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.
Sleepy Hollow is now available on Netflix. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is now available to stream on Disney Plus.
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.
The Drunk History “Halloween” episode is on Hulu. Key & Peele’s “Michael Jackson Halloween” is on YouTube. The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell is available to stream on Netflix.
And up next:
Tuesday, Oct. 13: Spanish Dracula
Wednesday, Oct. 14: Ganja & Hess
Thursday, Oct. 15: Let the Right One In
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