Written By: Josh Silva and Andrew Francois
Graphic By: Makena Carey
Come October 31, millions repeat the tradition of testing their nerves with scary movies. In the spirit of the season, we recommend some Halloween classics, hidden gems and recent standouts of the horror genre to help potential viewers carry out this ritual.
Dracula (1931): The charming Count, iconically portrayed by Bela Lugiosi, heads to England to stalk his prey in what is one of the most influential horror films ever made. Dracula’s impact as one of the first sound horror films ever is immense, and in the age of jump-scare-reliant and increasingly repetitive horror films, nothing feels more refreshing than a timeless classic. The thrilling story of the Count’s bloodthirsty endeavors keep the viewer in a trance from start to finish, as he works his way from his Romanian castle to Carfax Abbey, terrorizing Dr. Seward’s family and Professor Van Helsing along the way.
Psycho (1960): What new words can be written about Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s pillar of the horror genre? Ironically, its reputation is largely based on the shock it instilled in an unwitting audience, an effect that has since become impossible to recreate. The shower scene, the twist ending and Bernard Hermann’s unmistakable “dun dun, dun-dun” are staples in popular cinema’s lexicon. But knowing the plot beforehand only illuminates the richness of Hitchcock’s craft, which is at its peak in the first hour. Had the film ended on the shot of Marion Crane’s car sinking into the water it may have been Hitchcock’s finest work. Unfortunately, the obligation to execute a resolution undermines the film’s terror. In the final scene, Hitchcock removes the mystique and indulges in his greatest weakness: turning his psychological subtext into text. Regardless, the craft of Psycho has and will continue to echo through the images of innumerable horror films.
Halloween (1978): It’s hard to think of a film that epitomizes Halloween more than, well, Halloween. John Carpenter’s thriller immensely popularized slasher horror, and established a vast number of tropes and clichés that continue to be used in horror films today. For over four decades, the murderous odyssey of Michael Myers through Haddonfield, Illinois has captivated audiences, from his psychopathic beginnings as a killer at the age of six to his stalking of Laurie Strode fifteen years later. Donald Pleasance and Jamie Lee Curtis deliver unforgettable performances, and what’s not to love when Carpenter’s classic piano score kicks in?
The Shining (1980): Though technically not a Halloween film, Stanley Kubrick’s psychological thriller remains perhaps one of the most influential horror films ever made. Any viewer of the Torrance family’s fateful stay at the Overlook Hotel and Jack’s terrifying descent into madness can count on no shortage of familiar visual and auditory tropes; “Redrum” etched by Danny with lipstick on the door, the striking hallway shots of the Grady twins, and of course Jack Nicholson’s iconic axe rampage (“Here’s Johnny!”).
Friday the 13th (1980): Sean Cunningham’s indie slasher flick overtly tried to ride the hype surrounding Halloween (released two years prior) with a similar style killer to Michael Myers and many of the same clichés as Carpenter’s work. The story follows the counselors at Camp Crystal Lake, who are picked off one at a time by an unseen knife murderer. Friday the 13th was, like Halloween, immensely popular, but received much more criticism for its overuse of graphic violence and lack of a substantial plot or characterization, relying far too much on cheap scares and not spending enough time building legitimate suspense. However, a cheap scare can still be an enjoyable one, and Friday the 13th remains a beloved Halloween movie by many.
Ghostbusters (1984): If Carpenter’s Halloween is the quintessential Halloween movie, then Ghostbusters must be a close second. Ivan Reitman’s supernatural comedy blockbuster is not only a fun film to watch, but at the same time is a masterful blend of hilarity, tepid horror and science fiction, and the timeless tale of four professors of the paranormal fighting to keep New York safe from demonic armageddon made a huge splash in popular culture as a whole. Of course, Ray Parker Jr. ‘s theme song alone is reason alone to rewatch the entire movie, if only to savor a few minutes of good old upbeat rock montage.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992): Both the grimmest and most moving film on this list, David Lynch’s prequel to his landmark series was skewered upon its initial release, and it’s easy to see why: its unvarnished depictions of abuse often continue without reprieve for dozens of minutes. Despite featuring supernatural occurrences, the fright comes from confining them to supposedly mundane domesticity. It’s this grounding in concrete emotions which makes it not just a horror film but a profound work of empathy on the part of Lynch. His only problem was that audiences in 1992 wouldn’t give nearly as much of that empathy as he did. But if you give yourself up to his ingenious hand, you’ll be greatly rewarded. By the final scene, you’ll feel as though you’ve lived with the protagonist through her darkest moments and can now bask in light.
Cure (1997): It’s best to view this film with as little prior knowledge as possible. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s horror mystery features no jump scares or creepy monsters lurking in shadows, but the lingering fear it instills is enough to leave one shaken for days. By removing horror’s laziest crutches, Kurosawa lets uncertainty and suspense snowball until the dread is unbearable.
Get Out (2017): The most famous in a long line of horror-as-social-commentary films, Jordan Peele’s Get Out is a masterfully inventive take on a simple premise: a Black man meets the family of his white girlfriend. A balance of horror and comedy, Peele’s strongest tonal choice is that he has his cake while eating it too; the film follows modern horror conventions in order to smuggle in social critique, but does so without any disdain for its genre framing. His tonal synthesis is flawless; the plot scares and entertains on a textual level while provoking thought on a subtextual one.
Hereditary (2018): The quintessential text of the recent “elevated horror” craze, Ari Aster’s Hereditary is about a family haunted by disturbing occurrences in the wake of its matriarch’s passing. Of course what it’s really about is the inescapable rippling of generational trauma, or whatever blurbable drivel Indiewire wrote upon its release. Hereditary is a genuinely–sometimes even outrageously – scary film, yet it seems that for Aster, those scares have no value unless they’re in service of a Deeper Theme. That sophomoric, screenwriting class-inspired self-importance deprives Hereditary of indulging in its campier elements. Still, for those looking to fuel their nightmares, this is probably our list’s most chilling film.