This year we decided to focus on free services, either library-based checkout services like Hoopla and Kanopy, or ad-based services like Crackle, Tubi, PlutoTV, et al to help save some bad pennies this season. (We’ll include pay services, too, for subscribers who want to avoid ads.) And we’re doubling the fun with suggestions for disturbing double-features to binge-watch well into the night. So pull the shades, grab some snacks, and hold on tight.
Two black-and-white chillers
Stream on Tubi or Kanopy
In Mario Bava’s masterpiece Black Sunday (1960), a resurrected witch tries to possess her modern-day lookalike (both played by the sensuous, powerful Barbara Steele). Doctor John Richardson tries to help and, of course, falls in love. Bava’s shadowy crypts, tree branches, spiderwebs, and other nightmarish imagery were ahead of their time, and this atmospheric movie is still startingly effective. And for a double feature…
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Stream on PlutoTV
Don Siegel’s powerful, widescreen Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) works largely because of its psychological, primal terrors, i.e. the battle of the individual versus the collective, and the concept of sleep (normally a break and a rest, but here a weakness). Kevin McCarthy stars as the doctor who discovers the plot of the “pod people,” replacing humans with exact, but soulless doubles, and tries to avoid sleeping while warning others. The novel it was based upon, by Jack Finney, has been filmed three more times to date.
Two from the 1970s
Alice, Sweet Alice
Stream on Amazon Prime, Tubi, or Kanopy
Alfred Sole’s Alice, Sweet Alice (1977) is a masterful debut, an off-kilter, unsettling murder mystery/slasher with dots of odd color. It flopped upon its original release (under the title Communion), and then had an unsuccessful history of re-releases after one of its actors, 12 year-old Brooke Shields, became famous as a Calvin Klein jeans model, even though she’s only in about 20 minutes of the film. Thankfully, it has been re-discovered, and deserves to be re-watched. Grab a snack, and then watch…
Stream on Criterion Channel, Kanopy, Tubi, or Dark Matter
David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1977) is like a sleazy second cousin to his more sophisticated movies, but still has the same concerns with body-related horror. Famous porn star Marilyn Chambers (Behind the Green Door, etc.) stars as a woman injured in a motorcycle accident. She’s given experimental plastic surgery, and emerges with a vampiric growth under her armpit that craves human blood. And her victims turn into crazed zombies. It’s definitely gross stuff, but as one of the greatest filmmakers of his time, Cronenberg knows how to build icy scares.
A pair from famous horror authors
Stream on Amazon Prime, Hulu, Shudder, Roku, Hoopla, Tubi, or PlutoTV
Clive Barker’s great Hellraiser (1987) was directed by the author himself after he became a horror sensation with his Books of Blood short story collections. Far darker and more sophisticated than most 1980s horror, the film delved into themes like desire, obsession, and pain. A man, Frank (Sean Chapman), solves a mysterious puzzle box and enters the world of the Cenobites, among them the iconic “Pinhead.” To return to human form, Frank convinces his sister-in-law (with whom he had an affair) to provide fresh blood for him. If your heart can take it, watch…
Stream on Tubi or Shudder
Stuart Gordon (who passed away earlier this year) loosely adapted a story by H.P. Lovecraft (“The Outsider”) for this story of a troubled family (led by Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton) who inherits a huge castle in Italy, not knowing that there’s already a mysterious resident down in the dungeon. It’s a low-budget effort, but spooky and genuinely well-made. Pair these with another Barker (Hellbound: Hellraiser II) or Gordon/Lovecraft (Dagon), also available on free streaming services.
Best of the 1980s
Day of the Dead
Stream on Roku, Tubi, Kanopy, Hoopla, Popcornflix, or HBO Max
George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985) was the third of his legendary, groundbreaking zombie films, with this darker, more anxious story, as humans survive the zombie invasion in an underground military bunker. As usual, Romero uses the intense gore and horror as a backdrop for more thoughtful commentary. Humans argue between science (a zombie called “Bub” is captured and experimented on, in an attempt to re-discover its humanity) and violence (the military wants to rush in and blow everything up). To come down from that gnarly experience, cue up…
Stream on PlutoTV or Amazon Prime
Tom Holland’s Fright Night (1985) tells the more lighthearted, but suspenseful story of a teen, Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), who discovers that his next-door neighbor (Chris Sarandon) is a vampire, but no one will believe him. He turns to TV horror host Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall)—who used to play a vampire hunter in the movies—for help. A remake in much the same spirit was released in 2011.
Stream on Roku, Dark Matter, or Shudder
Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (1981) received a boost to its reputation when it was restored and re-released in theaters by Quentin Tarantino in the late 1990s, and now it’s regarded as a high point of Italian horror. A woman, Liza Merril (Katherine MacColl), inherits an old hotel in New Orleans, and plans to re-open it, little realizing it contains a portal to hell. All kinds of bizarre and terrifying things start to happen, accompanied by Fabio Frizzi’s haunting music score. Finish your pizza, then stream…
Stream on Amazon Prime, Tubi, Kanopy, Shudder, or Popcornflix
Dario Argento’s Phenomena (1985)—at one time known in shortened form as Creepers—stars Jennifer Connelly as a schoolgirl who can somehow communicate with insects. She teams with a forensic entomologist (Donald Pleasence) to try to stop a series of grisly murders. You will never forget the harrowing scene in which Jennifer falls into a pit of writhing maggots. Many other colorful, gory Dario Argento films are available on free streaming services as well, including his legendary Suspiria.
The Exorcist III
Stream on Peacock, Hoopla, Tubi, Shudder, Crackle, PopcornFlix, or PlutoTV
The Exorcist sequels never seem to have much success, especially compared to the classic hit original. But The Exorcist III (1990), directed by the author of the original novel, William Peter Blatty, has risen in esteem in the years since its release. That’s partly thanks to a lead performance by George C. Scott as a police lieutenant investigating a string of murders that resemble those of the “Gemini Killer,” who was executed 15 years earlier, and it’s also thanks to two particular moments that are so scary, they can chill horror lovers to the bone. Once you’ve recovered from the jump scares, stream…
Stir of Echoes
Available on Hulu, Hoopla, Tubi, and PlutoTV
David Koepp’s Stir of Echoes (1999), which he adapted from the excellent novel by Richard Matheson, tells the story of Tom (Kevin Bacon), who is hypnotized by his sister-in-law at a party one night. He begins seeing visions of a teen girl ghost and must help solve the mystery of her death. This spooky, slow-burn movie was unfairly overshadowed by the massive success of The Sixth Sense, but it has gained a following in the years since. Director Koepp and actor Bacon teamed up again this year for You Should Have Left.
Got the shivers yet? Don’t leave now! We have more recommendations.