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Halloween Movie Showcase: What To Watch When You Want To Be Scared

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When you’re looking for that perfect Halloween movie, consider more psychological shock than senseless schlock for scares, like the quintessential classics — Psycho, (skip the 1998 shot-for-shot remake), The Shining, and the sci-fi classic Alien, where "no one can hear you scream in space."

You can also find recent releases on home video like Monster House (definitely would’ve been rated PG-13 if filmed as a live action) and these recommended films:

The Ring is an unforgettable thriller with a unique ending. Based on the 1998 Japanese film, Ringu, the plot works with a small number of characters so the audience concentrates on the themes, actions, and environments instead of the people. The theme involves a jolting prediction — watch this videotape and you'll die in seven days! Before you die, you'll see the ring. The action comes from actress Naomi Watts (King Kong) who stars as Rachel, a journalist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Her son, Aidan, and acquaintance Noah play essential roles as Rachel investigates the circumstances of her niece’s death at her sister’s request. Mysterious incidents related to various media produce the mystery and morbid intrigue. Once these characters become directly involved, the plot shifts to a day-by-day timeline and there are startling revelations in store. The scariest PG-13 movie so far.

Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins perform a delicate crime ballet in Silence of the Lambs, which won the top five Oscar categories (only two films had previously achieved that status). This drama/horror/thriller involves a female FBI agent seeking the help of legendary serial killer Hannibal Lecter to find and arrest a mass murderer nicknamed Buffalo Bill, played by Ted Levine (of TV's Monk). Jonathan Demme directs a dark film wonderfully painted by Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography. An essential film to see, but not for people easily scared or disturbed.

The Blair Witch Project is one huge roller coaster of a movie due to the dizzying "home movie" style camerawork. The content, an increasingly frightening experience with little gore, complements the shooting style perfectly to make a lethal combination that's good for scares, but possibly too much for the senses. The three characters try to make a documentary about a local curse, but soon they're cursing and screaming as they react to situations unknown.

Take that point literally. The actors themselves were only given small notes about their characters during filming which has created a loose, non-scripted style of moviemaking that anyone who has made home movies can admire. Recommended for the scares, but there's no script and it definitely shows. This movie changes camping the way Jaws influenced swimming in the ocean.

“The whole time I was in that house, I felt something was wrong.”

Japanese director/writer Takashi Shimizu retools his 2003 film Ju-On: The Grudge with new screenwriter Stephen Susco. It’s a scary thriller, but the chaotic plot needs a lot of work. It begins well with helpful text descriptions then quickly sets the stage for the first encounter/resolution before opening credits end. The next sequence engages the audience into the subplots (What would make a man do that? Why won’t the elderly lady talk?), but then delves into flashbacks and a confusing, non-chronological timeline. The plot sets up a lot of genuine scares, but won’t seem as innovative especially if you’ve seen the U.S. remake of Ringu (The Ring).

The memorable special effects, disturbing visuals and creepy sounds really make the film worthwhile. You’re never quite prepared for some of the best scares that include frightening video footage from a surveillance camera. Shimizu uses visual cues (like that familiar hallway), shot depth, and perspective to set up the scares and environment as the characters are transplanted to Tokyo and their involvement with a mysterious house with a disturbing history.

Sarah Michelle Gellar stars as Karen, a new student in Tokyo who has wanted to come to Japan forever, but all she finds are mysterious circumstances that lead to horrific ends. Karen learns to faces some unimaginable facts thanks to some insight from Detective Nakagawa, played by veteran actor Ryo Ishibashi (American Yakuza, Brother). All the characters get directly involved with the mysterious house and must grapple with situations and premonitions that affect their actions.

It’s hard to believe that Sleepy Hollow was filmed entirely on a soundstage by the brilliant director Tim Burton and his skilled crew. The first fatality in the story might leave you guessing how they accomplished this effect. Burton recruits much of the cast (Christina Ricci, Michael Gough, Johnny Depp) from his pastworks. Set in the small village of Sleepy Hollow in the Hudson River Valley in 1799, the cocky but fearful Ichabod Crane, played by Johnny Depp, must investigate a series of murders. You can tell from the beginning of the story that there are layers of truths and revelations to tell, particularly the subplot about Crane’s parents. The ending looks hopeless, but, well, just watch this great film so you can see how it finishes.

The Cell goes into the mind of a serial killer as you actually see what he’s thinking and why, instead of just being shocked by his disturbing actions. Jennifer Lopez stars as psychologist Catherine Deane in this visually amazing movie directed by Tarsem Singh, mostly known for his music videos, including R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”.

The great cinematography by Paul Laufer, beautiful Arabic songs, and musical score by composer Howard Shore complement the amazing visual effects very well. Catherine’s quest to help people through an experimental therapy practiced in a virtual world reaches a new level when FBI agent Peter Novak, played by Vince Vaughn, wants her to get vital information from the mind of a serial killer named Carl Stargher, chillingly played by Vincent D’Onofrio.

The plot is methodically paced, which forces the audience to soak up the emotion and visual communication from the special effects and subject matter. Singh does a great job directing, especially in an amazing shot of a pickup truck driving on a desert road. This shot crosses an imaginary line of sight that directors don’t usually cross. I’d like to know someday how he made that shot. Lopez demonstrates an ability to carry a film in a leading role as she rolls through her dialogue with a soft, sincere voice. Catherine’s admirable character traits put her in many dangerous situations as she must attempt to communicate with Carl. Sometimes, the shocking violence and disturbing visuals overshadow the shameful situations and factors in Carl’s life that influenced his life choices. These choices were not always his, but without love, care, and guidance, the life he chooses to lead results in a seemingly endless cycle of deplorable acts. The incredibly high level of emotions and visuals in this film are definitely worth viewing, but some audience members may have difficulty processing the hard R rated material.

“How do you know who’s good and who’s bad?”

Ask yourself this question when you watch this brilliant film written and directed by the multi-talented Alejandro Amenabar. Composer is another unlikely credit Amenabar receives besides directorial duties in his English-speaking film debut, The Others. From the beginning scream to the ending revelations, this quality film takes a deliberate pace that reveals the plot piece by piece to the audience.

Set in final days of World War II, the plot revolves around Grace, played by Nicole Kidman, and her two children Anne and Nicholas. Kidman looks elegant and stern as Grace, a strict but loving woman, who lives in a decaying estate surrounding by mysterious events and situations. Her actions, facial expressions, proper dialogue, maniacal teaching of the Bible, and obsession over her children’s care drive the plot forward and either lead you or divert you toward the true intentions and revelations of the tense plot. Haunting images, such as the photo albums, and genuine scares surprise the audience throughout the film.

It was amazing to enjoy how the Hollywood phenomenon The Sixth Sense remediated the genre. Thrillers were given a shot in the arm with this highly emotional, original film with great cinematography and a surprise ending. Bruce Willis stars as Malcolm Crowe, a dispirited child psychologist who sees a chance to redeem himself when he encounters a unique boy named Cole, greatly played by Haley Joel Osment, who received his first Oscar nomination for this role. Willis was definitely overlooked for a nomination himself.

Directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan, this film has a great story you can't forget easily because of the subject matter and the haunting visual settings created by cinematographer Tak Fujimoto. Toni Collette also received an Oscar nomination playing Cole's mother, Lynn, with controlled grace as she and Crowe try to understand Cole's connection to the spiritual world.

Willis puts in a great, low key performance, but the audience mainly focuses on Cole's plight which represents the main drive of this great film. The plot twist at the end is the best in years and the ending leaves you with a great spiritual sense of life. The entire cast and crew should be credited with creating one of the best films ever. A modern day classic!

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  • http://dracutweblog.blogspot.com Mary K. Williams

    Beautiful write up. I just saw Sixth Sense again the other night.

    No matter what others may say about these films, they all have some tremendous visual offerings, intriguing scoring, and plots that make you shudder, think, or both.

  • http://www.myspace.com/douglas1962 Douglas A. Waltz

    Sleepy Hollow was NOT filmed entirely on a soundstage. I have the CIneFex Magazine to prove it. While a lot of the interiors were filmed on huge soundstages the town instelf was actually built outside. They acheived the lighting using many illuminated dirigibles.
    Out of the entire list I would have to say that Silence Of The Lambs would be the only truly scary film of the bunch and Alien, of course. The rest are either remakes of better foreign films or, in the case of The Shining, the worst abuse of the source material ever. Sure, Jack Nicholson is good in it, but any one who’s read the book knows what it’s missing.