such as this one for marketing reasons. Ironic in that this genius redefined and elevated the entire genre.