By Toby Venables @TobyVenables
‘We’d like you to recommend the Top 5 Films for Halloween,’ they said. Great, I said, Top 50 Films for Halloween! I’m all over it! ‘Er, no – that’s top FIVE…’ Ah. That’s more difficult…
There are literally thousands of great horror movies out there – so how do you choose your appropriately themed Halloween/Day of the Dead viewing? Do you select according to the style or tone of the piece – terrifying, funny, classic, thought-provoking, meta? Or do you go by genre of monster – zombie, vampire, werewolf, ghost, slasher? Well, never short of ambition, we’ve attempted both – and blatantly cheated a bit into the bargain…
The Haunting (1963)
Before CGI and green screen, there were films such as this: cleverly wrought pieces that made use of the viewers’ imagination – and turned it against them. The Haunting certainly starts with awesome source material: Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, widely regarded as one of the greatest ghost stories of all time. What director Robert Wise brings to it is the sense of sombre conviction so characteristic of his work (The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, Star Trek: The Movie), turning a simple haunted house plot that could so easily have fallen flat into a disturbing, Hitchockian psychological drama in which paranoia is ramped up, and up, and up. Less is not always more, but in The Haunting, it’s in the empty spaces that your mind finds the worst terrors.
File under: classic / ghosts
A close second: Ghostwatch (1992) – although technically not a movie, this hugely influential TV drama from horrormeister Steve Volk was way ahead of the reality TV/found footage curve, and still terrifies.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
If you like your horror visceral, it doesn’t get much more visceral than this. The film that launched a thousand zombie movies is one that everyone knows, but few have actually watched – but if you haven’t you should, and if you have, this terrifying first film from zombie godfather George A Romero is worth revisiting. The plot needs little explanation, but what might surprise is just how grim this film is – not only in its depiction of zombies devouring flesh, but its shockingly dark conclusion. Low budget, crackly and rough as hell around the edges, this is a startling game changer that punches well above its weight – and that punch will leave a mark.
File under: terrifying / zombies
A close second: Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – OK, so it’s not zombies, but TCM will gnaw you to your bones.
Let the Right One In (2008)
Lots of movies scare, and many more entertain, but relatively few get under your skin and stay there. Let the Right One In tells of Oskar, a bullied 12 year old boy who befriends an odd young girl of the same age – except that she has been 12 for 200 years. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson eschews action and instead creates a sense of creeping dread, wringing every drop of the crushing sadness that was always inherent in the vampire genre but had never been fully tapped. A poignant, bleak tale that will leave you drained and devastated.
File under: thought-provoking / vampires
A close second: Nosferatu (1922) – made in the shadow of an epidemic that wiped out millions and featuring some of the most powerful imagery in cinema, this is where it all began.
Before there was the bigger, flashier Cabin In The Woods, Scream was teaching us ‘the rules’ – and few directors were better placed to do that than Wes ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ Craven. We follow a group of young Americans haunted by past traumas who fall victim to a movie-obsessed killer, and hope their knowledge of the slasher genre will help them survive the night. It’s funny. It’s smart. It’s satirical. But while this horror movie about horror movies is great for the chin-stroking brigade, it also never forgets that it is one itself, delivering a gripping, gory and horrifying slice of the genre even as it is taking delight in carving it up.
File under: meta / slasher
A close second: Oh, go on then… Cabin in the Woods (2012) – more monsters than you can shake a stake at.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Possibly the ultimate Halloween movie, this horror comedy from John ‘Blues Brothers’ Landis has it all. Yes, it is funny – but it is also scary, sexy, has great characters, and some dark, dark, undertones. Picking up a plot that goes all the way back to The Wolf Man (1941) it drops an all-American guy into Old World surroundings, creating a fish-out-of-water piece that works for both sides of the Atlantic. But it also deftly reinterprets familiar material for modern times, dishing up scares that are genuinely terrifying (David’s nightmares are real shockers) and all juxtaposed with a ridiculously upbeat pop soundtrack (basically, every classic song to mention the moon). The special makeup effects – created by horror maestro Rick Baker before the world went digital – were groundbreaking, and stand up to this day.
File under: funny / werewolf
A close second: Dog Soldiers (2002) – hugely entertaining low budget squaddie v moon-howler drama from Neil Marshall. There is no Spoon.