10 Autumnal Horror Films first published by BFI, 21 Oct 2021
Spooks love thresholds, gateways and portals. They famously congregate on Walpurgis Night, the evening before May Day that marks the end of spring and the advent of summer – and conversely they also gather at Halloween, the night that closes autumn and heralds the onset of winter. This is why October in general and Halloween in particular loom so large in the genre calendar. For Christians, it is the night before All Saints’ (or Hallows’) Day, although it also overlaps (and syncretises) with the Celtic, pagan Samhain, a celebration of harvest’s end that is also a liminal time when the border between our world and the Otherworld becomes fluid. Halloween is a festival of masks and costumes, of carnivalesque inversions, supernatural encroachments and demonic incursions, when the cold grip of winter sets in, and the dead mix freely with the living. Essentially, it’s horror time – and it has lent its name to a horror franchise which, including reboots and reimaginings, has now been stalking for 43 years.
Autumn, however, is a flexible season. Traditionally, for English speakers, it began on Lammas Day (1st August) and ended on Halloween (31st October), while meteorologists and modernity see it spanning the start of September to the end of November, and North Americans place it between the autumnal equinox (21st-24th September) and the winter solstice (21st-22nd December). So while, unsurprisingly, Halloween will, both as a key autumnal – and eldritch – calendar event, keep recurring in this selection of autumnal horror films, the final choice falls in November.
To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
It might be supposed that Robert Mulligan’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel covers events that are mostly summerbound in Depression-era Alabama, and that the film is more coming-of-ager and courtroom drama than horror – but young siblings Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Phillip Alford) live in fear of a reclusive neighbour whom they nickname ‘Boo’ and magnify with their own terrifying mythology, and so an element of southern gothic is there from the start.
After the film’s pivotal court case is over, a coda takes place on one long October night, in which all the film’s themes of crime, prejudice and scapegoating come together in a moment of autumnal horror. As Jem and Scout return home through the woods, with Scout’s perspective (and ours) restricted by her Halloween costume, they are stalked and attacked by a drunken, vindictive man with a knife – and rescued from murder by ‘Boo’.
It was made by José Ramón Larraz in the same year as his Vampyres, and similarly features lesbianism, violence and a big gothic pad in the English countryside – but that is where all similarity ends. For this moody psychodrama – Britain’s official Palme d’Or entry at Cannes – comes much closer to Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) or Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), as it traces the unraveling of strange, sensitive Helen (Angela Pleasance), returned from abroad to the old family estate in the company of her more worldly writer friend Anne (Lorna Heilbron).
With the leaves on the trees starting to turn a neurotic yellow, the property’s grounds yield up buried ghosts, as the infantilised Helen confounds the living with the dead in her secluded doll’s house of repressed sexuality and murderous desire. Like Helen’s former friend Cory, Larraz’s film disappeared only to resurface. For its original negative, long believed lost, was recently rediscovered and restored.
Larry Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) may have inaugurated the ‘calendar killer’, but it was John Carpenter’s film that would make Halloween a fixture in the slasher annals as (according to the now iconic poster) “the night he came home!” The pronoun ‘it’, though, is preferred to ‘he’ by psychiatrist Dr Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) – named for a character from Alfred Hitchcock’s ur-slasher Psycho (1960) – to denote his escaped patient Michael Myers, a deranged murderer of the silent, heavy-breathing type.
As Myers now sets his sights on bookish virgin Laurie Strode (Janet Leigh’s debuting daughter Jamie Lee Curtis) and other co-eds in the red-and-yellow-leafy suburbs of Haddonfield, Illinois, Loomis refers to him, unscientifically, as ‘the evil’, while evidently himself relishing crouching behind bushes in the dark and frightening children. After 15 years under this doctor’s supervision, it is unsurprising that Myers’ boyhood psychopathy has ripened.
Children of the Corn (1984)
Autumn is of course the season of harvest, and Fritz Kiersch’s film, adapted from a short story by Stephen King, is folk horror fixated on reaping what has been sown. In the fictional backroads town of Gatlin, Nebraska, the failure of the corn crop leads local children to sacrifice all the community’s god-fearing grownups to an agricultural deity (“He who walks behind the rows”), and to instal their own underage cult falling somewhere between William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies (1954) and Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s Who Can Kill A Child? (1976).
Three years after this teen takeover, an adult couple (Peter Horton, Linda Hamilton) becomes ensnared in the town on 31st October, and ultimately burns down the now fertile fields. This corn-fed, sometimes corny study of outlandish religious zealotry taps into urban anxieties about the Bible Belt, before restoring adult order after a Halloween of kiddy chaos.
“What about Halloween? Will that make any difference?”, asks Michael Parkinson, playing himself in this supposedly ‘live’ mockumentary. He is anchoring a programme investigating alleged paranormal activities in a home on Foxhill Drive, with experts on hand, a national phone-in, and a reporter and crew in the house with the haunted family. What they do not realise is that their own programme, Ghostwatch, is functioning as a mass séance, and amplifying the house’s demonic disturbances across the nation.
“Certainly,” Dr Lin Pascoe (Gillian Bevan) replies to Parkinson in the studio, “There are more reports on Halloween than any other night of the year.” The fact that Lesley Manning’s Ghostwatch, written by Stephen Volk, was also first broadcast on Halloween in 1992 only added to its reality effect, as this telemovie alarmed viewers with the possibility that the very act of watching was putting them at risk in their own homes.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
“In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary,” reads the text that opens Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez‘s ultra-low-budget feature which would set the template for all the ‘found footage‘ horror to come over the next decades, while yielding a massive return on investment.
Doom is coming as surely as winter for Heather Donahue, Mike C. Williams and Joshua Leonard. Even as something messes with them at night, this turned-around trio find themselves irrationally retreading the same mythic pathways that they earlier filmed locals relating – and the leafy sparseness and longer nights which mid-autumn brings only add to the bleakness of the film’s atmosphere. For here the endless trees, bare and featureless, become ever more disorienting – and nothing quite captures the group’s sheer desperation like the sight of a despondent Mike chewing on a fallen, dry leaf.
Monster House (2006)
Sony’s first computer animated film begins in territory familiar from To Kill A Mockingbird, with kids D.J. and Chowder spying on the house opposite, and exchanging far-fetched stories about its cantankerous, toy-stealing old resident Nebbercracker. Yet here the setting is unambiguously autumnal, in what is possibly cinema’s first (and only) opening ‘single-take’ sequence focalised entirely through a deciduous leaf. Animation lets an impossible shot closely track the golden-hued leaf as it is blown by wind from a tree to the piles of similarly coloured leaves on the sidewalk below, is swept up again by a little girl’s passing tricycle, and finally comes to rest at the the titular house’s front door.
The rest of Gil Kenan’s gateway horror for children concerns a house not so much haunted as physically possessed by the angry, child-hating soul of Nebbercracker’s deceased wife Constance. Trick or treaters, beware.
Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
Set, as its title implies, over Halloween, but confounding its timelines and storylines to dizzying effect, Michael Dougherty’s debut feature is an almost-anthology of five tales that criss-cross and interweave over one long night in a small Ohio town. This structure, with its disinterest in chronological linearity and its clashing of different narrative strands, introduces a jigsaw-like tricksiness more akin to Robert Altman‘s Short Cuts (1993) than to your average horror omnibus.
What unifies all these episodes, beyond their jagged singularity of time and place, is a nostalgic EC-style brand of twisted morality that sees characters punished for infringing the rules of this night when the supernatural runs riot. There are serial killers, ghosts, werewolves and a candy-brandishing, pumpkin-masked child named (and embodying) Sam Hain – but the victims here are all getting their just des(s)erts for failing to respect the spirit of Halloween.
Reds, yellows, oranges, ochres and browns – these are the colours normally associated with Halloween, as the season’s last leaves lose their green. Yet, in Bruce McDonald’s feature, no sooner has 17-year-old Dora Vogel (Chloe Rose) been left home alone, with her younger brother and mother out trick or treating and the news that she is four weeks pregnant still resounding in her head, than our teen heroine enters a world of pink – a dreamy mindscape in which sinister, masked children come knocking to claim the baby inside, giving expression (in oneiric negative) to all of Dora’s tokophobia and paedophobia.
Over this long dark night of the soul, our anguished antiheroine – dressed in angel’s wings – must decide whether she will keep her baby, or give it up. This choice is staged as a garishly stylised, jarringly nightmarish reassemblage of Halloween’s traditional iconography into something of an altogether different hue.
Marking its difference from so much Halloween-focused autumnal horror both by its title and by beginning on All Souls’ Day (two days after Halloween), Rainer Sarnet’s straight-faced, surreal feature similarly defies categorisation. For it is all at once a slice of ninetenth-century Estonian ethnography/anthropology, a bizarre, funny, surprisingly bawdy folk horror, and a beautifully stylised (if often messy and muddy) monochrome study in expressionism.
Here villagers resort to all manner of supernatural ploys and deceptions to assist their thievery so they can survive the coming winter (and its associated plague), in a rural backwater which, for all its small size, still manages to accommodate devilish automata, werewolves, ghosts, vampires, necromancy, somnambulism and witchcraft. Yet at its heart, this is a tragic love triangle, as two young locals vainly use enchantments to make their cold nights warmer, even as autumn’s encroaching end brings its deadly chill to everything.