In honor of Halloween I thought it best to search out the best costume party scenes from movies, but because this is my list I didn’t adhere to any traditional thinking about what constituted a ‘party’ and just figured that, any time a person put on a costume, a party was happening. So here are the nine best in chronological order.
9. Rebecca (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)
Hitchcock is a household name but few Americans know he had a career before Psycho, Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant; basically, that he did anything before 1950. Because of this many have missed out on a slew of important films, including the magnificent The 39 Steps, and the Academy Award winner, Rebecca. I’d like to think this is because Americans are ignorant wankers but being an American I’m sure it’s more a question of xenophobia.
The plot of Rebecca is simple enough. Rebecca dies, disappearing whilst sailing. Her husband Max, an aristocrat of some sort, is an emotional wreck and escapes to Monte Carlo, to recover. In Monte Carlo he meets an unnamed woman and though Max is aloof and emotionally distant she is smitten with him. In a bit of impulsiveness, they marry and return to his home, Manderlay.
At Manderlay the unnamed woman meets Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca’s faithful servant, who devotes much of her energy to obsessively maintaining the house as a shrine to Rebecca, as if by constantly fussing with Rebecca’s underwear the mistress of the house will return to roust the unnamed woman from it. The unnamed woman, already a bit on the emotionally brittle side, has no idea how to handle Mrs. Danvers and allows herself to be pushed around. In an effort to wrest back control, the unnamed woman insists on a costume party. Mrs. Danvers, though, isn’t quite ready to ceded control.
When the unnamed woman has trouble picking a costume Mrs. Danvers suggests one to her and when she presents the costume to Max at the party, it is met with rage. Little does the unnamed woman know that Mrs. Danver’s hasn’t innocently suggested a costume, but rather suggested one identical to a costume that Rebecca wore just before her death. After asserting Rebecca’s irreplaceability, Mrs. Danvers attempts to coax the unnamed woman to jump to her death from a window.
The party scene in Rebecca is an ideal place to begin because it perfectly illustrates how these scenes work. In themselves party scenes are set pieces designed to gather the main players into a central location, usually to drop in some important plot point, before sending them out again to finish the film. Sometimes the party occurs mid-way through the film, as in Rebecca, though in others it can be the opener, such as the wedding in The Godfather. When the party scene is a costume party the implications are all the greater, especially considering the questions raised about identity and how a costume, as heart, is in some way a reflection on the wearer’s desire to escape themselves and be somebody else, if only for the moment.
Before Roman Polanski was the world’s most famous fugitive he was an acclaimed director, skilled at turning out both edgy fare – witness the Academy Award nomination for Knife in the Water, Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown – and light. Among his lighter films was the comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers.
The Fearless Vampire Killers concerns a Professor Abronsius and his protégé Alfred (played by Polanski himself) travelling Europe in search of vampires. In Transylvania they take up lodging at an Inn, where Alfred becomes smitten with the innkeeper’s daughter, Sarah, a comely and inviting young woman with beautiful red hair. When Sarah is abducted from a bath by Count Von Krolock, a vampire, the professor and the protégé set off to bring her back.
At the castle where they go to search for Sarah they encounter the Count and his homosexual son. Before they are able to slay the vampire they are trapped and realize that Sarah is to be the guest of honor, as it were, at a dance the Count is throwing for his vampire friends. Though it is not a costume party, when Abronsius and Alfred free themselves they nevertheless disguise themselves to fit in with the vampires at the party but when the trio – including Sarah – pass by a mirror and find their images alone remain, they make a quick escape. Sadly, it is only later that they realize they are too late.
Abused by the studio on release the movie is somewhat overlooked, despite its pedigree and humor. After all, how can you not love a movie in which a Jewish vampire merely laughs at the cross that is supposed to ward him off?
7. Clockwork Orange (Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
Stanley Kubrick clearly has a bit of a fetish for party scenes and dressing his characters in costumes, as both appear regularly in his films. Perhaps he is drawn to the complex dynamic of scenes with dozens of people, or maybe it’s a chance to consider what the word ‘identity’ means. Whatever it is, he was happy to return to the well time and again.
There is no party scene in A Clockwork Orange, in the classic sense, though the main character and his gang spend a good deal of time dressed in a stylized, almost costume-like, manner, treating their crimes as a personal bacchanalia. Because they act as if they’re having a party, it only seems fair to agree, even if it’s not one I would care to be invited to.
Though the quarter of Alex and his ‘droogs’ open the film breaking into a theater to tangle with a rival gang, beating a hobo nearly to death the ‘party’ doesn’t really get started until they break into the home of a writer and – donning masks – proceed to beat him and rape his wife. That they wore masks in the attack was a fortunate bit of good luck, in one sense, because it prevents their identification. However, it is the same fortuity that leaves little Alex in a lurch later on.
After he is released from prison for the murder of a woman – and some very strange character-modification treatments – Alex stumbles upon the home of the writer. By then the wife has perished, as a lingering result of her rape, and at first the writer does not recognize his unmasked attacker – the irony being that to the writer his true face is his mask. Upon learning who he houseguest is, though, the writer aims to torture Alex with the very thing he loves most, Ludwig Van Beethoven. Shocking to no one, Alex takes a high dive out the window.
6. Revenge of the Nerds (Dir. Jeff Kanew, 1984)
A philosophical question occurs upon revisiting the seminal 1984 comedy Revenge of the Nerds. If you’re a nerd, which is better: besting your enemy at his own game or getting to bag the hot chick whilst dressed as Darth Vader? One involves a few moments of pleasure while the other provides a sense of self worth that can last for years. Of course, if the third choice was having them both, the victory and the spoils, or maybe some other scenario where the woman is dressed as Princess Leia from Return of the Jedi, there might be no question as to which is preferred.
ROTN is a straight David and Goliath story. After finding themselves turned out of their dorm to make room for the jocks – who burned down their home, as only jocks can – the nerds move into a dilapidated house, where they are routinely tormented by the jocks, who have no sense of irony for the fact that they are harassing the same students who will one day become the college’s biggest donors and will be the ones the athletic department will beg for money when they need new facilities.
At the Greek Games, which is nothing more than a giant outdoor party/carnival, control of the Greek council goes to the winner. In a competition full of ludicrous activities – a javelin throw, pie sales, drunken tricycle races and a belching contest – the nerds are a surprisingly tough foe. Just before the talent show, which will decide the winner, Lewis, the co-leader of the nerds, disguises himself to look like the head jock, who has inexplicably turned up in a Darth Vader costume – that’s the slim ‘costume’ portion of the movie – and proceeds to bed the head jock’s girlfriend in the carnival funhouse.
It is supposed to be a rousing ending, with Queen’s ‘We are the Champions’ playing our nerds out to victory, but far from uplifting, the ending disturbs me. No, it has nothing to do with the film’s loose definition of the word ‘nerd,’ though many of the nerds are more what you would call ‘geeks.’ Instead it comes from realizing just how creepy it is that the nerd tricked the girl into sex – complete with its overtones of rape – and that the girl in question actually seems pleased with the ruse when the trick is revealed. Women’s rights everywhere are diminished to this day.
After moving to California with his mother, Daniel meets a beautiful girl on the beach. They flirt and hit it off but things turn sour when her ex-boyfriend, a real rich-prick-douche-bag type, shows up to hassle the girl. Daniel tries to protect her and stands up to the ex, only to be beaten for his trouble. Insult to injury comes when, during his first day at school, he realizes the ex-boyfriend is a classmate. Even though it makes romancing the girl difficult, he tries out invisibility to avoid further humiliation.
When a Halloween dance comes up Daniel avoids it, but is finally prodded to go by Mr. Miyagi, who also produces the ideal costume. Showing up swathed in a shower curtain he somehow manages to remain anonymous and charming, though he can’t leave well enough alone, dousing the ex-boyfriend with a hose when he catches him smoking a joint in the bathroom. Unfortunately his costume isn’t aerodynamic and he’s not fast enough to outrun another beating.
The plot of the Karate Kid is simple and follows genre expectations, as does the party/costume scene. Instead of being some silly set piece with little meaning aside from itself, it sets the plot in motion, drawing the conflict between Daniel and the ex-boyfriend into sharp relief and revealing the mentor lurking inside Mr. Miyagi.
In some ways the movie should be derided for simply recycling old tropes as it does but when the movie is as well acted, and quotable – “Sweep the leg” is everybody’s favorite – as the Karate Kid is, what’s not to love? Although, given that a fan re-edit letting the exboyfriend win has been seen more than 450,000 times on Youtube, maybe everybody doesn’t find it charming after all.
4. Eyes Wide Shut (Dir. Stranley Kubrick, 1999)
In most costume scenes movies there’s a certain amount of sexual energy running beneath it. After all, everybody is dressed up as somebody else and don’t married couples, especially those that have been together a long time, sometimes want to be somebody else or with somebody else, just for a little while? It’s why role playing is commonly looked to as a marital aid. It’s a current running through Eyes Wide Shut.
Though this list has other films on it that aren’t costume party scenes, as such, it was over Eyes Wide Shut that I really debated the point of this list and whether it is properly called a ‘costume party’ scenes or the best ‘costume’ scenes. The problem is that when people put on a disguise there are normally one of two things going on: either somebody’s going to be doing some espionage and is wearing a disguise or it’s to have a silly good time, neither of which are present in Eyes Wide Shut. Certainly, the central event is a party, but only in the most technical way.
Yes, there are costumes – if black capes and creepy masks can be called a costume, more rightly they are disguises – and refreshments, and plenty of semi-public sex, including two women going at it atop a pool table, but even so, nobody seems to be having a good time. It seems the likelihood of anybody having fun is slightly less than the likelihood of a human sacrifice.
You can rest assured that if an e-vite to this kind of shindig ever appeared in my inbox, I’d break my whole hand trying to hit the delete button.
3. Rules of Attraction (Dir. Roger Avary 2002)
College is never boring, at least not on film. It’s never played as a center for education and is never mundane. Nobody has regular. Instead, movie-college is always a place where the young and innocent go to be debauched, and where all the girls look like Jessica Biel and Kate Bosworth. No finer an example of this is the movie Rules of Attraction, adapted from the novel by noted blowhard Bret Easton Ellis novel and directed by erstwhile California prison inmate, Roger Avary.
Set at the fictional Camden College, ROA follows the strange love triangle (or quadrangle or whatever it is for five and six-sided entanglements) of several students as they drift in and out of each other’s orbit, wandering through party after party and occasionally, cancelled classes. There are drugs, alcohol and sexual shenanigans galore and it seems that students at Camden spend more time learning to get in and out of trouble than they do on anything else.
Despite the prevalence of parties there is but one costume soiree in this film, the inaptly named “Dressed to Get Screwed Party.” I say ‘inaptly’ simply because while the title of the party might include the word ‘dressed’ in it, you can imagine what level of dress is needed to get screwed. Not surprisingly, the party includes plenty of nudity, weird masks, alcohol, drugs, angst, hidden plot-points, jealousy and culminates in James van der Beek engaging in a little bit of casual sex with Jessica Biel, after we’ve already seen him with Kate Bosworth.
In a cruel twist of fate there were no Kate Bosworth’s or Jessica Biel’s in any of my college classes, not even a Jessica Tandy. Of course, I went to a state school and Camden is private. Still, in the realm of ‘movie world’ it’s easy to see the kids in Rules of Attraction growing up to be the adults in Eyes Wide Shut, after they’ve fist internalized their self-importance and sense of entitlement and shed they’ve their taste in music. After all, while the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut is set to some heavy and liturgical organ play and chanting, the party in Rules of Attraction is set to the much snappier ‘When I Get You Alone’ by Robin Thicke.
Before she hit her 20s and the roller-coaster came off the tracks, Lindsay Lohan was a girl of talent and promise. Signed up to a stretch of Disney films, including the remakes of The Parent Trap and Freaky Friday, as well as the limp Disney Channel original movie, Life Size – costarring Tyra Banks, of all people – her star was on the rise.
Her first role out of the Disney sphere, in Mean Girls, kept her as a high school student. Playing a girl returning with her zoologist parents from the wilds of Africa, she treated high school as something to be studied and not lived and slowly, as the movie wore on, she shrugged off much of her fresh faced innocence.
Eventually she manages to strike up a friendship – or something like it – with the school’s resident mean girl and is invited to a party by a boy she likes. When she arrives, dressed like a zombie-bride to find the rest of the girls wearing hardly anything at all, and sees her ‘friend’ kissing the object of her desire, she realizes they weren’t friends after all.
Written by costar Tina Fey, the scene plays out like all the parties we thought were going on when we were in high school but weren’t cool enough to be invited to, what with its half naked girls who apparently would make out with anybody. I especially love the conversation between Amanda Seyfried and Lacey Chabert in which they debate whether or not it’s acceptable to kiss your first cousin, and just exactly what a first cousin is, only to have Seyfried throw the whole conversation aside simply because she wants to make out with her first cousin again.
It’s kind of sad that Mean Girls is the high point of Lohan’s career, especially when she was only 18 at the time, but what other assessment can be made when she’s spent the ensuing years cultivating a tabloid life as a skanky-punch line than as an actor? At least when she’s old she’ll always remember that she could have been a contender. She could have been somebody.
1. Legally Blonde (Dir. Robert Luketic, 2001)
If ever you wanted to know why you should feel sorry for a pretty, bubbly, rich, blonde girl from California, look no further than the party scene in Legally Blonde. When the boy she’s in love with dumps her for being too insubstantial to marry – presumably because he remembers that there is a difference between the girls you marry and the girls you have fun with – Elle Woods sets her sights on Harvard Law. When she somehow manages to get accepted – with an undergrad degree in fashion and an inexplicable 175 on the LSAT – she finds winning back the boy, and winning over her classmates, more difficult than she imagined.
Despite her best efforts she is ostracized – again, because she is insubstantial – and it isn’t until she is invited to a costume party that she thinks she’s made a breakthrough. Eagerly dressing as a Playboy Bunny – though she looks closer to a slutty-energizer bunny than anything else – Elle shows up at the party to discover that the joke’s on her and she’s the only one who got the memo on the ‘costume’ part of the party. Sure, she’s humiliated and gets some immediate revenge on the girl who pulled the trick on her – because Elle is such a pink goddess her enemy just has to be some uptight flannel shirt wearing proto-feminist, man-hating lesbian – but it really doesn’t seem like enough. Predictably she snags the man – just not the one she came for – and wins the respect of her classmates.
Watching this movie I was reminded of the old Kelly Lebrock Pantene ads from the 80s where she uttered the immortal line, “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” For years after that ad that catchphrase became the punch line to a thousand lousy jokes and rightfully so. After all, why do we need to feel sorry for the beautiful people? Well, after seeing Legally Blonde and just how cruel people can be to the girl who likes nothing more than to dress in pink, I finally understood the meaning behind it all. After watching it, I defy you not to want to punch some hairy-legged, militant butch-bitch in the face when they start being mean to that nice little blonde girl.