40 Great Horror Films for the Halloween Season Part 1

Every year, starting on November 1st, I count down the days until October with the prospect of watching non-stop horror movies (inevitably alone, or with my dog). As I patiently await for the next October to arrive, I imagine the films dancing like poisonous sugar plums in the catacombs of my head. I love October, and Halloween, and, obviously, horror flicks. I think they deserve the same critical attention any “serious” film: In some cases for their impeccable craftsmanship–just how, exactly, does Hitchcock make the shower scene so effective? And why is John Carpenter’s original Halloween so terrifying while its myriad ersatz offshoots and sequels aren’t?–and sometimes because they have something more profound to say than just naked girls with big fake heaving boobs being chased around the woods by masked madmen with big knives (not that I don’t enjoy that stuff, too). Constructing a list of my top 40 favorite horror films-was daunting and a little upsetting. A lot of good stuff got left off, whether because I just don’t react to it with as much fervor anymore (say, Dawn of the Dead, which I adored in high school and showed to all my friends) or because I respect it more than I enjoy it (the works of Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton). Some of the movies that landed just outside number 40 include a few Argentos, a Hammer or two, The Cabin in the Woods, Cronenberg’s The Fly, Philip Kauffman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Vampyr, [REC], Fright Night (the real one), and Phantasm.

The rankings aren’t definitive, of course, and maybe I’ll change my mind next Halloween. Or next month. We’re gonna post 10 entries a day for the first 3 days, and five for the last two days, with the top 10 getting more allotted words because, duh, top 10. I wasn’t surprised that the ’70s and ’80s were the decades responsible for more movies on this list than any other decades, but I was surprised at how many movies from the aughts I chose. I’m excited to share these horror flicks with you–it’s like we’re friends!–so please feel free to tell me how dumb my choices are. I would do the same for you.

Now, kiddies, movies 40-31, which are (for whatever reason) more recent than most of the other films on this list.


40. Candyman (1992) directed by Bernard Rose
Making the most of his brooding and sanguineous voice Tony Todd plays the title character, an urban legend that haunts the derelict Chicago ghetto Cabrini-Green. A PhD student (Virginia Madsen) seeks to disprove the existence of Candyman as part of her urban legend thesis, and of course things go horribly awry. Darkly poetic and teeming with political anger, Candyman resembles a slasher film only in passing. Yeah, it has its share of gross, gory moments–a child has his most cherished of parts cut off in a sordid bathroom; a dog is decapitated; many people are gutted–but the violence is an intrinsic part of the film’s operatic style. Anything less than the grotesque would be unbecoming. Rose’s direction is stylish and patient, and Philip Glass’ hypnotic score sustains an air of histrionic dread throughout. This is easily the finest Clive Barker adaptation (and don’t even give me that bullshit about Hellraiser or the insufferable Nightbreed).


39. Drag Me to Hell (2009) directed by Sam Raimi
Returning to his horror roots, Raimi serves up the true spiritual successor to his beloved Evil Dead trilogy (the Evil Dead remake is by no means bad, but it distances itself from Raimi’s classic by smothering any trace of humor with grisly violence). Drag Me To Hell, starring Alison Lohman and Justin Long (maybe the most innocent-looking couple in the history of horror), uses wonderfully horrid CGI for comical hijinks the same way The Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness use horrid practical effects for kicks. Lohman plays a bank teller who turns down an old Gypsy woman for a loan; the Gypsy, in return, curses Lohman, unleashing a scary goat demon. In true Raimi fashion, the film works best when the director mingles the horrific and hilarious (the old woman attacking Lohman in her car). It’s pure Raimi, deranged and maniacally fun, from the opening scene to the closing shot. After the bizarre Spiderman 3 (which, to be fair, does have some brilliant surreal moments–the Emo Peter dance may not belong in a Spiderman flick, but its comedic audacity is some kind of wonderful), Raimi proved that his remains a unique vision. Maybe he’ll come back from the awful Oz with another return to horror?


38. Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) directed by Werner Herzog
Murnau’s silent classic remains one of German cinema’s crowning achievements, with its grainy flickering images haunting the screen like nightmares filtered through a camera obscura. Herzog’s remake is even better: starring the inimitable (and fucking insane) Klaus Kinski, Nosferatu offers a pathological arthouse mood piece more concerned with the tragic loneliness of the vampire than simply depicting him as a verminous monster. Kinski is enthralling, and Herzog’s expressionistic imagery lingers like the smell of smoke. It’s slower than slow and very somber, so drink some caffeine and settle down for a gorgeous masterpiece courtesy of Herr Herzog.


37. The House of the Devil (2009) directed by Ti West
In his breakthrough film, West displays masterful control of visual and aural occurrences. He controls our emotional responses, like a cinematic sorcerer manipulating what we see, what we hear, and what we feel. He seems to have studied the work of one of cinema’s all-time great manipulators, William Friedkin, who always toyed with his audiences without remorse. To give away any of the plot would be sinful, so suffice it to say that Jocelin Donahue evokes a sense of earnest collegiate innocence, and her rapport with perpetual indie favorite Greta Gerwig is plenty convincing. Whereas West’s next two features, The Innkeepers and the horrible The Sacrifice, preyed on preconceived anticipations but completely skimped on characters, The House of the Devil seems to actually like its heroine. At his best, West utilizes an arsenal of old-school tricks–in-camera and practical effects, droning sounds, slow hypnotic zooms that render the quotidian (a pool table in a darkened room) sinister, and well-placed camera seizures–to synthesize a feeling of dread.


36. Let the Right One In (2008) directed by Tomas Alfredson
A young girl (Lina Leandersson, fantastic) with vaguely vampiric qualities moves into an apartment complex in the forlorn winter wonder land of the western Stockholm suburb of Blackeberg, where she befriends a lonely young boy named Oskar (Kare Hedebrant). Soon bodies start to show up, strung up in trees, desiccated, as if processed for consumption. But Oskar’s strange new friend isn’t even the true villain here: the schoolyard bullies, some truly sadistic little bastards, prey on Oskar’s meekness and seem to get off to emotional abuse. Let the Right One In is a lyrical fairy tale in which the monsters don’t just prey on children, they are children. The word “unique” has, sadly, lost most of its poignancy, akin to “awesome,” “literally,” “epic,” etc. But Alfredson, one of our most interesting modern filmmakers–Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is one of the finest films of the last decade, and deserves way more critical attention–truly has a unique vision, and that pool scene (you know the one) is an amazing accomplishment of visual dexterity, acting, sight and sound synchronization, and emotional climax. The remake isn’t bad, but it’s not capital-G Great. This one, the right one, is.


35. Carnival of Souls (1962) directed by Herk Harvey
Impeccably shot and scored, this low-budget indie is the essential shoe-string horror flick (sorry, Blair Witch, but you’re not very good). A young woman (Candance Hilligoss) drives her car off a bridge in the film’s opening moments. After crawling out of the turbid river, she begins to experiences weird visions of a ghastly pale man, and her world gradually begins to grow distant and alien. Filmed over several days, with the director playing the reoccurring nightmare man, Carnival of Souls is wonderfully creepy and admirably economic. The ineluctable organ score is one of my all-time favorites, and proves how essential good music is to sustaining a mood.


34. Re-Animator (1985) directed by Stuart Gordon
How deranged is Re-Animator? A severed head performs oral sex on an unconscious young girl (what I once referred to as “carcass cunnilingus,” to the dismay of my peevish editor). If that’s not your cup of tea, avoid this like Ebola. Jeffrey Combs plays the title character, Herbert West, a crazy science student who conjures a glowing green reagent that brings dead flesh back to life. Of course, the living dead never behave as one would expect, and soon people are dying in all sorts of creative ways (there’s undead penis, too, because Gordon and co. are equal opportunity lunatics). As repulsive as it is hilarious, and Combs is ace as the stoic West. The sequels are fun for fans, though they can’t help but feel redundant.


33. The Exorcist III (1990) directed by William Peter Blatty
From a piece I did on Nightbreed: The Cubal Cut, which is an awful director’s cut of an awful film: “Blatty’s film takes Lieutenant William Kinderman (George C. Scott), a minor character from the original Exorcist (then played by Lee J. Cobb, who died in 1976), and puts him front and center. Kinderman, like the film he’s inhabiting, is serene, smart, and soft-spoken, but prone to sudden outbursts that make the arteries in your neck swell. Kinderman is investigating a series of religious-themed murders that defy rational explanation, and slowly, through episodes of increasingly unnerving reveals, learns that the killings may be rooted in the supernatural. It’s a quiet and slow film, and Blatty strikes the right balance between showing us the horrors dwelling in the dark heart of man and allowing our imaginations to fill in the long pauses with terrors best left unseen. Every shot serves one of two purposes: build suspense, or deliver a gotcha moment, and Blatty handles both with deft confidence.” There’s a now-infamous scene set in a hospital that stands among the great moments of American horror. To say anything would spoil the fun, so I’ll leave you with this: though butchered by money-grubbing studio heads, The Exorcist III is well-crafted, scary, funny, and, until its tacked-on ending, a masterfully-told mystery flick that really truly gets under your skin. Plus it has Brad Dourif, the scariest man alive. The God-awful Exorcist II inevitably sapped the life out of the franchise, rendering this movie a still-birth. But it’s so much better than its non-reputation.


32. Pulse, aka Kairo (2001) directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Pulse may make millennials laugh, with its now-dated depiction of the internet, but for those with the ability to recall the dial-up days, this one is terrifying. The plot is simple but ripe: young Japanese students discover that ghosts may be invading the corporeal world via the internet. Kurosawa frames his shots impeccably, and keeps the pace deliberate, peppering odd, unnerving moments throughout to keep viewers on the proverbial edge of their seats. One early scene in particular is set with unwavering patience and camerawork, the whole expanse of the frame used with assuredness, eventually reaching a horrifying but completely unexpected conclusion. The whole movie is like pulling a Band-Aid off a hairy leg slowly. A long, lonely existential horror film with more to say than most “serious” films. Kurosawa’s disappointing Real(2013) revisits the sinister technology terrain with bland results, and the remake of Pulse sucks, though, as do the sequels.


31. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) directed by Kim Jee-woon
The acclaimed Korean filmmaker responsible for I Saw the Devil (unfortunately being remade for white America) has never topped his breakout film, one of the very few flicks to earn the overused “slow-burn” moniker. A typical ghost story that gradually unfurls into something altogether unknown, Jee-woon’s film crawls at an astonishingly slow pace, which is how it can get up right behind you and tap you on the shoulder without your noticing. The camera ever-so-slowly creeps along, making its way to what we know is something horrible waiting just outside of the frame. Those without patience need not apply; everyone else, bring a date with a strong forearm, cause you’ll be grabbing for it a lot. (I watched this alone on a dark and stormy night while a little tipsy, and at one point I got so freaked out I literally fell out of my chair. I had no forearm to grab, sadly.)

Part One / Part Two / Part Three / Part Four 

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