Every year around this time TV-watchers snuggle up to blankets, hot chocolate, individually wrapped candies and scary movie after scary movie. Everyone has their favorites, their go-to’s, their must-watch “Halloween” shows/movies/specials. But if you are one of the unlucky few who never got into this wonderful holiday, let me share my top-ten list for the ultimate Halloween viewing experience. Obviously you can’t watch all of these in one day, but since Halloween falls on a Monday this year (thanks 2016! Best year ever!) you can easily knock these out over the weekend, or have them on as background material during a holiday party. Some of these are scary, some are fun, some are just thematic, but all are great.
Here’s my list, comment yours below!
10. THRILLER, GHOSTS / IS IT SCARY (MICHAEL JACKSON)
Thriller, it goes without saying, is one of—if not the—best music videos ever produced. Is it particularly scary? No, but this list isn’t about “scary movies;” it’s about movies perfect for Halloween weekend. On that note, few films capture the fun and the frights of the holiday like Thriller. The 1982 song itself was such a phenomenon that it was still the most talked-about thing in music a full two years after release. I know because it’s mentioned in my (1984) baby book as “most popular song at the time.” The music video itself is a landmark of the medium, as it innovated the idea of adding plotting, dialogue and highly choreographed dance routines to the actual song. It was so popular that MTV aired it twice an hour (it’s already a quarter-hour long) for weeks-straight just to satisfy viewers. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better short-film for Halloween.
Years later, Michael Jackson returned to the ghoulish and spooky with a medley of songs for the Blood on the Dance Floor album. Although originally the two songs were written separately, Jackson tweaked the latter tune to fit with Ghosts while developing the music video. Like with Thriller, the video features an elaborate story (written by Stephen King), big budget special effects (directed by guru Stan Winston) and elaborate dance routines (developed by Jackson himself). It was not the mega-hit that Thriller was, and it’s not as legendary as Thriller either, but it’s a great compliment to Thriller and together the three songs (two music videos) make a fun, spooky, hour-long diversion.
The oldest film on the list may be a bit too old for modern viewers, but give it a chance and you’ll find a lot to like about this silent German film. It may not technically be the oldest horror movie ever made (there’s a French film called Le Manoir du Diable [meaning, The House of the Devil] that beats it by about 20 years) but it is certainly the oldest-most influential. Vampire movies in particular (but monster movies in general) owe their existence to this film.
The plot is straight-forward to the point of cliche: Traveling salesman Thomas Hutter journeys to the castle of one Count Orlok of Transylvania. He spends the night, waking to discover puncture marks on his neck. Eventually he uncovers the truth that Orlok is a vampire. After some great visuals and terror with Hutter trying to escape the castle, he eventually makes his way back to his wife. Eventually Orlok makes his way to Hutter’s home where he attempts to suck the blood of Hutter’s wife. Instead, he becomes enraptured with her beauty, loses track of time and is killed by the rising sun. All the classic vampire and Dracula cliches (Stoker’s book was only a couple decades old) are present but while the veneer is rote, the presentation is stellar. Some beautiful imagery is littered throughout the picture. It’s a silent movie, so again that may not be your cup of tea, but try it: You may be entranced by the eeriness of the quiet.
8. MARY SHELLY’S FRANKENSTEIN
Speaking of classic characters of horror, the Frankenstein monster has never really had an adaptation of Shelly’s great book (my personal favorite book of all time) that was both faithful and well-made. The old Boriss Karloff movie is rightly considered a film gem, but it bares little resemblance to the source material. Over the years Universal Studios continued churning out Frankenstein films (it was one of Hollywood’s first “franchises”) but each iteration departed more and more away from the original tale of horror, macabre and science fiction.
In the mid-90’s Kenneth Branagh developed a proper adaptation of the novel (fittingly titled “Mary Shelly’s” Frankenstein) but while it remains mostly faithful (despite changing the ending and some of the character of the Bride) it fails at being a good movie. It’s loud, garish and hammy. Where the book would be quiet and subtle, the movie is over-the-top and overly-theatical. Still, it gets the nod because it offers—to date—the best interpretation of the monster himself (brought to life by Robert De Niro). Whenever he’s on the screen he steals the show and his performance almost saves the movie.
7. THE DESCENT, AS ABOVE SO BELOW
Fairly or not I will forever link these two films together due to my having watched them on back-to-back nights during a horror movie binge-watching week last summer. The Descent is a rare “women-only” horror movie that follows six explorers who venture into an uncharted cave system, get lost and find themselves hunted one after the other by shadowy, cannibalistic sub-humans. That’s the main plot but really it serves only to punctuate the real heart of the story, which deals with deception, betrayal and (eventually) murder. The pale white “crawlers” provide ample opportunity for you to wet your pants but its the “human” element to the story that sets it apart and makes it a must-watch.
As Above So Below is also about dwelling deep into the heart of the earth (sort of), but it takes its story in a very different direction. Dante’s Divine Comedy is a partial inspiration here, as the movie follows a series of explorers hoping to traverse the legendary catacombs of the Paris underground. What they discover is a pathway to hell…and back. There’s no real way to do justice to the plot or the way it unfolds, but writer/director John Erick Dowdle manages to both screw with your perception and thinking while also keep everything logical and consistent within the universe established. The film was not favorably reviewed and truth be told there aren’t many genuine “scares” to be found, but what it lacks in traditional frights, it makes up for in clever set design and an intriguing premise that is—in my opinion—well-executed and worthy of the holiday.
6. THE EXORCIST
The old adage “they don’t make them like they used to” certainly applies here, as I can’t think of another horror movie quite like this one. Though the genre is having a very good year, with hits like Don’t Breathe and Lights Out, there’s something different—something special—about The Exorcist. It’s not a horror movie like they make them today. This one, like Rosemary’s Baby (a film that just missed the cut), is more “unsettling” than it is “boo! scary!” There’s a constant feeling of dread and…evil…hanging over film. I suppose it helps if you are a devout Catholic, or someone who truly believes in demonic possession as described and presented in the film. If you do, then the unsettling nature of the picture probably works doubly-well.
For those of us who see it as a very well-made story, it still works, precisely because it treats the source material with such respect. You can argue that the Conjuring movies (which also focus on Catholicism, exorcism and demonic spirits) improved on The Exorcist by taking the unsettling atmosphere and adding jump-scares into the mix, but purists would say The Exorcist was so good it didn’t need to rely on jump-scares to shake the audience in their boots. And they’d be right!
5. BAD BLOOD / HOME / THE HOST (X-FILES)
If you’re looking for a scary X-Files episode you’re not going to have to look for very long. While the show covered many genres (hard sci-fi, camp, conspiracy thriller), it always did “horror” with great skill. A trio of episodes are featured here; these are wildly different in their tone but they are all perfect for Halloween.
Bad Blood is one of the show’s most beloved episodes. It features a vampire story told from conflicting perspectives as both Mulder and Scully seek to “get their story straight” before having to explain to Asst. Director Skinner why they felt it was necessary to plunge a wooden stake into the heart of a teenage pizza delivery boy. The twists and turns in the story, combined with great humor (conversational, situational and physical) keep the first-time viewer guessing as to the truth behind the mystery. It’s not “scary” but it is a perfect 40 minutes to enjoy on Halloween weekend.
Where Bad Blood is “fun” horror, the episode Home is “traditional, creep you out” horror. Anytime you have an episode that makes incest a major plot point, you’re going to have controversy, and this one almost never made it past the script-phase (the opening scene features the unearthing of a buried child). After a long conversation with Fox executives, the script was allowed to progress and the end-result is one of the most disturbing (and well-made) episodes of the show. Still, it’s a hard watch (by TV standards) and not for the faint of heart. The scene where the Peacock brothers break into the Sheriff’s house in particular led to the episode receiving the show’s first TVMA rating.
The Host is nightmare fuel; there’s no other way to put it. The monster-of-the-week (dubbed The Flukeman) in this second season episode is one of the most frightening things ever presented on network television. Beyond that, the episode itself is nearly flawless. Highly cinematic in shot, music, writing and acting, it feels less like a TV episode and more like a brilliant short film. Like the other two, the episode is not connected to the wider mythology of the show, so it’s able to be watched by first-time viewers with very little secondary information needed to be conveyed. You can easily watch all three back-to-back-to-back in the time it takes to watch one 2 hour, 15 minute movie.
4. THE FRIGHTENERS
Originally a box office dud, The Frighteners has rightfully been reevaluated and turned into a cult hit. Pre-LOTR Peter Jackson co-wrote the script (with wife and LOTR scripter Fran Walsh) with the intention that Robert Zemeckis would direct (as the followup to Forrest Gump). Instead, with pre-production work on Contact taking too much time, Zemeckis pushed for Jackson himself to helm the picture. The result is a movie that shows what kind of a career Jackson might have had if he’d never became a superstar after developing the (deemed-impossible to develop) Lord of the Rings.
Frighteners is quirky, original, occasionally terrifying, and never boring. The special effects, developed by WETA, are the product of some of the most ambitious work done in movies at the time (the film had more VFX shots than any movie at the time), and though they seem quaint today, they were groundbreaking in 1996. Jackson’s singular New Zealand humor gives it a different kind of feel than most horror-comedies, and makes it one of the most underrated movies you can watch this holiday.
3. CABIN IN THE WOODS
Back in the 90’s Wes Craven (who previously made his mark on the genre with A Nightmare on Elm Street) took a stab at breaking down the tropes of horror flicks with Scream, and while the first film was a minor revelation, the subsequent sequelization of the movie watered down and made null the whole point. A half-generation later, producer Joss Whedon’s developed his own movie that deconstructed the horror genre. The result is a film that should be required viewing for all fans of scary movies.
Cabin in the Woods works where Scream didn’t by holding its cards close to the vest. Whereas Scream shouted from the rooftop that the film was designed to hang a lampshade on all the gimmicks and cliches of horror movies, Cabin in the Woods spends its first two acts pretending it is a cliched horror movie. It’s not until the final act kicks into gear that the big picture is revealed and the genius of Wheddon’s screenplay shines forth. Rarely does a movie get to say “remember all the stupid stuff in the first hour…that was on purpose!” and have it work, but Cabin in the Woods does it. As a result it’s one of the best “horror” movies of the past quarter-century.
Today it’s considered a genre-defining franchise, but in 1978, John Carpenter’s Halloween film was just a humble little indie picture about a psychopathic killer in a William Shatner mask. Everything about the movie was rushed and low-budgeted. The script was written in ten days, the shoot lasted twenty and the budget was only $300,000 (Jamie Lee Curtis’ wardrobe was bought at JC Penny’s for $100).
The tight constraints forced Carpenter (who wrote, directed and even scored the soundtrack) to work extra hard to make sure each scene was perfectly staged and shot. Some of the most violent scenes, for example, show very little blood (because using fake blood often requires lots of reshoots, which take time and money) and almost the entire film is photographed with natural lighting; not for artistic purposes, but because of budget constraints. Yet, the minimalist approach paid off and helped the small film become a smash hit at the box office and a staple for Halloween viewing parties from then on.
1. THE CHARLIE BROWN AND GARFIELD SPECIALS
What could possibly top a horror movie set during Halloween, called Halloween? Two cartoon specials that celebrate the holiday and the childlike fun that is to be had on it, that’s what. It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown was the second such holiday special from the Peanuts gang, but many consider it the superior to A Charlie Brown Christmas (which aired a year earlier). What makes the special so perfect? Is it Charlie Brown constantly getting a rock, Snoopy’s WWI airfight with the Red Baron, bobbing for apples with Lucy or Linus’ devotion to the Great Pumpkin? Maybe it’s the fact that the show moves from scene to scene with little connective tissue, but works because of its appreciation for what its like just to be a kid on Halloween (the bucketsfull of charm and sweetness don’t hurt). In our home it’s one-half of the go-to watches before we head out to go trick-or-treating on Halloween night.
Garfield’s Halloween Adventure is the other half. For kid-Matthew, this was the scariest thing I watched every year. Creator Jim Davis instructed his team to make a special that would legitimately terrify a four year old, and they succeeded…up until I was like ten! There’s moody lighting, creepy music, jump cuts and more. It has everything you need to make sure your pre-K kid sleeps in his parents bed that night. The scene in the climax, when the ghost ship materializes and Garfield and Odie hide in a cupboard was my first taste of nightmare fuel. Every kid assumes that by simply hiding he will never be found by the monster, so having the ghost discover the terrified feline and dog genuinely unsettled me as a child and caused me to rethink my entire worldview. It terrified me as a youngster and imprinted vivid memories in my brain that I still have today.
I’m still scared of that pirate ship.
Kids today are too sheltered from frights and scares and things that could give them nightmares, but I’ve longed believed that scary movies and shows (age appropriate of course) are good for kids; it builds character and helps to develop personality traits that will help them in later years. Whatever you watch this coming Halloween weekend, I hope you watch it with eyes wide open, with goosebumps tingling and with pants a little wetter than they were before.
Enjoy your holiday!