Ah, my favorite time of the year has finally arrived. The Halloween season. While I wish the leaves in the Midwest could take a few lessons from their blazing counterparts in New England, there's always something in the air once October hits. The memory of walking the streets decked out in a scary costume, feet crunching on the fallen leaves. The smell of candle-singed pumpkin and of chocolate clinging to the plastic Jack-o'-lantern in hand.And a plethora of horror movies waiting in all their edited splendor on television.
While some of the things I love about the season have changed (I haven't looked forward to a Treehouse of Horror episode in over a decade...or any episode of the The Simpsons, for that matter), a good book read during the gloomy weather or a scary movie watched in the middle of the night always bring me back. Given the pathetic lack of good genre films out in theaters right now, I figured I'd share some of my favorites with you by category.
Today, I think we'll tackle vampires. None of that sparkly Meyer bullshit here. These are the true monsters. The predators.
-Nosferatu. An adaptation of Dracula tweaked just enough to avoid copyright infringement. The fact that it's silence may put people off, but Max Schreck remains the most physically perfect vampire of all time. Gaunt, his features an eerie combination of corpse and rodent, his physical presence owns every second on screen.
-Dracula (1931). Bela Lugosi became a horror icon for a reason. Although Lugosi wasn't fluent in English, his accent and the strange cadence his inflections bring to his lines make him almost hypnotic to listen to. And then there's Dwight Frye as Renfield. The BEST Renfield. The guy is so good in his role he almost upstages Lugosi!
-The Horror of Dracula. Hammer remakes are some of the only ones I not only like, but love. The film successfully updates the hammier bits of the Universal production, succeeding in maintaining a more serious tone. Christopher Lee (of noble lineage himself) plays the Count with elegance and class, shifting into a monster beautifully when necessary. The movie also was the first to cast Peter Cushing in the role of Professor Abraham Van Helsing, providing just the right balance of quiet strength and dignity to the character.
-The Last Man on Earth. Probably the most faithful adaptation of Richard Matheson's classic, I am Legend. Vincent Price is at the top of his game as a doctor who may well be the last survivor of the human race. The bizarre schedule the character follows is intriguing, systematically clearing each new area of vampires while they sleep during the day, then barricading himself in his home each night, playing music to drown out their taunts outside. The film is a fantastic example of evil being a matter of perspective.
-The Night Stalker. Okay, it's a TV movie, but I'm going to allow it. Darren McGavin plays Carl Kolchak in the character's first appearance. Narrating to himself via tape recorder (as he always did in the series), Kolchak recounts the events surrounding his investigation of a series of murders in Las Vegas and the cover up that followed. Kolchak has always been one of my favorite characters, sleazy and manipulative while somehow managing to be likable at the same time. He's at his best here, made only more sympathetic by the alignment of forces both supernatural and human against him.
-Near Dark. A truly unique take on the sub-genre. Bigelow strips away much of the vampire's seductive allure and makes outlaw nomads of the clan in her film. Roving from place to place, killing when the mood or hunger strikes them, the group is forced to pick up an unwitting new member when one of their own gets over-invested in her prey. While the ending is a bit too pat (the "cure" for vampirism in the story is simple to the point of being ridiculous), it's fun watching the actors play off one another. Lance Henriksen's turn as the group's leader and Bill Paxton's as his slightly rabid protege make the film. Notably, Near Dark was probably the first movie to cover the horror of being immortal while trapped in the body of a child.
-Cronos. I am a huge Del Toro fan, and this film is one of his best. Linking the curse of vampirism to an ancient device, an elderly antique store owner accidentally infects himself. Hunted by a geriatric millionaire eager to reclaim his youth (or more accurately his son, played as a rather charming psychopath by Ron Perlman, the old man is helpless to stop the changes happening to his body as the effects of the Cronos device change him into a new being, tenuously anchored to his humanity through his love of his granddaughter. Del Toro's fairtytale aesthete and tremendously original take on the subject make Cronos my personal favorite on the list.
-Shadow of the Vampire. As close to a comedy as I'll put on this list (as much as I enjoy the original Fright Night). The movie depicts the filming of Nosferatu as if Schreck was an actual vampire. While blackly funny in a number of places, the amusement the viewer finds in Willem Defoe's portrayal of Schreck decreases in the third act as his murderous impulses become more and more apparent and Murnau spins increasingly out of control in his obsession to complete his masterpiece. The ending is genuinely creepy. And the scene where Schreck ruminates on the saddest scene in Dracula, insightful and strangely touching.
-30 Days of Night. A ray of hope amid all the atrocious Twilight films and their ripoffs. An Alaskan community's connections to the outside world are disabled by a mysterious stranger. Soon, a veritable vampire invasion in on the loose. Blood-drenched (sometimes, perhaps just a little too much) and brutal, there are no seductions or negotiations here. The humans are food, pure and simple, and the vampires fully intend to move through the lines of buildings like a buffet. A scene where they allow a young woman to wander through the street as bait while she calls for help is particularly unsettling.
-Let the Right One In. An adaptation of a Swedish novel. After watching it, I can't bring myself to go anywhere near the remake. A bullied young boy (Oskar) befriends what appears to be a young girl (Eli) who just moved in next door. The young actors in the film prove children can be damn good at the job. The exchanges between the two come off as natural and rather sweet, a sharp contrast between the borderline abusive (and possibly pedophilic) relationship between Eli and her guardian. The climax between the two children and Oskar's tormentors is incredibly tense, and the payoff, the most breathtaking scene in the film. And despite what appears to be a happy ending, there's the niggling feeling that Eli may have tread the same ground before, leaving the viewer wondering just how old Eli's guardian was when the two first met...