This year, Reverse Shot's annual end-of-October "Great Pumpkins" series can finally get off on the right hobbled foot. We normally like to begin our Halloween recommendations with something of an assessment of the state-of-the-art of horror filmmaking, and since for the past few years the genre has become decidedly moribund, what should be a demonic celebration ends up something of a eulogy. Sounds funereally appropriate, but it's been disappointing nevertheless. So we can begin with very good Monday box-office news: The latest installment of Gruesome, Poorly Edited Faux-Morality Tales an Incredibly Cynical Mini-Studio Churns Out for Easy Profit Every October (or if you prefer, Saw VI.....I repeat, VI!!!!) has been roundly spanked and sent to bed by Paranormal Activity. Normally these sorts of weekend money assessments come with bogus pronouncements (if, say, Ice Age 17 beats Duplicity, does it really mean that audiences prefer woolly mammoths to Julia Roberts?), but this one seems pretty clear-cut: Audiences seeking horror chose Paranormal over Saw; they craved fear over gore, mind over matter. Not that the former is without its flaws (and more on that later in the series this week), but it's encouraging that word-of-mouth prevailed over retarded redundancy. Cross your fingers that any future Saw installments will go straight to DVD.
Although, as proven by the exclusive home-video release of Michael Dougherty's Trick 'r Treat this year (and Inside last year), what was once called the straight-to-DVD dumping ground is now rich territory for worthy horror films that studios didn't know what to do with. Trick 'r Treat, a not entirely successful but handsomely mounted piece of Halloween-porn (candy corn, autumn leaves, and jack o lanterns galore in this multi-narrative creepshow) was nearly legendary on the Fangoria circuit for the past two-plus years, after it was glimpsed at and adored by horror convention-goers, and then shelved by Warners. If its DVD release is anticlimactic (both due to the format and because the film itself is just a smidge underwhelming), it's also encouraging that so many viewers demanded and craved something other than the horror dreck being forced upon us for years now.
That said, 2009 brought some true gifts, from the undeniably horror-tinged Coraline to Sam Raimi's nearly triumphant (and even self-topping) return to horror, Drag Me to Hell, two of the best American films of the year. Those, plus the gonzo Orphan and the effective Paranormal Activity and 2009 might be a banner year—appropriate considering it's the tenth anniversary of The Blair Witch Project, that harbinger of things to come, for better or for worse.
Despite all this talk of contemporary horror, this year's first "Pumpkin" is from all the way back in 1943, and that perhaps comes as a lesson. Paranormal largely subscribes to the usually true tenet that "less is more" in horror, likely because of its minuscule budget—and who else should we look to as the prime progenitors of that power-of-suggestion philosophy but producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur? While Cat People remains their masterpiece, The Leopard Man, made just one year later as part of their cheaply produced line of atmospheric terror films for RKO, trades in similarly terrifying imagery and perhaps an even more mysterious plot, one which is all the more disturbing for being somewhat plausible—in fact The Leopard Man is in many ways the first unofficial slasher film.
Set in a New Mexico town that's seemingly always bathed in twilight, the film twists the "town gripped in fear" scenario with an unpredictable plot that kicks off when a fierce black leopard escapes from a seedy performance space, where its impresario unsuccessfully tried to incorporate it into the act. The beast then seems to wreak havoc on the locals, and three young females (pointedly from different classes and ethnicities) are murdered. As many have pointed out, Lewton and Tourneur could wring more throat-gripping suspense out of a single sequence of a woman walking down a deserted nighttime street than most filmmakers could manage in an entire film; Jane Randolph's race to the bus stop in Cat People remains the definitive example of this, perhaps, but The Leopard Man has the most elaborate and unbearably elongated rendition, in which a young woman, sent out by her meat-fisted, demanding mother in the middle of the night to procure cornmeal, is followed on her walk home by an unseen beast. She pounds on the door for her disapproving mother to let her in—to no avail. A trickle of blood seeps under the door to the mother and the audience's horror.
With its evocative Southwestern setting; its tenable environment of bored showgirls and showmen, museum workers and laborers; its exquisite sound design (especially the performer Clo-Clo's rattling castanets, which seem to signify some sort of doom); and its silky-smooth shadows, The Leopard Man is a masterpiece of finely wrought atmosphere. It's most unsettling aspect might be its systematic introduction of new characters: we follow their lives for just enough time to feel sympathy for them before they become victims; it's what's become the slasher template, albeit with more compassion and care than most contemporary films of the kind even try to muster.
The Leopard Man, which is now available on DVD as part of Warner's exceptional Val Lewton Horror Collection is the perfect appetizer for this week's bloodfeast. So stay tuned, and be afraid. And here's a handy guide to all past "Great Pumpkins," for the first time catalogued and alphabetized.
An American Werewolf in London
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Hush"
The Devil Rides Out
Don't Look Now
The Drop of Water
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
The Last Winter
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Meet Me in St. Louis
Night Gallery: "The Cemetery"
Trouble Every Day