LIST OF SCARIEST HALLOWEEN FILMS TO WATCH

SHORT TAKE:

A list, gleaned with the help of some of my friends and family, of filmed entertainments to help heap on the horror at Halloween.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Depends on the entertainment and the kid in question, but pretty much everything on this list is for a minimum of mid-teens and up, except for the two I mention at the bottom for the younger set, but EVEN THEN, as always, parents, use discretion – see them first AND WITH your child.

LONG TAKE:

This year I decided to do an informal survey – VERY informal – of my husband, children and a few friends, for what they thought were the scariest movies at the time they saw them. Didn’t matter whether they still thought them scary now or not – just that they remembered the film as being the scariest thing they had ever seen at the time. I asked each to pick two.

Below find the runners up in alphabetical order followed by my personal recommendations at the end.

So – as Richard Dawson used to say during Family Feud: Survey SAYS!!

Alien – this one not only happens to be at the top of the alphabetical list but was chosen by the most people. This 1979 hit is the FIRST in what has since become a major franchise – the spaceship Nostromo, which turned into a haunted house/people trapped in a slasher movie – the original with chest-burst John Hurt and the first time we ever saw the multi-serried teeth, accordian-jawed , acid blood, armored killer. I was so scared during the scene when Harry Dean Stanton gets a “close encounter” with the full grown version that I remember thinking – “This is no longer fun. I am so scared it is painful.” I couldn’t face even the thought of it until Aliens came out 7 years later.

Annabelle – a demon doll, in search of  souls to possess, stalks an innocent unsuspecting family. There are few things more frightening than dolls, created to provide gentle entertainment and comfort to children, portrayed as vessels of demonic evil.

The Blair Witch Project – gotta tell you, this “founder” of the “found footage” movies scared the living daylights out of me. I remember telling my husband as we watched it at home on a TV screen: “Honey, the lights are on, and you’re in the room, and I KNOW this is only a movie but this thing is scaring me spitless!” (Probably the fact I’m afraid of camping at night to begin with contributed mightily to my reaction.) I had to actually look up the actors and assure myself they were cast in movies after this one before I was convinced it was just a hoax.

The Blob – (the original, not the extremely bad 1988 remake) while very dated, is a 1958 classic which still holds up in the gut-wrenching suspense category, in no small part due to the acting talents of Steve McQueen in one of his very first films, and a very simple concept simply, and VERY effectively, expressed. A small — well, blob — lands on Earth via meteorite in a small town. When examined by an unwary but curious passer-by he is slowly and painfully absorbed, but not before the poor Ground Zero victim gets to a doctor who is more quickly overpowered by the now far larger mass. Mindless, voracious, completely silent, and able to creep through screen doors, window cracks, up trees, into gutters, it takes very little special effects to get you picking up your feet and jumping at the slightest touch from something that brushes against you in the dark.

Cloverfield – saw this one in the middle of the night, in a hotel room, after a long drive. Where most monster- disaster movies are shown from the view of the heroes who will eventually overcome the beasts, Cloverfield is seen from the point of view of poor schmucks who, like Rosencrantz and Gildenstern in Hamlet, do not know what is going on or why, but end up suffering the consequences of the catastrophe going on around them. Also the first “found footage” movie since The Blair Witch Project and the first “found footage” sci fi.

The Conjuring – another evil spirit terrorizing a family, this time the manifestation is of a woman named Bathsheba, who committed suicide as part of a Satanic cult ritual. Loosely connected to the above mentioned movie Annabelle, as the demonologists sought for help are the same who fought the demon doll.

The Grudge – a curse in the form of an entity, born of someone who dies in the grip of rage or extreme sorrow, which , by its nature, is repeated in a terrible endless cycle of inescapable grisly deaths.

Hostage – deals with the scariest monster of all – a human. The only one on the list which has no supernatural terrors or science fiction horrors and is therefore the most deeply disturbing, for the simple reason that people like the psychotic kidnapper Mars actually exist.

Jurassic World – dinosaurs escape their confines at a theme park. Imagine, (to loosely paraphrase Ian Malcolm, Jeff Goldblum’s character from the first Jurassic movie), if the critters at a Disney zoo got out to snack on the tourists.

KrampusDrag me to Hell meets Gremlins set during Christmas.

Morgus’ assistant Eric’s signature laugh: Here’s a blast from the past. A local New Orleans TV show featuring a campy mad scientist host for late night horror and B science fiction movies aired on and off from 1959 through 2006 under various monikers, each title having the name “Morgus” somewhere in it. Each half hour Morgus episode was split into roughly 5 minute bits shown with the commercial breaks. During these episodes Morgus tries some crazy experiment – shrinking people, making them invisible, home made nuclear bombs, mind control – which predictably went horribly wrong. By the end of the show Morgus and his mute assistant Chopsley were always unavailable – arrested, running away, blown up, turned to dust, whatever. This left his other assistant Eric – a disembodied skull attached electrically to the top of a TV screen – to bid the audience farewell after the credits rolled on the feature film. The eyeless skull would sign off in closeup every week in an echoy cadaverous voice: “Tune in next week when Morgus the Magnificent takes us into the realm of science. Good night. Pleasant dreams,” then would let go with an ominous evil cackle —- which I never heard because I would cover my ears and run out of the room. Something about that laugh and it wishing me “Pleasant dreams” got to me every time. I mean, I was all of maybe 5 or 6 when I first heard it. I can handle it NOW — really, honest, it’s on Youtube and I don’t run out the room any more – altogether. Maybe just keep my distance a bit, turn down the sound…..For anyone interested in this ultraspoof you can find entire episodes on Youtube HERE.

The Stand – Stephen King’s opus as a mini-series about the end of the world — twice – once by a genetically engineered virus with a 999/1000 kill ratio which leaves the world littered with mountainous piles of dead and decaying bodies, then again when the Devil’s own son sets up a totalitarian regime in Las Vegas to come after the survivors’ souls. While I admit the book was far better, the video was not a bad rendition. When tackling a 1,472  page novel (in its uncut form) and given the limitations of the material allowed on TV in 1994, even 361 minutes was not nearly enough time to do the best work of Stephen King justice. Nonetheless, the very concept will give you significant nightmares. It does not hurt that Gary Sinise and Ed Harris lend their talents to this abridged effort.

The Ring – grisly frightening movie about a cursed DVD which sends a ghoul to crawl right out of the screen to kill you. Talk about too much TV being BAD for you!!

Signs – Joaquin Phoenix and Mel Gibson as brothers trying to defend their children/nephew/niece in a science fiction horror movie about a family trapped on a farm house in the middle of a corn field in a War of the Worlds-type scenario . If you can ignore some of the preposterous plot points, it’s a fun way to get the pants scared off of you. Blends humor and suspense in equal measures and one of Shyamalan’s better works.

MY TOP RECOMMENDATIONS

TO TERRIFY OLDER TEENS AND UP:

Aliens – the sequel to Alien, only this time it’s space marines facing down an entire swarm of Alien critters made from a harvest of unwary human colonists. This well written script expands on the “haunted house” theme in the first venture to provide a thoughtful commentary on two extreme faces of motherhood as Ripley and the Queen Mother of all Aliens face off to defend their own in a show down which will grab you with visceral ferocity.

A Quiet Place – this movie will disturb your dreams forever. The most thoughtful, well written and well acted terrifying movie I have ever seen. Humanity is stalked by critters, from where we know not, faster than a cheetah, which will rip you to literal shreds if they hear you make the slightest sound. We follow a family, one of the lone surviving groups, who have learned the art of silence through their use of sign language with their deaf daughter. The brilliance is not just in the execution (if you’ll excuse the grisly pun) but in the layers of meaning in the story which can be seen as a strictly horror flick, as an analogy for the terrors of raising children in a dangerous world (SEE MY REVIEW HERE) or even, as Bishop Barron noted in his review HERE, a modern myth representing the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation.

FOR THE OLDER CROWD WHO LIKE TO ALTERNATE LAUGHS WITH THEIR SCREAMS:

Shaun of the Dead – Simon Pegg’s parody-homage to zombie movies. Funny for adults, but – word of advice – don’t show it to your kids thinking they will find it as funny as you will. (Kind of why it made the list for some of our now grown surveyors – but that’s OK – that’s what therapy funds are for – oops.)

Zombieland – Parts 1 and 2 which (once Part 2 leaves the theater and gets on DVD) could be shown back to back as one movie. (SEE MY REVIEW HERE) A grotesquely funny flick, which turns the genre on its ear with an ersatz family of survivors in a post-zombie apocalypse, who approach killing the brain hungry undead with the joie de vivre of extreme sports enthusiasts.

FOR KIDS OF ALL AGES:

The Wizard of Oz – the flying monkeys will get you every time. Classic story with a timeless message of a girl who gets what she wants, to run away from her troubles, only to find out that “There’s no place like home.”

Disney’s delightful animated Legend of Sleepy Hollow – (not to be confused with the very weird feature length live action with Johnny Depp) based upon the Washington Irving short story of a gangly school teacher who moves to a new town which hosts a frightening legend in the form of a headless horseman.

So there we have it – from winged monkeys and dinosaurs to demons and a garden variety psychopath, these are movies which scare me and mine and some of our friends, in some cases have done for decades.

So – Tune in again when I will take you to the realm of movie mavin-ness. Good night…Pleasant dreams. Muhohahahahahahaha.

READY PLAYER ONE – A GEEKATHON – WHEREIN ONE DYSTOPIAN SOCIETY IS REPLACED WITH ANOTHER

SHORT TAKE:

Forget HAVING Easter eggs in it – Ready Player One really IS one big Easter egg of visual and auditory memorabilia set against a virtual reality treasure hunt but leaves one wondering who the real bad guy is.

LONG TAKE:

The premise to Ready Player One follows Wade (Tye Sheridan – the new Scott Sommers/Cyclops), a participant in a global virtual reality treasure hunt with the prize of ownership of the virtual world Oasis and virtually (pun intended) unlimited wealth and power. Not only is he competing against all the other Gunters (Easter Egg Hunters), but finds himself up against an "evil" competitor company IOI, run by Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn who was both the doomed sinister scientist in Rogue One and delightful as King George VI in Darkest Hour), which produces the virtual reality equipment used in the Oasis and will stop at nothing in either the virtual world or the real one to win the prize.

If you thought the Collector in Guardians of the Galaxy had an abundance of references to other movies, wait – because the Collector's Showroom compared to Ready Player One is like comparing a birthday candle to a blowtorch.

I supposed it did all start with the 1979 Atari game Adventure. A departing employee placed his name in a video game, like the signature on a painting, which only appeared when a certain spot was hit. Atari management decided it was a good marketing ploy and started planning similar little "treasures" which eventually came to be known as "Easter eggs".

As time went on the same ploy began to be used in movies. Like product placement, subtle and not so subtle references to other movies started turning up in odd places. Pixar is famous for having the Pizza Truck from Toy Story in all of their movies – as an advertisement or a toy or some other clever way to implant the image. The same for the ball in the first animated Pixar lamp short, and the voice of  John Ratzenberger in EVERY Pixar movie – Hamm in Toy Story, the Flea circus manager in A Bug’s Life, a construction worker in Up, a crab in Finding Dory.  "Easter Eggs" all. And they can be both obvious and obscure in other movies. Stan Lee appears in all the Marvel movies with a cameo and one liner. Harry Dean Stanton from the doomed Nostromo in the original Alien movie portrays a security guard in The Avengers and asks a transformed Banner who just landed/crushed a building as the Hulk, if he is an "alien".

Easter eggs can manifest in a variety of ways – a musical theme or song, a toy, a picture or photo, the appearance of an entire character as a cameo. And I do not think it is a coincidence that the vast majority of movie Easter eggs occur in sci fi and animated movies because THAT is where the geeks are! And the geek world of video games is where they were birthed.

So, as a fellow geek, it is without fear of revealing any significant spoilers that I can safely say Ready Player One is pretty much one BIG Easter egg, or more accurately a Conga-line of familiar images, a plethora of homages, a virtual EXPLOSION of Easter eggs – and just in time for Easter.

If you took a snapshot pretty much anywhere in the virtual reality, Oasis, created by Ready Player One you could probably count 15 Easter eggs in any given random shot. I went with my sister, my mother-in-law, my son-in-law and my oldest daughter and each of us caught images or characters or houses or landscapes or music themes that others of us did not. And I feel certain that even if we pooled our collective observations there were dozens in every shot that none of us saw.

The homages in Ready Player One is an overload of nostalgia, almost an assault on the senses of little treasures: from Freddy Kreuger to the house out of the Wizard of Oz to the Charm of Making from John Boorman’s Excalibur to the Star Fleet insignia from Star Trek.

Not all the Easter eggs are quite so obvious. Some are thematic or even in the structure of the premise. The movie can be seen as a homage to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory starting with the trailer's remix of "Pure Imagination". RPO's Halliday (Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies, Wolf Hall, Dunkirk), the co-inventor of the virtual reality world, Oasis,  has a mental candy factory which he plans, posthumously, to leave to the player who completes three challenges and assorted surprise trials which, like Charlie's decision about to whom to give the Unending Gobstopper at the end of Willy Wonka, tests the integrity as well as the video gaming prowess of the players.

There is also a magical whimsicalness and endearing awkwardness to Rylance’s Halliday, much like there is to Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka. Halliday is a kind of combination Bill Gates, Willy Wonka, and Rainman – all products of the 70s and 80s. There's also an evil competing Corporation who is out to get the secrets of Oasis at all cost, much like Slugworth is portrayed as being after the secrets to the Wonka Factory.

Then again, the main characters and their friends play out much like Dorothy and her friends in The Wizard of Oz who have real life counterparts in Kansas. The Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow in Oz are farm hands on a ranch owned by Dorothy's aunt and uncle. In Ready Player One, similarly, Art3mis (not a typo) a fairy like character and Wade’s primary ally (Olivia Cooke), along with a Ninja, and a cyborg all have human counterparts in the real world.

BEYOND HERE BE MASSIVE SPOILERS – I MEAN REALLY – DON'T SAY I DIDN'T WARN YOU

But seriously – how much spoiler can there be when you know this is a Steven Spielberg movie? Nice kid and his friends go up against an evil corporate Empire. Do you really think Spielberg is going to go Brazil on us? So the kids will win……………….sort of.

BUT

What if I told you about a movie featuring an opium addicted kid who is given the opportunity to win ownership of the Opium syndicate through a series of physical and mental challenges. When he wins, predictably, in the end, he frees the slaves made to work in the field but continues making the opium, thereby perpetuating the creation of voluntary slaves who willingly take his product. You would probably think this was some kind of Chinese film noir. And I'm not sure you would think the lead was much of a hero either – certainly not a role Jackie Chan would want.

Now replace opium with a virtual reality game and you have Ready Player One.

Keep in mind this kind of premise has been dealt with many times before: Logan’s Run – sheltered society where movement to the "next level" at 30 was a cover for the ‘60's Hippie Utopia of killing everyone over 30 (reference Who lyric: "Hope I die before I get old"). Or Total Recall where the ending is debated to this day as to whether Quaid really is on Mars as an operative or has had a psychotic breakdown in a virtual reality machine. Then there was a Night Gallery episode where a woman spent all her free time in a virtual reality with a family she couldn’t have in real life because she spent all her time in a virtual reality machine!!! – which eventually blew up, killing her and leaving her consciousness in the machine with her pretend family (happy ending?????). Then there was Wall-E in which mankind has left Earth a mess to languish in a space cruise ship doing nothing but playing videogames and getting fat. Or Star Trek: The Next Generation’s "The Game" in which the entire crew is hooked/enslaved to a VR game which rewards the pleasure centers of the brain. And Strange Days where people live others people's lives through virtual reality and it goes horribly wrong.

And I can’t help but remember the Simpson’s wisely self-cautionary tale titled Itchy & Scratchy & Marge wherein the only responsible adult in the Simpson family gets violence on the popular children’s program Itchy & Scratchy removed. This results in the now bored kids turning the TV off and going outside. Owlishly they blink in the sunlight, then one by one the children in the neighborhood start playing ball, swinging on the playground equipment and interacting like normal children, all to the tune of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony accompanied by a brilliant visual homage to Disney’s Fantasia’s imagined illustration of the same Symphony.

However, in all of these examples, the mental and emotional blight inherent in a society dominated by a cyber-arm’s length distancing from the real world is forefront. The bad guys are the ones who perpetuate the virtual reality. In Ready Player One it is not the total and continual emersion in a non-real framework that is at faulty, but only the ones who run it.

This philosophy, which dodges the foundational problem and focuses only on the people at the helm of the destructive juggernaut, eerily reminds me of the modern liberal Socialist mentality. Modern liberals contend that Socialism and its Big Brother (pun intended) Communism are not evil but that the problems which arise of: famine, totalitarianism, crushing state run conformity, depression, suicide, collapse of healthy societal and family structures, promiscuity as an escape, abortion as a result, and persecution of religion, all come about, not because the machine is fundamentally evil, but that the wrong person ran it. Modern liberals think that the brutal dictatorship of Stalin’s Russia would have been a Utopia had Nancy Pelosi been allowed to crush people, I mean run the country (into the ground).

Don't get me wrong I love video games. I’ve played p[lenty of them myself. So I can first-hand appreciate the dangers of the allure.

In Ready Player One there is apparently no other business. And much like in Wall-E ,there doesn’t seem to be anyone under eleven – what you might think a minimum age to negotiate the more complex virtual reality programs. Apparently unless you are old enough to play a video game in Ready Player One you aren’t important enough to exist in this "reality". There are certainly no babies in Ready Player One as they would take up way too much of your time from playing Oasis. There are no churches. There aren't any pets or wildlife…. or even vermin for that matter. No one cooks and pizza is delivered but there is no indication of anyone raising wheat or cows or cooking. The only thing that seems to exist is glass, metal and people playing this virtual reality game. There is no industry shown of ANY kind that does not revolve around the virtual world of Oasis. There are no grocery stores. There are no farms. Soylent Green anyone?

This kind of environment makes more sense in a dystopian reality which you are trying to condemn. And while there is some lip service paid to the idea that video games and virtual reality should not completely supplant reality, it's a bit like telling opium addicts they should go out for a burger a couple of times a week.

I had two opposing problems with the main bad guy, Sorrento. Biff in Back to the Future threatens dangerously but we never actually witness him kill anyone. (Yes, there is some history with the rich Biff and Mad Dog Tannen but one gets changed with history and the other kills people we do not know – not much of an ethical distinction in real life but important when defining a character in a movie). Sorrento and his henchwoman, the main bad guys in Ready Player One, do kill other people – not just their avatars – in the movie. However they are never treated like dangerous villains but more like Biff's comically evil character. But on the other hand – Sorrento at one point zeroes out all the players, throwing everyone on the planet back into the real world – like in Itchy & Scratchy & Marge. As the former Gunters and other VR players walk dazedly around looking at the sun and each other for the first time in who knows how long, the main characters note how "oddly" they are behaving – not glued to their virtual reality world. Wade, the titular good guy, eventually resurrects the Oasis through a bit of cyber legerdemain and the cycle will soon begin again. So I’m left to wonder – who is the REAL bad guy here?

I’m not saying this is a bad movie – it’s really a lot of fun to watch. One could go in with a clipboard and probably get a kick out of just jotting down the visual and auditory references. Some bright bunny ought to market a checklist or Easter Egg BINGO – where you mark off all the ones you see.

But for an upbeat kid-intended movie there is a very dark side to Ready Player One. I couldn’t help but walk out of the theater a little depressed and even disturbed by the fate of the world that had been created. I would have been far more impressed if, at the end, the street rat turned Slumdog Millionaire, who had seen first hand the flaws in sucuumbing to virtual reality addiction, had used his now considerable wealthy and power to start rebuilding the city – perhaps reimbursing the former slaves for their labors, melting down the mountains of rusted and abandoned cars to build actual factories that made real THINGS people could use, was shown with blueprints to build homes to replace the "Stacks" of mobile home parks which blighted the city, founded working farms, funded scholarships.

Instead we are treated to Wade snogging his girlfriend, (not even his wife) cuddled in a chair in a Penthouse apartment who notes with some self-satisfaction that he had turned off the Oasis on Tuesdays and Thursday. This would be a bit like a successful and less violent Scarface assuring us that he established meth rehab clinics for the worst of his addicted customers and doesn’t that make him a hero after all?

IN CONCLUSION:

I have some real mixed feelings about this one. If you go in with the intent to enjoy a cruise-line quantity banquet of nostalgia then this is the movie for you, but be aware you might be left with a very dystopian taste in your mouth after the feast.

WARNING NOTE:

I was a bit disappointed in the language used for what is primarily targeted to a young audience. There is casual use of some mild profanities but more disturbing are some specific uses of blasphemies for which there is really no justification and totally inappropriate for children to be saying. In addition there is some "just covered up" nudity but is a zombie creature and certainly not salacious. In addition there is some mild sexual innuendo. There is also extreme (expected) virtual violence but also some real world lethal force.

This all adds up to an appropriateness age of mid teens and up which is really older than what is being targeted in advertisements.