It’s October, and that means Halloween will soon be upon us. And what better way to celebrate a spooky holiday then with a spooky movie or two? With that in mind, here’s some suggestions for your horror viewing pleasure. Note, this is not a top film list, nor is it in any type of order. All are worth viewing, in my opinion, and hopefully you’ll agree. So, here we go.
First up is Mama, a nifty little ghost story from producer Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim, Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) and director Andres Muschietti (in his feature length debut). The story focuses on a man, Lucas (played by Game of Thrones own Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain- Zero Dark Thirty) suddenly find themselves having to care for Lucas’ nieces Victoria and Lilly (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse) who have been found hiding in a cabin after they had been missing for five years. Needless to say, the girls weren’t alone out there in the woods, and the supernatural presence follows them home to Lucas and Annabel’s house. The movie has quite a few creepy moments when we catch glimpses out of the corner of our eye, though it is somewhat less effective when we see the full CGI entity. The performances carry the movie, especially those by the two young girls and Chastain. The ending is a mixture of both sweet and chilling, making this a ghost story worthy of your time.
Evil Dead (2013, 1981)
The cabin in the woods setting makes for a good locale for a horror film. Add a small group of young people and an evil menace, and viola!, a horror flick is born. Such is the setting for the next title on our list (both the remake and the original). The Evil Dead (1981) was a breath of fresh air amongst the many slasher movies that became the standard for the horror genre. Working with a modest budget of $375,000 (US), director Sam Raimi (who went on to direct the Spider-Man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire) made a fiercely original flick about a group of campers who unwittingly unleash demos after opening the Book of the Dead. The movie was a hit with audiences, spawning two sequels (Evil Dead II in 1987 and Army of Darkness in 1990) and making a star of Bruce Campbell as the shotgun wielding and chainsaw toting character Ash. Raimi signed on as producer for the remake, which fell under the direction of first time helmer Fede Alvarez. The plot for the remake was essentially the same, but without the character of Ash and the original’s macabre sense of humor. The new film traded the humor in for a more serious and horrific approach, which while serviceable made the movie lose the charm of Raimi’s picture. Still, both are worth a look, and make for a nice comparison of two styles of film-making. You may never look at trees in the woods the same way again.
The Descent (2005)
Director Neil Marshall followed up his excellent werewolf movie Dog Soldiers (2002) with this nail biter about six women on an adventuresome vacation who encounter bloodthirsty creatures while exploring a cave. The creatures are well designed and creepy enough, but the tension is ratcheted up long before we get a glimpse of them as the group suffers a mishap which traps them in the cavern. Marshall does a terrific job at evoking the claustrophobia of the cave’s tight passages, making you feel short of breath as you watch the women cope with their plight. Things only get more nightmarish as the movie goes on, with the creatures bringing out the worst within the group as they struggle to survive. A sequel was made in 2009, and while decent, it didn’t match the intensity of the first film. One of the best horror films in recent years.
Dawn of the Dead (2004, 1978)
George Romero ushered in the modern zombie movie with his chilling feature Night of the Living Dead (1968). Ten years later, his follow-up, Dawn of the Dead, elevated the genre even more. Taking place in a shopping mall where the undead have trapped a group of survivors, the film was as much a social commentary on rampant consumerism as well as a tense zombie movie. It’s slow movie at times, but still effective. Twenty six years later director Zack Snyder, who would later go on to make stylized action fantasies like 300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch, and Man of Steel, eschewed the social commentary in favor of a more fast moving epic horror picture. Filled with plenty of gore and big set pieces, Snyder’s version gave us a slightly more vicious breed of zombie, one that moved faster, echoing the undead from 2002’s 28 Days Later. It made for a very entertaining movie, complete with some macabre humor, which honored Romero’s picture as much as it remade it for a new audience. Both are must sees for fans of the genre, which has seen a massive resurgence of late due to the success of both the comic and the AMC television series The Walking Dead.
Horror author Stephen King and zombie maestro George A. Romero teamed up to present an anthology style comic horror movie the provides as many scares as it does laughs. Comprised of five vignettes book-ended by a framing story, the movie was greatly entertaining, and featured a terrific cast that included Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau, Leslie Nielsen, Ted Danson, and even King himself. Each story was in effect a morality tale, told with a macabre sense of humor and featuring clever special effects make-up by artist Tom Savini, who had previously worked with Romero on his Dead pictures. The stories covered a corpse rising from the grave for revenge (Father’s Day), a farmer discovering a meteor with unforeseen consequences (The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill), a jilted husband trapping his wife’s lover (Something to Tide You Over), a husband using a discovery to deal with his shrewish wife (The Crate), and a reclusive ultra-rich businessman who must deal with an unwelcome infestation into his pristine apartment (They’re Creeping Up On You). Each story was introduced with some excellent animation using the artwork of Bernie Wrightson, best known for his work on horror comics such as Swamp Thing and Weird Mystery Tales. A weak sequel was made, but you’re better off ignoring it. One of the best anthology horror films to be made, it still stands up today.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Serial killers make for a staple in the horror genre, but none has been better portrayed as that of Hannibal Lecter, considered by many to be one of the greatest villains of all time. As portrayed by Anthony Hopkins (The Mask of Zorro, The Edge, Thor), Dr. Lecter comes off as suavely intelligent and cunning, always surrounded by an air of menace and the feeling that he will always be three steps ahead of you. FBI agent Clarice Starling (an excellent Jodie Foster) enlists Lecter to aid her in the tracking of another serial killer named Buffalo Bill. Director Jonathan Demme (Something Wild, Philadelphia) keeps the tension high throughout the movie, and ratchets it up towards the final showdown between Starling and the killer. It wasn’t the first time that the creation of author Thomas Harris had reached the screen (the first time was in a Michael Mann movie called Manhunter, where he was played by Brian Cox), nor would it be the last (the character appeared in a sequel, two prequels, and currently in a television series), but it is the best, and still delivers on the psychological scares. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture, deservedly so, and shouldn’t be missed.
The Shining (1980)
Stephen King’s novel about the Overlook Hotel and the effects on its off-season caretakers was a perfect choice to be brought to the screen. It had all the right elements for a horror movie- ghostly visions, a psychic child, madness, and murder. Visionary director Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey, Full Metal Jacket) took on the task to deliver King’s book to the big screen, and the result was for the most part successful (the miscasting of Shelley Duvall in the role of wife Wendy is one of the film’s missteps). Visions of elevators spewing blood into hallways and two of the creepiest twin girls you’d ever want to meet were among the highlights, but the movie’s true draw is the performance of Jack Nicholson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Batman). As former alcoholic Jack Torrance trying to make the right move to help his wife and troubled son, Nicholson is perfect as the hotel slowly works on his psyche, slowly unraveling him until he steps over into full on insanity and murderous rage. His performance is the best reason to catch this creepy haunted house thriller.
Friday the 13th (1980, 2009)
It was inevitable that the day infamously labeled as being unlucky would be used as a title for a horror movie. Oddly enough, the date never really plays into the proceedings as the young camp counselors of Crystal Lake are dispatched in various ways by a deranged killer. The movie’s success kicked off the “horror movie rule” of teens having illicit sex would inevitably be disposed of in gruesome fashion, and it touched off a series of movies that included nine sequels, a reboot, and a crossover with another horror franchise (we’ll get to that one shortly). It spawned the indestructible and hockey mask wearing killing machine Jason Vorhees, though in director Sean S. Cunningham’s original 1980 film it was Jason’s mother behind the mayhem as revenge for her son drowning while the counselors “were having sex”. The 2009 remake by director Marcus Nispel chose instead to go right to Jason, having him being revived from the morgue to once again engage his murderous ways. The movie can be campy at times, but it’s still a bit of fun, and even provides the occasional jump scare. The music for both has become fairly iconic, and Jason has endured as an icon himself in the horror genre, while making hockey masks a choice for killers in many a movie.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, 2010)
In 1984, director Wes Craven introduced a new character into the horror film pantheon- that of sweater and fedora wearing killer Freddy Kruger. Bearing a burned visage and gloves tipped with razor sharp blades, Freddy, a former child molester burned by the parents of Elm Street for his crimes, returned to the dreams of their children. Problem was, if he got you in your dreams, you were dead for real. Craven staged the first film well, making it haunting and creepy in all the right ways, though subsequent sequels saw fit to make Freddy quite the quipster, spouting off one liners as he dispatched his victims with maniacal glee. Audiences ate it up, making Freddy an established horror icon and even pitting him in a showdown with another serial killer, Jason Vorhees, in the 2003 crossover Freddy vs. Jason. The franchise made a star of Robert Englund as Freddy, though he was replaced by Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen) in the role in the 2010 remake helmed by director Samuel Bayer (his full feature debut). The series also made a star of Freddy’s nemesis Nancy played by Heather Langenkamp (who was replaced by Rooney Mara for the remake), leading to the actress to fall victim to a stalker, which was cleverly used by Craven in the 1994 movie Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. The remake lacked a lot of the creepiness of the original, but it’s not a bad movie. Still, the original is the one to watch, and is the best of the bunch.
The Others (2001)
A house surrounded by fog can always give a movie a very haunting atmosphere, and 2001’s The Others from director Alejandro Amenabar (Open Your Eyes, Agora) proved to be no exception. The tale of a mother (superbly played by Nicole Kidman) trying to protect her two photosensitive children (they can’t be exposed to sunlight) from spooky goings-on in their home keeps you on edge up until the surprising reveal in the finale. It may not be flashy or gory, and moves at a more stately pace, but it is one the best and most spellbinding ghost stories brought to film, and it deserves a look. Gore junkies may go away unsatisfied, but for those who like their horror a bit more atmospheric with characters you can genuinely care about will find this one to be a treat.
Halloween (1978, 2007)
In 1978, director John Carpenter (Escape From New York, The Fog) unleashed on the world the killer Michael Myers, who would set the stage for the appearance of later icons Jason and Freddy. The movie opened with an unsettling scene, that of a young boy murdering his sister with a butcher knife. He’s placed in a psychiatric hospital under the care of Dr. Loomis (played by Donald Pleasance in the original and by Malcolm McDowell in the remake by director Rob Zombie). Michael escapes and returns home to Haddonfield, Illinois, where he begins stalking young Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Janet Leigh). The body count stacks up and Carpenter maintains plenty of tension throughout. The mask worn by Michael has become iconic in itself, and was in fact a store bought mask of actor William Shatner from the series Star Trek. The mask was painted white, the eye-holes made bigger, and the hair teased out to give it a different appearance, giving Michael the nickname of The Shape. Carpenter portrayed Michael as pure evil, never giving us a real reason for his murderous ways. Director Rob Zombie took a different tack in the remake, giving us a more in depth look at Michael’s past and attempted to give his actions a more psychological basis. Both films worked well, though the 1978 film is the superior version. As with other horror movie characters, this spawned a whole franchise. The sequels are watchable, but none compare to the first film. A holiday classic of its own, and a must see.
The granddaddy of them all, Alfred Hitchcock’s tale of a disturbed man ruled by his mother with a peculiar way of extending hospitality to his motel’s guests still holds up today. Unsettling and backed by a memorable score, the movie gives you a sense of eeriness and then punctuates that with scenes of horrific violence that were quite shocking when the film was released. Anthony Perkins gives an excellent performance as Norman Bates, and Janet Leigh (who’s daughter would also be chased by a killer 18 years later in film) is terrific as Bates’ unsuspecting victim, herself being on the run for committing a crime. It added a layer of a morality play to the proceedings, as it could be said that she got what she deserved. The film’s house became an iconic symbol all its own, and motels later featured in many a horror flick. A remake was made starring Vince Vaughan and Anne Heche, but it was largely unnecessary and added nothing new. Hitchcock’s version is the best, and you may never look at showers the same way again.
The Exorcist (1973)
Still one of the best horror movies ever made and still the king of possession pictures. Director William Friedkin’s (The French Connection, Sorcerer) adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel (Blatty also wrote the screenplay) remains as an intense frightening experience, haunting us with disturbing images, levitating objects, and projectile vomiting. Young Linda Blair became an instant star after her turn as Regan, a girl who becomes possessed by a demon. Ellen Burstyn is perfect as her mother Chris, who struggles to understand what is happening to her daughter, at first seeking medical answers and then when things take a more sinister turn she seeks answers from the church. Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) arrives on the scene, and is aided by another priest, Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller) in his battle with the supernatural entity. It keeps you on edge right up through the shocking climax, and it remains not just one of the best horror movies in film history, but as one of the best movies, period. The sequels have never matched the original, although a director’s cut was released to the theaters and home video which added a few scenes which made the movie even a touch creepier. Well worth your time, and a must see for fans of the genre.
So, there you have it. Some suggestions to make your blood run a little bit colder and send a chill up your spine. What are some of your favorites? Let us know in the comments below. Until then, choose a title, turn off the lights, make some popcorn, and enjoy.
And don’t answer the door for the guy in the hockey mask.
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