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Creepy Treats: Frighteningly Good Halloween Movies

Not everyone likes to go out on Halloween. The stress of finding a suitably cool costume can be a real strain on the creative faculties, and some people would rather not be bothered. Some people would rather celebrate the spirit of Halloween in a more intimate and artistic fashion; say, at home in your jack-o-lantern pajamas with a big bowl of peanut butter cups and mini Snickers bars by your side scaring yourself silly with a good old horror flick. For these people, I have compiled a list of my personal favorite Halloween movies.

Now, I am not a big fan of the genre in general, and I can be very picky about what is artistically acceptable and what is not (i.e., the difference between those movies which cause me to contemplate the subtle emergence of beauty from horror and those which cause me to wet my pants). I have never liked those movies, which seem to be the majority of horror flicks on the market, that get their chief effect from gory make-up and the flying body parts of young sorority girls. Such sensationalism causes a reaction that is more nervous than mental, like someone jumping out at you from a darkened room or a close brush with one of those Dianetics people. The response is strong, but short-lived. I always end feeling more embarrassed than scared when I react this way. It’s a cheap and gratuitous sensation that most horror flicks dole out. The horror movies I like are those that are more psychological and atmospheric. Rather than elicit a brief gasp, they tend to slowly build up a creepy sensation that spreads along the spine. I find such movies to be not only more artistically satisfying, but also more genuinely frightening. Here are a few of the horror movies that I feel exemplify the type. Take ’em or leave ’em.

The indisputable classic is, of course, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Featuring a disturbingly over-the-top performance by Jack Nicholson, this tale of a haunted hotel is both a probing study of the isolation of the artist and the impulse toward madness and destruction imbedded in the creative mind as well as a stunning visual experience. All of Kubrick’s signature moves are used to full effect here: his use of symmetrical composition and creeping tracking shots, his gaudy, unexpected imagery (the flood of blood that hurls in slow motion from an unmanned elevator, for example) and his innovative use of sound for atmospheric effect (the sound of a young boy’s tricycle rolling across alternate stretches of wood floor and carpet creates more weird tension than any traditional soundtrack could). Even his penchant for stilted dialogue and mannered performances lends to the air of disassociation. Plus, those two freakish girls are hands down the scariest thing I have ever seen.

Even more garishly stylized is Dario Argento’s masterpiece Suspiria. Here, an exchange student, hoping to study at a prestigious European dance school, enters a Kafkaesque world of sideshow characters and deadly conspiracy. From the very first scene, in which the hapless heroine exits a moodily lit airport to a perfectly timed flash of lightening and gust of wind, the film is hard at work transforming horror movie clichés into poetry, using the camera to show old images in a fresh way. Argento works on an aggressively theatrical level that emphasizes the unreality of his material: the characters, much like Kubrick’s, are flat ciphers spewing dialogue that serves either to explicate the plot or as cryptic, quasi-poetic nonsense. The film is decidedly campy, and it would be laughable if it were not for Argento’s genius in pushing the falseness so far that it becomes a convincingly terrifying alternate reality. Argento’s use of symmetry may be even more sublime than Kubrick’s, and his eye for dramatic lighting, bold colors, and extravagant setting border on the baroque. No other filmmaker has been able to make art out of the grisly and grotesque the way Argento does; it’s an ability frightening to contemplate in and of itself.

Equally stylized, but far more subdued, is Werner Herzog’s re-make of the classic German vampire film Nosferatu. More mesmerizing than terrifying, Herzog’s film is rich with lingering images of natural elements and exudes a sense of stillness, silence and contemplation. It is a vampire movie from the vampire’s point of view; it themes are the isolated longing of a tortured soul and the emptiness of eternity rather than the quick destruction of the monster. Klaus Kinski’s performance in the title role is delicate and complex. His vampire is ultimately pathetic, and when he finally meets his end, the viewer experiences the moment as one of compassion rather than relief. Herzog deserves credit for making a naturalist horror movie. It is no small feat. Many of the images are startling and full of an unexplainable beauty. Overall, it is one of the boldest and most fascinating takes on the horror movie I have ever seen.

Fans of television’s “Twin Peaks” will remember how oddly lovely and emotionally unsettling that show was. Director David Lynch’s feature film “prequel” to the series, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, takes the strengths of the show to the tenth power. Abandoning narrative structure more aggressively than any Lynch film since Eraserhead, Fire Walk With Me operates almost entirely on dream logic, compounding image with strange image until a network of symbols creates a meaning that cannot be explained but is powerfully sensed. Far from being abstract, this tactic hits the viewer on an immediately emotional level, bypassing the intellect. Perhaps what is most terrifying is that we don’t know why we are feeling what we are feeling when we watch this film. Admittedly, it is a very difficult film to watch. There is something about it that lays the nerves bare. The climax of the movie, which I will not divulge in case you have not seen the show, is utterly heartbreaking. Lynch has always been a master of finding beauty in human ugliness and compassion in the revolting, and in Fire Walk With Me he excels even himself.

All of these movies share several common elements. Each of them takes as its premise a stock situation from the horror genre and reinvents it in a highly stylized way (the haunted house in The Shining, the evil cult in Suspiria, the vampire in Nosferatu, the serial killer in Fire Walk With Me). Each reveals the unique vision of a masterful artist who refuses to make concessions to his audience. More importantly, each of these movies is legitimately scary. These films work so well because they go beyond the shock-schlock tactics of the blood-and-guts school to explore the subterranean psychological caverns where the deepest, most fundamental, human fears lurk in our collectively repressed unconscious. They are never about what they claim to be about; they are really about the state of fear itself. They have the unquantifiable, and inarguable power of nightmares. Like nightmares, the fear they induce cannot be talked, or laughed, away. The effect of these films escapes analysis in the end because they already lie so far outside the rational that the usual brush-off-“It’s only a movie; it isn’t real”-does nothing to dispel our doubts. Such films are frightening because they are unreal, because they are irrational. They tap into that irrational state of mind we all share when we toss and turn in our sleep. Like nightmares, they are not easily put to bed. They are so terrifying for the fact that, against all reason, we cannot stop believing in them and, even more disturbingly, cannot help finding them beautiful. These are creepy treats, indeed.