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Sean Abley’s Top Five Horror Films to Watch this Halloween

Phantasm - Sean Abley's top five horror films to watch on halloween

When I think about Halloween, I think about 10-year-old me running around my neighborhood trick-or-treating with my friends after dark, adult-free until we returned home hours later. There was something about being out alone in the dark that was scary and fun at the same time, like the entire world was a slumber party and we’d all summoned Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary. Upon my return home my parents would inspect my candy haul (and claim certain items for “taste testing”) while we’d watch horror flicks on tv (R-rated once HBO started broadcasting) until they went to bed. After they went to bed I’d stay up and watch even more, lights off, jumping at every creak and groan of our 100-year-old house as the foundation settled.

Then the Chicago Tylenol murders happened in September and October of 1982—remember those? Suddenly any food that was prepackaged or handed to you by a stranger was the enemy, including Halloween candy, popcorn balls and Rice Krispy Treats. Halloween was basically canceled that year, and has never been the same since. For years trick-or-treating was largely relegated to community-wide parties held in school gymnasiums (lame) or going door-to-door, escorted by your parents, before the sun set (even more lame.) And although the hysteria finally died down, we’re now in an era of raising veal instead of children, and sending your kid out alone to roam the neighborhood asking for candy could result in a custody battle with the state.

To me, Halloween is about kids and kids being scared. Once you get old enough to know that Santa doesn’t exist, you know real vampires and ghosts and killers aren’t mixing in with your friends as you wander around in the dark. By the time you reach college Halloween is about getting really, really drunk and committing acts of vandalism known as “pranks,” and gradually you either grow out of it all, or you keep attending parties where everyone is trying to outdo each other with bigger, better, more tasteless costumes. Personally, I miss those cheap costume you tied over your clothes that came in a box with the mask on the top.

I’ll spend this Halloween like most, watching horror movies at home. This year my theme will be “Horror Movies About Kids Being Scared.” And if I had to pick my five favorites, they would be:

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers 

Let’s be honest, all the Halloween sequels after Halloween 3: Season of the Witch are C-quality at best, as are Rob Zombie’s remakes. (The one exception is Halloween H2O, which almost doesn’t count, not being burdened with the ridiculous lore of the previous installments). But H4 holds a special place in my heart due to the delightful Danielle Harris as “Jamie Lloyd.” Harris gives a great, natural performance, handling both the kid stuff and the horror stuff without the dreaded “kid in a commercial” gloss of too many other young thespians. And the film really puts her through the wringer–despite the reluctance of filmmakers to kill child characters in fright flicks, you’re never sure Harris will make it to the final reel until the final reel. And then–what a great coda! Sadly, the geniuses in charge of this franchise would make her mute in the sequel, then treat the actress and the character with such disrespect in the sixth installment she refused to return.

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers

Phantasm 

My second favorite horror film after the original Dawn of the Dead. I love that the audience experiences Phantasm via A. Michael Baldwin’s “Mike.” There was a matte finish to the performances of 1970s child actors, an unaffected quality that left viewers wondering if the production had cast a professional, or just some kid they found that had charisma. Baldwin did have previous credits, and at one point seemed poised to make the jump from low budget indies to, if not stardom, at least name recognition. Sadly he disappeared for decades, but thankfully resurfaced in Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead and the subsequent sequels. As far as the film is concern, it scared the shit out of me when I first watched it on HBO, and the ending is still one of the best final scares of all time. Check out this trailer for the newest installment, Phantasm V: Ravager, which looks F-ing amazing.

Reggie (Reggie Bannister) at the dimensional fork in Don Coscarelli's 1979 horror picture Phantasm.

 Salem’s Lot (1979)

Has there been anything scarier on network television than the original Salem’s Lot miniseries? Teen idol, and damn fine actor, Lance Kerwin costars with Starsky & Hutch’s David Soul in this very faithful adaptation of the Stephen King novel about vampires. The body count is high (including several kids), and there are so many great moments singling one out is almost impossible. Anyone who has already seen the miniseries will remember the Danny-Glick-at-the-window scene, which terrified both children and adults alike.

Stephen King villains. Destroying the head vampire

Parents 

“What are we eating?” “Leftovers, honey…” “Leftovers from what?” “From the refrigerator…” “We’ve had leftovers every night since we moved here. I’d like to know what they were before they were leftovers.” “Leftovers to be…” The story of a suburban (maybe) cannibal family told from the perspective of the not-so-on-board young son, this is one of my favorite non-horror horror movies. Creepy and unsettling in the extreme, director Bob Balaban and screenwriter Christopher Hawthorne have created an unimaginable amalgam of genres that somehow holds together and sticks to your ribs. Bryan Madorsky as “Michael” underplays his role to so thoroughly it appears he’s being given line readings off camera (which might be possible, as Parents is his only acting credit). Randy Quaid is mercurial, Sandy Dennis is Sandy Dennis, but the star of the show is Mary Beth Hurt as the perky cannibal mom; her body language during a brief meat-on-the-grill scene tells you everything you need to know about this character…with the possible exception of whether or not she’s actually a cannibal.

Parents 1989 Movie

The Brood 

I’ll be honest—not all of Cronenberg’s work is a homerun for me. At times I feel the logline is great, but the execution falls apart in the third act, and his ridiculous, obviously made up surnames for main characters take me out of the film every time they’re spoken aloud. Regardless, all of his films up until eXistenZ (which I couldn’t stand because it felt like self parody, but I should probably watch it again) are absolute comfort food, flaws and all. There are many reasons I love The Brood; Cronenberg’s no-frills shooting style (for which I should probably credit his cinematographer, Mark Irwin) make his early films feel like documentaries; the cold, winter setting, so appropriate for a filmmaker who excels at keeping an audience’s emotional connection to his films at arms length; and Cindy Hines as Candice Carveth. As with the previous young’uns I’ve highlighted above, Hines is completely believable as the tormented Candice, and we as the audience are never sure she’s going to make it out alive. As with most Cronenberg films, this is a slow boil, but totally worth it.

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Written by Sean Abley
Sean Abley is a playwright, screenwriter and horror film journalist. His latest book of interviews, Out in the Dark: Interviews with Gay Horror Filmmakers, Actors and Authors, is out now.
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