I grew up in the suburbs; Halloween was serious business.
On October 31st, after a day at school that was essentially a write off, as there was always a parade through the halls and classrooms to show costumes off that ate up a good portion of the clock, I would rush home, eat dinner in the living room while watching one of those early season Simpsons Halloween specials (I’ve always been partial to the segment where Bart sees the Gremlin on the side of the bus– an homage to this classic Twilight Zone episode starring Canadian legend, William Shatner, as well as the 80’s film version, starring John Lithgow.), and then spend the next several hours competing with my friends to see who could accrue the most pounds of candy.
Your neighbourhood may have been similar; maybe even yours is the house that everyone flocks to each year. On Rosecliffe Crescent, in London, Ontario, I never met the people who became legends on the block for their Halloween decorations, but they obviously made enough of an impact that I’m writing about them in this column over twenty years later. They would erect their monument to the holiday overnight– one day the place was a non-descript family home with a yard and two car garage, and in the morning it was there looking like something raised from Hell while you were sleeping. An graveyard of bent tombstones littered the grass; every window was blanketed in cobwebs; when darkness fell, ominous lights would cast the glow of skeletons and animatronic ghouls across the doorstep.
Pretty serious stuff. These people also tended to give out, like, full sized Oh!Henry bars to each trick-or-treater, so their status as Halloween Gods would have been cemented either way.
But, I digress.
After years of enjoying this routine, my first year of high school, my parents informed me that the party was over, and there would be no more roaming the streets in full costume, looking for my sugar high. I was relegated to door duty, forced for the remainder of my Halloween’s to hand out candy to the lucky revelers. Stuck inside each October 31st, I started running marathons of horror movies to pass the time, which brings us to the purpose of this column:
Presenting– A Completely Subjective, Top 5, Halloween Playlist No One Asked For.
5.) Gremlins (1984)
Yeah, yeah, I know; technically this is a Christmas movie, but this one speaks to the gloriously deranged 80’s kid in me. Quick recap if you’re late to the party– Salesman father buys an exotic pet for his son; exotic pet spawns horrible, green monsters, that proceed to destroy the entire town; much blood is spilled, an old woman gets flung through her window, and everyone learns the true meaning of the Holidays. This was marketed as a kids film when it came out, and together with Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom, where a dude gets his beating heart ripped clean out of his chest, ushered in the MPAA’s PG-13 rating. Classic 80’s practical effects, puppets, and good old fashioned violence combine to make this one of my seasonal favorites. Honestly, watch it for Howie Mandel as the voice of Gizmo, and for the phenomenally bloody Kitchen Sequence.
4.) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
I will preface this with a warning: the last 20 minutes of this movie are a rough go. Without providing spoilers, a group of deranged, back woods, killers– with a taste for human flesh– are hosting a dinner party with a captive young woman. The sequence, shot over a 26 hour period, in a farm house in Texas, with temperatures exceeding 115 degrees, would be a violation of every majour safety standard in place on a film set today. Chainsaw has this awful, Lo-Fi, vaguely unpleasant undercurrent running all through it. Despite the eye popping name, much of the brutal violence in the film is implied through quick cuts, and grating sound design, and the shoe string budget creates a film that looks as ugly as it’s subject matter. The film introduced the world to Leatherface, and spawned a pile of inferior sequels and reboots, as well as launching the career of director Tobe Hooper, who went on the direct the 80’s classic Poltergeist.
3.) The Evil Dead (1981)
Marketed as The Ultimate Experience in Grueling Terror, this blood soaked, low budget story of a group of college kids trapped in a cabin in the woods (before that was a thing we all made fun of!), kick started the career of film maker Sam Raimi, who went on to direct the original Spider Man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire. Centered around a race for survival against a growing horde of demons, The Evil Dead is gleefully unhinged– a fun house of practical effects, terrible dialogue, and genuinely creepy moments. Though it paved the way for two sequels, The Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, & Army of Darkness— both of which veered towards horror/comedy– the original still holds up as a fast paced, bloody mess.
2.) The Thing (1982)
One of my all time favourite monster movies, John Carpenter’s ultra gory, 1980’s remake of the 50’s sci-fi film of the same name, features some of the best practical effects you will ever see in a feature length film. The body count piles up at an Antarctic research facility, after an extra-terrestrial parasite assimilates members of the crew, and imitates human forms. Paranoia and claustrophobia pervade every frame, coupled with absolutely bonkers special effects, courtesy of a then 22 year old Rob Bottin. Though it was panned when it was released in 1982, it’s stature has grown, to cement it as one of the best films in the John Carpenter canon, and one of the best sci-fi/horror mash ups of all time.
Interlude: Ernest Scared Stupid
Before we get to the number one pick on this list– this brief interlude.
When I was a kid, someone in my family took me to see this damn movie. Up until 1991, Ernest was a wacky every man who tried to bust out of jail, and help kids enjoy their summer camp experience. For whatever reason, some executive decided that the next logical step in the character’s evolution was as a mythological troll hunter. This movie was definitely intended for kids, but that troll is seared into my memory. It turns kids into wooden dolls! it imitates voices and hides under beds! I remember being traumatized by this evil, evil movie. I’m sure the troll is less terrifying, now that I’m a grown adult, with their life together, but I’m still too afraid to find out.
1.) A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
With all due respect to any number of other great films– Halloween, Psycho, The Exorcist, the Shining…– Freddy Kreuger was such an integral part of my childhood, that I can’t help but place the original, wise cracking movie fiend at the top of this list. Arriving dead center in the midst of a slasher film craze in the 1980’s, Freddy’s bladed glove remains one of pop cultures most identifiable weapons, and his scarred visage will forever be associated with the horror genre. With on screen deaths that still have the capacity to rattle you, over 30 years later, an all time great premise, and the feature film debut of Johnny Depp (Who gets eaten by his own bed!) the original Elm Street remains one of the gold standards of the genre, and a perfect night cap to an evening of Halloween viewing.
So, there you have it, debate away at the validity of my picks– in closing, I leave you with the rallying song of Ontario schoolchildren everywhere, a mainstay of our French immersion classes: C’est l’Halloween!