Leaves begin to change colors, baseball moves closer to the Fall Classic, and spiral passing fills the air on Sunday afternoons, as the aura of All Hallows’ Eve creeps into our minds. This can only mean one thing, we are in October.
With Halloween on the way, the cinematic world flavors the silver screen with theme films that are meant to entertain audiences with varying degrees of the spooky factor. While not entirely made up of horror (a genre that has gone through the biggest transformation among the primary categories), this time of year gives us movies that make us think of apple pie and pumpkins as well as ghosts and goblins.
With major studios pulling back on some release dates and the weather pushing us inside a little more, we’ll stay with in-home movie selections. Here are a few films of the season that will make you enjoy an evening at home, although you may want to watch with the lights on.
“Sleepy Hollow” (1999)
The great Tim Burton directs this creepy version of the tale of the headless horseman that will take audiences on an emotional roller coaster. The action is set in the titular New York village at the turn of the 19th century, as we follow Constable Ichabod Crane, played by the versatile Johnny Depp, who attempts to solve a string of murders with sense and reason. Upon arriving, he is introduced to the world of witchcraft and demons, as well as a web of deception and manipulation. Faced with a traumatized past, Crane must interpret the clues he observes before he is next to lose his head.
Unlike Washington Irving’s original story, Burton's take toys with his main character by giving him quirks and idiosyncrasies that inhibit his focus on the case. Irving depicted Crane as a schoolteacher with a rather unlikable personality. Depp plays him smoothly, giving him a fresh perspective, dropping in a few laughs to add a level of levity. The dialogue is quick and on point and adds a lot of information to the narrative.
The acting is incredibly good for a borderline horror film thanks to the talented cast of players. Christina Ricci is Katrina Van Tassel, who plays off Depp with remarkable poise. The remaining cast is a who’s who of character actors anchored by the gorgeous Miranda Richardson and the eerie Christopher Walken.
The set design has no equal; many of the crew called it “like walking around in Tim Burton’s head,” with Rick Henrichs and Peter Young grabbing Oscars for their work. Both cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki and the gold standard of costume designers, Colleen Atwood, earned nomination nods.
What makes the film a great watch is the twist on the story that Burton tells with pageantry and spice. One almost believes it to be true (the first flashback sequence will make sure of it), and the film builds to a pulse-pounding crescendo. Danny Elfman’s score will send chills up the spine, and the movie will make you hesitate when you pass a cornfield at night.
The film is rated “R,” which is accurate; the decapitations may take your breath away and Walken will scare the color out of your hair, even though he doesn’t have a speaking line in the whole film. You can find it on Prime for $2.99.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” (1944)
So if scary movies are not really your cup of cider, what about a comedic crime thriller? Three-time Oscar winner Frank Capra takes the Joseph Kesselring play and turns it into maybe one of the funniest films you will ever watch.
When Mortimer Brewster (portrayed by the ultimate leading man, Cary Grant) finds out that his two lovely aunts are actually murderers, it sets off a chain of events that will leave you breathless from laughing so hard.
Not normally a laughing subject, Grant’s facial expressions mix with the absurdly hysterical concept for a fun-filled two hours. The direction by Capra, who in just a few years would give the world “It’s a Wonderful Life,” provides the pacing that escalates the story to a comedic climax.
The film is based on the play of the same name, and although completed by 1941, the movie would be held out of theaters until September 1944 because the run on Broadway was so popular they didn’t want to compete with it. In fact, much of the movie takes place in the same room, giving it the feel of a stage play put to screen. The lines are witty and delivered with tongue-in-cheek flair. And while it does make light of murder and mental health, it is a great alternative to the slasher films that usually dominate this time of year.
The film is unrated – but outside of a few kisses between the leading couple and the fact that there are a couple (unshown) bodies in the room, there is nothing to concern yourself with. The 76-year-old film is still available to see; Prime has it at $3.99.
“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” (1966)
Here's a little bonus viewing. No Halloween movie list could possibly be complete without mentioning the ultimate film for the season. Sure, the 25-minute cartoon was made for television and has primitive animation with unsynchronized voice connections. The Peanuts gang has no adult figures (Where in the world are they when Linus is shivering in the pumpkin patch?), but who hasn’t either looked for the Great Pumpkin or uttered, “I got a rock.” It is nostalgic and simple (you can’t help but smile), and there is a great chance it will hit the TV sometime over the next three weeks.
So there you go – no tricks, just treats – get some apple cinnamon donuts and hot cider and enjoy a couple films on a crisp fall evening.
• Jim Stockwell is a tenured instructor at McHenry County College. He looks forward to resuming the role of host for the Second Monday Film Series at Classic Cinemas in Woodstock.