As I sit and write this list, on one of the last days of September 2010, I am struggling with the fact that today could not feel any less like autumn. The TV says that today in downtown Los Angeles the temperature was briefly a record-setting 113° Fahrenheit. I can see downtown from my window, and even though As I sit and write this list, on one of the last days of September 2010, I am struggling with the fact that today could not feel any less like autumn. The TV says that today in downtown Los Angeles the temperature was briefly a record-setting 113° Fahrenheit. I can see downtown from my window, and even though it wasn’t as hot in my neighborhood I have no problem believing that it was over 100° here. The blinds are drawn, the AC is pumping full blast, my desk fan is on and I’m sucking on penguin-shaped ice cubes. None of it is helping much, and I’m rather forlornly wishing that I hadn’t had the day off today, as the air conditioning in my office is much better. I can’t think of any less appropriate circumstances to be writing about anything having to do with autumn, but we’ll see how this goes anyways. Here we go for my Halloween top ten for 2010! 10. House of Mystery (1934) A poverty row cheapie that is every bit as silly and threadbare as you’d expect, House of Mystery has personal significance for me because of the way I held it near and dear to my heart when writing the screenplay for my upcoming film Uncaged (my co-writer, on the other hand, had a stronger preference for Gorilla at Large). The plot concerns a greedy explorer who steals a treasure belonging to an ape-worshipping religious sect in India, then returns to America and disappears without a trace, leaving his investors without their share of the fortune. Twenty years later said investors track him down and discover him to be a wheelchair-bound invalid living in an old dark house. Explaining that his malady is the result of the curse that was put on him when he stole the treasure, he offers each investor their fair share, but only if they live in the house for a week to experience the horrors of the curse firsthand. Scoffing at his claims, the investors agree to his offer, only to find themselves stalked and killed one by one by a vicious gorilla. But is it really the curse, or is someone among them just trying to get rid of the other investors so they can have a bigger share in the fortune? House of Mystery is a lively and spirited old dark house thriller featuring an insurance salesman hero (who uses the deaths of those around him as a way to sell policies), bumbling police detectives, an undercover Scotland Yard agent and a man in a seedy ape suit, all packed into a fast moving sixty-one minute runtime. 9. Without Warning (1994) No, no, this is not that Without Warning, the one that you’re thinking of with Martin Landau and the alien game hunter played by the same guy who played the monster in Predator. This one is a TV movie that aired on CBS on October 30, 1994. Seeking to recapture the spirit – though not the mass panic - of Orson Welles’ 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast, Without Warning aired with disclaimers at every commercial break telling viewers that this was only a movie and it was not real. The disclaimers were judged necessary since the entire movie is presented in the format of a live TV news broadcast hosted by Sander Vanocur, a nationally recognizable journalist who had previously worked for NBC, ABC, PBS and the New York Times. Despite the frequent warnings, some viewers still were taken by the hoax and numerous complaints were received by CBS and its affiliates. Taking place over the space of a single night, the story involves a series of three meteors which crash into France, China and the United States in an exact geometrical formation, leading to speculation that they may have been guided to Earth by alien intelligence. When another meteor is detected heading through the atmosphere over the North Pole, the U.S. military blows it up with a nuke. When three more meteors are detected heading straight towards Washington, Moscow and Beijing, those are blown up by the forces of humanity as well, leading to an ending in which hundreds upon hundreds of meteors are detected heading towards a now doomed Earth, presumably guided by alien beings pissed off about the destruction of their previous meteors. The plot of Without Warning does not stand up to close scrutiny, but the movie works because it accurately captures the experience of helplessly watching a crisis unfold on TV, and, despite being dated, viewing it post-9/11 can be a discomforting experience. I wrote the plot summary that appears on the Internet Movie Database, and clearly I wasn’t the only one who was affected by Without Warning because for years I’d get regular e-mails from people who wanted to see it again and couldn’t find a copy. Heck, the e-mail address that appears on IMDb has since been deactivated, so for all I know I’m probably still getting them. 8. Friday the 13th – Part VI (1986) Perhaps the most popular of the Paramount F13 movies with contemporary viewers, part six of the original series marked the beginning of the end of the studio’s association with Jason Vorhees when box office receipts fell below the levels set by the first five films. Perhaps audiences of the day were not prepared for the tongue-in-cheek attitude that the filmmakers adopted for this entry, although the humor and horror usually complement each other. We all know the plot, but I’ll repeat it for the uninitiated: fresh out of his stay at the youth home in part five, Tommy Jarvis digs up Jason Vorhees’ body in an attempt to destroy it once and for all, but an unexpected bolt of lightning resurrects the murderer as an indestructible zombie who, of course, continues his bloody work on the local community and its summer camp. Though the humorous elements are frequent, Friday the 13th – Part VI still hits the nail on the head, with the plenty of carnage and several nightmarish moments that will permanently stick in a viewer’s mind, especially the unforgettable resurrection of Jason. 7. Jannie Totsiens (1970) It looks like a Hammer film, it plays like a David Lynch production, but this Afrikaans language classic from South Africa is an achievement all its own. The film tells the story of Jannie Pienaar, a mathematics professor who has inexplicably become catatonic. Sent to an insane asylum in the countryside to recover, poor Jannie finds himself shut away with some of the world’s craziest, most bizarre people, and lorded over by a doctor who is both incompetent and fully aware of the fact that he is incompetent. When Jannie gets mixed up in a love triangle that causes one of the asylum’s female patients to commit suicide, other inmates form a tribunal, find him guilty and sentence him to death by hanging...except their idea of an execution is to hang him upside down by his feet! Almost completely unknown outside its home country, Jannie Totsiens is considered the first South African horror film, and although it is not particularly violent or explicit, it does manage to be unsettling, occasionally shocking and frequently humorous as it recreates white South African society inside the milieu of an insane asylum, using satire and black humor to shine a light on the absurdities and social perversions that even whites had to live with under the apartheid system. 6. The Last Man on Earth (1964) Yes, Charlton Heston’s The Omega Man and Will Smith’s I Am Legend are slicker and don’t have the annoying English dubbing, but this Italian-made Vincent Price adaptation of the Richard Matheson novel has an enormous number of fans, and it’s easy to see why. Despite being cheap and hurriedly filmed The Last Man on Earth creates an amazingly bleak atmosphere in which a post-apocalyptic city appears empty by day but crawls with undead zombie/vampires by night. Price plays Dr. Robert Morgan, a scientist who has become the only human survivor of a devastating plague that has killed the rest of humanity and re-animated them as bloodthirsty creatures. Matheson considered Vincent Price miscast in the part, but he’s quite good, if a little too old, as the lonely, bitter Morgan. Despite the nightmarish scenes of the undead outside his barricaded house some of the film’s most enduring images come during Morgan’s flashbacks of humanity’s last days, such as a scene where he tries to reclaim his daughter’s body from a giant crematorium pit and a sadly poignant moment where he enters the laboratory where he works and discovers that he and his boss are the only two people left to continue the research into the mysterious disease. 5. Basket Case (1982) Frank Henenlotter’s feature film debut is a grindhouse classic by virtue of its delightfully sick sense of humor, but manages to somehow be more than that by tapping into deeper emotions of jealousy, loss and yearning as it tells the story of young Duane Bradley and his deformed, monstrous Siamese twin brother Belial as they take revenge on the doctors who surgically separated them. The rubbery Belial puppet is capable of a surprisingly wide array of facial expressions, turning what would otherwise be a simple, if unique, movie monster into something approaching an actual character that we as the audience are even able to sympathize with at times. When Duane falls in love with a New York woman, much to Belial’s dismay, we’re actually able to see and understand the little monster’s point of view. Although I missed the opportunity to see it on VHS as a teenager and have only caught up with it on DVD in recent years, Basket Case is quickly becoming one of my favorite grindhouse films. 4. Tarantula (1955) Contemporary viewers, fed by a public perception which says that every 50’s giant bug movie is an exercise in high camp, are usually surprised by just how good this film actually is. Veteran character actor Leo G. Carroll plays a scientist who’s invented a growth formula that turns animals into giants. When plot complications result in a dosed tarantula escaping from his desert laboratory, the creature grows to enormous proportions and starts terrorizing the locals. Not a masterpiece, but certainly the product of talented artisans, this engaging monster movie was directed by Jack Arnold, and features a youthful John Agar just a few years shy of the alcohol problems that would eventually exile him to movies like Zontar, the Thing from Venus, as well as a never more beautiful Mara Corday as the love interest. The film’s carefully managed special effects still are impressive today, despite a tendency for the giant spider’s legs to disappear behind the sky in matte shots! 3. Phenomena (1985) One of Dario Argento’s many talents is a curious ability to take a plot that sounds ludicrous on paper and execute it on screen in a way that makes its most outrageous aspects seem reasonable, perhaps even probable. That has never been more true than with Phenomena. It was not the first giallo that I had ever seen – that was Torso – but it was surely the second or the third, watched on DVD by me at the young age of 17. It was a good introduction to the world of Argento, based as it was in the world of pulp fantasy that I was already accustomed to. It is to this day still one of my favorite Italian horror films. 2. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) A lesser known classic of the genre, Rouben Mamoulian’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous work scored an Oscar win for star Frederic March but then slipped into obscurity when MGM bought the rights and suppressed it when they decided to make a version of their own starring Spencer Tracy in 1941. Rediscovered a generation later, I was able to see the March/Mamoulian version on VHS as a kid and was pretty well blown away by its technical sophistication. Mamoulian pushed the limits of what early sound film technology was capable of, using split screens, moving cameras, and expressionistic angles and lighting to great effect. The result is that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde often feels like a movie made at least ten years later. Not to be forgotten either is Frederic March’s jaw dropping performance. March, who is perfectly serviceable as the human Dr. Jekyll, turns his established screen persona on its head – and in a way that would not be seen again until Heath Ledger’s turn as The Joker in The Dark Knight - when he changes into the villainous Mr. Hyde. It’s an absolutely jaw dropping performance. 1. Night of the Living Dead (1968) I suppose there’s little that can be said about this movie that has not already been said, but I will tell you what George Romero’s classic means to me: it is the scariest fucking movie that I have ever seen. While there are other worthy contenders that vie for the title of scariest film ever, none of them have had quite the impact on me that Night of the Living Dead has had. Watching it as a third grader on an EP mode VHS tape is quite the cherished memory. What I cherish less are the almost twenty years of subsequent zombie nightmares that the film has caused, the most recent of which was just a few weeks ago, and some of them so intense that I wake up hyperventilating. There has never been another horror film which has affected me to the same extent as this movie, and frankly I’m thankful for that!