Five Films to Keep You Awake on Halloween Night

I'm back. Turns out I will be playing at two of six performances with my string quartet--originally a dectet. I'll be filling in missing parts on guitar and forcing a student to play lead on every violin song. Sorry, kid, that's show business. Tonight's the night when we have some fun (some fun-o some fun-o). Halloween, arguably the best holiday*, is today. Do you have your candy ready for the hordes of hyperactive children running up to your door? Did you shovel and salt the walkways if you're trapped under a blanket of snow in the northeast? And did you buy enough cleaner to get all the rotten egg off of your house if you decide to shut off your lights and pretend you're not home?

Regardless of how you celebrate the greatest night of the year, it's important to have the proper entertainment lined up to get you through the evening. Sure, there's the joy of gobbling down buckets of candy and drinking gallons of cider. That's part of the territory.

I'm talking about horror films. Here is my 2011 guide to five films guaranteed to make your Halloween night memorable. They're in order, tamest to most horrifying, after the jump.

Coraline (2009):

Forget about Nightmare Before Christmas (wrong holiday) and pass on the too short for its own good Corpse Bride this year. Go with the new horror stop-motion animation darling on the block Coraline. This twisted tale, adapted from Neil Gaiman's award-winning youth novel, features a seemingly never-ending cavalcade of tricks and treats. The visuals are beautiful and the scares and demented set-ups have to be seen to be believed.

If you don't think it's a horror film, just think about the film's conceit for a minute. There exists an alternate universe where your perfect vision of your family and every fantasy comes to life. That is, of course, if you are willing to have your eyes removed and replaced with shiny plastic buttons.

This is creepy enough to set the Halloween tone for any adult but not so creepy that your children couldn't enjoy the show.

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961):

For whatever reason, this Roger Corman adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's short story has become an annual selection on many film channels' Halloween line-ups. The Pit and the Pendulum stars Vincent Price as the madman seeking revenge at any cost. It's filled with lush Gothic visuals and oozing with atmosphere.

It is, in essence, a haunted house film without any haunting. The haunting is a mere projection of the past, the memories of a man who has long ago lost his mind, leading to a downward spiral of bizarre events.

The film is creaky, but it still packs a punch. It's another safe choice for all ages viewing on Halloween night.

Trick'R Treat (2007)

What can I say that I haven't already said before? Trick'R Treat is essential viewing for any horror fan. It is the mythology of Halloween all rolled up into an interlocking anthology film about a town with a whole lot of bad Halloween luck. See urban legends come alive like you never imagined. This film has everything from razor blades in candy to why you should never blow out the jack-o-lantern until midnight. It's spectacular and quite scary. Maybe you should wait until the little ones go to bed to play this one.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

I know what you're thinking. "Robert, that's the horror film that almost killed the Halloween series. Are you insane?" Yes, it is, and no, I am not. The reason I recommend a film like Halloween III for Halloween night viewing rather than the first two films is quite simple: this one actually gets into the heart of Halloween.

The plot conceit is bizarre and makes no sense unless you step back and remember what Halloween is. Halloween (in the secular sense) is escapism and fantasy allowed by cultural ritual. It's a safe way to mock with scares us without ever putting us in real danger. Why not celebrate with a film that embraces the fanciful elements of the holiday? We all know a Halloween mask can't explode because it's within range of a TV commercial. Isn't it fun to accept that idea for just one night and laugh in its face?

Cat People (1942)

Another odd choice. I have my reasons.

Cat People can be viewed as a great Halloween film. You have a woman--otherwise normal, kind, and caring--who becomes obsessed with the idea that she's becoming something else. Other people around her begin to see strange shadows that resemble what she claims she becomes. Is it the power of the imagination--like a particularly convincing Halloween costume--or is it real life?

Featuring one of the original (and most effective) jump scares and dazzling black and white cinematography, Cat People is a film you have to experience. Just remember: if it has the Val Lewton label, it's probably a very good slow-burn horror film.

What are you watching tonight?

*I've heard compelling arguments for Christmas, New Year's Eve, and Talk Like A Pirate Day, but I remain unconvinced.

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