I have always suspected that there is a reason why all of our best holidays come in the fall and winter. Days get shorter, and it's cold and wet out, and all the animals go to bed, and all the trees, like, die or whatever. Winter is a hard, shitty time of year.
And so, whoever schedules this kind of thing had the bright idea of livening things up with a series of genuinely excellent holidays, so that just when you're sinking into the swamp of seasonal affective disorder, someone shows up with a casserole full of yams covered in marshmallows and buys you another few weeks of relative happiness.
And there's no better annual cold-weather event that does not involve Tony Romo sulking while a man in a different shirt runs one of his passes into the end zone than Halloween. Halloween is the night of the year when we are actually glad that the sun goes down early, when it might as well be cold, because by God, we are lighting a campfire, dammit. When the doom and gloom associated with the seasonal change is actual celebrated.
So why not stretch out the celebration a little? What follows is a list of 13 great Halloween movies to watch as we approach Halloween. No, these are not the 13 best or greatest or even scariest horror movies (although some of them certainly are among the best and greatest and scariest). But I figure a horror movie needs a few things to be truly Halloween-appropriate:
1. There should be some sort of supernatural element to the scares. Serial killers and sharks are scary, of course, but Halloween is about ghosts and witches and werewolves and shit. You can be scared of the real world the whole rest of the year.
2. They should utilize sound and/or music to accentuate the scares. Halloween, you see, is celebrated at night, in the dark, and so the sounds around us take on added importance. Who hasn't stopped along their candy route to listen for footfalls in the shadows?
3. Halloween movies benefit tremendously from any special-effects makeup, eccentric costuming, or masks, for obvious reasons.
4. Movies that involve characters being besieged indoors in one way or another are especially appropriate for Halloween. Depending upon your neighborhood, you might spend all night opening your door to various ghouls and monsters and, um, depressingly sexed-up Disney princesses. Whatever. You get the idea.
5. It should not take place during a season that is very obviously not autumn. It's hard to stay pumped about Halloween while watching a movie full of Christmas decorations.
The movies are listed with information on whether they're available for rental from Netflix or Amazon Instant Video, or free or for rental on YouTube. Let's do this.
October 20: Night of the Living Dead (1968)
(Netflix Instant, Amazon Prime, YouTube)
There's a common and annoying-as-hell experience of watching horror movies that involves grinding your teeth to dust when a character in peril has an opportunity to do something, if not smart, then at least defensible, but does, like clockwork, the other thing. Run back in the house and call 911? No, of course you're going to go search the empty barn alone in the middle of the night, instead. God damn it. We don't need our movie characters to be MacGyver, but they should damn well know better than to run off into the woods instead of, you know, into the police station. It can be hard to watch a horror movie in which all the characters act like helpless idiots.
Night of the Living Dead is not that movie. It is, in fact, the opposite of that movie.
That's not to say there isn't obnoxious and frustrating human behavior, but here, when the characters are undone by their own failures, they're recognizable human failures: cowardice or panic or pride or desperation, but almost never the kind of inexplicable stupidity that dooms at least one victim in virtually every other horror movie. Here, the characters are faced with an unexpected and terrifying new set of circumstances, and react and behave in ways that are mostly identifiable and relatable.
And that's no small part of what makes Night of the Living Dead such an awesome movie. In this movie, you see, even being cool-headed, direct, prepared, and abundantly cautious will not save you.
Plus, oh right, zombies! Night of the Living Dead more or less invented its genre, and even all these years later, the zombies are scary, and the zombie sequences hold up. Scenes of zombies wandering around quietly in the darkness are hella spooky, accentuated by a soundtrack that knows when to layer on the ominous, pulsing, non-melodic buzzing noises.
Here, check it out:
Night of the Living Dead is very nearly the ideal Halloween movie, the kind of thing that will nudge you fully into the spooky Halloween spirit and keep you there all the way through the night itself.
October 21: Suspiria (1977)
There is a scene towards the end of Suspiria that is positively pants-shittingly terrifying. That is praise that I do not throw around lightly.
Director Dario Argento's horror flicks are commonly thought of as technical and artistic achievements, and there's something to that. It's possible to watch Suspiria emotionally detached from the astonishing violence and gore and see it as something of a visual and sonic marvel, full of carefully crafted cinematic compositions and viscerally effective audio mixing, and appreciate that the movie can be paused at virtually any moment and the screen will show you something visually fascinating or even strikingly beautiful.
Here, have a look at this clip, for example:
Pitch-black shadows, deep, disconcerting washes of color, eerie music, unexpected blurts of unexplainable noise ... nothing happened in that scene, and yet, it's very cool and good to watch.
But, come on, we're looking for a kick-ass Halloween movie, not some work of high-art, and, thankfully, Suspiria delivers the scares. Boy howdy does it ever. It builds tension through the threat of violence, and the violence is delivered with maximum carnage, such that each subsequent scene of vulnerability is that much more unbearably tense. And, of course, it all leads to that goddamn scene at the end. My God, it's so fucking scary.
You'll have to put up with dubbed English and a story that is only loosely held together, but that's not really why you're watching. You're watching to get freaked out, and, man, this movie will freak you the hell out. The colors and the music and the witchcraft theme all work together to create a movie that is wholly appropriate for Halloween, one that will keep you in the mood for more.
October 22: The Amityville Horror (1979)
(Netflix, Amazon Rental)
Hard as it may be to believe, there was a time when the story of The Amityville Horror was taken as a more-or-less factual recounting of some scary-ass shit that really happened to an otherwise normal family. Over the years, the story has been picked to pieces, and, anyway, look, you don't need me to tell you the Lutz's were not terrorized by a demonic pig with glowing red eyes. Still, in an unexpected way, this and other episodes from the 1977 novel somehow make for a scary-as-hell movie. You just have to look past and around the parts of it that are, objectively, ridiculous.
The Amityville Horror is a terrific example of the mileage that can be gained simply by casting people who sound great shrieking and have the ability to look really, really scared. Any number of glaring cheapo special-effects bad ideas can be covered up by Margot Kidder looking somewhere off the screen with a facial expression that communicates deep and urgent terror. And, really, what the hell else was Margot Kidder good for? She wound up in The Amityville Horror and The Omen because, man, when she looks frightened, it is frightening (it turns out Margot Kidder isn't in The Omen - it's Lee Remick, who is also scary when she's scared and kinda looks like Kidder).
And that's everyone in this movie! James Brolin has a great beady-eyed look of manly terror, the kind of look that will render almost anything that comes just after it 10 times scarier than it might have otherwise been. Rod Steiger, cast here as Satan's punching bag of a hard-luck priest, is wonderful at both seeming terrified and screaming as if terrified. But no one, and I mean no one, beats Helen Shaver in the scare-face department. Helen Shaver could make me afraid of an empty water glass. If Helen Shaver walked into my living room with a terrified look on her face, I wouldn't need the scary thing to be dangerous or even real, because I would simply and immediately drop dead from fear.
Here is a scene where all of the best of The Amityville Horror comes together, where Brolin, Kidder, and Shaver all show off their scared faces. Steiger also provides an eerie-as-balls voice dub, and there are even some desperate, shoddy special effects for good measure:
This is nobody's idea of a great or classic movie. From start to finish, it's ham-handed and overcooked and silly. And then, on cue, good ol' Margot Kidder looks just off-screen, and her eyes widen, and her mouth draws back, and no no no no no NO NO NO!! RUUUUUUUUUUN!!
Watch The Amityville Horror in a mood to be scared, but also be willing to laugh at its failures or at least wait them out. It's sloppy and silly but, ultimately, a hell of a good time.
October 23: Carnival of Souls (1962)
(Amazon Rental, YouTube)
The first thing you will notice about Carnival of Souls is that it is visually gorgeous, but the very next thing you'll notice is that the audio dubbing is hilariously screwy, and the acting is atrocious. The good news is, the dubbing stays screwy, and the acting only gets worse. Oh, and the story is nigh-incomprehensible.
This black-and-white 1962 flick is maybe the eeriest movie you will ever see. The story, such as it is, is a sort of spiritual predecessor of movies like Jacob's Ladder and even Beetlejuice, and is only just lucid enough to convince the viewer that that gut-deep feeling of unease is intended. And as the unease slides from what-the-fuck into this-is-awesome, the movie's at-times baffling editing, perpetually out-of-synch voice dubbing, and occasionally disarmingly awkward acting all ultimately wind up working pretty well in service of what is otherwise accomplished beautifully by a bitchin' spooky-as-hell soundtrack and any number of genuinely upsetting images. From start to finish, Carnival of Souls evokes the kind of rattled, queasy discomfort felt after a particularly troubling nightmare. The bad acting is good.
Here, check out this scary-as-balls sequence:
Here and there, Carnival of Souls veers off into the kind of goofy over-the-top spectacle that can rudely boot the viewer out of the moment, but never so far that you won't be eager to jump back in. And even when it's not surprising you with scares or creeping you out with random disorienting dimensional shifts, Carnival of Souls will get under your skin with minor characters that are disturbingly blank or subtly menacing.
What you should not do is assume Carnival of Souls is a ye olde tired obsolete black-and-white snore-fest thrown in here to be cute. This movie is genuinely spooky as hell.
October 24: Insidious (2010)
Insidious is a sly, tricky little horror film that takes a smart, careful, dynamic approach to a meta-level application of standby horror tricks and tropes and timings. Unlike, say, Scream, which literally announces its intentions along those same lines, it's the quiet, relentless way this one subtly scatters the viewer's expectations that creates a damn near overwhelming sense of suffocating dread. The first time I watched it, alone in a dark house, I paused it probably a dozen times out of an unbearable feeling of shredded nerves, and had to talk myself into pressing play again each time. And this movie has no blood and almost no violence. I finally gave up during this perfectly harmless-seeming sequence, about 40 percent of the way into the movie:
Man, Tiny Tim creeps me the hell out.
It speaks volumes about the tension built to that point in the movie that a grown man and unabashed fan of horror flicks had to stop watching the movie altogether because a shadow moved in a window during broad daylight.
What Insidious does (and what the subsequent James Wan film The Conjuring also does) is juuuuuust tinker here and there with the timing of its scares. Everyone is familiar with the hoary old horror flick sequence where a person tiptoes into a room and opens a cupboard expecting to find either nothing or a severed head, and, like, a cat jumps out. Those kinds of scenes are designed to make us jump and scream and laugh and then, importantly, exhale, so that when the innocent character, sharing our little moment, closes the cupboard with a look of sheepish relief on her face and there behind the open cupboard door is oh God it's a severed head, our momentary relaxation will make the subsequent scare that much more terrifying. And, as film-goers become more familiar with that trick, the expectation of it becomes its own kind of tension. Now, instead of being afraid of what's in the cupboard, we're searching the corners of the screen for where the real scare will come from after the cat, or bird, or jack-in-the-box, or whatever. That's a sort of meta transaction between the filmmaker and the viewer.
The first half of Insidious is all about that transaction, about teaching the audience to search every inch of the screen, to always be on the lookout for where the real scare is coming from. Not because the movie will distract you with phony scares (it won't), but because the movie is constantly, relentlessly utilizing that timing sequence, that tonal misdirection that catches the viewer—even the attentive viewer—unprepared.
The second half of Insidious is glorious balls-to-the-wall horror fantasy myth-making craziness, just an insane and daring leap into bizarre dimensional weirdness that, if the otherwise jaded viewer is willing to follow along, can be genuinely thrilling. But even if you find yourself kicked all the way out by the many accumulating flights of fancy the story embarks upon in rapid succession, the first half of the movie will still have made pressing play totally worth it.
October 25: Paranormal Activity (2009)
(Netflix, Amazon Rental, YouTube Rental)
Paranormal Activity, on its face just another found-footage horror flick, is a movie that will, with total disregard for your preference to roll your eyes and yawn and be, like, too cool, absolutely tear ass through your psyche and leave you a rattled, blubbering mess. Yes, it utilizes a by-now completely played-out format. But man, it is goddamn petrifying, possibly the scariest movie moment-to-moment on this list.
And, besides, it's possible to appreciate that this movie's particular found-footage format bears an interesting similarity to reality television in a way that freshens its entry into the genre. It's a minor distinction, but a noticeable one. There's a feeling of having entered someone's personal space that isn't necessarily present in a movie about found documentary footage, and it gives the scares a particularly creepy jolt.
What it has in common with more than one other movie on this list is an insistence upon hiding its scary villain offscreen for its entire duration, but where The Haunting and The Blair Witch Project stay grounded more or less in the psychological deterioration of their characters, Paranormal Activity fills in the blank space with one sight gag and special-effects triumph after another. You're not waiting to see the monster, and eventually you're glad to have never seen it, not because your mind would have shattered forever, but because nothing is as scary as not knowing, and no monster ever conceived could do justice to all those shocking, hair-raising moments of impossible supernatural weirdness. When a character is hurled through the air by nothing, we are all the more unprepared.
We do see some footprints!
That's about as close as you'll get to seeing whatever torments the movie's two main characters. Now, I don't want to get anyone's hopes too high, here: This is not an especially subtle movie. It may not show you a monster, but its scares come generally in big dramatic ways, and the characters themselves are just completely forgettable, a couple of rag dolls for a malevolent demon ghost thing to toss around. There's, like, a woman, and I'm pretty sure there's a guy in there, too. Two guys, maybe? Who knows. And, really, who cares? The interpersonal stuff is believable enough to keep the viewer engaged throughout, even though you will have forgotten the characters within a half-hour of the end of the movie.
What you will definitely not have forgotten is the way things shifted around ominously in the dark, how vulnerable the characters were in their own home, how fundamentally violated their spaces and lives had become. You will be acutely aware of the distance between your bed and the nearest light switch. And that's really what this movie is all about.
October 26: The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
(Netflix, Amazon Rental, YouTube)
In a weird way, The Masque of the Red Death is maybe the most Halloween-y movie on this list, even Halloween-ier than a movie entitled Halloween. It's not set on Halloween, Halloween is never referenced, and, well, it isn't even really scary at all. I can see how that might damage its credentials, but bear with me, here.
First of all, the movie's depiction of a downright impressively debauched house party might ring a bell or two for anyone who experienced much of Halloween as a single twentysomething. After all, who among us has not handed off our beverage at a Halloween party to spend a few minutes rolling around on the floor oinking like a pig?
Just me? Huh. Well, at any rate, check out this shit:
Whole lotta crazy white people in that room. That scene is pretty much exactly what you will find at any private GOP fundraiser.
Shameful drunken Halloween-ish antics aside, some of what makes The Masque of the Red Death so perfect for Halloween is the sneering, swaggering, smooth-talking, sexy sumbitch at the absolute peak of his thin-mustachioed awesomeness, Vincent Price. Vincent Price is like the Jerry West NBA logo of Halloween entertainment. Here he plays the ultimate medieval dickweed, a soulless sadist who gleefully tortures and murders peasants and servants and friends and even wives, cynically and ridiculously and self-servingly explained as a kind of sociopathic altruism. What a cad. Can you believe the stones on this guy? His character, the not-very-subtly named Prince Prospero, is a vile misanthrope presiding over a wild party that, for all intents and purposes, is celebrating Halloween.
If the movie were just that—just charismatic-ass Vincent Price making people pretend to be farm animals and then stabbing them with swords, wooing innocent buxom redheads and mocking the diseased and dying—it would still be a hell of a good time. But (and this is where it makes the leap to rock-solid Halloween programming) the story includes a whole lot of creepy Satan worship, plus the constant, looming threat of a virulent plague that has all but consumed the world outside the castle walls. Those things are intricately connected. There is the sense throughout that ol' Vince knows something dark and troubling that no one else seems to have realized: that they are all celebrating the 11th hour of their world, that they are all of them doomed to die horribly in one way or another, and soon. The encroachment of a seemingly apocalyptic plague recasts all their hedonism and nihilism and even Satanism as a way of expressing resentment, of striking back with savage ugliness at a disappointing world that will soon consume them all. The Masque is quite literally their last supper, and is filled with rites of bitter blasphemy.
In that way, this all might hit particularly close to home amid our current scary Ebola epidemic. If that gives it a special resonance, well, okay, but that's both grimly unfortunate and totally unnecessary. Before and all around and throughout the grim and terrifyingly expressed angst of the last survivors of a rapidly dying world is a rollicking over-the-top movie that dares to enjoy fiendish misbehavior very nearly as much as its characters. You reach a point, and fairly early on, when you're almost looking forward to Prospero's next great appallingly heinous act. I'm not sure that's something to feel very proud about, but it makes for a seriously fun guilty pleasure of a Halloween movie. You knew we'd get Vincent Price in here somewhere.
October 27: Carrie (1976)
(Netflix Instant, Amazon Prime, YouTube Rental)
The iconic climactic prom sequence of Carrie is what the movie is best remembered for, and that's okay. It's a bitchin' scene full of eyeball-searing horror that earned its way into the public consciousness through sheer balls-out spectacle. But for the majority of this movie, the scares don't come from the titular character at all. They come, instead, from the character of Margaret White, played by Piper Laurie. And, man, holy cow, Piper Laurie is scary as shit in this movie.
Look at her go:
The casting and performances here could not be better. Sissy Spacek's Carrie is achingly vulnerable and just incredibly adorable, one of the most sympathetic characters ever put onscreen. Every time she utters that humble, twangy "Mama," my fucking heart breaks. She is the sweetest goddamn character. And it's that sweetness that gives extra oomph to Laurie's cold, ferocious Margaret. Carrie says "Mama," and every warm-blooded person in the audience melts a little, and then Laurie says something crazy and whacks her with a broom handle or something, and it's jarring and upsetting and painful to watch.
Everything that happens in the buildup to the prom is cast against that vulnerability, but, interestingly, it never rises to the point where the viewer is hoping for something like what eventually and inevitably does happen. We want Carrie to be protected, and we certainly loathe her various tormentors, but what sickens the viewer the most about the carnage to come is the feeling that it is something that is entirely out of Carrie's control. Her essential vulnerability is never undone. What happens happens and is awful, but we're still, somehow, hurting for Carrie, even while we're hiding under the blanket.
And then she goes home and, as much as hell has already sort of broken loose, yeesh, all hell really fucking breaks loose. The final confrontation between mother and daughter is one of the most thrilling and disturbing sequences in any horror film ever.
The magic of this movie is that you have the same basic feelings for Carrie at the end that you did at the very beginning, even after all the insane shit that happens. It's a hell of a trick, and it makes for a unique and excellent Halloween movie.
October 28: The Haunting (1963)
(Netflix, Amazon Rental, YouTube Rental)
The very worst thing about the 1999 remake of this horror classic—worse, even, than Lili Taylor's performance, and that's really saying something—is that it nearly ruins the original. They have not yet invented the technology to erase things from people's memories, and that's a shame, because we should all forget forever that The Haunting was ever remade. As it is, every time Eleanor utters the name "Hugh Crain," I have to choke back my anger. Yes, the remake is that bad.
The original Haunting is a brilliant psychological thriller that presents the viewer with a wonderfully complicated and disturbed protagonist, and then exposes her to a set of circumstances that will ultimately work on her in grueling, frightening ways; the ultimate fallout is so upsetting and scary because of how sort of inevitable it all seems.
In the remake, she gets into a shouting match with a video-game dungeon boss. Christ.
The scares in The Haunting may not be supernatural, strictly speaking, and in that way it has something in common with The Blair Witch Project. While there may or may not be actual ghosts, what matters is the experience of the characters and what they believe is happening to them. The question of whether there are menacing ghosts is ultimately less important than what the experience of believing oneself to be in the presence of menacing ghosts can do to a person's psyche. And, in this movie, with this specific main character, the answers are so thoughtfully conceived and executed that they wind up being genuinely troubling.
And, look, the movie is plenty dark and spooky, set inside a virtually abandoned old mansion with endless corridors and disconcertingly loud echoes. The Haunting sets the standard for what can be achieved thematically and atmospherically with not a whole lot more than careful and creative sound mixing. Even without all the psychological stuff, it's an eerie old black-and-white movie that's fun to watch in the dark.
In this scene, Eleanor goes through an entire little internal psychodrama alone in her bed one night. If she seems superior and self-obsessed and a little unhinged, that's because, well, she is.
It's those characteristics (and others) that make Eleanor so vulnerable to her experience of Hill House, and the experience of watching her progress from the opening scenes to the brutal, disturbing end is upsetting, fascinating, frightening, and rewarding.
And Owen Wilson is nowhere to be found.
October 29: The Evil Dead (1981)
(Netflix, Amazon Rental)
The Evil Dead is, at its core, just old-school Hollywood movie magic, through and through. It is almost certainly the most special effects-laden movie on this list, which is sort of hilarious, because it was made on a famously tiny budget by a couple of film dorks.
It spawned a franchise of what would have to be called comedies: The Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness are fun and campy and really not very scary at all. You get the sense from watching them that Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell recognized and ultimately embraced an inherent and undeniable goofiness in the original that makes it the kind of movie that a group of people can watch together and spot the cheapo makeup and groaning sight-gags and jerky editing and frankly horrid acting and laugh and squeal at the gore and throw popcorn and have a great time and almost never be scared. And that's fine! People love The Evil Dead on those exact terms, and it's good that people love The Evil Dead at all, on whatever terms.
Then there is the experience of watching The Evil Dead alone, at night, in a dark room, and being viscerally uncomfortable and intensely afraid in a way that few movies can affect. There's something about the sequence of things here, about being pinned in a house in the middle of nowhere while unseen malevolent things work their way into your safe space. The Evil Dead traffics in two specific tools: the experience of realizing that things are deeply and irretrievably busted, that there is a threshold beyond which no return to normalcy is remotely possible; and unbelievable, spectacular, downright outrageous gore.
The violence is troubling, of course. But it's made less offensive and somehow more unnerving by the constant inescapable failures of poor special effects. This movie is more or less an accumulation of moments in which bad special effects are paired successfully with the agonizing realization that shit is way beyond serious, you guys.
Here is a particularly chilling example:
"We'll take the bridge, and ... "
Exactly. When whatever that thing is down in the cellar starts laughing, it's because it knows what the audience knows and what the other characters are just beginning to grasp: Oh man, we are so totally fucked. And the crappy makeup, I mean, it somehow makes it scarier.
(It should be noted that The Evil Dead contains a scene of genuinely ugly sexual violence that probably could have been edited out, and you should feel free to skip.)
The Evil Dead shares an And Then There Were None format with other classic horror movies like Night of the Living Dead, and the depopulation of human characters is executed with a level of malevolence that is thrilling in its playfulness and patience. The whole thing builds to an over-the-top special-effects gore-fest of a final act that is graphic and stomach-churning and outrageous and hilariously cheap-looking, like watching Mr. Bill die of Boneitis and explosive decompression in slow motion over and over again. It winds up being the exact right ecstatic release of built up tension, a well-earned goo-splattered spectacle of special-effects overreaches.
The Evil Dead is a great October 29 kind of movie: totally Halloween-appropriate, but not the very best. Among the best, but not the best.
October 30: Halloween (1978)
Seven sequels, a remake, and a sequel to the remake have likely left you with the impression that Halloween is your basic gore-soaked slasher flick, and, yeah, I guess it sort of is that. I mean, the villain here does a fair amount of slashing, and most of his victims are shitty punk teenagers in various states of undress. If slasher flicks aren't your thing, you will likely not be persuaded by the fact that this was sort of the grandfather of the modern slasher genre.
But it's worth noting that after the opening sequence—a disturbing first-person view of pre-adolescent Michael Meyers' first kill—there are no murders of any kind for, like, I don't know, several minutes, at least. And the movie is noticeably light on explicit violence and gore overall. It might be the least bloody slasher flick of them all, and that's a good thing, because flowing blood is the kind of thing that makes a viewer hide his or her eyes, and this is a movie that deserves your full attention.
Like a lot of other truly scary movies, Halloween does most of its damage by placing something eerie and unknowable where it shouldn't be and obscuring it enough that you can't get much of a look at it. Here's an example from early in the movie:
That's how Halloween earns its biggest scares, whether it's via a masked figure slowly stepping out of view behind a hedge or a dark silhouette moving quietly around a distant house. It says something about the effective and important eeriness of this movie that it is known more for its spooky music than it is for any particular act of violence. Halloween exploits what is most true of terror and what distinguishes it from horror: the fear of that which is unseen, the stuff that is unverified and unknown. You will hoot and holler about the murders, but it's the quiet stuff here that will make your skin crawl, and there is a lot of quiet stuff.
Halloween is set, of course, on Halloween, and with its great music and masked villain, it makes a perfect Halloween movie. On the other hand, because it takes place on Halloween, I like to think it's better to watch it before Halloween, to infuse your experience of the day itself with all the foreboding that comes from watching the holiday get turned into something nightmarish and terrifying. Watch Halloween on the 30th and then dare yourself to venture out on Halloween night, into a world filled with masked, costumed, and unknowable silhouettes.
October 31st: The Blair Witch Project (1999)
(Netflix Instant, Amazon Prime, YouTube Rental)
In their own ways, science and religion teach people something that is reinforced by school and work and just plain curiosity: that the world is ordered in some identifiable way, and that even when the order cannot be observed, it will be there waiting for those who eventually gain the necessary perspective. If I look closely enough, I will be able to make sense of this thing.
Most storytelling is based, to one degree or another, on this exact way of understanding reality. The reader/viewer is introduced to a set of circumstances and given time and incentive to grow familiar with them, while a plot is put to work on those circumstances in a way that follows, if not a path of logic, then one of basic causality. Interestingly, no genre of fiction more predictably utilizes the belief that order can be found through observation than mystery. Mysteries present us with circumstances that are confusing and treacherous, but by the end our desire for and expectation of some sort of rational or at least linear explanation is nearly always satisfied. Mysteries, if anything, confirm our sense that there are no true mysteries. Everything can be solved, eventually.
And viewers—well, my father-in-law, anyway—hate it when that expectation is thrown on its head. The 2012 quasi- Alien sequel Prometheus is a great example of this: We are presented with a set of circumstances that are illogical, that contradict the basics of biology, that seem to follow no linear path of causality. How does this thing plus this thing equal this thing over here while this same thing plus this thing equals that wildly different thing over there? How does this thing grow, and why, and how does any of this make sense? None of it makes sense, dammit!
By upending the viewer's expectation that eventually some order can be made of all these elements, the movie scatters and betrays our fundamental sense of how all of everything works, and in a way that—hey, would you look at that—mirrors exactly the experience of the movie's human characters. They are scientists, they are exploring, they are looking for answers, they are approaching the universe and reality with the expectation that they can gain some core understanding of its rules and history. And what they and the audience learn together is that no such ordering is possible. Not only can this thing not be controlled, it cannot even be understood.
And that dynamic is what makes The Blair Witch Project so fucking scary. In addition to all the dark scenes and scary sounds and the desperation and running and stick figures and rock piles, there's a fragmented, obscured, always off-screen and completely, terrifyingly unknowable new reality settling in around the movie's characters. They do not solve the mystery, they do not learn anything, there is no solving it, nothing can be learned. The act of discovery, simultaneously embarked upon by both the fictional intrepid filmmakers and the very real audience, leads only to a viscerally frightening existential ambiguity, a malevolent tear in the expectation of order.
Also, this scene is scary as a mofo:
The Blair Witch Project will forever be lumped in with the rest of the subgenre of found-footage horror flicks, a style of filmmaking now mostly utilized for shock scares and the endeavor of showing impossible supernatural events in a visual context that closely resembles our actual personal experience of the world. That can be fun! Look at that haunted person floating off the ground in, like, a normal bedroom! But there's none of that here. In fact, for much of the movie, what is most disturbing about it is the simple, innocent, totally believable crumbling of the straightforward-seeming plans of the characters in ways that are serious but not so apparently serious that the characters aren't, themselves, always just a step slow in appreciating their own peril. And then, before any of them have really started to freak out, suddenly there is just no longer any way to even pretend the situation is salvageable.
And the ending is impossibly, mind-shatteringly terrifying, a rare unimprovable few minutes of absolute cinematic perfection made so by a seemingly small sonic maneuver of just incredible, incredible genius. I don't want to spoil anything, so I will just say this: Pay close attention to who is recording sound, and then marvel in slack-jawed astonishment at the profound aesthetic wallop this one little detail produces. I'm getting chills just thinking about it.
This is the movie to watch Halloween night, once you're in for the evening. Turn off all the lights, wrap yourself in a blanket, and let The Blair Witch Project convince you to never leave your house again.