Spooktober, Day 26: Halloween films for people who don’t like horror

Today I thought I’d do something different for Spooktober. I know horror isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I didn’t want anyone to feel left out because I think there’s enough magic in Halloween that it doesn’t just have to be about blood and suffering and that cold, pale hand resting on your shoulder…
So, just for a change (and not at all because I’m starting to run out of horror-related books to talk about), I thought I’d throw out a few ideas for films to watch for people who don’t like horror. Feel free to throw suggestions at me for any others, because I might be coming back to this later if I don’t read fast enough!

movieposter.jpgThe Cabin In The Woods

“Yes, you had “Zombies.” But this is “Zombie Redneck Torture Family.” They’re two entirely separate species. It’s like the difference between an elephant and an elephant seal.”

I’m going to start with a borderline case. Of all the films on this list, The Cabin in the Woods is the closest to actual horror, with strong, bloody violence and the occasional jump-scare. It also presupposes a familiarity with horror movies (or at least their tropes). But it’s also critical of many of the mean-spirited and pointless cliches that pop up again in horror— especially teen slasher movies— so it’s worth seeing even if you don’t like horror, so long as you’re okay with the grisly parts.
It’s similar in tone to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which isn’t a surprise given the involvement of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard), full of wit and never really taking itself too seriously. It recognises how problematic horror can be, and the self-awareness helps cushion the blow.
There’s not really more I can say about it since explaining the film’s premise is basically a spoiler (seriously, even the trailer gave it away). Feel free to watch it with the lights one, because the joy of this film isn’t really in the scares. I’m willing to bet that by the end, you might even be cheering for the monsters…

Hotel TransylvaniaMV5BMTM3NjQyODI3M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDM4NjM0OA@@._V1_UY1200_CR90,0,630,1200_AL_.jpg

“What is this place? It is a place I build for all those monsters out there lurking in the shadows, hiding from the persecution of human kind. A place for them and their families to come to and free themselves. A place void of torches, pitchforks and angry mobs! A place of peace, relaxation and tranquillity.”

“Cool, so it’s like a hotel for monsters?”

“Yes, exactly. A hotel for monsters. Way to sum it up.”
Part of me wishes I didn’t like Hotel Transylvania. It want’s to dismiss it as just another cookie-cutter CGI movie spat out for half-term, loaded with gratuitous celebrity voice actors and pop culture references. It even ends with a dance party to pop music. So why do I like it so much?
It’s fun, it’s harmless, and there are cameos from just about every classic movie monster I can think of. At its core, there’s also a lovely, touching, earnest performance from Adam Sandler as Dracula (yes, I’m as surprised as anyone). Sandler manages to play the Count as a sympathetic but misguided overprotective dad, and it’s genuinely heartbreaking when we discover his motivation for wanting his daughter safe. It helps that Dracula is animated with such fluidity and comic timing, and the most heartwarming smile ever seen from an animated STD-metaphor.

06-dyk-nightmare.jpgThe Nightmare Before Christmas

“There’s children throwing snowballs
Instead of throwing heads.
They’re busy building toys
And absolutely no one’s dead!”
This one’s pretty obvious.
Which side do you fall down on? Is The Nightmare Before Christmas a Halloween movie, or a Christmas movie?
I was a sensitive child. I screamed all the way through The Little Mermaid when I first saw it because I was terrified that a singing cephalopod might turn me into a polyp. But I never had a problem with The Nightmare Before Christmas. That might be because I was so traumatised by Tim Burton’s short film Vincent, which ran before Nightmare, so I had no terror left for Jack Skellington et al.
I suspect most people that are reading this know how good this film is. The stop-motion animation is excellent. The character designs are charming. The songs are memorable (they’re probably stuck in your head right now). Is there anything new to be said about The Nightmare Before Christmas?
Well, it’s possibly the most accessible allegory for the dangers of cultural appropriation

dracula1931.jpgDracula (1931)

“To die, to be really dead, that must be glorious! There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”
Quick experiment: imagine Dracula speaking. How does he sound? What accent does he use? I am willing to bet that ninety-nine point nine percent of people reading this are hearing Bela Lugosi.
Whether you like or not, for most of us Lugosi is the count. His performance has this strange, stilted pacing (“I neffer drink… vine”) that makes him feel eerie and inhuman. It’s almost heartbreaking to watch with the knowledge that his role as Dracula left Lugosi typecast for the rest of his career. He’s become so iconic, his role so often imitated, parodied and mocked, that it’s almost impossible to take seriously. Which is why I’m tempted to suggest that if you’re going to watch the original Universal adaptation of Dracula, treat it like a comedy.
Maybe it’s unfair to point out the flaws of a film whose leading man was born in the nineteenth century, but Dracula is pretty safe to watch now. If anything, its age has leant it a goofy charm and magnified. Why does is Castle Dracula infested with armadilloes? Was anyone really convinced by a rubber bat on a string hoisted outside the window? Why do all the Transylvanian peasants speak English? How does no one instantly grok that the sinister pale man in an opera cape might be up to something?
It’s not my favourite cinematic Dracula (I love the camped-up ham of the 90s version with Gary Oldman), but it’s probably the safest if you don’t want to get too scared. The central performance is mesmerising, and there’s a lot of fun to have from watching everyone else ham it up in response.

ParanormanMV5BMjA1OTU1NDM3N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjYxNTg0Nw@@._V1_UY1200_CR89,0,630,1200_AL_.jpg

“But what about the people who hurt you? Don’t you ever want to make them suffer?

“Well, yeah, but what good would that do?”
I don’t get why Paranorman isn’t celebrated as a modern Halloween classic.
On paper it’s reasonably straightforward: young Norman is ostracised as a weirdo due to his ability to see and talk to the dead, until the day he is called upon to stop a witch’s curse from coming true. But what really gives Paranorman its soul is the way it’s prepared to tackle difficult themes in a way that doesn’t feel inappropriate for a family film.
Everything about it screams “Halloween,” from children who talk to the dead, to witches, to zombies, to ancient curses. Like all of Laika’s film, there’s a fundamental faith in the essential decency of mankind. No one in this movie is genuinely evil: the conflict comes from the prejudice and short-sightedness of the characters. It’s a necessary lesson for anyone to learn, whatever their age may be.

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Spooktober, Day 10: The Ring, by Koji Suzuki

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‘Before you die, you see the ring…’

Today’s entry in our Spooktober marathon is going to be a little different because although The Ring was initially a novel by Koji Suzuki, I’m going to be talking mostly about the film adaptation(s). Why? Because The Ring is one of those rare anomalies where I honestly believe that the film adaptation is better than the original novel. Partly it’s because I’ve only read the book in translation; partly it’s because the films excise some of the more problematic aspects of the novel (including, the more sordid details of Sadako’s backstory, and Ryuji’s rather tasteless enthusiasm for sexual assault). Mostly I think it’s because this is a story that works better with a supernatural bent than a pseudo-scientific explanation: Sadako in the film is a ghost, in the Japanese tradition of vengeful onryo, rather than a combined electromagnetic/psychic manifestation of syphilis. But then, the first movie was directed by Suzuki himself, so it’s not like I’m downplaying his role by stating a preference for the film.

It’s also unusual in that the western remake is not only competent but arguably as good as the original. So whichever interpretation is your favourite is up to you.

In case you’re not familiar with it, The Ring is the story of a cursed videotape that kills anyone who watches it, and the desperate quest to find a way to stop it. Although it felt fresh and new to a Western audience, The Ring is actually working within a rich tradition of Japanese horror: ghoulish spirits seeking vengeance with power they never had in life; haunted, animated technology; the invasion of the everyday by the uncanny. It all reads like a subversion of the typical ghost story tropes, leading to an end that puts a genius (and savage) twist on the hope that appeasing the spirit will deflect its vengeance. Yet it’s also subtle: the Japanese film only features one horrifying moment towards the end, but I still had to stop and switch on the lights a couple of times while watching as the tension built but was never really allowed to deflate. It’s a work that lingers long after it’s over by playing on our paranoia, by stoking the fear that our everyday environment and all our technological comforts could be used against us.