Okay, Psycho's a great Halloween flick, and so is Halloween, of course. But how about a little more cerebral fare? Here are my suggestions for some off-the-beaten-path movies for All Hallows Eve.
1. The Wicker Man 1973
This tops the list, with its pagan rituals done in full light of day, before the eyes of aghast Christian bigot Sergeant Howie (played by Edward Woodward). Britt Ecklund and dozens of other lush young ladies dance nude, a cheeky Jennifer Martin talks back to the sergeant, and it all ends with the virgin Sergeant sacrificed to the goddess of the fields. Creepy, spooky, and tantalizing all at the same time. Wonderful!
2. American Psycho 2000
The biggest question we're left with at the end of this film is, did anyone get murdered? Was it all in Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale)'s twisted mind? There's gore aplenty here, but it's never quite clear how much was spilled, and how much was fantasy. We do get plenty of clues about Bateman's existence as an empty mask, a hollow imitation of others. The horrifying thing about this story is not the murders, but the fact that dreaming about them is the only release available to Bateman.
3. Dracula 1979
This is the version with Frank Langella in the title role. What Langella captured was the "fatal attraction" of the blood-drinker for the women he encountered. The heavy sexuality and blatant come-hither the Count received from naughty Mina (and even from the engaged Lucy Seward, played by Kate Nelligan) played well off the languid good looks of Langella, then at the height of his beauty. In previous films, Dracula was a beast, a boorishly dirty old man with special powers. Langella made him rapturously, dangerously delectable.
4. Hocus Pocus 1993
Campy, goofy, and thrilling, this movie is a Disney-fied version of a scary tale. Three witches who feed on the life-force of young children (played to the hilt by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sex in the City's Sarah Jessica Parker) are brought back to life on Halloween when a virgin (boy) lights "the black-flame candle." Among the delightful touches in this silly romp: a witch, unable to find a broom, takes off on the museum's vacuum cleaner. Careful, though—this flick is scary to young kids where American Psycho would just put them to sleep.
5. The Exorcist 1973
The original, still the best. Forget the jokes and lampoons—just give yourself over to the story, and let it surprise you again. The scariest part of the film, to me anyway, is in the middle, as the young girl begins to change in appearance and demeanor. Horrifying and startling, creepy and shocking, this is a movie that still packs a punch. Not for the youngsters, even now.
This is classic kung-fu fare, with Dracula thrown in. Peter Cushing makes a bland Van Helsing against a totally forgettable Dracula (I've forgotten the actor's name already!), and the real thrills come from the Chinese brothers who join the Count. My all-time favorite "death of vampires" scene is in this movie, as the seven masked and robed vampires collapse in the light of day. As their empty robes flatten, little puffs of ash come out of the masks' eyeholes... Terrific effect!
7. The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T 1953
Horror! Frights! Endless piano lessons! Amazingly surreal (especially for its day), thanks to author Theodor S. Geisel (Dr. Suess), this is the story of a young boy whose mother has been hypnotised by the sinister Dr. Terwhiliker (Hans Conreid) into assisting him with his army of mind-numbed young pianists. Only the true love of "independent contractor" August Zabladowski can rescue her, and save young Bartholomew Collins from a fate worse than death—piano practice! (No, really, this is a creepy movie, I promise!)
8. Blade 1998
The best thing about this movie (another meld of vampires and kung-fu) is the music, and the horrid way the vampires move. Modern techniques let the sped-up images of the vampires mix with the regular-speed "citizens" and Blade (Wesley Snipes). The result is an almost subliminal sense that something is wrong. This moves the creep-factor way up, even before the opening credits have finished—and it doesn't slow down once until the finale. I sometimes put this DVD in just for the opening scene in the club, and the throbbing beat that climaxes with the shower of blood. Tasty.
9. The Witches of Eastwick 1987
This is a great movie about the seductive power of evil. The Devil (Jack Nicholsen) tempts three women, Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer—and they take the bait. Once he has them hooked, though, the Devil (how like a man!) stops wooing them, and begins using them. Some of the best scenes involve a witch of a different sort, a local biddy who pokes her nose into the witches' affairs, and winds up spewing cherry pits in church. Fun, powerful, and sexy at the same time, this is a winner.
10. Cat People 1982
I prefer the version with Nastassja Kinski, although the 1942 version is also powerful. The brooding sexuality of Kinski suits the role well, and the haunting music by Giorgio Moroder was a mainstay on my tape player for years afterward. Malcolm McDowell makes a very scary brother to cat-woman Kinski, and lets you see the predator lurking beneath his surface. It is the female cat, however, that terrifies and tempts us with her beauty. Don't worry about subtexts; this movie works quite well as a surface tale of horror and shape-shifting.