The Difference Between a Great Horror Movie and a Great Halloween Movie
I never watch 'Halloween' on Halloween.
That's not to say that I dislike John Carpenter's slasher classic. In fact, it's one of the best horror movies ever made and a masterpiece that I find myself revisiting at least once a year. But when I do revisit it, I tend to watch it in December. Or February. Or even in the heat of the July. The moment October rolls around, I shelve any interest I have in it.
And it's not alone. You won't find me revisiting a lot of famous, respected and beloved horror movies when the season of the witch rolls around. No 'Exorcist.' No 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre.' None of those brutal French or Japanese movies that horror buffs like to spring on their unsuspecting friends. The Halloween season brings out something different in me. It focuses my tastes for 31 days. I don't spend my October watching tons of horror movies, I like to spend my October watching tons of Halloween movies.
For many people, there probably isn't a difference between the two. That's because, for many people, the horror genre is something that they flirt with for one month of year, taking four weeks to revisit old favorites before returning to their standard cinematic diet. For those of us who find ourselves indulging in the genre year-round, Halloween offers an opportunity to explore a specific kind of horror movie, a completely unspecified sub-genre that's nebulous at best. It's very much a "I know it when I see it"-type situation, but I know when a horror movie is a great Halloween movie and when it is not.
I don't want to feel bad for helpless victims. I don't want to feel genuine terror. I want the haunted hayride experience: I want to scream because I'm having a great time.
It's all about tone. I avoid 'Halloween' on Halloween because it's a grim film, a dark experience that gets your blood pumping and intends only to chill you to the bone. And that's great! It succeeds at that! It's a noted masterpiece for a reason! But when I think of Halloween, I don't think of grimness, terror and shifting uncomfortably in bed, seeing every shadow as a masked man primed to kill me. When I think of Halloween, I think of cold air and warm clothes and a hot glass of cider. I think of the smell of latex and itchy costumes that you put up with because it's the only time of the year that you can get away with dressing like a ghoul. I think about hayrides and haunted attractions and pop-up stores that sell only costumes and make-up that vanish on November 1.
Yeah, I think of ghosts and vampires and witches and monsters and killers, but I think of them with a smile on my face. Halloween is the most mischievous of holidays because it gives you permission to sympathize with the devil (literally or figuratively, pick your poison) for a few weeks. I want my cinema to reflect that for a month. I don't want to feel bad for helpless victims. I don't want to feel genuine terror. I want the haunted hayride experience: I want to scream because I'm having a great time. I want to indulge in the pleasures that accompany the macabre and the sinister. I want to find the humor and wicked wit that often accompanies depictions of evil.
A great Halloween movie isn't a man with a chainsaw. It's a man with a fake chainsaw running at you and stopping at the last second. It's the conversation after the haunted house where your friends laugh and say "You should have seen your face!"
While there are plenty of modern movies that scratch this particular itch, the filmography of one actor stands out above all of the rest: the great Vincent Price. No actor has ever felt more like a pure embodiment of the Halloween spirit, whether he knew it or not. Over the course of countless movies made over a very, very busy half century in the motion picture business, Price played horror villains, heroes and everything in between. He was masked murderers, unwitting victims, ruthless masterminds and acid-tongued jesters. It's impossible to pick even a handful to represent this career: 'The Abominable Dr. Phibes,' 'Witchfinder General,' his exceptional Edgar Allan Poe adaptations he made with Roger Corman, his cheeky William Castle films ... the list goes on.
However, all of these performances, as great and varied as they may be, have one thing in common: Price was always, even ever-so-slightly, in on the joke. Sometimes, the wink and the nudge are obvious and sometimes it's hidden under something genuine, but Price was the master of injecting just the right amount of ham into his performances, enough to elevate and exaggerate, but never poison. A Vincent Price performance is a playful performance -- he can barely contain a cheeky smile and the subtext of every line seems to be "Can you believe this is happening? Can you guess what will happen next?"
Price is at his best in William Castle's 1958 B-movie classic 'House on Haunted Hill.' Often unfairly derided as a "bad" movie, this is actually a minor masterpiece of the horror genre and one of the most self-aware horror movies ever made. At a brisk 75 minutes, it has no room for nonsense or fat. It cuts straight to the chase, delivering spooky set pieces and pitch black jokes. If you find yourself laughing at the film's hokey effects or exaggerated acting, know that Castle and Price are three steps ahead of you. This is a Funhouse ride of a movie. Things jump out and you scream and laugh. It's more of an experience than narrative, but so are those haunted houses you spend $25 to walk through every October.
Plenty of horror movies from Hollywood's first 50 years fit the Halloween bill. The classic Universal Monster movies, especially 'The Bride of Frankenstein' and 'The Invisible Man,' possess a grim sense of humor that make them wonderful seasonal romps. Even some films that seemingly stray from the horror path are perfect Halloween movies. 'Abbott an Costello Meet Frankenstein' could have reduced the characters of Dracula and Frankenstein's creatures to big jokes, but it actually treats them as actual threats that, somehow, perfectly mesh with the title comedians' brand of slapstick.
All of these movies don't ask you to laugh at the monsters. No. They ask you to laugh with the monsters. Occasionally, they ask you to cry with the monsters. After all, 'tis the season to love a monster.
Plenty of modern horror films bear this specific seasonal torch. Sam Raimi reinvented the horror-comedy with 'Evil Dead 2' and crafted one of the best and Halloween-iest movies ever made by transforming gruesome gore into slapstick. Over 20 years later, he made 'Drag Me to Hell,' a sinister but strangely light-hearted romp that simply demands the smell of pumpkin spice to be in the air when you watch it.
And then there's Michael Dougherty's 'Trick 'r Treat,' which embraces Halloween imagery and iconography while delivering a movie that feels exactly like the holiday it's representing. Despite its body count and violence factor, the film keeps its tongue firmly in cheek, utilizing comic book imagery to create a tone that feels dangerous in the same way that a young kid reading horror comics under his covers after his bedtime feels dangerous. That's Halloween in a nutshell. See also: George Romero's exceptional 'Creepshow.'
While most hip modern horror directors spend their time and energy trying to out-brutalize each other, Ti West released one of the best Halloween horror movies ever made in 2011 with 'The Innkeepers.' A ghost story that feels like it would be right at home around a campfire, the film is as funny as it is frightening. It genuinely feels like the kind of story you'd hear while taking a tour of a haunted hotel. Even when it's at its scariest, you can't help but smile. It's a film drunk with affection for spooky tales, the rare horror film that acknowledges that seeking out the supernatural can be fun. Naturally, things go horribly wrong for the characters in the film, but the gallows humor keeps it from ever transforming into a truly ghastly affair. It's a movie best watched while chowing down on a massive pile of fun size candy bars.
When Halloween comes and goes and everyone's plaster pumpkins and animatronic cackling skeletons go back into storage for another 11 months, I'll return to a more balanced horror movie schedule. I'll go back to watching brutal slasher flicks through closed fingers and trying to tough it out through gruesome Italian movies that test my stomach. But for these few precious weeks, I like to watch the movies that let me embrace the dark side while allowing me feel good about it. With Vincent Price, the Patron Saint of Halloween, to guide me, I want to walk into a cinematic maze filled with dry ice and fog machines and out-of-work actors in face paint and I want to scream and I want to laugh. Is that so much to ask out of Halloween?