This time of year, every website and its grandma are already plastering the web with personal countdown lists of "favorite" and "greatest" horror films, which I suppose is one reason I've never really done it myself, even in all the years I've been posting Halloween content, but I'm pretty sure I've expressed more opinions about monsters than anyone else has ever cared enough to in the history of the planet, so maybe you're curious to finally know what a loser of that caliber would recommend for a Halloween movie marathon.
So, we're finally gonna do this. We're gonna run through my favorite-ever creepy creature features, and depending on how much time you've spent around this website, you might find the results either highly surprising or highly predictale.
If you're looking for "so-bad-they're-good" cheesefests, you might be surprised to hear that I actually get really bored with those, really fast. All of the movies we're going to talk about here are movies I personally find sincerely entertaining, cool, and effective in total earnest. On the other hand, if you're expecting a whole lot of movies to be here just because they're critically acclaimed, influential classics, you're going to notice some glaring absentees. Many if not most are fairly well reviewed and we'll see a lot of mainstream hits here, but it's still only a list of movies I liked, for my own reasons; no disrespect to any major names I skipped over.
For every single one of these, I'll share a trailer or a clip and explain why, exactly, it's one of my favorites, and since I used its poster as an article header, let's begin with...
The Deadly Spawn
Released in 1983 - the year I was born! - The Deadly Spawn is the simple story of flesh-eating, worm-like extraterrestrial monsters arriving in a meteorite and terrorizing a small, rural neighborhood. It doesn't sound like much, its trailer makes it look like a cheap, hokey B-movie, and that's certainly what it seeks to homage, but you have to see it for yourself to really appreciate the effort that went into its script, direction and atmosphere. The characters seem natural enough that the whole movie feels more "real" than others of its type, like we're really seeing how the people down the street from us react when confronted with a threat that shouldn't logically exist.
This is not a horror movie with a big body count, either; you'll think it's setting up some characters just to die, but it never goes for cheap, sadistic shocks. Death is kept to such a minimum that when it does happen, you care. You don't want these poor people to get hurt, and you really will root for them to get the best of these ravenous star-slugs, no matter how adorable those are.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man
If Tetsuo were in full color, it might have been too much for me to stomach. Instead, we can't tell what kind of fluids are spurting from the protagonist's increasing number of apertures and orifices as his body slowly transforms into a heap of scrap. It had never before crossed my mind that pieces of metal could be disgusting, but as we watch bolts, tubes, wires and sockets overtake a man's flesh like an otherworldly fungal infection, we can practically smell the mix of motor oil, sweat and blood wafting from the screen, and trypophobes should probably stay far away from this one.
Nausea aside, Tetsuo also offers some surreal, dream-like art direction, genuine dread and even some intense action elements, especially when we meet an individual who exerts a greater level of control over his own metallic infection...
I'm usually really, really neutral on most things by Neil Gaiman, to be honest, but Coraline is a beautifully crafted movie with some fascinatingly weird, distressing beings, a spectacularly cool - and in its true form, extremely attractive - main villain, and one of the very, very few straight-up horror narratives ever put to an animated film, which is baffling, but it's true. Try to name some animated, feature-length works that aimed, first and foremost, to be frightening. Animated movies that were intended and promoted as scary stories. There's a couple, at best. You can do anything in animation and everybody who counts enjoys watching animation, so what gives?!
Fiend Without a Face
When it was first released, Fiend Without a Face was considered too terrifying and too graphic for some theaters, even outright "banned" in some parts of the world. By today's standards, there are episodes of Gravity Falls with more hardcore gore and rot, but Fiend is still a fascinating concept with amazing execution. The titular entity spends most of the film in an invisible state, its ghastly sound effects the only warning before it sucks the brain and spinal column from another screaming victim. The shocking reveal that the "fiend" is a multiplying collection of crawling, leaping brains - and that they are everywhere - thrilled and sickened audiences of 1958, and it's still a chilling concept to this day. It's too bad there's no way to sing the movie's praises without spoiling what I just spoiled.
If you haven't already seen Bubba Ho-Tep, you're probably thinking it's nothing but a cornball, hipster horror-comedy. Bruce Campbell as Elvis Presley, battling a mummy in a retirement home sounds like a series of non sequiturs strung together for a quick buck and a quick laugh, which even seems to be the impression the trailer seeks to give you, but don't be fooled; Bubba Ho-Tep may have a comedy angle to it, but that never overshadows a sweet, suspenseful and even thought-provoking story.
We never do find out if our protagonist is really Elvis Presley or a professional Elvis impersonator succumbing to dementia in his old age, but the undead monster preying on the sick, forgotten, lonely residents of his retirement home is undeniably real, and together with his good friend John F. Kennedy, "Elvis" is determined to do something about it no matter the odds. No matter how hard it is for him to even navigate a flight of stairs without help. These are people whose families never visit, whose nurses just want them to take their medicine and go to sleep, whose lives consist of playing bingo and reminiscing about their better days while they count down the few they have left...but they're not going to let a dead guy pick them off without a fight.
The Blob (1988)
Some people are purists for the original Blob, the movie that established Steve McQueen's career and didn't need outrageous gore to be frightening, but of the two, I think the remake really does improve on the original in almost every respect. It's easier to get attached to the protagonists, the pacing is top quality and the pre-CGI special effects are breathtaking. The blob looks absolutely real, probably because it was made entirely of real materials, and the puppetry techniques of 1988 had long advanced to the point of bringing monsters to convincing cinematic life. Of all the ways to die via monster attack, none could be more horrible than to be dissolved alive in some sort of suffocating ooze, and the death scenes in this one positively haunted me as a child, and it wasn't even the visuals as much as the sound effects. I don't know what it really sounds like when a man keeps howling in pain after most of his innards have melted into sludge, but I'm pretty sure this movie captured it as well as we may ever know.
You might be surprised to hear that I'm pretty sensitive to blood and gore, which is pretty much what effects artist Yoshihiro Nishimura is famous for, but the movies he's worked on are so creatively weird that I'm more than willing to cringe my way through the spurting pus and flying entrails for more. Meatball Machine is a blend of action and horror slightly more on the horror side than other Nishimura gore films, and the premise is pretty attention-grabbing, with cackling parasites who turn human bodies into grotesquely transformable battle-mechs for their personal entertainment. They're gamers from beyond, every bit as horrifying as that sounds.
Killer Klowns From Outer Space
This is another movie that sounds like some terrible cheesefest on its surface, but executed with obvious passion from start to finish, never taking itself too seriously, but never quite losing itself to some self-aware B-movie parody, either. Rumored in-canon to be the true inspiration behind our own clown traditions, the Killer Klowns are only superficially humanoid, blood-sucking monsters whose carefree, unwavering playfulness and humor only add to the horror of their cruelty to a degree even most interpretations of the Joker tend to fumble with. Featuring such memorably creepy moments as the man-eating shadow puppet, the balloon hound, the popcorn creatures and the makeshift ventriloquist act, this movie milks its premise for everything it's worth, as goofy and hilarious as it is supremely unsettling.
Dead Alive (A.K.A. Braindead)
I mentioned earlier that I don't do too well with gore, and this early Peter Jackson feature has, in my book, some of the most unpleasant gross-outs in the entire zombie genre, not the least of which is a pudding scene I flat-out cannot watch. Maybe you're as willing as I am to power through a movie full of pink, squirting pus for some inventive and artfully directed undead mayhem, or maybe, and this is the more likely scenario, you're a whole lot less of a big baby than I am anyway. In either case, Dead Alive is a masterpiece of zombie outbreaks, featuring a host of strange, mutant undead and a directing style that makes the whole thing feel sort of like a fever dream in your memory. In a good way. Honest. There's even an intestine monster!
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
This is a Guillermo Del Toro remake of a relatively obscure, made-for-TV horror film that aired back in the 70's, and having seen both, I can't say I really enjoyed the original that much, but except for the plot's basic skeleton, the two films are completely different. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is more or less a movie about fairies, but we're talking old school fairies. These are child-stealing, tooth-eating unseelie folk from the deepest chasms of human culture, fully believable as living, breathing, perhaps even naturally evolved creatures, and you might never believe anything so tiny can actually emanate enough hate and malice to be taken seriously.
The horror of these creatures would be nothing without victims you can actually feel for, and the humans of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark put in a fantastic performance of their own. You might hate one or more of them at first - maybe even root for them to suffer, like so many other films set us up to do - but the more we learn about them and the more they learn about their situation, the harder you hope they'll get a chance to just stomp the little bastards.
This is another one many of you more than likely know and love already, and the only movie here that owes most of its popularity to that "so-bad-it's-good" mentality, though if you ask me, HOUSE (can you rightfully type it in anything but caps?) falls more under "so-weird-its-awesome." HOUSE is almost more of an artistic statement than a horror story, but who knows what that statement is supposed to be. By the time a painting of a cat is vomiting enough blood to flood the house, you'll either be too sick and confused or too sick and delighted to care why anymore.
That's it for our first ten mini-reviews. We'll be doing two more rounds of these by Halloween!