We all have different ideas as to what a Halloween film should be. Some of my picks below have scenes that take place during Halloween. Others are ghost stories or stories in which being in costume or from outer space is important. Several are just downright scary, which, I suspect, many may consider the most important qualification.
1. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) with Cary Grant, Raymond Massey, Peter Lorre, Jack Carson, and Josephine Hull: Grant plays a confirmed bachelor who decides to give marriage a try until he discovers insanity seems to run in his family: one relative thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt; two others appear to be harmless little old ladies, but they poison gentleman callers and bury them in the basement; another is a wanted murderer who shows up with the doctor who surgically disguises his face – now he looks like “Boris Karloff!” The director was Frank Capra, so look for a happy ending.
2. Eerie, Indiana (TV series 1991-1992) with Omri Katz, Justin Shenkarow, John Astin, and Jason Marsden: Young Mr. Katz plays Marshall Teller whose family has relocated in a town that he has found to be the planet’s center of weirdness, but nobody believes him: a kid gets a retainer on his teeth and suddenly he can hear what dogs are thinking, there is a Bureau of Lost where all those things like ballpoint pen caps go that just disappear out of the clear blue, Tobey (Spiderman) Maguire is a young ghost who wants Marshall to deliver a long-lost love letter to his now-elderly girl friend, and much more. This unique little treasure never caught on, but its 19 episodes are real Halloween treats, if you can find them – the complete series is available on a DVD box set.
3. E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982) with Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, Peter Coyote, Drew Barrymore, Robert MacNaughton, and C. Thomas Howell: If you don’t know about this one, you don’t watch movies anyway. Aliens land on earth to collect plant species from our planet. They are frightened away by human investigators who detected their landing, but one alien gets left behind. He is befriended by 10-year- old Elliott (Henry Thomas), and the rest is pure magic. On Halloween, Elliott and his brother and sister disguise E.T. as a ghost so he can reach the woods and call his people. Prior to Shindler’s List, this was Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece.
4. Fortress (1985) with Rachel Ward, Sean Garlick, and Marc Gray: Ward plays a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in the Australian outback. She and all her students are kidnapped by four thugs who wear costume masks, such as a duck and Father Christmas. The teacher and her students eventually escape and determine to get even with their former captors. The way the kids begin to act may remind you of Lord of the Flies. Not a great film, but Ward and young Garlick are very watchable and make it worth seeing.
5. The Hitcher (1986) with C. Thomas Howell, Rutger Hauer, and Jennifer Jason Leigh: If you like your Halloweens to be somewhat scary, this may be what you are looking for. Howell plays a young man earning some money by driving across country to deliver the car to someone. Hoping it will help keep him awake, he decides to pick up a hitchhiker, Rutger Hauer. The hitcher lets it be known pretty quickly that he is a deranged, bloodthirsty, mass murderer. Howell gets very little sleep from then on. He does escape, but he is relentlessly pursued. Things get pretty tense!
6. The Innocents (1961) with Deborah Kerr, Pamela Franklin, and Martin Stephens: This is probably the best of all the filmed versions of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, and it is written by Truman Capote. Deborah Kerr plays a governess who has been placed in charge of two children on a huge English estate. Eventually she begins to see two people whom no one else acknowledges seeing. They are two former employees of the estate who are now dead! She becomes convinced that these ghosts are trying to gain possession of the innocent children. Is she correct, or are the apparitions merely figments of her imagination?
7. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) with Donald Sutherland, Leonard Nimoy, Jeff Goldblum, Brooke Adams, and Veronica Cartwright: This is one of those very rare times when I actually prefer the remake to the original, but it is a close call. Kevin McCarthy, who starred in the original makes a cameo appearance in this one. Your neighbors, spouses, and significant others are systematically being replaced by replicas hatched from alien pods. It is virtually impossible to tell who is an alien and who is not until it is too late. And it is important not to ever go to sleep if you don’t want to be duplicated. This is scary stuff.
8. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976) with Jodie Foster, Scott Jacoby, Martin Sheen, and Alexis Smith: Young Jodie lets you know that it is only a matter of time before she takes home two Oscars for Best Actress. Teenaged Scott Jacoby has already taken home an Emmy for TV’s ground-breaking gem That Certain Summer. Sheen is years away from all those awards for playing President Bartlett on The West Wing. Sheen shows up at Jodie’s house on Halloween, and it is fairly obvious he is a child molester. Landlady Alexis Smith as Sheen’s mother (who has been covering up for him) shows up and is concerned that Jodie appears to be living alone. Where is the father Jodie keeps talking about? Scott Jacoby, dressed in a magician’s costume, passes by and wonders why Alexis’ car has been abandoned in front of Jodie’s house. I don’t want to tell too much about all this, except to add Martin Sheen’s contribution to the list of famous last words: “It tastes like almonds.”
9. Psycho (1960) with Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, and Janet Leigh: This shocker, masterfully directed by Alfred Hitchcock, has the unforgettable and terrifying music of Bernard Hermann. Incredibly, Anthony Perkins wasn’t even nominated for the Oscar he should have won. In fact, he was too good in this one. His career suffered because he was typecast, and we never saw enough of him after this. Even Janet Leigh was always remembered for what happened to her character in one of the screen’s most frightening moments. After unwittingly making the mistake of stopping at the Bates Motel and checking into cabin one, she decided to take a shower and made screen history.
10. The Sixth Sense (1999) with Haley Joel Osment, Bruce Willis, and Toni Collette: Young Osment capably carries this bizarre and spooky story of a boy who sees dead people. Surprisingly, not only does Bruce Willis do no harm to this film, he even displays the talent he exhibited previously in Nobody’s Fool and Pulp Fiction. M. Night Shyamalan’s clever direction prevents most viewers from realizing something, which should have been obvious, until he wants you to know it. Osment will not communicate with his mother, played by Toni Collette, about what troubles him. Willis plays the child psychologist who tries to help him and thereby help himself get rid of his own past demons. This thriller has ghosts galore, and they are often bloody!
11. Somewhere Tomorrow (1984) with Sarah Jessica Parker, Tom Shea, and Paul Bates: The future star of Sex in the City shines in this little ghost story. Ms. Parker comes upon the wrecked plane of Shea and Bates. Bates is basically unharmed, but Tom Shea is dead. The problem is that his ghost keeps hanging around, and Parker is the only one who can see him. He is not a frightening ghost. In fact, he is quite nice. So why is his spirit unable to rest?
12. The Thing from Another World (1951) with Kenneth Tobey, Dewey Martin, Arthur Franz, Margaret Sheridan, and James Arness: Howard Hawks is the official producer, but just about everybody suspects he also wrote and directed much of it as well. The dialogue is nothing short of great! As an Air Force captain, Tobey flies his crew and a group of scientists to the vicinity of the North Pole to investigate a disturbance. They find a flying saucer buried in the ice and also find its pilot! The frozen man from outer space is brought back to a desolate base camp where he thaws and escapes. And he seems to survive by consuming blood! The monster is played by James Arness, four years before he began his twenty-year stint as Marshall Dillon on Gunsmoke. During one of their plans to defeat the Thing, one of the crew asked, “What if he can read our minds?” A fellow airman answered, “He’s going to be real mad when he gets to me.”
by David Offutt, October 2005