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Fright night features: Critic scares up list of best Halloween viewings

BY GENE TRIPLETT Published: October 30, 2009
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When the last little gaggle of ghosts and goblins has grabbed its share of goodies and gone home to bed, and that lone latecomer in the Michael Myers hockey mask shows up at 9:30 or 10 looking disturbingly big for a trick-or-treater, its time to lock the door, douse the porch light and find some Halloween happiness of your own with a good scary movie.

A recent survey finds that costume parties and haunted house tours lose out to watching a fright flick in the comfort of one’s own darkened living room as the favored All Hallows’ Eve pastime among 64 percent of Americans. Of course, the poll was conducted by Redbox, whose business is renting DVDs, but who’s arguing? Here are some of my best reasons for spending Great Pumpkin night in front of the tube.

"Drag Me to Hell” (2009) — Beware of little old ladies in ramshackle ’73 Oldsmobiles, especially when they’re being evicted because you wouldn’t give them an extension on their overdue mortgage payments. Supernatural curses can be a hell of a payback. That’s what ambitious young loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) learns the hard way in director Sam Raimi’s triumphant return to the horror genre after a decade of hanging out with Spider-Man. The man who gave us the basement-budget "Evil Dead” classics is back with the smartest, scariest black-humored chiller anyone’s made in years.

"Orphan” (2009) — Still stricken over the loss of their unborn child, Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard), adopt Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a 9-year-old Russian girl with a tragic past who is exceedingly smart, seemingly sweet but oddly secretive, even though she at first charms her new parents and their deaf-mute daughter Max (Aryana Engineer). Her new brother, Daniel (Jimmy Bennett), is less welcoming, and soon other family members begin to sense the little girl is not as angelic as she first appeared, especially after a near-fatal playground accident and a couple of bloody murders. Director Jaume Collet-Serra ("House of Wax”) turns in a well-crafted shocker with a jolting twist.

"Fear Itself: The Complete First Season” (2008) — Anthology series are rare creatures on big network TV these days, especially the creepy kind, and "Fear Itself” held up the best traditions set by "The Twilight Zone” and "Tales from the Crypt” before dying a premature death in summer 2008 after only 13 hourlong episodes. (Maybe that really is an unlucky number.) NBC never officially explained the show’s demise, but one suspects this stuff was too strong for prime time.

For example, "Eater,” directed by Stuart Gordon ("Re-Animator,” "Masters of Horror”), has Elisabeth Moss ("Mad Men”) as a rookie cop spending her first night in the precinct watching over a cannibalistic serial killer who speaks in tongues. When two other nightshift cops start acting strangely, she quickly learns that no one is who they seem.

The entire series is available in a four-disc box, with episodes from such big-gun directors as John Landis ("An American Werewolf in London”), Darren Lynn Bousman ("Saw II,” "Saw III,” "Saw IV”) and Ronny Yu ("Bride of Chucky”). Stars include Brandon Routh ("Superman Returns”) Shiri Appleby ("Charlie Wilson’s War”), Cynthia Watros ("Lost”) and Eric Roberts ("Heroes”).

"The William Castle Collection” (2009) — Producer/director William Castle might be considered an extremely poor man’s Alfred Hitchcock since he specialized in cut-rate suspense and horror, but he was more like a barker outside an amusement park spook house, luring audiences with the promise of participatory thrills and gimmicks. For 1959’s "The Tingler,” starring horror ham Vincent Price, theater seats were wired to give occupants a mild electric jolt whenever the title creature appeared onscreen, and screaming was the only means of relieving the sensation. Special glasses were required to see the poltergeist in 1960’s haunted house yarn "13 Ghosts,” and in 1961’s blatant "Psycho” rip-off "Homicidal,” a clock appeared on the screen near the end, providing a 45-second "fright break” for weak-hearted audience members to exit the auditorium before the heroine (Patricia Breslin) entered a dark house and discovered its horrible secrets.

These three features plus "Strait Jacket” (1964, with Joan Crawford) and "Mr. Sardonicus” (1961) all still provide their shares of shudders and shocks, but "13 Frightened Girls,” "Zotz!” and "The Old Dark House” are wasted space in this five-disc set. Too bad Castle’s best, the 1959 version of "House on Haunted Hill,” again with Price, was omitted.

"The Thaw” (2009) — In the ’50s, atomic bomb testing provided many a sci-fi menace, and now global warming gets into the act in this squirm-inducing fright fest from fledgling director Mark A. Lewis about a renowned environmental advocate (Val Kilmer) who leads a team of ecology students into the Arctic wilderness where they discover the perfectly-preserved carcass of a woolly mammoth in a melting polar ice cap. As the big beast thaws, crawling prehistoric parasites are revived and start multiplying, seeking new warm-blooded hosts and infecting members of the research party one by one, with horrifying results. This one really gets under your skin.

"True Blood: The Complete First Season” (2008) — The best thing to come out of the current vampire vogue is this HBO series created by Alan Ball ("Six Feet Under”) and based on a series of novels by Charlaine Harris, starring Anna Paquin as Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic waitress in a small Louisiana town, which, like the rest of the world, is getting used to living side-by-side with vampires who have integrated into the mainstream population.