We're 13 days into September and with that I'd say we're finally in the full swing of the Halloween season. If you're an irritating little freak like me, you've honestly been ready for this since the middle of August. I love this time of year. Even mundane things like going to the store are so much more exciting, seeing the kinds of cheap crap they sell with pumpkins and witches and ghosts slapped on them. All the little snacks laced with pumpkin spice (if you're boring) or recolored orange with jack o' lantern faces slapped on them (that's the good shit).
Nothing makes this season feel more complete than sitting down to watch some scary movies. You can watch them anytime of the year, and you should, but there is something undeniably special about watching them this time of the year. If you're struggling to figure out just what to watch, here's ten of my favorite horror films that I will always recommend.
- Häxan (1922)
Silent movies can be so hard to get into for modern audiences, but if you want to give one a shot, I feel horror movies are definitely the way to go. They just hit different. Being over 100 years old, this movie feels SO far removed from today that you almost find yourself believing that it was filmed during the older periods it depicts.
This movie presents itself as a sort of, pseudo-documentary covering the history of witchcraft via little vignettes. The film itself is a visual marvel, with some truly striking imagery that'll stick with you long after you've watched it. The highlight is the witch's sabbath. Seeing their many silhouettes fly over the skies as demons call out their horns is first of many extremely memorable set pieces you will see during this part. A true feast for the eyes, made all the better by the surreal special effects.
Another highlight is the Devil, played by the director Benjamin Christensen himself. You can tell he's having so much fun with the role. I'd even say that he's the best depiction of Satan ever.
The ending of the movie then presents the case that many people accused of being witches were likely just the mentally ill, the poor, and general social outcasts. While it's a bit outdated in its views of female hysteria, it's still ultimately a very sympathetic take that is really fair for the era.
I remember thinking that I was just gonna watch the first hour or so before I went to do something else and then come back to it later, but I couldn't take myself away from it. It's such a strange, yet captivating film.
The movie is public domain so you can find it anywhere, HOWEVER a silent film is only as good as its soundtrack so I highly encourage you to watch this version on Youtube. This version has a hauntingly beautiful score by Matti Bye Ensemble. This is the one I initially watched and it enhances the film so much.
- Nosferatu (1922)
Classic really doesn't even begin to describe this movie. If you're only familiar with this movie through that Spongebob gag, you should definitely fix that. A moody atmosphere combined with the gothic, dreamlike visuals pair together to make one of the all-time greatest horror films.
There are even some shots in this movie that still kinda unnerve me. In particular, the visual of Count Orlok staring down Ellen Hutter from the window across from her house is just so freaky. In general, Orlok is really unsettling character, from his looks to the way he behaves. Unlike the suave gentlemanly Dracula you so often see, Orlok is just an awful little creature that can barely contain himself. Rather than converting people to creatures of the night such as himself, he instead spreads plague everywhere he goes. Orlok is like the personification of the black death, spreading disease where ever he finds himself.
This movie is also notable for starting the trend of vampires being killed by sunlight. That's right, before this movie vampires were typically only weakened by the sun. That's so much more recent than you'd think, but at the same time you still feel so far away from when this was originally filmed.
There's so much to say, but everyone's talked about this movie to death. Even if you haven't seen the movie, you've no doubt seen Orlok's shadow cross the stairs. It's one of the most iconic shots in all of cinema, constantly talked about in film schools across the world.
This is another movie that's easy to find due to being public domain. Unlike Haxan, I don't really have one specific version I'd recommend to you. I'd love to find the one scored by James Bernard, composer for many of the Hammer Horror films, but I've had no luck on that one. If you decide to watch this, make sure you're in the right mood. Turn down the lights, lie down in bed, put it up on the big screen, and you'll really feel like you're trapped in a nightmare.
- The Invisible Man (1933)
The classic Universal Monsters are some of the most beloved icons in all of horror, but between embarrassingly failed efforts to reboot them and the death of television, it feels like they're in a bit of a lull in terms of pop culture impact right now. Black and white movies are something else that modern audiences can struggle with, but if you can get past the lack of color there's none I'd recommend more than The Invisible Man from 1933.
While many actors refuse to have their face covered for more than a couple minutes, actor Claude Rains gives a tour de force performance as the titular character all while completely covered up or not even on the screen at all! His body language and tone of speech tells you his exact state of mind as he goes mad from power. Few villain speeches can hope to match the deranged energy he delivers when ranting about how even the moon is frightened of him-- frightened to death!
I think what might make this movie more digestible to modern viewers are the great special effects that mostly hold up remarkably well and that sense of dark humor that director James Whale gave all of his Universal horror movies.
While not as iconic or as flashy as the other Universal Monsters, Dr. Jack Griffin still manages to achieve the highest bodycount of them all. He might just be my favorite overall thanks to how well acted he is and his simple yet striking design. The wrapped up head combined with the reflective glasses and smoking jacket looks so damn cool. It's also worth noting that his mad cackling supposedly inspired Mark Hamill's iconic Joker laugh. When you listen to it, you definitely get that vibe.
This one isn't public domain so it's a bit harder to find. Definitely worth looking out for, though! If you like this one, check out the other Universal horror films! I think The Wolf Man and Bride of Frankenstein hold up just as well.
- Dracula (1958)
For all you people who cannot STAND to watch a film without color, we're finally getting to the movies for you. Also known as Horror of Dracula, this is the first in the Hammer series of Dracula films starring Christopher Lee as the titular count. I'm never sure if I like him or Bela Lugosi more in the role, both excel in very different areas, but I like this movie more as a whole.
Of all the Universal Monster movies, I feel the original Dracula is perhaps the hardest to get into for those not into those old movies. The lack of music for most of the movie is probably a major turn-off for most folks and the ending is a bit disappointing. Though there is a version scored by Philip Glass if you care to find it.
For people who can't get into the Universal film, but still want some old school Dracula action, this is the movie for you. Christopher Lee brings such a fierce quality to the role, you can say he gave Dracula his fangs back, both literally and metaphorically. Yeah, Lugosi didn't actually have fangs if you can believe it. Lee's Drac does, though, and he's always bearing them while glaring at you with those big bloodshot eyes of his.
The way he can just flip a switch to go from sophisticated gentleman to a nigh-feral, rabid beast is just incredible to watch. His commanding presence overtakes the movie anytime he's on-screen.
Making the movie even better is how he is paired off against the hyper competent Van Helsing, portrayed brilliantly by the Peter Cushing. While you can argue about Dracula all day, there's no denying that Cushing is still the definitive on-screen take of his character.
I could lay praise upon this movie all day, it's one of my all time favorites. I love it so much. Still, I think you get the point. If you like this movie, there's plenty of Hammer Dracula to go around after it. Dracula Prince of Darkness and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave are easily the best sequels, but almost all of them are worth watching at least once. Only one I can't recommend is Satanic Rites of Dracula. Not even the dynamic duo of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee can save that terribly boring movie.
- The Abominable Doctor Phibes (1971)
Few horror actors can claim to be as well renowned as Vincent Price. The impact he left on the genre is legendary and I'll admit I really need to watch more movies featuring him. Of the few I've seen, this is the one I liked best.
Price plays the eponymous abominable doctor. Left deformed in a tragic accident that was thought to have left him dead, Dr. Anton Phibes returns to strike revenge on the 9 doctors he believes killed his wife. How does he do this? By using the 10 plagues of Egypt as a template. The easiest way to describe Phibes is that he's kinda like Jigsaw, but not pretentiously awful.
It's a very deliberately campy movie, which you're either gonna love or hate. Me personally? I think it's a lot of fun. I really enjoyed this one. Price's performance is wonderfully over-the-top, all delivered in such a strange way. Phibes doesn't really, talk due to his deformity. All of his lines are delivered through this weird voice box device, so Vincent Price has to work his vocal and physical acting prowess completely separately.
The highlight of the movie has definitely gotta be Phibes' lair, which has all these fucked up looking animatronics littered around it that play music. They're obviously people in-costumes, but that only adds to how weird they look. In general, the film has a very bizarre tone and design language that feels unlike anything else I've ever seen.
- Young Frankenstein (1974)
This might seem like an odd one to recommend without having recommended any of the actual Frankenstein movies, but this is one of those parodies that's still extremely funny without having seen the originals. I actually saw it before I watched any of the Universal Frankenstein movies and I still loved it. A lot of what it parodies is either so well known in the pop culture zeitgeist that you know it through osmosis or hilarious on its own even without the context.
Every character is genuinely really funny. From Gene Wilder's Doctor Frankenstein (it's pronounced Frahhnk-ehn-shteen) to Teri Gar's Inga, they all have their moments to shine. The absolute funniest one has gotta be Marty Feldman as Igor, though. Everything from his mannerisms to his facial expressions are so good.
While it is a parody of those classic Universal films, it's also a loving tribute to them as well. The set design feels so authentic to the gothic architecture in them and the monster's make-up is really well done. Despite the humorous tone, the movie takes its premise about as seriously as it can. This is the secret ingredient that elevates it above other parodies.
- Halloween (1978)
A modern classic, this is a movie that needs no introduction. While various movies before it laid the groundwork, THIS is the film that codified the slasher genre that would flood the '80s horror scene. Despite that, there's a notable lack of blood or gore in this movie. Instead, this is a film that relies on the tense sense of unease that slowly builds ups over the course of its runtime.
The entire movie has this sort of ambiguity to it. Watching the way Michael Myers operates makes him such an enigma. It seems like he's almost toying with his victims, the way he peeps in and out of Laurie Strode's peripheral vision and that little obstacle course of horror he sets up for her at the end. Not to mention putting on Bob's ghost sheet costume for no discernible reason other than to fuck with Lynda. The way he almost admires his work by tilting his head.
While at first you think that Michael's therapist, Doctor Loomis, is just a total crackpot, by the end you really do almost believe him. You really do start to think that there really is nothing left to Michael other than the essence of evil. No more a man than he is a shape. Hence why he's just called The Shape in the credits. What a badass name by the way, people should make the effort to just call him The Shape more.
There's still a lingering sense of the unknown at play here. While there's nothing that COMPLETELY dispels the idea that Michael is just a really resilient human, you can't help but get the feeling there must be something more to him. It's that fear of the unknown that future Halloween movies have mostly failed to recapture. I haven't even had the chance to mention John Carpenter's score, which is just so chilling. If you watch only one movie I've talked about today, make it this one. After all, on Halloween everyone's entitled to one good scare.
- Friday the 13th - Part 4: The Final Chapter (1984)
While Halloween codified slashers, I'd say none in the genre are more iconic than the Friday the 13th series. Everybody knows who Jason Voorhees is. These movies left SUCH an impact that goalie masks are now more associated with psychotic killers than they are with hockey! Go into any store right now and odds are you'll find some cheap hockey masks in the Halloween section.
This is really funny when you consider that Jason didn't even get that iconic mask until the third movie of the franchise! He wasn't in the first film, except as a little boy, and in the second movie he just wore a burlap sack over his ugly mug. While it was that third film that gave Jason his iconic look, I'd say it took until the fourth movie to get that definitive F13 movie.
While all three previous movies have their merit, Part 4 gives you EXACTLY what you want from a Friday the 13th movie. You got Jason in that iconic mask running around and killing people in uniquely gnarly ways. What makes this a step above Part 3 is the characters. While these movies are typically associated with shallow, two dimensional characters you just want to see get slaughtered, this one has quite a few standouts. The big one being that dead fuck Jimmy, played by Crispin Glover.
Glover's Jimmy is such a neurotic nerd, but you can't help but like him. You root for him and are even sad to see Jason run his face through with a knife. At least he finally got laid before that happened. Tommy Jarvis and his sister Trish are the two other standouts, Tommy in particular becoming the central protagonist for the following two movies.
While this isn't the best Friday the 13th (that title belongs to Jason Lives tbh), I still think that if you're just gonna watch one, make it The Final Chapter.
- Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the masterpieces of horror. A genre defining film that helped lay the groundwork for the slasher genre that Halloween would later set in stone. A film that makes you feel completely uncomfortable in the best way a horror movie can. We're not talking about that one, though. We're talking about the utterly TRASHY sequel that I love instead!
TCM2 takes the dark comedy elements that were always kinda there in the original and ramps them up to eleven. EVERYONE in this movie is utterly insane, except for the final girl: Stretch. Poor Stretch is just caught in the middle of this war of the loonies going on between the Sawyer family and lieutenant Lefty Enright. Yeah, this is a movie where the heroic monster hunter character is JUST as deranged as the guys he's chasing down. Considering how psychotic the Sawyers are? This says a lot.
Best part of the movie is easily Chop Top, played by Bill Mosely. Mosely brings such a manic energy to the role, he steals just about every scene he's in. Mosely's not just chewing the scenery, he's outright gorging on it. Few characters can ever hope to be as unhinged as Chop Top is. Whoever came up with the idea of him picking at his plated head with a hot hanger and eating the skin off of it deserves a medal for just how out there and disgusting it is. The perfect mix of unsettling and hilarious, I seriously can't get enough of him.
Whole movie is just insanely quotable. I know it's sacrilege to say, but this is honestly my favorite TCM movie. Granted, the only one competing with it is the first movie since this franchise kinda fucking sucks outside of the original two.
- Evil Dead II (1987)
As is quite clear by now, horror comedy is a genre that's close to my heart. I love horror, I love comedy. Two great flavors that taste great together! No movie nails that balance of both quite like Evil Dead 2. Before he directed the best Spider-Man movies, Sam Raimi put together this little film series known as Evil Dead.
While I think Army of Darkness is my favorite, it leans VERY heavily towards the comedy side. To the extent that some people would say it isn't a horror movie at all by that point. I disagree, but regardless, Evil Dead 2 is honestly the stronger movie overall.
Bruce Campbell's Ash Williams is one of few heroes in the horror genre that has become completely iconic. From his groovy catchphrase to that chainsaw hand, Ash is undeniably one of the greats. Watching him go from a scared hapless stooge to a badass hapless stooge is just so good. Everything he says oozes with that charisma only Bruce can provide.
The special effects are also sublime, especially when you consider the budget. The best one being that utterly disgusting deadite Henrietta costume they stuffed poor Ted Raimi into.
The way it bounces from horror to comedy is also completely unmatched. That scene where Ash starts laughing with all the appliances in the house is so laughably goofy. That is until you start hearing his despair leak through the cackling, which is genuinely kinda heart wrenching to hear.
Also, check out the commentary track if you can find it! Yeah, I know, I'm even fucking recommending the commentary for this movie. It's honestly so funny, though, Bruce and Sam have such natural chemistry together, hearing them recall all the stories from the set is awesome.
That's all I've got for now. Hope you enjoyed reading this and decide to check one of these movies out! Or maybe you've seen all of them already and this is all just old news to you. Maybe give one of them a rewatch in that case?