Look, I’m not saying Hocus Pocus isn’t be a fun little movie, but I’m a little surprised how often it shows up on Facebook when grown-up people solicit horror movies to watch for Halloween. I recognize that for a lot of people being scared isn’t a thrilling experience, but horror is often unjustly dismissed as being cheap and gimmicky when it can be one of the most emotive and innovative genres in film. The greatest horror movies are trying to make you think more than they are trying to scare you (though if they can do both, that works too). If you want to explore some excellent, suspenseful, and potentially shocking movies this Halloween, try the list below.
Creepy and Disturbing
“Horror” is an unfortunate name for the genre. Quite often people associate horror with schlocky gore-fests and quickly dismiss it as something they are not interested in. While gore has its place (see the next section), there are plenty of films out there who accomplish the goal of unsettling its audience by way of subtle suspense or uncomfortable situations rather than relying solely on the fear of violence.
Let The Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in)
Before everyone was sick of zombies, everyone was sick of vampires. This Swedish vampire film, however, explores vampirism like none other. Set in a Nordic small town where it doesn’t ever seem to be truly sunny, a pre-teen vampire, Eli, befriends the town’s awkward rejected kid, Oskar, who quickly falls in love with her. When she begins to defend him in a way that only a bloodthirsty vampire can do, Oskar must choose between humanity and the only thing that has shown him kindness.
Why It Is Awesome
Vampires have been a metaphor for the dangers of sexuality for centuries. Vampires don’t just stalk and attack their chosen victims, they lure and seduce them, making their victims willing participants in their own demise. Setting a vampire story during puberty and the interactions with Eli’s adult care-taker revisits this metaphor in a way that is unsettling, even if it remains in the subtext to the point of being able to be ignored by less engaged audience members. You are never completely sure if Eli returns Oskar’s affections or if she is simply using him to aid in her survival, or both. Let The Right One In also explores the effects of bullying and how far some kids will go to escape terrible pursecution. Between the things that the film isn’t saying, the beautiful dreariness of the setting, and imagery of vampiric violence at the hands of a twelve-year-old girl Let The Right One In is intensely disturbing, creepy, and sad.
Note: If you are allergic to subtitles (you’ll hate most of this list), you can try the perfectly competent American remake Let Me In which pushes some of the films more disturbing themes further down into the subtext while maintaining the tone. If at all possible, however, watch the Swedish original.
This is my favorite Hitchcock film. Jimmy Stewart stars as a news photographer who is forced into a wheelchair and his apartment after breaking his leg on the job. As one who refuses to be confined by anything and anyone, including his girlfriend played by pre-princess Grace Kelly, this arrangement is frustrating in the least. His only pass-time are the other inhabitants of the apartment building whose lives he peeps into across the courtyard. Other start to doubt his stability as he becomes increasingly convinced that he saw one of his neighbors murdering his wife and he becomes suspicious that the murderer is aware of his observer.
Why It Is Awesome
The thing that makes Alfred Hitchcock thrillers so effective is that they avoid the schlocky campiness that other films of the time safely played in. He pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable at the time and got away with as much as he could and what he couldn’t he hid in hints and subtext. He also took limitations that for some directions would have felt gimmicky and makes them a strength. You may not even notice after watching the movie that the camera never leaves Jimmy Stewards apartment. He is confined, so we are confined and that inability to escape slowly puts pressure on the audience through the entire film making you increasingly uncomfortable. By the time the film is over, it’s almost baffling how you can feel so suffocated and isolated at the same time.
The Orphanage (El orfanato)
This movie is probably one of the only times that an orphan looks fondly upon her time spent at an orphanage. Belén Ruida stars as a woman who returns to the now-closed orphanage she spent time in as a child with the intent on opening it as a group home for handicapped youth with her husband and their adopted son, Simón. She learns, however, that after being adopted out of the orphanage, things didn’t end well for the ones who remained and something in the house starts showing an unsettling amount of interest in her and her young son.
Why It Is Awesome
There are many good American horror movies, but there are several excellent foreign horror movies. With American horror movies, you know there is a pattern, a system, that most horror movies won’t stray away from: the hero of the film will get away, you don’t kill children or pets, you aren’t going to pay all that money for Scarlett Johansson to be in your film just to kill her 20 minutes in, etc. Those movies that don’t follow this pattern seem to specifically break these rules to show their edginess or bravery. With foreign horror movies, however, these rules simply don’t seem to exist and deviating from them isn’t seen as a creative choice but because the story just happens in a way that should happen.
Reading the plot of The Orphanage likely instills little interest and watching the trailer, less so. It sounds like a typical haunted house story with maybe some twist that proves the filmmaker’s cleverness. The Orphanage, however, is my favorite horror film of all time. Instead of a haunted house story, it simply a story that has a haunted house. Instead of a ghost story, it’s a story about ghosts. The deviations from horror tropes don’t feel gimmicky, but develop organically. It’s genuinely scary, but it’s understated and never has that moment of reveal that usually feels underwhelming in most horror films. While its ending would would likely never be acceptable to a mass American audience you walk away with a positive, sentimental feeling that is almost unheard of in the genre. It’s a horror film for fans and non-fans alike.
Intense and Violent
Violence and gore is what most people cite when they express a dislike for horror films. It can be irritating when people dismiss horror violence as cheap and tawdry and then laud a violent war film like Saving Private Ryan. Sure, Ryan, is a good film and it’s important to have accurate representations of war violence, but it’s also important to examine the nature of violence itself. Horror violence allows us to separate violence as an element and separate it from the context of reality. We can then place the violence into symbols of our own lives to examine what we fear and what that says about us.
These films use the fear of violence/gore not only to raise the intensity level, but also to advance the plot and make a statement about the world in which the film exists.
28 Days Later
Cillian Murphy stars in this British “zombie” film in which a modified strain of rabies is released into England which turns its inhabitants into crazed, cannibalistic beasts. Murphy’s character, Jim, misses the onset of the apocalypse having been in a coma in the hospital (not unlike the main character in The Walking Dead) and must quickly learn to adapt to his new reality. He finds other survivors and they struggle to survive learning that the zombies are the least of their worries.
Why It Is Awesome
28 Days Later was one of the first to modify the zombie character from a reanimated corpse to a irreparably diseased human. Because their bodies aren’t weakened by death, the ravenous creatures in this film sprint towards their victims and infection happens quickly – less than 10 seconds – making hard decisions more of a matter of impulse than tortured consideration. The speed of infections and the creatures themselves create an urgency and panic in this movie greater than most zombie films. Zombie fiction is more metaphorical than most monster fiction and 28 Days Later is no different, posing the question which is more dangerous, a ultra-violent but mindless human, or those humans forced to live in such a world.
Cinematically, the movie was one of the first popular films to be shot on video entirely using consumer digital camcorders. Shooting at a film frame rate of 24 frames per second gives it a cinematic feel, but the low resolution video gives the movie a digital dirtiness to complement the dirtiness of the world.
A “zombie” film similar to 28 Days Later, [Rec] is a Spanish film that follows a reporter as a routine story leads her and her camera man to be quarantined in an apartment building that is suffering from an outbreak of a deadly illness. Instead of staying dead, however, victims reanimate and rush the nearest living thing, intent on spreading the infection. The reporter and cameraman become suspicious that the authorities outside the quarantine aren’t attempting to save their lives as much as simply trying to contain the outbreak and letting the collateral damage be what may.
Why It Is Awesome
Little did The Blair Witch Project realize that they would be creating an entirely new genre – the “found footage” film. [Rec] succeeds where its inspiration fails in that it never completely forces you to ask the question “Why don’t you put the camera down?!” Being reporters with an increasing sense of conspiracy justifies suspending disbelief sufficiently to allow a fulfillment of the promise of the found footage film: video is reality. For most of the century, film has been used for movies and video has been used for news and live programming. Because of this we developed the bug in our head of video represents reality. Most movies that try to capitalize on this cultural quirk fail as the impossibility of the images seem cheesy and fake in a video context or the acting seems to “act-y”. [Rec], however, succeeds where others fail by pushing only so far into the unbelievable that we get left in the middle. Most of the time we remember that what are watching isn’t real, but the human-ness of the monsters and the video-ness create tiny moments of doubt in the un-reality of it all that it makes it difficult to ever feel completely safe while watching this movie.
This film has three parts, directed by three different directors, and is representative of the best of low-budget independent horror films. Ultra-violent, dingy, and disturbing, it tells the story of a couple having an affair who struggle to survive when they wake up to every television, cell phone, and device with an antenna producing a subliminal signal that that dramatically enhances negative character traits, to the point of murder. Unlike zombies or “28 Days Later zombies”, they are still human and can talk and think, they just have zero restraint on their negative emotions. Trying to survive becomes more and more difficult as they struggle with the unpredictable affects from the signal.
Why It Is Awesome
Low-budget independent horror movies, along with music videos, are some of the most innovative visual media in existence. This movie has its problems: it doesn’t really have the budget to fulfill its ambition, some of the acting is rough, and its rather disjointed, but it takes a unique idea and storytelling method and runs with it. Such movies are the inspiration for filmmakers decades later. It’s possible, even likely, that you won’t enjoy watching The Signal, but it’s probably unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
Fun and Campy
Horror is ripe for parody and sometimes the best way to enjoy horror films for someone who doesn’t like horror films is to watch a movie that lovingly mocks them.
Cabin in the Woods
A “meta” film, Cabin in the Woods is a horror film about horror films. Co-written and produced by Joss Whedon, fans of Buffy and Angel will likely feel right at home in this snarky love letter to the genre. A group of teenagers decide to get out of town for the weekend in a cabin in the rural mountains when they soon realize that everything isn’t as it seems and that they don’t have complete control over their own destiny, however much they may try.
Why It Is Awesome
Instead of a mindless parody that just aims for the low-hanging fruit of the genre, Cabin in the Woods, has its own story and ideas, but takes the time to stop and examine the clichés that riddle horror films. Instead of derisively mocking them, however, the movie pokes fun with reverence the mocking coming from a place of deep knowledge an familiarity. Typical tone-breaking Whedonequse one-liners are a nice bonus.
Jessie Eisenberg is unlikely to be on anyone’s short list for survivors of the zombie apocalypse and that’s precisely what makes this movie so awesome. (This is completely independent of my crush on Eisenberg. Probably.) Eisenberg’s conflict avoidance philosophy to the apocalypse serves as the perfect foil for Woody Harrelson’s more, shall we say, baseball-bat-based approach. The two reluctantly team up with a pair of sisters played by Emma Stone and Abigail Breslen as they search for a rumored haven free from the zombie infection.
Why It Is Awesome
Most zombie fiction assumes that hand-wringing Eisneberg-types die in the first wave of infection and it is hilarious to see such a character take his own approach to survival. Consistently funny and absurdly violent, Zombieland, only takes itself seriously enough to maintain legitimacy, but isn’t above a detour cameo by a famous comedic actor. No complaints here.
Shaun of the Dead
Like Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead adds a little levity to the undead apocalypse. Simon Pegg stars as good-hearted loser, Shaun, who’s life is suddenly given meaning one morning when the dead rise from the grave and he assumes the responsibility of saving everyone close to him…and everyone close to them, even if he can’t stand them.
Why It Is Awesome
Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead are two takes on the same premise and appeal of zombie fiction: what can be a weakness in our current lives can be an asset in the apocolypse (and vice versa). That and Simon Pegg is delightful.