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seven horror movies from the golden age of practical effects (aka the 80s). [halloween movie fest 2020.]

It may be 2020, but the 1980s are alive and well. Neon lights and retro logos are in, synths and new wave are ascendant, and pop culture is saturated with nostalgia for the shows, films, and franchises of the decade.

Now, any celebration of 80’s culture would be incomplete if we left out the incontrovertible truth that the decade was the golden age of practical effects in horror. The era was hugely significant for the genre because of the other incontrovertible truth, practical horror effects are vastly superior to their CGI counterparts. This is known.

Seriously, you go find all the outdated CGI that’s still scary, and I’ll go find all the old practical effects that are still horrifying, and we’ll compare lists. It would be a fun exercise, because after you can’t find any examples we can just watch 80’s horror movies all night.

On second thought, let’s not waste time, and instead skip right to the part where we watch 80’s horror. Here are five movies from the golden age of practical horror effects you should watch this Halloween.

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Alien

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Okayokayokay, I know, Alien came out in 1979, but I’m including it because, a) it’s a brilliant movie with terrifying practical effects, b) it’s part of the dawn of the golden age, and it transitions out of the 70s, a decade with amazing practical effects in its own right that set the tone for what was to come, c) I can do what I want.

Obviously, the chestburster scene is one of the most iconic moments in film history, but it doesn’t end there. All of the physical realizations of H.R. Giger’s disturbing artwork of phallic alien monstrosities are scary as hell. Alien is the precursor to a decade that would use practical effects to give us monsters that still haunt our nightmares in 2020.

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The Thing

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The Thing is an all-timer, featuring one of my favorite final scenes, ever.

John Carpenter effectively immerses you in the horror and paranoia of being trapped in the middle of Antarctica with a monster who can look like anyone. A monster who just so happens to be hellbent on killing and assimilating you and whichever of your friends are still actually your friends. Even worse, it will then use your likeness to get back to civilization and murder the whole planet.

As great as the concept is, the deep psychological horror is rooted in how terrifying the Thing itself is to behold. Without Rob Bottin’s remarkable effects, the movie would likely have fallen flat and become another example of a potentially great sci-fi horror film ruined by visual inadequacies and limitations. Instead, Bottin and his team delivered one of the most horrifying monsters ever committed to screen.

In the case for the supremacy of practical effects, The Thing is Exhibit A.

Not so fun fact: Bottin worked so hard that he ended up in the hospital from exhaustion at the close of filming.

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An American Werewolf in London

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If you ever come across a list of great practical effects in film that leaves off John Landis’s 1981 horror-comedy, throw it right in the trash.

An American Werewolf in London features the undisputed greatest werewolf transformation scene of all time. Almost four decades later, with huge leaps forward in what can be rendered onto our screens, and no one else has even come close.

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The Fly

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He’s the master of body horror, so David Cronenberg’s entire filmography is a cornucopia of disturbing practical effects. Videodrome and Scanners are notable mainstays on ‘best of’ lists, but for my money, The Fly reigns supreme.

It’s overflowing with disgusting practical effects, with each gross-out scene topped just moments later by something even more horrifying. But what I love most is that it’s all used to tell a focused, tragic, character-driven story of a man’s transformation into a monster.

Bonus: we’re living in the midst of a glorious Jeff Goldblum renaissance, so whether you’d be revisiting The Fly or experiencing it for the first time, now is a great time to watch one of his absolute best performances.

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The Evil Dead films

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Practical effects aren’t just superior in films aiming to shock viewers for genuine scares. They’re also best when it comes to horror more interested in being darkly silly and ridiculous with its gore, and there is absolutely no better example than the Evil Dead films.

These movies are so over-the-top, so delightfully and unrelentingly insane, and the practical effects are what make the whole thing work. CGI never could have done justice to the vile, unholy magic of the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis

It should also be noted that Bruce Campbell is the human embodiment of practical effects. The world would be a sadder place if it didn’t have Ash Williams in it.

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Bonus: 1992’s Braindead [aka Dead Alive]

Okay, this one isn’t an 80s movie, but if we’re going to talk about practical effects creating absurdly gory slapstick, we have to mention the bloodiest practical horror film of all time: Braindead (released as Dead Alive in the US).

Before Peter Jackson became internationally famous for adapting The Lord of the Rings, he made The Frighteners with Michael J. Fox, an underrated bit of genre fare that would fit right into any Halloween Movie Fest.

But before that, he made one of the dumbest, goofiest, weirdest, most ludicrously over-the-top gross-out gore-fests of all time. Try to imagine what that would look like and you still wouldn’t be close. Forget the same ballpark, you wouldn’t even be in the same galaxy.

Anyway, the film reportedly used 80 gallons of fake blood, making it objectively the bloodiest movie of all time. The lawnmower scene alone makes that easy to believe.

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five horror fairytales to watch this october. [halloween movie fest 2020]

Once upon a time, all fairytales were horror fairytales. Murder, cannibalism, torture, dismemberment, necrophilia, and all sorts of other nasty bits fit right in, and even happy endings were likely drenched in blood. It’s a reminder that, while often dismissed as a genre, horror plays no small part in the tradition of human storytelling.

The same goes for the history of film, where horror can always be found at the vanguard of style and innovation. [1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is perhaps the most famous early example of a horror film that changed the medium forever, but examples date all the way back to the 1890s.]

To this day, horror is still an unsung pillar of storytelling and film, and in the hands of gifted and imaginative filmmakers, great horror bedtime stories are still being told. Here are five you should watch this October.

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Tigers Are Not Afraid

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“But the prince couldn’t become a tiger, because he’d forgotten how to be a prince.”

Set in a nameless Mexican city ruled by drug lords, Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a heartbreaking fairytale about children trying to survive in an ugly, violent world. A clear descendent of writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s work [get used to del Toro showing up on this list], the film is darkly imaginative, using supernatural horror and fantasy to tell a story in which real monsters are human, and defenseless kids are treated as so much collateral damage.

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The Lure

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“Help us come ashore. There’s no need to fear. We won’t eat you, my dear.”

Ever wonder what it would be like if Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid was told as an erotic-horror-musical about man-eating mermaids, who take jobs working as adult entertainers at a club in Poland? Of course you have, and now you finally have your answer.

Whatever you’re imagining, I assure you the film is significantly more bizarre – and gleefully so. This one definitely isn’t for everyone, but it sure as hell isn’t like anything you’ve seen before.

Fun Fact #1: The original Polish title is Córki dancingu – which translates as Daughters of Dancing – because apparently the working title for Hans Christian Andersen’s original story was “Daughters of the Air.”

Fun Fact #2: This is director Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s feature length debut, which left me sooooo curious to see what craziness she’ll create next. Turns out, it’s going to be a science fiction opera featuring the music of David Bowie. So, you know, sploosh. [Mermaid phrasing, boom!]

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Coraline

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“She’s got this whole world where everything’s better. The food, the garden, the neighbors. But it’s all a trap.”

Horror, myths, and fairytales are all firmly situated in Neil Gaiman’s wheelhouse, so I can’t imagine anyone being surprised to see his work on this list.

This stop-motion fairytale about a girl who must singlehandedly take down an ancient monster, learning just how strong and brave and clever she is, is exactly the sort of story we all need right now.

Laika is the best at what they do. Neil Gaiman is the best at what he does. Bring the two together, and — *chef’s kiss* — perfect.

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Kwaidan

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“I won’t harm you, but if you ever tell anybody about what you’ve seen tonight, even your own mother, I will know of it, and I will kill you.”

If you’re into classic Japanese cinema, then Kwaidan is the horror fairytale film for you. Drawing its title from an archaic Japanese word meaning ‘ghost story,’ legendary director Masai Kobayashi’s film – consisting of four stories based on Japanese folk tales – is a consensus masterpiece.

The film is one of Guillermo del Toro’s favorites of all time, and a huge influence on his work. That’s a big deal, because – as I’m about explain – del Toro is king.

[Pro tip: if the film’s 182 minute runtime spooks you, you can watch the self-contained stories episodically. #themoreyouknow]

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Pan’s Labyrinth

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“My mother told me to be wary of Fauns.”

Guillermo del Toro is the master of horror fairytales. Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, and The Shape of Water fit on this list in their own right, but Pan’s Labyrinth is the one film to rule them all – and by ‘them all,’ I’m including not just his filmography, but all the horror bedtime stories ever committed to film.

The film is the platonic ideal of a del Toro film. Every hallmark of del Toro’s storytelling sensibilities is distilled down to its purest form. Remarkably imaginative, beautifully horrible monsters populate a tale of violence, cruelty, power, and innocence, illustrating humanity’s capacity for both ugliness and beauty. Del Toro’s work is proof of the power of storytelling and imagination.

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the (triumphant?) return of halloween movie fest.

My sweet, sweet Halloween Movie Fest. How I’ve missed you. You were once an annual rite of fall, but I’ve left you neglected. I’ve watched the films, but left their glories unsung. It’s an injustice I can’t let stand any longer. This year, if you’ll have me, I return to your cold, dead embrace.

That’s right, my friends, for the first time since 2017, Halloween Movie Fest returns – and it’s going to look a lot different than ever before! After so many years, HMF grew stale, maybe even a bit boring. It lacked the life it once had – and not in a fun, undead way – so this year I’m bringing an entirely new format to the proceedings.

I started Halloween Movie Fest in 2009 because I wanted to remedy my lack of experience with horror films. I was a scaredy-cat, which is fine, but as a self-proclaimed film super-fan (#99), I was missing out on far too much – including some of the consensus greatest films ever made! So, I decided to watch 11 horror (and horror-ish) movies in 11 days. I loved it, and it did exactly what I’d hoped, lighting a spark of appreciation for horror that would grow considerably in the years that followed.

I’ve tried to hold to that same spirit since. I always begin HMF the way I did that first year, doing research to curate a list of films I’d be watching for the first time (a list which is always supplemented by returning favorites). The goal was to find new films to love, and to share them with you; taking myself into weird, dark, interesting, and underappreciated corners of the film landscape. I wanted to go places I’d never have gone otherwise. And it’s worked. I’ve seen so many great movies I never would have seen, and gone down rabbit holes I never would’ve discovered. I saw for myself how great horror can be, and it totally changed my viewing habits year-round.

This year, instead of researching and curating a single month-ish long list of films for me to watch, I’m going to curate a bunch of smaller lists instead. My hope is you can use them to do a Halloween Movie Fest of your own. It feels like a fitting way to enjoy the fruits of my labor (of love), and to share that with you. I would’ve loved to have these lists back in 2009, so maybe someone out there wants them in 2020.

There will be all sorts of lists, and each one will have a theme, i.e. ‘Five Horror Fairytales,’ ‘Horror Films for Trump’s America,’ etc. I’ll even do a ‘Halloween Movie Fest for Scaredy Cats,’ for the horror-phobic folks out there.

Anyway, I hope the lists bring you as much enjoyment as making them has brought me.

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