Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Flick or Treat

By Noel Murray and Jim Ridley

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  For the average video renter, Halloween offers an opportunity to hit the local Blockbuster and watch the same old Jason, Freddy, and Damien flicks for the umpteenth time. We like Halloween--heck, we even like Halloween--but as former clerks, we can't stand to see another pack of teenagers searching for Faces of Death while Paperhouse sits unexamined on some 99-cent shelf. The following are examples of what can happen when smart filmmakers, unfettered by expectations of a happy ending, use the horror genre to delve into dark themes and conflicted characters.

Dead of Night (1945) The five set pieces in this classic British horror anthology still echo throughout today's pop culture--in cable creep shows and in Simpsons Halloween specials, not to mention in the odd feature film. Nevertheless, the original remains fresh, thanks to the able direction (by Charles Crichton and Alberto Cavalcanti, among others), the source material (by the likes of H.G. Wells), and one virtuoso performance by Michael Redgrave, as a ventriloquist who has begun throwing more than his voice into his maniacally grinning dummy. The other ghost stories--especially those involving a mirror that reflects the past, and the man whose nightmares are coming true--are almost as chilling; but it's the puppet show that still spooks, no matter how many times it's been ripped off. (NM)

Experiment in Terror (1962) With invasion a nationwide threat, 1962 brought two memorably grim thrillers about families under attack: the brutal Cape Fear, and this lesser-known suspenser, which is just as shocking and queasily erotic. Bank clerk Lee Remick is stalked by a psycho (The Wild Wild West's Ross Martin, a vile villain) who wants her to embezzle a small fortune. Just to make sure she follows through, he singles out a target for terror--Remick's teenage sister Stefanie Powers. Director Blake Edwards made his rep as a farceur, but the way he plays Martin's leering menace against Powers' nubile vulnerability makes your skin crawl. Bonus: a Henry Mancini score that's all jazzy aggression. (JR)

Wait Until Dark (1967) Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman at the center of a cruel con game, as Alan Arkin and his criminal buddies sneak into her apartment under false pretenses to locate a doll stuffed with heroin. This classy suspense film is best remembered for its climax, wherein the principals stumble around in pitch blackness trying to kill each other. It also carries surprising emotional weight, thanks to Arkin's cunning and Hepburn's blend of pluckiness and self-pity. This is one of the rare scary movies where the audience really cares what happens to the hero (not to mention the heroin). (NM)

Theatre of Blood (1973) A Halloween without Vincent Price is like an apple without a razor blade. In this deliciously ghoulish shocker, Price plays a vindictive Shakespearean actor who avenges himself on his critics, killing them in methods derived from his greatest roles. (Gourmand Robert Morley's fate is particularly, um, unpalatable.) Diana Rigg is luscious as Price's daughter and accomplice, but Price's hammy zest is what makes this such a nasty sweet. If it's checked out, try an even better early-'70s Price vehicle, The Abominable Dr. Phibes. (JR)

Martin and Dawn of the Dead (1978) George Romero's reputation as one of the genre's few artists was secured by these twin 1978 releases, both remarkable in their scope and depth. The former is a largely interior psychodrama about a shy boy who finds self-confidence in acting out his vampire fantasies. The latter--an epic sequel to Romero's landmark Night of the Living Dead--starts with zombies overrunning the cities and ends with a small band of survivors defending their secured shopping mall from motorcycle-riding ruffians and the armies of the undead. Both films are shocking and funny in equal measure, but more astounding is their clever, insightful commentary on the deadening forces of celebrity and capitalism. (NM)

The Brood (1979) Canadian splatter-movie auteur David Cronenberg was a lot more interesting when he made movies for drive-ins instead of arthouses, and this visionary horror film ranks among his most disturbing, provocative work. At an isolated clinic, psychotherapist Oliver Reed teaches patients how to manifest mental anguish in treatable boils and lesions on their skin--a practice that may be tied to a string of grisly murders committed by hooded, mallet-wielding dwarves. It's haunting, it's terrifying, it's original, and it illustrates the governing theme of Cronenberg's work: The mind is constantly at war with the flesh, and flesh is easier to destroy. (JR)

A hell of a time Cindy Hinds gets a little crowded in The Brood

They Live (1988) John Carpenter completists generally hate this slab of satiric sci-fi, but it's one of my favorite junk movies and a sure-fire Halloween rental. Hideous aliens in human disguise have infiltrated our government and our media; our only hope is drifter Rowdy Roddy Piper, whose sunglasses can see through the aliens' mind-controlling techniques. Sure it's silly, but the laugh's on us when Piper looks at a kiosk full of newsmagazines and sees only covers marked "OBEY" and "CONFORM." (The Scene uses lead-based ink to prevent such exposure.) Classic line: "I'm here to kick ass and to chew bubble gum--and I'm all out of bubble gum." (JR)

Tremors (1990) Would that B-movies could still sneak up on audiences the way this snappy, hilarious sleeper did. An instant cult classic, Tremors evokes the spirit of cheesy monster movies without resorting to copying, parody, or mere irony. Instead, we watch appealing characters (namely Reba McEntire and Michael Gross as a survivalist couple, and Fred Ward and Kevin Bacon as big-thinking handymen) try to outthink a team of enormous, shock-sensitive killer worms. The plot is fully realized and always exciting, with quotable throwaway dialogue. The only film to come close to this low-key original's unique tone is last year's The Arrival, which would complement Tremors nicely as a deadpan double-feature. (NM)

The Witches (1990) A great Halloween movie for children from Jim Henson and novelist Roald Dahl--and the perverse, arty director Nicolas Roeg? Believe it. Vacationing youngster Jasen Fisher discovers his seaside resort is hosting a convention of witches, led by Anjelica Huston in a cackling hoot of a performance. Before he can stop their nefarious scheme, they turn him into a mouse! Henson's witches are a wonderfully scurvy lot, and Roeg has great fun with a rodent's-eye view of the world, especially in a hair-raising scene involving a ladle poised over a pot of boiling soup. A treat that won't leave a sugary aftertaste. (JR)

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