Halloween is coming, and it’s the perfect time of the year to curl up with a special someone (or alone in the dark) and marathon horror movies. Journeying on your own through all the options out there is a daunting task, so I’m here to give you some recommendations. Here’s some established classics and overlooked gems worth checking out this week.
Carnival of Souls (1962)
Director: Herk Harvey
Stars: Candace Hilligoss
THE LOWDOWN: Harvey never directed another film, but this low-budget gem is one of the great might-have-beens. Tale of a woman haunted by ghouls after a near-death experience maintains an eerie mood throughout, is a clear influence on Night of the Living Dead and the works of David Lynch.
Cat People (1942)
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Stars: Simone Simon, Kent Smith
THE LOWDOWN: What do you do if you don’t have the budget to show a woman turning into a murderous jungle cat? Turn out the lights, use the shadows and sound, and watch people scream.
Horror of Dracula (1958)
Director: Terence Fisher
Stars: Peter Cushing, Chrisopher Lee
THE LOWDOWN: The original Bela Lugosi film is excellent as well, but watch Hammer Productions’ lurid, boundary-pushing version to see how Christopher Lee can be terrifying even when he’s not given much dialogue.
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Stars: Fernando Tielve, Eduardo Noriega
THE LOWDOWN: Del Toro is best known for his 2006 horror-fantasy masterwork Pan’s Labyrinth, but his companion piece about boys in a haunted orphanage (also in the midst of a fascist Spain) is nearly as strong.
The Howling (1981)
Director: Joe Dante
Stars: Dee Wallace, John Carradine
THE LOWDOWN: Come for the low-budget but impressive werewolf effects, stay for the on-screen werewolf puns (Ginsberg’s Howl showing up onscreen). The truly suicidal can play a drinking game to the latter.
Director: Tobe Hooper
Stars: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson
THE LOWDOWN: The greatest contemporary ghost film, and probably the scariest PG-rated horror movie ever made. Director Tobe Hooper and writer/producer Steven Spielberg use classic ghost tropes (and a likable but less-than-wholesome family) as a way to subvert the Reagan-era “Morning in America” message.
Only the Brave
Black Christmas (1974)
Director: Bob Clark
Stars: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea
THE LOWDOWN: The director of A Christmas Story made a much nastier Christmas film in this early slasher about a madman stalking sorority girls. Use of sound (especially the maniac’s constant jabbering) is nerve-jangling.
The House of the Devil (2009)
Director: Ti West
Stars: Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan
THE LOWDOWN: This film about a young woman housesitting for a group of devil-worshippers is possibly the scariest film of the past five years. As notable for slow-burning creepiness of the first hour as it is for the nightmarish final third.
The Shining (1980)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall
THE LOWDOWN: Perhaps the most formally perfect horror film ever made, and certainly my pick for the scariest. Between Nicholson’s iconic performance (as good of a portrayal of unhinged alcoholism as I’ve seen) to Kubrick’s perfect framing to the use of Krzysztof Penderecki’s unnerving music, there’s more than enough to shake the nerves. Bonus: Netflix now has the documentary Room 237 to show how the film is practically the ultimate cinematic Rorschach Test.
Director: Dario Argento
Stars: Jessica Harper
THE LOWDOWN: Master of the lurid Italian horror films known as giallos, Dario Argento isn’t known for getting great dialogue or performances. But when the visuals and sound are as expressive, colorful, and nightmarish as they are in this film about witches at a ballet school, it’s hard to complain.