Even a man who's pure in heart,
And says his prayers at night,
Will become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright. From "The Wolf Man" (1940)
Listen to them. The children of the night. What music they make.
From "Dracula" (1931)
Ours is a heritage of horror. From the Salem witch trials of 1692 to the continued prevalence of superstition, fear haunts our history, our dreams, our art. Normally it stays unacknowledged. In movies, though, we indulge it, and once a year, on Halloween, we celebrate it.
This is not rational fear; not dread of the mugger, the escaped german shepherd or the unseen blind date. Good horror films bypass everyday reality as they do red-herring shocks and overbearing special effects. Masters of the genre understand that no horror they could conjure up can match that of our own imaginations.
The propensity of mindless, and endless, slasher gore-fests speaks ill of imagination today. Fortunately, video selections are not limited to today's offerings. This Halloween, you can enjoy both trick and treat with the following 10 tales of terror. You may want to keep a light on.
Dead of Night (1945, Embassy, $59.95) -- The only thing scarier than a nightmare is believing it will come true. Five gentrified Britons confront this calamity during a night of dream-telling at a spooky country manor. The episodic structure of this classic British chiller has been often imitated, never equalled (see Creepshow, Tales From the Crypt). Nor has the nail-biting finale starring Michael Redgrave as the definitive mad ventriloquist.
I Walked With a Zombie (1943, Nostalgia Merchant, $19.95) -- Hired to make low-budget horror films for RKO, producer Val Lewton realized he didn't need expensive monsters to scare people. Good writing, stylish direction and the power of suggestion would do. All three elements blend beautifully in this combination creature-feature and gothic romance. Classy nurse Frances Dee learns her handsome new employer's (Tom Conway) "sick" wife is really a zombie. A night walk through voodoo-infested Caribbean fields is an atmospheric gem.
Curse of the Demon (1958, RCA/Columbia, $69.95) -- I Walked With a Zombie director Jacques Tourneur continued the Val Lewton tradition with a fast-paced occult masterpiece. Dana Andrews plays a skeptical ghostbuster seeking a natural explanation for his friend's curse-related death. His convictions waiver when the curse falls on him. Appropriately, Columbia Studios' elaborate demon is the movie's one weak element.
Horror of Dracula (1958, Warner Brothers, $59.95) -- The most exciting vampire film ever made. England's Hammer Studios rejuvenated the anemic monster cycle (then reduced to the I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, Teenage Werewolf titles) with lavish doses of color, sex and violence, contrastingly set in Bram Stoker's Victorian age. But the real inspiration was the casting of brilliant leads Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Prof. Van Helsing. Lee and Cushing later saved many a clunker, but here they get plenty of artistic help.
The Haunting (1963, MGM, $59.95) -- A much-needed lesson in subtlety for Steven Spielberg and followers. Experts in parapsychology descend on a haunted house for their crash course on the supernatural. Lights flicker, chandeliers fall, people disappear, but is it man- or spirit-caused? Even the viewer won't know for sure, or be able to sleep peacefully later. Directed by the amazingly underrated Robert Wise (The Sound of Music, The Sand Pebbles, The Andromeda Strain, Star Trek the Motion Picture).
Halloween (1978, Media, $19.95) -- John Carpenter must be forgiven for having uncovered a bottomless pit of knife-wielding, beauty-slashing, audience-insulting psychopaths. His own writing-directing effort is highly clever and fun, as well as darn scary. The movie takes place on a single Halloween night, 15 years after some mass murders. Jamie Lee Curtis makes a luscious target, while Donald Pleasence overacts enjoyably. Ignore the two lame sequels and the horde of imitations.
Ghost Story (1981, MCA, $39.95) -- The movie version of Peter Straub's best-selling novel produced an '80s rarity: the adult ghost story. Not only does it employ nearly extinct devices such as well-developed characters, a satisfying story and suppressed sensationalism, the four wonderful stars were well over 70 when cast. Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and John Houseman play New England luminaries whose weekly ghost story sessions get enhanced by a visitation from their past.
The Evil Dead (1983, Embassy, $29.95) -- Like a prophet crying in the wilderness, young writer-director Sam Raimi forsook the quick buck of slasher-mania for an original horror vision. Amid the Fridays the 13th, nightmares on Elm Street and Texas chainsaw massacres, Raimi introduces unspeakable supernatural forces with great finesse. Horror-proud England heeded Raimi's cry: the movie was Britain's number-one selling video for much of 1984. The sequel, The Evil Dead 2: Dead Before Dawn, is also highly recommended.
The Dead Zone (1983, Paramount, $29.95) -- Stephen ("I'm going to scare you to death") King has written more than a dozen horror best-sellers. Most have been turned into movies, nearly all into horrible movies (King himself directed the worst of them, Maximum Overdrive). Only two King novels have made exceptional films, The Shining and The Dead Zone. Stanley Kubrick's interpretive The Shining (1980) went beyond the realm of horror and the scope of the book. But David Cronenberg (Scanners, The Fly) likes to stick to his genre and original material. His King adaptation is a credit to both. Taut, terse and creepy, it offers imaginative possibilities and outstanding performances by Christopher Walken, Herbert Lom and Martin Sheen.
Fright Night (1985, RCA-Columbia, $29.95) -- If you think making a good vampire film is easy these days, witness evidence to the contrary: Dracula (the Frank Langella 1979 version), The Hunger (1983), The Monster Club (1987) and The Lost Boys (1987). Not only are these bad, boring movies utterly devoid of fright or fun, they also highlight their ineptness by altering the rules of vampirism to fit their vacuous scripts. This refreshing, sexy exception pretty much plays by the rules, even if it does overdo the special effects some. Roddy McDowall is delightful as a washed-up horror film star forced to confront the undead. "Nobody believes in vampires anymore," he sighs. "All they want is demented madmen slicing up beautiful young virgins." Such a thought is truly frightening.