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 21: Anno Dracula by Kim Newman

 

61YDlzTiFQL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg“ ‘Were you aware,’ began Lord Ruthven, ‘that there are people in these isles whose sole objection to the marriage of our dear Queen – Victoria Regina, Empress of India, et cetera – to Vlad Dracula – known as Tepes, quondam Prince of Wallachia – is that the happy bridegroom happened once to be, in a fashion I shan’t pretend to understand, a Roman Catholic?’ “

When I was younger and still had the time and the money to dedicate to Warhammer, I sometimes dipped into the supplementary fiction. A lot of it was functional, if unremarkable tie-in fiction, with all the good and bad that the term implies. But one of the books that stood out to me was The Vampire Genevieve, an anthology by Jack Yeovil’s about the misadventures of a Bretonnian (think French with Arthurian touches) vampire named Genevieve Dieudonne. They struck me because they weren’t particularly “Warhammer-y”: that is, they didn’t rely in particular on Games Workshop’s intellectual property as a crutch, so much as used it as set-dressing for the tales of a badass lady vampire adventuress.

Years later, I bought Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula on Kindle during a sale, thinking I’d get around to it at some point because the premise sounded cool. It only became an absolute must read when I discovered that “Jack Yeovil” was Newman’s pen name, and that Genevieve was in Anno Dracula. Somehow, someone had snuck a tabletop wargaming character into their vampire novel.

That’s the kind of offbeat craziness you can expect in Anno Dracula, a novel where Queen Victoria has remarried a charming Wallachian count named Vlad who institutes a new authoritarian regime under the blood-drinking aristocracy of the night. It’s 1988, and our heroine Genevieve (still a vampire, still French, still awesome) teams up with an agent of the Diogenes Club to hunt down Jack The Ripper.

The cast of Anno Dracula is drawn from across literature and history, including characters from Sherlock Holmes, Fu Manchu, Oscar Wilde and just about any and every literary vampire you can think of. It’s littered with in-jokes and barely-there references to vampire lore and obscure pop culture. It’s like a blood-themed League of Extraordinary Gentleman that works as satire, mystery, alternate history and horror. It’s the vampirest vampire story that ever vampired. It’s the perfect antidote for anyone who worries that vampires have lost their way lately, a celebration and a reminder of how awesome and how terrifying the lords of the night can still be.

Spooktober, Day 7: Dracula, by Bram Stoker

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“No man knows till he has suffered from the night how sweet and dear to his heart and eye the morning can be.”

Is there anything more that needs to be said about Dracula? Probably not: the Count’s presence in pop culture is so significant that even the parodies are old and cliched. Still, there’s good reason the old Count’s done as well as he has (besides looking fabulous in an opera cape), and if your only exposure to Dracula has been through his movies, you really owe it to yourself to read the original. And if you have read it, you should read it again.

Shorn of the crust that has accrued around him, the Count is far from his postmodern persona of the urbane gentleman; he may appear civilised, but at his core, he is little more than a sentient disease. Part of his ubiquity lies in the number of fears that he embodies: fear of contamination, of sex, of the other, of nature. Dracula is a boggart; he’s Pennywise; he represents all our worst fears. He is the wolf pack hiding in the forest, stalking us as we stray away from civilisation. He is the taint of madness and disease lurking in our blood He is syphilis, a walking STD, an idea that has lingered in horror ever since, linking sex and mortality in the most literal way I’ve seen until It Follows.

And yes, he’s xenophobia made flesh. At its heart, Dracula is still problematic: its chauvinistic, sexist and firmly in defence of the status quo. At its core, it’s a rallying cry against the Other, a warning about “bloody foreigners, coming over here, sucking the blood from our women!” It’s part of a broader genre of invasion fiction where the backwards and uncivilised foreigner is driven from the metropole back by the WASPy heroes. Its treatment of mental illness is regressive. The women in the book are idealised and victimised and never allowed to tell their own story.

It’s essential to place Dracula in the context of its time because it’s still a great read, still a masterpiece of pacing and perhaps the example par excellence of what can be done with an epistolary novel. Come in, the night air is chill, and you must need to eat and rest…