- New York Columnist
Every theatre person has horror stories about the theatre, but they are rarely made into movies. And they, arguably, rarely involve monsters, and hopefully even more rarely involve murder. As Halloween 2016 approaches, some show business people will have parties to go to, some will be getting ready for trick-or-treating, some will keep running for President of the United States, but some will want to just kick back and enjoy a night in with a movie that gets the spirit of the season and that has a connection to the theatre world we all love.
Here are 13 Halloween movies for theatre people:
13: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975, 2016): I had to start with the most obvious, for a few reasons. First, because it is the monster movie that theatre people most often make a habit of re-enacting, while it is playing up on a big screen behind them, around Halloween. Second, because on Thursday, October 20th, a group of theatre people are going to do just that on live television (Fox), including Reeve Carney, Annaleigh Ashford, Ben Vereen, and the original “sweet transvestite” himself, Tim Curry. Oh, and one mustn’t forget Laverne Cox, who will be putting a new stamp on Dr. Frank-N-Furter.
12: The Phantom of the Opera (1925, 2004, etc.): For all the romance and beautiful music, The Phantom of the Opera is, at its heart and soul, a monster story. Over the years, the Phantom has worn many masks and many faces, and if you want a frightening ghoul peeking out from behind the mask, you might want to go with Lon Chaney’s rendition over Gerard Butler’s. However, if you prefer your Phantom with “far too many notes,” the 2004 adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic musical is your movie, with music recorded by a one-hundred-piece orchestra, sweeping visuals that give you a real sense of life at an opera house, and some truly fun performances from the cast. With Phantom, you always have many choices, just don’t try his patience.
11: Little Shop of Horrors (1986): For a more monstrous singing monster, there’s Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. The giant automated, singing, growing plant character was created by puppeteers who had worked for Jim Henson’s company, including Henson’s son, Brian Henson, who was one of the operators. The throwback rock and roll score is performed by such comedic luminaries as Rick Moranis and Steve Martin, as well as the original (and most recent in a major New York production) stage Audrey, Ellen Greene, her voice at once powerful and delicate. For some extra viewing fun, try to track down the original, hour-and-twelve-minute long Roger Corman-directed version, and see if you can spot Jack Nicholson in one of his first screen roles.
10: Sweeney Todd (2007): Probably one of the most terrifying musicals (for all the right reasons, anyway) to ever play on Broadway, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was adapted for the screen in 2007 by Tim Burton, because who else was going to do it right? It features an abbreviated score (but so did the 2005 Broadway revival), and some very creepy performances by Johnny Depp and Alan Rickman (though it leaves out the judge’s very disturbing self-flagellation song, perhaps the creepiest song in the score), and a hilarious turn as Mrs. Lovett by Helena Bonham Carter, one of at least three actresses who were part of the Harry Potter movies to have played that role. Of all the movies so far listed, the most blood and guts and gore are in this one. Come to think of it, of all the movies so far listed, Phantom is the only one that doesn’t involve eating people.
9: Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008): Speaking of blood and guts and gore, Repo! The Genetic Opera started out as an evolving musical stage production, but hit its stride when Darren Lynn Bousman (writer and director of the Saw movies) turned it into a musical movie. The idea, not uncommon in a certain circle of films, is that replacement organs can be purchased on a payment plan, like homes or cars, but getting them repossessed is arguably worse than with either of those two other two items, and far less merciful. Yes, it has Paris Hilton in it, but she’s actually pretty good. More importantly for theatre people is the presence of Sarah Brightman, the original “angel of music” (depending on who you think truly deserves that title) from The Phantom of the Opera, as Blind Mag, the voice of GeneCo, the company that produces the organs, and godmother of the head Repo Man’s daughter.
8: Freaks (1932): I include Freaks on this list for a few reasons: the first is that while it is not about theatre or based on a stage production, it is about a branch of show business, albeit one far out on a limb. A more appropriate reason, it stars many of the inspirations for characters represented in the freak show in the musical Side Show, including Josephine-Joseph, the half-woman-half-man, little people Harry and Daisy Earles, Olga Roderick, the bearded lady, Frances O’Connor, the armless girl, and, of course, Daisy and Violet Hilton, the Siamese twins about whom Side Show was written. And then there are the fascinating figures not featured in Side Show, like Johnny Eck the half boy, who ran around on his hands, and Prince Randian, the living torso, who rolled cigarettes using only his mouth. Even if it’s not directly related to theatre, it is about backstage drama, and features some truly creepy scenes without exploiting its cast.
7: The Prestige (2006): Again, not explicitly related to theatre, though much of it takes place in performance spaces of various sizes. Featuring Broadway regulars Hugh Jackman and the late David Bowie, The Prestige is about the darker driving motivations behind performing, and the sometimes horrific stagecraft that we’re usually not supposed to see. This movie features Andy Serkis in a non-motion-capture role, as the assistant to Bowie’s Nikola Tesla, and Christian Bale plays a magician in an ongoing game of one-upmanship with Jackman’s character. There are also black cats and halls of horror. I really don’t want to give too much away with this one.
6: Theatre of Death/Blood Fiend (1967): Theatre of Death (also known as Blood Fiend) stars Christopher Lee as a fiendish director of a Paris theatre dedicated to the Grand Guignol style. The style is a type of French performance specializing in naturalistic horror shows, which is part of the reason that when people start to be murdered in the vicinity of the theatre, the theatre is thought to be involved. Necrophilia, cannibalism, and vampirism are all featured in this movie that might just make you feel better about your relationship with your director.
5: Theatre of Blood (1973): I can’t say I’ve had the privilege to be in a production in which I got such a bad review I wanted to murder the critic, but that’s more from lack of opportunity than special talent on my part. That’s what happens, though, in Theatre of Blood, in which horror staple Vincent Price uses William Shakespeare’s passages as inspiration for his murder spree following a round of bad reviews. Like the previous movie, this is probably one to make you feel better about your own theatre exploits, which were not SO bad that they ended bloodily. Theatre of Blood got a stage adaptation in 2005. I hope the critics were kind.
4: Monster Mash (1995): The movie Monster Mash is based on the song “Monster Mash” and the musical I’m Sorry The Bridge is Out, You’ll Have to Spend the Night, both by Bobby Pickett (and others, in the case of the musical). The movie features Dracula, his wife, the Wolf Man, The Mummy, and Dr. Frankenstein and Igor (and who’s to say the Invisible Man is not there), who each have designs on the attractive young couple, Mary and Scott, that pulled up to the mansion they are all hanging out in just before the bridge to the front door was made impassable by the storm that drove them there in the first place. Nothing screams Halloween like an assembly of movie monsters. Current co-host of The View and star of Fuller House, Candace Cameron Bure, starred as Mary, and The Mummy, who is really Elvis Presley trying to restart his career with the help of some virgin blood, was played by Pickett himself.
3: Scream 2 (1997): Representing not only itself but its prequel and sequel, Scream 2 is the Scream movie in which heroine Sidney Prescott is a theatre major in college, in rehearsal for the play Cassandra, when Ghostface returns from her past to try, once again, to kill her. The Scream movies are good for theatre people, as they are for film people and authors, because they are kind of “philosophy of story telling” seminars, with examples to go with each idea. The movies deconstruct the horror genre, what goes into a slasher movie/sequel/threequel/etc., but the lessons could be applied to playwriting or putting on a show. Just hope your production doesn’t face the kind of setbacks Sidney’s does.
2: Stage Fright (2014): There have, understandably, been a few theatre-themed horror movies called Stage Fright, but the one I here recommend is the 2014 movie about a summer theatre sleep-away camp. Minnie Driver, who played Carlotta in the 2004 Phantom musical movie, plays a Broadway diva who once starred in a Phantom-ish musical called The Haunting of the Opera, after the opening of which she was killed in her dressing room. Ten years later, her daughter wins the role she once played for a Kabuki staging of Haunting at the theatre camp. Then someone starts killing people around the camp (wearing a Kabuki mask). Here, “the show must go on” becomes a desperate plea in the face of death. Meat Loaf co-stars as the head of the summer program.
1: The Gallows (2015): In a similar vein, The Gallows is about an attempt to put on a play called The Gallows at a high school 20 years after an accidental death during a production of that play at that same high school. The sets are built, the lines are learned, everything is ready. Then a group of kids decide to break into the school late at night and vandalize the set. Soon things start to go very wrong for them as they are locked in with an apparent supernatural presence. Even if you are brave about jump scares and the suspense that leads up to them, you may find yourself cringing at the abuse the sets and backstage fixtures suffer at the hands of the high school kids.
I want to give an honorable mention to Once More With Feeling, the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which, though an episode of a television show and not a movie, really fits the bill. And I’m sure there are plenty of others out there as well. Happy viewing, Happy Halloween, and remember: your hands at the level of your eyes.
Aaron Netsky writes about musicals (http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com) and books and culture (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com) on his personal blogs, and has written a yet unpublished musical theatre novel. His writing can also be seen on AtlasObscura.com, TheHumanist.com, ThoughtCatalog.com, and Medium.com. Follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky