Halloween is almost here, and maybe you don’t want to face the crowds or answer the door for pesky trick-or-treaters. Maybe it’s time to turn out the lights and turn on a scary movie. But which one?
Our list of 13 recommendations features evil spirits, werewolves, nightmares, slashers, ghosts, murderers, monsters, curses, and even vampires (just don’t call them that). There’s something here for just about every ghoulish taste. So, grab some popcorn and some ladyfingers and start screaming… er… streaming.
While inspired by Clive Barker’s 1985 story “The Forbidden,” the original Candyman was released in 1992, followed by two sequels. Nia DaCosta’s Candyman (2021) is something more than a reboot, remake, or another sequel. Rather, it takes the old story and traces a new path through it, asking questions about art, storytelling, appropriation, gentrification, and the Black Lives Matter movement.
An artist, Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) learns about the legend of the Candyman, who terrorized the Cabrini–Green housing projects decades earlier. The legend inspires him to create a new art piece, entitled “Say My Name.” Unfortunately, the monster is summoned once again—played, as always, by Tony Todd—and begins to create fresh havoc. DaCosta (Little Woods) uses a hypnotic color and visual palette across the film, including a crafty use of silhouettes for flashbacks. Her sturdy screenplay—co-written by Jordan Peele—neatly balances discourse with terror, and manages to feel urgent rather than disposable.
Teyonah Parris plays Anthony’s art gallery director girlfriend, and Vanessa Williams reprises her role from the original film. And, through archival footage and recordings, Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) haunts the new film as well.
Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor is a clever, creeping meta-horror story that recalls a time when the genre was considered dangerous. Niamh Algar is highly effective as the dewy, wounded Enid Baines, the title censor, who works for the British Board of Film Classification. It’s the mid-1980s and decent folks everywhere were afraid of the gore films that had begun infiltrating the home video market, and what their influence might be. Enid’s job is to go through these “Video Nasties” frame by frame and edit out anything that could be considered morally corrupting. While viewing one film, she becomes alarmed by a story of two sisters that mirrors her own life, and the day her own sister went missing. (Despite all evidence to the contrary, Enid believes her sister is still alive.) So, she tracks down the film’s director, Frederick North (Adrian Schiller), to find answers. Instead, she enters a world of nightmares.
Director Bailey-Bond, whose feature directing debut this is, really sinks into the forbidden world of those old VHS chillers, changing her aspect ratio and using fuzzy FX and stark, bold lighting to suggest menace as well as an increasingly slippery grasp of reality.
Stream it on Shudder
Anchor Bay Entertainment
It’s just not Halloween without John Carpenter’s innovative and startling masterpiece Halloween (1978), or at least without a blast from the legendary synthesizer score he composed himself (in, apparently, three days). Carpenter’s sinister widescreen cinematography takes advantage of the straight-cut suburban landscape, using tall shrubbery or clotheslines as deceptions, and its concept of a killer of pure, simple evil—known as “The Shape” as well as Michael Myers—still strikes a dark chord. It’s a movie that deals in absolutes, and it’s still terrifying.
Jamie Lee Curtis is the iconic “final girl” Laurie Strode, who is stuck babysitting on Halloween night. P.J. Soles is the flirty Lynda, and Nancy Kyes is the no-nonsense Annie, Laurie’s best friends. Donald Pleasence is Dr. Loomis, full of foreboding. Shudder subscribers have the option to program their own triple feature, including Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) and Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989), both of which feature Pleasence again as well as introducing young Danielle Harris, a series favorite, who plays Laurie’s daughter Jamie, stalked by a newly re-awakened Myers.
It and It Chapter Two
Stream It on Netflix or HBO Max; It Chapter Two is on HBO Max
Perhaps Stephen King’s best novel, the mammoth 1,000-plus-page It was adapted into a passable 1990 TV miniseries, but it was years before anyone would attempt to bring it to the big screen. Director Andy Muschietti (Mama) pulled it off in epic style with two films: It (2017) and It Chapter Two (2019), together running slightly more than five hours. The first film retains an intimate small-town feel, moving along in small episodes, rather than broad strokes. (Many compared it to TV’s Stranger Things, both of which starred Finn Wolfhard.)
As it begins, little Georgie runs into the sinister clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, so chilling it’s no joke) while chasing his paper boat down the gutter. From there, Georgie’s brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) and his misfit friends—including foul-mouthed Richie (Wolfhard) and tomboy Beverly (Sophia Lillis)—must face the terrifying entity. The second film is set 27 years later as the grown-ups (including Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, and Bill Hader) re-assemble to fulfill their pact to face Pennywise once and for all. It Chapter Two is chunkier, less streamlined, and less scary, but it offers a satisfying ending to a whopper of a tale.
Stream it on Netflix
Another of the finest horror movies of the last decade, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2015) contains a simple, terrifyingly primal idea. A pretty, young, blonde teen, Jay Height (Maika Monroe) decides to sleep with a boy she likes; when she does, he informs her that he has passed something on to her. There’s a force, a thing, that walks toward you. It never speaks, never runs, and it can look like anything. You do not want it to touch you, and the only way to get rid of it is to sleep with someone else and pass it on.
The “following” theme is right out of nightmares, but coupled with the complex concept of sexual awakening, it becomes something more. (It dissipates the myth of the “magical” first encounter, making it more about strategy than desire.) Mitchell has clearly been inspired by John Carpenter (especially Halloween and The Thing), employing expertly staged widescreen frames and natural locations (no shaky cam), as well as a deeply unsettling score by Disasterpiece, which gets right to work on your nerves.
Amazon Prime Video
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Filmmaker Edgar Wright takes a step away from his wonderful, winking, cinema-love comedies and further into the darkness with Last Night in Soho (2021), a movie so beautiful and brutal that it practically bleeds. Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie), who is obsessed with the 1960s, has just been accepted to a fashion school in London, though there’s some concern that the big city may be too much for her fragile mental health. She secures a charming old apartment, and, upon falling asleep, finds herself transported to 1965 (greeted by a giant Thunderball movie marquee), and seemingly occupying the body of promising nightclub singer Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). Sandie’s chic look inspires Ellie, and it’s like a dream. She can’t wait to return.
Unfortunately, Sandie meets Jack (Matt Smith), and her climb to the top goes sideways. Meanwhile, images and even full-on ghosts begin to appear to Ellie in the waking world. The movie heads fearlessly into openly shocking territory, including one sequence in which Ellie’s friendly classmate John (Michael Ajao) takes her to a Halloween dance. It’s a film that’s alive and breathing, intoxicated with all the possibilities of pleasure and beauty and pain and despair. Diana Rigg made her final film appearance as Ellie’s landlady.
Stream it on the Criterion Channel
De Laurentiis Entertainment Group
The great filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow made her solo directing debut with this vampire film, a film that also never uses the word “vampire.” Near Dark (1987) came out a few months after The Lost Boys, and it features a similar setup: an innocent local boy is seduced by a pretty girl into a gang of vampires. While The Lost Boys was popular and vacant, Near Dark is grimy and tragic, digging into the lore with a steel hook and hanging on.
In the kind of small town where people wear cowboy gear, Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) is enchanted by the shy, dewy Mae (Jenny Wright). He keeps her out until just before sunrise, and, despite her protests, tries to keep her longer, so she bites him. Next thing he knows, he’s traveling in a big RV (with tinfoil over the windows to keep out the sunlight), with her “family:” gravel-voiced leader Jesse (Lance Henriksen), psycho-killer Severen (Bill Paxton), steely-eyed Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), and Homer (Joshua Miller), the latter an aged vampire stuck in a young boy’s body.
Caleb must feed to become a “real” vampire, and his hunger is growing. Bigelow crafts a truly unique film here, using the blazing (literally burning) sunlight, dingy bars, and the cast’s oily wardrobe to create potent, visceral feel.
Prince of Darkness
Stream it on the Criterion Channel
One of John Carpenter’s stranger films, but made during his great creative plateau, 1976 to 1988, Prince of Darkness (1987) was an independent production, giving the filmmaker more control than usual. A priest (Donald Pleasence) and several quantum physics academics gather in a monastery to investigate a cylinder full of green goo and discover it to be the physical essence of Satan. As they dig deeper, some of them become possessed, and an army of homeless people (rock star Alice Cooper is one) are seemingly drawn toward the cylinder, and gather outside the building. Eventually the Anti-God itself materializes and must be stopped.
Carpenter’s skillful touch is on full display here, from his use of space within his widescreen frame, to the awesome music score composed by himself and Alan Howarth, to the nightmare-inducing ending. Some critics theorized that the movie was a commentary on the AIDS crisis, which was rampaging the country at the time. Victor Wong and Dennis Dun (both from Carpenter’s previous film Big Trouble in Little China) co-star, along with Jameson Parker, Lisa Blount, and Susan Blanchard. Carpenter has called it the second of his “Apocalypse Trilogy,” which also includes The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness.
This incredible horror film popped up at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival, but, due to COVID-19 didn’t arrive in U.S. theaters until January of 2021. Saint Maud (2021) is the feature writing and directing debut of Rose Glass, from the UK, and it’s one of the great portraits of obsession from an interior point of view. It’s perhaps close to something along the lines of Polanski’s Repulsion, but rather than a moral tale, it’s a searing indictment of religious fervor.
After failing to save a patient with CPR, a nurse has changed her name to Maud (Morfydd Clark), become deeply Catholic, and works as a palliative care nurse. Her current patient is Amanda Köhl (Jennifer Ehle), a noted American dancer and choreographer. After a seeming moment of connection, Maud becomes determined to convert Amanda before she passes. What follows are moments of Maud being humiliated, while desperately searching for signs or help from God to show her the way. The movie eerily reflects her state of mind with its confident, unwavering tone, teetering just on the edge of realism, drawn toward nightmarish longing.
Stream it on Criterion Channel or HBO Max
David Cronenberg is a singular voice in horror movies, even though he hates being called a “horror director.” His films are always rooted in some physical, bodily experience, something to do with how the human makeup reacts with its environment, or with a particular stimulus. Though The Brood (1979) was a grindhouse/drive-in classic and Videodrome (1983) is now a critic’s darling, Scanners (1981) came in-between and seems slightly underrated. (Although it is long remembered for its astounding exploding-head sequence.)
A man named Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) discovers he is a scanner. He is captured by men in suits, given a drug to quiet the voices in his head, and recruited to stop an evil scanner (Michael Ironside) from forming a scanner army and taking over the world. As always, Cronenberg’s approach is curious and scientific, with clean, simple framing and use of man-made spaces; this low-budget film still looks great. Howard Shore provided the eerie, throbbing music score.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Stream it on Netflix
Based on a 1981 children’s book, a collection of little urban legends by Alvin Schwartz with horrific illustrations by Stephen Gammell, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) takes place on and around Halloween, 1968, when horror-loving outcast Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) and her two misfit best friends, Augie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur), discover a book that once belonged to Sarah Bellows, who is now said to be a ghost who makes children disappear. Lo and behold, Sella’s friends also begin disappearing.
Co-written by Guillermo del Toro and directed by Norwegian director Andre Ovredal (Trollhunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe), the movie perfectly uses its time period, both socially and politically, to paint an unsettling atmosphere, and the movie’s use of space, especially inside a haunted house, a creepy hospital, and in a cornfield, create genuine surprises and shocks. Its innovative monster designs are also guaranteed to raise the hairs on your neck.
This unique entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a one-off special, a single 53-minute movie featuring a character that first appeared in comics form in 1972 and another character from the early 1970s who shall remain nameless (it’s a surprise). A stylish tribute to monster movies of old, Werewolf by Night (2022) is presented (mostly) in black-and-white and is shot largely on a gorgeous studio set.
Jack Russell (Gael García Bernal) turns up at some kind of ritual or contest. There are other hunters there. We learn that the goal is to hunt a monster through a garden labyrinth. The winner will earn the coveted Bloodstone, a powerful gem. But Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly), the estranged daughter of the stone’s previous master is also there, and she also wishes to compete. Even so, Jack knows a little something about the monster that no one else knows; plus, he has a little secret of his own—something involving fangs and howling. Quiet and cool, the movie is full of sly surprises and eerie tones. It’s directed by the notable composer Michael Giacchino, whose scores include Spider-Man: No Way Home, The Batman, Lightyear, and many more.
The Wolf Man
Stream it on the Criterion Channel or Peacock Premium
Ten years after Dracula, Universal’s monster factory became more factory-like. George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941) doesn’t have quite the atmospheric or personal touches of the 1930s films, but it’s a little more intense. Lon Chaney Jr. stars as Lawrence Talbot, an American who returns to his ancestral home in Wales for a funeral. He is attacked and bitten by a werewolf.
Chaney, the son of the legendary “master of disguise” silent-era actor, is the reason the movie works. He has a warm, aw-shucks, heart-on-his-sleeve appeal that makes Talbot’s pain and sorrow deeply felt. This is a true curse for him. Bela Lugosi co-stars in a supporting role as a gypsy named “Bela,” and the legendary Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya plays his mother (if horror films were considered for Oscars, she surely would have been nominated). Claude Rains (the star of The Invisible Man) plays Talbot’s estranged father, and Ralph Bellamy (His Girl Friday) is here in one of his usual milquetoast roles.
Jeffrey has been a working film critic for more than 14 years. He first fell in love with the movies at age six while watching "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" and served as staff critic for the San Francisco Examiner from 2000 through 2003.