Twilight creeps into the afternoon, and the autumn nights grow dark and gloomy. Dead leaves rustle, weird things lurk in the shadows… Halloween is on the way!
October is the perfect time of year to curl up on the couch and scare yourself silly with a great horror movie. If you’ve already watched and re-watched the usual blockbusters, I recommend you take a terror trip into the haunted archive of Kanopy, the library’s streaming film partner. Kanopy will blow your mind and shiver your screen with their incredible selection of underground, underappreciated, forgotten horror classics, from spooky indies to grindhouse gore to silent-era chillers, all free to watch with your library card.
There are way too many great horror flicks on Kanopy to do them all justice, but librarian Daniel Tures from Edendale and I made this list of some of our must-see favorites. Vile viewing and fang-tastic October filmgoing to you!
Randall: Phenomena, starring pre-Labyrinth Jennifer Connelly and the always scene-chewing Donald Pleasence, is one of my favorite Dario Argento giallo/horrors. Unlike Suspiria or Inferno, also available on Kanopy, with their kaleidoscopic, Technicolor saturation, Phenomena is suffused in liquid blues and blinding whites—a unique change in style for the director. Like Suspiria, it’s about an American at an all-girls European boarding school—this time set in “Swiss Transylvania”—whose students are being murdered by an elusive assailant. Connelly, who has a mysterious power over insects (and chimps apparently), befriends the entomologist Pleasence to track the killer before she becomes the next corpse. It’s a scream throughout, but things really get bonkers toward the end. Did I mention there’s also a chimpanzee? Tanga deserved an Oscar.
Daniel: A perfect little Halloween treat, this black and white chiller checks all the boxes: misty graveyard, creepy hotel full of hidden passageways, cloaked figures ready to throw down a Black Mass. As a stern history professor, Christopher Lee urges his blonde ingenue student to pursue her interest in historic witch trials by driving out to Whitewood, Massachusetts, the kind of secretive New England hamlet known only to backwoods locals that Stephen King never gets tired of writing about. The few townspeople are ominous and strange, an old book tells of a burning at the stake that might not be such ancient history after all… just the place for a little weekend getaway!
Randall: You’d be forgiven for assuming Basket Case is an art film, considering the first thing you see when pressing play is that it was restored and preserved by the Museum of Modern Art in New York! But let me assure you: Bergman this is not. The tale of a boy and his vestigial twin in Times Square, on the hunt for the doctors (and veterinarian) who separated them in adolescence, Basket Case is an incredibly gritty film. It makes Taxi Driver or Fort Apache, The Bronx look sanitized by comparison. But it’s also a tale of misfits generally, sibling rivalry, and the desperate search for human connection. With some charming performances, Beverly Bonner, in particular, very sly humor, and a lot of grime and blood, Frank Henenlotter’s film is a micro-budget, midnight movie masterpiece.
Daniel: In this visionary cult classic, recently restored and re-released, Duane Jones, whose other leading role was in Night of the Living Dead, plays an anthropologist researching an ancient blood-drinking African culture, who becomes a vampire when stabbed with an ancient dagger. He falls in love with his assailant’s widow, makes her a vampire, and is later torn over whether to rejoin Christianity and society. The producers who originally approached playwright Bill Gunn with funding to make a “black vampire movie“ were not expecting the experimental, high-concept result, which critiques cultural assimilation and explores vampirism as a metaphor for addiction. Reverberating throughout is the transcendent gospel-psych soundtrack created by Sam Waymon, brother of Nina Simone. In 2014 Spike Lee filmed a remake of Ganja & Hess as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.
Randall: In many respects, Pieces is stamped from the same die as most 80s slashers: it’s your average college-campus-haunted-by-a-chainsaw-wielding-misogynist picture. But, in many other respects, Pieces breaks with convention (and all semblance of logical storytelling) enough to graduate summa cum laude in blood-soaked insanity. What begins as the story of a boy who loves jigsaw puzzles more than family becomes so splattered with brain-scrambling nonsense that the hash of violence, nudity, and unintentional (?) humor becomes almost surrealistic by the end. A heady hybrid of slasher, giallo, and inexplicable kung fu, this Psycho-meets-Texas Chainsaw Massacre mash-up is highly recommended for those who enjoy a lot of head-scratching and weirdness with their gore.
Daniel: A skateboarding vampire in a long black chador (Sheila Vand) cruises the lonely streets of a Middle Eastern oil town, preying on men who abuse women. Billed as “the first Iranian vampire spaghetti western," Ana Lily Arimpour’s spacious debut is monochromatic noir with a surf-goth pulse, sure to become a millennial touchstone. Taft, California, 30 miles southwest of Bakersfield, stands in for Bad City, perfect for the part with its old industrial buildings, dusty moonscapes, and pounding oil derricks. The pimps, junkies, and troubled teens in these deadpan vignettes are worthy of Jim Jarmusch, but Arimpour is a defiant original.
Randall: An absolute classic! Jeffrey Coombs stars in Stuart Gordon’s gleeful mad doctor blood fest, based very loosely on H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “Herbert West, Re-Animator”. Not unlike Frankenstein meets The Brain That Wouldn’t Die meets Evil Dead 2, Re-Animator answers the burning question, “What happens when Miskatonic medical students play God?” The acting is maniacally over the top from start to finish and turns what could have been straight zombie horror into one of the funniest horror-comedies ever. As a side note, Kanopy’s version is the restored, unrated cut, so even fans who’ve seen the film might want to rewatch it! Unlike some 1980s video rental copies, it’s got all 24 gallons of fake blood in it.
Daniel: Behold! The portals of darkness are open, and the shadows of the dead hunt over the earth… when Mephisto unleashes his phalanx of skeletal doom bringers flying on horseback through torn clouds, we are halfway inclined to root for him over the doddering grey-bearded alchemist who seeks occult power at the price of his soul. One of F.W. Murnau’s silent expressionist masterpieces, following Nosferatu, this visually sumptuous telling of the German folktale (immortalized in Goethe’s dramatic verse) is laden with smoke and shadows, tomes and cauldrons, angular stairways and wan maidens. Emil Jannings devours the scenery with his operatic Mephisto, lunging and grimacing desperately. Dark, weird, and enchanting.
Randall: Manos is the perennial story of a stubborn man who won’t ask for directions and the sorrow it wreaks on his family and poodle. Often maligned as one of the worst films ever made, Manos has a lot to offer those in the right frame of mind: a sozzled caretaker named Torgo, a dead/not-dead master of the house with six sand-wrestling wives, moths galore, a pair of teenagers whose only role in the film—like a necking Greek chorus—is to make out in a convertible and get hassled by the cops, and so much more. I recommend turning off your mind, rather than the movie, and just letting Manos and its swinging soundtrack wash over you. This West Texas, 16 millimeter, no-budget twilight zone is a lot of fun!
Daniel: Samantha Robinson is Elaine, the dewey-eyed, potion-brewing heroine of this arch satire that plays it so straight, the line between irony and feminist critique gets hazy. A note-perfect homage to 60s Technicolor British horror, Valley of the Dolls, and late Hitchcock, it begins in a picturesque Northern California town to which Elaine decamps after the mysterious death of her husband. She wants love, and uses her powers to make eligible men in town fall for her—but her magic renders them so clingy and pathetic she has to kill them and start over. As in Heathers, this is a battle of the sexes in which women vie for power while the men are mostly neanderthal pawns. Filmmaker Anna Biller spent years hand-sewing the costumes and perfecting the kitschy interiors, and everything from the lighting to the deliberately wooden acting style exalts the vintage mood.
Daniel: One misty night, a sailor on shore leave falls in love with a mysterious girl at a jazz club. She lives above a carousel on the boardwalk and plays Mora the Mermaid in a seaside attraction. Night swimming, strange dreams, and aquatic mayhem ensue. This atmospheric supernatural noir was Dennis Hopper’s first starring role and is considered a crucial piece of American independent cinema. With occultist Jack Parsons’ wife Marjorie Cameron playing a menacing figure in black, Night Tide is where Los Angeles avant-garde art, esoteric spiritualism, and cool jazz met in the early 60s. Director Curtis Harrington also worked with Kenneth Anger, and his films helped inspire the New Queer Cinema of later decades.
Randall: Society is reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby, if you make the protagonist a man, remove the fear of parenthood from the plot, and set it in the tubular excess of 1980s Beverly Hills. It’s the story of a popular high school jock whose wealthy parents might be aliens… and might be taking his debutante sister to incestuous orgies. Imagine John Carpenter (at his most visually Lovecraftian) directing a John Hughes film, and you have a vague sense of what you’re getting into. Alternately amateurish and deeply weird, Society swings from the uncanny to the truly horrific, finishing off with a climax that might turn your stomach inside out.
Daniel: Herk Harvey was a staff director making industrial and educational films for Centron when he happened to drive by the dilapidated old Saltair ballroom on the shore of the Great Salt Lake and had a vision of it filled with dead souls dancing to haunting music. A Centron colleague threw together a script about a blonde church organist who mysteriously survives a drag race crash only to be pursued by white-faced apparitions (led by the leering Herk himself). Beautifully and creatively shot on a tiny budget, awash in dreamlike foreboding and otherworldly organ music, this played on late-night TV for years due to a bad distribution deal and thereby influenced David Lynch, George Romero, and many others. Harvey lived to see its belated re-appreciation; it is now on many critics’ lists of all-time greatest horror films, and in 2012 was preserved by the Academy Film Archive.
Randall: Christmas horror! Recently, it seems everyone is looking for a Christmas movie that isn’t a Christmas movie: Die Hard, Gremlins, Rocky IV apparently… Well, why not try some Christmas horror instead? You certainly can’t go wrong with this one. Not only is Black Christmas considered by many to be the very first slasher film, it’s also directed by Bob Clark, the auteur behind another beloved holiday movie—A Christmas Story! If these bonafides aren’t enough to sell you, let me say it’s terrifically suspenseful, relatively bloodless (compared to the genre it spawned), and has some ringing performances from its predominantly female cast. I’m especially fond of Marian Waldman, sorority house mother to the other characters, whose appetite for sherry makes Frasier Crane seem like a teetotaler. Make it a double-feature and pair with Rare Exports—a Finnish Christmas folktale/horror also available on Kanopy.
Daniel: Benjamin Christensen’s silent epic uses stunning techniques, costumes, and special effects to recreate witchcraft hysterias and trials from the Middle Ages. It begins with a long film essay on occult cosmology using woodcuts, statuary, and paintings, which is less boring than it sounds. But then it dives into some truly shocking recreations of demonic possession, witches’ Sabbaths, and Inquisition torture, featuring Christensen himself as a chesty, tongue-waggling Satan. Häxan tries to show that the history of witchcraft has mostly amounted to misogynist persecution of women’s differences or mental health issues. Of course, this sober theme is slightly undercut by the great deal of fun the cast seems to be having acting out the demonic revels perceived by Middle Agers in the grip of hysteria. Accompanied by a haunting new score layered with dolorous chimes and drones.
Randall: Jean Rollin’s debut is my favorite of his films, although admittedly I’ve barely plumbed his 52-film oeuvre. Ostensibly about four sisters who think they’re vampires and the three strangers who try to convince them otherwise, Viol is enigmatic enough to befuddle even the most focused viewer. Imagine Last Year at Marienbad as an explicit gothic horror, or Godard directing a shoestring exploitation flick. With gorgeous black and white photography and a criminally unappreciated free jazz/musique concrète/box-of-instruments-thrown-down-a flight-of-stairs score, Le Viol Du Vampire is suffocated with atmosphere—a hallucinatory, stylish, French New Wave gem that didn’t know it was New Wave. P.S. if you like this one, you can explore many more of Rollin’s films on Kanopy.
Daniel: Ghosts, werewolves, witches, pepperoni pizza, and Chance the Rapper, this zany 80s throwback has it all! Someone is killing pizza delivery guys in Kingfisher, and Perfect Pizza girl Astrid, Atlanta’s Zazie Beetz and cub reporter Sadie are both trying to get to the bottom of it. Could it be Chance as moped-riding slacker heartthrob Dax, who may or may not be a werewolf, or is it drug dealer Big Cheese? Will Mayor Tracy succeed in clearing a slum inhabited by the city’s ghosts in the name of urban renewal? With a great cast, plenty of slashed jugular, and a message to boot, this is cheesy, crispy, tasty fun.
Randall: Tucker & Dale is definitely the most wholesome film on my list. It’s practically a romantic comedy… with chainsaws and a wood chipper, of course. Two kind-hearted, beer chooglin’ hillbillies from West Virginia get mistaken for serial killers and the results are, quite naturally, love and mass suicide. While the film trades in stereotypes as much as it subverts them—one blonde character wears high-heels camping, after all—it’s still very loveable and sweet and funny. And blood-soaked! Curl up with a cup of chamomile tea, or a Pabst, and enjoy—just don’t forget your inhaler!
Daniel: Still regarded as one of the great classics of Italian Gothic horror, this was Mario Bava’s first outing as director and maybe his best. Loosely based on Gogol’s tale “Viy”, it throws in a lot of Dracula imagery: a superstitious Moldavian village nestled below a haunted castle, and an abundance of bats, blood, and crucifixes. A doctor and his assistant passing through the village wander into an old crypt and accidentally reanimate a centuries-old witch and her ghoulish lover. The dark-eyed Barbara Steele plays both the witch and her younger descendant at the castle, with whom the doctor’s assistant falls in love while trying to ward off the vengeful forces of evil. Titled The Mask of the Demon in Italian, for the spiked iron mask hammered onto the witch’s face in the villagers’ unsuccessful attempt to exterminate her, Bava’s film added a hint of sadistic eroticism to the overall spooky atmosphere.
—Co-authored with Daniel Tures