Off the Halloween Path: 13 Non-Traditional Movies to Watch on All Hallows’ Eve

A Clockwork OrangeCome October 31, I’ll be watching a film that’s not in the horror genre.

That’s right—despite the long-standing tradition of viewing scary movies on Halloween, I’ll be devoting myself to another pastime: seeing a flick that incites emotions other than fear.

Granted, it’ll be hard to find one of those on the telly come month’s end, but I’m cautiously optimistic. I’ve come up with 13 potential options; one will be my choice. What do they all have in common? Well, to tell you the truth, not much. Many are emotionally draining. Some are colourful, decadent. None is your usual Halloween fare.

And that’s just fine by me.

I’m not sure why I decided not to watch a traditional creepy picture on this holiday; it’s probably got something to do with the need to depart from the beaten path. In the hopes that many of my fellow CURNBLOG readers will join me, I’ve outlined my cinematic choices here. Don’t be scared … dig in.

The Life of Oharu (1952)

Kenji Mizoguchi’s devastating, feudal-Japan-set film of a noblewoman’s fall from wealth into prostitution and despair is a masterpiece … but it’s not easy to get through. There’s almost no relief whatsoever in the life of the titular character, whose only crime is to love a man beneath her status. For this she is sentenced to a terrible existence, and Mizoguchi’s sensitive eye accurately conveys the unfair, destructive misogyny of society. A movie that depicts real horror.

Harakiri (1962)

I’ve always considered Masaki Kobayashi to be an underrated director, and this harrowing, humanistic picture—concerning the repercussions of a samurai’s forced suicide on the grounds of an imperious clan—is perhaps his greatest effort. It’s disturbing stuff with a critical perspective and an angry tone that’s hardly confined by Kobayashi’s smooth, unpretentious technique. The violence is hard to watch, but it’s about as emotionally draining as any picture you’ll see.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

This Stanley Kubrick work of genius is as cold and manipulative as its main character, the thoroughly repulsive Alex, who rapes, murders and sings his way through a futuristic British society, all the while devoting himself to a bit of the old ultraviolence. If any non-horror movie’s worth watching on Halloween to provide a similar kind of fright, it’s this one … though the frissons are more akin to the revulsion Alex feels while watching his pastimes set to Beethoven onscreen. Yes, it’s still relevant after all these years.

Fellini’s Satyricon (1969)

Get your annual dose of crazy right here! Yes, it’s ancient Rome, Federico Fellini-style, with hand-choppings, nymphomania and general debauchery, all with the original Petronius source material in mind. This is a bizarre, picaresque film that is evocative and exotic … and hard to take your eyes off of. OK, maybe it’s a bit indulgent, but aren’t we all on this day of the year? Perfect All Hallows’ Eve viewing.

Umberto D. (1952)

Oh, this film is so sad! Stick with it, though—it’s worth it. The tale of an old man and his dog, this Vittorio De Sica picture might have you sobbing by the time the end comes around, but you won’t mind. There’s a lot to say about the treatment of seniors as humans in this movie, and it’s perhaps more relevant now than it ever has been.

The Virgin Spring (1960)

Don’t see The Last House on the Left (1972) this Halloween; instead, watch the Ingmar Bergman picture that the former film basically cribs: The Virgin Spring. It’s a deceptively simple story about a father’s revenge following the rape and murder of his daughter in medieval Sweden, but it’s got such power and honesty that’s it’s truly a marvel. With superb cinematography and Bergman’s usual humanistic approach to the horrors, physical and psychological, that people face.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Is this man insane, or is his story about a sleepwalking murderer true? Well, you’ve got to wait and see with this classic movie, which may not be traditional horror but offers a glorious look at expressionistic German filmmaking, as well as an influence that has lasted to this day. It’s ominous, creepy, beautiful, and the angular, jagged sets and design are just mind-boggling. There’s nothing like it.

Sunrise (1927)

F.W. Murnau’s emotionally draining movie still packs a punch after all these years, which is a testament to how good it is. Illicit love and murder come into play here, as does forgiveness, and it’s near-impossible not to be moved by the whole thing. Oh, yeah—it’s silent, too … perhaps another reason why it’s so powerful. Sublime filmmaking.

The 400 Blows (1959)

There’s a lot of François Truffaut in this groundbreaking picture about a troubled, neglected young boy, and that’s a good thing, because he’s one of my favourite directors, and this flick is one of his best. Watch it until the end, and you’ll see what might be the most important freeze-frame in all of cinema, an empathetic shot that projects all of the child’s despair and hopelessness unrelentingly into the audience. Anguish on Halloween? Maybe it’s not the best idea, but it works nonetheless.

Precious (2009)

No, my inclusion of Precious here has nothing to do with the fact that its immensely talented star, Gabourey Sidibe, appeared for a Q&A session after a showing of the movie my wife and I attended in Manhattan’s Times Square some years ago—an event that not only saw me ask her a question about how much improvisation was done in the film (her answer was that about 75 percent of the film was scripted), but also involved a bizarre sequence in which Gay Talese, who was also in the audience, demanded a response from Sidibe to a newspaper op-ed on the controversy surrounding the movie. It has to do with the fact that this picture is a tremendously moving film, in no small part due to Sidibe’s performance as the abused titular character, as well as to Mo’Nique’s frightening portrayal of her mother. The latter actress is worth seeing for a scene toward the end in which she tries to justify her crimes. Definitely not an easy film to see, but a necessary one.

Viridiana (1961)

I love the films of Luis Buñuel, and this is one of his towering masterpieces, an offensive, funny, mean-spirited bit of surrealism about the pointlessness of doing good deeds, among other things. The clip here bitterly (and brilliantly) brings that idea home; other delights include a portrayal of da Vinci’s The Last Supper by a group of derelicts who have no business emulating that painting. No matter—Buñuel brings it to us anyway, and we’re all the better for it.

Europa Europa (1990)

Based on a true story, Agnieszka Holland’s upsetting tale of a Jewish youth who pretends to be a Nazi in order to avoid being found out during Hitler’s regime is sad, ugly and ultimately triumphant. The stupidity and evil of the Third Reich is in evidence in this fine film, and one can’t help but become breathless at some of the imagery and scenes—they are memorable. This is a picture to treasure.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Beauty can often be found in the strangest places, and this Werner Herzog masterpiece—about a megalomaniacal conquistador’s deluded efforts to find a fabled city in the Amazon jungle—is one of them. From the haunting, pulsating score to the extraordinary final shot, it’s virtuoso filmmaking all the way. What cinematic dreams are made of … and just right for Halloween.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

11 thoughts on “Off the Halloween Path: 13 Non-Traditional Movies to Watch on All Hallows’ Eve

  1. Pingback: For Your Viewing Pleasure… Perhaps | An Upturned Soul

  2. An inspired list of “alternative-to-horror” films for Halloween viewing. Your list has also reminded me that I need to catch up with both “The Virgin Spring” and “Satyricon”. Thanks!

  3. Great collection, Simon, though there’s not enough popcorn in the world to get me to sit through Satyricon again. I was thinking a while back of celebrating Halloween with a marathon of Roman Polanski’s 5 features from the 1960s, several of which get into the same territory you talk about here … Inducing the feelings of a horror without actually being a traditional horror. The final shot of Aguirre does that as well as anything I can remember.

    • Thanks, Jon. Completely agree with you about Aguirre–it’s a brilliant, disturbing finale. I actually like Satyricon; there’s definitely excess, but it’s quite vivid, and there’s something of a controlled chaos going on.

  4. This sounds like a good idea, Simon. I have never celebrated Halloween. It wasn’t around in the UK when I was young, so when it became popular here, I was too old to get into the idea. Your list of suggestions is impressive, and I am pleased to say that I have seen all but two of them over the years. (‘Precious’, and ‘Harakiri’) Nice to see a mention of ‘Europa Europa’, a great film, rarely discussed.

    I would watch any of these in preference to another showing of the usual offerings, like ‘Scream’, or ‘Halloween.’ Not that they are bad films, but how many times can you watch them? Have a great time on the 31st, enjoying your personal selection.

    Best wishes, Pete.

    • Thanks, Pete! I highly recommend both Precious and Harakiri, if you can stomach them; they’re both tough to watch, but quite cathartic. And I agree with you about Europa Europa; there are certain scenes–such as the one in which the father, mourning the death of his child, is hitting his head against the table–that are impossible to get out of my mind.

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