Film and Television Features

Essential Halloween Horror Films

Halloween has traditionally been a time where I dress up in a poorly made costume, gorge myself with sugary treats, and most importantly, compulsively watch horror films. It’s truly an activity that I meet with a similarly painful anticipation as a child awaiting his presents on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, some view horror as a lesser genre built entirely on exploitation, and while that isn’t completely untrue, it does unfairly discredit a hell of a lot of fun, thoughtful, and artistic films. To those who feel this way, I challenge you to explore all the films on this list as you partake in the festivities of this, the spookiest of seasons.

10. Evil Dead/Evil Dead 2 (1981/1987)- Before he began directing movies about web-slinging superheroes and rediscovering the land of Oz, Sam Raimi made the slap-stick, demonic gore-a-thon, Evil Dead. The first film was made with a shoe-string budget in the winter of 1979. However, the financing of the movie doesn't necessarily impact its overall quality as it features plenty of tense, gruesome scenes with some fantastic acting by horror icon, Bruce Campbell. Although, most of the film’s homemade success can be attributed to the clever ingenuity of Raimi-- who utilized domestic kitchen goods for gore effects and substituted a steadicam with a wooden plank held up by ropes. However, as fun as Evil Dead is, its sequel is much more effective. Now armed with a substantial budget, Raimi spends most of the film's first act successfully remaking the previous film, but with a greater degree of skill and execution. The rest of the film follows a similar black comedy build that culminates in one of the most ridiculous endings in horror movie history.

9. Suspiria (1977)- Director Dario Argento effectively delivers a technicolor nightmare about a German ballet academy haunted by a coven of witches. Suspiria is by no means a well plotted movie, nor does it feature an all-star cast of actors to carry the weak script. However, the flick features an overabundance of genuinely unsettling scenes that are bound to leave its viewers thoroughly frightened, if not horrified. Suspiria also features one of the most interesting soundtracks, courtesy of prog-rock experts, Goblin. The music creeks and whispers as the dizzying camera-work spirals further and further into claustrophobic, tight spaces filled with blood and assorted body parts. If you really want to get scared this Halloween, give it a watch.

8. The Thing (1982)- Director John Carpenter has always stated that his films come from two distinct archetypes-- one where the enemy is an external force of nature, the other where the enemy is within. The Thing is quite literally a story about the latter, but what makes the film truly interesting is its exploration of the overwhelming paranoia that comes with such a situation. Carpenter builds a feeling of impending doom and claustrophobia that never seems to resolve itself, even after the credits role. This movie is also a fantastic piece of eye candy featuring some of the most convincing and gruesome practical effects from Rob Bottin and his crew. All in all, it's a spectacular film to watch on a chilly All Hallow's Eve.

7. The Shining (1980)- A truly masterful story by Stephen King, The Shining was directed by cinema master, Stanley Kubrick. The film follows Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), his wife (Shelley Duvall), and son (Danny Lloyd) who move into a resort that is closed for the winter season. Jack quickly spirals out of control as isolation, familial tension, and evil spirits get the best of him. Both Nicholson's ghoulish performance and Kubrick's off-kilter camera angles work in tandem to make this film a truly frightening experience. Kubrick and Nicholson aside, what could possibly be more unsettling than Danny Lloyd screaming "Red Rum" over and over again? Answer: Nothing, absolutely nothing.

6. Nosferatu (1922)- Nosferatu is a genuinely creepy flick. The plot is mostly a retelling of Bram Stoker's Dracula, but even without that macabre context, the film immediately puts viewers off with its cigarette burnt, black and white footage and absent sound. Max Shreck delivers a truly unnerving performance-- convincing enough to leave some viewers wondering whether he was actually a creature of the night. The film itself leaves most of the fear to stew inside the audience without a proper catharsis. Not even the sun-scorched death of Count Orlock can cleanse movie-goers of such heavy suspense. Instead of burning up or incurring some sort of mortal harm, Orlock rather fades away as if he could reappear in your bedroom later that night. A truly chilling notion that stays with you long after the film passes its final frames and expires.

5. Frankenstein (1931)- Honestly, the universal horror movies are so integral to the Halloween season that they could have occupied at least five spots on this list. However, for variation's sake I chose probably the best one of the bunch, Frankenstein. James Whale's 1931 adaptation of Mary Shelley's tale of a creature stitched together and reanimated by the cruel curiosity of man is both haunting and elegant . The film features some pretty spectacular shots and one of the most compelling performances from Boris Karloff. Karloff manages to suffuse the monster with such a strange humanity and vulnerability that the audience can't help but sympathize with him. It's a frightening film, not just because of the appearance of the hulking, grotesque Frankenstein, but because it reveals that our own innate flaws aren't much different from the monster's-- that we are both brutal, yet beautiful creatures struggling to find equilibrium in an increasingly turbulent world.

4. Psycho (1960)- Psycho is quite literally the mother of modern horror. With its skewed camera angles, unsuspecting victims, and knife wielding killer, this film effectively broke the ground that future slasher movies built themselves upon. Anthony Perkins delivers a truly stand-out performance as the disturbed Norman Bates, coming off both unsettling and well-meaning at once. Hitchcock is absolutely at his macabre best in this film, establishing multiple layers of tension, interweaving plot lines, and memorable characters. You also got to admire a director willing to kill off his lead actress, Janet Leigh, after over half an hour of misleading character development-- in a sexy shower scene no less!

3. Trick 'r Treat (2008)- Trick ‘r Treat is a nostalgic love-letter to both the anthology horror comics of yesteryear (Tales From The Crypt, Creepy, Eerie) and the Halloween season itself. The film features five interweaving tales of terror that disregard any concept of chronology, kind of like a horror version of Pulp Fiction. These stories are all bound together by one recurring character, Sam, who essentially acts as the playful spirit of Halloween-- here to ensure that the holiday’s traditions are upheld and respected by all. As far as content goes, this film has everything-- psycho-killers, creatures of the night, zombie kids, it’s even got a Halloween scrooge! The flick also has a pretty star-studded cast, featuring memorable roles played by Brian Cox, Anna Paquin, and Dylan Baker. Although it received a studio budget from Warner Bros, the film unfortunately never received a theatrical release and was shelved for years. However, it has found a cult status on home-video and is available in a variety of formats for your viewing pleasure.

2. Night of The Living Dead (1968)- I could literally make an entire list of great zombie films, and even while writing up this list I was tempted to add in films like White Zombie, Dawn Of The Dead, and 28 Days later. However, there is one film to which all of those flicks owe a substantial debt, George A. Romero's Night Of The Living Dead. The film follows a group of survivors who retreat to a nearby house and struggle to not only survive against the living dead, but their own human conflicts as well. Even better than the plot is the general feel of the movie-- the omnipresent sounds of moaning zombies, disquieting creeks of the dilapidated house, and the unshakable feeling of helplessness and dread that permeates through every scene. It's a timeless classic that will live on longer than its undead inhabitants.

1. Halloween (1978)- It's just not Halloween without the annual viewing of John Carpenter's influential slasher classic. While Psycho is technically the first slasher movie, Halloween is where the genre is truly defined and perfected. Unlike the droves of knock-offs that proceeded it, Halloween manages to both shock and terrify audiences without the overwhelming use of blood, guts, and other gimmicks. And while we may also know the names of many of film's famous masked killers, none can match the monolithically frightening presence of evil incarnate, Michael Myers. The flick also features a stellar performance from Donald Pleasance as Dr. Sam Loomis-- the caretaker of Myers, hell bent on keeping the psychotic killer locked away and sedated for eternity. The role is essentially that of the "I told you so" guy, but Pleasance really works the part for all its worth-- coming off as truly driven and sometimes unpredictable. This is also the first appearance of then newcomer Jamie Lee Curtis (daughter of Psycho's Janet Leigh!) as the scream queen herself, Laurie Strode. While at times the character does get the typical exploitation treatment that female leads face in the horror genre, she does have plenty of moments as a strong, empowered woman, reluctant to be victimized and entirely willing to fight for her survival. To sum it up, Halloween is simply a must-watch film for the season.