31 Essential Films you should watch this Halloween season.
Now, for the record this isn't a countdown. There is no rhyme or reason to the order of the films. Also, not all of them are horror movies. (Though most of them are.) I am by no means a horror film expert. I've seen many, but definitely not all of the essential horror films. I'll leave the horror expertise the guys over at the They're Coming To Get You podcast. Some of them are comedies. Some children's films. All of them, I feel, are Essential Films that help define the Halloween season.
And here we go...
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, Janet Leigh
She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven't you?
You check into the Bates Hotel, but you don't check out. The film starts with Janet Leigh on the run with a trunk full of ill-gotten money, then half-way through the film, she is killed in perhaps the most iconic death scene in all of cinema history. That's the brilliance of Psycho. The film gets you to care about one character, then kills her rather brutally. All of a sudden, you're trying to figure just where the hell the story is going. It keeps you on your feet, and it keeps you guessing. Chief among the reason this film is such a classic is the villain, Norman Bates... a mother-obsessed, err, psycho with a cross-dressing fetish. (Bates, by the way, can be found on our 100 Greatest Movie Villains countdown.) If you've never seen this film, then do yourself a favor and watch it now. It's reputation is well-deserved.
Directed by: Jonathan Demme
Starring: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn
Is it true what they're saying? He's some kinda vampire?
They don't have a name for what he is.
The only "horror" film to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The Silence of the Lambs tells the story of Clarice Starling, an FBI up-and-comer looking to make a name for herself. Starling is assigned to apprehend the notorious serial killer Buffalo Bill. Bill has a penchant for kidnapping overweight young women, killing them and making a suit of their skin. Starling is forced to enlist the aid of one Dr. Hannibal Lecter (a high ranking entry in our 100 Greatest Villains) to help her catch Bill. The only problem, Lecter is a manipulative, incarcerated, cannibal serial killer... who also happens to be a psychiatrist. Is he trying to help Clarice? Or does he just enjoy toying with her psyche?
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerrit, John Hurt
- I don't know.
What Ridley Scott accomplished with Alien, was to blend science-fiction and horror in a way no one had ever done before. What appears to be a sci-fi flick, actually turns out to be a completely terrifying horror film. A team of space miners come across an S.O.S. signal right before they are about to head home after a long several months on the job. When they go to investigate the seemingly deserted planet, an alien life form attacks and attaches itself to one of the crew's face, putting him in a comatose state. The alien is eventually seperated from Kane's (John Hurt) face... but not before laying eggs in his belly. In what has to be one of the most disturbing scenes in film history, an alien bursts out Kane's chest, and quickly grows to monstrous size as it picks off the crew one by one. In space, no one can hear you scream.
(El Laberinto del Fauno)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Ariadna Gil, Ivana Baquero, Sergi Lopez
Life isn't like your fairy tales. The world is a cruel place. And you'll learn that, even if it hurts.
Fascist Spain. 1944. Imaginative and aloof Ophelia is the young stepdaughter of the sadistic Spanish army Captain Vidal. Ophelia and her pregnant mother are brought in to live with Vidal while he finishes killing off the last of the rebel soldiers. Ophelia hates living under the tyrannical parental authority of her new father, and escapes into a world of fantasy. Ophelia stumbles upon an ancient faun living in a labyrinth outside her new home. He tells her she has to perform three tasks and she will become a princess of a magical kingdom. Definitely not for children, Pan's Labyrinth is essentially a dark (and far more disturbing) version of Alice in Wonderland. But is it all really happening, or is it all in Ophelia's vivid imagination?
Directed by James Whale
Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Mae Clark
Look! It's moving. It' alive. It's alive! It's alive! ... In the name of God! No I know what it feels like to be God!
This 1931 classic still to this day remains the best adaptation of Mary Shelley's classic tale. Dr. Henry Frankenstein is obsessed with making the dead walk. He creates a man by sewing together body parts from various corpses and succeeds in bringing this monster to life. Unfortunately the creature's abnormal brain causes him to break free and escape his creator as the film then focuses on the monster's attempt to find its "humanity."
BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN
Directed by James Whale
Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Elsa Lanchester
To a new world... of gods and monsters.
Henry Frankenstein wants to put all of the previous films events out of his life, and focus on settling down with his new bride, Elizabeth. Unbeknownst to Henry, the monster survived the villagers' attack and is currently on the rung while they hunt him down. Dr. Pretorious, a disgraced scientist and former mentor of Henry, returns to Henry's life and blackmails him into continuing his work of creating life as his own experiments have proved fruitless. When Dr. Pretorious finds the Monster, he convinces it to force Henry to make him a mate. So Henry Frankenstein must now create Woman where he had once created Man.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw
You're gonna need a bigger boat.
Just when you thought it was safe to get back in the water... More of an adventure film than a horror film, Jaws nonetheless is still one of the scariest movies you'll ever see. Unlike other horror films with monsters, ghosts are hockey-mask killers... this film uses something EVERYONE is afraid of. Sharks. Sharks are a real and dangerous threat and everyone knows that. This film about a chief of police, a marine biologist and a shark hunter going out to open water to kill the biggest damn shark you've ever seen will still resonate with audiences today, 35 years later.
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Starring Simone Signoret, Michel Serrault, Vera Clouzot
It's always the ones who know how that get drowned. The ones who can't, don't go near the pool.
The less said about this film, the better. Not because it's a bad film. On the contrary. It's an excellent film. However, this film has an unpredictable twist ending that may just be the best twist ending, EVER. The story revolves around a cruel headmaster of a French private school. Both his wife and his mistress are sick of his antics and plot to kill him. After the deed is done, however, the body disappears. What follows is part ghost story, part thriller. Just remember, don't spoil the ending for anyone.
Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon
He chose you, honey! From all the women in the world to be the mother of his only living son!
Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse are a young, married couple very much in love with each other. They move into an apartment with a somewhat checkered past. Soon they experience strange occurrences and constant pestering by the old married couple next door. Rosemary becomes pregnant while having a strange dream about a satanic ritual. Or was it a dream? For the next nine months, Rosemary increasingly becomes worried that there is something wrong with her unborn child. The old married couple, the Castevets, are unusually interested in her pregnancy. Old stories of the occult and witchcraft in the apartment's history further worry Rosemary. Finally she gives birth... but what does she give birth to?
Directed by F.W. Murnau
Starring Max Schreck
Is this your wife? What a lovely throat.
The original horror film. Even though this silent film is almost a century old, it doesn't fail to deliver chills in ways that modern horror films wish they could. At the time this film was made, Bram Stoker's widow was threatening legal action against the filmmakers for using her late husband's story as the basis of this film, and so... Max Schreck portrayed "Count Orlok" instead of "Count Dracula." Regardless of the name change, the story is familiar and is a fun adaptation of the classic "Dracula" story. Schreck is especially creepy as the title character and the camera work was way ahead of its time. Beautiful horror film. (Also check out "Shadow of the Vampire" (2000) which fictionalizes the making of this film.)
Directed by James Cameron
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Beihn, Linda Hamilton
You still don't get it, do you? He'll find her! That's what he does! It's ALL he does! You can't stop him!
This is an unconventional pick. It's not really a horror film, per se. It's a sci-fi action movie. However, I did say this list would not be comprised of all horror films. However, watch this film as a horror film. Trust me. It works as a monster movie. You have a monster (The Terminator) and you have a female hero (Sarah Connor.) The hero is constantly running away from and in constant fear of the monster. The monster kills everyone that gets in its way. And just when you think the monster is dead... it comes back! While the rest of the films in the series don't play up the horror movie aspect and are more conventional action films, the original Terminator works on many levels: Sci-Fi. Action. Horror. That's part of what makes it so brilliant.
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Starring Kare Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar
I'm twelve. But I've been twelve for a long time.
Let The Right One In is a Swedish vampire movie that goes back the basics. Vampires are dangerous, and bloody, and violent. Yeah, this is a story of a little girl and a little boy and their friendship. But it’s also a story of this little girl going out killing people and sucking their blood.
The story revolves around Oskar, who is friendless little boy. This kid is constantly beat up and bullied. Nobody likes him. He meets Eli… who seems to like him back. The two form a cute little friendship, but in the mean time she’s getting her vampire on behind his back. And this movie pulls no punches. It is BLOODY as hell. Once Oskar figures out her secret, will he reject her or will their friendship last? I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say the climactic scene is satisfying for anyone in the audience who has ever been bullied.
THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS
Directed by Henry Selick
Starring Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Catherine O'Hara
There's children throwing snowballs / instead of throwing heads / they're busy building toys / and absolutely no one's dead!
One of my favorite Christmas movies. Also one of my favorite Halloween movies. While marketed as Disney kids movie, this film is actually quite dark. The whole story revolves around Jack Skellington, a resident of Halloweentown who gets so bored with the darkness and dreariness of his little world. One day he stumbles upon Christmastown and gets a great idea. This year he'll kidnap Santa, and take over Christmas. This Halloween/Christmas mash-up is a essential viewing every year... for BOTH holidays.
Directed by Dario Argento
Starring: David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi, Gabriele Lavia
There's someone in the house... absolutely trying to kill me
Deep Red was my first, and so far only, exposure to horror legend Dario Argento's directing work. If the rest of his work is as good as Deep Red, I'm looking forward to further filling in the holes in my horror film education. At a demonstration of her abilities, a psychic claims to feel the presence of a murderer in the audience. Later on in the evening, English musician Marc Daly inadvertently witnesses the brutal murder of the psychic. Feeling responsible for not being able to come her rescue in time, Marc takes it upon himself to start his own investigation of the murder. But as he gets closer to unveiling the truth, newer and more brutal murders keep hindering the investigation. How is the killer tracking his every move? Deep Red is violent, bloody and a perfect Halloween film.
THE EVIL DEAD
Directed by Sam Raimi
Starring Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker
You will die! Like the others before you, one by one, we will take you.
Before Sam Raimi directed the billion-dollar Spider-Man franchise, he came from these humble beginnings. The plot is not all that groundbreaking: Five friends head towards a secluded cabin in the woods for the weekend. Once there, they find that an old book that was left behind. After heading to the basement they also find and play a tape recording of demonic incantations that release the spirits of the cabin to raise hell upon the five unsuspecting college students. One by one the spirits possesses every one of them until only Ash is left standing. Can Ash survive the night and last until the sun comes up? Evil Dead is at times goofy, and sometimes seems like they're should be a drinking game to go along with it. (And what a fun Halloween idea that would be.) However, you can see flashes of Raimi's late brilliance in this film, and the make up and special effects are impressive considering this film cost about $2.53 to make. Regardless Evil Dead is essential Halloween viewing.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
Directed by George Romero
Starring: A.C. McDonald, Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea
They're coming to get you, Barbara, there's one of them now!
One of my favorite movies ever. If you like zombie movies and you've never seen the original Night of the Living Dead you should be ashamed of yourself. After a NASA satellite falls to Earth and emits strange radiation, the dead mysteriously start coming back to life with an unquenchable hunger for human flesh. A collection of strangers are holed up in an abandoned house and fight off the zombies for as long as they can. The plot is pretty conventional nowadays, but you have to realize that this is the film that started it all. It's still pretty downright scary and effective filmmaking. And bonus trivia: the word "zombie" is never once said in the whole movie. Usually the living dead are referred to as "those things."
Bonus: The film is in the public domain, so you can watch the full movie HERE
Directed by Jack Clayton
Starring: Deborah Kerr, Peter Wyngarde, Megs Jenkins
But above anything else, I love the children.
Miss Giddens is hired on as a governess for two orphaned children, Flora and Miles, and given complete authority to raise them as she sees fit. Soon after she arrives, strange things begin happening around the house. Giddens does some research and she discovers that the former governess and valet of the estate died under mysterious circumstances. She soon starts to suspect that ghosts of these two are starting to possess the children and she starts to fear for the safety of the children (and her sanity.) The film is an underrated ghost story that is legitimately terrifying and should be seen by more audiences.
Directed by Tod Browning
Starring: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova
We accept you! One of us! Gobble, Gobble
Taking place within the everyday goings-on of a traveling sideshow circus, Tod Browning's Freaks plays out like a deformed soap opera morality tale. Beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra is involved in a love affair with strongman Hercules. This, however, doesn't stop her from shamelessly flirting with Hans the midget who is in [unrequited] love with her. Hans is constantly buying Cleopatra gifts, so when Hans' former fiance Freida accidentally lets it slip that Hans is coming into a major inheritance, Cleopatra decides to marry Hans, then kill him and run off with Hercules with his inheritance. Although, things don't exactly work out the way she'd like... At the wedding, the freaks accept her as one of them, and the sight of all of them accepting her at once horrifies her. Once the freaks learn of her agenda, an unsettling vengeance is exacted. Freaks is a disturbing and horrifying movie. Browning used real sideshow performers in his film like a bearded lady, conjoined twins, pin heads and a "human torso" (who had no arms or legs.) The film horrified audiences at the time and the film was banned for years and completely derailed Browning's career.
Directed by John Carpenter
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, PJ Soles
It's Halloween, everyone's entitled to one good scare.
William Shatner has never been so scary. When he was 6 years old, Michael Myers brutally killed his older sister on Halloween. 15 years later, he escapes the mental institution of which he was a resident for the majority of his life on the day he is supposed to be transferred to a maximum security prison. On the anniversary of the murder of his sister, Myers, wearing a creepy white mask (actually a Captain Kirk mask painted white) stalks a group of teenagers in the neighborhood he grew up in, killing them off one by one. Halloween has a pretty typical slasher film formula, but what sets it apart is that it was one of the first slasher films to become a commercial success and it uses the formula quite successfully. Just watch this one, though, and not any of the sequels.
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
Hi, my name is Jack. I’m a frustrated writer and an alcoholic who hasn’t had a drink in months. I may have hit my wife and son in the past… but I’m over it, I swear. One time mistake… honest. For some extra money, I’ve accepted a position as custodian of an isolated mountain hotel that closes down for the winter. Nothing but months with no human contact except for my wife and son and no alcohol… and oh yeah, the last person to take this job murdered his wife and children. Also, the hotel may be haunted. Yeah, this is a great idea. I’m sure that I won’t completely snap and go after my wife with an axe. Nah. I’ll be fine.
SHAUN OF THE DEAD
Directed by Edgar Wright
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield
-As Bertrand Russell once said, "The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation." I think we can all appreciate the relevance of that now.
-Was that on a beer mat?
-Yeah, it was Guinness Extra Cold.
Shaun is a loser. He has a dead end job and his girlfriend Liz just broke up with him. He decides he's going to win back Liz, repair his relationship with his mother, oh, and fight off a zombie outbreak. Therein lies the genius that is Shaun of the Dead. The film was marketed as a RomComZom. And it's brilliant. Not because it's a film that blends three genres together, but because it's a film that blends three genres together so well. The romantic element of the story works well. You really want Shaun and Liz to end up together. The comedy aspect works well... it's incredibly funny. One of the funniest you will ever see. And of course the zombie aspect also works. It pays homage to and has fun with all of the traditional zombie movie aspects.
Directed by Ivan Reitman
Starring: Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Dan Akroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Ernie Hudson
We came, we saw, we kicked its ass!
Seriously, if you've never seen Ghostbusters, you've got problems. Another comedy/horror entry. Though the horror isn't TOO bad, it did manage to scare me quite a bit when I was a little guy. There's really not much to be said here... everyone knows how great this movie is, and it is required Halloween viewing at my house.
Directed by David Fincher
Starring: Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, Gweneth Paltrow
What I've done is going to be puzzled over and studied and followed... forever.
A serial killer film in the vein of Silence of the Lambs. A lot serial killer movies tend to be more police procedural dramas. Not this film. This film focuses a good deal on the outright horror of the killer's actions. He punishes all his victims according to how they've committed one of the seven deadly sins: lust, wrath, gluttony, greed, envy, pride, sloth. The scene with the first victim pulls no punches. It's truly a frightening film with one of the most depraved mindjob endings of all time. Hopefully no one's ruined it for you yet, but when you realize what's "in the box" you will never forget it.
Directed by Tod Browning
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners
There are worse things awaiting man than death.
Not the greatest adaptation of the classic story, but one of the first and essential viewing every Halloween. Everyone knows the story: The Count's a vampire, falls in love with Mina, wants to turn her, here comes Van Helsing, let's kill Dracula, etc. etc. But what makes this movie so special is Bela Lugosi as the title character. Lugosi's interpretation of the Count is iconic and set the stage for many imitators. Hell, even in 2010 if you see someone doing a Dracula impression, they're really doing a Lugosi as Dracula impression.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET
Directed by Wes Craven
Starring Robert Englund, Heather Langencamp, Johnny Depp
This is just a dream, this isn't real. This is just a dream, he isn't real.
One, two... Freddy's coming for you.... The first, and best, of the franchise, "A Nightmare on Elm Street" rose above the "dead teenager slasher" films of the 80's and dared to do something different. Yeah, there were still dead teenagers... but the new imagery and special effects that Craven brought to the big screen at the time were unparalleled. The2010 remake of this classic was pretty terrible, so make sure you watch the original instead, featuring Robert Englund as Freddy Kruger, one of the greatest on-screen villains of all time. Check out his entry on the 100 Greatest Movie Villains.
Directed by Rob Reiner
Starring Kathy Bates, James Caan
I am your number one fan.
Paul Sheldon is a famous romance novelist. He drives to a Colorado hideaway for some peace and quiet to concentrate every time he writes a book. After finishing his latest novel, he gets stuck in a snowstorm and his car careens off the road. He'd surely be dead if not for the intervention of Annie Wilkes, a nurse who lives in the mountains. Soon after waking up from his near-fatal car accident, Sheldon starts to wish he was dead. You see Annie just happens to be Paul's biggest fan. And she will do anything... ANYTHING to keep him in her house while he "heals." But soon, that's not enough, and she forces him to write a new novel after being unsatisfied with the ending of his previous novel. Paul's legs are broken, and there are no phones in the house so he can't call for help. When Annie learns of an unsuccessful escape attempt, she decides to make sure Paul never, ever leaves her in one of the film's most memorable (and painful) scenes.
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Colette
Do you know why you're afraid when you're alone? I do. I do.
Before Shyamalan started relying too much on his gimmicks, this is the film that started it all. Creepy, chilling and suspenseful, this is a great film to watch this Halloween season. Still one of the greatest twist endings of all time. And if you're the last person in the world that DOESN'T know the ending, stop what you're doing and watch this movie now before someone inadvertently ruins it for you.
Directed by Henry Selick
Starring: Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher
You know, you could stay forever, if you want to. There's one tiny thing we have to do first...
Another children's movie. However, much like The Nightmare Before Christmas (also directed by Selick), this stop-motion animated film is an incredibly dark film that may not be suitable for all ages. Coraline is a bored, little girl that moves into an old house. Her parents don't seem to pay much attention to her, and the little boy next-door is a nuisance. She desperately wants to escape, and gets her chance when she discovers a door in the house that's a portal to another world. The other world is exactly like the one her house is in.. except everyone pays attention to her, everyone loves her and everyone wants to make her happy. Except, for some reason, everyone has buttons in the place of eyes. Soon Coraline finds out what the price she has to pay is to stay in this fun "other" world, and she realizes getting back home wasn't as easy as leaving it.
Directed by William Friedkin
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Lee J. Cobb, Max Von Sydow, Linda Blair
The power of Christ compels you!
To this day, this film still terrifies me. 37 years after this movie was released and not one film has even come close to scaring me like this film still does. The Exorcist is about a young girl named Regan who one happens to get possessed by the Devil. Or, at least, it claims to be the devil. Regardless, it's a demon. And this demon turns sweet, little Regan into a foul-mouthed, head-spinning, bed-levitating, green-liquid-vomiting nightmare. Two priests are called upon to exorcise the demon: Father Karras, who doubts his faith because of his recently deceased mother and Father Merrin, a frail and elderly priest who has battled the demon before. Both of these men of God have to fight the ultimate evil and save a girl's life.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Starring: Marilyn Burns, Allen Danziger, Paul A. Partain
Those girls... those girls don't wanna go messin' round no old house!
Chainsaws. Cannibals. Texas. Yep. That all adds up to something pretty downright horrific. This movie was way ahead of its time. It pulled no punches and once the horror started it did not let up. At first, it's spooky enough when we hear about the corpse sculptures found in a cemetary. Then we have the hulking Leatherface chopping people up with a chainsaw. Of course, then we have our heroine, Sally, tied down and forced to be the guest of honor at a cannibalistic dinner party. Oh and let's not forget Grandpa. You know what? I'll let you find out about Grandpa by yourself. Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Try to get this one out of your head.
IT'S THE GREAT PUMPKIN, CHARLIE BROWN
Directed by Bill Melendez
On Halloween night, the Great Pumpkin rises from his pumpkin patch and flies through the air with his bag of toys to all the children.
OK. OK. I'm cheating. This isn't really an essential "film." But come on. It's just NOT Halloween without "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown." It just isn't. This is as critical to Halloween as candy and Jack O'Lanterns. You just have to watch it.
And that concludes our list of the 31 Essential Films you must watch this Halloween. Thanks for reading and Trick or Treat!