13 Horror Movies: A Playlist for Halloween
by Matthew Cheney
October is my favorite month: it is the month I was born, it is LGBTQ+ History Month, and it is the month of Halloween, which means lots of people will be thinking about ghosts, monsters, witches, demons, and other horrors I delight in.
For literary horrors this season, I recommend curling up with a good story via David Hartwell’s classic anthology The Dark Descent or Ann & Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird. And of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the first Third Man book labeled as horror: The Last Vanishing Man and Other Stories.
Here, though, let’s talk about movies. As interested as I am in horror fiction, for me it is movies that provide the purest horror experience because their narrative unfolds through visual and auditory means that do not rely solely on my own imagination. Words can create magic in the mind, but we have to do a lot of the work to initiate that magic, giving the mute symbols (letters, words) meaning. Movies, for better or worse, don’t need us to get things going — right off, they provide images and sounds and we have no real control over what those images and sounds are. Our minds and bodies become a kind of instrument for filmmakers to play.
The music many horror movies play on us, and which those of us who enjoy horror movies seek out, is an album of shocks and thrills. The stuff of endorphins and dopamine: jump scares, gross-outs, spooky things in the dark. This is why completely clichéd and even unquestionably bad horror movies can be beloved by fans: it’s not about the quality of the cinematic art, it’s about the presence of cues that give us our fix. Horror movies are like hot sauce. Yes, you may prefer the one that is hand-made with only the finest of farm-grown chiles, but if you’re aching for the burn, the cheap stuff full of dodgy chemicals will do fine in a hurry.
Here, I will recommend movies of varying quality and effect, but I don’t appreciate any of them solely for how horrific they are. Some of them are quiet and suggestive, appropriate even for children; others are pretty rough going, not for the faint of heart.
The list is not my 13 favorite horror movies (that changes with mood and weather), not the 13 best horror movies or anything like that. It’s more of a playlist. The organization is associational, intuitive. I’ve only included films that are available legally for streaming in the US, and I have linked to Justwatch so you can see where they are available. My purpose here is to help you on your way to Halloween, so it seems best to limit ourselves to what is most immediately available.
Let the unsettling begin…
- The Haunting (dir. Robert Wise, 1963)
A faithful adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House (unquestionably one of the greatest horror stories ever written), The Haunting is a fine place to begin because most viewers find it to be genuinely scary, yet it has no gore and no visible monsters — most of its horror is evoked through sound. Robert Wise cut his teeth as a director for producer Val Lewton at RKO in the 1940s (and as an editor for Orson Welles; indeed, he was responsible for one of the true horrors of Hollywood history, cutting The Magnificent Ambersons to the studio’s specifications). The Haunting is also a film full of quiet, queer desire, beautifully performed by Julie Harris and Claire Bloom. Its pace is careful, even slow, but a little patience pays great rewards.
- We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (dir. Jane Schoenbrun, 2022)
One of the hallmarks of The Haunting (the film and Jackson’s novel) is its ambiguity. What’s actually going on? Is it all in the characters’ heads? There is also a lot of ambiguity in Jane Schoenbrun’s strange, meditative, unnerving film, a film that evokes various horror tropes without necessarily even being a horror movie. But I don’t know of another film that makes a better case for why the uncertainties of existence and identity are best approached through the lens of horror. After I first watched it, I wasn’t sure if I liked We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. It felt more like an art installation than a movie. But I kept thinking about it and its images for weeks after that first viewing. Few films have haunted me as deeply.
- His House (dir. Remi Weekes, 2020)
I am highly desensitized to horror movies. I started watching them at a ridiculously young age, and I got fascinated by the technical aspects when, as a kid, I got a birthday present of a videotape produced by Fangoria magazine about the special effects master Tom Savini. Horror movies don’t really produce anything I think of as “a scare”. Movies that scare me tend to be about the world we live in — Shoah is just about the scariest movie I have ever seen. Perhaps that’s why His House really got the closest to scaring me of any horror movie I can think of. It is a model for how to use the tools of horror to explore the terrors of reality. It achieves this through narrative and thematic complexity, with multiple systems of monstrosity and complicity. You can watch it just for the thrills and you will have a real experience, but if you also engage your mind and think about how this film is expressing itself through your body’s reaction to the horrors, you will find a whole other level of possibilities to think about.
- Detention (dir. Joseph Kahn, 2011)
This wild, almost indescribable speed-freak acid trip mashup of a movie is far less known than it deserves to be. It’s horror, it’s comedy, it’s satire, it’s horror; it’s vulgar, it’s messy, it’s brilliant. It’s one of those movies you just have to give yourself over to and let it take you for a ride. Its surface stupidities hide significant depths. I vastly prefer it to meta-horror movies like Scream and A Cabin in the Woods because it is more anarchic, more punk. At this point in our playlist, think of it as a palette-cleanser.
- Train to Busan (dir. Sang-ho Yeon, 2016)
Fast zombies! While we’ll have some traditional and slow zombies later on, Train to Busan keeps the thrills and pacing fast at this point in the playlist. It’s a perfect adventure-horror movie, and it pays off with real emotional power at the end. The film has only gained resonance now after we’ve all been experiencing life in a global pandemic.
- Dead Ringers (dir. David Cronenberg, 1988)
I don’t really know what the term body horror means, since people use it in such varying ways, but there seems to be general agreement that David Cronenberg is the king of body horror, and for me Dead Ringers is the most horrifying of all his films. Just one aspect of the movie — custom-made gynecological tools — is creepy and unsettling enough, but add in all the stuff with the twins and you have a recipe for horrors that feel supernatural even though there’s nothing supernatural in the movie (indeed, it’s very loosely inspired by a tragically true story). Jeremy Irons’ performance as twins remains astonishing: he successfully creates full personalities for each character so that we can then be freaked out by the ways they begin to merge.
- Nightbreed (dir. Clive Barker, 1990)
David Cronenberg is best known as a director, but he gave a coldly unsettling performance in Nightbreed, the most Clive Barkery of Clive Barker movies, though of course Hellraiser is the more influential film (and in many ways the better film). The 2-hour Director’s Cut version of Nightbreed vastly improves on the shorter theatrical release, but Nightbreed is always pulpy, a bit awkward, and a narrative mess. But its earnestness has a real charm, and it’s full of beautifully designed monsters, monsters we can learn to love. It offers one of the great, perennial, and still most necessary lessons of horror: the monsters may be more beautiful than anyone else.
- Day of the Dead (dir. George Romero, 1985)
Romero’s first two zombie movies, Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, are more famous, but the third is, in its own way, their equal and a fine companion. It is also a portfolio of the great Tom Savini’s make-up effects at their height. It is the first of Romero’s films to really explore the idea of empathy for the zombies, an idea that will be developed in his later, and I think underappreciated, films Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead. The idea that humans might be as terrible as the zombies is present from Night forward — let’s not forget how Night ends — but Day gives us the captured zombie named Bub, and Bub, for the first time, really makes us ask ourselves, “Which side are you on?”
- Il Demonio (dir. Brunello Rondi, 1964)
There are countless movies about women persecuted as witches, but Il Demonio is special because it doesn’t make it easy for us to separate ourselves from the persecutors. A lot of horror fiction gives us the pleasure of siding with righteous outsiders. In Il Demonio, the persecuted woman is difficult to like. We understand how annoying and upsetting she is to the villagers. And so we must ask ourselves if we think she deserves what she gets. We might not behave as badly as some of the leaders of the persecution, but would we really take the difficult leap to separating ourselves from the general populace and side with such a difficult victim? Morally, we should. But realistically…? Il Demonio is not an entertaining experience, but it is an illuminating one.
- Clearcut (dir. Ryszard Bugajski, 1991)
Perhaps the most-quoted line from Kier-La Janisse’s magnificent documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is from First Nations journalist Jesse Wente: "If non-indigenous people are going to be afraid of the Indian burial ground, then I've got some news for you. It's all an Indian burial ground." Clearcut builds from this premise, giving visceral representation to the displacement and destruction of native peoples and lands, and it does so within the frame of a kind of revenge story or something we might even call a captivity narrative. It’s clearsighted while also being morally complex, a real achievement. The film is a truly bracing experience that especially all of us who are the descendents of settlers ought to put ourselves through.
- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (dir. Tobe Hooper, 1974)
For many fans, this is the greatest horror film of all time. I can make a reasoned case for it being so — the Hamlet-like influence it has had on so much that followed, making it feel almost clichéd because it is so frequently quoted; the richness it pulls from a simple premise; the efficiency of its characterizations; the surreal power its grotesque images hold; the many American myths it so effortlessly embodies and undermines; the violence it suggests and then lets our imaginations run with; the sheer terror it evokes — but fundamentally it is my favorite horror movie because it had a totemic power for me as a child getting interested in the genre. It was the one I had to wait until I was “the right age” to see (and so of course I managed to sneak a viewing earlier), the one that my horror-movie-loving father said even got to him. Unlike many things we build up in our minds before we encounter them, Texas Chainsaw Massacre lived up to all I had anticipated, exceeding even what I had imagined, really, because I had no way to imagine what the actual movie would do to me. It is a singular experience and a perfect example of a pure horror movie.
- A Dark Song (dir. Liam Gavin, 2016)
While distinguished for being likely the most accurate representation of an occult ritual in any narrative film, A Dark Song is special for the seriousness and intensity of its entire project. This is a two-person movie that never really loses its focus and momentum. It creates a powerfully claustrophobic feel and then raises the stakes. It shows how people who have been terribly hurt can themselves cause hurt, but it also brings us out through to the other side, toward a truly earned release, if not redemption.
- Halloween II (dir. Rob Zombie, 2009)
If you haven’t seen Rob Zombie’s first Halloween film, it’s very much worth watching first. It’s an extraordinary film. (I am immune to the charms of John Carpenter as a filmmaker, so I have no real appreciation for the original 1978 Halloween except for its historical importance.) But Halloween II is a greater achievement, because, as the critic Willow Catelyn Maclay has pointed out, it is a movie about what happens after so many other horror movies end. If the tortures of the world don’t kill us, how do we go on? What becomes of us? Rob Zombie is, for me, the most important horror filmmaker of this era, because he takes these questions seriously. The Devil’s Rejects, Halloween II, and The Lords of Salem (which I wrote about at length on my blog a couple years ago) are his masterpieces, films that understand the attractions of horror but don’t minimize the pain and destructive power of violence, films that find oneiric beauty in the ghastly realities of existence. Halloween II is the film to end this playlist with because it is the film that asks us what we’re going to do with what we’ve been through, and what we need if we are to have any hope of healing our lives and dreams.
I had intended to include fewer recent films, but decided to stick to the associational nature of the list, so the 21st century is overrepresented. Good substitutes/additions: Nosferatu, Vampyr, M, The Invisible Man, I Walked with a Zombie, The Body Snatcher, The Flesh and the Fiends (which makes a great double-feature with Body Snatcher), Horror of Dracula, Curse of Frankenstein, The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism, Psycho, The Birds, The Innocents…
A couple films not currently streaming legally, but appropriate to this list and worth seeking out:
Martin (dir. George Romero, 1977) is my favorite Romero movie, a moving and strange maybe-vampire film. Like Dawn of the Dead, it’s caught in something of a rights problem that keeps it from more general release. Second Sight released an excellent UK edition recently, but if you’re not in the UK you’ll need a region-free player for it. You might be able to find it bootlegged online if you search a little.
Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (dir. William Asher, 1981) I intended to put after Il Demonio until I discovered it doesn’t seem to be streaming anywhere at the moment, though it’s available on physical media. When I first wrote about it, I said it was like a slasher movie written by Tennessee Williams. It’s got its clunky moments, but it’s got powerful elements and was significantly ahead of its time in its portrayal of a gay male character.