Friday, October 26, 2012

Friday Favorites - Halloween Movies - the silly and the scary

I'm not a fan or horror movie.  I don't like being creeped out, nor do I like blood and gore, and, well, horror itself is not one of my favorite emotions.  Suspense, great, but not horror.

But at Halloween, you like a good spook, and I have a few favorites to tell you about:

Arsenic and Old Lace

This is the ultimate Halloween comedy.  Intelligent, silly, scary, great script, great performances.  It started as a hit play on Broadway, and  the script is so good that if you get the chance to see it done in local or even amateur theater, you can be sure it will be fun.  The script carries the day, even when the actors are just mumbling their lines.

However, the movie does not have mumbling or awkward actors: the movie is hip deep in not only great stars, but great character actors, even down to the minor roles.  Cary Grant, Peter Lorre and Raymond Massey headline, but the supporting cast is all top character actors from Jack Carson to Edward Everett Horton.  And John Alexander and Josephine Hull and Jean Adair.  Even bit parts have people of skill, if not fame, such as Charles Lane playing one of the reporters in the opening.  The romantic interest was played by Priscilla Lane, who was always underused in every movie she was ever in, but this one at least made good use of her comic talents.

And each of these actors (and a few I haven't mentioned) continually steal all the scenes from each other.  And the play was written so that they all could steal every scene. It's a free for all of scenery chewing. 

The story revolves around Mortimer Brewster's wedding night.  He's got he marriage license, he's trying to elope, but he stops home to tell his two sweet, darling maiden aunts about it... only to find that someone in his sweetly loopy family is murdering people.  It's probably his delusional brother Teddy, who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt, or ... maybe not.  As Mortimer slowly comes to the realization that his whole family is much more crazy than he imagined, complications pile on faster and faster until Mortimer is quite sure he himself is the craziest of all.  And no one, not one other person, realizes what is driving him batty. (Except perhaps his other brother, the incredibly dangerous Jonathan Brewster.)

The whole movie is a delight, and one of the best examples of a screwball comedy out there.

There are other great silly movies for Halloween, also-rans might be anything to do with the Addams Family, and also most of the Abbott and Costello Meet (name your monster).  A and C tend toward the Scooby-Do end of low brow.

Wait Until Dark

Wait Until Dark is a great suspense film, and has one of the great scary moments in movie history (though it may not be as scary to modern film-goers, because it has been imitated since).  It's one of the seventy flicks on my top ten list.

It was also a stage play first, and the intelligence and misdirection shows.  It has a good cast, but the show is stolen by Alan Arkin, who was only on his second feature role.  I know people these days see him as having a particular "Alan Arkin" persona, but back then, he was a chameleon, playing a very different character in every role.  In Wait Until Dark, he plays Roat, a cold sociopath who believes a blind woman (Audrey Hepburn) has something he wants.  He engineers a night of misdirection and terror.  He is smart, manipulative, and holds all the cards, but he meets his match in this woman whose life is all about coping.

It's a great one not only for watching plot mechanics and watching actors act, but also for seeing how the writing enables the actors in their characterization. (That's true of Arsenic and Old Lace as well.)

The Haunting (1963)

This is the only actual horror movie on my list.  But it's a horror movie of another era, atmospheric, beautiful, spooky -- and pretty much all psychological horror.  It's a lot like a John Bellairs novel.  There is nothing icky or gruesome about it (unlike the remakes).  Still, it'll scare the bejabbers out of you, and if you don't take well to the whole horror thing, it can give you nightmares.

One of the ways it does this is because it relies on the ways we scare ourselves and creep ourselves out.  When you were a kid, did you ever stay in a spooky old house, and you could see the face of a monster in the wall paper or a stain on the ceiling, and it creeped you out so bad you had nightmares? That's what this movie is about. There aren't any slashers. The walls don't run with blood. But it's still a house that was "born bad."

It was directed by Robert Wise, whose career I can't even describe.  Anything from Run Silent, Run Deep (about submarines in WWII) to The Sound of Music, to The Sand Pebbles (one of Steve McQueen's great roles), to the first Star Trek movie.  He had a great way of putting the intimate together with grandeur.  In this case, though, the Wise-touch was particularly in the cinematography. This picture, unlike any of the ones listed above, take place on a smaller stage -- a single house -- but through sheer artistry (camera angles, lighting, set decoration, editing and sound) he makes this house into a character which steals the show from the actors.  It's beautiful and weird and menacing and creepy all at once.

Night of the Hunter

This is not a horror film, but it is suspense, and there is a touch of weird and creepy to it that makes it a Halloween flick to me.

It was directed by Charles Laughton, who was an artiste, of the effusively snobbish order.  So even though it's a suspense film, it's also literary and artsy, and probably a little slow for most people used to modern American films.  It's got the pace of a European film, actually, and those who like the newest wave of interesting directors will certainly love this.  It reminds me of the Coen Brothers when they are serious (but not too serious).  It reminds me of Guillermo del Toro a little too.

The story is mostly straight forward, though.  Two young children. Their father died in prison, their mother is kind of useless and hopeless.  A charming preacher man comes to town, played by Robert Mitchum in one of his most iconic villain roles, and he sweeps the mother off her feet and becomes the scary step-father. Eventually the children are on the run on their own, with him tracking them down... because he believes they hold the secret to a fortune.

The story becomes like a fairytale or folktale, full of symbol and cinematic moments, as our little Hansel and Gretel run form the Big Bad Wolf.  Building up to the climax comes one of the great moments in movie history, which Mitchum stalks a house where the children have taken refuge, singing a hymn beautifully, as Lillian Gish, who is defending the house against him, joins in harmony.  Here's the clip on YouTube: Night of the Hunter - Leaning.

An interesting bit of trivia on that clip: the Coen Brothers chose to play that hymn over the final credits of their remake of True Grit.  While it is something of a commentary on the ending of the film, I suspect it's also something of an homage to this classic film.  I have no doubt that the Coens were influenced by that picture.

There are certainly lots of other great flicks for Halloween out there, anything from the camp horror of The Blob, to other classics, like Psycho.  But the above are my favorites.

See you in the funny papers.


David Michael said...

In what has to be a sign of my inadequate cultural education as a child, I saw a high school production of "Arsenic & Old Lace" before I ever saw the movie. I loved the high school version, and, of course, the movie is amazing. You just can't go wrong with that one. =)


The Daring Novelist said...

That's the great thing about it: you can be introduced in multiple ways. Seeing it first as a play is a fine cultural education!

Hunter F. Goss said...

Two of my favorites for Halloween are 'The Mummy' from 1932 and 'The Black Cat' from 1934. Both are what have to be termed 'old school' horror movies that pair suspense and atmosphere to accomplish the goal of putting the audience on the edge of their seats. No real blood and gore in the sense we think of them now.

And even the simple special effects f the day still stand the test of time when taken in context of what the directors were trying to accomplish.

The Daring Novelist said...

Hmmm, I'm kinda in the mood for old school suspense. I'll look those up... (I think I've seen The Mummy, but not The Black Cat.)

Hunter F. Goss said...

'The Black Cat' is definitely worth a look. It was Universal's first picture that partnered Boris Karloff with Bela Lugosi.

The film's sets are done in a (then groundbreaking) Bauhaus/Art Deco theme that itself becomes one of the cast - - the contrast of gothic suspense and horror played against a backdrop of clean and modern design instead of a creepy old castle. It just makes the psychological elements stand out even more.