“What’s a good scary movie?” is a question that used to be asked around the nation’s video stores, especially at this time of year: Halloween. Following up on last week’s list of classic horror films, here are 13 more modern horror movies.
There are no old-fashioned spooks here—the gloves are off now. Anything’s possible with this collection of movies that run the gamut from insanity to killers, cults, haunted corpses, weird dimensions, and more. Light your jack o’lantern, pop some popcorn, and grab an extra pair of pants, because these movies are guaranteed to scare the crap out of you.
In the Mouth of Madness
(Vudu free w/ads)
A few of director John Carpenter’s films are justly recognized as masterpieces today, but many more of his films are waiting to be re-evaluated, especially In the Mouth of Madness (1995). One of a handful of movies in the 1990s that started to peel back the curtain on horror, this film tells the story of insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) who is sent to look for missing horror author Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), and winds up in a fictional town from one of Cane’s books; he finds he must prevent Cane’s latest novel from ever seeing the light of day.
The movie is narrated from an insane asylum, and the movie itself is decorated with insanity, crazy designs, colors, and spaces filling the frame as Trent’s hold on reality slips away. Julie Carmen, Charlton Heston, and David Warner co-star; and of course, Carpenter co-composed the score.
This great film, written by Kevin Williamson and directed by Wes Craven, not only re-invigorated Craven’s career as a horror master, but it also kickstarted the entire horror genre, making it a box-office contender once again. The simple, yet brilliant idea behind Scream (1996) is that it’s set in a world where horror movies exist and characters can learn from the mistakes of their fictional predecessors.
And yet, surprises still await in the form of a new masked slasher (and it’s worth seeing more than once). Drew Barrymore stars in the movie’s opener, quizzed on her favorite scary movies by an unknown caller, and then David Arquette, Courteney Cox, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Skeet Ulrich, and Neve Campbell as “final girl” Sidney Prescott, take over. The equally good Scream 2 (1997) is also available on Netflix, for a razor-sharp double-feature.
(Amazon Prime, TubiTV, Vudu free w/ ads, Roku)
John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps (2001) attempted to modernize the idea of the teenage werewolf, making it more nuanced and carnal. The Fitzgerald sisters are freaks and outcasts who love to stage bloody tableaus of carnage and photograph them. Older sister Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) gets her first period and is then bitten by a werewolf. So, paired with the changes already happening in her body, she must contend with new changes that include extra body hair (and a tail!).
She also becomes more and more alienated from her younger sister Brigitte (Emily Perkins); Brigitte begins hanging around with a drug dealer, Sam (Kris Lemche), who may have an idea for a cure. The movie’s climax takes place on Halloween night—and Fawcett perfectly captures a crisp, autumn feeling—making it perfect seasonal viewing.
The Midnight Meat Train
(Amazon Prime, Hulu)
Based on a creepy tale from Clive Barker’s original Books of Blood, Ryuhei Kitamura’s The Midnight Meat Train (2008)—certainly one of the greatest titles in horror history—is a gory treat. A pre-Hangover Bradley Cooper stars as Leon Kaufman, a photographer with artistic ambitions. Encouraged by gallery Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields), he ventures deep into the subways to find grittier shots. He witnesses a mugging, and then stumbles upon the trail of a killer called Mahogany (Vinnie Jones), who regularly murders riders of the late-night trains and whisks their bodies away to who knows where.
The setup is simple enough, but this movie goes farther than most others like it, culminating in a shot of a man watching his own murder reflected in a pool of blood. Even the characters, including Leslie Bibb as Leon’s girlfriend, are uncommonly interested and well-developed. [Note: watch this in a double-bill with Alice, Sweet Alice (1976), Brooke Shields’s first film, also on Amazon Prime.]
Six years after creating the gory Saw series, writer Leigh Whannell and director James Wan re-teamed for this more old-fashioned, intensely spooky deep dive into the haunted house genre. Insidious (2011) stars Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne as Josh and Renai Lambert, parents of little Dalton (Ty Simpkins). When the family begins seeing things, they move out of their “haunted” house, but it turns out that Dalton is the one who’s haunted. Josh must take a trip into the terrifying realm known as “The Further” to save him.
Director Wan develops a unique use of space, using shadows, the unseen, and sound, rather than overt gore, to create his scares. Lin Shaye is amazing as medium Elise Rainier, traveling with her comical ghost-hunter partners Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson); these lovable characters returned in several sequels. Barbara Hershey co-stars as Dalton’s grandmother.
Hell House LLC
(Shudder, Amazon Prime, TubiTV)
Another movie perfect for October, Stephen Cognetti’s Hell House LLC (2016) is yet another “found footage” horror movie. But this one appropriately takes place as a group of young people set up their annual Halloween haunted house in a sinister, abandoned old hotel. It opens on Halloween night, as something goes horribly wrong, something so terrible that shocked survivors don’t even want to talk about it, and then flashes back to the weeks before. 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), and Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire (2019) are available exclusively on Shudder.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe
This frightening, atmospheric chiller features just three main characters, and it takes place almost entirely in a basement-level morgue, accessible only by a rattletrap elevator (what could go wrong?). In The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016), Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) is a veteran coroner, hoping to teach his trade to his son, Austin (Emile Hirsch). Austin wants to go on a date with his girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond), but agrees to stay behind and help his dad pull an all-nighter when a “Jane Doe” shows up; this is the third cast member.
Although Olwen Kelly doesn’t speak or move, she still manages to give an intense “performance,” conveying a strong presence as the mysterious corpse. Norwegian director André Øvredal (Trollhunter, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) beautifully explores the limited space to tell both a touching father-son story and a compact, coy horror story.
(HBO Go, HBO Now)
Indie director David Gordon Green (George Washington, Pineapple Express) had never made a horror film before taking on this 11th movie in the Halloween series, a reboot (and the third movie to feature the basic title). But he jumps right in with energetic fervor and creates the second-best movie in the series.
Like many of the others in the series, Halloween (2018) erases all the events that came before it and begins as a direct sequel to John Carpenter’s 1978 original, set exactly 40 years later. On Halloween night, Michael Myers is scheduled to be transferred to a new facility (don’t these people ever learn?) and escapes. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is now a survivalist with a hidden bunker and many weapons, and Judy Greer is her tormented daughter. Green’s grainy widescreen frame adopts a totally different look and feel from the original, but Carpenter is still here in spirit, creating a great new music score, along with his son Cody Carpenter and co-composer Daniel A. Davies.
Perhaps the best horror movie of 2018 was this debut feature by Ari Aster (whose 2019 Midsommar is also great). Hereditary (2018) focuses on the Graham family, Annie (Toni Collette), her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), son Peter (Alex Wolff), and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), after the death of Annie’s mother. Annie begins seeing strange things and sleepwalking, and, after a tragic accident, Peter does too. A mysterious woman (Ann Dowd) suggests a séance and things get even weirder.
Aster directs this clammy, creeping movie with suggestions of classics like Poltergeist and Rosemary’s Baby, but goes in fresh directions, especially with the alarming sound design; you’ll never hear a simple tongue-click in the same way again. Annie’s elaborate miniature sculptures add to the sense of disorientation, and in the role, Collette gives a great, volcanic, panic-slicked performance. (She deserved, but was not nominated for, an Oscar.)
An unbelievably bizarre, disturbing horror/revenge film slowed down and stretched out like a fever dream, Mandy (2018) is often decorated with gauzy shimmers, scratches of light, that streak across the screen as if we were indeed half asleep. Lumberjack Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) and his beloved Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) live in a remote cabin in the woods. The leader of a sinister religious cult (Linus Roache) spots Mandy and decides to take her. Red is tied up with barbed wire and forced to watch as she is tortured beyond belief. Then, he visits his pal Caruthers (Bill Duke), grabs his trusty crossbow, forges a kind of futuristic steel axelike weapon, and hits the road to take his revenge.
What’s shocking is that director Panos Cosmatos doesn’t milk any of this for thrills or tension. It’s more about creating a mood, a disturbing, distilled visualization of darkness and evil. The brilliant score is by the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who passed away in February of 2018.
Tigers Are Not Afraid
Issa López’s extraordinary Tigers Are Not Afraid (2019) faces a horrifying real-life situation nearly head-on, yet filtered by a thin veneer of the supernatural, so thin that it could only be the imaginations of children. In Mexico, gang violence runs rampant. Estrella (Paola Lara) has been studying fairy tales when violence forces her school to close down; her teacher gives her a piece of chalk that, she says, may grant three wishes. At home, Estrella’s mother seems to have vanished, so she takes up with a squad of young boys—also similarly abandoned—living on a rooftop.
As they seek revenge against the gangsters that have done all this, strange magic enters the picture: Images of fish that have survived an overturned tank by swimming in a puddle; or stalking, ghostly figures. Yet, while the movie remains rooted in hard realism, it chooses not to be shocked by this situation, but rather saddened. In Spanish with English subtitles. (Double feature idea: this, and 1973’s The Spirit of the Beehive, available on the Criterion Channel.)
The Hole in the Ground
Having left her husband, Sarah O’Neill (Seána Kerslake) moves with her young son Chris (James Quinn Markey) to a house on the edge of the woods. She runs into a seemingly crazed neighbor woman who claims that Chris is not her real son. At first, she’s just spooked, but then she begins noticing little things—things only a mother would notice—that aren’t quite right about her son. And, yes, there is an enormous, and very scary, hole in the middle of the woods just behind the house.
An Irish production, The Hole in the Ground (2019) requires quite a bit of heavy-lifting from Kerslake, who is onscreen nearly all the time, and she pulls it off, planting seeds of anxious doubt every step of the way. Lee Cronin directs, making the most of the overcast, chilly atmosphere, as well as the creaking old house (Sarah is constantly trying to fix it up) and the looming woods.
One Cut of the Dead
Shinichirou Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead (2019) is arguably one of the best films of the year, as eye-poppingly fresh and startling as Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films were in the 1980s. It begins as a zombie attacks a young woman, Chinatsu (Yuzuki Akiyama). A voice calls “cut,” and director Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu) berates her for not being scared enough. The film production takes a break, and then real zombies attack, and we realize that everything is happening in one take, without a cut.
After 30 minutes, that film ends, and One Cut of the Dead shifts to the hilarious and amazing behind-the-scenes shoot of this breakneck, bravura production, which itself becomes a lovely and heartwarming story of family. Filled with rich characters and expert performances, this is an absolute must-see even for non-zombie fans. In Japanese with English subtitles.
As a bonus, viewers can log onto Shudder’s free “Shudder TV” service and click on the “Ghoul Log,” which—just like a flickering Christmas Yule Log—shows a candle-lit jack-o-lantern blazing away. There are various settings, each lasting an ad-free hour, and, if you keep an eye on it, strange and unexpected things begin to happen.