Beginning October 1, 2014, I’ll be bringing you a three-part series of films that are perfect for Halloween:
- Part 1 (October 1-10, 2014) is centered on classics of the horror genre. There’s a reason these films pop up on “best of” lists time and again: They still possess the power to terrify.
- Part 2 (October 11-21, 2014) includes a mix of foreign films, found footage nightmares, and scary TV time (post coming soon).
- Part 3 (October 22-31, 2014) takes us right to Halloween with some fun scares and some true terror (post coming soon).
They aren’t ranked and it’s not a countdown, but a list of suggestions I think will scare your face off—or make you laugh, or both! The list is drawn from all types of horror—monster movies, ghost stories, slashers, etc.—basically everything that ever scared me or was just fun to watch because sometimes, I like being scared. Everything’s broken down by the type of horror to expect, a quick plot synopsis, why the film is scary, what my favorite scene was (as non-spoilery as I can make them), why you should see the movie and suggestions for further viewing. Watch one film a night for a 31-day Halloween horrorfest. Enjoy and Happy Halloween!
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, and Martin Balsam
Rated R; Running time 1 hour, 49 minute
Type of horror: Suspense, proto-slasher
Synopsis: A woman steals money from her employer so she can be with her lover, only to pick the absolutely wrong motel to spend the night in.
Why it’s scary: The first portion of the film is more of a suspense/thriller; Marion Crane (Leigh) wants a better life with her lover, Sam (Gavin), so she steals $40,000 from work and goes on the run, stopping at the Bates Motel to rest. She reconsiders her choice after chatting with the motel’s proprietor, Norman Bates (Perkins), then takes the fateful shower that upends the entire film.
My favorite scene: The shower scene, which is a master’s class in filmmaking, suspense, and terror.
Why you should see it: Hitchcock manipulates the audience as only a master puppeteer can, without you seeing the wires moving the parts. He sets up one type of movie and delivers another, plunging you into the nightmare world of Norman Bates and his domineering mother. The film’s also highly quotable (“A boy’s best friend is his mother”)—at least, I quote it frequently.
If you like this film, you might also like: Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), about a killer who films his victims at the moment of death while allowing them to see their own demise via a strategically placed mirror. Creepy!
Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, P.J. Soles, and Donald Pleasence
Rated R; Running 1 hour, 33 minutes
Type of horror: Slasher
Synopsis: Six-year-old Michael Myers kills his teenage sister and is institutionalized, escaping 15 years later to continue his murderous rampage
Why it’s scary: Michael commits his first murder at age six—six! That, and he apparently can’t be killed. Augh!
My favorite scene: The “ghost” in the bedroom
Why you should see it: Because it’s one of the best Halloween-themed scary movies ever, as well as the film that ushered in the modern era of slasherdom. Laurie Strode (Curtis) is also one of the better “final girls” out there.
If you like this film, you might also like: Halloween H2O (1998), by far the best of all the sequels. In fact, ignore all the others, even Halloween II (1981), which already starts going off the rails and into Jason Vorhees territory (i.e., “Let’s see how many teens we can kill in various ‘creative’ ways,” blech), but especially ignore the remakes (double blech).
Directed by Ishirô Honda
Unrated; Running 1 hour, 38 minutes
Type of horror: Monster movie
Synopsis: A giant, radioactive beast arises from the depths and destroys Tokyo
Why it’s scary: Godzilla-as-metaphor for nuclear power run amok works frighteningly well, and the real-life devastation suffered in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is echoed in several scenes.
My favorite scene: Godzilla peeping over the mountains and then disappearing
Why you should see it: Sure, Godzilla’s a guy in a rubber monster suit, but you’ll soon forget that as he terrorizes Japan with his nuclear capabilities and trademark roar. Be sure to see the original Japanese version, which is far more complex than the one released in America and gives a better sense of Japan’s fear of nuclear power at that time, as well as more human characters to root for and/or be repulsed by. Plus: Godzilla!
If you like this film, you might also like: The War of The Gargantuas (1966), which, while not nearly as good a film as Gojira, managed to scare the crap out of me as a child. It’s bad enough that the green gargantua eats people, but when he spits out their clothes, the clothes have gigantic holes in them!
Directed by F.W. Murnau
Starring Max Schreck, Alexander Granach, and Greta Schröder
Unrated; Running 1 hour, 3 minutes
Type of horror: Vampire
Synopsis: Some people go to the Carpathian Mountains and encounter Drac—er, Count Orlok, an ancient vampire
Why it’s scary: Orlok is no romantic-looking vampire, yet he manages to put women (and men) under his spell to feast on their blood
My favorite scene: Count Orlok’s shadow creeping up the stairs
Why you should see it: Murnau’s version of Dracula (which was so close to the original that Bram Stoker’s wife sued) is an exercise in eeriness. Max Schreck is perfect in the part.
If you like this film, you might also like: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), a masterpiece of German Expressionism. Note: both films are silent.
Directed by Robert Wise
Starring Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, and Russ Tamblyn
Rated G; Running 1 hour, 53 minutes
Type of horror: Psychological, haunted house
Synopsis: Dr. Markway (Johnson) decides to investigate paranormal activity at Hill House, where several people have died. One participant in the investigation, Eleanor (Harris), is especially fragile and especially receptive to the house. The house seems fond of her as well. Or is Eleanor simply going crazy?
Why it’s scary: Despite its “G” rating, The Haunting will scare you silly. It uses loud noises and dramatic camera angles to suggest a supernatural presence while never showing you who or what is making all that racket.
My favorite scene: The loud booming/pounding sounds on the doors of the bedroom while Theo (Bloom) and Eleanor cower inside
Why you should see it: Psychological horror is hard to pull off, but The Haunting manages it with aplomb. It’s never entirely clear if Eleanor is simply unraveling because of the death of her mother, or if the house is actively driving her insane.
If you like this film, you might also like: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the novel on which the film is based. Skip the remake of The Haunting because it is dreadful.
Directed by Sam Raimi
Starring Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, Hal Delrich, and Sarah York
Rated R; Running 1 hour, 25 minutes
Type of horror: Possession
Synopsis: A group of students head to a remote cabin in the woods for a vacation and unwittingly unleash demonic forces that attack them one by one.
Why it’s scary: It’s dark, it’s a remote location accessible only by a bridge that gets destroyed, and demons are coming to possess and kill everyone
My favorite scene: Ash (played by B-movie icon Campbell) being chased through the woods by a demon he can see and we can’t—because we’re given the demon’s point of view
Why you should see it: Like the other low-budget shockers on this list, it makes the most of a spare budget by focusing on the interplay between the characters and why they’re scared. It’s also gory as all get-out. Despite the unfortunate tree rape scene (even more unfortunately repeated in the recent remake), the film’s well worth watching. In the dark. In a remote cabin. With a few of your friends. Don’t read that book you found in the basement out loud, though!
If you like this film, you might also like: Evil Dead II (1987), which is either a remake or a sequel or both (I vote both). It adds a healthy dose of humor on top of the horror, and exploits Bruce Campbell’s physicality to great effect.
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Starring Marilyn Burns, Allen Danziger, and Gunnar Hansen
Rated R; Running 1 hour, 23 minutes
Type of horror: Slasher, cannibal
Synopsis: A group of friends go on a road trip and inadvertently attract the attention of a family of grave-robbing cannibals
Why it’s scary: A group of friends is systematically slaughtered by a family of cannibals. Cannibals are people who eat people. How can you not be scared, or at least grossed out?
My favorite scene: Leatherface kills Kirk, drags his body into the kitchen, and slams the door shut. I seriously did not want to know what was behind that door, but they showed me anyway. Ugh!
Why you should see it: The low budget forces more creativity out of the filmmakers. The opening scene (the photographing of two grave-robbed bodies posed obscenely) sets the tone for the terror to come.
If you like this film, you might also like: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2 (1986), which, like Evil Dead II, adds humor to the proceedings. Be forewarned that this film is exceedingly graphic (if you’re a gorehound, though, it’s probably not graphic enough).
Directed by George A. Romero
Starring Judith O’Dea, Duane Jones, and Russell Streiner
Rated R; Running 1 hour, 30 minutes
Type of horror: Zombie
Synopsis: Several people become trapped in a farmhouse when the dead rise up to eat the living
Why it’s scary: Zombies, being mindless eating machines, aren’t particularly scary in and of themselves (to me, at least), especially the slow-moving ones in Night of the Living Dead; it’s the fact that there are so many of them and that they keep on coming that’s alarming.
My favorite scene: “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”
Why you should see it: Horror films frequently touch on topics considered too taboo for the mainstream, and this one is no different. Night of the Living Dead touches on issues of race, war, and the breakdown of the American family, among other themes. Also: zombies. Lots and lots of zombies. I was so petrified when I first tried to watch this film as a youngster that I turned it off and avoided it for years. I finally came back to it as an adult and was still petrified, but made it through to the end. It’s now one of my favorites.
If you like this film, you might also like: More Romero zombies, especially Dawn of the Dead (1978), an allegory for consumerism; Day of the Dead (1985), which touches on humanism and religion; and Land of the Dead (2005), which critiques classism. In addition to the thematic content, they’re gory masterpieces!
Directed by Wes Craven
Starring Fred Lincoln, Mark Sheffler, Gaylord St. James, and Cynthia Carr
Rated R; Running time 1 hour, 23 minutes
Type of horror: Exploitation
Synopsis: Two young girls on the way to a rock concert are kidnapped, tortured, raped, and murdered by a group of prison escapees. The escapees wind up at the home of one of the girls’ parents, who soon realize what has happened to their daughter and exact vengeance on the criminals
Why it’s scary: Because people like the criminals depicted in the film exist in the real world
My favorite scene: How Estelle (Carr) gets revenge on Weasel (Lincoln)
Why you should see it this Halloween: Unlike the pitiful recent remake—or worse, dreck like the Hostel series—the 1972 original is genuinely horrifying in its depiction of the torment the girls suffer, causing extreme discomfort in the viewer. You might find it helpful to take the poster’s advice and repeat the “It’s only a movie” mantra while watching.
If you like this film, you might also like: A nice hot shower afterwards to cleanse you of the monstrosities you just witnessed, then maybe check out The Virgin Spring (1960), on which The Last House on the Left was based (and is itself based on a 13th century Swedish ballad). Yes, I just snuck a Bergman film in a horror list…
Directed by William Friedkin
Starring Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow, and Jason Miller
Rated R; Running 2 hours, 2 minutes
Type of horror: Possession
Synopsis: 12-year-old Regan (Blair) is possessed by the demon, Pazuzu; Father Karras (Miller), a priest who’s struggling with his faith, must exorcise Pazuzu from Regan. Fountains of pea soup ensue
Why it’s scary: Because a little girl is completely controlled by an evil entity and does some gruesome things
My favorite scene: The bloody spider-walk (deleted from the original release, but restored in two variants in two different re-releases)
Why you should see it: It’s a lot more cerebral than you’d expect—there’s a lot of talking about faith and psychology in between Regan’s possession scenes—but it also has plenty of head-turning, stomach-churning violence to freak you out but good.
If you like this film, you might also like: The Last Exorcism (2010), a found footage film which also deals with a crisis of faith, this time in a minister who conducts fakes exorcisms because he doesn’t believe the possessions he investigates are real. Until he meets Nell Sweetzer, that is…
So what are your favorite Halloween movies? What do you like about the Horror genre? Be sure to leave comments below and we can talk about it!
Check out the other 2 parts of the 31 days of Halloween movie list I wrote here:
*Photos from Rotten Tomatoes and Wikipedia