October is a strange time to be a horrorphile. On the one hand, the passion for horror movies that we harbor all year long graduates from esoteric hobby to universally shared interest for 31 days. On the other hand, we see the same dozen movies, admittedly the classics, paraded off the dustier side of the DVD shelves of the seasonal fan. Most of this is due to the simple comfort of familiarity, like any other holiday tradition, but also these films are tested to be within the limits of what they can stomach. For those who aren’t avid consumers, horror is one of the most difficult genres in which to branch out. There are so many varying levels of violence and extremity of content that if it isn’t your particular cup of tea to begin with, even if you feel the inclination to branch out, it can be difficult to know where to begin.
I have assembled a list of titles from the incredible Warner Archives to help you find just those jumping off points and provide an alternative Halloween lineup. If you aren’t familiar with Warner Archives, and you desire gaining a more adept knowledge of film history, you should acquaint yourself post haste. It is a service that allows you to order films from Warner Brother’s extensive film archives that have heretofore been unreleased on DVD. The discs you selected are created upon your request so don’t expect to find these titles in the stores. You can visit their site for more information.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)
Dir: John Newland
Starring: Kim Darby, Jim Hutton
Synopsis: A couple moves into a home they have just inherited only to find that it is already inhabited. Dark, miniature creatures living within the walls do everything they can to steal the wife and make her a permanent fixture.
What It Has Going For It: There are plenty of great made-for-TV horror films that either go largely unnoticed or are highly regarded to the point that people forget they were made for TV. An example of the latter would be something like Stephen King’s IT while Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark resides comfortably in both categories. This movie is deeply atmospheric and deceptively terrifying considering its inability to fall back on the gore trope. As a made-for-TV movie, it has a tame level of violence suited to even the most squeamish fledgling horrorphile.
Best If You Like: Haunted house movies, movies with very little violence, Gremlins, the original True Grit (of which Darby was the star), 2010’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (the Guillermo del Toro produced remake starring Katie Holmes).
Dir: Russell Mulcahy
Starring: Gregory Harrison, Arkie Whiteley, Bill Kerr
Synopsis: Set in Australia, this creature feature revolves around an enormous killer warthog that has been wreaking havoc on the citizenry of the outback. The husband of a missing American journalist travels to the Australian wilderness to investigate his wife’s disappearance and must team with eccentric hunter to stop the beast.
What It Has Going For It: When you hear that Razorback is a movie about, essentially, a killer pig, a fair amount of skepticism toward the movie will undoubtedly creep into your mind. But Razorback is not merely an exploitation film, it’s also an experiment in visual styles that bounces between rip-roaring action horror, and surreal art film. It’s an immensely interesting film experience.
Best If You Like: Jaws, Lake Placid, Ridley Scott movies (trust me), Mad Max
Dir: William Castle
Starring: William Prince, Jim Backus, Christine White
Synopsis: When a local town doctor’s ineptitude is blamed for the deaths of a local magnate’s daughters, an unknown madman kidnaps the doc’s little girl and buries her alive. The doctor has precious little to find her before she suffocates.
What It Has Going For It: Macacbre is an early horror effort for William Castle, a man who would go down in history as one of the masters of b-movies…especially b-horror. Castle was famous for creating silly, low-budget fright fests with over-the-top marketing gimmicks. If he could add “-o’rama” to the end of anything, he would. For Macabre, we went so far as to have Lloyd’s of London issue certificates for $1,000 insurance policies in case any audience members died of fright during the film. But oddly enough, Macabre is conceptually one of Castle’s darkest and most severe films. Knowing a little girl is buried alive effectively ratchets up the tension from the get-go.
Best If You Like: Buried, any number of Ashley Judd thriller vehicles, the Paranormal Activity films--those and several other found footage movies are operating on a gimmick level reminiscent of William Castle’s antics. There is also a similarity between Castle’s films and the Paranormal Activity franchise in that they both do a hell of a lot with very little money.
A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987)
Dir: Larry Cohen
Starring: Michael Moriarity, Samuel Fuller, Andrew Duggan
Synopsis: A man traveling with his son ventures into the small town of Salem’s Lot. Unfortunately, every single citizen of this tiny hamlet is a vampire. Learning that our hero is an anthropologist, the vampires try and convince him to write their history…their bible. They are prepared to turn his son into one of the legion of the undead if he refuses.
What It Has Going For It: This will probably be the toughest sell of the lot (no pun intended). Larry Cohen is legendary for his schlocky horror films (The Stuff, It’s Alive, Q The Winged Serpent) and this sequel to the made-for-TV Tobe-Hooper-directed Salem’s Lot is miles away from the original in quality. But if you appreciate cheesy movies and are looking for a good selection for, say, a bad movie party, this film is a gem. It also offers some incredible low-budget practical effects and a completely manic performance by Hollywood whackjob Michael Moriarty. Sometimes you have to watch the bad movies to appreciate what makes the goods ones work.
Best If You Like: Salem’s Lot, Daybreakers (another movie about entire vampire civilizations), Troll 2, The Thing (’82) for its grisly chic effects, or any of the innumerable Nicolas Cage films of late featuring his unrestrained, insane performances. Or if you happen to be a fan of the early seasons of Law & Order, Moriarty played Ben Stone for nearly 100 episodes.
Black Zoo (1963)
Dir: Robert Gordon
Starring: Michael Gough, Jeanne Cooper, Rod Lauren
Synopsis: An animal lover with his own zoo is fiercely protective of it. If anyone intrudes upon his way of life or the safety and comfort of his precious pets, he uses them to take out the interlopers once and for all. He sends a panther to kill an interfering journalist and dispatches a greedy land developer with a ferocious lion. Will anyone be able to stop, and cage, this madman?
What It Has Going For It: Black Zoo is a wild film that manages to be horrifying without being explicit. There is very little blood in the film, as it was made in the 60s, and yet it features some truly brutal animal attacks. The movie also features a marked measure of weirdness that proves it doesn’t take itself too seriously; the two scenes leaping immediately to mind are that of the tiger soul transferring ceremony and the smoking chimpanzee. But the real reason to watch this film is Michael Gough. He plays the proprietor of the titular menagerie with equal parts charming reserve and towering rage to the point where you find yourself constantly wondering which is the more savage beast, the animals or their master.
Best If You Like: Any movies featuring attacking animals, The Birds, The Ghost and the Darkness, classic mystery stories, or any of the first four Batman films (Michael Gough played Alfred the butler in those films). Here again, Black Zoo is also great for those who don’t care much for graphic violence.