Heavens, I miss Halloween. As a kid in the Midwest, the holiday pulverized my senses: the potpourri of rotting leaves and Sunday barbecues, the whispers about the mysterious neighbor who never opened their door, and my friends with prosthetic gashes across their faces and plastic aliens bursting from their chests — what a sight.
Where did it go? I suppose there’s no clearer sign that I’d grown up than when Halloween became just another excuse to drink and eat candy I’d never ever eat any other day. (Have you ever actually read the ingredients of a Butterfinger?) After I moved to Texas in my thirties and went full boring adult, my favorite holiday became little more than a reminder to get serious about saving money for Christmas gifts.
So a few years ago, out of disappointment and boredom, I sparked a new tradition by creating a Google Calendar for October, assigning myself one Halloween-friendly film or TV show per evening. I finally made time for monster-movie classics, and recaptured a fraction of that Ray Bradbury brand of October energy. Over the past few years, I’ve become increasingly obsessed with making and respecting the calendar. And with COVID-19 keeping me indoors this Halloween, it’s become a fixation.
This year, I’ve decided to share the calendar with y’all. Hell, I’m already doing the work, so why not? Every day in October, I’ll reveal a new film, TV episode, or online video for you to stream. Since you have a trillion choices, I’m arranging the entries in themes, each film complementing one another. I’m also providing some context to illuminate the experience. For example, I’m starting the calendar with “unconventional ghost stories.” The ghost story is surprisingly popular among film auteurs who otherwise overlook the horror genre. The appeal of spirits connects directors from the Australian New Wave to Southern Gothic to, well, David Fincher.
If you’re following along with the viewing choices on this calendar, I strongly encourage you to share them with a friend, even if you can’t watch the picks in the same room or at the same time. One of the pleasures of great horror is its ambiguity, the empty space it leaves for us to insert ourselves and our own anxieties. It can spark epiphanies and conversation we might otherwise avoid. And what better time for us to communally process fear and trauma than right now?
Be sure to share your favorite Halloween-time favorites in the comments, too. Happy Halloween month!
UNCONVENTIONAL GHOST STORIES
Thursday, October 1st: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
On Valentine’s Day of 1900, a large group of schoolgirls and teachers travel to Hanging Rock, Victoria for an afternoon picnic. A band of the girls decides to ascend the rock. Atop the cliff, exposed fully to the Australian sun, the young women enter a trance and disappear into its crevices. The incident is filmed in languid shots of the teachers and students basking in sunlight that nearly blows out the picture. It’s like taking a mid-July hike on general anesthetic, the world blurry, the sound echoing, reverberating, and distant. Time is frozen, and in this brightness, the girls appear to be already dead. To the handful of men in attendance, they’re angels. But in their own absence, they become ghosts.
In the film’s second half, we get the fallout of the missing girls. The memory of them, and the accompanying guilt, haunts the classmates and townspeople who can’t make sense of how a few young lives could seemingly disappear.
If you like Picnic at Hanging Rock, you might also like The Leftovers. The HBO show about a fraction of Earth’s population disappearing, and how the survivors respond, borrows heavily from Picnic at Hanging Rock, along with other films by its Australian New Wave director, Peter Weir.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is available to stream on Criterion Channel.
Friday, October 2nd: Eve’s Bayou (1997)
It’s early October, which means 85-degree highs in the southern parts of the United States. Temps will drop as the month rolls on, but for now, I’m working my way through some of my favorite sweaty-hot horror films. Is there a better Southern Gothic pic than Eve’s Bayou? Of course not — the film’s preserved in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.
On its surface, Kasi Lemmons’ debut is a domestic drama about a teenage girl who catches her father having sex with a family friend, and has to carry the emotional burden of that secret. But Lemmons sows threads into the narrative, giving it texture and profundity. The title references the family’s origins: they’re the descendants of Eve, a slave, and the master whose life she saved. On land gifted to Eve, the heirs seem both blessed and cursed, like Greek gods, their lives brimming with parties, booze, sex, but also prophecies, curses, and tragic fates.
Eve’s descendants are all haunted by their pasts, sometimes literally by ghosts, but most often by memories they can’t forget, no matter how they try.
Eve’s Bayou is available to rent or buy on Amazon.
Saturday, October 3rd: Zodiac (2007)
Let’s ease into cold fall weather with a trip to the Bay. In 1969, the Zodiac killer commits his first murder in broad daylight in Vallejo, CA, but this isn’t a slasher film pivoting on the serial killer’s horrific personal attacks. It’s worse. Zodiac is David Fincher’s terror opus, examining how our fear of the unknown and desperation to impose order over chaos can consume our lives, isolate us from our loved ones, and detach us from the fabric of time, until we wake up one day playing Atari in a houseboat, wondering what the fuck went wrong.
The Zodiac killer kills a few people, but over the course of his reign of terror, he destroys the lives of others by wheedling into their brain with dopey puzzles and elliptical clues. The journalists and cops at the heart of the movie feel they must stop the killer to save lives, not recognizing that the quest will consume them in return. Catch-22.
Midway through the film, the journalist (Jake Gyllenhall) and a cop (Mark Ruffalo) go see Dirty Harry, the Clint Eastwood film inspired by the Zodiac killer. In that film, Eastwood plays a rogue cop who defies the rules and kills the villain. Reality can’t be so simple, but it proves no less cruel.
Zodiac is now available to stream on Netflix.
Sunday, October 4th: Poltergeist (1982)
Director Tobe Hooper is best known for 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but I have a soft spot for his brief and unhinged foray into Hollywood filmmaking, beginning in 1982 with Poltergeist, and ending three years later with his follow-up, Lifeforce.
Poltergeist was supposed to be Hooper’s flashy entrance into Hollywood. The film told the grim tale of a family who moves into a nondescript home in a SoCal suburb, where a gaggle of ghosts kidnap their daughter and carry her into an alternate dimension. Silly as the film sounds, it’s grotesque. The film actually received an R rating from the MPPA, which later bumped it down to PG after Hooper and Spielberg protested the label. (This was before PG-13.)
Yes, Spielberg was a producer on the film. And a co-writer. And has long been rumored to have helped direct the film without credit, since he was currently under contract with rival studio Universal to complete E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. It feels like a Spielberg film, all close-ups and wide eyes. Then the family falls into a muddy pit full of skeletons, and it’s all Hooper, a creator who’s never met a prop corpse he couldn’t milk for horror.
If you like Poltergeist, you might also like Lifeforce. After the Poltergeist hoopla, Hooper went on to direct one more big, expensive Hollywood film, the sexy-space-vampire horror-thriller Lifeforce. Watch it for Patrick Stewart’s performance alone.
Poltergeist is now available to stream on Netflix.
Monday, Oct. 5: The Frighteners (1996)
2001 saw the release of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which kicked off one of the most beloved and financially successful trilogies in the history of film. Jackson earned the opportunity to shoot all three films back-to-back off the success of his indie films: the gory Dead Alive and Meet the Feebles, and the indie darling Heavenly Creatures. But between his indie trilogy and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson released a humongous, expensive flop.
The Frighteners stars Michael J. Fox as Frank Bannister, a man who can see and communicate with ghosts after a car accident kills his wife. Bannister and a trio of ghouls use the trick to hustle the living. Then the demonic spirit of Jake Busey shows up.
The Frighteners was best known for its startling-for-the-time special effects (early Weta Digital!) and the lenticular VHS box cover, a ghastly skull that looked like it was pressing through the box surface, thanks to the novelty 3D effect. Is the actual movie good? Kind of. Did I watch it every sick day of my teenage years? Yes. Yes, I did.
If you don’t like The Frighteners’ manic humor-horror, you may prefer David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. Here’s a ghost movie where Casey Affleck wanders around in a sheet for 95% of the film, and the camera lingers on Rooney Mara while she sad-eats an entire pie. It appears to be the opposite of A Ghost Story in every way, and yet they both circle similar questions of marital grief.
The Frighteners is now available to stream on HBO Max.
Tuesday, Oct. 6: House (1977)
Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House is a Japanese film on the Criterion Channel seemingly filled with terror and gore. I get how that particular collection of words might intimidate certain folks, that its pedigree suggests a film equal parts stiff and scary. Friends, House is neither of those things. Watching it is like taking LSD before you ride the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland: confusing, hilarious, and maybe, just maybe, just maybe a little too mentally stimulating.
The film was released in Japan in 1977, but got a remaster release in the US in 2010. I bought a ticket the minute after I read these lines from Manohla Dargis’ review in The New York Times: “This might be about a haunted house, but it’s the film that is more truly possessed: in one scene a piano bites off the fingers of a musician tickling its keys; in another a severed head tries to take a bite out of a girl’s rear, snapping at the derrière as if it were an apple. Later a roomful of futons goes on the attack.”
With House, I’m wrapping up my unconventional-ghost-story recommendation series. Next up, we convene The Midnight Society.
House is available to stream on Criterion Channel.
Wednesday, Oct. 7: Hubie Halloween
To follow the ghost-stories theme, I’ve collected some delightful films and TV shows that capture the campfire-tale mix of terror and delight. Coincidentally, “terror and delight” is actually a good division of Adam Sandler’s recent filmography!
- Terror: Grown-Ups 2, The Ridiculous 6, Jack and Jill
- Delight: The Hotel Transylvania trilogy, The Meyerowitz Stories, Uncut Gems
Now, Sandler has blended the two together with a Halloween-themed horror-comedy. Hubie Halloween is part of Adam Sandler’s metastasizing oeuvre of Netflix exclusives, and it fits comfortably alongside its peers. It’s like a bite-sized candy bar: short, sweet, and you probably won’t remember it in the morning.
Like so many recent Sandler films, the project doubles as a hangout session for his celebrity friends. The guest list includes Maya Rudolph, Ray Liotta, Kevin James, Michael Chiklis, Keenan Thompson, and Julie Bowen, who got her big break in Sandler’s 1996 comedy Happy Gilmore.
Hubie Halloween is available to stream on Netflix.
Thursday, Oct. 8: The Witches
I’ve never seen past the first 15 minutes of The Witches. My dad took me to a Saturday morning showing in 1990. I was five. Some evil women turned a boy into a mouse and then they ripped off their damn faces. I screamed. My father escorted me from the premises. We got chocolate milkshakes at McDonalds and agreed not to tell my mother. I am only just now realizing that my mother still doesn’t know about this.
I’m only including The Witches because my colleague Matt Patches recently wrote an essay on the film, convincing me that at 34 years old, it’s time I gave it a second shot. But then I looked at the top image in his write-up, and I was like, “No, I’m good. How about you watch it and let me know what happens. Cool? Thanks.”
The Witches is available to stream on Netflix.
Friday, Oct. 9: The Haunting of Bly Manor
The Haunting of Bly Manor is the spiritual follow-up to Netflix’s breakout 2019 horror TV show, The Haunting of Hill House. It’s also a loose adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, one of the greatest horror stories of all time. The premise is simple: a wealthy man hires a young woman to watch his niece or nephew on his estate. She sees ghosts. That’s all you need to know. Watch the show. Or read the story. Hell, you could do both, and it would still be shorter than watching a full season of CSI.
Mountains have formed from the abundance of criticism written about The Turn of the Screw, but I’ll only share this little nugget from a 2012 essay in The New Yorker to whet your appetite:
The Turn of the Screw may be the most claustrophobic book I’ve ever read. Yes, you’re free to shift constantly from one interpretation to the next, and yet, as you progress deeper into the story, each interpretation begins to seem more horrible than the other. As the gruesomeness gathers, the beautiful country house effectively falls away, like flesh receding from the skull of a cadaver, and we’re deposited in a hellish, plantless, low landscape of bone and stone: plenty of places to run, but nowhere to hide.”
The Haunting of Bly Manor is now available to stream on Netflix.
Saturday, Oct. 10: Sleepy Hollow and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
Let’s get on the same page. As an adaptation of Washington Irving’s short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow is terrible, bordering on contemptible. Most infamously, it warps awkward school teacher Ichabod Crane into a cop. Even worse, the role of Crane is played by known human trash compactor Johnny Depp.
However, two things might make a screening worth your time:
- Christopher Walken’s prosthetic teeth.
- The film captures a precise turning point in Burton’s 35-year career. Before Sleepy Hollow, Burton only hit homers: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman and Batman Returns, Edward Scissorshands. Ed Wood got him an Oscar nomination. Even his 1996 bomb Mars Attacks! has aged into a campy cult classic. But after Sleepy Hollow, Burton spent years on shallow remakes, like Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Alice in Wonderland. A couple of stop-motion animated films were rare bright spots flickering in the darkness. Sleepy Hollow exists in the liminal space between the two Burton epochs of Good and Garbage. On one hand it has the Edward Gorey-esque visual hallmarks of his early works. On the other, it has the tendency to over-explain stories that originally took pleasure in leaving their mysteries and characters unexplained.
Still, it’s understandable if you want to skip the film because of the violence, the fundamental destruction of the original story, or the mere presence of Depp’s face. I get it! In that case, please enjoy the classic Disney animation adaptation of “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which appears as part of the Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad double feature. After 60 years, it remains the iconic adaptation.
Sunday, Oct. 11: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Update: I initially recommended the 2001 horror film Jeepers Creepers for this date. After publication, I learned about the heinous crime committed by its director, so I’ve decided to remove the recommendation. Instead, I recommend you watch the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
This update of Body Snatchers is full of actors who would appear in iconic films and TV shows later in their careers: Donald Sutherland, Veronica Cartwright, and Jeff Goldblum. Leonard Nimoy also makes an appearance, years after his debut in Star Trek, and in a distinctly not-Spock role.
The film is two hours long, but it moves like a freight train toward an ending that reveals a nasty terror in a now-beloved reaction meme, pictured above.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is available to stream on Criterion Channel.
Monday, Oct. 12: Three dead TV shows
Let’s wrap the campfire stories with a trio of dead TV shows. You can pick through these confections like picking the Butterfingers from the Halloween candy plate, leaving behind the nasty, nasty, nasty mini-Mounds bar.
Drunk History’s “Halloween” features three historical recreations: the inspiration for Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, a curse placed on the town of Salem, and the tale of Elizabeth Krebs, the creator of the Hiawatha Halloween Frolic.
Key & Peele’s “Michael Jackson Halloween” episode is named after one of the show’s best sketches, and the rarest of things: a funny Michael Jackson goof.
The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell was a one-and-done series that combined elaborate dessert sculpting, Jim Henson-style puppetry, and a story about a woman who lives with monsters. It was too good for this material plane.
Tuesday, Oct. 13: Spanish Dracula / What We Do in the Shadows
Everything on this calendar is available on a streaming service… except today’s recommendation. I’m sorry, I have to break my own rules this one time to share one of my favorite Halloween-time treasures: the Spanish-language version of Dracula.
Surely you’re familiar with the iconic 1931 adaptation of Bram Stroker’s 1897 novel of the same name. It kicked off the Universal monsters film series, sure, but let’s be real: it’s slow, it barely has music, and while Bela Lugosi’s performance is iconic, it isn’t his finest work. But did you know about the Spanish-language version of the film, shot on the same set during the middle of the night? Friends, it rules. It has everything the more famous Dracula lacks: a killer lead performance, a faster pace, and (for the time) some sexual energy.
This film has been historically challenging to find. Until the 1970s, film historians believed it had been lost. And it’s only recently been made widely available on home video. So I’m sorry you can’t stream today’s pick, but you can see a masterpiece of film history tucked into a collection of Dracula films on the disc format of your choice.
If you still need something to stream tonight, I won’t leave you stranded. Watch What We Do In the Shadows’ best standalone episode, “On the Run,” in which one of the lead vampires moves to a small town to escape a belligerent rival vampire played to campy perfection by Mark Hamill.
Wednesday, Oct. 14: Ganja & Hess
Duane Jones had a lead role in two films, and they’re two of the best and arguably most important horror films of all time. The first and more famous role is as Ben in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the 1968 zombie film that launched an entire genre. The second and lesser known role is Dr. Hess Green in Bill Gunn’s mistreated masterpiece Ganja & Hess.
If you missed the latter, there’s a good reason. In spite of a glowing reception at the Cannes Film Festival, its producers were skeptical of the experimental structure, which incorporated gospel-choir footage, screens of text, start-and-stop monologues about art, and beautiful, long shots fixated on African art. The producers hired an editor to recut the film into something closer to the exploitation film they’d hoped direct Bill Gunn would create.
Gunn removed his film from the recut, released as Blood Couples, and focused his talents on theater. And while Jones’ name still appeared on posters, he too left cinema, spending the majority of his life in the New York theater business.
What can get lost in Ganja & Hess’ historical status is the intense pleasure of actually watching the movie. Ten minutes in, you get why the audience at Cannes gave it a standing ovation. The film is lush with color and deeply personal. Had the film been made by iconic white directors like Jean-Luc Godard or Terrence Malick, I imagine it would have been treated differently, and perhaps we would have seen more films from both Gunn and Jones. Instead, we must be grateful for what we got.
Thursday, Oct. 15: Let the Right One In
A 12-year-old Swedish boy finds a friend in a vampire who looks roughly his age, but is actually an old vampire permanently trapped in the body of a young child. The film is kaleidoscopic, each viewing revealing something different than the last. The first time I saw the film, I was a pessimistic college student, and I read the central relationship as a warning about the parasitic nature of love. After college, the children’s bond reminded me of the impermanence of youth, and why growing up is a mixed blessing. This past year, I was far more focused on the girl’s relationship with her caretaker, an older man who sacrifices everything for her existence.
The film was adapted from John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel of the same name, which inspired not just this Swedish film, but a 2010 American adaptation, a comic-book prequel, and two stage plays. The latter has its own legacy — it was adapted by the magnificent National Theater of Scotland, and it eventually had a run at St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2015. Few books inspire so much additional great art. So I suppose I’m recommending the book just as much as the film.
Friday, Oct. 16: Interview with the Vampire
No words can compare to GIFs of Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt as sexy vampires.
Saturday, Oct. 17: The Lighthouse
Director Robert Eggers and his brother Max conceived of The Lighthouse as a ghost movie, but for me, it plays like an abstract vampire film. In the two-hander, Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe play the attendants of a lighthouse on a diminutive island off the coast of New England in the 1890s. The two men — both named Thomas — have no companionship but each other and the light of the lighthouse. The Fresnel lens that casts light across the sea becomes a point of fixation, an immortal beacon that saps the men of their very will.
Eggers and his film are part of the recent push of critically lauded horror films. If you enjoy The Lighthouse, you should also try Eggers’ debut, The Witch. You might also like any of A24’s “high” horror films, like Midsommar, Under the Skin, Enemy, Hereditary, Saint Maud, It Comes at Night, Green Room, and Climax. And no collection of award-worthy horror would be complete without Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us.
The Lighthouse is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
CAMP AND HUMOR
Sunday, Oct. 18: Mr. Boogedy
Welcome to the “so bad it’s good” section of the Halloween countdown.
The best thing about Mr. Boogedy, a Disney Sunday movie about a New England family haunted by the titular ghost, is the ghoulish prosthetic makeup of Mr. Boogedy himself. It’s as if somebody left a pepperoni pizza in the oven overnight. Mr. Boogedy doesn’t have skin so much as he has a loose collection of flesh.
The second best thing is, the film is short — only 45 minutes, roughly the same length as an episode of Law & Order. So many campy horror films wear out their welcome, including the Mr. Boogedy sequel, The Bridge of Boogedy, which clocks in at an unacceptable 100 minutes. But Mr. Boogedy respects our precious Halloween time.
Fun Mr. Boogedy trivia: the movie stars a young Kristy Swanson, who later played the lead role in the 1992 film Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Mr. Boogedy is available to stream on Disney Plus.
Monday, Oct. 19: Gremlins 2
The original Gremlins is a grim, gory, occasionally funny horror film set in a small town during Christmastime. Gremlins 2: The New Batch is basically a Looney Tunes cartoon by way of the Smothers Brothers and Ray Harryhausen.
The soundtrack includes Fats Domino, Johann Sebastian Bach, Slayer, and Faith No More. The script skewers film critics, shallow Hollywood sequels, the original film’s busted logic, and the egomaniacal excess of Donald Trump. The cast includes Leonard Maltin, Dean Norris, Howie Mandell, and Christopher Lee. At one point, the gremlins interrupt the movie and pick a fight with Hulk Hogan.
Do you really need more convincing?
Gremlins 2: The New Batch is available to stream on HBO Max.
Tuesday, Oct. 20: The Host
Earlier this year, Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho won Best Director at the 2020 Academy Awards, and his movie Parasite won Best Picture. Even before the awards, the film and its creator had become icons on social media thanks to the Bong Hive, a loose fan collective. (Polygon’s own Karen Han is the founder and chief architect.)
But Bong Joon-ho’s talent didn’t materialize overnight. He and his collection of collaborators have been creating films together for nearly two decades, including Snowpiercer, Okja, and The Host.
The Host lives in the middle of the director’s catalogue, and contains a lot of the themes and ideas he explored in his later films. It’s a monster movie in the mold of the Godzilla movies. The ecological disaster resulting from the bad decisions of the American military creates a monstrous beast that tears through a South Korean town perched along a polluted river. Violence and mayhem ensues. But this isn’t really a movie about monsters. The script — by Bong Joon-ho and Baek Chul-hyun — is slyly critical of the interventionist posture of the USA and the obfuscation of the South Korean government.
Parasite is an astounding film. The Host deserves no less love and attention.
The Host is available to stream on Hulu.
Wednesday, Oct. 21: Little Shop of Horrors
In fall 2019, a new production of the stage musical Little Shop of Horrors opened off-Broadway, starring Jonathan Groff and a collection of beloved Broadway stars. Groff wrapped his run in January 2020, but the show continued with a new lead and much of the original cast. Unfortunately, the production closed on March 11 because of the pandemic.
I had a chance to see this version of the show, and I loved it. You can actually listen to an original cast recording on Spotify. But surprisingly, seeing the stage show only made me appreciate Frank Oz’s film adaptation even more. Little Shop of Horrors is one of the best movie musicals ever made, but it’s comparably rarely seen. Which is a travesty! The music is by Alan Menken, and Howard Ashman handled lyrics and book. You know them from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin.
Unlike those Disney films, though, Little Shop has teeth. Literally. It tells the story of a nebbish flower-shop attendant who grows a mysterious, alien plant into a human-eating beast.
Little Shop of Horrors is available to stream on HBO Max.
Thursday, Oct. 22: Night of the Creeps
I’m skeptical of filmmakers who purposefully try to create B-movies. Anybody can produce low-budget practical effects, hammy performances, and stilted dialogue, but it takes talent to recreate the earnestness and propulsive storytelling of the midnight-movie classics.
On the shortlist of “modern” movies that re-create the appeal of the matinee monster era, Night of the Creeps stands near the top. A parcel of slugs from outer space crash into 1959 Small Town, USA, where they wiggle into the mouths of locals, transforming them into zombies. The story loops across genres, involving aliens, an axe murderer, and a big dance for the Greek organizations on campus.
The film is immensely violent and silly, but most importantly, it’s a ton of fun. Director Fred Dekker idolizes his inspirations, having named the characters after directors like George Romero, Sam Raimi, and Tobe Hooper, whose Poltergeist and Lifeforce appeared earlier in this countdown.
Night of the Creeps is available to stream on Shudder.
Friday, Oct. 23: The Happiness of the Katakuris
We need a better word than “prolific” to describe Takashi Miike. In his 30-year career, Miike has directed more than a hundred film and TV productions. You may be familiar with some of his more notorious work, like the ultra-violent Ichi the Killer, his adaptations of the video games, including Yakuza and Phoenix Wright, or his entries in the canon of Ultraman and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. Buried deep within Miike’s portfolio hides one film that’s truly original: the musical horror-comedy The Happiness of the Katakuris. Unlike so much of Miike’s work, its easy to watch so long as you have an Amazon Prime subscription.
I hesitate to go into detail with the plot, because 1) it’s better to be surprised, 2) I couldn’t explain it if I tried, and 3) Miike made six other films the same year as Happiness of the Katakuris, so narrative polish wasn’t his top priority. Instead, think of the film like a theme-park ride where the car takes you from one bizarre room to the next. The twists and turns are loosely connected, and the experience is brought together by the singular goal of giving you a good time.
Happiness of the Katakuris is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
Saturday, Oct. 24: The Cabin in the Woods
Congratulations, you’ve made it through nearly four weeks of horror-film recommendations. If you committed to the calendar, you will be more than prepared for Cabin in the Woods, the 2011 metatextual satire of the genre. A group of college students spend a weekend in a cabin in the woods, where they’re attacked by zombies, following all the beats of a traditional horror flick. One hitch: everything — the students’ behavior, the zombie attack, the deaths — is being orchestrated by a pair of mysterious scientists played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford.
Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon wrote the script, which echoes the tone and rhythm of their work on television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias, and Lost. And the cast includes Anna Hutchinson and Chris Hemsworth (after the first Thor film, but before he’d become mega-famous). The film still has plenty of scares, but it’s lighter and more charming than most of the recommendations on this list, making it the perfect transition point into our next and final theme: Family-friendly Halloween entertainment!
The Cabin in the Woods is now available to stream on Hulu.
Sunday, Oct. 25: The Monster Squad
Update: You can watch many of the Universal monster films on Peacock for free. Thank you to all the readers who shared the link in the comments and on Twitter!
I wanted to include the full classic Universal monster movie collection, but as I noted with Spanish Dracula, the older films don’t currently appear on any streaming services. So I’m recommending the next best thing, The Monster Squad, a 1987 film about a group of kids who protect the world from Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolf Man, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, or as the film calls him, “Gill-man.”
The film was directed by Fred Dekker, the year after Night of the Creeps, and co-written by Shane Black. Black is most famous for creating the Lethal Weapon films and reviving the career of Robert Downey Jr. with the indie comedy noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. He directed Downey Jr. again in Iron Man 3. After decades apart, Dekker and Black collaborated again on a failed TV pilot in 2015, and on the 2018 reboot of Predator.
Why do I mention this? Because Hollywood is the scariest monster of them all.
The Monster Squad is now available to stream on Shudder.
Monday, Oct. 26: Twilight Zone / Tiny Toon Adventures
Before I ever saw an episode of The Twilight Zone, I obsessed over the Tiny Toon Adventures Halloween special Night Ghoulery, a parody of The Twilight Zone and its anthology horror siblings, The Outer Limits and Night Gallery. The creators stuffed nine segments into the hourlong special, riffing on Edgar Allen Poe, the Universal monsters, Gremlins, zombies, witches, Satan himself, and Steven Spielberg’s nearly forgotten directorial debut, Duel. The special has practically everything but one of Rod Serling’s iconic Twilight Zone twists.
So after watching Tiny Toon Adventures, I recommend brewing a mug of apple cider, lighting the jack-o-lantern, and gorging on classic Twilight Zone episodes. The series is extremely hit-or-miss (the original five-season run included a whopping 156 episodes) so I’ve curated some personal favorites:
- Season 1, Episode 22: “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”
- Season 4, Episode 3: “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”
- Season 2, Episode 15: “The Invaders”
- Season 3, Episode 24: “To Serve Man”
- Season 2, Episode 7: “Nick of Time”
Monday, Oct. 26: Arnold and Doug’s Halloweens
Now I’m just showing my age. When I think of Halloween, I think of rushing to the television every night at 7 p.m. Central to catch every Halloween special. I missed plenty of shows during the week, because of baseball practices or homework. But on Saturdays, I never missed SNICK, Nickelodeon’s nighttime programming block.
I haven’t revisited the SNICK episodes in years, so this will be as much of a journey for me as it is for you. If you’re too young to remember this era of kids’ television, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the shows in the comments. I imagine Hey Arnold still has some appeal, with its larger-than-life adventures and fictional NYC/Chicago setting. But I can’t imagine a show like Doug being made today, a show in which the human equivalent of a white-bread-and-American-cheese sandwich spends most of his time writing in a journal and talking to a dog. And I say this as someone who loved Doug!
Wednesday, Oct. 28: The Blob
Technically, the star of The Blob is the blob itself, a glob of outer-space Jello that consumes humans and grows until it’s the size of a grocery store. That’s why anybody bothers to watch the 1958 horror film, and I get it. But let me give you two additional excuses to make time for this perfect little monster movie.
- The protagonist is a high-schooler played by none other than Steve McQueen, who at the time was 28 years old, going on 50. He looks like an undercover cop, not a carefree teenager. The film is one of his first big roles, and you would never guess this awkward guy would eventually star in The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair, and Bullitt. Fun trivia: McQueen is credited in The Blob as “Steven McQueen.”
- The Blob’s theme song is delightful:
The Blob is now available to stream on HBO Max.
Thursday, Oct. 29: Bob’s Burgers Halloweens
The Simpsons has a mainstream reputation of being the all-time greatest animated series on network TV. This was true for decades, but Bob’s Burgers has slowly, quietly earned a place right alongside its Sunday-night sibling. Where The Simpsons burned bright for eight seasons, then creatively fell off a cliff, Bob’s Burgers has been consistently lovely across 11 seasons and counting.
The two shows don’t have much in common in style or tone, The Simpsons is sardonic and chaotic, only occasionally revealing its sugary-sweet emotional center, where Bob’s Burgers is unapologetically sentimental, and for all its silly stories, follows a more traditional sitcom structure. Which is to say, we don’t have to choose favorites. Both bring their own value and reflect their own times.
However, one thing the two do have in common is an excellent collection of Halloween episodes. We’ll dig into The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror anthology to close this list, but as much love must be poured on the Belcher family’s annual October adventures.
The eight episodes (the ninth premieres Nov. 1) feature quests for full-size candy bars, awkward costume contests, childhood urban legends, and many other of the holiday’s finest fixations. Here’s my Top 3 ranking for your viewing pleasure:
- “Full Bars” — Season 3, Episode 2
- “Nightmare on Ocean Avenue Street” — Season 9, Episode 4
- “The Hauntening” — Season 6, Episode 3
Bob’s Burgers is currently available to stream on Hulu.
Friday, Oct. 30: ABC’s TGIF
I already mentioned my childhood ritual of watching SNICK on Saturday nights. Friday nights were reserved for TGIF with my parents. The “Thank God It’s Friday” block aired on ABC in the 1990s, and featured two hours of family-friendly entertainment, immediately followed by the most terrifying news story imaginable on 20/20. Because what better way to follow two hours of shameless escapism than sensationalist news?
I didn’t have any loyalty to shows like Full House or Home Improvement, but I never missed the Halloween episodes. Tim Taylor would perform some horrific, bloody prank on Tool Time. Corey Matthews and friends would be slaughtered by a knockoff of the villain from Scream. The kids from Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper would take a trip to a haunted house.
Halloween felt like the one time the television writers could puncture the impossibly happy worlds they shilled every other week. Those episodes were the least connected to the show’s larger stories, and yet also the truest.
We did it! We made it to Halloween!
When I started building this calendar in September, I selected this final theme, “Family Fun,” because I assumed we’d all need a break from the anxiety of the U.S. presidential election. But I’ve been relieving my own anxiety this month with 1970s horror films instead. Films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, The Exorcist, and The Amityville Horror dive into the abyss of a domestic anxiety not unlike our own. These films are paranoid about the world, our leaders, and what’s going on inside the minds of our friends and neighbors. They’re relatable, even cathartic.
I still think you should watch some Treehouse of Horror episodes, because they’re delightful and low-impact. But if like me, you need something to match the frequency of your life, perhaps scary films from another scary time in history wouldn’t be so bad.
Anywho, here’s my ranking of the five best Treehouse of Horror episodes:
- “Treehouse of Horror VI” – Season 7, Episode 6
Around the seventh season of The Simpsons, the show begins to walk the fine line between inspired comedy and 12-car pileup of pop-culture references. The best episodes benefit from this balancing act, lampooning the iconism that would destroy the show. Arguably the finest example is “Attack of the 50-Foot Eyesores,” in which towering corporate mascot statues come to life and terrorize Springfield. The only way to sap them of their power: ignore them.
But the segment that sticks with me from this show — and the entire series — is “Homer Cubed,” where Homer falls into a 3D portal hidden behind the family bookcase. With the help of Reverend Lovejoy, the family tries to save their father, but the plan fails. The ending is scary, sad, and oddly hopeful. Marge loses her husband to what appears to be his fate, but the audience knows better. Homer lands in the real world. He’s confused. Then he puts one foot in front of the other and keeps moving. Every Treehouse of Horror features plenty of death, but only this segment reckons with the profundity and peculiar serenity of it all.
- “Treehouse of Horror IV” – Season 5, Episode 5
“The Devil and Homer Simpson” opens this episode, and for that alone, it gets second place on my list. Most folks will remember the segment for the GIF of a demon force-feeding Homer infinite donuts. But my favorite gag is when Ned Flanders, as Satan, conjures the jury of the damned: Benedict Arnold, Lizzie Borden, John Wilkes Booth, Richard Nixon, Blackbeard, John Dillinger, and the starting line of the 1976 Philadelphia Flyers.
- “Treehouse of Horror V” – Season 6, Episode 6
Is there a difference between the best Treehouse of Horror and my personal favorite? Because my favorite is the sixth entry, but if I could only recommend one episode as the “best,” I’d feel obligated to say the fifth installment. The episode has no duds. It opens with a quotable parody of The Shining, transitions to Homer’s grisly time-travel journey, and closes with an adaptation of Soylent Green, starring children.
After three delightful segments, the entire Simpsons family encounter fog that turns their skin inside out, and their bloody, exposed bodies perform a musical number. Art!
The Simpsons is now available to stream on Disney Plus. Happy Halloween!