1. Double feature: Nosferatu (1922) and Shadow of the Vampire (2000).
F.W. Murnau's silent classic is an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula," with names and locations changed to protect the unliving. Jonathan Harker becomes Thomas Hutter as he travels to Dracula's (now Orlok's) castle in the Carpathians with real estate documents for his new home in Wisborg. As in the novel, he discovers the vampire's true nature too late, and Orlok begins his journey to the little town, spreading death and disease along the Black Sea.
Often crudely filmed (but hard to judge by extant prints), Nosferatu features a truly terrifying performance by its enigmatic star, Max Schreck. As Orlok, he is tall, thin and completely chilling, with burning eyes, pointed ears and rat-like teeth. This creature is far removed from the characterizations seen in contemporary vampire films. No romantic leading man with a red-lined cape and baritone voice, he is the embodiment of disease and unnatural hunger—more like a repulsive human-shaped leech. As a matter of fact, plague and disease are recurring themes in this landmark film.
Stoker's widow won a plagiarism suit against the producers and ordered all the prints destroyed, but fortunately some survived and you can now get a pretty good remastered copy on DVD. When you take into consideration that about 80 percent of silent film history is lost forever, it's lucky we still have this monster to revel in.
Willem Dafoe is in turns hilarious and blood-chilling as Schreck, the actor Murnau insists to his fellow cast members "is so devoted to his role that he stays in character at all times." Surprisingly, his willing costars fall for Murnau's fabrication, and even when Schreck snatches a flying bat right out of the air and eagerly drains its blood, they applaud his dediction to his craft. Dafoe hits all the notes just right, playing it straight and letting the dark comedy of such a situation come through naturally. It's simultaneously creepy and funny.
2. Take a dive off the goofy board with Phenomena (1985).
Horror lovers consider Dario Argento to be one of the masters of contemporary Italian horror, and so do I, but part of the fun of watching his work is how crazy the plots can be. Phenomena definitely falls into that category. Fifteen-year-old future Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly stars as Jennifer Corvino, the daughter of an American film star whose agent has sent her to a remote Swiss boarding school, the Richard Wagner Academy. It's such a horrible place, you've got to wonder what she did to deserve the punishment. And they don't seem to teach the girls anything escept how to insult and wear bad '80s fashions.
Parallels to Argento's masterpiece, Suspiria, come fast and furious as she meets some strange and hostile teachers and a doctor who thinks she's schizophrenic and in immediate need of treatment. What was subtle before, even in Argentoworld, now gets slammed into our faces. Her roommate warns her about a mysterious murderer who is stalking students in the dark and foreboding forest that surrounds the school. A narrator even pops in at the beginning to let us know what's happening, just like the airport scene in the Jessica Harper classic.
The twist here is that Jennifer is a sleepwalker who also has the ability to communicate telepathically with insects of all kinds. During one of her somnambulist sojourns, she witnesses one of her fellow students viciously murdered by the unknown assailant and finds herself at the home of a local entemologist (don't all Swiss villages have one of those?) played by Donald Pleasance.
Since she has such an affinity for bugs, the good doctor decides the best thing to do is to put Jennifer on the case with a rare fly—known as "the Sarcophagus"—as her guide to search for the bodies of the victims that he surmises the murderer is stashing away to keep in close contact with. No worries about what happens if she actually runs into the murderer himself...
More surprises and lots of "huh?" scenes follow. There's some amusing gore, and Argento takes the opportunity to smash not one but two heads through panes of glass (his favorite). The score features some thrash metal songs that are not at all integrated into the editing. Nothing makes a scene move even slower than when actions are taking place at normal speed while the soundtrack is blasting a song by a band whose members you just know have that huge 80s metal hair and skin-tight leather pants. One of the groups listed in the film's end credits is "Andy Sex Gang." You get the idea.
Still, the actual revelation of the killer's identity is pretty cool—and did I mention there's a heroic chimpanzee? Thanks to the magic of DVD, the film (originally called Creepers in a truncated, direct-to-video American release) can now be enjoyed in its full glory in widescreen and 5.1 sound. And if you want to see how Connelly's career began, it's a must!
3. A 50s masterpiece: Night of the Demon (Curse of the Demon) (1957).
This black and white classic from one of the great directors of the Val Lewton (Cat People and Isle of the Dead) school, Jacques Tourneur, still delivers the thrills after all these years. Dana Andrews stars as John Holden, an American professor who has been sent to England to investigate a series of mysterious murders that seem to have been committed by a satanic cult.
He discovers that said cult is headed by Dr. Julian Karswell, a satanist who performs as a clown for children's parties (ewww! John Wayne Gacy!) and has been passing along pieces of parchment from an ancient book to people as a way of deflecting the curse of the demon from himself, resulting in the killings. When Holden meets Karswell, they lock horns over their conflicting beliefs, and Holden, not surprisingly, finds himself in possession of a cursed piece of parchment.
The rest of the film moves along in solid Lewton territory as Holden discovers more evidence of Karswell's malevolent power and must question his own beliefs. Is this guy really able to summon a demon from hell to snuff out an innocent victim of his choosing or is he just a creep in a clown suit? In one subtly chilling scene, Karswell explains to his elderly mother that he has to keep passing the parchments in order to survive—and she understands completely!
What makes this film so compelling is that the viewer is also put into this predicament. Even when the demon is manifested before our eyes, we still wonder if we're seeing something that's real or has been forced upon gullible minds by a psychotic but strong-willed human monster. The demon itself is a wonderful creation. Tourneur insisted that he fought against actually showing it, but it is so well integrated into the plot and is so effective that his claim can't possibly be true.
For you Rocky Horror fans out there, the line in the theme song, "Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes and casting them used lots of skill" refers to this film. The short story it was adapted from is called "Casting the Runes" and refers to the cursed parchments.
This concludes Part One of your Halloween horror suggestions. Look for Part Two on Thursday.