Two from Japan
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In Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999), lonely widower Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is approached by a co-worker with a strange idea: They will hold “auditions” for a non-existent video project, so he can find a new wife. He chooses the beautiful Asami Yamasaki (Eihi Shiina), a dancer who has suffered a career-ending injury. Yamasaki, however, is not who she seems to be. Miike’s masterful film creeps slowly along for more than an hour with no real scares, but still building tension. When the first scare does come, it’s a doozy, and you won’t forget it. Stretch your bones, then get ready to watch…
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In Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s absolutely terrifying Pulse (2001), the focus on technology may be slightly dated, but the frights are not. It begins with a seemingly haunted floppy disc and a conversation with a dead man, and it moves to a mysterious website that asks the question: “Do you want to see a ghost?” Soon, everything is going crazy, and people are sealing their doors with red tape. Kurosawa’s still, steady technique takes into account foregrounds and backgrounds, and generates organic, serious chills. (Beware the inferior 2006 American remake, starring Kristen Bell.)
From the oughts
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Lucky McKee’s amazing May (2002) centers around the lonely, shy title character (Angela Bettis) who starts meeting people after receiving medical attention for her lazy eye. She has short, passionate interactions with Adam (Jeremy Sisto) and Polly (Anna Faris), but then a series of tragic events leads to a kind of horrific break, and a shocking, heartbreaking finale. McKee sets up the elements for his dark fairy tale with striking precision, as well as a strong emotional core. (Bonus: the climax is set on Halloween.) If you’re not claustrophobic, get ready for…
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In Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2006), six young women go spelunking in an unmarked, unmapped cave. Sure enough, there’s something weird and awful down there, but the movie is less focused on monsters and more tuned in to the flaws and fears that already exist within and between the women. The nightmare-inducing cinematography keeps the edges of the screen inky black and only wobbling blobs of light in the center to let us know anyone’s there.
A vampiric duo
Let the Right One In
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Adapted from a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish-language Let the Right One In (2008) tells the story of a 12-year-old boy, Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), the regular target of bullies, who meets Eli (Lina Leandersson). She claims that she’s also 12, “but I’ve been twelve for a long time.” Eventually Oskar learns that she’s a vampire, but the film comes to be about so much more than just bats and bloodsucking. The wintry mood and slow, still, largely silent scenes cast a spell unlike anything in any other horror movie, and the swimming pool climax will haunt your dreams. Take an antacid, then watch…
Let Me In
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There have been many, many remakes of horror movies, but Matt Reeves’s Let Me In (2010) is one of the best, with Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Grace Moretz taking over the roles of Oskar and Eli respectively. It’s certainly less poetic and slightly gorier than Let the Right One In, but it is a surprisingly graceful, intelligent American version.
Two from the 2010s
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Mike Flanagan’s freaky Oculus (2014) is, on the surface, a haunted mirror story, but it’s also a well-drawn psychological study of two siblings (Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites) with a troubled past, as well as a horror structure in which literally any moment could be real or a nightmarish illusion. Throw a sheet over your mirrors before you sit down for…
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Then, David Robert Mitchell’s truly inspired, brilliant It Follows (2015) takes a few cues from John Carpenter with its use of widescreen cinematography and deep background space, but it digs into new ground with its plot. Teen Jay Height (Maika Monroe) decides to sleep with a boy (Jake Weary). Afterward, he tells her that he has passed something on to her. Something is now following her. It can look like anything. It doesn’t run, it only walks, but it also never stops. She must not let it get her, and the only way to get rid of it is to sleep with someone else. And on it goes. Its themes could inspire term papers while its music score by Disasterpiece shatters nerves.
Brainy, off-the-beaten-path indies
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James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence (2014) is about as good as brainy, low-budget sci-fi gets. It centers around eight old friends, perhaps 40-ish in age, who gather for a dinner party. They discuss a comet that has come close to the earth, causing strange effects. The power goes out, and two of the diners walk to a nearby house whose lights are on. They return with some odd artifacts, including photos of themselves seemingly taken that very evening. It soon becomes apparent that the other house is an exact duplicate of this one, though Byrkit uses no visual effects, no battles, and no other sets; it’s all a spooky, mind-bending puzzle with tiny clues that become more important, and realizations that become more and more shocking. Take a deep breath before you stream…
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Tilman Singer’s Luz (2019), from Germany, is easier seen than described. It involves a cabbie, Luz (Luana Velis), who walks into a police station saying strange things. She’s hypnotized and her evening is re-created, and then it just gets all weird. Only 70 minutes long and shot on 16mm film, the movie borrows from early Cronenberg and Argento, but is more intriguingly experimental than anything involving jump-scares.
A couple of ironic meta-horror films
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Wes Craven’s Scream 4 (2011)—his final film before the horror master died in 2015—seemed like a bad idea, coming 11 years after the previous entry and 17 years after the groundbreaking original. But Craven and writer Kevin Williamson managed to bring some fresh vigor to a series that constantly turns around and examines itself. And, with more technology and social media in 2011 than in 2000, the movie has more to work with. Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, and David Arquette bring history to their familiar old roles, and several fresh, young faces fill out the cast. Make sure all your kitchen knives are accounted for, then stream…
Tucker & Dale vs. Evil
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Eli Craig’s gleefully clever Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2011) starts with an old familiar scene from every “cabin in the woods” movie, wherein weekend partiers are hassled by two creepy backwoods rednecks at a gas station. But this time, the rednecks, Dale (Tyler Labine) and Tucker (Alan Tudyk), are really misunderstood nice guys with lots of bad timing and bad luck. Every single move this film makes is surprising, clever, and hilarious.
Pure Halloween movies
Dark Night of the Scarecrow
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Frank De Felitta’s Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) was a TV movie shown just before Halloween, 1981, on CBS, taking advantage of the small screen to conjure up a vivid autumn atmosphere and suggesting scares without actually showing any monsters or gore. It was so popular that it became an annual favorite for years afterward. Developmentally disabled Bubba (Larry Drake) has an innocent friendship with a 10 year-old girl, Marylee (Tonya Crowe), but the local hillbillies, led by Otis P. Hazelrigg (Charles Durning) don’t like it. They murder him while he’s hiding, dressed as a scarecrow. Sure enough, a creepy scarecrow begins knocking off the hillbillies. Finish carving your pumpkin, put the knife in a secure place, and then watch the ultimate Halloween film…
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John Carpenter’s widescreen, Fall-weather masterpiece Halloween (1978) is the king of them all, the official movie of the holiday, with Michael Myers (a.ka. “The Shape”) attacking Haddonfield and poor Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) with his bloody blade. Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) eerily proclaims things like “death has come to your little town” and Carpenter’s iconic score sets the unforgettable tone.