Videoween #4: Demons, Dementia, and Dead Geena Davis

We asked each of our DVD feature writers to give us their suggestions for Halloween videos. So each day this week you'll get their answers in our "Videoween" feature. Today, Glenn "Strange" Erickson,'s expert genre historian, offers up his grab bag.

What to show at a Halloween get-together?

With trick-or-treating declining in popularity and so few of us invited to lavish movie-star Halloween bashes, readers sometimes ask for recommendations for movie fun for their family or invited guests on Halloween. But the way the horror genre has turned lately, anyone looking for gut-wrenching gore doesn't need professional help -- not that kind of help, at least. No, I think party hosts are looking for sure-fire audience pleasers, monster spook-taculars and fun horror comedies. Having considered this exact problem more than once, I've returned from the crypt to humbly offer the following titles:

One very successful Halloween choice I've made -- for guests who really want to see a good movie -- is 1957's Curse of the Demon. Dana Andrews sets out to debunk a cult leader and is marked for a horrible death by a demon from hell. A scary, weird or funny scene is never far away, and the rational storyline would be envied by The X-Files. Audiences always respond to this one with applause. Available on disc from Sony; choose the version titled Night of the Demon as it's slightly longer, and better.

Just old enough to be considered for classic status, Tim Burton's Beetlejuice (1988) is perfect Halloween entertainment, with ghosts Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin enlisting the aid of "bio-exorcist" Michael Keaton to evict an annoying family of yuppies from their haunted country house. Burton flexes his art school instincts with all manner of jolting monsters, bizarre alternate worlds and endearingly funny characters, like Sylvia Sidney's ghostly social worker. Winona Ryder practically invented the goth attitude as the daughter who discovers delightful spooks in the attic and levitates to the calypso music of Harry Belafonte. A delight from one end to the other.

Have little kids to entertain, especially those too young for intense fright scenes? 1965's Mad Monster Party is just the thing. It's an episodic stop-motion puppet musical featuring the voices of Boris Karloff, Phyllis Diller, etc. A visitor to Frankenstein's island has spooky -- well, fairly silly -- encounters with Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and a sort of Creature from the Black Lagoon. A troll-like character talks with the voice of Peter Lorre, and King Kong appears in a cameo. It's amusing, the color is bright and the songs are cute; it's the kind of show that can play like wallpaper during a kid's Halloween party, with other activities going on.

Believe it or not, you also can't lose with James Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), a horror classic that's also an intentional farce winking at its own scares. Boris Karloff's monster learns what it's like to be loved and despised in scenes much funnier than Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, stomping his feet to music and puffing on a cigar. Even better, he talks: "Smoke -- GOOD!" Ernest Thesiger's unflappable mad scientist grows miniature people in glass jars, and everyone gets in on the perverse race to build a mate for Karloff. Great sets, music and a thrilling ending with Elsa Lanchester's hissing, staring Bride. And nobody forgets the single tear running down the monster's face: "We belong dead!"

Adults looking for classy horror-comedy will be intrigued by Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), especially if a large-screen TV or projection system is available. This affectionate trip into darkest Transylvania is lavishly produced and makes knowing nods to classics like Nosferatu and Vampyr, with some jibes at Hammer films and even Fiddler on the Roof (one of the vampires is Jewish and therefore laughs when confronted by a crucifix: "Have you got the wrong vampire!") More like a horror fairy tale version of Sondheim's Into the Woods, but with snow and a creepy formal ball attended by the ghoulish undead. The beautiful Sharon Tate is the innkeeper's daughter captured by the evil Count Krolock and prepared as the dessert for a vampire feast. Amusing ... but unusually creepy, and with one of the best horror movie soundtrack scores ever.

A non-conformist crowd will respond positively to one of the weirdest films ever made, 1955's Daughter of Horror, a.k.a. Dementia. This offbeat production has no dialogue except for a genuinely chilling narration by Ed McMahon, of all people: "You -- You out there. Do you know what horror is?" A beat chick wearing an odd medallion leaves her crummy room to wander the streets of Venice, California. She experiences a nightmare vision of her drunken mother and abusive father, played out in a graveyard. As if in a silent expressionist film, she's picked up by a rich man, murders him, and is assaulted by the "demons of her mind" in a be-bop jazz nightclub. The throbbing, creepy music is by George Antheil and the wailing solo voice is that of Marni Nixon. A nightmare of insane characters, dismembered hands and morbid memories, Dementia is like a demented horror reversal of It's A Wonderful Life: "Yes, I am here. The demon that possesses your soul."

Back to the basics, another sure winner is Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), the Halloween comedy that never runs out of laughs. The bright script brings the comedians to a haunted island with Bela Lugosi's Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr.'s Wolf Man and Glenn Strange as Frankenstein's monster, and somehow never takes a false step. This is the one where Chaney wails, "Every time there's a full moon, I turn into a wolf!" and Lou Costello's answer is, "Yeah, you and a million other guys!" An out-and-out comedy, but also reverential to the Universal horror tradition, this one is always welcomed -- it's suitable for little kids, too!

Let's finish off with one more title that will really reward group viewing, provided your crowd is willing to pay attention to something different. 1933's Mystery of the Wax Museum combines the best of early horror and pre-Code attitudes toward sexuality, drug use and off-color humor, courtesy of wisecracking reporter Glenda Farrell. Lionel Atwill's wax museum is really a chamber of horrors, and beautiful Fay Wray is chosen to become one of the exhibits -- encased alive in boiling wax. Filmed in atmospheric Two-Color Technicolor on strange shadowed sets, this one has one of the most famous "monster reveal" scenes ever, with Fay letting loose with a piercing scream that will raise the roof. The DVD from Warner Home Video includes the movie as half of a double bill alongside its remake, House of Wax.

Glenn Erickson

reviews online at DVD Savant