Ah, October! When pumpkin spice is everywhere, temperatures finally get cooler here in Texas, and the movies on TV get tons better.
This year, October is coming at a good time for me. After a long run of serious blogging on Paganism, polytheism, and politics, I need a break. In 2016 I wrote 31 Movies for Halloween, an annotated list of my favorite horror movies over four eras and 81 years.
This year I set out to do a survey of all the horror movies on the major cable channels and streaming services. But when I checked their listings, I found that only one had anything I really wanted to watch: Turner Classic Movies (TCM).
As I’ve explained before, I don’t like slasher movies or torture films. I don’t really want to be scared when I’m watching movies. I want to be fascinated. And if the fictional magic inspires me to work on my real magic, or if the monsters happen to win for a change (the rarest of all), so much the better. With a few notable exceptions, the older films do a far better job of creating fascination than the newer ones.
Here’s the TCM horror schedule for October. I wish I could watch them all, but there’s just no way. Here are the ones I’m going to make time for, on-line or on-demand if I can’t catch them at their broadcast time.
1. Bell, Book and Candle (1958) – Thursday October 3, 8:00 PM ET. How have I never seen this movie? Probably because it’s classified as a romantic comedy and therefore was never in the “Shock Theatre” late night rotation of my childhood. Still, it’s one of two or three most influential movies in how witches were seen in mid-20th century America… so much so that Heather Greene titled her academic review of witches on the screen Bell, Book and Camera.
It is very much a product of its era, with some subtle snipes at McCarthyism, as well as some very fixed expectations for women. Still, it’s a highly influential film, and I’m finally going to see it.
2. Horror Hotel (1960) – Thursday October 3, 9:45 PM ET. I remember seeing this movie a long, long time ago. I remember I liked it a lot. And that’s all I can remember about it.
Christopher Lee is in it, which tells us absolutely nothing. Lee was a great actor, but he was in some really bad movies. TCM’s summary says “A young coed travels to a village to continue her research on witchcraft, and discovers some horrifying secrets.” IMDb says it opens with a witch burning in Salem – no witches or people thought to be witches were burned in Salem.
So, is Horror Hotel really that good? Or was there one thing that grabbed my attention 40 years ago that won’t mean a thing now? We’ll find out on Thursday night.
3. Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922) – Friday October 4, 4:30 AM ET. Another classic I’ve never seen. This is a silent movie made in Europe by Danish director Benjamin Christensen. It’s a dramatized documentary about witchcraft, inspired largely by the infamous witch hunting manual Malleus Maleficarum (1487). As such, it is unlikely to be historically accurate. Still, the images and concepts it presents are part of the “primordial soup” that led to the modern witchcraft movement. I want to see it if only to view the source material for myself.
4. The Haunting (1963) – Thursday October 17, 10 PM ET. Shirley Jackson’s brilliant 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House has been made into a Netflix series (2018, with a second season due next year) and a 1999 film with Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. This is the first screen adaptation. It features Richard Johnson as Dr. John Markway, a scientist conducting paranormal research in a haunted house.
Jackson’s opening paragraph is one of the best in American literature, and this film retains its final line. Speaking of Hill House, the narrator says “whatever walked there, walked alone.”
Is Hill House really haunted? Or are those who encounter strange and deadly things there simply mentally disturbed?
How can we ever be sure?
5. Horror of Dracula (1958) – Thursday October 24, 8:00 PM ET. Christopher Lee played Dracula ten times – this was the first. He kept Bela Lugosi’s elegant appearance but added fangs and blood, made all the more dramatic by the use of color film. He spoke only 16 lines in Horror of Dracula, all at the beginning when Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) visits his castle. The rest of the time he simply glared at people, or occasionally hissed at them.
This is not the best Dracula, nor the most faithful to Stoker’s novel. But it’s very good, and an excellent example of Hammer Films’ early work.6. The Hunger (1983) – Friday October 25, 3:00 AM ET. You have to look carefully to find LGBT representation in movies made during the era of the Hayes Code (1934-1968). But by 1983, we have the Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) replacing her lover John (David Bowie) with Sarah (Susan Sarandon).
The vampires (though that word is never used) of this movie have no fangs – they carry razor blades concealed in ankh necklaces. And while they live forever, there’s a horrifying catch.
This movie would be worth watching if only for Bauhaus’ performance of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” in the opening scenes. But there is so much more…
7. Nosferatu (1922) – Friday October 25, 4:45 AM ET. This was the first major film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. Director F.W. Murnau didn’t want to pay Stoker’s widow for the film rights. He changed the name of Count Dracula to Count Orlok and moved the setting to Germany, but kept the plot mostly the same. When the inevitable lawsuit came, Murnau lost and all copies of the film were ordered to be destroyed. Thankfully, a few survived and the film has been restored.
Max Schreck played Count Orlok as a rodent-like creature – far more in line with how vampires were understood in folklore than Bela Lugosi or Frank Langella’s well-dressed and sexy versions. The 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire fictionalized the making of Nosferatu, based on the premise that Max Schreck was really a vampire.
8. Mark of the Vampire (1935) – Thursday October 31, 2:15 AM ET. TCM is running non-stop horror movies from the evening of Wednesday the 30th through the evening of Friday the 1st. The first one on my list is this Tod Browning film starring Lionel Barrymore (that’s Drew Barrymore’s granduncle), Lionel Atwill, and Bela Lugosi as Count Mora. Made four years after Browning directed Lugosi in Dracula, it’s not a sequel. And without spoiling it for you, I’ll tell you that while the movie is good, the ending is disappointing – or at least it was for me.
Perhaps the most enduring image to come out of Mark of the Vampire is Caroll Borland’s Luna, Count Mora’s daughter. Her long, flowing gowns and hair, menacing stare, and heavy eye makeup were an inspiration for Vampira, Morticia Addams, Elvira, and countless goths to this very day.
9. A Bucket of Blood (1959) – Thursday October 31, 4:45 AM ET. This was one of B-movie king Roger Corman’s early efforts (though far from his first). A young artist wannabe with no talent accidentally kills his neighbor’s cat. When he covers it with plaster and presents it as a sculpture, all of a sudden he’s a star. Only problem is, now he has to make more sculptures.
10. Black Sabbath (1963) – Thursday October 31, 2:45 PM ET. This was made by Italian horror master Mario Bava and stars Boris Karloff as both the host of a trilogy of horror stories and the star of one of them. I’m not sure if I remember this one or not. But the combination of Bava, Karloff, and vampires? I’ll be watching.
11. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) – Thursday October 31, 8 PM ET. I’m not a film critic – I’m just a guy who likes horror movies. But I will stand on the table and scream that Bride of Frankenstein is the best movie on this list, and it’s not close.
This is director James Whale’s sequel to the original 1931 Frankenstein. Boris Karloff is the Creature once again. Elsa Lanchester is the Bride, made to give the Creature a mate. But it turns out the Bride has a mind of her own.
In the opening scene, Lanchester plays Mary Shelley, who along with Percy Shelley and Lord Byron tell the story of how Frankenstein was written in 1816, “The Year Without A Summer.”
TCM has rightly scheduled this for Halloween prime time. If you watch nothing else on this list, watch Bride of Frankenstein.
12. House of Usher (1960) – Thursday October 31, 11 PM ET. This was the first of seven movies Roger Corman made based on the tales of Edgar Allan Poe and starring Vincent Price. The House of Usher is both an old house and an old family, a family that carries an awful curse.
If you like House of Usher, it will be immediately followed by Pit and the Pendulum from 1961. My favorite in this series is The Masque of the Red Death from 1964, but it’s not on this year.
13. Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966) – Friday November 1, 6:45 AM ET. This was the second Hammer film starring Christopher Lee as the Count (1960’s Brides of Dracula had neither Lee or Dracula, despite the title).
Two English couples are traveling in the Carpathian Mountains when their carriage breaks down. Despite a warning from a local priest, they take shelter in an abandoned castle, where they’re met by a rather odd servant who uses their blood to restore life to the dusty remains of Count Dracula. I don’t know if that was the first time that particular plot device was used, but we would see it again and again, including in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.