The Cynical Optimist : Halloween Edition

It’s that time of the year when doors creak a little louder than usual, and the bright orange glow of jack-o’-lanterns on porches illuminate moving shapes in the bushes. Never mind those trick-or-treaters with their brightly colored masks and daunting bags begging for candy, turn off the lights and spend the night watching some great horror flicks.

In this edition of the Cynical Optimist, I’ll introduce you to some of my favorite horror films to get you in the mood for Halloween. The problem with making such a list is that, more than likely it will be a catalog of safe choices – classics that would be at the top of any horror fan’s roll call – but I’m going to try and shake up the classics a bit with some remakes, and recent horror films that have been truly horrifying, which is a rare treat for Halloween in itself.

#10 Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)

Wes Craven’s 1984 horror classic features the gruesome child murderer Freddy Krueger, who takes revenge on the lynch mob that killed him by entering the dreams of their children, continuing his mad and macabre obsession while they sleep soundly in their beds.

Robert Englund’s sadistic fedora-wearing character has been forever immortalized in the annals of horror, and what better way to honor Krueger than by getting a large group of friends together to behold his ‘finger knives’ scratching their way towards the children of Springwood.

After all, every town has an Elm Street…

#9 Night of the Living Dead (1990)

Tom Savini’s remake of George Romero’s 1968 black-and-white classic begins in a cemetery as the dead rise from their tombs and begin to walk among the living. Personally, I find the 1990 remake to be superior in many ways to Romero’s original low-budget shocker.

Tony Todd and Patricia Tallman give fantastic performances in the iconic roles of Ben and Barbara and special effects makeup guru Tom Savini’s direction pays homage to Romero’s film while giving those with a lust for gore plenty of new-aged spectacles to gag upon.

#8 Planet Terror (2007)

Quentin Tarintino and Robert Rodriguez present homage to exploitation B-movie thrillers with two feature-length segments into one double-bill designed to replicate the grind house theatergoing experience of the 70s and 80s. Unfortunately the Weinstein Brothers haven’t released these films in one collection yet, so you’ll have to pick them up separately.

In Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror,” a small-town sheriffs’ department has to deal with an outbreak of murderous, infected people called “sickos.” Meanwhile, a machine gun-legged woman named Cherry (Rose McGowan) and her martial arts-wielding partner (Freddy Rodriguez) take on the zombie army.

#7 Christine (1983)

Based on the best-selling novel by Stephen King, John Carpenter’s 1983 adaptation of “Christine” is a personal favorite.

#6 El Orfanato (2007)

“The Orphanage,” directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, tells the story of Laura (Belén Rueda), who buys her childhood orphanage with hopes of restoring and reopening the long deserted facility as a home for disabled children. Once there, Laura discovers that the new environment awakens her son’s imagination, but the ongoing make-belive games he plays with an invisible friend quickly turn into something more disturbing.

Executive producer Guillermo del Toro’s romantically dreadful atmosphere – filled with creaking stairways and hidden rooms – supplemented by a wonderful script by Sergio G. Sanchez makes “The Orphanage” one of the best horror films in recent years. It makes me think of my own childhood, and how easy it was to believe in the fantastic. “The Orphange” has captured that magic and mystery of living in the wonderful world of make-believe.

#5 The Shining (1980)

Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of “The Shining” is one of the best “haunted house” films around, second only to Robert Wises “The Haunting,” with Tobe Hooper’s “Poltergeist” bringing up a strong 3rd place.

“The Shining” tells the story of the Torrance family, who heads to the isolated Overlook Hotel for the winter where an evil and spiritual presence influences father Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) into violence, while his psychic son Danny sees horrific forebodings from the past and of the future.

Kubrick’s film is a horror masterpiece and manages to still scare the Hell out of audiences 26 years later.

#4 The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Mary Shelley, author of “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus,” reveals to Percy Shelley and Lord Byron that Dr. Frankenstein and his Monster did not die. As the new story begins, Henry wants nothing more than to settle into a peaceful life with his new bride. Sounds great, huh? Well everything’s going splendid until his old professor, the sinister Dr. Pretorius, shows up out of the blue. Pretorius and The Monster blackmail Doc Frankenstein into continuing his work, as The Monster wants a friend. Pretorius, meanwhile, wants to see dead tissue become a living, breathing woman – thus, Henry is forced to give his creature a bride.

“The Bride of Frankenstein” just might be the best of Universal’s impressive horror iconography. While it may not be as memorable as “Dracula” or “Frankenstein,” it certainly is a step above in terms of quality and story. If you’re looking to enjoy a true classic, worthy of staying up late and stuffing yourself with candy corn and Reese’s cups, then there’s only one option.

#3 The Mist (2007)

In “The Mist,” a Stephen King novella adapted by writer / director Frank Darabont, a freak storm unleashes bloodthirsty creatures on a rural Maine town, where a small band of citizens take shelter in a supermarket and fight for their lives.

Another Stephen King adaptation, you might ask? Well, while most film adaptations of his works are dreadful and poorly done, I think I’ve done a pretty damn good job at picking out three of the best King horror flicks – although “Creepshow” is certainly fun. Plain and simple, “The Mist” is scary and reminiscent of those classic ‘50s horror classics like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “The Thing from Another World.”

It’s one of the best horror films in the past 20 years, and that is the result of the collaboration between King and Darabont, who also adapted “The Green Mile” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” Darabont understands King’s work and has put a lot of time and care into bringing “The Mist” to the screen, and it shows.

#2 The Exorcist (1973)

Often called the scariest film of all time, “The Exorcist” is a disturbing, shocking horror story about possession and the subsequent exorcism of demonic spirits from a young girl named Regan (Linda Blair).

The controversial nature of the film’s content is based upon an authentic, nearly two-month long exorcism performed in 1949 on a 14-year old boy in Mt. Rainier, Maryland by the Catholic Church. With demons and religious issues aside, “The Exorcist” also packs a punch with its blasphemies, obscenities and altogether startling physical scares.

You’ll never think of pea soup the same again…

#1 Halloween (1978)

This 1978 horror film by John Carpenter introduced the “slasher film” as its own entity. On a rather quiet Halloween night in Haddonfield, Illinois in 1963, six-year-old Michael Myers brutally murdered his teenage sister.

Now after rotting in an institution for 15 years, Myers has broken free and is going back to his hometown. Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) must track down the silent stalker before the Haddonfield is nothing more than a graveyard. “Halloween” introduced Jamie Lee Curtis, the all-time scream queen herself, as babysitter Laurie Strode and also starred P.J. Soles of “Carrie” fame.

This Halloween, turn off all the lights and give in to the Godfather of Slasher – Michael Myers. He’s the strong and silent type, with a butcher knife in one hand and an unyielding sense of determination to finish what he started as a young boy. You’ve got to admire that!