Classic haunts: Our favorite scary movies available for streaming this Halloween season
These definitive horror films bring back old fears.
By Jeffrey M. Anderson, TechHiveOct 27, 2017 3:00 am PDT
Image: Criterion Collection
Halloween is almost here. Last week we brought you some of the most recent horror films to watch in celebration of the pagan holiday. Now we present the classics, the flicks that have been lying in wait, infinitely patient from the dawn of time to the 1980s. There are monsters here, vampires and werewolves and zombies, in black-and-white and in color. Some are gory, some are funny, and some of them are outright spooky.
Choose wisely, and beware. Happy Halloween!
Dracula (1931) (Shudder)
For the month of October, Shudder has added a selection of six great Universal horror movies. This one started them all off. Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) may not be the most dynamic or terrifying of all horror movies, but it certainly is one of the most atmospheric—and iconic. It was more directly based on a stage play than on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, and as such it can feel a little stiff. But Browning was a true master of the macabre, and he inhabits the material in a way that no other version of this story ever has.
Then there is Bela Lugosi in the title role; it’s not just a performance. Lugosi becomes one with this role, forever cementing his name in the annals of horror. When Lugosi died 25 years later, he was buried in his black cape. German Expressionist Karl Freund provides the gloomy cinematography, and then went on to direct Universal’s The Mummy (1932)—also available on Shudder—the following year.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935) (Shudder)
James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is arguably the best of all the horror movies made at Universal Studios in the 1930s and 1940s. After the enormous success of his Frankenstein (1931)—also on Shudder—Whale was given freedom to do whatever he wanted And he threw every zany, campy, crazy, preposterous, monstrous idea he had into the sequel. Boris Karloff (credited only with his last name) returns as the monster, having miraculously survived the first film. Elsa Lanchester plays the bride, as well as author Mary Shelley in the film’s inspired prologue. Ernest Thesiger is the very campy Doctor Pretorius, who finds Doctor Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and blackmails him into creating another monster.
There are creepy little people in glass jars, a snack on top of a ransacked grave, and the monster’s famous meeting with the blind man. Una O’Connor steals several scenes as the town busybody. Look fast for John Carradine in an early role. See also Whale’s equally crazy The Invisible Man (1933) on Shudder.
The Wolf Man (1941) (Shudder)
Ten years after Dracula, Universal’s monster factory became more factory-like. George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941) doesn’t have quite the atmospheric or personal touches of the 1930s films, but it’s a little more intense. Lon Chaney Jr. stars as Lawrence Talbot, an American who returns to his ancestral home in Wales for a funeral. He is attacked and bitten by a werewolf. Chaney, the son of the legendary “master of disguise” silent-era actor, is the real reason this works. He has a warm, aw-shucks, heart-on-his-sleeve appeal that makes Talbot’s pain and sorrow deeply felt. This is a true curse for him.
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Bela Lugosi co-stars in a supporting role as a gypsy named “Bela,” and the legendary Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya plays his mother (if horror films were considered for Oscars, she surely would have been nominated). Claude Rains (the star of The Invisible Man) plays Talbot’s estranged father, and Ralph Bellamy (His Girl Friday) is here in one of his usual milquetoast roles.
I Walked with a Zombie (FilmStruck)
Hoping to jump on the monster-movie bandwagon, RKO hired the well-read Val Lewton to produce a string of low-budget “B” horror movies, and he came up with nine great ones that weren’t quite what the studio was expecting, but were nonetheless successful. I Walked with a Zombie (1943), directed by Jacques Tourneur, is arguably the best. Loosely based on Jane Eyre, it tells the story of a nurse (Frances Dee) who is hired to look after a sick woman, Jessica (Christine Gordon), on a plantation in the Caribbean. Jessica exists in a kind of “zombie” state, but seems drawn to some of the voodoo rituals on the island, getting up and walking toward them. The movie’s dialogue is surprisingly poetic, but it’s the non-speaking passages that are the most graceful and haunting.
Tom Conway plays Jessica’s husband, with a speech about how death lurks behind anything that’s beautiful, and James Ellison plays his hard-drinking half-brother. Tourneur treats the non-white characters sympathetically, including the wise maid Teresa Harris and Calypso singer Sir Lancelot. Screenwriter Curt Siodmak wrote both this and The Wolf Man.
The Tingler (Shudder)
Horror fans might know the producer/director William Castle for his use of theatrical gimmicks, such as “Emergo,” which consisted of a skeleton being slid on a wire over the audience’s heads. But he could occasionally make a terrific movie, too. The Tingler (1959) may be his masterpiece, and an early example of meta-filmmaking in horror. The legendary Vincent Price—the “rapping” voice on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”—plays Dr. Warren Chapin, a mortician who studies fear. He believes that when people are scared, a creepy-crawly thing forms on their spines, “the tingler,” that can only be destroyed by screaming.
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He tests his theory when he meets the owner of a silent cinema movie theater, Ollie Higgins (Philip Coolidge), and his deaf-mute wife Martha (Judith Evelyn), who can’t scream. Then, he extracts an actual tingler, which gets loose inside the dark movie theater. From there, Castle installed buzzers in some of the seats to make the audience scream and help “destroy” the creature. Even at home, however, this movie is very funny and clever and just a little bit creepy.
Carnival of Souls (Hoopla, Fandor, FilmStruck, Amazon Prime)
This moody classic has fallen into the public domain, but at least some of the streaming services (Fandor and Filmstruck) offer a nicely restored transfer. Director “Herk” Harvey had been a maker of industrial films when he decided to make a horror feature in the style of Ingmar Bergman and Jean Cocteau, and Carnival of Souls (1962) was the result.
Shot in black and white with a sinister, nightmare-inducing, organ-driven music score, it tells the story of Mary (the method-acting-trained Candace Hilligoss), the only survivor of a terrible car crash, who accepts a job as a church organist. She begins seeing things, like a strange ghoul standing outside her car window (while the car is moving) and other freaky things in an abandoned carnival. It’s more of a triumph of nightmare logic than of storytelling, but it’s unsettling and spooky enough to have established a cult following. Even George A. Romero was a fan; it inspired him to make Night of the Living Dead.
Black Sabbath (TubiTV, Shudder, Fandor)
Italian director Mario Bava is not as well known as he should be, but he’s a master filmmaker who helped usher horror into the modern era. Black Sabbath (1963) is one of his earlier efforts, an anthology film that still sends shivers down the spine. (It was titled by distributor AIP in a deliberate effort to recall Bava’s hit Black Sunday from 1960.) Boris Karloff stars as a kind of host to this trilogy of short pieces, and also appears in the second story, “The Wurdalak.” The other segments include “The Drop of Water,” about a nurse hired to prepare a corpse for burial, and “The Telephone,” set entirely in a basement apartment.
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Bava was a pioneer at blending bold, unusual colors to suggest strong emotions; and at least one of these stories still packs a terrifying punch. The famous heavy metal band borrowed its name from this movie. TubiTV offers (free with ads) the American cut, with Karloff’s own singular voice on the soundtrack, while Fandor and Shudder offer the Italian version, which is considered superior. The choice is yours.
Japanese filmmaker Masaki Kobayashi never achieved the fame or acclaim of some of his fellow countrymen, but he did make one heck of a great, beautiful horror anthology with Kwaidan (1964). Nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, it shows a good eye for framing, deep-focus photography, staging, economic cutting, and—most especially—changing of lighting within a single shot.
It features four stories: “The Black Hair” had already been done by Kenji Mizoguchi in his masterpiece Ugetsu; “The Woman of the Snow”—which was cut from the original U.S. release and is now restored—tells the story of a man who encounters a witch, with a particularly spooky scene; “Hoichi the Earless” is the longest and most engaging, running about an hour, about a blind musician who finds himself beckoned to play each night for a group of ghosts; and finally “In a Cup of Tea,” is the best and probably the scariest, where a samurai discovers a smiling face in a dish of water he is about to drink. Toru Takemitsu provides the haunting music score.
Roman Polanski has proved himself a master of stories about paranoia in limited or enclosed spaces, but that theme was never more intensely crystallized than in the black-and-white Repulsion (1965), which, Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown notwithstanding, could be his best work. Catherine Deneuve stars as Carol, a shy, repressed girl who lives with her sister in London. She can’t stand her sister’s lovemaking with her boyfriend and is disgusted when men come on to her.
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When her sister and the boyfriend leave for the weekend, Carol is alone in the apartment, among many horrors of her own making. She leaves a skinned rabbit out to rot, imagines hands coming from the walls, and brutal intruders. Soon, real and imagined violence become intertwined in a sustained, delusional nightmare. Gilbert Taylor’s shadowy, threatening cinematography is essential.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Amazon Prime)
We lost director Tobe Hooper this year, but he left behind a unique body of work, including this, his best-known film, a masterpiece and a cultural landmark. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)—sometimes spelled with “Chain Saw” as two words—thrilled audiences and appalled many others. Some thought it signaled the beginning of a new era, while others believed it foresaw end of the world.
It has lost little of its primal power. A group of young people on a road trip pick up a weird and scary hitchhiker, then run low on gas and find a house in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, the house is occupied by a family of cannibals, including the famous Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen). Hooper uses bright sunlight to achieve a new kind of horror previously achieved by darkness and shadows. The sense of heat and even smell here is palpable. Additionally, his startling use of sound was a revelation at the time; star Marilyn Burns is still considered the greatest screamer in the history of movies.
Young Frankenstein (Netflix)
Not strictly a horror movie, of course, but Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein (1974) is so true to the first three Universal Frankenstein films that it makes perfect Halloween viewing. Brooks used original props created by Ken Strickfaden, shot in black-and-white, and used 1930s transitioning techniques, and the result is probably his best—and certainly his best-looking—film.
Gene Wilder plays Frederick Frankenstein, grandson of the infamous scientist, who distances himself by pronouncing his name “Frawnk-en-STEEN.” When he learns he has inherited his grandfather’s castle, he goes there, discovers his grandfather’s notes, and decides to continue his experiments. (“It could work!” he shouts maniacally.) Unfortunately, the monster is given an abnormal brain and the trouble starts again. Peter Boyle plays the monster, Teri Garr is a cute lab assistant, Marty Feldman is Igor, the hunchback (whose hunch keeps shifting), Madeline Kahn is Frankenstein’s fiancé, Cloris Leachman is the weird housekeeper, and an uncredited Gene Hackman plays the old blind hermit.
Alice Sweet Alice (TubiTV, Amazon Prime)
Alfred Sole’s Alice Sweet Alice (1976) should have catapulted its maker into the annals of horror, but the movie suffered from terrible luck. It was a flop when it was first released as Communion, and then actress Brooke Shields, who, at age 12 is in the movie for about 20 minutes, became a huge star for her blue-jeans ads. So the distributors changed the title and raised Shields’ name above the title, trying this gambit more than once; needless to say, viewers were nonplussed. But Sole’s film, viewed in its restored director’s cut, is an incredible piece of work, a brilliantly sustained, canny use of color, sound, mood, and tension.
There’s a mysterious killer in a yellow raincoat and a creepy, translucent mask, a little girl blamed for the killings, and a rash of very strange, off-kilter characters. Though Shields’ role is small, her angelic presence is important, given that she’s the kindest character in the story. (She’s the soul of the movie.) Enthusiastic critics and filmmakers at the time proclaimed Sole the next Hitchcock or Polanski, but he only made two more films after this.
Suspiria (TubiTV, Hoopla)
Dario Argento is probably the most famous of all the Italian horror directors, and Suspiria (1977) is arguably his masterpiece. (A new 4K restored print is currently making the rounds in theaters.) Picking up where Mario Bava left off, Argento bathes his widescreen film in extremely bold, shocking colors, making everything seem like a vivid, pinwheel, lollipop nightmare. Jessica Harper plays the new girl, Suzy Bannion, at a prestigious German dance academy. Things don’t seem quite right, especially when maggots begin raining down from the ceiling. But that’s only the beginning.
The great Joan Bennett plays the director of the school (it was her last film), and Alida Valli (The Third Man) plays one of the teachers, while cult character actor Udo Kier is on hand as a psychologist. The band Goblin provided the astoundingly unsettling score, often considered to be one of the best horror soundtracks of all time. This was the first of a trilogy for Argento, including Inferno (1980) and Mother of Tears (2007). It’s available on TubiTV, free with ads, or from Hoopla, which is free but requires a library card.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Hulu)
Even though this was a remake of a much-loved 1956 film, Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) is still considered a classic of its time, and one of the director’s best films. It’s also one of the very best films to be shot entirely in San Francisco. The movie is seen as a kind of farewell to the “peace-and-love” generation, and all of the characters, as they try to avoid being turned into alien “pod people,” are slightly disreputable. Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams are health inspectors who find rat droppings in restaurant kitchens. Jeff Goldblum is a paranoid writer, and his wife (Veronica Cartwright) runs a mud-bath health spa. None other than Leonard Nimoy plays a quack psychologist who tries to tell everyone that they’re imagining things.
Kaufman’s city is made of cold, inhuman plastic and metal, juxtaposed with the hideous living green of the pods. Screenwriter W.D. “Rick” Richter brilliantly explains the logic of the pod transformations without revealing the film’s underlying agendas. Look for Don Siegel and Kevin McCarthy, director and actor from the 1956 version, in cameos, as well as Robert Duvall as a priest.
An American Werewolf in London (Amazon Prime, Hulu)
John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1981) was by far the most popular of three major werewolf movies released in 1981, the others being Joe Dante’s equally great The Howling (1981) and Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen. It features then-state-of-the-art makeup and latex effects in a harrowing transformation sequence, so potent that Michael Jackson asked Landis to direct his Thriller video. But at the same time, Landis—who, of course, had also made National Lampoon’s Animal House and The Blues Brothers—employs tongue-in-cheek humor to keep the tone a little lighter than usual.
David Naughton and Griffin Dunne are the Americans, attacked on the moors at night; Dunne is killed but returns as a helpful ghost, and new werewolf Naughton finds things are complicated when he falls in love with a pretty English nurse (Jenny Agutter). Rick Baker won an Oscar for his makeup work. Remember to look for Landis’s trademark use of “See You Next Wednesday,” hidden in all his films.
The Beyond (Vudu)
After Mario Bava and Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci is the third Italian horror master, and likely the goriest of the three. His movie The Beyond (1981) received a theatrical re-release in 1998 when Quentin Tarantino singled it out for his Rolling Thunder distribution wing, and it still packs a great, gory, nightmarish punch. It captures a strong sense of the unreal, helped in large part by the crazy score by Fabio Frizzi.
The story concerns an old New Orleans hotel. Liza (Catriona MacColl) inherits it and decides to fix it up, but weird things keep happening, and people keep dying. Without giving away too much, it turns out that the hotel sits atop one of the doors to hell itself! There are gouged eyeballs and zombies, but also mysterious rooms and secret books; Fulci combines a kind of arty, creepy tone with his shocking, bloody, garish gore effects. Look for the director in two cameos; walking by, reflected in a large mirror, and in a library talking about labor issues and lunch breaks.
David Cronenberg is a singular voice in horror movies, even though he hates being called a “horror director.” His films are always rooted in some kind of physical, bodily experience, something to do with how the human makeup reacts with its environment, or with a particular stimulus. Though The Brood (1979) was a grindhouse/drive-in classic and Videodrome (1983) is now a critic’s darling, Scanners (1981) came in between and seems slightly underrated. (Although everyone does remember it for its astounding exploding-head sequence.)
A man, Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), discovers he is a scanner. He is captured by men in suits, given a drug to quiet the voices in his head, and is recruited to stop an evil scanner (Michael Ironside) from forming a scanner army and taking over the world. As always, Cronenberg’s approach is curious and scientific, with clean, simple framing and use of man-made spaces; this low-budget film still looks great.
Basket Case (Shudder)
Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case (1982) has to be one of the greatest and most astounding movies to ever show in the 42nd Street/grindhouse circuit. Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) wanders around New York City, carrying a wicker basket. (Everyone asks “what’s in the basket?”) He checks into a cheap Times Square hotel, and it is revealed. Inside is his mutated, separated Siamese twin brother, a small, lumpy, but horrible monster named Belial. Everything is fine between the brothers until Duane meets a pretty nurse, and Belial gets jealous.
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Starting with its brilliant title, everything about this low-budget movie just screams sheer pugnaciousness, as if no one was giving up until this hideous vision could be realized. Shot on 16mm, it’s grimy and cheap and might have had the power to offend if it weren’t so much wicked fun. Apparently, the critic Rex Reed called it “the sickest movie ever made,” a quote that was used in the movie’s promotion.
Day of the Dead (Vudu Free, with ads; Shudder)
Along with Tobe Hooper, we also lost the great George A. Romero this year. He was, of course, the father of the modern zombie film, but he was also a great talent; even his non-zombie films are worth seeking out. Here, however, is his third official “Dead” film, Day of the Dead (1985), which was viciously underrated in its day.
It takes place largely in a heavily armored underground military bunker, where trained soldiers uneasily share space with civilians and scientists. There is much arguing. Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) experiments on a zombie called “Bub” (Sherman Howard), attempting to get him to recognize repeated behavior patterns. Romero always has a little something to say about the world in his zombie films, and this time the failings of the humans lead to a full-scale zombie invasion. John Harrison’s synthesizer score is a thing of true beauty and dread.
The Return of the Living Dead (TubiTV, Vudu w/ads)
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 and spunky/spiky 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.
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Linnea Quigley plays one of a gang of punks hanging around a 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. It’s free to stream on Vudu and TubiTV, with ads.
From Beyond (Hoopla, Vudu w/ ads)
Former experimental theater director Stuart Gordon made his feature filmmaking debut in 1985 with the cult classic Re-Animator, based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, and then took on another Lovecraft tale for his follow-up, From Beyond (1986). It proved that he was no fluke, and also that he could be the premiere adaptor of Lovecraft to film.
Dr. Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) works for a scientist (Ted Sorel) who has invented a machine allowing humans to see past our reality. When that scientist is killed during an experiment, Tillinghast is blamed. He desperately tries to convince a doctor (Barbara Crampton) and a detective (Ken Foree) that he is innocent by bringing them back to the lab and showing them the machine. The images of all sorts of strange creatures materializing in the air is memorably creepy and haunting. Yet Gordon always manages a striking combination of wonder and humor, perhaps laughing just a little bit at the awesome, terrifying unnamable of the universe. The movie is available free on Vudu with ads, or through Hoopla, which is free with a library card.
Evil Dead II (Shudder)
In the 1980s, Sam Raimi was one of the horror filmmakers who changed the way the game was played. His The Evil Dead (1983) was a frenetic, terrifying gore-fest unlike anything that anyone had seen at that time, and then his sequel—essentially a remake with a slightly bigger budget—upped the ante. Evil Dead II (1987) is absolutely insane, with moments that could either have viewers giggling or diving under the covers.
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It’s essentially a “cabin in the woods” movie, with several friends, led by Ash (Bruce Campbell) looking for a good time and instead accidentally playing a recording, a reading from the Necronomicon, that unleashes an unspeakable evil. Raimi’s direction is unbelievably swift and smooth, never even stopping to build anything as ridiculous as suspense. It’s almost like a short cartoon, and yet it’s never overwhelming. And Campbell’s deadpan delivery, matched with the seemingly rubber quality of his facial expressions, made him a star. There was another sequel, Army of Darkness (1993), followed, of course, by the current TV series Ash vs Evil Dead.
Hellraiser (Netflix, Hoopla, Hulu, Shudder)
Clive Barker is another pioneer who changed horror in the 1980s. His short-story collections the Books of Blood left horror fans gobsmacked. It wasn’t long before he turned to movies, writing and directing this adaptation of his own 1986 novella The Hellbound Heart. His film Hellraiser (1987) proved that he was as imaginative and spellbinding behind the camera as he was on the page.
There is a puzzle box, and if you solve it, you unleash monsters called the Cenobites. One of these is “Pinhead,” the movie’s most iconic character. A man (Sean Chapman) who has been captured by the Cenobites finds that when his family members accidentally spill blood on the floor of his home, he is restored to life. But he needs more blood to be brought back to normal. Unfortunately, at the same time, his niece (Ashley Laurence) has herself found the puzzle box. Barker’s effort is serious, more inspired by Argento, Bava, and Fulci than by the more humorous or slasher-related efforts of the day, and it’s a powerful debut. But after only two other features (Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions), Barker became disillusioned with the movie business and went back to writing.