The Shining (1980)

The Shining

In the bigger scheme of things I have no idea what this film is about and I don’t know anyone who does. It started as an adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel but it evolved into something he disliked intensely.  It boasts a key performance in Jack Nicholson’s career – in which those eyebrows are utilised to express something truly demonic and he launched a million caricatures not least when he hymned Johnny Carson.  The bones of King’s novel are here – wannabe writer Jack Torrance decamps with wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and little son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado mountains to act as caretaker in the off season, hoping to overcome writer’s block. His son has psychic premonitions, possessed by the building itself, which however do not manage to overwhelm him and he shares their secrets with chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) with whom he communicates telepathically. Then Jack senses the hotel’s secrets – it’s built on a Native American burial ground – and he starts to lose his mind as we begin to connect the dots with a party that took place in 1921 and a photograph …  What happens here is not as important as how it looks.  Stanley Kubrick and co-writer Diane Johnson remove all the tropes that characterise the haunted house novel and we are left with overlit flatness and unsaturated colours that repeat and repeat and create their own rhythm. There are images that sear themselves on your brain:  the elevator pouring blood into those endless corridors that get longer and longer as Danny cycles up and down the hotel;  the twin Grady girls; the bar that suddenly opens up;  the nubile young woman who turns into an old crone; Wendy finding out what Jack’s been typing for months and months on those sheaves of paper;  Danny’s voice, growling red rum, red rum;  and Jack hacking through the bathroom door with an ax as Wendy cowers; Jack killing Dick, whose return to the hotel is because he senses that Danny needs him; the maze filling with snow as Danny tries to escape his lunatic father. Kubrick’s authorial vision produces something very odd and compelling and against the notion of the traditional horror film, perhaps minus all those strange theories promulgated by the documentary Room 237 which has a major preoccupation with presumed spatial discrepancies in the building’s layout. This is notable for Garret Brown’s use of the Steadicam, another instance of Kubrick’s obsession with using all the then-new technology to create powerful visuals. This production may have arisen from the master’s deep need to make a commercial hit after the failure of the beautiful Barry Lyndon, but one thing’s for sure about this ghost story like no other – once seen, never forgotten. Here’s Johnny!

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Beetlejuice (1988)

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Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are the young couple living in rackety splendour in rural Connecticut but their death in a car crash on a covered bridge stymies their plans for kids. Their return to the house springs a surprise when they realise they’re dead and Sylvia Sidney materialises as their ghostly caseworker. When a nauseating yuppie family – Jeffrey Jones, second wife Catherine O’Hara and Winona Ryder as gloomy goth girl Lydia – moves in, their attempts at haunting them fail miserably. So they summon up self-promoting troublemaker Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton) from the other side to try and get rid of them permanently – with surprising results when Lydia tunes into their wavelength and would prefer to have them as her parents. Tim Burton does a sensational job with a screenplay originally written by Michael McDowell and rewritten by producer Larry Wilson and Warren Skaaren. Bizarre, funny, good-natured and fizzing with effects and wonderful performances, especially Keaton’s, this is probably the best ghost story from the perspective of the ghosts themselves that you’ll ever see! Say it three times to see what happens – Beetlejuice. Beetlejuice.  Bee….!!!!

A Place of One’s Own (1945)

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An old house in the country. Creaking boards. Flickering lights. Things that go bump in the night…  I’m there. This Gothic melodrama from Gainsborough originated in a 1942 novel by Osbert Sitwell and was adapted by Brock Williams to fit the mode so popular in the wartime period. James Mason was a huge star and insisted on playing the retired husband to Barbara Mullen, both of them wearing makeup to dramatically age for the parts. Directed by Bernard Knowles, Mason put much of the film’s disappointing end result down to their miscasting (blame his pliant father in law, the studio boss) and Knowles’ infatuation with Citizen Kane and those uninterrupted long shots without the redeeming features of a brilliant script or cast. However the haunting, the love story between doctor Dennis Price and young Margaret Lockwood, the couple’s companion who is possessed by a girl murdered 40 years earlier, and the sustained eerieness, remain  quite cogent and provide fiercely atmospheric chills just in time for Christmas. With Dulcie Gray, Moore Marriott and Ernest Thesiger in the ensemble for a production which makes excellent use of Chopin, Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Gungl, all arranged by Hubert Bath.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973) (TVM)

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Old houses are spooky, aren’t they? And mine scared the hell out of me and my guests when I first moved in – with floors settling, wind whistling down the chimneys and the TV going on and off of its own accord …  Sally (Kim Darby) moves into her folks’ old Victorian and it’s not long before she’s pulling open the bricked-up fireplace in the basement which she plans to turn into a study despite the carpenter’s advice to leave well alone. He’s been around a long time and knows things about the place. She carries on and soon there are voices calling to her and creatures visiting her and hubby Alex (Jim Hutton) thinks she’s going crazy.She humiliates herself at a dinner for his business colleagues when a creature materialises under the table but only she can see it:  Alex agrees to sell up. When he returns from a trip to San Francisco the realtor has died falling down the staircase and Kim’s got wire scars on her hands – she says the creatures were holding cord when they tripped him up thinking they were getting her … This is of course the legendary cult TVM that inspired Guillermo del Toro to the point where he rewrote it and produced his own version in 2011.  Written by Nigel McKeand and directed by John Newland with editorial supervision by Gene Fowler Jr. There really are creatures living in the house and they want her.Sally! Sally!

Something Evil (1972)

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Between Duel and Sugarland Express, Steven Spielberg made this TVM, one of those seriously scary event-movies that prove the television audience was made of tougher stuff forty-plus years ago.  Adman Darren McGavin along with artist wife Sandy Dennis and two youngsters, Johnny Whitaker and toddler daughter, relocate from NYC to rural Pennsylvania. She is haunted by curious sounds of children crying in the night – and they’re not hers. At least not in the beginning. Old Jeff Corey kills chickens and spreads their blood around the garden, and neighbour Ralph Bellamy (a reference to Rosemary’s Baby) is the diabolist who warns her she’s in the wrong house. Hubby shoots an ad at the house and two of his colleagues die in a car crash leaving the property. He stays more and more in the city and things go from hellish to hell:  that red goo in the masonry jar is not gelatin and a negative of the ad shows a pair of red eyes peering out from the house during the commercial shoot …  While this shows the budgetary constraints, there are enough tropes in the staging and the imaginative shooting style to exhibit some of the traits we now see clearly in the more lauded work of the enfant terrible, who spent 5 years of his career in TV. Sandy Dennis is great as the woman falling apart and who can even bear to think of little Johnny Whitaker levitating? Bring a cushion – for hiding, duh.

Bates Motel 2013-

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There can be no doubt as to Alfred Hitchcock’s incredible influence on culture and cinema and the great mould-breaker of them all was Psycho (1960). It changed the way films were made. Partly because Hitchcock had been making such a success of his career in TV. In the mid-1950s Hitchcock began a different phase of his career: the Film Director as Superstar.  He inhabited every American living room with the success of his weekly TV suspense series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, in an extraordinarily profitable deal negotiated by superagent Lew Wasserman.The director commented that “the invention of television can be compared to the introduction of indoor plumbing.  Fundamentally it brought no change to the public’s habits. It simply eliminated the necessity of leaving the house.”  Now everybody’s home was subject to a weekly fright night. Or, as Peter Conrad puts it, “Hitchcock brought fear home to us.”  Psycho would have its own double, triple, quadrupled life form as it multiplied and sequelised.  The second sequel was directed by Anthony Perkins, Norman Bates himself, doubling as star, and the original even got its own cover version, directed by Gus Van Sant in 1998 with the approval of Pat Hitchcock. It has been prequelised in TV series Bates Motel (Universal, 2013-).  Far from being the wack job that such a concept suggests, according to Stephen Rebello, Hitchcock had hoped to make a prequel to the film and discussed it with Robert Bloch.  (Rebello, 2013:  188) That didn’t come to fruition in his lifetime – but it has in ours, and thank goodness for it. It differs from Psycho IV:  The Beginning. Moving the action to Oregon in the Pacific North West, we are in Twin Peaks country and the series, now concluding Season 4, has all the hallmarks of lessons well-learned. Season 1 focuses on the move to the fabled haunted house, with Mom Norma (!) and son Norman, still in high school, trying to make a go of the business while a proposed bypass will bring traffic in the opposite direction. Dad died mysteriously in Arizona. A man attacks Norma, she kills him and Norman helps her get rid of the body. In Season Two Norman gets way too close to his teacher who winds up … dead. Another son shows up, Dylan. We get the strong whiff of incest. In Season Three, Norman’s close friendship with a girl is paralleled with his mental disintegration and the Sheriff who’d been close to Norma distances himself. In Season Four, Norman is introduced at full throttle drag and things are really heating up after he’s released from a local mental hospital. There is SO much more but those are the bones of it. Season Five is promising the appearance of a certain Marion Crane – which is where we all came in! This is A&E’s most successful scripted show and it is stunningly constructed. At the heart of it is the relationship between Norma and Norman:  the bravura performances of Vera Farmiga (executive producer) and Freddie Highmore as the creepily co-dependent deluded psychotic duo are just part of an extraordinarily brave hybrid of remake, sequel and prequel developed by Carlton Cuse, Kerry Ehrin and Anthony Cipriano. Hitchcock’s fright night lives.  Roll on Season 5! I cannot WAIT!

The Hearse (1980)

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City girl Trish Van Devere moves to the country for the summer vaykay after her marriage ends and the neighbours terrorize her. So far, so relatable. Except the house she lives in belonged to her late aunt who was a practising witch. And the guy she’s now dating … wants a companion for eternal life! There really is a madwoman in the attic here and this guy keeps following her in a hearse. But is she losing her mind? Haunted house meets woman in jeopardy here. The Exorcist has a lot to answer for. Joseph Cotten makes one of his last appearances as the local attorney, Perry Lang is memorable as the kid with a crush and handily there’s a weird priest to get rid of the damn devil.

Season of the Witch

Top Halloween Movies

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 I got the chills and they’re multiplyin’!  ‘Tis the season to get … scared out of your wits!  Here are some of my favourite movies to get in the mood for the coming of the witches… as the spirit moves you.

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Halloween (1978) d. John Carpenter

The scariest movie ever … maybe.

                           

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 The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) d. James Whale

Practically perfect in every way.

 

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 The Fog (1980) d. John Carpenter

See this in its original widescreen incarnation not the pan/scan TV version. Beautiful ghost story, genuinely eerie. A logical conclusion to THE BIRDS.

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The Uninvited (1944) d. Lewis Allen

So Rebecca-ish it’s spooky. From the novel by Irish Republican Dorothy Macardle.

 

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 Meet Me In St Louis (1944) d. Vincente Minnelli

Little Tootie goes wild and Judy gets melancholy. The most gorgeous film ever made.

 

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 Freaks (1932) d. Tod Browning

Once seen, never forgotten.

                      

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 The Craft (1996)  d. Andrew Fleming

Great Mean Girls scenario, terrific performances.

 

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 Le Streghe/Witches (1967) d. Bolognini, De Sica, Pasolini, Visconti, Rossi.

An extraordinary lineup of  Italian directors. Watch out for Clint Eastwood and Helmut Berger when he first ‘encountered’ Visconti (memorialized somewhat scandalously by the inimitable Dirk Bogarde…) A portmanteau compendium of many aesthetic pleasures.

 

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Practical Magic (1998) d. Griffin Dunne

Nicole Kidman when she was still recognizable. Cute adaptation of the Alice Hoffman novel. Both stars went on to become Academy Award winners. Sadly not for this!

 

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 E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) d. Steven Spielberg

The essence of wonder.  I want one!

                           

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Scream (1996) d. Wes Craven

Postmodernism for everyone. Great screenplay by Kevin Williamson, Craven does mainstream. Boo!

      

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The Devil-Doll (1936) d. Tod Browning

Another freak scene from the great Browning.

 

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 The Haunting (1963) d. Robert Wise

Brilliant adaptation of the terrifying novel by Shirley Jackson. Julie Harris was never better; Claire Bloom was at her amazing peak.

   

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Young Frankenstein  (1974) d. Mel Brooks

The publicity is right – it IS the funniest film ever!

 

 

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The Innocents (1961) d. Jack Clayton

Still the best James interpretation.  Chilling.

 

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Salem’s Lot (1979) d. Tobe Hooper

I know, I know, it’s not a movie but it’s the scariest thing that’s ever been on TV. And that’s official And if I didn’t include it, I would spend my Halloween in dread of something horrible coming through the window…

 

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Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens  (1922) d. F.W. Murnau

A great film by one of the great filmmakers. Simply unmissable. (And Herzog’s re-interpretation isn’t bad for a moonlit night, either).

 

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Vampyr (1932) d. Carl Dreyer

And in the same vein …(ahem) my favourite Dreyer film, about the enigmatic Allen Gray and his adventures in the countryside.

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The Lost Boys (1987) d. Joel Schumacher

Still the best contemporary vampire movie … and what a closing line!!!

 

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The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) d. Henry Selick

Pretty Burton pictures and a lovely tale of Jack Skellington. As close as we can get to a modern Edward Gorey, probably.

                     

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Pumpkin Moon (2006)

Lovely story, beautifully told from the picture book by Preston and Batram.  Don’t allow your cat to watch it tho’. This used to be screened on Sky One … sigh.

         

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It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966) d. Bill Melendez

And speaking of pumpkins …

        

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  Happy Halloween!