Welcome One and All!

For all you Halloween Fanatics....this will be a review and links site of the Best Haunted Houses in the country that my wife Lisa and I have had the pleasure - or displeasure - of gracing....

I've been a *huge* Halloween and horror fan since I can remember...I dunno...it just brings the kid in me out...by the end of September, our place is suitably adorned and we await each weekend with anticipation of which haunts to hit next....

We've been blessed enough to be able to travel quite a bit around the country and see some wonderful attractions and the cities they lurk in...and we're hoping to pass on the fun we've had on to anyone willing to listen in....

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


I wrote this a number of years ago during my stint on Hauntcast...I'm particularly proud of it, and a lot of folks aren't aware of it, so, I present it here! Enjoy!

Shocktail Hour not withstanding, I thought I’d offer my two cents on what gets viewed in the Vysther home during Samhain...

31. Frankenweenie (2012)
An obvious but amusing riff on Frankenstein and Old Yeller, Tim Burton expanded his 1984 short into a feature length film that works surprisingly well. Atypical of his “creepy and cute” style, this film is especially entertaining for horror buffs, full of amusing references....and for the record? The Gamera bit cinched it for me!

30. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Set in George A. Romero’s world, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are two underachievers, who, due to the onset of the zombie apocalypse, rise to the occasion of (semi) heroes. This dead pan comedy hums with a clever and fast paced script, plus a decent amount of gore for the die-hards. Like the best of Romero’s material, there is plenty of social commentary, but the film digs deeper than that, touching on some genuine emotional ground. Full of references to Romero’s original DEAD trilogy, and peppered with all sorts of in-jokes and cultural pokes, you’ll laugh ‘til you’ve got red on you.

29. Let the Right One In (2008)
What happens when the new neighbor next door, an innocent looking little girl, is a bit more than she seems? This Swedish vampire melodrama gave the genre a healthy kick in the behind, focusing more on the relationship aspects of the characters rather than recycling Gothic shtick. Beautifully filmed, paced slow and quiet like a long winter’s night, punctuated by bursts of violence. By the way, avoid the 2009 American revamping, Let Me In, like the plague.

28. Godzilla (1954)
Don’t laugh - compared to it’s successors, this is one grim picture. Japan is the only nation to ever have had atomic weapons used against them, and Godzilla is representative of that - in other words, he is us. Yes, the effects are dated, but still gorgeous in their fine detail. Godzilla himself is a remarkable creation...there is something distinctly Japanese about him, a trait shared with few of the other beasts in the Toho cannon. I grew up on the American version with Raymond Burr, but if you want the full impact, I highly recommend the original Japaneses print, subtitled. 

27. The Night Stalker (1972)
The fountainhead for the much beloved and equally beleaguered 1974 television series, this Made-for-TV movie features Karl Kolchack (Darren McGavin), a somewhat crusty reporter on the trail of what appears to be a homicidal maniac who thinks he’s a vampire on the streets of Las Vegas....or is he? The closer Kolchack gets to the case, the more the impossible seems quite likely. The film scored enormous ratings on it’s initial telecast, and with good reason - it’s well written and surprisingly effective, even by today’s standards. By the way, Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater) doesn’t utter a single word during the entire film - a sly nod to Christopher Lee in Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1965).

26. Stephen King’s The Stand (1994)
Hollywood has more than butchered most of King’s works, but in this case, a Made-for-TV dramatization of one of King’s longest and most beloved tales, it was handled with grace, style and aplomb. A military biological weapon gets loose - the flu, no less - and decimates the world’s population in the space of one summer. The survivors rally into two camps, one good, led by Mother Abigail, the other evil, led by Randall Flagg, “The Dark Man”. Events lead to a final, climatic confrontation. This eight hour mini-series (the only way the novel could effectively be done justice) succeeds and satisfies on so many levels, thanks in no small part to the amazing cast: Gary Sinese, Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald, Ray Walston, and even Mr. King himself. Richly textured and worth multiple viewings, this didn’t get out of my VCR for most of ‘94.

25. The Howling (1981)
The other defining lycanthrope flick of that year (further up on this list is the first) that delivers the scares while winking at the audience quite a bit. I mean, a resort colony for werewolves? Loosely based on a semi-sleazy novel by Gary Bradner, this film is loaded with references and in-jokes. Many characters are named after horror film directors, and look for cameo appearances by Roger Coreman and Forrest J. Ackerman. The wolves themselves have a somewhat comical “Big Bad Wolf ”appearance to them, and the stellar cast makes it all work somehow - Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, Slim Pickens and Dick Miller all bring something unique to the table. The transformations are eye-poppingly detailed, and the film has one the funniest closing lines ever.

24. The Omega Man (1971)
Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” has been dramatized several times - The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price in 1964 (considered the most true to the novel, despite it’s lethargic pace), I Am Legend with Will Smith in 2007, and then this, with Charlton Heston in the role of Robert Neville. For me, this is the most satisfying of the trio, a tale of bio-warfare gone horribly wrong, and one man’s struggle against a city full of plague victims known as “The Family”. Heston is fantastic as Neville, his character’s military ties giving him a terrific survivalist edge, while Anthony Zerbe is suitably malevolent as Family leader Matthias. Ron Grainer’s soundtrack is truly gorgeous, completing this wild, violent and strangely optimistic piece of early ‘70s Earth Day cinema.

23. The Phantom of the Opera (1922)
Long before the musical took the world by storm, there was this. Lon Chaney Sr., “The Man of A Thousand Faces”, without whom modern make up techniques would not exist, is in one of his career-defining performances here. Like most silents, it’s a bit on the choppy side, but that’s besides the point. The set pieces and costumes are amazing in their detail, and notice the added splash of crimson when Chaney shows up as the Red Death in the masquerade ball sequence. Mary Philbin ranks as the bravest of the era’s heroines when she pulls off the Phantom’s mask and we get our first good look at Chaney’s hideous visage. Redone many times onscreen - most note worthily with Claude Rains and Herbert Lom in the role - but this is the benchmark version, even today.

22. Freddy vs. Jason (2003)
I’ve never been a big one for the “slasher” flicks of the 80s, but I kept my finger on the style’s pulse. Additionally, a lot of my friends loved those films, so I saw most of them anyway! Why this film? Simply put, it’s a wild, over-the-top, love letter to fans of the genre. Just about every cliché you could squeeze into one of these is here (do people’s veins really squirt like garden hoses when slit?) and it’s just plain old fun. Terrific action, too - the confrontations between the two characters do not disappoint, tearing into each other with such gusto, it’s difficult to say who’ll come out on top. Pure, joyful, silly entertainment.

21. Nosferatu (1922/1979)
Both interpretations are classics - even if the earlier version plagiarizes the novel Dracula quite directly. The ‘22 silent version is regarded as the Granddaddy of Vampire Cinema, Max Schreck creeping across the screen like the huge rodent he represents. The ‘79 version with Klaus Kinski is almost an art film, creating a lethargic feel, not unlike a lethal pestilence creeping through your neighborhood. Filled with impressionistic touches, lavish sets and symbolic imagery, and there’s nothing suave or romantic in either case - just slow, dreamy death...with very sharp teeth.

20. The Frighteners (1996)
Probably the most pleasant cinema surprise I had all that year, The Frighteners begins as a horror-comedy, and quickly evolves into something much darker. Michael J. Fox’s Frank Bannister, a con-artist/”psychic investigator” with genuine abilities, is drawn into a murder rampage with historic and paranormal implications....fantastic CGI for the time, and Dee Wallace Stone gives a magnificent frenzied performance in the movie’s second half. On a side note, The Mutton Birds perform a terrific version of Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” over the closing credits.

19. The Addams Family (1991)
While not necessarily Halloween-themed this film is just wickedly ghoulish fun, with inspired casting that captures Charles Addams’ vision for his characters far more succinctly than anything that followed. Raul Julia is deadpan funny as Gomez, Angelica Huston is charmingly dry as Morticia, while Christopher Lloyd chews up the scenery as Fester. Always good for a sly, slightly sinister giggle.

18. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Fredric March’s turn in the titular role didn’t win him an Oscar for nothing - for my money, his is the definitive interpretation of the role. With it’s resorted footage, the film itself is relentless, tragic and quite disturbing at times, despite it’s age. March’s transformation from Jekyll into Hyde was a long held Hollywood secret until recently, and is spellbinding to watch even now.

17. The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
The last of the classic Universal Monsters, and one of the few beast flicks of the 1950s that still holds water. The plot is pretty standard stuff for the time period, but the Creature doesn’t become aggressive until his home is invaded by the “heroes”, giving him a sympathetic edge. The suit is just a marvel to behold, with both Ben Chapman (open land sequences) and Ricou Browning (underwater) giving it an air of realism rarely seen during the era of rubber monsters...and let’s face it, Julia Adams looked terrific in that bathing suit! Spawned two sequels, each of lesser merit, but this one still has an atmosphere all it’s own.

16. The Mummy (1932)
What sets this movie so far ahead of it’s numerous sequels - aside from Boris Karloff’s stellar performance as Im-Ho-Tep - is the fact that this is more a dark love story than a monster romp. Im-Ho-Tep is a sentient being, not someone’s mindless instrument of revenge, on a mission to restore his beloved’s soul, lost to the ages. Richly atmospheric and complex, owing more than a passing nod to Dracula, this is not your typical horror film, meant for serious consideration of love and it’s obligations.

15. Horror of Dracula (1958)
Sir Christopher Lee stands as one of the definitive Draculas, eclipsed only by Bela Lugosi, and this film is largely responsible for that - his Dracula is tall, dark, aristocratic, irresistible to women, not to mention a wild beast when angered. Fast paced and tense, with a fantastic climax between Lee’s Dracula and Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing, this feature set the bar for vampire films that few have attained. For the record, Lee scared the crap out of me as a kid the first time he appeared with his fangs bared!

14. War of the Worlds (1953)
H.G. Wells’ definitive alien invasion tale has been done and redone to death over the years, but this version is the keeper - aside from Orson Wells 1938 radio broadcast, no one - not even Steven Spielberg - quite got the paranoia or the alien menace quite right like this. The Martian warship design - think of a manta ray with a cobra mounted upon it - is elegant and menacing all at once, and our brief glimpse of the invaders is suitably chilling. The sense of inevitable doom surrounding this movie is almost claustrophobic, as man throws weapon after weapon at the invaders, failing time and again until....oh, watch it for yourselves, as if you haven’t already, dozens of times, just like me...

13. John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)
THE gross-out flick in my early teens - John Carpenter’s retelling of this 1950s gem (based loosely on Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr., written under the pen name Don A. Stuart) featured an alien that could perfectly imitate anything it came into contact with, and, when discovered, could morph into the most horrific creatures imaginable to defend itself - set in Antarctica, this film gives claustrophobia and paranoia a make-over like few before it. Kurt Russell is absolutely brilliant as foul-mouthed, attitude-heavy protagonist R.J. MacReady, who adds that just-right irreverence to it all....and the 2011 “prequal” was dismal.

12. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
This film - one that many consider to be Tim Burton’s masterwork - is so beloved and has been so analyzed that I won’t even try to take a fresh approach here. Suffice it to say, it bridges the gap between Halloween and Christmas very nicely, with an object lesson about being content within your own circumstances...if you look closely, there’s a subtle point made about the relationship between the two holidays. One of those films that took on a life of it’s own and just keeps gathering followers as it ages.

11. Creepshow (1982)
Who didn’t read EC Comics growing up? Stephen King and George Romero certainly did, and this short story anthology is truly a labor of love. Five ghoulish vignettes, all wrapped around a back story that a lot of us can relate to. What sets this film apart is the ensemble cast - E.G. Marshall, Ted Danson, Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau, among many others. Sadly, one of the last of it’s kind to make any kind of box office impact, a forgotten breed. Incidentally, the opener, “Father’s Day”, is one of the best back-from-the-grave-to-exact-revenge stories, ever. I want my cake, indeed!

10. Near Dark (1987)
Caught this one purely by accident on HBO in late ‘88, and was totally taken by surprise. Shot in the American panhandle, it tells the story of a clan of roaming bloodsuckers and a young man’s journey after having a particularly close encounter with one of them. Gritty, dark, violent and intense, with a stand out performance by Bill Paxton as Severan (Check out his sadistically hilarious rampage in a small bar he refers to as “s**t-kicker heaven!”). The flick avoids the gothic claptrap, yet still stays true to the legends...and the word “vampire” is not uttered once during the entire film. It’s finger licking good!

9. Fright Night (1985)
The “vampire-next-door” theme was a cliche by the time this gem came around, but this breathed fresh life into it. Chris Sarandon’s Jerry Dandridge was suave, smart and menacing all at once, a very ‘80s bloodsucker, while Roddy McDowell’s Peter Vincent’s evolution from coward to hero would be unconvincing in the hands of a lesser actor. And what can ya’ say about Stephen Geoffery’s Evil Ed? So well done on so many levels, one of the defining horror flicks of the 1980s. By the way, despite its poor box office performance, the 2011 remake has a lot of to offer as well.

8. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Jon Landis’ horror-comedy will be forever remembered, if not for David Naughton traipsing naked through the London Zoo, but for the most amazing on screen transformation of man into wolf, courtesy of makeup and special effects maestro Rick Baker. (The film won the Outstanding Achievement in Makeup in the category’s inaugural year!) Still, special effects do not a great movie make, and this film has loads of dark humor, sly references and a slick script that never takes itself quite that seriously. Griffin Dunne is hilarious as Jack Goodman, David’s rapidly decaying undead friend, bearing warnings of horrors to come. Along with The Howling, this film changed forever werewolf cinema and set the tone for special effects in the 1980s.

7. Jaws (1975)
Another film that set box office records - one of the first blockbusters as well...it scared me so badly that I wouldn’t go into lakes or streams for years afterwards! Two things make this film timeless - one, the pacing - initially a slow burn, then breakneck paced as the action flies past, and two, the chemistry between Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw’s characters. This film is a textbook on producing an effective action/suspense thriller. Sure, the shark hasn’t aged all that well, however, would *you* get in the water with it????

6. Halloween (1978)
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve never been a big one for the “slasher” flicks, but this is not just any bloodfest. Not only the forerunner of the genre, but also John Carpenter’s directorial debut. We all know the basic plot, as Michael Myers breaks out of the sanitarium to pay his sister (Jamie Lee Curtis, in her first ever role) a visit on the night of nights, with only Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance, in a role originally offered to Peter Cushing, and then Christopher Lee) standing in his way. Smart, well scripted and shot, the film stands head and shoulders above the countless imitators that rose in it’s wake. By the way, the term “slasher” here is a bit of misnomer....watch the film closely, and you’ll not see one drop of blood throughout the movie. Also possesses the ULTIMATE horror movie soundtrack, bar none.

5. Trick ‘r’ Treat (2009)
What can I say about this that hasn’t been said countless times....? Brilliantly written, paced, and executed, this stands as one of the definitive - along with Creepshow and 1972’s Tales From The Crypt - horror anthologies. The vignettes are delicately intertwined and layered one upon another, each carrying it’s own little twist on “breaking the rules” of Halloween. While it didn’t see theatrical release, the film has been enormously influential on the Halloween community and home haunters alike. You have no idea how many Sam - the film’s mascot - props I’ve seen in people’s yards the past few years....just unreal!

4. Night of the Living Dead (1968)/Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Needless to say, these two films are largely responsible for the modern zombie’s popularity today - The Walking Dead wouldn’t exist if not for George A. Romero’s genius behind these. Literal volumes have been written about both films’ significance, so I will just add this: Night is a study in intensity, with just about every social, cultural, and racial norm tossed out the window (with dire consequences) in the face of the uprising of the dead. (Ever noticed how Romero refers to them here not as “zombies”, but as “ghouls”?)  Dawn is more of comic book satire of American consumerism, with quite a few shots at the culture of the time as well. Both films pushed the envelope in terms of gore - Dawn in particular, which almost single-handedly made Tom Savini legendary in special effects make up. I saw Night for the first time uncut on a local UHF channel in ‘82 on an early May Sunday afternoon - you bet someone got an earful for that! - and I just jumped out of my skin, my perceptions on horror movies forever changed.

3. Sleepy Hollow (1999)
An all time favorite with us, mixing equal parts American folklore, Tim Burton’s dark, quirky visions and a healthy dose of affection for Hammer Horror (Both Christopher Lee and Michael Gough, major players in Hammer’s cabal, make appearance here). Taking the novella’s original premise and inserting various twists and turns, Burton creates something quite different, with Johnny Depp’s somewhat neurotic Ichabod Crane as a detective rather than a school teacher, investigating the murderous rampage of the Headless Horseman - and getting far more than he bargained for. The film’s dreary, washed out grey tones add to the gloom, and the Horseman is beautifully realized, Christopher Walken giving a fantastically crazed performance...when he has a head on his shoulders. Simply put, Sleepy Hollow is Burton doing what he does best.

2. Van Helsing (2004)
Yeah, yeah...I know...the movie is a sloppy mess with a ton of plot holes, but anytime you mix Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man together in one movie? OK...it doesn’t *always* work, but for a family fun sort of film, this has a lot to recommend it - plenty of comic book style action, plus, the sets and locales are terrific. Say what you will about Hugh Jackman in the title role, but Richard Roxburg did an admirable job as Count Dracula...just turn your brain off and enjoy the ride...

1. Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein (1948)
The Creme De la Creme - the Big One. Never let a Halloween season go by without watching it at least once. Dracula. Frankenstein, The Wolf Man. Old, dark castles. Mad scientist laboratories. Scheming females. And, of course, Vincent Price’s cameo as the Invisible Man in the film’s final moments. This film just screams Halloween to me - the perfect Trick or Treat goody to close out the festivities... it’s been said many times, but the film works so well as the monsters are played straight next to Bud and Lou’s antics - it’s also the funniest Abbott and Costello ever got. It also features an older Bela Lugosi firing on all cylinders, giving the performance of his life as Dracula - all menace and eyes and subtle threats, and he steals the movie. I’m very sentimental about this one - my father introduced me to the film and he and I can still watch it and still laugh so hard together...and therein lies the real magic of the season....

Eric Vysther - April 2013

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