By Spencer. I don’t do costume parties. When Halloween comes around, the only acceptable form of celebration for me is to dim the lights, raid the bowl full of candy I bought for the trick-or-treaters, and watch a classic horror film or two. I say “classic” because, right now, mainstream horror flicks are in the biggest rut we’ve ever seen. In the past fifteen years or so—really ever since Wes Craven brought the genre back from the dead with Scream—horror movies have devolved into a pastiche of terrible cliches. From the torture porn of Saw to the shaky cam “found footage” pictures that come out seemingly every week, it doesn’t feel like Hollywood is trying anymore. Horror is there just to make a quick buck, with films done fast and cheap and according to a formula that guarantees several dozen jump-from-your-seat moments and not a second of genuine fear.
So this Halloween, forget the theaters. The best horror movies are the ones playing at home: The Exorcist, The Shining, Halloween, Night Of The Living Dead, Carrie, even the original black-and-white Frankenstein. You don’t need me to tell you about those. Instead, I’ll give you some less conventional picks you can stream from the darkness—and safety—of your own couch.
Freaks (1932): If you enjoyed the last season of American Horror Story, then it’s high time you appreciate the source material. The ending of Freaks was so scary that it had to be edited down to even make it suitable for theaters. (Sadly, that missing footage is likely lost forever). The movie is a window into the lives of a variety of circus freaks—played by real-life sideshow performers—but of course by the end, it’s we, the normal people who turn out to be the real “freaks.” Directed by Tod Browning, just one year off his success with the original Bela Lugosi version of Dracula, it’s stylish, inventive, and like the best horror movies, a window into society’s flaws. Some view the film as exploitative of its performers, but that’s kind of the point—the voyeurism of watching turns us, the viewers, into monsters.
The Night Of The Hunter (1955): A failure in its time, The Night Of The Hunter has since come to be revered by some of our greatest directors, from Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malick to the Coen Brothers and David Lynch. It stars Robert Mitchum, even creepier here than in his iconic performance in Cape Fear, as a preacher turned serial killer who stalks two young children. Robert Mitchum is ruthless, and for once, he’s in a film that’s just as ruthless as he is. Directors and critics hail The Night Of The Hunter for its shadowy, Expressionistic visuals, captured by actor-turned-director Charles Laughton in his sole outing behind the camera. The scene of a dead body underwater is the stuff of nightmares, and the nighttime sets as the children go on the run seem like something out of a fantasy world. For a horror movie, there’s real beauty in it.
The Haunting (1963): If haunted house movies are a dime a dozen, The Haunting is worth a few hundred bucks. A lot of films scare you with what they show, but The Haunting scares you with what it doesn’t show—menacing sounds and the laughter of children heard behind closed doors, walls pulsing under the power of some unseen malevolent force, an invisible hand clutching your hand in the night. It’s as much a psychological thriller as a horror flick, since the real tension of the movie comes from how its characters react to the ceaseless strain of staying in this mansion, night after night, the spirits teasing them. Their imaginations, like ours, run wild. And isn’t that scarier than anything a special effects wizard can muster up?
Repulsion (1965): Repulsion certainly isn’t a conventional horror movie (if you can even call it that). The scariest moments aren’t seen through the eyes of the victim; they’re in the mind of the killer. The second film from director Roman Polanski, it stars Catherine Deneuve as a London woman who is slowly, for no discernible reason, losing her mind. She recoils from the world bit by bit, wasting away in a Kensington flat, until the wrong kind of visitor shows up. The horror elements happen in her nightly hallucinations, which Polanski stages like a Salvador Dali home invasion. And it’s the lack of explanation for her psychosis that makes it so chilling. A beautiful woman, quiet but seemingly normal, comes apart before our eyes; who’s to say the same can’t happen to us?
Suspiria (1977): If many of the horror films of the 70s took on a grittier, more realistic tone, Dario Argento’s Suspiria is like a surrealist nightmare that never ends. The story is about an American dancer who enrolls in a European ballet academy cursed by witchcraft, but the story barely makes sense anyway. The vivid imagery is what has made Suspiria a cult legend. The last movie filmed under the old Technicolor process, Argento paints his scenes in vibrant hues like an 80s music video—the blood practically glows red. And the unsettling music by prog rock band Goblin is like the sound of demons mocking you in your sleep (if you can even get to sleep). The mix of image and sound leaves you wondering what’s real and what’s imagined. Featuring one of the most outlandish (and goriest) murder scenes ever to open a horror movie, Suspiria is the best kind of excess.
The Amityville Horror (1979): It’s funny how overlooked this movie is today, because it’s really the archetype for the modern supernatural horror flick. Reportedly based on a true story (which of course turned out to be a hoax), The Amityville Horror was a minor sensation as a book before it went to the big screen. Recounting one family’s experience in an old Long Island home where a man had previously murdered his family, it’ll put the fear of home ownership in you (if not the fear of God). The walls bleed, glowing eyes appear from behind windows, crosses turn themselves upside down, and James Brolin slowly goes berserk. The influence of The Amityville Horror is glaringly obvious in films from The Shining to Paranormal Activity to The Conjuring. If you’ve seen a haunted house movie in the past three decades, you can almost guarantee it’s a blatant rip-off of Amityville—and probably isn’t half as creepy as the original.
The House Of The Devil (2009): Part haunted house story and part slasher flick, The House Of The Devil is a love letter to the great horror films of the 70s and 80s, not just in substance but in style. Shot on 16mm film using the technology and directorial techniques of the era, filmmaker Ti West gives this low-budget homage to films like Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre an authentically retro look and feel that will put you back in the middle of horror’s greatest decades. Drawing on the late 80s conservative panic about satanic worship in our midst, a young college girl picks up the world’s creepiest babysitting gig and finds herself the target of ritual sacrifice. The visuals may scream John Carpenter, but you’ll also feel the touch of the great Alfred Hitchcock in the way The House Of The Devil teases you and teases you, building the suspense with a series of seemingly ordinary circumstances and false scares before delivering the final payoff. They just don’t make them like this anymore. Well, not often enough, anyway.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014): If you see only one feminist Iranian vampire western this Halloween, make it this one. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white with Farsi dialogue by Iranian-American filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour, this is about as unconventional a horror movie as you’re likely to find. The title is a clever reversal of expectations, because that girl walking alone at night isn’t in danger—she is the danger. A vampire (albeit one with a predilection for Madonna posters, skateboards, and 80s shoegaze on vinyl) feeds on the deserving in a small town. She swoops around in her chador like it’s Bela Lugosi’s cape and passes judgment on the souls she meets in those darkened streets. And somewhere along the line, she falls in love with a James Dean wannabe and faces down her own guilt. Played by Sheila Vand (last seen in Argo) with a piercing stare and a silence that speaks volumes, “the Girl” is like a monster, hipster, and superhero all wrapped in one. With the style of a classic film noir and a score straight out of Ennio Morricone, it’s an inventive mashup of genres like nothing you’ve ever seen. More fun than scary, it will still manage to haunt you.
It Follows (2015): If you’ve heard anything about this year’s sleeper horror hit, It Follows, you already know that it draws upon the classic horror trope tying sex with death. And like the worst kind of STD, the apparition that follows Maika Monroe and her friends never goes away. I don’t want to give away too much, but the genius of the film isn’t the setup—it’s the execution. Writer/director David Robert Mitchell recognizes that slow-paced dread creates a longer-lasting fear than any number of surprise shocks. So this time you see the evil coming, stalking you from the background of the frame, relentless. And Mitchell uses two other classic tropes from the best of 80s horror to feed that dread: an eerie synth score (weren’t the 80s great at that?), and a setting right out of American suburbia. Like Halloween and A Nightmare On Elm Street taught us, there’s something infinitely scarier about the horrors that intrude upon the places you know. The camera’s lens captures wide shots of normalcy—middle class neighborhoods and high schools and parks and movie theaters—and any person lurking in the background may be “It.” It’s the rare modern horror movie that lingers with you after you’ve left the theater—slowly but surely following you.