It’s nearly the Eve of All Hallows, and that means it’s time for some spooky stuff. I thought I’d offer up my top 10 favorite horror films for your viewing enjoyment.
I’ll begin with a few honorable mentions, including horror comedies. In no particular order: Sweeney Todd (2007), Halloween (1978), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), The Exorcist (1973), Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995), What We Do in the Shadows (2014), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Young Frankenstein (1974), The Others (2001), and Shaun of the Dead (2004). All of these are pretty good films on their own terms, and you should watch them. But for the following list, I wanted to highlight a few I though were especially worth re-viewing this Halloween.
I generally dislike slashers and body horrors, so you won’t see any of the Saw, Grudge, Hostel, Alien, or Ring series here. My tastes run towards the Gothic, psychological, occult, Lovecraftian, and atmospheric. My list reflects that tendency. I don’t claim it will satisfy everyone. Finally, while I have generally tried to avoid SPOILERS, I think I may have left one or two. So abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
10. Jack Frost (1997)
Admittedly, this is a very bad film. It holds a whopping 7% on Rotten Tomatoes, and I’ve never been able to get through the whole thing myself. But what I have seen makes me esteem Jack Frost as one of the corniest and campiest of horror B-movies. And I adore B-movies, so this one’s gonna stand in for all the crap I could have chosen instead.
The plot is pretty straightforward. A psychopathic serial killer is being transported to death row when his car gets in an accident with a massive container truck full of a biological reagent. He is burned by the acid and seemingly melts away. However, his DNA fuses with the snow and takes on a new form as a Killer Mutant Snowman, hell-bent on terrorizing the community that sentenced him. Hilarity ensues. Complete with over-the-top gore, the very cheapest of special effects, completely maladroit music, a ridiculous sex scene, some of the worst acting you will ever watch, and dad-level one-liners (no, but really), this Christmas-themed whopper of a flop will liven up your Halloween.
9. Les Yeux Sans Visage (1960)
Now on to something actually creepy. This French horror film by Georges Franju is not overly scary, in the sense that it lacks jump scares or the typical fare of, say, slashers or sex-crazed body horrors. But it’s definitely worth seeing, as at times it actually becomes a poignant exploration of power and acceptance. Also, it inspired an eponymous song by Billy Idol.
A mad scientist and his cohort of minions murder young girls in Paris so that he can steal their faces – literally. His daughter Christiane suffers from a terrible facial disfigurement after a motorcycle accident for which he was responsible, and in his guilt, he promises he will graft a new face onto her. Every attempt is unsuccessful. Christiane wanders the halls in an eerie white mask, and we are treated to a gruesome, close-up view of a face transplant. Ultimately, the story examines how men use female bodies as canvasses to represent and expiate their own guilt, especially for violence they have committed against women. It also examines the complicity of other women – the mad doctor’s closest assistant is a lady whom he successful healed after her own scarring accident.
A sensitive, beautiful, and tragic tale with a few disturbing scenes. Worth your time.
8. Repulsion (1965)
One of Roman Polanski’s early greats, Repulsion remains a standard of Psychological Thrillers. It features some of Polanski’s classic sequences and shots: the buskers, the hallway of hands, the decomposing rabbit. The film follows the mental breakdown of a young girl (played by a youthful Catherine Deneuve) on a weekend she spends alone in her apartment in Belgium. That may sound simple, but boy is there a lot going on. Sex, murder, insanity – not to mention painfully tight close-ups in an era when that was considered artistic. Repulsion is definitely one of the strangest and most harrowing films on this list.
7. Jaws (1975)
One of the greatest and most popular horror films ever made. Its instantly recognizable theme is one of the few horror scores to rise to the status of auditory icon. I would argue that it’s Steven Spielberg’s finest and scariest foray into the genre, much better than his trope-heavy Poltergeist (1982). The simplicity of Jaws is what makes it so effective as a nail-biter. There’s a murderous shark, and to hunt it, you have to become ever more isolated – and thus ever more vulnerable.
There are plenty of genuinely scary moments in the film, but I think one of the best is also one of the most understated: the tale of the USS Indianapolis. Here, too, the black magic is all in the simplicity. Quint tells a story. That’s it. But it’s one of the most disturbing stories ever told in a film (and what’s worse, it’s true). While all the cast give fantastic performances, Robert Shaw exceeds his peers by that one scene.
6. Psycho (1960)
I probably could have chosen several of Hitchcock’s films for this list. Some of his thrillers are remarkably good. Particular favorites include Strangers on a Train (1951), Vertigo (1958), and Rope (1948). But as far as frights go, nothing in the prolific director’s oeuvre surpasses his horrific masterpiece, Psycho. Long before M. Nigh Shyamalan attempted (and subsequently wrecked) the art of the twist ending, Psycho showed generations of directors how it was done. Ans like Jaws, Psycho gave us an iconic score, forever associated with an iconic scene.
Psycho was among the first real horror films I saw, one Halloween night many years ago. I’ve loved it ever since.
5. Eraserhead (1977)
David Lynch is one of my favorite directors (I sometimes joke that Twin Peaks is my “second religion”). His first film, Eraserhead, has an affinity with the New Wave horror of Polanski et al. As in Repulsion, we are constantly made to feel the limits of the space the characters inhabit. But Claustrophobia is only one of the fears that Lynch explores. Eraserhead is a great meditation on the terrors that attend some of the most common experiences of life: work, sex, marriage, fatherhood. Jack Nance’s performance as Henry Spencer is riveting as it is tense, and the eerie Lady in the Radiator sequences foreshadow much of what Lynch would later use in his more famous works like Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive. The film also probably wins the award for creepiest baby in cinematic history; even today, Lynch won’t reveal how they made it. If you like surrealism, body horror, or pencils, I recommend this classic for your consideration.
4. The Innocents (1961)
If you like your horror set in creepy old English manor homes, full of candlelight and the creak of ghosts on the stairs, then you’ll certainly love The Innocents. Based on Henry James’s classic novella, The Turn of the Screw, the film follows a governess, played by Deborah Kerr, who is sent to care for two orphans in the English countryside. As time passes, she starts to believe that the children are under the malign influence of ghosts. Is she insane? Or is she battling the forces of the supernatural?
While viewers still debate the meaning of the deeply ambivalent ending, one thing’s for certain; this film is a masterful example of mid-century Gothic horror. Not to be missed.
3. The Wicker Man (1973)
The Wicker Man, strictly speaking, really isn’t all that scary. But it is a very good story all the same, and Christopher Lee puts in a marvelous performance as Lord Summerisle. If you like folk-horror, a subgenre the English do better than anyone, you’ll enjoy this creepy little romp through a murderous, pagan island in Scotland. Arthur Machen would have loved it.
I find it somewhat amusing that Lee, a devout Anglo-Catholic, thought that the film was ultimately a Christian one in suggesting that even nice people can commit horrible acts if they are not within the fold of the Church. Maybe. But what a poor argument for Christianity it is! The protagonist is such an unlikable and censorious prude, and the villagers are such fun-loving heathens, that you end up not caring too much about the Christian policeman’s fate in the final showdown. Alas. I suppose I’m biased, though, as I’ve long thought that Catholics are just baptized pagans anyway. Incidentally, I think the community of Summerisle gives a pretty good picture of what the Benedict Option might look like in practice.
Don’t confuse this classic with the highly memeable 2006 sequel starring the one and only Nicolas Cage. There are creepy masks, but no full-on bear suits in Christopher Lee’s version. And definitely no bees.
2. The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece. Considered in purely artistic terms, there are no better films on this list. It shows what kind of art can happen when a genius director works with a genius actor (Jack Nicholson in one of the best performances of his career). More to our point – the frights are just as potent today as they were in 1980. Unlike a number of other works from the same decade, The Shining has retained its creepiness. It terrified and disturbed me the first time I saw it, and while I mainly pay attention to its formal and aesthetic qualities now, I still jump now and then when I watch it. I will never not find that man in the dog/bear suit (you know the one) absolutely terrifying, and I will never not relish the conversations with Lloyd and Grady with a certain perverse glee.
I could probably go on and on about how great this film is. But why bother? Just watch it yourself. You won’t be disappointed.
1. The VVitch
Horror has gotten much better lately, with genuinely artistic offerings from bold new directors. The Babadook (2014), Goodnight Mommy (2014), It Follows (2014), The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015), The Eyes of My Mother (2016), It Comes at Night (2017), and Get Out (2017), among others, have all renewed the genre. But my favorite among the new horror is The Witch (2016). Genuinely creepy, trope-laden without being clichéd, atmospheric, Gothic, full of painstakingly reproduced sets and costumes from Puritan New England, and written entirely in 17th century English, The Witch represents an enthusiastic return to the old legends of Early Modern witchcraft. And it is beautifully shot. At times, it looks like the film that Goya would produce if he lived in our time. There is a black goat. It will change the way you look at the animals. In short, it is a cinematic triumph for A24, a studio that has proven itself to be one of the leaders of the new horror.
I love The Witch for all those reasons – but also because it presents a world in which Christianity is taken seriously. That rather startling quality has been in short supply among horror films since Terrence Fisher’s Hammer flicks of the 1960’s and 70’s. We see these characters as real, dignified people afflicted by indisputably real forces of the supernatural. In the world of The Witch, the Devil is real and so are his servants.
The film can also be read as a profound meditation on the doctrine of original sin. The ruin of the whole family follows from the pride of the father as we see it at the movie’s start. They are effectively damned as soon as they leave the village. There is perhaps some irony in the fact that the Church of Satan both endorsed and promoted the film. It is the only really Calvinist movie I’ve ever seen; no other has so deftly and deeply explored the Reformed idea of reprobation.
Halloween is naturally a time to seek out a good scare. If you’re looking to do that with a movie, I can think of no better option than The Witch. But you’ll get more than that. The Witch immerses us in a world we can hardly fathom, a world where supernatural evil lurks just behind the treeline and in the pale light of an attic. Dipping into that world can be salutary. After all, maybe it’s a good idea on the Eve of All Hallows – the night before the feasts of the Saints in Heaven and the Holy Souls in Purgatory – to spend some time first meditating on the damned.