By Orrin Grey
Look, yes, the fact is that I watch horror movies all year round, so saying that Halloween is horror movie season is sort of disingenuous. But there is a difference between October and the rest of the year. Chalk it up to whatever you want; the changing of the weather, the liminal nature of the season, the fact that autumn, as Ian Rogers once rightly pointed out, is the only season that you can’t find going on all year long someplace in the world.
Whatever it is, Halloween, at least for me, is a time for a different breed of horror movie. Some people watch the really gory stuff as the leaves start to turn, but for me, October is all about atmosphere. Spooky cemeteries, cobweb-strewn houses, sheeted figures and clanking chains. That makes October a pretty much optimal time for the kinds of creaky old movies that I covered extensively in Monsters from the Vault, so this year, as part of our Countdown to Halloween, we’re going to dig back into that Vault and unearth five movies that provide a perfect complement to the season. You’ll probably also notice another theme: all of tonight’s films are either vampire movies or at least vampirism-adjacent. That started out as an accident when I was picking out films, but once I noticed it going on, I decided to run with it.
You can read more about each of these films in the pages of Monsters from the Vault, so I’m just going to focus on what makes them perfect for Halloween viewing:
Mark of the Vampire (1935)
Kicking off the evening we’ve got a movie that is jammed to the gills with fog-shrouded graveyards, rubber bats, and a just-slightly-goofier-than-usual version of the classic 1930s monster movie atmosphere. Think of it as a poor man’s Dracula, from the same director no less, though it’s actually more like a remake of his famous lost silent film London After Midnight. The ending may engage in a bit of spook-blocking hijinks, but, as was often the case in those days, the supposed “naturalist” explanation stretches credulity more than a bit, and gives Bela Lugosi a chance to deliver a rare comedic beat.
The Vampire’s Coffin (1958)
For our next film, we’re sticking with the vampire theme, but heading south of the border to check out German Robles (basically the Mexican Dracula) in The Vampire’s Coffin. Like a lot of its contemporaries from Mexico, The Vampire’s Coffin feels like someone trying to remake the great Universal monster movies of the 1930s from memory after having seen them maybe once, which makes it at once familiar and bizarre. Some of the best bits include a wax museum in which the titular vampire makes his lair, and a delightfully Halloweeny twist on the old saw that a vampire casts no reflection in a mirror.
The Last Man on Earth (1964)
It wouldn’t be Halloween without a Vincent Price movie on the docket, and in keeping with tonight’s vampire theme we’re watching the probably-slightly-miscast 1964 adaptation of Richard Matheson’s famous novel I Am Legend. The movie prefigures George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead, and helps to transition us from the stagebound theatrics of our earlier films to the slightly more gruesome horror that is to come.
Planet of the Vampires (1965)
For our next selection, we leave behind ruined castles, darkened crypts, and even abandoned Italian cities but return once again to vampires, just this time in spaaaaaace! While another science fiction picture may seem to stretch the bounds of the Gothic atmosphere that I was just saying Halloween is all about, not so when it’s Mario Bava behind the camera and the movie is every bit as steeped in Gothic extravagance as any Vincent Price/Roger Corman Poe adaptation. The multi-hued surface of the alien planet and the crashed ship with its giant skeletons are high points, of course, but for maximum Halloweeniness, you can’t beat those space suits, complete with vampiric high collars and skullcaps! (And if you’re only going to do one color movie in a lineup, Bava is the guy to do it with.)
Spider Baby (1967)
By now the hour is growing late, and if you’re still awake, it’s time for things to get really strange, so that, in the morning, you won’t be sure if you actually saw what you remember, or merely dreamed it. That’s the perfect time to watch Spider Baby, a movie that I describe in Monsters from the Vault as having “one foot planted in the creaky Gothic movies that were its contemporaries and one foot in a more gruesome future that the film seems to prefigure, almost uncannily.” Lon Chaney Jr. and Carol Ohmart (from House on Haunted Hill) help bring the old, while an early appearance by Sid Haig and incredible performances from Jill Banner and Beverly Washburn help usher in what was to come. And ultimately, what could be more perfect for Halloween than that theme song?
So that’s our Monsters from the Vault movie lineup for this Halloween season! Honestly, though, you could program appropriate Halloween viewing from just about any movie in the book, so pick up a copy.