Wednesday, October 30, 2013

13 for Halloween

It's usually a surprise to friends and acquaintances to learn that, despite my love for the horror genre, I'm not a fan of Halloween. Mostly it's kind of an inconvenience, having to remember to buy candy which I don't want in the house anyway because of the temptation. Also, I am no good at all when it comes to coming up with costume ideas. Happily enough, these days my kid is perfectly happy to wear a store-bought costume, and my employer isn't interested in company Halloween parties.

But as I do have a great love for the horror genre, I should do what everyone else on ye olde internet is doing, and post some suggested scary entertainment. Following are 13 completely random stories and movies that have given me the chills over the years (ask me a week from now and you'll likely get a different list - like I said, it's random).

  1. "The October Game" by Ray Bradbury (short story) For Bradbury, October is usually a wondrous time, though not without its dangers. In this story, he turns his usual celebration of October on its head, as the season drives a man trapped in a loveless marriage and family to extreme measures. It's a great little tale whose horrors are deftly (and mercifully) understated.
  2. The Thing, directed by John Carpenter (movie) Carpenter's made so many movies that are fit for this time of year (including, of course, Halloween). But The Thing is not just a good scary movie, it's a good movie. There's genuine menace in every frame, from the isolation that takes its toll on the characters, the unforgiving Antarctic climate, and the alien that can masquerade as any living creature. 
  3. Under the Skin by Michel Faber (novel) Faber became well-known for his fantastic Victorian novel The Crimson Petal and the White, but his debut novel is well worth seeking out. On the lonely highways of Scotland a woman named Isserley prowls, on the lookout for strapping young men. We learn early on that her interest in the men isn't sexual, nor is it murderous (strictly speaking), but something much more disturbing. This is one that will stay with you for a while.
  4. "It's a Good Life" episode of The Twilight Zone  Adapted from Jerome Bixby's short story, "It's a Good Life" shows us a small town in the midwest that's isolated and completely under the control of an all-powerful being - who happens to be a young boy. It doesn't seem that scary at the outset, but think about unlimited power to bend reality and command life and death combined with a child's amorality and deadly sense of whimsy.
  5. Audition, directed by Takashi Miike (movie)  The best horror is often that which lulls you into a false sense of security. Think of Janet Leigh in Psycho, making the decision to return to her old life with the stolen money and then...  A similar thing happens in Audition, when a lonely, likable widower finds that the new love in his life is a bit unhinged. The audience learns this a bit before the character does, so much of the horror comes from knowing things are destined to end in a bad way.
  6. Suspiria, directed by Dario Argento (movie)  A fever dream in vivid Technicolor, Suspiria lacks much in the way of plot, but makes up for it with stunning atmosphere and the dread that comes from never knowing what's around the next corner (for both the movie's story and the freaky dance academy where the movie takes place). Think of Jessica Harper's ballerina as a heroine out of a fairy tale, up against some monstrous witches.
  7. Pet Sematary by Stephen King (novel)  I probably shouldn't include this one, for while it's arguably King's scariest novel, the horrors are a bit too close to home, particularly if you're a parent. Confronted with the worst when his child dies, a young doctor decides to play God and resurrect his child. Possibly the scariest part of this book is how its inevitable tragedy results from sorrow and good intentions rather than malice.
  8. "The Monkey Treatment" by George R. R. Martin (short story)  A comical horror tale that's yes, by the author of A Song of Ice and Fire. A chronic over-eater wants to lose weight but hates to give up food stumbles upon what seems like a foolproof method called the Monkey Treatment. No spoilers, but it's a nifty take on humor, horror, and pizza.
  9. The Changeling, directed by Peter Medak (movie) It's a trope I've often noticed in horror that there's nothing like some recent bereavement to put one in touch with the supernatural. That's what composer George C. Scott discovers when, several months after the death of his wife and daughter in a freak road accident, he moves into a gorgeous old house and soon makes contact with a ghost that lives there. It's a quiet film, full of creepy touches (anyone else notice that the ball is wet when the ghost tosses it back to Scott, after Scott has thrown the ball into the river?), creepy atmosphere, and a nicely restrained performance by Scott.
  10. "I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream" by Harlan Ellison (short story)  Aside from having one of the best titles in the history of fiction, Ellison's story of a murderous computer and the humans it tortures with every fate imaginable - save for death - also has one of the most horrifying endings ever.
  11. "The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe (short story)  The horrors of this story are more subtle than those in much of Poe's work. It's only afterward that you realize the protagonist condemned poor Fortunato to an appalling death just because Fortunato had insulted him once too often. Yikes.
  12. Witchfinder General, directed by Michael Reeves (movie)  The uneasiest horrors are those rooted in reality. This film finds a restrained, coldly malevolent Vincent Price as real-life witchfinder Matthew Hopkins, who roams the English countryside condemning innocent people as witches; in exchange he gets power, glory, money from bribes, and isn't above extorting young women for sex to protect their relatives from witchcraft charges. Also known as The Conqueror Worm (a title given to make it appear as one of the Poe adaptations popular at the time).
  13. The Getaway by Jim Thompson (novel)  It's not horror per se until its final chapter, though many horrific things happen along the way, from a person who's suffered so many grievous physical injuries in his youth that his chest bones have fused into a bulletproof shell to having to spend several days hiding out from police in a manure pile. But its final chapter is grimly poetic in its depiction of a place that seems to be heaven for its fugitives from justice, but is really hell.
There you have it! Happy Halloween!

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