A Halloween monster movie primer
Posted October 30, 2016
A good horror movie doesn’t need to have buckets of blood and viscera, and a good Halloween movie doesn't need to be scary.
In fact, maybe the only thing it really does need is a good monster, whether that’s Count Dracula, Jason Voorhees or just a horde of shambling undead.
So, with that in mind, here’s a monster-by-monster primer with recommendations for some less-obvious movie picks to watch this Halloween that are both holiday-appropriate and suitable for broad audiences.
First cinematic appearance: “White Zombie” (1932)
Background: Just like the undead themselves, the recent zombie phenomenon shows no signs of slowing down or stopping. AMC's “The Walking Dead” continues to pull in crazy numbers every week, Brad Pitt is gearing up for “World War Z 2” and there’s even a section on the CDC website dedicated to “zombie preparedness.” But the now-classic image of a swarming horde of corpses clawing at boarded-up windows is a relatively recent twist on zombie lore that only appeared as recently as 1968 in George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” — even though that movie never actually uses the z-word and was heavily inspired by a vampire novel, Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend.”
The true zombie — a dead person brought back to life through voodoo rituals in order to do the bidding of his or her master — originally comes from Haiti, born in what author Amy Wilentz has called the “concentration-camp culture” of the 17th- and 18th-century French sugar plantations. As Wilentz describes, the conditions were so brutal on the plantations that suicide became commonplace among slaves, who believed that once dead, their souls would be set free and could return to the African paradise of lan guinée. It’s not hard to understand, then, how the thought of somehow becoming trapped in between life and death — dead but still a slave — would become a potent source of nightmares. After a slave revolt in 1791 overthrew the French colonists, zombies took on a slightly different meaning: They came to represent the at times very real fear that Haiti would lapse back into slavery.
Why not try …
“I Walked With a Zombie” (1943) — A more traditional kind of zombie than most movie fans are used to, this early horror feature from producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur goes for ambiance over real scares and is at least as much a romantic drama as anything else. Notwithstanding, it holds up remarkably well and should be seen by any fan of old-school horror.
“Maggie” (2015) — Probably the high point of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s post-gubernatorial acting career so far, this understated drama — yep, you read that correctly — offers the Austrian Oak a rare opportunity to flex his acting muscles, portraying a father whose daughter (Abigail Breslin) becomes infected during a zombie outbreak. Not your typical Ah-nuhld movie, and definitely not your typical zombie movie, either.
First cinematic appearance: “The Haunted Castle” (1896)
Background: It’s impossible to pinpoint the origin of ghosts as a popular concept. Spirits, wraiths, phantasms and the like are all a natural byproduct of a belief in some kind of afterlife and together, they constitute what socio-cultural anthropologists call a “cultural universal.”
When it comes to ghosts, strikingly similar beliefs occur around the world, dating back pretty much as far as human history goes. According to StrangeHistory.net, a variety of surveys over the last 150 years, ranging from a Victorian “Census of Hallucinations” to a Hong Kong student survey, have helped identify some very specific shared details among paranormal experiences like a “glowing” or “insubstantial” image, white or black dress and “abnormal floating” that seem to be true whether the person who sees them lives in North Carolina, New Zealand or Nepal. In fact, the universality of these details has led some researchers to theorize that these sorts of experiences might be biologically rooted — in other words, ghosts appear the way they do at least in part because our brains are hardwired on a physiological level, not just cultural one, to process certain stimuli in a specific way.
Why not try …
“Poltergeist” (1982) — OK, hardly a hidden gem, but a gem nonetheless and one that deserves to continually be rediscovered. Avoid the unnecessary 2015 remake and just stick with this quintessential '80s horror movie that was produced — and if the stories are to be believed, possibly also directed by — Steven Spielberg.
Interesting fact: “Poltergeist” and “E.T.,” which were released just one week apart from each other in June 1982, were at one point meant to be the same movie, an alien invasion horror flick titled “Night Skies.” Spielberg decided to go with a more benign take on extraterrestrial visitors for “E.T.,” but recycled all the elements of a family terrorized by otherworldly forces for “Poltergeist,” just swapping out aliens for ghosts.
“The Legend of Hell House” (1973) — Based on a novel by the late, great Richard Matheson (the same guy who is indirectly responsible for every zombie movie since 1968), this ghost story offers a genuinely spooky, old-school approach to the classic haunted house setup of a group of people who agree to spend a week locked up inside a haunted mansion. For science, of course. In this case, though, the mansion isn’t haunted by just any old ghost — it’s the vengeful spirit of a 6-foot-5 serial killer nicknamed “Roaring Giant.” What could possibly go wrong, right?
First cinematic appearance: “A Trip to the Moon” (1902)
Background: In the loosest sense of the word, extraterrestrials (any life form originating somewhere other than Earth) have been making appearances in fiction for a long, long time. In his ironically titled “True History,” the Greek satirist Lucian described visiting the moon and meeting its inhabitants way back in the second century. But it wasn’t until authors such as H.G. Wells that aliens took on a terrifying new slant as modern scientific monsters.
From insectoids to lizard men to shape-shifting things, aliens can be a source of terror either because of how strange and inhuman they are, or else, even worse sometimes, because of how easily they blend in with the rest of us.
Why not try …
“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) — Whether one reads it as a Cold War allegory about the insidious threat of Communism or just a straight-up sci-fi thriller, the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is an absolute must-watch. It’s been remade several times over the years, including one legitimately great version (Philip Kaufman’s 1978 redo/sequel with Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy) and one legitimately awful version (2007’s “The Invasion” with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig). No matter what, though, the original remains essential viewing.
“Plan 9 From Outer Space” (1959) — Ed Wood’s magnum opus is often cited as the worst movie ever made. That’s a bit harsh. While certainly not great — or good or even decent — there’s an undeniable charm to the well-intentioned ineptitude of it all. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, it’s one of the most watchable terrible movies out there and a Halloween tradition for many a lover of awfully good cinema.
First cinematic appearance: “Haxan” (1922)
Background: Just like ghosts, witches have been around basically as long as people have been. The Old Testament, for instance, describes how King Saul consulted with the witch of Endor. One of the more famous episodes from Homer’s Odyssey saw Odysseus’ men transformed into pigs by the witch Circe. And of course, witches are a fixture of European fairy tales such as “Hansel and Gretel” and “Snow White.”
According to BBC Culture, it was during the Renaissance that the “brutally misogynistic” image of witches as they are generally thought of today — either old, hook-nosed women riding broomsticks or lithe beauties bent on seducing the innocent for their own dark purposes — really took shape, thanks in part to artist Albrecht Dürer as well as the invention of the printing press, of all things, which allowed these images to be duplicated and disseminated at an unprecedented speed.
It’s difficult to calculate with any certainty, but recent estimates by historians generally put the number of men, women and children executed during real-life witch hunts between 50,000 and 200,000, according to historian Brian Pavlac, although some estimates go into the millions.
Why not try …
“Black Sunday” (1960) — Directed by Italian horror maestro Mario Bava, this black-and-white masterpiece is a perfect example of “less is more” when it comes to creating a genuinely creepy mood. Barbara Steele stars as a witch executed by her brother (in a particularly gruesome fashion) who comes back 200 years later to get revenge on his descendants.
“ParaNorman” (2012) — Could this be the most perfect Halloween movie since “A Nightmare Before Christmas”? Not only does it feature a witch and a centuries-old curse, but it’s also got zombies, tons of references to horror movies that only adults will appreciate and a soundtrack that channels everything from classic John Carpenter movies to pastoral folk that perfectly fits the autumnal October vibe of the whole movie.
First cinematic appearance: “The Werewolf” (1913)
Background: Little-known fact: just like witch trials, “werewolf trials” were also a thing back in the day, according to Live Science. The two phenomena are actually closely related since, traditionally, werewolves were created not by being bitten but through witchcraft and/or pacts with the devil. There are different theories about why werewolves came to be, including various medical conditions. According to HistoricMysteries.com, the belief in werewolves may have originated as an attempt to explain the existence of serial killers. In 1521, for instance, Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun, a pair of confessed French cannibals, were executed as werewolves.
One of the earliest accounts of werewolfism comes from the first-century Roman poet Ovid, who, in his “Metamorphoses,” tells the story of King Lycaon, who was turned into a werewolf after he served human flesh to the Roman god Jupiter. (Lycaon, like the word “lycanthropy,” is derived from the Greek word lykos, meaning “wolf.”)
Many of the traits most closely associated with werewolves nowadays, however, are recent additions to the lore, mostly invented by Hollywood, according to How Stuff Works. Things like silver bullets and transforming with the full moon have no basis in traditional werewolf stories where rules like how to identify a werewolf (by its human eyes and voice) or how to transform into one (by deliberately wearing a wolf-skin girdle) tend to be a little more colorful.
Why not try …
“Werewolf of London” (1935) — Predating Universal’s other werewolf movie, Lon Chaney Jr.'s “The Wolf Man,” by six years, “Werewolf of London” tends to get unfairly overlooked, which is a shame. Not only is it a surprisingly good monster movie, but it also invented most of the rules pertaining to werewolves that people know today — everything from the full moon triggering a transformation to spreading werewolfism like a disease through bites or scratches.
“The Beast Must Die” (1974) — If Agatha Christie’s classic whodunit “And Then There Were None” had a baby with “The Most Dangerous Game,” and then that baby got bitten by a werewolf, well, that would be this oft-overlooked gem from British production company Amicus. Calvin Lockhart stars as a big-game hunter who invites a group of people to his mansion, convinced that one of them is a werewolf. Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin from “Star Wars”) and a young Michael Gambon (Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies) co-star.
First cinematic appearance: “Drakula” (1920)
Background: Just like werewolves, the traditional vampire and the vampire most people think of today are two completely different creatures.
Vampire myths date back as far as 4,000 years, according to How Stuff Works. Cultures like the Ancient Assyrians and Babylonians told stories of a vampiric goddess named Lamashtu who would sneak into houses and steal or kill babies. (This was likely a way to explain real-world things like miscarriage and sudden infant death syndrome.) To protect against Lamashtu, women would wear an amulet depicting another demon, the male god Pazuzu — yep, the same Pazuzu from “The Exorcist.”
Often, though, traditional vampires were little more than living corpses — dead bodies possessed by their own spirits — that would come back and harass their families or beg for food. Another type of vampire, called a living vampire, or strigoi viu (as opposed to a dead vampire, or strigoi mort) was a person cursed while still alive to become a vampire after death.
Why not try …
“Horror of Dracula” (1958) — Dracula is one of the most frequently portrayed characters in movie history, right up there with Santa Claus, Sherlock Holmes and the devil. But Christopher Lee (Saruman from the Lord of the Rings movies) might have done it better than anyone — including possibly even Bela Lugosi, and that’s no faint praise. Lee took on the role a total of 10 times as part of the Hammer Horror universe — the darker, creepier cousin to Universal’s monster movies — beginning with this classic. Fellow Hammer fixture Peter Cushing co-stars as Dr. Abraham Van Helsing.
“The Last Man on Earth” (1964) — To date, there has not been a truly great adaptation of Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend,” despite a number of attempts. This one, starring Vincent Price as Dr. Robert Morgan (Robert Neville in the book), probably comes the closest, although, in what would become a pattern in future adaptations (1971's "The Omega Man" and 2007's "I Am Legend"), for some reason its writers (including Matheson, using a pseudonym) decided to forego the brilliant ending from the novel in favor of something far less potent. Still a good, underappreciated vampire flick, though. (And not to be confused with the Will Forte comedy series of the same name.)
Jeff Peterson is a native of Utah Valley and studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University. Along with the Deseret News, he also contributes to the film discussion website TheMovieScrutineer.com.