Bloody October: Poltergeist


You want to know where Paranormal Activity got it? Poltergeist.  With the combined might of Steven Spielberg (before he got too warm and fuzzy) and Tobe Hooper behind it, Poltergeist is one of the first, and best, of the suburban haunted house films.  A nice suburban house nice suburban neighborhood transforms into a portal to hell.  It all starts out innocently enough, with the little girl Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) sleepwalking and talking to the static on the TV.  Then something stacks all the kitchen chairs.  The beginning of the haunting is actually treated with a sort of glee, as the mother Diane (Jobeth Williams) experiments with the moving furniture in the kitchen. Then the “TV people” come and take Carol Anne away through the closet and things get much more serious.

I’ve seen Poltergeist numerous times now and I always forget just how damn good it is.  It’s a commentary on how disrespectful and thoughtless modernity can be.  It calls into question just how safe we are in our planned communities, how little we think of the past and what will burst through at a moment’s notice.  The adults initially treat the haunting as a game, until the most basic fear of every parent – their child being taken – is played upon with brilliant precision.

Poltergeist makes use of all the trappings of suburban life.  The dead come back because they’ve been disturbed when the planned community is  built on top of a cemetery.  It’s the revenge of the ancient on the unthinking, disbelieving modern, and the terrors are as primordial as they come.

There are few viewers who don’t relate to those childish nighttime fears, like your toys are trying to kill you, or the tree outside your window is going to grab you out of bed.  The very fact that the entrance to the other world is in a child’s closet is part of the most basic fears of childhood.  There is something in the closet, and it’s coming for you.

Bloody October: The Cabin In The Woods


It’s taken me this long to finally see the Joss Whedon penned The Cabin in the Woods.  Oh, how I wish I had not waited.  It’s … epic.  Somewhere in the vein of Tucker and Dale vs. Evil with a smattering of Scream.  Then again, it really does stand in its own category.  Five college kids go to a cabin in the woods and everything begins to go horribly, hilariously wrong.

My one objection is that it is not really scary.  It’s funny, it’s dark, it’s provoking, but there are few scares, mostly because we know at least part of what’s going on from the very beginning.  It helps if you have a working knowledge of quite a few horror franchises, are apprised of the rules of slasher films, and can recognize certain tropes without having them handed to you.  But there’s so little that can be said about The Cabin in the Woods without giving the game away, so I’ll just say that it’s well worth a watch.  And you don’t even have to keep the lights on.

Bloody October: Sleepy Hollow

Right, so as I have limited time but I really want to keep updating this here blog o’mine, I’m going to start posting short musings uponst the scary movies I watch this October. Why? Because the leaves are falling, the skies are going grey, the wind howls through the skeletal trees and it’s time to consume massive amounts of candy and have bad dreams about werewolves, non-sparkly vampires, haunted houses, nasty ghosts and Vincent Price.  Or Peter Cushing, whoever takes your fancy.


Ever will I defend Tim Burton, because of movies like this. To launch my October scary-movie-watching, there’s nothing better than Burton’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek tribute to Hammer horror. Johnny Depp plays Ichabod Crane, a pale-faced New York constable headed upstate to the wilds of the Hudson Valley to investigate several beheadings that have been blamed on the local ghost. He finds, natch, a bunch of weird locals, foggy and twisted woods, a few more beheadings and a lovely Burtonian waif in Christina Ricci. Cue gushing blood, heaving bodices, one hell of a carriage chase and a burning windmill.

Burton and Depp were at their best in the 90s. In some ways, Sleepy Hollow is the icing on the cake of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns. References to Hammer films abound, from the outlandish blood, spinning heads and dark backstory, to the presences of Michael Gough and Christopher Lee in bit roles. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, but neither does it turn the gothic and  romantic story into a parody. Depp as Crane is a likable but squeamish detective, tortured by the past and not terribly certain about the future. He avoids the caricature that has sadly colored his latest roles; watching it last night, I was struck with the realization that this might be the last time we see Depp the Actor instead of Depp the Star. The cast surrounding him from Ricci on down is uniformly excellent, all of them sinking their teeth into their parts with gusto – especially Christopher Walken in a non-speaking but pivotal role.

The film bears only a passing resemblance to Washington Irving’s folksy horror story, despite an excellent tribute in the middle of the film as the Horseman rides Ichabod down bearing a flaming pumpkin in his hand.  It does trade in folk tales and cinematic references – the burning windmill will please anyone who has seen the original Frankenstein.  The film looks and feels like a New York horror story with an edge of Hammer and Universal. Burton knows his horror. He does his best work when he tries to make a good story first and layers the Burtonian influences on second.

Sleepy Hollow is the way I always start my Halloween. It’s a more adult film than Beetlejuice or The Nightmare Before Christmas, and miles away from disappointments like Alice in Wonderland. I know viewers who don’t like Tim Burton who love this film. But it helps if you like Tim Burton.