11 Horror Picks for This Halloween
I've been a horror fan all my life, but I've always been a bit of a cry-baby about it. One of my earliest film memories is bursting into tears during The Phantom of the Opera (1925) when Lon Chaney is playing the organ and the girl whips off his mask to reveal that horrific face.
Those old silent movies were always on around teatime when I was little and, although they scared the crap out of me, they also gave me the horror bug. It hasn’t been easy satisfying my love for the genre over the years since then, because I’m still totally chicken when it comes to actually watching horror movies.
One problem I face is that I’m very easily startled in general and it doesn’t take much to make me jump out of my skin. It’s not a great affliction for a horror fan. While I don’t mind a well-timed shock that is earned, I really hate the modern trend of horrors like Insidious and Sinister which are just a movie-length sequence of jump scares.
As a lover of the psychological and the supernatural, I much prefer films that haunt and linger well beyond the closing credits, stuff that creeps under my skin and stays there, rather than just goosing me with a cheap scare tactic every five minutes. Here are 11 horror picks that reflect these tastes…
Night of the Demon (1957)
Night of the Demon (released in the U.S. as Curse of the Demon) is still the best film version of an M.R. James ghost story, whose work has seemed strangely impervious to big screen adaptation over the years. Updating Casting the Runes to the modern day ‘50s, we have Dana Andrews as a self-satisfied American psychologist coming over to England to expose a satanic cult. Bad idea, because his predecessor died under mysterious circumstances and the cult’s easily offended leader doesn’t take kindly to people poking their noses into his business.
The plot revolves around a very simple premise: once Karswell hands Holden a parchment containing ancient runes, he has three days to live before a demon will appear and tear him to shreds. Of course, being a stubborn sceptic, Holden pooh-poohs the idea for the longest time possible as creepy things start happening around him.
Under duress from the producer, director Jacques Tourneur was forced to show the demon in the first scene, which is still a contentious issue for fans of the film. Some feel that it would have been far scarier if the whole thing was left to the imagination. Personally, I think the demon is great. It looks a bit two-bob now but it is some of the best creature effects work from the ‘50s, and the way it is shot is still pretty frightening.
After that, it’s a testament to Tourneur’s skill at shadowplay and suspense that we not only look forward to seeing the demon again, but dread it, too. In between, we have a wonderful clash of ideologies between Holden and Karswell, and their conversations are helped by a very literate script. Niall MacGuinness is terrific as the erudite, charming, thin-skinned Karswell, running scared of his own dark magic.
Viy has the distinction of being the first horror movie officially released by the Soviet Union, and it is a journey into a different world. Based on a story by Nikolai Gogol, it’s the tale of a trainee priest who stumbles on the house of a witch one night. She torments him with her magic and, frightened, he fatally beats her with a stick. Mortally wounded, she turns into a beautiful young woman.
Guilt stricken, he agrees to stand vigil by her open coffin in the church for three nights. That’s when things get crazy; each night she awakens with a vengeance, only held back by the terrified man’s protective chalk circle. Finally, she calls on the great demon Viy to help…
Viy is an absolute treat visually. The way directors Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov stage the increasingly elaborate supernatural attacks is incredibly vivid and imaginative, with superb special effects for its time. When you see the swooping, spinning camerawork and the ghosts and ghouls coming out of the walls, you have to suspect Sam Raimi must have seen this before making The Evil Dead.
The Cremator (1969)
Czech cinema doesn’t get much love beyond its borders apart from a few exceptions from the celebrated New Wave of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, and its modern output rarely produces anything worthy of standing alongside the films of that period.
One film from the New Wave I try to push on people at every available opportunity is The Cremator, a comedy horror of the deepest black. Set in the 1930s, it introduces us to Karel Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusinsky), a sanctimonious and ultra-ambitious manager of a crematorium. As the influence of Nazi Germany grows on its smaller neighbour Czechoslovakia, Kopfrkingl learns that his special calling in life, burning bodies to liberate the souls of the dead, is of great interest to the Third Reich.
As portrayed by the great Rudolf Hrusinsky, Kopfrkingl is one of cinema’s great movie psychos. The actor is absolutely immense in the role, and director Juraj Herz employs every cinematic trick at his disposal to put us Kopfrkingl’s headspace and show us how warped his mind becomes. To this end, he uses weird ultra close-ups, fish-eye lenses, and some startling editing techniques I’ve never seen in any other movie. It’s a masterclass of filmmaking and Zdenek Liska’s peculiar score, by turn eerie and carnivalesque, only adds to the whirling sense of madness.
A Warning to the Curious (1972, TV Movie)
In the ‘60s and ‘70s the BBC made several excellent adaptations of M.R. James’s stories, mostly under the banner A Ghost Story for Christmas. The earlier Omnibus adaptation Whistle and I’ll Come to You is probably the most celebrated, featuring an astonishing display of free-form muttering from its star, Michael Hordern.
As good as it is, the story is very simple and I always felt like Hordern’s performance was like someone playing an elaborate jazz solo through the middle of a bare bones delta blues song. That’s one of the reasons I prefer A Warning to the Curious, which also happens to be the scariest James adaptation to date.
Both stories involve lonely middle-aged men venturing out to the East Anglian coast and discovering an ancient artefact that awakens a malevolent spirit. In Whistle, the ghost just seems intent on scaring the protagonist; the wheezing spectre in Warning really wants to beat his skull in with a hatchet.
The prospect of a blunt, brutal death in an isolated location adds an uncommon touch of visceral threat to a Jamesian tale, creating palpable menace as our protagonist, played by furtive Peter Vaughan, goes in search of a long-lost Anglo-Saxon crown and is plagued by its ghostly guardian once he finds it.
Lawrence Gordon Clark directed all but one of the original BBC Christmas ghost stories, and A Warning to the Curious is the best. As someone who grew up in East Anglia, I love the way the sparse photography captures the atmosphere of the region’s long stretches of lonely beaches. They’re pretty uncanny at the best of times, let alone when you’re being pursued by a murderous spirit.
The Wicker Man (1973)
The Wicker Man is not just my favourite horror film, it’s one of my favourite movies, period. In fact, I’ve written about it so much in the past that it’s hard to think of something new to say about it. I even thought about excluding it for this reason but I couldn’t bear to do a list without it, which is why it’s 11 picks and not the usual 10.
Robin Hardy’s seminal folk horror tale follows religious copper Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) to the remote Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. The islanders all blithely stonewall his inquiries at every turn, and Howie is shocked by their rampant embrace of pagan practices, encouraged by the island’s owner and community leader, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee).
The Wicker Man has a vibe completely different from most other chillers, full of sunshine, song, and dance. It’s no exaggeration to say that it is a horror musical, and the superb folk songs are crucial in setting the scene, filling us in on the island’s lore, and moving the plot forward. There are no traditional scares, just a sense of foreboding as Howie blindly follows the clues to his ghastly demise. It’s a shame they spoil the ending on just about every poster for the movie, because it came as a devastating twist when I first saw it.
Penda’s Fen (1974, TV Movie)
Penda’s Fen is a film so unique that it usually gets lumped in with folk horror because there isn’t really anywhere else to put it. While it certainly has horrific elements, the best description I’ve seen of it is “Gnostic anarcho-punk anti-pastoral work of English art that questions the very notion of Englishness.”
That is quite a subgenre, and I’d go further than that. Penda’s Fen questions the very notion of assuming to be any one thing, whether it’s sex, race, religion, or nationality. The story follows Spencer Banks, a priggish teenage Toryboy growing up in a small village near the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. Through a series of strange visitations, from Angels and Demons to the ghost of Edward Elgar and the last pagan king of England, Penda himself, Spencer starts questioning his beliefs and finds enlightenment..
It’s a heady mix and David Rudkin’s screenplay packs an amazing amount of ideas into 90 minutes, while Alan Clarke’s authoritative direction conjures a quietly mystical ambience out of the English soil. It’s a film that feels especially pertinent in the wake of Brexit, and, for an intriguing insight into English nationalism, it would make a superb treble-bill with Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale and Paul Wright’s Arcadia.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
If Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and The Wicker Man form Britain’s “Unholy Trinity” of folk horror, then the trio of Wake in Fright, Walkabout, and Picnic at Hanging Rock perform a similar function in Australian cinema.
At its heart, folk horror examines the conflict between the urban and the rural, modernity and tradition, the present and the past, contrasts that are never far away when you live on a small-ish island like Britain. These three Aussie New Wave classics touch upon similar themes, pitching urban, white, relative newcomers to the land against the primal power of the vast Outback.
Peter Weir’s haunting Picnic at Hanging Rock is the most enigmatic of the three. Based on a novel that was purportedly based on a true story, it casts us back to Valentine’s Day 1900 when three girls from a prim private girl’s school vanish into the upper reaches of the eponymous landmark, never to be seen again.
It’s a stunningly beautiful film, and Weir creates a hazy dreamlike mood as they ascend, with phallic-looking formations looming over the teenage girls. Strange, aberrant noises on the soundtrack give the impression that the rock has been awoken by their budding sexuality, ready to spirit them away.
The disappearance happens about halfway through, leaving the rest of the film haunted by the girls’ absence. Maddeningly, Weir provides us with no answers, which means it is a film I return to again and again in search of clues to a puzzle that has no solution.
Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Sleepaway Camp also made my list of summer picks because I just love this movie so much that it’s good any time of year. If you haven’t seen it, don’t Google it… you’ll end up ruining the infamous twist ending.
Robert Hiltzik’s crazy alt-masterpiece is, at first glance, a standard Friday the 13th ripoff in that quirky horror subgenre of summer camp slasher movies: An unseen killer is stalking Camp Arawak and dispatching victims in a variety of imaginative and unlikely ways. What makes it so special is its bizarre tone, eccentric performances, and sheer volume of unintentionally wacky incidental details. It feels like Hiltzik had something he really wanted to say in this movie, and it came out in the most garbled way imaginable.
Before Covid, I ran semi-regular movie nights at a local pub and, out of all the films I screened, Sleepaway Camp got the biggest involvement from the crowd. It’s such a great movie to riff on with friends, and a terrific pick if you want a lesser-known horror movie for a Halloween get together.
Ghostwatch (1992, TV Movie)
Ah, the ‘90s. The decade of shell suits, Tamagotchis, Reebok Pumps, the Spice Girls, and just about everybody in the UK losing their mind because they thought the BBC really screened a paranormal investigation live on TV.
Looking back, it’s obvious that the tabloids had a large hand in manufacturing the hysteria that followed Britain’s War of the Worlds moment. Nevertheless, the truth remains that 11 million people tuned in on Halloween night 1992 and a decent chunk of them, myself included, either missed or ignored the opening credits and thought it was the real thing. For a while, at least, because it does get a bit silly at the end. Until it overplayed its hand, though, I was scared witless.
Ghostwatch looks dated now but it was incredibly innovative at the time, employing many of the techniques we now take for granted in found footage horror and using them to create a fake live show. Key to the conceit was casting reliable, family-friendly TV personalities as themselves, which lulled many viewers into a false sense of security before the scares began.
Even now, there are still some things in Ghostwatch that I find absolutely chilling. Especially Pipes, the malevolent spirit at the heart of the story, and the horror of his lair in the cupboard under the stairs. He’s still one of the scariest ghosts ever put on screen. But not quite as scary as…
This incredibly influential big gun of J-horror trades in a similar creepy hook as Night of the Demon, with the story revolving around a cursed video tape that dooms its watchers to a horrible death… unless they can pass it on to someone else.
Ring is not a film I regularly revisit, but it’s on my list because it gave me one of the biggest scares of my life. My flatmate and I had heard the ending was terrifying, so we sat down to watch it around 1 a.m. and sat patiently through the slow-burn build-up to what we thought was the end, when the protagonist descends a well and discovers the skeleton of the murdered girl at the heart of the hauntings.
Then we got to the real ending - skip past this bit if you haven’t seen it already. We’re back on the creepy well footage that the video tape has shown throughout. Previously we got glimpses of something apparently emerging from it, but it always cut off before we could tell what exactly. Finally we get the full version. The vengeful spirit, Sadako, emerges from the well, long hair hanging in front of her face, and advances slowly towards the camera in a horrendous jerky motion. Then when you think, okay, that’s close enough, she just keeps coming, crawling through the TV screen and dragging herself across the floor towards her last victim.
We absolutely bricked it, and my mate offered half a month’s rent off if I’d let him sleep on my bedroom floor that night.
The Witch (2015)
Robert Eggers kicked off his career with The Witch, an instant modern classic. Set in 17th century New England, it follows a family who are kicked out of a puritanical community because the father is too hardcore pious and set up a homestead on the edge of a spooky forest. Life turns into a nightmare when their newborn baby is snatched by a witch who lives in the woods right under the nose of the daughter Thomasine (Anya Taylor-Joy), and things just unravel from there.
Eggers sets his stall out from the beginning by showing us that yes, there is really an evil witch, and yes, she mooshes up babies to smear on herself. After that, he relies on a creeping aura of menace and despair as the family are besieged by supernatural events and turn on Thomasine, who they believe may also be in league with the Devil.
The Witch is an incredibly assured film and a brilliant all-round package. It’s painstakingly researched and there is a musical quality to the archaic dialect used, especially as spoken by the small cast of superb actors. Taylor-Joy stands out in an astonishing feature film debut. It’s also beautifully shot, lit, and edited, and the production design puts us right there in the 17th century with the characters.
As usual, the Devil has all the best lines, and I like to whisper “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” to friends at random moments. Don’t say it to strangers, though. They’ll just look at you like you’re weird.
So there you have it, 11 of my favourite horror movies. What do you think? Let us know your picks!