Written by: Ron Bricker
With the Halloween season comes its attendant vibrations: religious paranoia, pumpkin flavored everything, and the desire to never see the colors orange and black together ever again. But for most, the important result of Halloween isn't the lowering of the veil between worlds or scaring ghosts- it's the parties. The co-opting of the holiday by adults from the children (think of the CHIDLREN!) is a subject for another essay (as is the evolution of the holiday itself), but their loss is our gain. Just try not to think of the crying child holding what's left of his Spider-Man candy basket after you bag-snatched their holiday away.
Plenty of parties will have the standard fare of decorations, tombstones, girls dressing risqué, guys thinking any dick joke is fodder for a costume, and sweet sweet booze. But parties are just as much about atmosphere. While a jack-o-lantern will set the mood, nothing sets it better than the shared experience of having a horror movie play in the background. One could always mix together a tape of classic horror scenes, providing a more club-like feel. This is certainly an option for those who wish to put in the effort, but for those lazy types- just popping in a movie is a recipe for instant atmosphere.
Now we all know that all horror movies aren't created equal, but even classics may not work well in a party atmosphere. You want the party to be about the interaction of people getting away from themselves for a night and not the collective silence of a theater. A party movie has to provide a mood on a subconscious level, allowing partygoers to watch it with their mind's eye. By that rationale, it either has to be a movie that everyone knows and can therefore leave a room and come back without disrupting the narrative, or a movie where plot matters not at all. Visuals are, of course, key but of concern is also the pacing. Many horror films rely on slow-building anticipation, which doesn't always translate well to being a film that is meant to accentuate the background and not be the focus of the evening. The original Dracula has that iconic scene with Bela Lugosi, but what else in the film recommends it? Some of the best background movies aren't even horror movies and rely instead on creepy atmospheric moods which do the same job.
By that rationale, we provide a list of possible Halloween background movies. The list is by no means complete.
Max Shreck's Count Orlok's rise from his coffin is perhaps one of the most recognized classic horror images ever. Murnau's silent film makes the problem of not overhearing dialogue in a loud party a moot point and the dripping shadowyness of the grainy film provide instant old world atmosphere. Not everyone as seen it, but everyone will recognize it.
To this day, there are people who can't watch the whole movie. Fantastic visuals throughout and a classic story that by now everyone knows even if they've never seen it. The medium, played by Zelda Rubenstein, provides enough shivers aside from the glowing television set. It also has the benefit of a really spectacular score that even people in other rooms will hear and recognize. Poltergeist 2 is also a good choice.
Bride of Chucky
Child's Play may have spawned a recognizable horror icon, but when the doll doesn't slaughter much until the last half-hour, and the movie is set almost entirely in a standard suburban home, it's a recipe for blandness. However, its recent sequel is a goofy obscene romp with an absurdist cartoon vibe that throws out any pretensions. And the doll sex scene is guaranteed to provoke conversation and guffaws.
The Blair Witch Project is another one of those "sounds good, but doesn't work" choices, given its shaky camerawork and comparatively boring visuals (unless one finds snot-dripping noses terrifying). However, the movie that Blair Witch's production studio took its name form is a brilliant choice. Haxan is a 1922 Swedish silent film documentary about witchcraft. The film does have dragging moments – it is a documentary with subtitles after all – but moody shots of statues and woodcuts give a decidedly old-world medieval feel. But the real gold strikes here are vignettes of Satan tempting women and witches' gatherings, making this a perfect left-field choice. It also has the benefit of being that much creepier because it's based on fact.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
A predictable choice, but for good reason. Romero's film spawned a series of sequels and imitators, but the black and white original still remains the template that all others are based upon. It’s moody and creepy, and everyone recognizes the zombie shuffle. This movie also has the benefit of being public domain.
Dead Alive/Brain Dead
Oscar winning director Peter Jackson (I am never going to get used to saying that…) started off his career doing a series of gooey shock pictures. Although one could be terrified of Meet the Feebles for differing reasons, Dead Alive boasts some of the most outrageous gore scenes committed to film. The first half drags but the second half has animated viscera, zombies being attacked with a lawn mower and a man who literally claws his way out of his mother's womb. The final scene of two lovers walking arm in arm covered in blood is the capper to a movie that will guarantee to provoke reaction, although weak stomachs should beware.
Evil Dead 2
The original takes itself too seriously, while Army of Darkness is a little too campy and not scary enough. Evil Dead 2 is essentially the original movie with all the plot stripped out and boiled down to create perfectly balanced cocktail of camp and horror- perfect for a party. Although be prepared for at least five douchebags to scream "I'll swallow your soul!" throughout the evening.
Any Ed Wood Horror Film
Really, what else can you say? Whether it's Plan 9 From Outer Space or Bride of the Monster, Ed Wood is the archetype for low-budget old creep flicks. The budgets are laughable and the acting often atrocious, but the innocence of these films shine through. Everyone can giggle at seeing Tor Johnson getting whipped or Bela being molested by a rubber octopus.
Carnival of Souls
A classic film that relies on atmosphere rather than gore or straight up creep, this black and white film is a staple of classic Halloween fare. Deep shadowy eyes and spirits torment a young woman and the crowd has the benefit of seeing a classic that they may not have before.
An obvious choice, but in this age of religious hysteria it is a potent film for anyone with a Catholic upbringing. Linda Blair symbolizes the greatest fear of many and this subconscious vibe is guaranteed to provoke discussion. World-renown scenes and the gold-standard bearer for feverish, claustrophobic atmospheres- this movie is an essential for Halloween parties.
Thanks to Aaron Schmidt, Stephen Nickatopolous, and Jef Smith for help in compiling this list.