Vague Visages Writers’ Room: Favorite Halloween Movies

In the Vague Visages Writers’ Room on Facebook, freelancers were asked to comment about their favorite Halloween flicks.

James Slaymaker (@jmslaymaker), Twixt (2011)

Because of its slight run time and shoestring budget, it might be easy to write Twixt off as little more than a late-career curio from a burnt-out master. But Francois Ford Coppola’s experimental genre piece, which begins as a straightforward murder mystery before expanding outward to become an expressionistic exploration of the creative psyche and the impulse to create, is too fiercely daring and inventive to be considered a minor work. The third film of what can safely be deemed Coppola’s “late master” period (beginning with Youth without Youth, which followed an unexpected decade-long absence from cinema screens), Twixt again finds the filmmaker channelling the aesthetic principals of silent-era German expressionism through the means of HD digital, creating a self-conscious sense of hyper-artificiality comparable to the late work of Alain Resnais, Raúl Ruiz and Manoel de Oliveira (it also prefigures similar techniques employed by David Lynch in Twin Peaks: The Return). The scattershot narrative — which, like Youth Without Youth, dips freely into fantasies, memories and dreams — manages to playfully encompass substantial dose of low-brow humour (one stand-out sequence sees Val Kilmer’s protagonist get increasingly drunk as he wastes hours struggles to write a single line of his new book), genuine pathos (the burnt-out Hal Baltimore is possibly the most piercingly self-loathing director self-insert figure to grace the silver screen since Jean-Luc Godard donned a wig made out video cables to portray himself as a misanthropic recluse in King Lear) and countless sumptuous stylistic flourishes (super-impositions, chiaroscuro lighting, split screens and delightfully over-stuffed masters to name a few). On paper, this might sound heavy-handed, but it actually unfolds elegantly, as if the viewer is experiencing an insomniac’s half-awake stupor; the ease with which the supernatural and fantastical sit alongside the mundane recalls Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, released the previous year.

Clayton Schuster (@SchusterClayton), Green Room (2015)

On the interweb, Green Room popped up on Amazon prime a few months before I was aware it. The premise (“true school” punk band v. Neo-Nazis), along with the film’s reputation for intense death scenes, earned my attention one Saturday evening. Boy, was I underprepared. It took three viewings over the next two days to come to terms with the brutality. Every box cutter slashing, evisceration and shotgun round to the head feels all the more visceral because the characters are, overall, so well-drawn. Bonus points to the filmmakers for bringing together Patrick Stewart and Anton Yelchin (in one of his last performances, R.I.P.).

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

The 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is easy to situate. It must have something to do with the Cold War, though nobody can seem to agree whether it’s pro-McCarthy or anti-McCarthy. The 1978 version, directed by Philip Kaufman, is much harder to align with its socio-political context, but seems in line with other paranoid thrillers from that decade. Authority is compromised. No one can be trusted. Cities are alienating spaces where darkness lurks. Where the 1978 version of the story succeeds most fully is in its slow, deliberately controlled tracking of the pod takeover. From the film’s first scenes on earth, the world is already falling apart. The eagle-eyed viewer will spot a near-constant parade of garbage trucks, hauling away loads of strange gray dust. Terrified commuters will suddenly run through the frame, fleeing unknown horror, and then vanish just as quickly. Though the film’s most iconic and lasting contribution to the Body Snatchers mythology is the piercing alien shriek that the pod people emit to identify the as-yet untransformed, it is the film’s conclusion that is most haunting. Its final reveal should not be spoiled, but the idea that reigns in the film’s final sequence is the horrific implication that life as a pod is not all that different from life as a human being. As the film’s protagonist Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) follows the same day-to-day routine he always has (clipping coupons and going to work), the film presents soulless, unimportant people going about their meaningless lives. They are us. The pods, in reassuring their reluctant victims that life would be more or less unchanged, tell the truth.

Colin Biggs (@wordsbycbiggs), The Exorcist III (1990)

Lieutenant Kinderman (George C. Scott) is used to grisly murder, but not the supernatural. As an agnostic most of his life, being confronted with a series of murders that resemble the crimes of a man who died in prison rocks Kinderman to his core. Scott delivers pathos in a genre that all too often relies on archetypes for emotional beats, delivering one of the best performances in a horror film ever. Adapting his own book as director, William Peter Blatty doesn’t try to recreate the original film. Instead, he offers a squared-up, unflinching look at pure evil, aided by career-best work by Brad Dourif. The result is a mystery that leaves as many scars as any horror film, even a predecessor that might be the best of all-time.

And that hospital corridor scene… it gets me every time.

Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25), Salem’s Lot (1979)

For a thoroughly ghoulish Halloween 2017, one should view the eyeball popping, crucifix brandishing horror classic Salem’s Lot (1979). Retrieving this archived treasure is particularly fitting this Halloween as a tribute to the late director Tobe Hooper, who passed during the summer. Many film viewers have seen Hooper’s iconic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), but may have overlooked his 1979 classic. It is a captivating blend of B-horror aesthetics and art house cinema. The scene of children turned vampires (appearing in the night at an innocent boy’s window) is an inverted, unholy twist of Peter Pan. In this film, Hooper allows viewers the time to immerse themselves in the story of the small town and its people, thereby intensifying the dismay when they are slowly picked off, one by one. Just as a vampire longingly beseeches “Look at me” in Salem’s Lot, imagine Hooper, himself, rising from the grave to invite horror fans to more completely explore his entire film compendium. The build up to the terrifying moments of Salem’s Lot distinguish it among the horror genre.  It’s more than a collection of non-stop jump scares.  

Mike Thorn (@MikeThornWrites), Prince of Darkness (1987)

Prince of Darkness sees writer-director John Carpenter recognizing that, taken in isolation, the central tenets of Gothic literature and cinema are insufficient for addressing late 20th Century anxieties. The Gothic’s superstition, trauma and psychosexual interiority are useful entry points into horror’s larger philosophical dilemmas, but they prove relatively insufficient for dealing with Prince of Darkness’ scientific and epistemological purposes (which not only extend beyond customary notions of the Enlightenment “self,” but actually defile and unravel them altogether). Nevertheless, Carpenter’s deeply genre-conscious methodology prevents him from dispensing with the Gothic altogether. Much like many of the fictions written by the director’s antecedent and inspiration H.P. Lovecraft, Prince of Darkness inhabits the Gothic for the purpose of expansion and contemporary philosophical reframing. Many of the Gothic’s key characteristics are on display (spooky church location as character, supernatural invasion, disturbing pasts resurfaced), but Carpenter concerns himself primarily with that which is cognitively and theoretically terrifying, rather than using the individual-based affect of unease as his endpoint. The film’s dealings with physics, theology and academic inquiry are not simply generic decoration, but rather lend themselves to a serious study of knowledge systems’ inability to comprehend horror. Contending with these knowledges while simultaneously breaking them apart, Carpenter commits unapologetically to crafting an awesome aesthetic object. Co-composing one of his heaviest synthesizer scores with Alan Howarth, the auteur uses his trademark wide-lens classicism to capture a space whose revelations are too vast and disturbing for the characters’ comprehension. Even while breaking down the faulty logic underpinning humanism, Carpenter finds space for some of his most charming and well-timed Hawksian homages; both the dialogue and establishment of character interactions provide essential foundation for the horror that follows. In a filmography full of recurring questions and audiovisual repetitions, Prince of Darkness stands out: the second in Carpenter’s “apocalypse” trilogy, it typifies the director’s sensibility and inimitable value.

From everybody at Vague Visages, HAPPY HALLOWEEN!