A still from the film “The Exorcist” from 1973.

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It’s that time of year when the ghouls and goblins flit around, benignly haunting our streets and neighborhoods, and putting us in the mood for some movie frights. I love a well-done journey into the dark world of the uncanny, the ghostly, and the best such films produce chills of the psychological, not blood-soaked, kind. Here are three that meet those criteria, perfect cinematic ventures for Halloween, leaving us pleasingly spooked but unscathed.

”Gone Girl” (2014)

When Gillian Flynn’s novel was published in 2013, it was an overnight sensation, gripping readers and leaving them happily bamboozled by its final twist. A year later, David Finch released the film version, starring Ben Affleck, extremely effective as a husband presumed guilty of the murder of his missing wife, and a then relatively unknown Rosamunde Pike as the disappeared spouse. While I personally didn’t care for the novel, I admired the taut, crafty film and the keen performances of its leads.

The story focuses on the couple, living in small-town Missouri where Nick Dunne (Affleck), a former New York journalist, now runs a bar, and his wife, Amy (Pike) has settled into a dull rural routine. Amy is the daughter of author parents who created a YA fictional heroine called “Amy,” feisty, clever, adventurous, and beloved by the reading public, and seemingly based on their daughter. Now Amy Dunne, pulled away from the glamour of life as a NY celebrity wunderkind, resents her placid life and her rather plodding husband. When Nick comes home from work one evening, their fifth anniversary, he witnesses the aftermath of a bloody struggle; Amy is missing.

A number of strategic, and telling clues point to Nick as the perpetrator of the crime, and the police (and the community) are convinced that Nick has killed Amy. At this point, the narrative makes a shocking swerve, and viewers become privy to the dark secrets behind Amy’s disappearance. The unfolding of events, and the gradual revelation of the truth, are masterfully handled by director Finch.

”Get Out” (2017)

Director Jordan Peele’s directorial debut produced a smash hit that, like “Gone Girl,” revolves around a stunning twist which is signaled, elusively, early in the film, but smartly disguised through a long stretch where viewers know something is afoot but can’t identify what it is. Young Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a talented photographer, has nervously agreed to meet his girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Walker) parents at their affluent upstate summer house. He worries about their reaction to the fact that he is African-American, where she is Caucasian, and the parents are unaware of the interracial relationship.

On the road to the visit, they hit a deer; though Rose was driving, the deputy suspiciously demands Chris’s identification. When they arrive, Chris is temporarily relieved by her parents’ surprisingly warm reception, but gradually, small signals that something on the estate is amiss begin to surface. Chris notices that there are two Black employees on the farm, and their comportment is strange.

The sense of unease magnifies, as Chris learns that Rose’s mother is a hypnotherapist, and guests at the welcoming party make remarks that are subtly threatening. A series of small but disturbing interactions between Chris and members of Rose’s family, particularly with her increasingly cold, increasingly enigmatic mother, turn the ambience from discomfort to dread, as Chris comes to realize the lethal nature of his plight. The film is gripping and rich with small details that emerge as foreboding cues to the mystery at hand.

”The Exorcist” (1973)

I suggest this film with some trepidation, since it could be considered the scariest movie ever made. But it’s a classic, and has managed to sustain as a phenomenon. As one critic comments, The Exorcist is ”brilliantly directed by William Friedkin, with underlying themes of the of the workings of nature and fate; a rare film that remains startling and engrossing with every viewing.”

The story begins when a single mother, visiting Washington D.C., notices strange behaviors in her 12-year old daughter Regen (Linda Blair) — lying, acting out, swearing — behaviors that escalate from disturbing to bizarre. Regan’s mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn), consults medical experts who provide no answers; ultimately, she is drawn to a local Catholic priest, Father Karras (Jason Miller), who is struggling with his own crisis of faith as these events unfold.

Those dealing with her suspect that Regan is somehow possessed by demons, since her now obscene and violent acts are well beyond the ken of a 12-year old girl and imply an evil force inside her that is mocking and scorning Christian faith. Ultimately, the decision is made to seek an exorcist to rid Regan of the malicious spirits that have taken hold of her. What follows is both redeeming and damning.

This summary does not do justice to the atmosphere of fear and dread that prevails, nor the cinematic originality of the depiction of Regan’s “possession.” The perfect Halloween movie to watch from the safety of your couch, “The Exorcist” may, nevertheless, haunt you beyond the viewing.

Liahna Armstrong is a retired professor of English and Film Studies at Central Washington University. She can be reached at cinemaniac22@yahoo.com.


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