Halloween is believed to be a time when the spirits of the dead roam the earth, and so we decorate our homes with macabre items and wear costumes to fool them and scare them away. By extension, it seems like scary movies, with their projection of unholy images and sound, could serve to keep ne'er-do-well ghouls out of our living rooms (and their paws off our popcorn).
Or maybe such movies just give us a fittingly chilling thrill at this most sinister time of the year. Whatever your motivation, we've got 13 (in honor of a witches coven) superb examples of the horror genre that will add some grisly grins to your holiday. Serial killers, murderous dolls, chainsaw-toting psychopaths, demons, monsters, mad scientists, vampires, headless horsemen, ghosts, ghosts in the machine, and—finally—death itself. All are represented for your enjoyment. Scream if you must.
If these films aren't enough to give you the creeps, here are 13 more!
Curse of Chucky (Netflix)
I know it’s hard to believe, but this sixth movie in the Child’s Play slasher series is actually surprisingly well made. (It has an 81 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.) Don Mancini, who wrote the screenplay for the original Child’s Play (1988), takes on directing duties and brings the series back to its roots. Brad Dourif returns as the voice of the killer doll, Chucky, as well as appearing as a human in flashbacks (he used black magic to transfer his soul to the doll). Dourif’s daughter Fiona takes the lead as the wheelchair-bound Nica; Chucky kills Nica’s mom, bringing Nica’s no-good sister (Danielle Bisutti) and her family around, hoping to potentially sell the huge family house that Nica lives in.
The interesting thing about Chucky is that, because he’s magic, he can simply re-appear in any new scenario, and unlike Freddy or Jason, he isn’t particularly tied to a single place or state. Curse of Chucky (2013)—which was, interestingly, released direct-to-video—uses plenty of practical, latex effects, heightening the sense that the horror is actually happening, and not just on a computer screen. Likewise, Mancini’s camera is playful and tricky, without resorting to shaking or brain-dead jump-scares. Bonus: If you’re already familiar with the Chucky universe, the movie offers even more hidden pleasures.
Scream 2 (Netflix)
Arguably one of the best sequels ever made in any genre, Scream 2 (1997) follows its exceedingly clever predecessor, which gave a post-modern spin on the slasher genre; its characters had seen slasher movies and knew the “rules” behind them. This sequel logically takes on the logic of—what else?—sequels, as well as the penchant for “cashing in” on something that has caught the public’s attention. It begins at a movie theater, a screening of the movie-within-a-movie, Stab, which is based on the events of the first Scream. A new killer attacks the patrons, suggesting that watching horror movies in the theater is no longer a safe way to face one’s demons.
The “final girl” of the first movie, Sidney (Neve Campbell), is now at college, along with her fellow survivor Randy (Jamie Kennedy), who is studying film. TV newswoman Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) has published a successful book about the original murders, and bumbling deputy Dewey (David Arquette) returns, as if compelled by the laws of sequels, to continue to protect Sidney from the new attacks. Many new characters appear, in addition to clever cameos and actors featured in the Stab movie. Writer Kevin Williamson attacks the script like fresh meat, building logically on the first, while the late, great director Wes Craven gives the movie his special touch of fluidity and remarkable use of three-dimensional space.
Horror aficionados know that H.P. Lovecraft is one of the great masters of the genre, whose incredible prose popped from the pages of pulp magazines in the 1920s. But for some reason few filmmakers have been able to successfully adapt his tales to film, with the notable exception of Stuart Gordon. A veteran of the Chicago theater scene, Gordon brought four Lovecraft stories to the cinema (and a fifth to television) with his own kind of twisted humor. Lovecraft’s stories are so much about nightmares and imagination, and in his films, Gordon manages to dance around those things, without trying to name the unnamable. His direction is deadpan-surprise, with shocks that inspire laughter.
Re-Animator (1985) was the first of his big-screen attempts, and remains one of my all-time favorite horror films. (Both Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert wrote positive reviews!) Based on the 1922 story “Herbert West: Reanimator,” it tells the story of a brilliant science student, Herbert (Jeffrey Combs), who is fed up with thick-headed professors and intends to move in his own direction. He takes a room with another student, Dan (Bruce Abbott), and begins work re-animating dead tissue. He experiments on a cat, and then on the severed head of a professor (David Gale), who in turn puts the moves on Dan’s beautiful girlfriend (Barbara Crampton). Weirdly, one character is named “Hans Gruber,” a year before Die Hard was released. Composer Richard Band liberally steals music from Psycho, without explanation, but it somehow works! Netflix offers the 86-minute cut, which is actually the director’s preferred version.
Sleepy Hollow (Netflix & Hulu)
I grew up with the Disney-animated version of the Ichabod Crane story, which was in turn based on Washington Irving’s 1820 short story, but Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999) makes it all look rather quaint by comparison. Burton’s movie creates a twisted world, focusing on gnarled trees, elaborate props, and a color scheme largely devoted to blacks and whites, with the occasional dab of red. Johnny Depp plays the nervous, cartoonish Crane, now a policeman sent to the small town to investigate a series of murders. The murders are said to be the handiwork of the Headless Horseman (played by Christopher Walken).
The movie was written by Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven), with help from makeup artist Kevin Yagher, and some uncredited work by playwright Tom Stoppard. Almost by necessity the movie stretches out Washington’s fairly basic story to include a mystery, deception, and various other plot wrinkles. Not all of them feel necessary, especially as the movie reaches its final round, but Burton’s beautiful mythmaking pulls the movie out of the depths of hell. As with much of his best work, he grafts his own personal vision onto the story, including Christina Ricci as one of his ethereal bottle blondes; she could not be more perfect as the object of Crane’s affections, Katrina Van Tassel. The cast also includes Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, and Casper Van Dien, as well as Burton favorites Jeffrey Jones, Martin Landau, Lisa Marie, and Christopher Lee.
Though perhaps better known for his transcendental masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer followed it with a fever-dream-infused piece of horror that remains one of the most beautiful and eerie movies of all time. Based loosely on writings by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Vampyr (1932) tells the story of traveler and occult enthusiast Allan Gray (Julian West), who arrives at a small village, checks into an inn, and goes to bed. An old man suddenly appears in his room, leaving a small envelope with the writing: “To be opened upon my death.” Gray follows the man and enters into a world of weird nightmares, including shadows that move by themselves, a vision of his own funeral (complete with a little window in his coffin), and a climax in a flour mill.
Some of these images have the effect of bad dreams; they can give you pinpricks and make your blood run cold. (In one shot, a pool of light appears on the floor near a door, causing the room to grow darker as the door opens.) The movie is shot in black-and-white and in soft-focus, giving it an ethereal, deliberately nonrealistic look, with ever-shifting romantic and sexual attitudes. Unlike any other horror movie ever made, this 75-minute feature (with very spare dialogue and subtitles) is slow, but weirdly immersive. I’ve seen it many times now. Actor “Julian West” was actually Nicolas de Gunzburg, who financed the movie and was rewarded with its lead role. Cinematographer Rudolph Maté went on to direct the great Hollywood film noir D.O.A. (1950).
Final Destination (Amazon Prime)
This gory item may not have seemed very special when it was first released in 2000, but now that the cycle of five films has finished, it has emerged as something like a bizarre, fascinating experimental horror film, eschewing the genre’s usual rules and going into far more disturbing territory. Final Destination (2000) begins with an amazing setup. A group of students boards a plane bound for a much-anticipated field trip to Paris. But Alex Browning (Devon Sawa) has a vision of the plane exploding, killing everyone on board. Several students (including co-stars Ali Larter and Seann William Scott) flee the plane, and it does indeed blow up. However, since this group was destined to die, death begins coming for them, one by one.
In this movie, death isn’t a guy in a costume or a cloak; it’s simply an unseen force, who prefers to exact its revenge through incredible, Rube Goldberg-type accidents. The film plays around, using gleeful sleight-of-hand as the accidents make their inevitable way toward the victim. (We squeal in anticipation, unable to look away.) Of course, the survivors try to figure out what’s going on, and try to find ways to stop it, but that’s the film’s chilling final message; there’s nothing anyone can do. (But where does that initial vision come from?) The film was co-written by a couple of veterans of TV’s The X-Files, James Wong (who directed) and Glen Morgan, as well as Jeffrey Reddick.
Let the Right One In (Amazon Prime, Hoopla, Shudder)
After a century’s worth of carbon copies of vampire films, Let the Right One In (2008), an import from Sweden, showed up to become one of the greatest films ever made in the bloodsucking genre. Based on a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist and directed by Tomas Alfredson, the movie centers on that part of vampire lore which states that a vampire cannot enter a dwelling unless invited. A strange, 12 year-old boy, Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant, with an odd-shaped helmet of blond hair), is an outcast at school, alone and picked on by bullies. At his apartment complex, on an abandoned, snow-covered set of grim-looking monkey bars, he meets the spooky, lovely Eli (Lina Leandersson), also 12. Except she’s a vampire, and she’s “been 12 for a long time.”
Oskar would like Eli to be his girlfriend, and though she warns him that this is not a good idea, they develop a close relationship. Alfredson takes his time with these setups, emphasizing a chilly mood and a grayish-bluish color scheme, and not using every second of film to nervously advance the plot (one shot has Oskar and his mother simply brushing their teeth). The film uses a minimum of dialogue, and a strikingly minimalistic, muted sound design; a climax in a swimming pool is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen in any vampire movie. An American remake was quickly put into production, but it—Matt Reeves’ Let Me In (2010)—turned out to be every bit as good as its predecessor, although not as quiet.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (Crackle & TubiTV)
Tobe Hooper’s original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) often tops the list of the greatest and/or scariest horror films of all time, while this sequel was produced by exploitation lords Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan at Cannon Films. It took a very different direction from the minimalist, realistic look of the original, going with more gore, more stylized sets, and even dark humor. Even so, taken at face value, it has many amazing things to offer. Not to mention that it gave Hooper another shot behind the camera. Dennis Hopper stars (in the same year as Blue Velvet and Hoosiers) as Lefty, a former Texas Ranger, who has spent a decade trying to solve the murders in the original film.
As the movie begins, Leatherface (Bill Johnson) attacks and kills a couple of drunk teens, leaving Lefty a clue as to where he may be hiding. Caroline Williams co-stars as a DJ who is taken hostage. Eventually everything leads to a showdown in Leatherface’s family’s hideout, a refurbished underground carnival, now decorated like a haunted house with spiderwebs and bones and Christmas lights, and corridors and passages that seem to stretch on forever. Hooper’s weird, small touches, like Leatherface’s little wiggly dance performed just before he strikes, can inspire nightmares. The insane dialogue comes from none other than L.M. Kit Carson, who had also written Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984). Five more Texas Chainsaw movies were released, and more are supposedly on the way.