Looking for a scary movie to watch this Halloween? Well, you could always start with the classics like Psycho, The Shining or maybe Rosemary’s Baby, but beyond that canonical Valhalla lies plenty of great films for any taste on Halloween. I’ve only just started discovering the range of the genre myself, but below you’ll find picks for anyone: three classics many have seen, three other great horror films a bit farther out and even three terrifying non-horror movies, if zombies and slashers aren’t your thing. Happy Halloween!
1) Halloween (1978)
Halloween’s status as the first real slasher film may be contested (Peeping Tom?), but there’s no denying the importance of John Carpenter’s film in solidifying the sub-genre, so popular in the 80s. And, for me, there’s no denying the power that remains today. Far from a collection of gory kill scenes, Halloween benefits from Carpenter’s masterful pacing and framing, skills he exhibits in other films like Escape from New York and Christine. The cat and mouse game he plays with the viewer, placing the menacing, masked figure of Mike Myers everywhere, is great, old-fashioned horror fun.
2) Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
There are many versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, each one reflecting the paranoia of its day, but my favorite is Don Siegel’s 1956 shocker. Modern viewers may find some of the effects cheesy, but there’s great charm and truly effective thrills in 50s horror films like this one. A precursor to the zombie genre, Body Snatchers shows the terror that could be lurking next door when the dreaded “pod people” begin taking over a small American town. There’s a strong overtone of Cold War paranoia, which only strengths the film’s brand of homegrown fear.
3) American Werewolf in London (1981)
Horror and comedy made fantastic bedfellows in the 80s and nowhere is the combination more perfectly balanced than in John Landis’ American Werewolf in London. The recognizable, cocky American teen here is actually a likeable character and Landis plays up his naivety and cultural condescension for laughs. All this comedy though, does not reduce the power of the film’s memorable setpieces: an outrageous nested dream sequence and one of the best on-screen transformations ever.
1) Maniac (1980)
This is a nasty one. Not for the faint-of-heart, William Lustig’s Maniac features a killer whose mommy issues are perhaps second only to Norman Bates. Critics have made much of the first-person perspective used in films like Halloween to place the audience in the killer’s position, but forced proximity with the title maniac here is truly uncomfortable. In one great touch, Lustig layers the killer’s heavy, labored breathing over the soundtrack. We can’t escape him. Cowriter Joe Spinelli’s performance cements this portrait of a murderer as one of the creepiest.
2) The Descent (2005)
The Descent has a lot of scary elements working for it. If you’re not afraid of the monsters lurking in the dark, the intense claustrophobia of underground caves might get you instead. Neil Marshall’s film follows six women spelunking unknowingly into a nest of bloodthirsty “crawlers,” but he uses the monsters to play off of the memory of a tragedy that befell the women a year earlier. Marshall makes great use of colored flares, flashlights and flames to vary the look of the surroundings and the mood of the ill-fated thrill-seeking expedition.
3) Fright Night (1985)
Like American Werewolf in London, Fright Night knows that laughs and gasps aren’t so different. This year’s remake was solid, but the original has a lot more fun exploring the unlikely pairing of teenager Charlie and the vampire that lives next door. The original also plays up the sexual undertones of the situation to great effect, as the vampire (Chris Sarandon in a fantastic, smarmy performance) seduces Charlie’s girlfriend.
1) Gimme Shelter (1970)
For me, the Maysles Brother’s documentary of the Rolling Stones nightmare at Altamont is scarier than most horror films. With the Hell’s Angels as security and bad acid among the crowd, things quickly got out of control, and the Maysles’ extraordinarily perceptive camera picks up all of the festival’s bad vibes. Watch, for example, the grimaced face of one tripped out fan, expressing the rage that’s just about to boil over. Gimme Shelter shows the true terror of mob mentality and represents the death knell of the free-love 60s.
2) Eraserhead (1977)
Almost any David Lynch film could make this list, but Eraserhead is for me his scariest film. Shot in black and white, the film localizes the main character’s dreary existence and tenuous grip on reality among t he horrible industrial landscapes of a nearly deserted city. Between his smoggy “real-world” and the surreal, demented dream theater behind his radiator, he has no escape. Add a perpetually crying mutant baby (the scariest of all film props?) and you’ve got a movie that’s truly tough to shake.
3) Deliverance (1972)
Deliverance doesn’t have monsters or even demented human slashers. Instead, it pits normal city-dwellers against the elements and against themselves, as they must embrace the dark, cold will to win in order to survive. Director John Boorman renders James Dickey’s novel extremely vivid, thanks to great cinematography from the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond and expert pacing. The film’s notorious central incident, the “squeal like a pig” scene, is a clinic in controlled suspense and inescapable terror.