I’ve saved the most Halloween-y Halloween goody for last. If you judge Trick R Treat by its cover, you’ll probably guess that it’s another boring, cliché-ridden slasher film. Although there is a fair amount of blood spilled, this isn’t your run-of-the mill b-grade horror flick. The film contains five interwoven stories about people living on the same block. There’s a naive young woman out for her first Halloween night on the town with the girls; a couple who discover what happens if you disrespect Halloween tradition; a high school principal who is every bit the monster kids think a principal is; a group of kids who set up a prank that goes badly awry with truly terrifying consequences; and a curmudgeonly old guy who has a very creepy trick-or-treater. Interwoven through these stories is a lot of Halloween lore, such as what happens if you allow the candle in your pumpkin to go out before midnight, and the art director—yes, it’s a horror film with art direction—makes use of a lot of old-fashioned Halloween imagery from the late 1800s and early 1900s. (If you don’t think that’s creepy, check this out.) Trick R Treat is scary and satisfying, like Halloween should be.
Many people know Guillermo del Toro from Pacific Rim, Hellboy, or Pan’s Labyrinth, but his less well-known stuff—especially The Devil’s Backbone—is well worth a look. The story takes place at a dusty, run-down orphanage in a remote part of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Carlos, a boy who has been abandoned by his parents, arrives at the orphanage and soon discovers that many of its occupants have secrets, including the couple running the orphanage who are hiding a cache of gold for the Republican loyalists, the caretaker, Jacinto, who is secretly searching for the gold to steal it, the orphanage’s bully, who has been traumatized, and the sad and terrifying child ghost who may or may not be a missing boy named Santi. Even the unexploded bomb in the courtyard has a secret of sorts.
The film refers to a ghost as a “tragedy condemned to repeat itself over and over again,” a metaphor that could also apply to the war and its impact on the orphanage and everyone in it. In other words, it’s not a happy story. But the film’s compelling performances, evocative art direction, and what it has to say about loyalty and sacrifice will stay with you for a long time. This is absolutely one of del Toro’s best films. Highly recommended.
What if Max Schreck, who played the vampire Count Orlock in the iconic silent 1922 film Nosferatu, had been a real vampire? Shadow of the Vampire is a fictionalized account of the making of Nosferatu. Director F. W. Murnau, played by a scenery-chewing John Malkovich, takes his cast to Czechoslovakia and introduces them to a strange character actor called Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), who will be playing Count Orlock, and who, he warns them, will remain in character at all times. What Murnau doesn’t tell them is that he’s so determined to make the most authentic vampire film ever that he’s hired a real vampire and has promised him the leading lady as a reward. But Schreck won’t be controlled and can’t keep his teeth out of the cast and crew, who start dropping like flies as an obsessive, laudanum-addicted Murnau pushes on relentlessly to complete his film.
Dafoe manages to elicit both sympathy and horror as Schreck. When he’s asked what he thinks of the novel Dracula, Schreck speaks of how lonely the immortal count must have been, and how he must have forgotten how to do everyday things. It’s an incredible scene, and it garnered Dafoe an Oscar nod. You’ll probably get more out of Shadow if you’ve seen Nosferatu, so I recommend them as a double feature. But even if you haven’t seen the original, Shadow is definitely worth a look.
If you’re at all a fan of H. P. Lovecraft, the pulp horror story writer whose work has influenced everyone from Roger Corman to Guillermo del Toro, you know that films made from his works are pretty hit and miss—emphasis on the miss. (Whose bright idea was it to put Sandra Dee in The Dunwich Horror?) Anyway, Call of Cthulhu, a tiny-budget indy released in 2005, is an exception to the rule. Many Lovecraft adaptations have gone for the gore and the gross-out, but the makers of this version of Cthulhu obviously understood Lovecraft, who was famous for taking readers right up to the edge of something horrible and then not describing it, allowing readers to fill in the gaps from their own imagination and creating an effect that was far more terrifying than graphic descriptions of violence and blood. The filmmakers incorporated a lot of language from the short story and made use of set and filming techniques from the timeframe in which it was written (1928) to recreate the feel of the original. In keeping with that, the film is silent. The acting is a bit uneven, but overall this is a faithful and well-done rendition of the story and the era and a testament to what can be done with a small budget and a lot of creativity.
The name Kwaidan means “ghost stories,” and this 1964 Japanese film contains four of them: a man who divorces his wife and returns to find her quite changed; a man who makes a promise to a strange woman in the snow who spares his life; a blind singer whose best performance might be for an audience of ghosts; and a man who sees a face in his cup of tea. Nominated for an Oscar for best foreign-language film, Kwaidan feels a bit like a stage play because of its elaborately detailed sets that seem meant to mimic the natural world if it were a bit more orderly. The pace is slow compared to modern films, but it’s absolutely worth taking the time to relax and sink into the painstakingly created world the film presents. If you allow yourself to get caught up in it, Kwaidan is both lovely and creepy.