I tend to watch an alarming number of horror titles, for reasons I probably don’t want to investigate. I guess I could pay a therapist $150 an hour to find out, but I suspect no good news would come of that.
Halloween, though, is a good time to indulge in scary movies without guilt. In October, my obsession with Japanese horror doesn’t seem so creepy. Of course, there are many different kinds of scary movies, and choosing the proper DVD rental can be tricky. Do you want to be mildly freaked out or seriously traumatized?
Choosing the right movie can spell the difference between an evening of fun thrills and a night of seriously bad dreams. I was once talked into a Halloween double feature bill of Gremlins and The Exorcist. My dreams that night put me on medication for the next three years.
These picks are all readily available on DVD or digital download, and focus on titles that evoke the spirit of Halloween, as it were. The list aims for a mix of old classics, new contenders, and forgotten gems—and deliberately avoids serial killers and splatter-porn. Halloween movies should be paranormal in some way—ghosts and vampires, monsters and aliens. You know. Chilling. Spooky. Bloodcurdling. This sort of thing.
Shadow of the Vampire (2001)
The silent film Nosferatu, made in 1922, is generally acknowledged as being the best vampire movie ever made. Shadow of the Vampire is the story of the making of that film, as well as being a vampire story in its own right. The trick? In the movie-within-the-movie, actor Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe) actually is a vampire, and director F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) is happy to let him dine on the cast and crew in exchange for the ultimate authentic performance.
The Wolfman (2010)
Benecio del Toro headlines this curiously conservative reboot of the classic werewolf story. The movie doesn’t really work in the end but is still recommended if you like your horror films executed in old-fashioned style: blasted moors, gypsy curses, prodigal sons, cobblestone alleys, etc. Also: Emily Blunt in a corset, and it’s hard to argue with that.
Six years after an alien space probe crash, ginormous tentacled monsters roam a walled-off “infected zone” in northern Mexico. Things get sticky when a pretty rich girl and a jaded photojournalist find themselves in the wrong place at the wrongest of times. A marvel of inventive microbudget filmmaking, Monsters is lean, efficient and packed with tension. Like Jaws, the film follows the less-is-more rule of special effects. The aliens are only seen in glimpses until the climatic final scenes – then we get them in all their glowing, 10-story-tall, Lovecraftian glory. There’s a nice little love story here, too, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Monsters: Pod People!
A story of such sturdy narrative armature that it’s been made three separate times (and ripped off more than that), this 1978 version starring Donald Sutherland remains the best. The concept of pod people from space replacing your friends and family is paranoia writ large (and lends itself to political allegory in any era). But watch how director Phillip Kaufman ratchets up the fear without actually showing much of anything. Easily the scariest PG movie ever made.
28 Days Later (2002)
Director Danny Boyle’s updated zombie flick tweaks the genre with a couple of small but critical changes. First, the zombies aren’t undead but infected, the better to tap our modern biohazard fears. Second – these zombies can move, baby! No longer the stumblebum brain-eaters of the past, these guys are agile, fast and really, really angry. Handheld camera work and a quick-cut editing style enhance the effect. The DVD includes three alternate endings and plenty of, um, meaty extras.
The scariest pure horror movie of 2011, Insidious was a surprise hit thanks to great word-of-mouth. The story concerns a boy and a haunted house (or maybe it’s a house and a haunted boy), and uses old-school ghost story techniques to deploy its arsenal of creepy imagery, odd story twists and quality scares. While the story arc is similar to Poltergeist, the film’s back story and mythology are refreshingly original, and the movie may have the single scariest séance scene ever filmed.
The Descent (2005)
Monster: Subterranean mutants! Maybe!
Two parts Deliverance, one part Alien, with some primal fear-of-the-dark psychology thrown in, The Descent is the story of six women whose caving adventure goes very, very wrong. Writer/director Neil Marshall provides a dozen different kinds of scares, and what may well be the 21st century’s first brand new monster, both in concept and (heh, heh) execution. Think about that ambiguous ending, and ask yourself: What actually happened down there? Be forewarned – the unrated DVD version is gleefully gory.
The Shining (1980)
Monster: Ghosts! Demons! Alcoholism!
By far the best of the Stephen King movie adaptations, Stanley Kubrick’s classic hits on all cylinders to ramp the haunted house genre tale (in this case, a haunted hotel) into realms of real hellishness and psychological terror. The images have burned themselves into pop culture’s collective consciousness – the twin girls in the hall, the phantom bartender, the ghost of room 237. Look for the Special Edition DVD for much-needed updates to image and sound.
The Exorcist (Restored Version) (1973)
Monsters: El Diablo
This is the granddaddy, of course – the scariest movie ever made. The Exorcist retains a primeval, mythic power that has less to do with theology than with the visceral nature of cinema. Director William Friedkin’s story of demonic possession boasts a dozen truly heart-stopping moments, and this DVD version adds a couple more, including the infamous “spider-walk” scene. No kidding – if you haven’t seen The Exorcist, this is no scary-movie thrill ride. This is a traumatic experience. Discretion is advised.