13 Frightening Film Favorites for Halloween

Happy Halloween Eve Eve Eve Eve, or Hallow’s Eve Eve Eve Eve Eve everyone! This Friday is Halloween, a day of sugar and scares from more than just early onset diabetes. Those of us who are young enough will enjoy trick-or-treating dressed as some character from Frozen. Those of us who are too old for trick-or-treating based on stupid societal conventions will go to haunted houses or parties and complain about not getting free candy, but still in costume as something inappropriately bloody or “sexy” to which I say, why not both? And those of us who are parents will take our kids trick-or-treating then eat their candy voraciously after they fall asleep. Hey, you don’t want them to be overweight.

In honor of the second most profitable holiday in America, I am presenting a list of 13 films that I think best evoke the Halloween spirit. Why 13? 666 seemed a bit steep, plus 13 is not too big or too small, and it will freak out triskaidekaphobics. And if you had the means and enough energy drinks (might I suggest Monster? Ahahahahahaha!) you could watch all of these movies in one day and still have an hour and a half to pass out candy. I do not recommend this though; I once watched all six Star Wars films in one day and it was a very tasking experience – mainly because I had to watch the prequel trilogy – but cinema fan that I am, it was a tall order to sit in one place and stare at a screen all day (something I do every Monday now). Use this list as more of a guide for any indecision you may experience when you’re trying to sort out what to watch this Friday night. So brace yourself, because this is no dream; this is really happening.

Initially this seemed like an easy self-assignment: find 13 movies that make the best Halloween viewing, But when I first started writing out titles I got to 13 a lot faster than I wanted to, so unfortunately, some good ones had to be cut. I was on the fence about a few, some of which made it in, some of which didn’t, but I do recommend some of these others in addition to the top 13. Bear in mind that this list is not a ranking, but rather an assemblage of films that I feel best fit the criteria I put in place. Basically each has to be a movie that I’ve seen, as well as one that represents Halloween well and/or is fun and fitting to watch on Halloween night. I feel that a good movie to watch on Halloween is one that contains elements of the supernatural or otherworldly, or maniacal serial killer(s) wreaking havoc and terror. Yet there are other good films that have considerably less bloodshed that also work well for a more family friendly viewing, or at least that are not all racked with building tension. Of course, this is all based on my opinions and what I like about Halloween, so you undoubtedly will be surprised or even perturbed that I left out or included something different from what you would have. So go ahead and make your own list! In the meantime though, enjoy mine. On this list you’ll find mostly horror films, with old and new classic comedies and a kooky, creepy musical being the exceptions from a simple branding of “Horror”. Most of these movies span across a few genres though. Within these films there are many scary favorites such as ghosts, zombies, werewolves, witches, aliens, demons, monsters, and murderers, and much, much more (especially in the most recent film on the list which contains all of these and then some). I don’t have many of the early Universal monster movies like Frankenstein (1931) or Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) listed, nor will you find any vampire movies. In all honesty, I haven’t seen that many made more recently than Nosferatu (1922). I considered adding The Silence of the Lambs (1991); it’s plenty horrifying, and possibly my favorite over all my 13 final picks, but it isn’t specifically Halloween-themed, is more of a thriller, and is a great watch any time of year. Even my own favorite movie, Jaws (1975) which is most often labeled as a horror movie does not appear here, primarily because it is more associated with summer, and is also worth watching whenever. Such films are transcendent of their genres and sub-genres, as are many of the 13, but each of those on my list are more relatable on Halloween, or I just like to watch them at October’s end. I will explain more. The films are listed in chronological order of when they were released, although the first on the list may very well be the best of the bunch.

Psycho (1960) – Alfred Hitchcock’s defining film was the famous director’s first step into the horror genre, one that he would only visit once more, two years later with The Birds. Unlike The Birds though, Psycho doesn’t show its age through its visual effects, thanks in part to its brilliant black-and-white style (you can’t tell the blood is chocolate syrup if everything’s gray!). And as is critical to all horror films, its musical score is fantastic. Whether you’ve seen it or not, you’re familiar with its violent violining courtesy of Bernard Herrman. Watch the openings credits; that music is so unsettling and sets the tone perfectly. Of course, the music isn’t all that’s violent in Psycho. Again, even if you haven’t seen it you are aware of the shower scene, one of the most well-directed scenes in the history of film that permanently scarred star Janet Leigh who henceforth took only baths. In true Hitchcock form, this movie broke conventions and played on his own filmography. Known for being a master of suspense, not scares (though many of his earlier works exhibit some horrifying moments), Hitchcock fooled audiences into thinking this was the next in a long line of tense thrillers. But everything is not as it seems. Halfway through the film shifts to straight-up horror and kills off the female lead played by the most famous name attached to the project next to Hitchcock’s. Tony Perkins is perfectly insane as Norman Bates, and the smile he gives the camera at the very end is truly chilling. If you have not seen Psycho, you must. Even if you already know all the twists and turns, which by now are pretty well spoiled because the film has had such an impact on film culture and culture in general, it is still an excellent movie that is essential viewing for everyone, Halloween or not. The sheer fame of Psycho helped it outshine another great unsettling horror film of 1960, Michael Powell’s too often underviewed Peeping Tom, the film that ruined his career after being banned by just about every theater. It’s another great 60s horror movie that is definitely worth a look.

The Exorcist (1973) – Considered by many to be the scariest movie ever made, this is another classic film that you’ve probably heard a lot about and recited lines from before seeing it for the first time. The film is also a great example of how horror movies are supposed to be made: people are enjoying a seemingly normal lifestyle when something sinister creeps into it; the evil presence is first casually, yet concernedly mysterious; the tone darkens as the evil grows more powerful and the nice lifestyle from the beginning becomes a memory of the way things used to be and probably will never be again; all attempts to figure out how to vanquish the evil fail, forcing the protagonist(s) to turn to the last and probably most hopeless resort which sets up the terrifying climax when all the fears that were hinted at throughout the gradual build-up of tension are fully realized in a thrilling battle between good and evil. The Exorcist features perhaps the grandest good and evil as soldiers of Christ in the form of two Jesuit priests – one younger and experiencing a crisis of faith in the wake of his mother’s death; the other an older, more experienced pill-popper who has seen the horrors of hell in past exorcisms – fighting for God’s goodness against a demon claiming to be Satan himself who has possessed a young girl. You don’t need to be a Christian or even a believer in God in order to be freaked out by this movie, especially since the scariest parts are the administrations of medical and psychological tests on the possessed child in the hopes of finding out what’s wrong with her and the desperation of her mother to save her while feeling helpless to do so. Some of the scary reputation of this movie comes from mysterious deaths and injuries suffered by crew members during filming, but again excellent performances, direction, and music make this another scary must-see. If you like the satanic stylings of The Exorcist you may also want to check out Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Omen (1976) for more devilish fun.

Young Frankenstein (1974) – Mel Brooks’ genius was best realized from an actor’s perspective by the great Gene Wilder and the magnificent Madeline Kahn. Together they helped add laughs to Brooks’ brilliance in 1974, first in February with Blazing Saddles, then again in December with this hilarious hit. Occasionally marketed as “the funniest comedy of all time” it is one of the few films to claim the distinction that is definitely a contender for it. Taking inspiration from all of the previous Frankenstein films and mocking them for their very liberal interpretation of Mary Shelley’s original gothic novel with an even crazier take, this comedy is never really scary, but the humor is constant and excellent with everything from parodied moments, high society dance numbers, and lots and lots of sex jokes. This is certainly the most alive Frankenstein movie out there.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) – One of the strangest and most entertaining musical films, this is a wonderfully wild big-screen adaptation of Richard O’Brien’s stage musical that wove together his love of early rock and roll and sci-fi B-movies. A cult hit when released, this is a favorite to show at many theaters throughout the world that identify as being a little more odd than most. And they have to be since these showings are each an event in themselves with audience participation, costumed attendants, and scene reenactments that are wilder than any drinking game you and your friends partake in (“Do a shot every time John Madden says ‘Boom!’”). Rocky Horror is an acquired taste that I and many others find pleasantly palatable, helped by the catchiness of such songs as “Science Fiction/Double Feature”, “Sweet Transvestite”, and of course “Time Warp”, not to mention the greatest performance of Tim Curry’s career. Often imitated, but never replicated, Curry’s sex-crazed Dr. Frank-N-Furter is a wild presence who drives the film along and even serves as a cautionary example of over-decadence. Rocky Horror may seem to be a little too wacky upon first viewing , but give it a chance and you just might find it growing on you – just not in the way Susan Sarandon sings about.

Halloween (1978) – The most easily identifiable Halloween-themed movie for obvious reasons, John Carpenter’s timeless horror masterpiece gets better with age (and every inferior sequel and remake). Telling the tale of the “pure evil” that is Michael Myers, an unfeeling, murderous man who appears to be indestructible, both physically in this film and (un)creatively in the aforementioned constant continuation of more movies. This original and best in the franchise is the epitome of the sub-genre of “slasher flick”, inspiring the likes of Friday the 13th (1980) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), among many others that weren’t as good as those. Halloween is especially fun for me because it actually takes place on Halloween in the Midwest, so we get to see an autumnal suburb like what I used to trick-or-treat in, even if the whole thing was filmed in southern California. The characters are great, from Dr. Loomis who is probably just barely hanging onto that license based upon his extreme opinion of Michael, and whose desperation to catch the “evil” he feels responsible for is the first role that doesn’t make Donald Pleasance look like just an over-the-top cue ball; to Laurie, the innocent yet strong adolescent who’s real reactions and screams keep us terrifyingly enthralled just as Jamie Lee Curtis’ real-life mother did (briefly) in Psycho; to Michael Myers himself, the automaton of a man whose mask is even scarier when you realize it’s a William Shatner mask painted white. Bonus points to Carpenter for directing, co-writing, and composing that iconic score.

Alien (1979) – What’s a science fiction movie doing in here? Scaring the living crap out you, that’s what. No other movie has terrified me the way Alien has. Maybe it was because I saw too much of it when I was much too young, or maybe it’s the unbearable tension that keeps building and building and building and building and Jesus Christ what the fuck was that!?! By the time we see the alien (called a xenomorph in following films but only referred to as “it”, “thing” and rarely “alien” in this original), in any of its life stages it is frightening, progressively more terrifying and deadly the farther along it grows. It is nothing short of the best movie monster ever brought to life thanks to its even creepier creator, Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, who also designed the incredible set pieces. Factor in the strong rape allusions with Ridley Scott’s suspenseful direction that is worthy of Hitchcock, and great acting from the seven human cast members, especially Sigourney Weaver in the movie that made her a star, and you’ve got a minimalist masterpiece that is scary no matter what genre you place it in from the moment it starts spelling out its name. Just watch the original trailer to see how horrifying it is, as well as how to make a great movie trailer without spilling its secrets (or even saying a word). It helps that it ends with one the best taglines ever: In space no one can hear you scream. The trailer probably feels a little familiar because Scott tapped into its mojo again for the trailer for his Alien prequel Prometheus in 2012. Too bad he couldn’t make that mojo work beyond the trailer. Perhaps the scariest thing about this franchise is that the Alien has appeared in seven movies in some form or another (counting Prometheus, not Spaceballs) and only the first two of those were any good. If you like scary aliens then check out the other good movie in this franchise, Aliens (1986) for some more gut-busting good times, as well as John Carpenter’s awesome remake The Thing (1982) in which Kurt Russell has more facial hair than Wilford Brimley making it a must-see too.

The Shining (1980) – The lone Stephen King adaption on my list is the best known of them for good reason. It’s also the one that pissed off King the most, but that’s to be expected with Stanley Kubrick at the helm. Kubrick had a way of finding everyone’s worst side and making it angry at him, but goddamn it if his movies weren’t excellent most of the time. The Shining is another Kubrick classic and the scariest movie you’ll ever watch that is well lit. No dark, dingy haunted house vibes here, although there are plenty of ghosts who walk the halls of the Overlook Hotel causing caretaker Jack Torrance to go cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs and attempt to murder his family in similar fashion to one of the hotel’s former employees. Jack is of course played by the best man to represent such an eventual psycho, Jack Nicholson, and his darling wife was portrayed by Shelley Duvall (daughter of Robert the lawyer, not Robert the actor) who was repeatedly terrified by Kubrick until she actually had panic attacks and gave him the terror he was looking for. No wonder so many people hated working with him. Needless to say, she never did again. Terrible as it was achieved, her fear is reflected right back at the screen by us viewers watching from the edge of our seats. And let’s not forget about the Torrance’s psychic son Danny and that vision he keeps having of the elevators. Surprisingly, even with all of that blood there is a very low total death count by the end of this movie, making it all the more spooky. Won’t you come and play?

Evil Dead 2 (1987) – Essentially a remake of the preceding low-budget cult horror film The Evil Dead (1981), this sequel still stars the one and only Bruce Campbell as Ash, an unfortunate and unwitting hero who just wanted to bone his girlfriend at a secluded cabin, not battle her bones that reanimate after her possession and bloody death. Facing a barrage of “deadites” and a very woody tree, Ash uses his ingenuity to try to save himself and a few other frightened folks from the forces of evil unleashed by the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, the Book of the Dead. Evil Dead 2 plays out like an Arnold Palmer-style (drink, not golfer) horror-comedy infusion, with plenty of scares and laughs, both thanks very much to Campbell. The series continues on with Army of Darkness (1992), which evolves even more into a comedy than the others, before the original was remade as Evil Dead in 2013 and brought very much back to gory horror, though a bit too excessively and unnecessarily. But it’s all good when Evil Dead 2 is available, which it usually is on TV and online. So hail to the king and check it out. And even though I just typed out a paragraph, it’s a movie that can definitely be summed up in one word.

Scream (1996) – The best from Wes Craven (sorry A Nightmare on Elm Street fans), this funny, fresh take for the genre looks at (and breaks) the conventions of horror movies in an almost perfect little town that has one blemish in the form of an unsolved murder, the anniversary of which is coming up again. Soon there are two more murders, then more, then more, bringing the whole town to a boiling panic. Thankfully teenagers who know their horror films don’t stop partying, or dying for our cringing, yet often hilarious viewing pleasure. Upping the ante on even Psycho, the best known name in this film is killed in the opening sequence. Ballsy Craven, ballsy. Also ballsy are other alterations to the formula like having the female protagonist indulge in some bedroom bouncing, and having other characters openly defy the unbreakable rules they lay out. “I’ll be right back!” So will I, for another round of this great movie.

The Blair Witch Project (1999) – Where Alien is minimalist with theme and cast, this very low-budget mega-hit is minimalist with everything, except maybe marketing. Back in 1999, this was presented to many college campuses as a “real found-footage” film, and encouraged prospective fans to go on their website and investigate what they could about the three people who went missing and the legend they sought to unearth the meaning of. Popularizing found-footage movies to what is now past the point of exhaustion, this is still the best of them. The film quality is good, but not too good to take us out of the ever-developing terror of the characters. And make no mistake about it, this movie is fucking scary. I didn’t think I would be that affected by it when I first saw it (which somehow I managed to not do until last year), but this film struck a chord because of its familiarity. It feels real, or at least like it could happen somewhere in the thick woods near some old, small town. We’re not exposed to some grotesque monster all at once, but given scary snippets of freaky tension. Everything remains in the realm of possibility and we’re not sure if the three lost filmmakers are just being fucked with by weird residents of the town sneaking around at night to scare them, or if something more sinister is going on. I have only one complaint though, and it’s the sudden ending that makes for a more realistic conclusion, but frustrates me in that there is no resolution in the form of a wispy witch figure or anything. Maybe they ran out of money, but I think the reason is more artistic, yet it still frustrate me. It seems I’m not the only one who feels so though.

Shaun of the Dead (2004) – I realized as I was making this list I had no zombie movies, which didn’t feel right given their extreme popularity over the past decade or so. I was going to put George Romero’s original socially-conscious zombie flick, Night of the Living Dead (1968), or Danny Boyle’s reworking of the zombie movie that kicked off the recent craze, 28 Days Later (2002), in the mix until I remembered my favorite, and the favorite of many others from the sub-genre of undead eaters of the living, Edgar Wright’s hilarious “romantic comedy with zombies”, or rom-zom-com. Shaun of the Dead started the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy (followed by Hot Fuzz (2007) and The World’s End (2013)), and helped inspired other zombie-comedies like Zombieland (2009), but what really charmed us was the buddy-love between Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Sure it started earlier on projects like Wright’s Spaced, but most of us first saw the love emerge through throwing unwanted vinyl records at zombies. By now you’ve probably seen Shaun of the Dead enough times to have worked out that Ed foretells the plot of the movie when discussing his plan to get drunk at the beginning, or to have noticed that they never say the word “zombie” after Ed starts to utter it at the start of the crisis, or any of the other countless bits of loveable trivia about this loveable, albeit often super-gross gem of a film.

The Descent (2005) – Easily my favorite horror film of the last 10 years, The Descent is unsettling from the start when its main character, Sarah, is the lone survivor of a car crash that claims the life of her husband and child. One year later, her fellow adventure-seeking friends aim to bring her back to some semblance of the older, happier days by going spelunking in a cave in North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains. Sarah still seems to be haunted by the death of her daughter as she starts hearing and seeing things down in the depths of the cave, but after a cave-in traps them the other women realize that there might be something to what Sarah has been saying. Like The Exorcist, the really scary part of this movie is its first half where the women find themselves lost in a cave just trying to orient themselves, especially when their caving leader reveals the cave is unexplored – a detail that becomes all the more unnerving when they start to find evidence that they are not the first people to have ventured down there. We feel their claustrophobia as we watch, and there are some brief glimpses at what ultimate terrors are yet to come too. Much like Alien and Blair Witch, the cast is kept small in a location far from civilization, so we get to know all six women well enough to care about them and feel for their plight, especially as their situation goes from bad to worse to what the fuck was that!?!

The Cabin in the Woods (2011) – The most recent film on my list is my second favorite horror film in the last decade, and definitely the most inventive one since Shaun of the Dead, no Scream, no Evil Dead 2, no wait, maybe ever. Many of the influences are obvious: the titular cabin is just like the one in the Evil Dead franchise; zombies, even redneck zombies are nothing new in anything; “the harbinger” is like every other character who poses a warning to the protagonists in any conventional horror movie; etc. However, it is the way each of these commonalities are handled with equal parts deconstructing humor and reverent horror that makes this movie uniquely great despite its appearance as just another cog in the financially-driven horror movie conglomerate. And of course anything written by Joss Whedon is worth a look. Nobody banters like Whedon, not even Tarantino. Besides, you can’t top the comical observations made by the characters (usually Marty) and the overall satire is fantastic. Even in the midst of the scariest moments we get treated to a joke that serves as the perfect diffusing of the spooky situation. And when that “Purge” button is pressed, uhn, yeah! That’s easily the best elevator scene since The Shining.

Thanks for reading everyone! Much like the plucky protagonists of some of these films I’ve managed to deliver in the waning moments of the eleventh hour, but I hope you enjoy this list no matter when you may read it as all of these films are good enough to watch whenever. I just like them best around Halloween when it’s fun to be scared. Let me know what movies you like best for Halloween in the comments below or at monotrememadness@gmail.com. Scare your way back next week for a recap of everything I’ve posted so far.

Happy Haunting,

Alex

P.S. Consider this the jump-scare moment of a hand reaching from the grave.

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