Halloween Movie Countdown #4 – Sleepy Hollow

#4 – Sleepy Hollow 1999

Heads will roll”

Every Halloween during my childhood I would watch the Walt Disney version of Washington Irving’s story. Ok, I admit, I still watch it every Halloween now that I am in my thirties.  But now, the Disney version has been supplanted by Tim Burton‘s adaptation even though it is distinctly lacking the narrative talents of one Bing Crosby.  Burton’s twist on the familiar folk tale is to turn it into a horror/murder mystery.  In the year 1799,  New York police constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is dispatched to the tiny town of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of gruesome murders that have left the victims decapitated and their melons missing.  He arrives to stories from the town’s elders that the killings are being perpetrated from beyond the grave by a Headless Hessian Horseman (Christopher Walken, with pointy teeth).  Crane doesn’t buy the story because he approaches his investigations from a scientifically skeptical position.  He insists the killer must be a man of flesh and blood.  Until he comes face to face with Headless Horseman himself.

The reimagining of Sleepy Hollow was not initially Tim Burton’s concept.  Makeup artist Kevin Yagher had partnered with Andrew Kevin Walker and pitched the idea of Ichabod Crane as a banished New York detective to several producers in the early nineties.  The project was eventually bought by Paramount with the plan of Yagher directing and Walker scripting.  Yagher wanted to make Sleepy Hollow into a low-budger slasher movie with “a spectacular murder every five minutes or so.”  Paramount wasn’t amenable to that concept and demoted Yagher’s involvement in the project back to makeup design.  One of the Sleepy Hollow producers that had also worked on Edward Scissorhands suggested Burton as Yagher’s replacement.

Of all the movies on my list, I think that the art direction and cinematography in Sleepy Hollow work together to create the most impressively effective atmosphere.  It is a visually gorgeous picture.  It has a loaded cast, a very eerie soundtrack (by Nightmare Before Christmas collaborator, Danny Elfman, plenty of comedic moments (often at the expense of Depp’s portrayal of Ichabod Crane’s awkward squeamishness), and enough to gore to satisfy those that want it without going over the top.  Watching this movie around Halloween always makes me wish I had the talent to create a prosthetic, decapitated version of my own head to set out on the porch to greet the trick-or-treaters.  But I probably wouldn’t be able to stop there.  I’d have to make the rest of the costume and learn how to really ride a horse, so that I could really scare the bejeezus out of people. Since I don’t A) have the money to buy a horse, or B) have anywhere to house Satan’s steed, I suppose it’s better for everyone that I just stick to carving jack-o-lanterns. Damn logistics.

Behind the scenes of Sleepy Hollow:

Part 2, Part 3


Halloween Movie Countdown #5 – Ghostbusters

#5 – Ghostbusters 1984

Back off, man.  I’m a scientist.” – Peter Venkman

Ghostbusters is about a trio of recently fired university paranormal research scientists who choose to leave the confines of academia to open a start-up supernatural ghost and spirit extermination business in the private sector. (Insert obligatory “Obama, You Didn’t Build It” joke here)  Peter Venkman  (Bill Murray), Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), and Egon Spangler (Harold Ramis).  They get a call from the manager of the Sedgwick Hotel that their upper floors are haunted – by Slimer.  They come, they see, they kick its ass.  After that, it doesn’t take long for business to pick up, ghosts to start being busted, and the three to become to New York celebrities.  They are then hired by Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) to investigate the demonic haunting of her apartment by a demigod named Zuul.  The Ghostbusters discover that Dana’s apartment building was constructed as a gateway to summon Gozer, a Sumerian god of destruction, which they must prevent from happening.

The idea for Ghostbusters came about from Dan Aykroyd’s keen interest in the paranormal.  Want to know where that interest came from? Notice this book, A History of Ghosts: The True Story of Seances, Mediums, Ghosts, and Ghostbusters. Author’s name look familiar?  That’s right.  Peter Aykroyd is the father of one, Dan Aykroyd.  Which makes Dan Aykroyd a second generation demon hunter, sort of like Simon Belmont or Dean Winchester.  Holy Crap.  Aykroyd used his “demon hunting experience” during his script development for the movie.  As you learn in the commentary track on the DVD, Venkman’s treatment of Dana during her possession by Zuul is the actual recommended treatment for an individual that is possessed by an evil spirit.  Even the technical jargon wasn’t just made up.  Well, at least it wasn’t just made up just for the movie.  For example:  The term “ectoplasm” was actually coined by Nobel Prize winning physiologist, Charles Richet, to denote a substance or spiritual energy “exteriorized” by physical mediums.”

Ghostbusters was, and to a large extent still is, extremely popular. It spun off toy lines, video games, cartoons, and a lackluster sequel. The theme song, sung by Ray Parker, Jr., was also a smash hit. It occupied the top spot on the Billboard charts for three weeks and is probably still played today in roller rinks across the country. There are rumblings about another potential addition to the Ghostbusters franchise. I’m not sure how I feel about this considering what a massive failure it was to dig up Indiana Jones for a fourth a time after two decades had passed.  Shia LaBeouf swinging on hanging vines through the jungle with a bunch of monkeys a la Tarzan?  Really, Spielberg and Lucas? Really?! I now just pretend that the sequel that shall not be named doesn’t exist. I don’t want the Ghostbusters to shame themselves in similar fashion.

Begging your pardon, but I will conclude with a somewhat related tangent involving one of my pet peeves:  “Ghost Hunting” shows……….

Ghostbusters was so awesome to me during my formative years, that I went trick-or-treating as one for Halloween one year, complete with khaki coveralls, plastic proton pack, and vaccuum ghost trap. This was me………

But eventually you need to grow up and stop taking the subject matter so seriously.  Or else you might end up with your own TV show on the SyFy Network or the Travel Channel believing that you are actually hunting ghosts with a bunch of instruments you don’t know how to operate and don’t understand what they were designed to do in the first place.  Like this guy.  Judging by his exhaustive wardrobe of Affliction style apparel, Zak Bagans isn’t even qualified to properly dress himself, let alone understand that an EMF meter wasn’t designed to hunt ghosts.  “Ghosts are said to give off electromagnetic energy, therefore if we come across a spike on our EMF meter that we can’t personally explain, it is reasonable to assume a ghost might be present.”  Sound scientific methodology there, Bagans.  Who says ghosts give off electromagnetic energy, again?  Citation please.

Halloween Movie Countdown #6 – The Wolf Man

#6 – The Wolf Man 1941

Even a man who is pure in heart

and says his prayers by night

may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms

and the autumn moon is bright.”

The Wolf Man begins with Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) returning to England to reconcile with his father (Claude Rains) after the death of his brother.  As soon as Larry gets home, he wanders into his father’s observatory and starts using its telescope to spy on the neighboring village.  Local antique shop girl, Gwen, soon catches the eye of Peeping Larry and he likes what he sees.  He goes into town to creep on Gwen a little bit more, buys a cane topped with a silver wolf’s head, then tells Gwen he’ll be back to stalk her later than evening after she repeatedly turns him down for a date.  Larry returns and needles Gwen into going to get their fortunes told by the band of gypsies that just rolled into town, only to have her third wheel friend, Jenny, insist on coming along with them.  Jenny has her fortune ominously told to her by the Bela the gypsy (Bela Lugosi) and runs away frightened into the woods.  Larry hears a scream and charges toward the commotion where he finds her being attacked by a wolf.  He whips out his trusty silver wolf’s head cane and bludgeons it to death, getting bitten in the process.  Larry later returns to the gypsy camp where an old woman informs him that the wolf he killed was really Bela, and that Larry will now become a werewolf himself.

Originally, the audience was never actually going to see the werewolf.  The movie was initially intended to be more of a psychological study into Larry Talbot’s character.  Was he actually turning into a werewolf, or was he just suffering through a psychotic breakdown? Eventually the studio decided that the movie would probably be more successful if it just went ahead and showed the goods.  Talbot’s transformation is one of the few areas I think could have been improved upon even considering the technical limitations of the time. As it happens, you only get to see his feet.  Other than that, the fog covered set pieces and soundtrack both work very well in providing the movie a successfully spooky atmosphere.

The Wolf Man is my favorite of all the classic Univeral monster pictures and the quintessential werewolf movie, narrowly edging out Teen Wolf. (Who doesn’t want to watch werewolf Michael J. Fox dunk a basketball? If that answer is you, we can’t be friends.)  But seriously, while not technically the start of the werewolf movie bloodline (that honor goes to Universal’s 1935 Werewolf of London), The Wolf Man is the one from which all other werewolf movies have sprung.  It established much of the now canonical werewolf lore, such as how they can only be killed by a silver bullet silver knife, or silver etc. You can thank it for influencing good movies like An American Werewolf in London, Silver Bullet, and Teen Wolf. You can also probably place some blame on it for Werewolf (however, MST3K version = Full Of Win), whichever Twilight movie/s has/have the werewolves (not going to look it up), and Teen Wolf Too (Why, Jason Bateman!? WHY!?!?)

The popularity of the film spawned four sequels that Lon Chaney, Jr. returned to star in.  This was actually a rarity among the classic Universal monster pictures.  The actors that made the roles famous in the original movies were replaced by different actors playing the role in the sequels.  There was a subpar remake released in 2010 starring Benicio del Toro and Anthony Hopkins.  Although the film has its problems, I appreciated that the effects remained respectful to the spirit of the original movie.  Rather than just rendering the werewolf effects and transformations solely using CGI, the producers put makeup wizard Rick Baker, of An American Werewolf in London fame, to work.  This netted the movie the Academy Award for Best Makeup in 2011.


Halloween Movie Countdown #7 – The Nightmare Before Christmas

#7 – The Nightmare Before Christmas 1993

Kidnap the Sandy Claws

Beat him with a stick!

Lock him up for ninety years

See what makes him tick!”

I have never been sure if The Nightmare Before Christmas is supposed to be classified as a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie.  But I only have the urge to watch it at Halloween, and never at Christmas.  So, Halloween it is.

The Nightmare Before Christmas tells the story of Jack Skellington, The Pumpkin King, who hails from Halloween Town.  Although Jack is seen as the rock star of Halloween Town’s yearly festivities, he has grown bored with repeating the same routine.  After the most recent Halloween has been completed, Jack goes for a walk in the woods.  There he discovers a grove of trees with symbols of other holidays drawn on them.  He approaches the one with a Christmas tree on it, which turns out to be a portal to Christmas Town.  Jack is in awe with what he witnesses.  He returns to Halloween Town and tries to relate what he has just seen.  Soon, he convinces the residents of Halloween Town that they should be the ones to carry out Christmas, and give Sandy Claws (Santa Clause) a break this year.

Tim Burton‘s idea for The Nightmare Before Christmas originated in a poem that he wrote while working as an animator for Walt Disney in the early eighties.  He initially intended to adapt it into a televison special that would be narrated by Vincent Price.  Burton was inspired by the popular animated Christmas specials of the sixties, such as Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  He was in talks with Disney to do this, but development eventually stalled as the company deemed the project’s tone and direction to be a little too weird for its tastes.  Shortly thereafter, Burton left Disney to work on other projects, finding commercial success on Beetlejuice and Batman.  After making more of a name for himself, he was able to return to the idea in 1990, but Disney still owned the rights to the project.  He would collaborate with Disney animator, Henry Selick, to produce a full length film.  Burton was too busy with Batman Returns and seemed too put off by the potential frustrations involved with stop-animation to direct, so that job fell to Selick.  Renowned movie musical maestro, Danny Elfman, was responsible for the soundtrack of The Nightmare Before Christmas.  He even provided Jack’s singing voice.

Jack-o-Lanterns of Halloweens Past

I like to carve Jack-o-Lanterns.  Probably more than a grown up should.  Here are some examples I’ve previously done.

Halloween Movie Countdown #8 – The Cabin in the Woods

#8 – The Cabin in the Woods 2011

Yes, you had “Zombies.” But this is “Zombie Redneck Torture Family.” Entirely separate thing. It’s like the difference between an elephant and an elephant seal.”

When I first started seeing trailers for The Cabin in the Woods, it initially appeared to be another brainless, run-of-the-mill slasher flick.  Not really my can of Slurm.  Of course, that was before I realized that this guy was involved.  SOLD!

The Cabin in the Woods is best experienced when viewed without any prior knowledge of the movie’s plot or premise.  Since it really isn’t possible to offer any further commentary on the movie without spoiling the whole enchilada, I strongly suggest that any uninitiated eyes that may be reading to stop doing so now.  If any of you Cabin in the Woods virgins choose to ignore this warning, my conscience is clear.

This blog posting will continue after this short intermission…..

Still here?  Alrighty then!

If you go into The Cabin in the Woods expecting merely another rehashed slasher flick where a group of dumb teenagers take a vacation to some remote location simply to be tortured/murdered/eaten by hillbillies/serial killers/zombies, you might be a little confused at how the movie actually opens.  It seems to be a completely different movie.  Two middle aged guys, Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) are milling about what looks like some sort of facility that Ernst Blofeld might be plotting world domination from.  They are preparing for some sort of global operation.  Another technician enters and informs them of a problem at their sister facility in Stockholm.  Sitterson and Hadley shrug it off, assuring her that the facility in Japan will get the job done and bemoan the fact their U.S. facility always comes in second.  They board a golf cart and zoom off down a tunnel, possibly to see how close the laser is to reaching James Bond’s crotch.

Next, we get our introduction to the dumb teenagers as they prepare for their trip to, you guessed it, a cabin in the woods.  Every good slasher bait stereotype is well represented:  Jock, slutty hot chick, shy hot chick, comic-relief stoner.  They all pile into an RV and head off to their destined murders.  But in hilariously awesome fashion.  Because it turns out that what they experience at the cabin in the woods is just one scenario among many across the globe that are actually orchestrated ritual sacrifices to the “Ancient Gods” that once controlled the Earth.  The nameless organization in the beginning of the movie is responsible for conducting these sacrifices to appease them so that they don’t return, thus bringing about the end of the world.

Joss Whedon and writer, co-director Drew Goddard, came up with the inspiration for The Cabin in the Woods in response to what they felt was the devolution of the horror genre into “torture porn”.

It’s basically a very loving hate letter,” he told us.

“On some level it was completely a lark, me and Drew [Goddard, director] trying to figure out what the most fun we could have would be. On another level it’s a serious critique of what we love and what we don’t about horror movies.”

On his own genre passion, he added, “I love being scared. I love that mixture of thrill, of horror, that objectification/identification thing of wanting definitely for the people to be alright but at the same time hoping they’ll go somewhere dark and face something awful.”

And on the things he hates about lame horror, Whedon said: “The things that I don’t like are kids acting like idiots, the devolution of the horror movie into torture porn and into a long series of sadistic comeuppances. Drew and I both felt that the pendulum had swung a little too far in that direction.”

What’s really great about The Cabin in the Woods, is that it actually works really well was a horror movie in spite of its intention to lampoon the genre. There are some genuinely tense moments and scary effects, which I found sorely lacking in many of the films that Whedon and Goddard are poking fun at. It is quite an accomplishment to be more successful at achieving the same goals in jest than lesser filmmakers are in earnesty.

Halloween Movie Countdown #9 – The Monster Squad

#9 – The Monster Squad 1987

Bogus.” – Frankenstein’s Monster

In retrospect, I find it a little indefensible that I have The Monster Squad ranked above The Bride of Frankenstein, which is universally critically acclaimed and enough of an important milestone in film history to earn a place in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.  The goal of which is to list up to 25 “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films” each year, showcasing the range and diversity of American film heritage to increase awareness for its preservation.”  But apparently I do.  Probably because I was in second grade when the movie came out and it contains this scene.  So sue me.

I like to describe The Monster Squad as a poor man’s Goonies vs. the classic Universal Monsters.  How can that concept not be awesome?  Answer:  It can’t.  It could only have been more awesome.  By using the real Goonies.  <Sigh>.  What could have been?  Oh well.  Enough fantasizing about my Platonic ideal of The Monster Squad and on to the actual, imperfect version of the movie that we do have.

The Monster Squad of the film’s title is a club composed of pre-teens obssessed with the classic monsters of the golden age of monster movies.  They hold their meetings in the treehouse of club leader, Sean.  Somehow, Sean has just come into possession of the diary of Abraham Van Helsing, vampire hunter of Dracula fame.   However, none of the Monster Squad is able to read it because it has been written in German.  Lucky for them, there is neighbor just down the street known as “Scary German Guy” who might be able to translate it for them.  “Scary German Guy” turns out to be not so scary, just German.  He translates the diary for the Monster Squad, revealing that one day out of every century, the forces of good and evil reach a precarious balance.  Conveniently for the plot, this century’s potential day of ushering in global evil, chaos, and destruction is just a couple of days away!  In order to save the world, the Monster Squad needs to secure a magical amulet that will banish the monsters to Limbo, which Van Helsing unsuccessfully attempted to do a hundred years before.  Somewhere nearby, Count Dracula is forming an alliance including Frankenstein’s monster, a Wolfman, a mummy, and a gill-man to recover the amulet first.

Like several of the other movies on my list, The Monster Squad has developed its own cult following.  Prior to it’s release on DVD, a 20th anniversary reunion screening was organized at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas.  It was attended by the director, Fred Dekker, and other cast members.  Lines extended around the block for the two showings, with some people coming from as far away as California.

It also appears that a remake is in the works.  I’m pretty certain this idea needs to be shot with a silver bullet, have a wooden stake driven through its heart, burned with fire and then have the ashes placed on a rocket which is then shot into the Sun.  I am only settling for the Sun because the Phantom Zone from Superman does not actually exist.  Remakes are almost unanimously inferior to the originals.  Especially of movies from the 1980’s, which was just a decade full of unadulterated awesomeness.  There is also the fact that Micheal Bay is listed among those involved.  Have you seen what this jackass wants to do to The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?  NO THANKS.  Leave The Monster Squad alone.

“Better than Wendy’s” Chili

This afternoon, I started getting a craving for chili.  While perusing recipes on the internet to try, I came across one that claimed to be a very close facsimile of the kind they serve at Wendy’s.  I thought it would be interesting to find out whether or not it really resembled it.  But it looked to be lacking a couple of ingredients that I feel are necessary if I am actually going to go to the trouble to make my own chili.  So I made some improvements*.


2 lbs. ground beef
1 yellow onion, chopped.
2 (14 oz.) cans dark red kidney beans
1 (14 oz.) can pinto beans
1 (28 oz.) can tomato sauce
1 (28 oz.) can diced tomatoes
2 (3 oz.) cans of diced green chili peppers
1/4 cup diced celery
3 Tbsp. chili powder
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 1/2 tsp. celery salt.
1 1/2 ground black pepper
1 cup water

Brown the ground beef on medium heat in a large pot.  Drain off the excess fat.  Saute the chopped onion in a bit of olive oil in a separate skillet.  Add onions to the beef.  Stir in all of the other ingredients and cook on medium-high just long enough until the chili starts to boil.   Cover and reduce heat to low.  Simmer for about 2 hours, stirring frequently. I took the cover off the last 40 minutes to achieve a thicker consistency.

Tasted like Wendy’s, but better!

Halloween Movie Countdown #10 – The Bride of Frankenstein

#10 – The Bride of Frankenstein 1935

To a new world of gods and monsters!”

The Bride of Frankenstein is, obviously enough, the sequel to Frankenstein, which was released in 1931 It picks up right where the events of the first film leave off.  (SPOILER ALERT for those of you that still don’t know how the original Frankenstein ends, despite the fact that it predates FM radio:  The Monster knocks Henry Frankenstein unconscious and carries him off to an old wind mill.  The torch-carrying village mob follows to discover the Monster has carried Frankenstein to the top of the mill where he chucks him from the roof.  Some of the villagers carry Frankenstein’s body away while the others burn the mill to the ground, presumably destroying the Monster.)  

It turns out (again, SPOILER ALERT) that neither Frankenstein, nor the Monster are dead.  While Henry is recuperating in his castle, his former mentor, Dr. Pretorius shows up.  Pretorius has been up to some mad science of his own.  He unveils several of his own creations for Frankenstein:  miniature people that he keeps in glass jars.  He wants to partner with Frankenstein to make a mate for the Monster, who is currently somewhere on the loose after murdering a couple of villagers during his escape from the ruins of the burned out wind mill.

Everyone is familiar with Mary Shelley’s story of the Frankenstein Monster.  It has been adapted, interpreted and reinterpreted several different times since director James Whale’s original 1931 version. But, The Bride of Frankenstein is, in my opinion, one of the rare times that a sequel surpasses the original movie.  This sentiment is not unique:

The film’s reputation has persisted and grown since its release. In 1998, the film was added to the United States National Film Registry, having been deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.[40][41] Frequently identified as James Whale’s masterpiece,[42] the film is lauded as “the finest of all gothic horro movies”.[43]Time rated Bride of Frankenstein in its “ALL-TIME 100 Movies”, in which critics Richard Corliss and Richard Shickel overruled the magazine’s original review to declare the film “one of those rare sequels that is infinitely superior to its source”.[44] In 2008, Bride was selected by Empire magazine as one of The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time.[45] Also in 2008, the Boston Herald named it the second greatest horror film after Nosferatu.[46]Entertainment Weekly considers the film superior to Frankenstein.[47] (Wikipedia)

Although a tame movie by today’s standards, The Bride of Frankenstein encountered several problems with the local and national censorship boards of the time.  Among the elements that issue was taken with were: the film’s comparisons to Frankenstein and his work with that of God, its violence, and other sexual imagery.  My favorite objection came from the Japanese.  They objected to the scene where Dr. Pretorius chases around his miniature Henry VIII creation with a pair of tweezers because it was “making a fool out of a king.”  Lordy lordy!  Had Universal cut that scene, maybe the Japanese wouldn’t have bombed Pearl Harbor.

Halloween Movie Countdown #11 – The Rocky Horror Picture Show

#11 – The Rocky Horror Picture Show 1975

It’s just a jump to the left…

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the movie adaptation of Richard O’Brien’s British stage musical, The Rocky Horror Show.  It is a musical parody of the horror and B-movies typical of the previous couple of decades.  A newly engaged couple, Janet (Susan Sarandon) and Brad (Barry Bostwick), becomes lost while driving in bad weather and suffer a flat tire.  Looking for help, they find their way to the castle of transvestite mad scientist, Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry), and his entourage of strange and slutty Transylvanians.  Janet and Brad quickly have their clothes confiscated and are made to wander through the rest of the movie in their underwear.  Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s Frankenstein Monster Stand-in, Rocky Horror, is brought to life and from there, the movie alternates between musical numbers, sex scenes, and musical numbers doubling as sex scenes.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the longest continually running release in film history.  Released in 1975, it is still played in theaters today.  It did not do particularly well during its initial run, but started to develop a cult following once it began to be aired during midnight screenings.  Crowds would come dressed in costume and act out parts and other jokes associated with the movie while they watched.  I attended one of these midnight showings for the first time one Halloween in college.  A ticket-taker at the door asked if my friends or I had ever been to one before.  After foolishly responding, “No”, we were designated “virgins” and a red lipstick letter “V” was drawn upon each of our foreheads to mark us as such.  It was sort of like The Bizzaro Scarlet Letter, where virgins are shamed instead of adulterers and there are no Puritans. Any of you future virgins have now been warned.  You might want to lie.

You can read more about how the audience participation began during the midnight shows here.

And do the Time Warp here: