Freelance Contributor, TechHiveOct 28, 2022 3:00 am PDT
Image: Warner Bros.
Prices are high right now. Everyone can agree. If you’re looking to shrink your budget by cancelling some of the streaming services you’re paying for, you needn’t worry that your Halloween season will be entertainment free. We’ve curated a lucky-13 list of spooky movies, ranging from classics to recent films, with a selection of vampires, zombies, demons, and other monsters, all of which are available online at absolutely no cost.
Well, no monetary cost, at least. To stream movies on Kanopy or Hoopla, you’ll need to possess a library card. The other services—Pluto, Tubi, Vudu, et al—are equally free, but you’ll need to put up with advertisements as a trade-off for the free entertainment. Neither hurdle is an onerous burden in exchange for the ability to watch these high-quality films for free. Sweet screams!
Written and directed by Australian-born Jennifer Kent, The Babadook (2014) is one of the best and scariest horror movies of the past decade, given that it’s rooted in unspoken, complex fears surrounding motherhood.
Harried mother Amelia (Essie Davis) has her hands full after the death of her husband on the day their son was born. Now six-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is a difficult child, prone to tantrums and destructive behavior. He even prevents Amelia from sleeping at night, adding to the stress. One day a strange pop-up book suddenly appears in their home, entitled “Mister Babadook” (that nonsense word is an anagram for “a bad book”).
The book starts innocently but becomes more concerning as the events it describes become more terrifying and begins to mirror things happening in real life. Rather than bringing mother and son closer together, it drives them further apart, with Samuel making monster-fighting weapons (he considers himself the man of the house) and Amelia trying in vain to get rid of the infernal thing. The book warns “You can’t get rid of the babadook,” and it may be right, just as once one becomes a parent, one will always be a parent.
Stream it on Tubi
Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2006) begins like many horror movies, with characters venturing into unknown spaces out of a sense of adventure and curiosity. Six women, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Beth (Alex Reid), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), Sam (MyAnna Buring), and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone, of The Magdalene Sisters and Brooklyn), decide to explore an unmarked, unmapped cave. Something strange lurks in the darkness, but the women’s shared histories also cause unexpected friction.
As they get deeper in the cave, the movie plays havoc with our wits by showing only wobbly blobs of light from the spelunkers’ headlamps, barely able to pierce the inky darkness all around them. It creates a visceral sense of claustrophobia, with the knowledge that anything could be lurking anywhere, at any time. Hold on tight.
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Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) was a massive success and launched the famous Universal Monster franchise that is still beloved today. It was based more on a 1924 play than on Bram Stoker’s famous novel, and some say that the film is a little confusing and a little stagey as a result. Additionally, Browning had wanted his regular leading man Lon Chaney for the role of Dracula, but Chaney’s death in 1930 led to the casting of Bela Lugosi, who had played the part on stage. Yet it’s still an effective, iconic movie, which made Lugosi a huge star.
Director Browning was a perfect choice for the material, having dabbled in macabre tales for many years already during the silent era, and he gives the movie a dank, eerie feel, menacing, even when it’s not moving. The cinematography was by the legendary Karl Freund, whose Expressionist work included Metropolis; he’s a major contributor to the film’s atmosphere, and especially the unforgettable shots of Lugosi’s eyes. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) is a highlight, as is the crazy Renfield (Dwight Frye), who eats spiders. Helen Chandler, David Manners, Herbert Bunston, and Frances Dade co-star.
Evil Dead (2013)
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Sony Pictures Releasing
It must not have been an easy task to remake one of the most beloved of all cult horror films, especially with the director and star of the original The Evil Dead (1983) signing their names as producers. But Uruguayan-born filmmaker Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe) did his best, and while he can’t come anywhere near topping or equaling the original, he still turned in an entertaining, ultra-gory film that fans readily accept as part of the series.
Rather than a group of friends heading up to a remote cabin in the woods for a weekend of partying, in Evil Dead (2013) they gather to help Mia (Jane Levy) kick a drug habit. There for support are Mia’s brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), and friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas). They find some unsettling things in the cabin, along with an old book, which, when read, unleashes all sorts of demons. Or are they merely hallucinations in Mia’s feverish mind? The characters and their relationships are kept front and center here, although Alvarez knows when to tip a hat to fans by including images like a chainsaw, a light bulb filling with blood, and a 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88.
Stream it on Tubi
The follow-up to Dracula, James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) is another iconic piece of work, forever branding the made-up face of Boris Karloff as “Frankenstein,” when that’s the name of the scientist, played by Colin Clive, who created the monster (meddling in the affairs of gods and going too far). Whale’s direction was the opposite of Browning’s, tender and curious and sometimes even funny. Whale juxtaposes scenes of idyllic, simple life in the country with sinister, slashing images of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory, with all those buzzing devices doing their unholy duty.
The pivotal scene, with the childlike monster throwing the girl into the lake, thinking it’s the same as throwing in flower petals, is both horrific and heartbreaking. (We know the monster meant no harm.) The doc is the real monster, shrieking “it’s alive! It’s ALIVE!” after the thunderstorm animates his creation, declaring himself the equivalent of God.
Clive gives a great, ferocious performance, while Karloff’s is equally brilliant, learning how to move his new body and trying to navigate his new environment. Mae Clarke plays Frankenstein’s fiancée, and both Edward Van Sloan and Dwight Frye from Dracula return here; Frye plays “Fitz,” a twitching assistant who steals body parts for his boss.
Hell House LLC (2016)
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A perfect movie for October, Stephen Cognetti’s Hell House LLC (2016) is yet another “found footage” horror movie, but, appropriately, it takes place as a group of young people set up their annual Halloween haunted house in a sinister, abandoned old hotel. On Halloween night, something goes horribly wrong. The documentary interviews the shocked survivors, but whatever happened was so terrible that they don’t even want to talk about it. The movie then flashes back to the weeks before, and the process of setting up the scare attraction, with hints of troubles to come. Seasonal, store-bought, rubber atrocities subtly begin to take on supernaturally scary properties as something comes to interfere with the fun.
Cognetti makes fine use of the “found footage” trope, using space and camera position for many wonderful frights. Two pretty good sequels, following investigative teams that go back to the hotel to try to solve the mystery, followed: Hell House LLC II: The Abaddon Hotel (2018) is available on Vudu, Tubi, and Roku for free with ads, and Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire (2019) is available on Vudu, with ads.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors
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New Line Cinema
You’d think that sequels to Wes Craven’s classic A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) would just keep getting worse, especially after the second film became such a laughable disaster (but also a queer cult classic). Somehow A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) has always been just a bit more enjoyable than the typical horror/slasher sequel.
Maybe it’s because the cast includes an appealing young Patricia Arquette as well as the great Laurence Fishburne. Or maybe it’s because of the return of cast members from the original: the iron-jawed John Saxon, the perpetually sleepy Heather Langenkamp, and the campy, nasty Robert Englund. Or maybe it’s because Wes Craven himself helped write the screenplay, alongside Frank Darabont, who would go on to become a highly acclaimed director himself (with The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, etc.). Or maybe it’s because of the unique, gorily cartoonish murder scenes, such as the huge Freddy Krueger snake, or the unforgettable TV scene. (“It’s your big break in TV!”) Maybe it’s even because of the anthemic, cheesy metal theme song, “Dream Warriors” by Dokken. Any way you slice it, this is one of the better examples of 1980s silly slasher cinema.
Stream it on Roku, Hoopla, Tubi, Kanopy, Redbox, Pluto, or Dark Matter
Celebrating its 100th birthday, Nosferatu (1922) is still genuinely unnerving. Director F.W. Murnau decided to tell the story of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and simply changed the names of all the characters. Stoker’s widow sued and tried to have all the prints destroyed, but fortunately she failed. A better film of Dracula has yet to be made. [I’d venture to say that Werner Herzog’s 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre, with Klaus Kinkski in the title role, comes pretty close.–Ed] The vampire is now Count Orlok, played by Max Schreck in rat-like makeup. He’s so creepy that an entire feature film, Shadow of the Vampire (2000), was made on the suggestion that Schreck was a real vampire.
Shots of Orlok’s silhouette, rising from his coffin, or traveling through a mysterious “negative” film exposure still have the power to make the blood run cold. German Expressionist director Murnau was a master of using odd angles, sets, and designs to indirectly suggest emotions. Many fine musical scores have been composed for the film for various DVD releases, and it’s worth searching to find the best one. Additionally, since the film is in the public domain, it’s worth searching for quality source material. (Tubi, and the free library services Hoopla and Kanopy, seem to offer the best ones.)
Stream in on Tubi, Pluto, or Freevee
One of the last decade’s finest and scariest horror films, Mike Flanagan’s Oculus (2013) is about a creepy mirror, not a new thing in horror tales, but this one offers several fresh twists. After having killed his father as a boy, Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is released from an 11-year-stint in an asylum. His sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) immediately asks him to participate in a ritual to destroy the mirror she thinks caused all the trouble. Once in the house, no more rules apply.
The mirror has the power to create illusions, which leads to flashbacks to the children’s homicidal father (Rory Cochran) and hysterical mother (Katee Sackhoff). The flashbacks are meant to be deceptive, folding into reality and into falsehoods, and sending the characters on unhealthy tangents. Unlike in most horror, the vivid, bonded characters emotionally anchor the proceedings; they are smart and attempt to stay one jump ahead of the scares. Yet nothing quite unfolds as it seems like it’s going to. This was Flanagan’s breakthrough feature, and since then he has only further proven himself to be one of the next masters of horror.
Stream it on Tubi, Kanopy, Redbox, PopcornFlix, Plex, or Hoopla
Many horror buffs know about the famous Italian master Dario Argento, but few have probably seen many of his movies outside of his great Suspiria (1977). When this movie was first released in America, it was chopped by some 30 minutes and re-titled Creepers. Since then, it has been restored to its full-length 116-minute version, as well as its original title, Phenomena (1985).
Teenage Jennifer Connelly had been cast in her first movie role in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984), and it’s likely that that connection led to Argento casting her as his heroine Jennifer, a gifted young woman who can talk to insects. Jennifer arrives at an Academy for Girls in the countryside (not unlike the one in Suspiria), where several murders have already taken place, and begins sleepwalking. She discovers the nearby laboratory of a forensic entomologist, John McGregor (Donald Pleasence), and his chimp. Together they begin to figure out the mystery, but not before Jennifer gets herself involved with tons of maggots, a fly attack, and other creepy things.
Argento was more of a master of atmosphere than storytelling, so it takes more than a little suspension of disbelief to get behind all this, but it’s worth it.
The Return of the Living Dead
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George A. Romero’s official zombie movie Day of the Dead and this zom-comedy were both released in the summer of 1985, and this one grossed almost three times as much at the box office. Directed by Dan O’Bannon (a co-writer on Alien), The Return of the Living Dead (1985) is nonetheless a very funny, spunky entertainment. It begins at a medical supply warehouse, where a veteran employee, Frank (James Karen), shows the new kid, Freddy (Thom Mathews), some barrels of government waste, the stuff that apparently caused earlier zombie invasions. Of course, they accidentally open one, and it all begins again.
Linnea Quigley plays one of a gang of punk rockers hanging around a nearby graveyard, a red-haired girl punk called “Trash” who does a memorable dance. The film contains many hilarious lines (“send more cops”) unforgettable images (the zombie half-dog), and a soundtrack full of Halloween-friendly 1980s punk rock songs by The Cramps, Roky Erickson (of The 13th Floor Elevators), The Damned, and T.S.O.L. John A. Russo, co-writer of the original Night of the Living Dead, contributed to the story.
Trick ‘r Treat
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Surprisingly, the cult favorite Trick ‘r Treat (2007) was originally released direct-to-video. It deserved better, and it’s good enough to have become a perennial Halloween watch. An intertwining anthology film, it’s set, of course, on Halloween night. Dylan Baker co-stars in two of the segments, as a straight-arrow dad who puts out a special kind of candy for the neighborhood kids, and then later goes out for a demented night on the town. Anna Paquin stars as an innocent girl going out to party with her more experienced friends; they’re all dressed as fairy tale characters, and Paquin is Red Riding Hood. Brian Cox plays a mean neighborhood man that chases kids away and yells at his neighbors.
Another segment deals with the legend of a school bus full of troubled kids that went over a cliff and into a quarry. And Leslie Bibb appears in a wraparound sequence that explains what happens if you put out the protective Jack-O’-Lantern lights before Halloween night is over. And we can’t forget the much-loved character of “Sam,” a half-adorable, half-creepy pint-sized trick-or-treater. The sly editing slips back and forth between the tales with tricky ease.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair
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This unsettling film is a combination of experimental work, coming-of-age tale, and psychological horror. It’s one of the more unusual of 2022’s scary movies, but one that’s not easy to forget. Directed by non-binary filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun—a feature debut—We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2022) features only two onscreen characters. Teen Casey (Anna Cobb) makes a video for her channel, announcing that she’s going to take a horror challenge. It involves saying that phrase “I want to go to the World’s Fair” three times, pricking one’s finger, and watching a flashing video.
From there, Casey watches videos by others that have taken the same challenge and seem to be suffering nightmarish side-effects. (Many of the videos are by actual YouTube content creators.) She tries to figure out what, if anything, is happening to her. She also receives messages from someone called JLB (Michael J. Rogers), who offers encouragement, but may have some other agenda. Schoenbrun makes fine use of spaces, especially Casey’s attic bedroom, decorated with glow-in-the-dark stars, and crafts a deeply interior film that penetrates and winds its way around the soul.
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.