Smile Politely

Films of Halloween

What are your criteria for good solid Halloween viewing? Do you require something that makes you jump out of your skin, or just a good skeevy psychological thriller? Do you need to think about why something is frightening (modern social metaphors and the like), or do you just want a guy with a [insert type of knife or farming implement here] to spring out of the darkness?

Or are clowns your thing?

In preparing this year’s list of unsettling films for your Halloween consideration, Smile Politely’s film writers (Chike, Thom, and Mathew) have applied their own standards for what makes a good horror film. Some are family-friendly and sentimental (more treat than trick), while others lay the dread on thick; some feature more blood than a Marilyn Manson photo shoot, while others just make you wanna squirm.

Happy reading, happy readers. And feel free to leave us your suggestions as we offer our suggestions for an evening in on Halloween.



Casper is one of my favorite Halloween movies. Cat (Christina Ricci) proves to be an endearing protagonist. Cat’s dad (Bill Pullman) shows signs he is still in mourning over the death of his wife. While the notion of death isn’t handled in a particularly sensitive way, the emotion the human characters feel over the loss of Cat’s mother feels remarkably genuine. As for Casper the titular ghost, the CGI effects on the ghost were incredible when the film was released but feel a bit dated in comparison to more recent effects-heavy films. What does ring true in this film is the way the friendship between Casper and Cat is developed and displayed. The opening scene of the movie is priceless. Definitely check this classic out. (CK)


Rob Zombie’s Halloween is great for one very basic reason: the story feels frighteningly real. You feel like Zombie’s version of Michael Myers could exist in the world we live in. Yes, there are horror clichés that occur in this film, but they don’t detract from the level of uneasiness you feel watching Myers hunt and kill his victims. I love the frantic nature of the film, and Scout Compton (who replaces Jamie Lee Curtis as lead Laurie Strode) fights back much sooner than in Carpenter’s version. I have a horror soft spot for this dark Rob Zombie flick. (CK)

Hocus Pocus

There is no logical reason for anyone to enjoy the Disney film Hocus Pocus. And yet, I do. The film, which stars Sarah Jessica Parker, Bette Midler, and Kathy Najimy, tells the tale of three witches who are cursed to wake up in the modern world and attempt to steal children’s souls to retain their youth. The three lead actresses do a comical job of playing villains (Midler in particular); meanwhile, a young Thora Birch (well before her American Beauty fame) plays a character who, while annoying, is the only character you feel for throughout the film. She’s the one the witches want and are trying to capture. She isn’t even the lead character, and she outshines everyone in the film. I love this film because it teachers older siblings to value their younger siblings. This film is comically bewitching and deserves a rewatch on Halloween. (CK)

Session 9

Amongst my friends, I have a reputation for enjoying “fucked up shit.” The novels I read tend to involve vivisection, drug abuse, and a tinge of romance; the plays Idirect tend to questions man’s humanity and look at what lies beneath the rocks we use to cover our tracks; and the television I DVR is not happy or funny…it’s the stuff that makes you drink some coffee at midnight and refuse to go to sleep. In short, I am a depressing bastard, and it takes a lot to rattle me. Session 9 rattled me. This is the story of a haz-mat crew cleaning up a condemned mental institution and stumbling upon the reel-to-reel audio-taped sessions of a notorious patient with dissociative identity disorder. It is deceptively simple from the onset—just some guys working a job. This crew is trapped in a Hell built from mundane and repetitive tasks, so you aren’t sure how their world can get much bleaker; and yet it does. As the team cleans and the tapes play, you realize there’s more than just insanity at work here, and the tale gets darker and darker until the gates of Hell are fully revealed. And not just because one of the film’s lead characters is portrayed by David Caruso. (In fact, he’s remarkably subdued and believable.) The atmosphere and simplicity of this tale reel you in and cast a potent spell of the many ways we mask our insanity in our current world. I was so unnerved after my first viewing of this film (during a late night television binge) that I called a friend in L.A. to talk me down until the sun came up and all of my demons scurried safely back under the furniture they nest under in the daylight. The demons we all share are a major component of Session 9, and if you check this out, don’t say I didn’t warn you! (TS)

American Horror Story: Asylum

My second All Hallow’s Eve selection is the second season of the hit FX anthology series American Horror Story. Co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have hit horror gold with a concept lifted from the early days of television: cast a strong ensemble of performers and have them become a repertory company performing a different storyline and set of characters each season. In a recent interview on Sundance’s The Writer’s Room, Murphy said the strength of this concept is, “It allows our story to become operatic and our company to trust in the extremes we put them through because eventually they will all die by the last episode of each season.” Thestories also examine what contemporary audiences find truly horrific. The first season, titled American Horror Story: Murder House, examines the disintegration of a family through infidelity and loss. It’s high camp horror and a lot of fun, though at times Jessica Lange’s Constance seems to be more of a drag queen vehicle than an actual character. Season two, American Horror Story: Asylum, is more traditionally horrifying and focuses on stories spanning from the early 1960s to present day. The theme explored in season two is How do we define sanity? This intriguing question explores serial killers, Nazis, necrophilia, alien abductions, evil nuns, mommy issues, the ex-gay movements roots in early psychoanalysis, and the Catholic Church.  The effect is a roller coaster ride through our contemporary id, and it’s a helluva ride! Jessica Lange kills (pun intended) as a stern nun with a colorful past, and Emmy winner James Cromwell portrays such an evil Nazi war criminal that one can imagine Hitler calling him aside and saying, “Chill, dude!” My new acting god, Lily Rabe, does double duty as a dimwitted nun who gets really smart after an exorcism goes horribly wrong; and Zachary Quinto and Evan Peters provide the monster and the soul of the season in equal measures. The tour-de-force performance of the season however, is Sarah Paulson as Lana Winters, an ambitious lesbian reporter who gets trapped in the insanity of Asylum. One of the most disturbing scenes in this season is a moment where Lana, desperate to escape her captivity, agrees to a gay re-education session with Quinto’s kindly shrink. The session is both nauseating and horrific and embodies the genre power and social commentary that this series can create. Set in a Catholic mental institution in the early 1960s, we see many of our current life choices were grounds for confinement and barbaric treatment by both the church and the mental health communities of the day. A multi-episode arc rather than a two-hour movie, this is a marathon of horror. It makes you think and squeal, and it is guaranteed to make you wonder What the fuck? at least twice as the storyline veers closer and closer to the forbidden…then jumps right on it and makes the forbidden its bitch. (TS)

Unhappy Birthday

My third film is a little-known queer cinema option made in Britain in 2011. Unhappy Birthday is a pansexual homage to The Wicker Man and Hammer House of Horrors. Set in the remote tidal isle of Amen, this atmospheric  story of urban dwellers trapped in an unfamiliar and merciless community of freaks will definitely give you a chill.  A polyamorous trio—Sadie, Rick, and Jonny—set off on a birthday adventure tomeet the family of the woman who gave baby Sadie up for adoption. Sadie is a fragile thing who dresses a lot like a Sam’s Club Cyndi Lauper and demands a lot of attention. When the boys get tired of her whining, they tend to get into kinky fun with each other while Sadie mopes and has dark visions of their doomed futures. The trio’s couplings are not all above board (i.e. not every encounter is sanctioned by every member of the group) so dramatic revelations are a secret away. When they encounter the creepy Corinne on the waterlogged isle, it soon becomes apparent that this place—which only has limited tidal access to the mainland—was once home to a polygamous cult, led by a religious zealot who wanted loads of babies to help usher in the end times. Add to that a viral infertility epidemic amongst the men folk of the isle and a preggers Sadie, and the fun ensues! Corrine is played to creepy perfection by Jill Riddiford, and the rest of the cast is equally effective. This film gains its chills from a creepy community of zealots and an environment full of fog and shifting sea lines, all of which make this subtle nightmare for modern thirtysomethings both haunting and cringe-inducing. (TS)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

Okay, haters gonna hate, but I really dug this reboot of the classic franchise! Written by Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer and directed by Samuel Bayer, the 2010 version has the liberty of being a lot more straight-up about Freddy’s pre-ghoul evil, makingthe reveals of how Freddy bought it much more twisted and morally ambiguous than the original. The dreams are equally revved by our current knowledge of child victimization and the lasting impact of these acts of abuse, and Jackie Earle Haley’s Freddy is less a campy jokester and more an embodiment of evil. His performance is very creepy and well modulated, with a pervy leer added for stomach-churning fun. The cast is a strong ensemble of future A-Listers, including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Rooney Mara, Red State’s Kyle Gallner,  Arrow’s Katie Cassidy, Kaboom’s Thomas Dekker, Twilight’s Kellan Lutz, and American Horror Story: Murder House’s Connie Britton doing some pretty creepy shit! There are images in this film that are much more haunting than anything found in the original, and the cinematography is much more sophisticated than its cheesy predecessor. Why do I like it? First off, it’s honest and complex. What is only hinted at in the original is realized in this version. Also, it has some truly haunting moments, including: Gallner, quivering and vulnerable in a Speedo as he witnesses the vigilante justice that created Freddy; and Mara drifting into her final nightmare in her best kindergarten dress and Mary Janes. And one of the creepiest lines in recent memory is delivered by the demonic Kruger: “Did you know that after the heart stops beating, the brain can function for well over seven minutes?  We got six minutes more to play!” AND SCENE, with Dekker’s wet, blood-curdling scream as final punctuation! I know how we all worship the originals of our formative horror movies, but give this one a shot and have a harrowing Halloween! (TS)

28 Days Later
Okay, be honest, you had to know this one was coming. Because, no matter what your particular yardstick is for horror movies, this one makes the list. Is it scary?Check. Is it compelling in that holy shit what if this happened what would I do sort of way? Check. Add to that, ladies and gentlemen, the introduction of the Fast Zombie. (And yes, I realize that these are not technically zombies but rather rage-infected humans no longer in control of themselves, but whatever. Fast Zombies. Yahtzee.) Danny Boyle, the audacious director, might not have realized that he was inspiring a whole new generation of scary movies (not to mention The Walking Dead comic and TV show), but he did, and we should all be grateful. Because, at the end of the day (or the end of this movie, at least), we are the monsters. People. Emotions. Unchecked hate. And sometimes the people trying to survive the plague are more dangerous than the plague itself. (MG)
The Lost Boys
This is a sentimental favorite for me. If memory serves, I found it so cool (at the age of 12) that it broke me of my fear of vampires and horror flicks. Added to which, I think any list of Halloween films should include a good vampire story. And this one’s a doozy. First of all, you want sexy teenage vampires? Forget Twilight. Check out Kiefer Sutherland and his merry men. There are shocks, laughs, and a truly kick-ass pop song by INXS. This film might mark Corey Haim’s last good performance, and it must be recognized that this movie might have the best final line in the history of film. You be the judge. (MG)

A very important category, among horror films, is the film that knows it is ridiculous and therefore refuses to take itself too seriously. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not talking about a bad film. No no no no. I mean that rarer jewel: the film that realizes it has gone well over the line and just…revels in it. With that in mind, I happily submit for your consideration James Gunn’s Slither. In this film, a barely famous Nathan Fillion (of the JossWhedonverse) stars as a small-town sheriff trying to make sense of an infestation that results in some of the most grotesque special effects I have ever seen. Along for the ride are a pre-comedy-fame Elizabeth Banks (as the damsel-in-distress) and The Walking Dead‘s Michael Rooker (as, well, the distress). Insanely creepy, laugh-out-loud funny, and endlessly entertaining, Slither is well worth your time.
And now for the one you haven’t heard of… I’ve been a fan of this film ever since I heard the concept: In a remote town, people have begun committing inexplicable acts of violence. What is making them behave this way? The explanation is as fascinating as it is improbable; and the claustrophobic conditions of the film (abasement radio station from which the characters never emerge) only add to the tension. For a small-town radio DJ (played by the perfect Stephen McHattie) who learns of the horrific problem as the audience does, words are the only way to make sense of it all. To gather information. To spread warnings and information. But what if the wrong words only make it worse. This has an element of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast to it, and its one-room setting would seem to make it perfect fodder for a one-set, one-act play. If you can find this film (DVD, Netflix), I highly recommend it. Like others to whom I have recommended it, you might come away frustrated or, well, flat-out angry with me. But you also just might have a new addition to your list of favorites. (MG)

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