FILM RECS: SPOOK-O-RAMA
10th October, 2020
Words by Nicole Stunwyck · Artwork by Vartika Sharma
Sleazy and sinful screen thrills from the early decades of Hollywood! Macabre monster pictures from the mad 1950s! There must be other scaredy-kittens like me out there who wish that coming across horror flicks without gore was an easier task. I’m someone who is brought to tears by the mere sight of blood (like that time I left the movie theater in the middle of “Midsommar” because I had started to cry), so I’ve compiled this list of my favorite non-sanguinary pictures for you to watch over the course of October while isolating at home. Since usual Halloween traditions won’t take place on a massive scale this year, my hope is that these films will provide you with enough entertainment throughout the month as you continue to shield others and yourself from the pandemic.
One of the highlights of this hour-long mega campy workout video from the VHS era is an aerobics class taught to a group of zombies by the iconic “Queen of the B’s” Linnea Quigley, a nickname honoring her prolific career as a B-movie actress. I was surprised to find out that she does, in fact, exercise in this tape despite her impracticable fashion choices like the studded leather underwear with tights she is seen wearing during her first stretching routine. Trashy, silly and perfect for fitness aficionados, this is guaranteed to make you a die-hard Linnea Quigley fan.
In 1991, a group of idiotic film school students decided to raise funds through a horror triple-feature at a haunted movie theater and the outcome was soap-opera-levels of disastrous. Equal parts funny and freaky, what makes “Popcorn” one of my personal favorites is that it feels like a genuine attempt to celebrate the spooky B-movies of a bygone era while still remaining fresh, original and, most important, true to its weirdo, self-parodying essence.
Living up to its psychedelic title, this oddball of a movie features everything from LSD trips and ESP powers to Kung-Fu fights and an ugly witch disguised as a mod supervixen. Although the director, H.G. Lewis, was nicknamed the “Godfather of Gore” for his disturbingly gory pictures, he also directed a bunch of non-gruesome exploitation films during his lengthy career and these are gems of utter madness. I dare you to experience this eccentricity without weirding out!
In the original release of this spooktacular 30-minute monsterama film, actors dressed up as villains would invade the theater to scare members of the audience, and if that fact alone doesn’t make you want to watch this terrific B-movie right away, I honestly don’t know what will. The official DVD contains over three hours of spooky vintage video content, and I would argue that out of all the films on this list, this is by far the best one to play at your one-woman Halloween slumber party.
Wildly underrated and my own favorite horror movie of all time, “Torture Dungeon” concerns a depraved duke in medieval England plotting to kill all heirs to the throne in order to claim the crown himself. All characters prance around in their Renaissance costumes quite sinisterly, and the eerie atmosphere combined with the odd camera work create a perfect feverish 1970s atmosphere. The moody lightning does a great job at minimizing the gore but I would proceed cautiously with this one since it does feel like a never-ending bloodbath at times. It is, however, a triumph in low-budget filmmaking.
Feel your eyes pop out of their sockets with the absolute most disturbing picture of 1930s Hollywood! Rightfully regarded as an avant-garde masterpiece, this circus- themed, class-conscious horror shocker follows the story of an evil trapeze artist seeking to marry and murder an enamored dwarf in order to steal his money. Given the director’s decision to cast performers with real genetic deformities, the movie was met with plenty of controversy upon its release to only be rediscovered during the 1960s via the grindhouse theater circuit. Both the film’s content and IMDB trivia page are so full of sheer terror that I was unable to sleep the night I saw it.
A town is paralyzed with fear after a teenage boy, who looks like a werewolf, seems unable to stop killing. He breaks free from his chamber to commit the most atrocious murders, despite the maternal love, piles of picture books and bounty of candy he receives from his mother. The ending is simply heartbreaking. Super spooky and super sad.
8. Cat People
In this gloomy terror film from the 1940s, a Serbian fashion illustrator fears she will turn into an evil panther if romantically aroused by her husband. Unsurprisingly, all the men in the movie think she is totally bonkers but as her behavior starts to become increasingly creepy, they begin to doubt themselves. The shadowy atmosphere combined with the innovative sound effects invite spectators to fill in the void of what’s not shown onscreen, which is precisely what makes the movie so unnerving and petrifying to this date: your mind will be disturbed by all the possibilities.
9. Baba Yaga
This Italian art-horror flick from the 70s oozes pop art and surrealism, and its dreamlike sensibility will surely end up getting under your skin. A fashion photographer named Valentina falls under the spell of a mysterious gothic witch played by Carroll Baker and begins to experiment with trippy Nazi-themed nightmares and “accidentally” kills her models when taking their pictures. If for some reason you find yourself in need of that instant satisfaction that only dizzyingly sensual European movies can offer, look no further!
A hard-boiled female journalist begins to suspect that the mad sculptor of a wax museum might be hiding something dirty so she sets out to discover the truth. Set against the moody backdrop of 1930s New York, this early Technicolor thriller plays out like a bewildering fever dream that gets increasingly bizarre (and scary!) as the plot unfolds. I won’t spoil anything but keep in mind that every single “house of wax” movie that came out after this (including the Paris Hilton one) borrows their story from this original, and it remains the coolest!