The best day of the year is nearly upon us—oh, Horror Christmas, how I love you. There is no better time to watch horror movies than October, and also no better time to try some new ones. Horror cinema has been quietly producing brilliant gems for decades now and Halloween is a perfect time to unearth a few you may have missed.
Who’s up for a classic?
You should watch every version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, preferably in quick succession. Seriously, with the possible exception of the Rocky movies, there is no starker, better example of why sometimes reboots are actually a good thing.
Famously, the original 1956 version ended with Kevin McCarthy running towards the camera screaming “YOU’RE NEXT!” before the studio stepped in and mandated a happy ending. The 1978 version stars Veronica Cartwright, Leonard Nimoy, Jeff Golblum, and Donald Sutherland in a ridiculously stacked cast, with an atmosphere of eerie, post-Watergate paranoia. It is very different in tone and has the single best ending to a horror movie I’ve ever seen. The 2007 Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig version, renamed The Invasion, also happened. What the hell, watch it for completeness’ sake.
Then there are the not-quite Body Snatchers movies. The Faculty, which is basically a love letter to the concept, and The Puppet Masters, which is an adaptation of Heinlein’s take on the concept (also starring Donald Sutherland!). Basically, you can get about six or seven solid movies out of the whole creepy alien invaders/impersonators idea pretty easily.
But my favorite is the 1993 version.
If the original is about communism and/or conformity, and the 1978 version about political cynicism, then the 1993 Body Snatchers is about the loss of personal identity in the face of monolithic nationalistic and cultural forces.
So, obviously completely irrelevant these days.
Anyhoo, its strength lies in the constant ramping-up of tensions and the collision between the family dynamic and the soldiers at its heart. This version centers on Gabrielle Anwar as Marti Malone, the daughter of Steve Malone, an EPA inspector played by the always excellent Terry Kinney. He’s remarried, and Marti is far from happy about that, or the fact that she has a brother now. Worst of all, they’re relocating to a military base for dad’s job. And that base is not in good shape at all…
The combination of kitchen sink drama, forbidden love, and the collision between clashing ideologies drives the first hour of the movie. Director Abel Ferrara tells us upfront that something has gone terribly wrong but holds off on revealing all until the middle of the movie. There, in a scene that’s surely a series highlight, Meg Tilly’s Carol (Marti’s stepmother) explains just what is happening.
Tilly has never really gotten her due as an actress and she is just flat-out brilliant here. The combination of calm sincerity and inhuman affect is the engine that drives the final act and leads to the second best ending out of all the Body Snatcher movies. It’s like a hybrid of the previous movies—the “YOU’RE NEXT!” hysteria of the original mixed with the very real possibility that our heroes have already lost and the sense that even if they haven’t, they’re irreparably broken. It’s grim as hell, fiercely unflinching and non-commercial, and is pretty much the last gasp for one of science fiction’s most interesting concepts. At least until the next version.
Next up, Slither. Do not eat before watching Slither. I mean, at all. Written and directed by James Gunn in his pre-MCU days, it follows the events in the small South Carolina town of Wheelsy after a meteorite crashes on the outskirts. The sentient parasite it contains proceeds to infect local thug and businessman Grant Grant (Michael Rooker) and begins building a new body for itself…
On paper, Slither looks like the sort of body horror that crowded video store shelves back when video stores were a thing. And that’s because it IS the same sort of body horror that crowded video store shelves—only this one was made in the 21st century by people who LOVE their work and maybe drink a little bit too much coffee.
Ranged against the increasingly terrifying Grant are his wife Starla (played by Elizabeth Banks) and Sherriff Bill Pardy (played by Nathan Fillion). And as the creature riding Grant begins to infect the town, they have their work cut out for them.
Slither is a gristly slice of joy. Not just because it’s gross (And IT REALLY IS) but because Banks and Fillion are just ridiculously good fun. Banks has always been one of the best parts of any cast she’s in, but Starla Grant is a standout role for her. She’s no one’s victim and her gradual transformation into the movie’s heroine is earned, funny, and very real.
Fillion has never been better than he is here. Yes, I know—Firefly—but this is him freed from the demands of that show’s very specific rhythm. Better still, this is Fillion playing a hero who is, well, a bit rubbish. Bill doesn’t have special skills or a dark past. He’s a small-town Sherriff. He’s lucky, but not that lucky, and the film’s best moments all come from Bill’s self-image colliding with his reality. Or in this case, getting its ass kicked by a delightfully unconvincing alien-infected deer.
Rounded out by great performances from Tania Saulnier as wily survivor Kylie and Gregg Henry as Jack, the town mayor, Slither is a film that’s joyously unpleasant, massively funny, and can stand next to the likes of Tremors and Grabbers as a modern monster classic.
I’m a horror podcaster, so I’ve always had a soft spot for short stories and anthologies. And that’s why Michael Dougherty’s Trick ’r Treat is close to my heart. It’s a welcome update on the anthology movie genre as a cast full of very familiar faces all have amazingly bad (and in some cases, very short) Halloween nights. All of the stories are tied together by Sam, a mysterious child wearing footie pajamas with a burlap sack over his head…
The stories are all neatly-handled Tales from the Crypt-style affairs. “The Principal” is a blood-soaked comedy as Dylan Baker’s Principal Wilkins tries to get just ONE moment’s peace to bury a body or two. “The School Bus Massacre” is a classic piece of small town gothic, and “Surprise Party” is a well-executed piece of cinematic slight of hand. And then there’s “Meet Sam,” which is worth the price of admission all by itself. Starring the ever brilliant Brian Cox, it’s a one-on-one war between the grumpy old man and Sam the creepy little kid. The payoff, again, is fantastic and it’s made even better by Cox’s wonderful, glowering performance.
So, we’ve looked at a classic (in many versions), a monster movie, and an anthology. How about we end with an all-time great?
Pontypool isn’t just one of my favourite horror movies. It’s one of my favourite movies, ever. Adapted from his own book by Tony Burgess, it stars Stephen McHattie as Grant Mazzy, a former shock jock who has fallen all the way to the tiny town of Pontypool in Canada. Broadcasting from a studio in a crypt beneath a church, Grant, his producer Sydney (Lisa Houle), and their tech Laurel-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly) are the sleepy region’s sonic wallpaper.
That is, until the first reports of violence come in. Faced by an outbreak of a virus hiding inside language itself, the three must work out how to communicate when communication can kill you.
This is an amazing piece of cinema. The three leads are all fantastic and the central concept, and logic behind it, are unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. It feels completely alien and unknowable in a way that lazier writers would present as Lovecraftian. Instead, the antagonistic virus here is presented similarly to the massive Lobstrocity glimpsed at the end of The Mist. We only ever see it in passing, we only ever understand a tiny portion of its existence, and that alone almost destroys us.
Everything clicks and connects, every element of the movie serves every other element. There’s the best use of “Here’s Doctor Science to explain the plot” in modern horror history, the deaths have real meaning and weight to them, and the entire story comes down to one voice and the power behind it.
Which as a podcaster, I understandably love.
Pontypool is wilfully esoteric, deeply strange, and very sweet. It’s the most hopeful movie about the end of the world I’ve ever seen and if you watch nothing else this Halloween, watch this.
Enjoy, and happy Horror Christmas, everyone!
Originally published October 2017.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.