In my column last week I wrote, "Halloween movies are better than Christmas movies." To me the truth of that statement is self-evident, but I got a couple of emails all the same. My correspondents can have The Bishop's Wife and It's a Wonderful Life (although that second title, I wish to point out, at times offers a view of humanity almost as bleak and scary as anything we associate with Halloween). As proof of my stated thesis, I offer this list of thirteen top-drawer horror titles, all available on video or DVD. Pick up a couple for the holiday.
1. The Innocents This 1961 adaptation of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw isn't the polite affair that its year and pedigree imply — and it's so much scarier than anything Hollywood has had to offer in the past several years that nothing meriting the comparison comes to mind. I'm not saying that it's quaintly scary; I'm saying that it's fucking scary.
2. Don't Look Now I offer this 1973 Nicolas Roeg feature both for the audacity of its (non-)resolution and as a way of plugging his chilly, high-style 1975 sci-fi picture The Man Who Fell to Earth. David Bowie plays the alien in the second title, a casting triumph that explains itself.
3. Family Plot For the squeamish, this final Alfred Hitchcock film is more caper than thriller, following the exploits of a phony psychic and her "driver." It's a wonderful, light kiss-off to a vaunted career. 1976.
4. The Eternal Evil of Asia In Hong Kong the ratings board reserves Category III for films with too much sex and violence and no redeeming relevance. Track down this 1995 gem about contemporary witchcraft and I guarantee you'll know what hit you.
5. Repulsion Frame for frame it's Roman Polanski's most frightening film; acknowledge, please, that that's a mouthful. Catherine Deneuve comes unhinged over the course of a long weekend in her London flat. 1965. (If you can't locate it in time for Halloween, 1976's The Tenant will do.)
6. Häxan Un-banned at last throughout the world — for once you can rent it in England — this macabre little 1922 silent details witchcraft practices through history, with emphasis placed on the grisly details.
7. 13 Ghosts The 1960 original was shown with glasses that allowed viewers to see the ghosts (look through the red part) or not (look through the green). Will cheese from 2006 be as much fun in 46 years? I doubt it.
8. The Old Dark House James Whale, maker of Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and other enviable classics, turned in his masterpiece with this perfect blend of horror and comedy from 1932. I number it among my ten favorite films in any genre; it would still read as weird and sophisticated if released today. Live however you like, but do not miss this great film.
9. The Stepfather The franchise deteriorated into self-parody, but this 1987 original remains the pinnacle of eighties B-movie horror.
10. Funny Games For the connoisseur. Michael Haneke (Caché) disembowels the slasher genre; the audience begs for it to end. There's no way to understand what you're in for when you load this one in the DVD player. 1997.
11. Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula A one-two punch of in-name-only Andy Warhol outings (Paul Morrissey actually directed), these exquisitely straight-faced freakshow parodies leave even post-modern audiences puzzled. Was this the birth of accidental relevance? Joe Dallesandro, naked from head to toe, is worth the rental price for some. From 1973 and 1974.
12. Progeny This 1998 sci-fi picture never found an audience. Why? It's an exemplary genre piece with palpable thrills, but it's also credible as a reworking of the Immaculate Conception story (here it's Joseph, not Mary, who's quickened into Heaven). A terrific and original film.
13. Clownhouse An eerily accurate portrait of how brothers interact (the director would later run into trouble along these lines) and the scariest movie that I know of about everyone's pet phobia: clowns. Lock those doors. 1989.