Employee Picks: Halloween-Themed Alternatives To Every New Release

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(Welcome to Employee Picks, a series where Jacob Knight uses his day job expertise as a video store manager to recommend unique and often overlooked alternative options to the big movies hitting theaters and home video.)

Seeing how October's my favorite month of the year (Season of the Witch!), you can expect some extra spooky selections in this edition of Employee Picks, which will pair well with that Pumpkin Ale you just picked out at the liquor store (no judgement, enjoy that themed brew, baby).

Now, enough with the chit chat. Let's pick up our weapons of choice (be it axe, pick, machete or chainsaw) and start tearing victims apart...

The Major Release: Venom

Your Alternative: Shivers (1975, d. David Cronenberg)

"I have a parasite." This is how Tom Hardy's Eddie Brock shrugs off a convenience store rampage in Venom, a rather ill-advised (but still fairly entertaining) adaptation of the edge-lord Spider-Man spin-off character. No such easy explanation is offered in David Cronenberg's first "official" (read: non-underground) feature film, Shivers. An unpolished work of paranoid horror, punctuated with moments of black humor, Shivers somewhat resembles a carnally-minded Canadian answer to H.G. Lewis' Florida-based splatter. The first cinematic example of Cronenberg viewing the human body as little more than a disposable vessel, the tenants of the Starliner Towers are possessed by slug-like parasites that were manufactured by a man looking to transform the world into one massive, mindless orgy. The fact that Cronenberg got one of Mario Bava's favorite female horror icons (Barbara Steele), and George A. Romero refugee Lynn Lowry to play in this initial depraved sandbox was only further proof that the mad Canadian belonged in the class of celluloid lunatics (along with Romero, Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven) emerging during the 70s via these independently financed nightmares. He got better from here, yet Shivers is still essential.

Shivers is available to stream on Amazon

The Major Release: A Star Is Born 

Your Alternative: Black Roses (1988, d. John Fasano)

While certainly not playing in the same arena rock venues as Bradley Cooper's big, muscular directorial debut (which features a killer Lady Gaga performance), Black Roses is the metal horror movie that you've probably never seen (and should seek out ASAP). Directed by self-proclaimed thrasher king John Fasano – who'd just helmed the Jon Mikl Thor freak out Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare the year before – and featuring a soundtrack filled with bangers from the likes of bands such as Lizzie Borden, Black Roses is an insane, Canuxploitation love letter to the Satanic Panic era of the '80s. The plot (regarding up-and-coming rockers who are also demons) is the thing of distorted lore, but what you really sign up for here is the go-for-broke exploitation attitude that's cemented Fasano's sophomore feature as a stone cult classic. If you haven't seen it yet, go get your face melted this Halloween.

Black Roses is available on DVD, courtesy of Synapse Films.

The Major Release: Bad Times At the El Royale

Your Alternative: Identity (2003, d. James Mangold)

Much how Bad Times At the El Royale finds a group of mysterious strangers all converging on the titular glorious rest stop of old, James Mangold constructed a rather twisty, Agatha Christie-inspired whodunit fifteen years ago with Identity. Long before he was helping (re-)legitimize comic book cinema with Logan, Mangold made this nasty little horror movie, where nothing and nobody are quite what they seem. Though the shocking ending may be a bit too much for some folks (note: this writer loves it), there's something refreshingly mean-spirited about this studio horror picture, which dares to kill off almost all of your favorite characters in brutal fashion. Plus, you get Jake Busey full-on channeling his dad's characteristic crazy, while John Cusack tries to hold it all together as the ex-cop straining to keep everyone alive. This is a rather superlative, rain-soaked piece of pulp fiction that might've flown under your radar upon initial release, but is well worth a watch on a chilly October eve.

Identity is available on Blu-ray, courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

The Major Release: Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween

Your Alternative: One Dark Night (1982, d. Tom McLoughlin)

Before he made the second-best Friday the 13th movie (Part VI: Jason Lives), Tom McLoughlin crafted this little PG-rated horror movie that's aimed squarely at adolescents.  Even the title sounds like the start of a silly campfire tale, where a cadre of brats try to one-up each other via spooky stories about ghosts and ghouls. However, McLoughlin also distills the horror genre down to its purest essentials: the thrill of exploring a place that you shouldn't be (in this case, a mausoleum), whipping up an enigmatic thrill ride in the process. For many seasoned horror pros, One Dark Night is going to be a "been there, done that, many times" proposition. But, much like RL Stine's "training wheels" YA horror series, this will be a gateway drug for young explorers of the macabre, urging them to explore more gruesome genre offerings down the line.

One Dark Night is available to stream on Amazon.

The Major Release: First Man

Your Alternative: Event Horizon (1997, d. Paul WS Anderson)

Paul W.S. Anderson's Event Horizon feels like the '90s studio cousin to the infamous Italian knock-offs from the '70s and '80s (think: Bruno Mattei's cheapo Terminator/Aliens hybrid, Shocking Dark). The Mortal Kombat trash cinema madman (and poster child for vulgar auteurists everywhere) tries his hand at a "Hellraiser in space" movie, indisputably besting the actual "Hellraiser in space" sequel that was released just a year before by Dimension Films. On top of the blatant Clive Barker cosplaying – whose Industrial Goth trappings Anderson brings to life with the full force of a Paramount budget – the filmmaker tosses in a solid helping of The Haunting, SolarisAlien, The Shining, and a primo Hammer-ready villainous parade of evil from the one and only Sam Neill. It all strangely amalgamates into a screeching, diverting slice of mainstream horror that's almost completely fueled by pure spectacle. So, while Ryan Gosling might be the first man to walk on the moon, the crew of the titular haunted ship are the first folks to take a spacecraft straight to Hell.

Event Horizon is available to stream on Amazon.

The Major Release: Halloween

Your Alternative: Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988, d. Dwight H. Little)

David Gordon Green and Danny McBride's Halloween is a direct sequel to John Carpenter's original. However, fans of the OG slasher franchise will feel like they've seen this trick before, as The Return of Michael Myers came hot on the heels of the monumental failure that was Season of the Witch; an attempt to course correct the series from its failed anthology left turn by bringing slayer supreme Myers home to Haddonfield yet again. For returning fans, a re-watch before heading out to see Green's latest canon-ignoring sequel will reveal many structural similarities between The Return of Michael Myers and Halloween '18, including a rather ambiguously unsettling ending. For newcomers, Halloween 4 is arguably the best installment in a terrifying run that almost made a conscious effort to keep fucking up its own mythology, mostly because its merely a back-to-basics body count picture that embraces the subgenre tropes the '78 all-timer helped set in stone. Is it a classic? Hell no. But it's certainly a treat for dead teenager cinema aficionados.

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers is available to stream on Shudder.

The Major Release: Suspiria 

Your Alternative: Der Fan (1982, d. Eckhart Schmidt)

Eckhart Schmidt's Der Fan is an odd beast: cold, aloof, alienating and relentlessly nihilistic, it's also a wholly affecting treatise on the hypnotic state of obsession. For Simone (Désirée Nosbusch), there's only 'R' (Rheingold vocalist Bodo Steiger), the slick, gangly front man for her favorite pop group. Infatuation gives way to fixation, as she withdraws from her friends and family, strolling the streets with headphones glued to her ears. Her sun rises and sets with the singer, every hour filled with possessive fantasies of the love they'd enjoy should she just be lucky enough to get in the same room with him. Her bunk is plastered with his pictures, the crooner's dark eyes looking down on the sick girl as she sleeps like some sort of Kraftwerk angel. So, when a chance encounter leads to an actual flesh and blood relationship between the two, you can bet that it ends in even more awful fashion than you originally predicted. Sporting a chilly synth-pop score and one of the grisliest endings ever committed to film, Der Fan acts as an unsettling companion piece of Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria remake, as they both become German-set studies of what happens when you lose yourself completely to the music.

Der Fan is available on Blu-ray, courtesy of Mondo Macabro.

Wide Release: Hunter Killer 

Your Alternative: Below (2002, d. David Twohy)

Produced and co-written by Darren Aronofsky, David Twohy's haunted submarine movie Below is the perfect low-key counterpoint to Gerard Butler's bombastic "war with the Russkies" '80s throwback Hunter Killer. All aboard the USS Tiger Shark, a WWII submersible craft that picks up the survivors from a hospital ship that fell under attack. Commanding the Shark is Lieutenant Brice (Bruce Greenwood), who took over the wheel after the vessel's original captain perished under mysterious circumstances. Soon after saving their human cargo, mysterious accidents and ghostly visions begin to appear, as Twohy molds a mystery that essentially plays like an old Val Lewton RKO scare show underwater. While not all the riddles are solved by the movie's end, Below establishes quite the claustrophobic ambiance during its tightly structured 105 minutes, never becoming less than beguiling, even as we're left wanting a few more answers by the time the credits roll.

Below is available to stream on Amazon