As the air has taken on that autumn bite, pumpkins speckle the roadsides, and the window for finding the perfect Halloween costume is almost closed, the time is nigh for a Halloween horror movie list. In an effort to come up with favorites a little less obvious than the usual Michael Myers gang, I polled my scare-addicted relatives to craft a collection of relatively obscure essentials.
Raised by a modern Addams Family bored by cheap thrills, I was taught to appreciate horror films with story, mood, a rhythm of lull and fright, music and eerie beauty. My childhood initiation included “The Exorcist” in the third grade screened by my very own parents, “The Woman in Black” at 7am on my first day of fourth grade (I sat glued to my chair while my mom braided my hair), and a marathon of all three “Poltergeist” films at my sixth-grade birthday sleepover (I vaguely remember angry parents the next day). One random but crucial part to watching these scary movies: my parents always kept the sound low and closed captioning subtitles on, in case they fell asleep. As a result, every bit of story was absorbed, ensuring adequate preparation for the climax. Do you remember the dialogue in the first half hour of “The Exorcist”? Go back and watch again. Background is laid, key characters are introduced, important clues are given—the puzzle pieces arrange themselves and it’s up to you to follow along.
Here is my list of 10 essential horror movies. Again, I kept the obvious ones on every horror list off. This list is intended for the junkies looking for a new high. Don’t forget the subtitles.
1. Best Nostalgic Horror: “Lady in White” (1988)
A young Lukas Haas stars in this overlooked gem set in the sixties, where young Frankie gets locked in the classroom cloak room by bullies on Halloween night, witnessing the ghost of a little girl reenacting her death. The giggling, singing ghost child (“Have you ever seen a dream walking? Well, I did.”) is creepy, as is her mournful mother (surprise!—the lady in white), but its Haas who acts the brave boy hero and pitch-perfectly reflects our fear on his face. A satisfying ghost-led mystery, you’ll never listen to Bing Crosby the same again.
2. Best Slow Scare: “The Woman in Black” (1989)
Recently redone with Daniel Radcliffe (and exceptionally well, I do applaud), the original version of “The Woman in Black” is a prime example of slow scare, relying on old-fashion atmosphere and tension (it was originally made for British TV after all). It follows a young English solicitor who travels to a rural village to close the estate of a woman recently passed. Cue the creepy music, fog, sounds of children in the night, dogs barking at nothing, a grand mansion filled with a deceased family’s spooky things, and one pissed off dead woman…in black. Yes, it’s old, the makeup is terrible, and there are probably only three good scares over the course of hours of dialogue and silence. But if you pay attention from the start and make it to the big scene without flinching, you are far braver than me.
3. Best Cozy Scare: “What Lies Beneath” (2000)
You could scream as easily as nap to this supernatural thriller, which is both creatively modern and to-the-core classic. Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer star as Norman and Claire Spencer, a happy New England couple suddenly disturbed by a ghost from his (unfaithful) past. It’s got that beautiful lakefront house, the perfect marriage unraveling, the put-together female protagonist with a history of issues who starts to lose it, and one spiteful ghost pushing her to revelation. The lull-and-fright of this Hitchcockian horror film ensures a deliciously cozy scare, and always makes me want a snooze (and a Fireball).
4. Best Prison: “Gothika” (2003)
With the exception of Scorsese’s “Shutter Island”, there’s a disappointing drought in institution-set horror films. Halle Berry is at her best when she’s going batshit, and “Gothika” takes it to the highest notch as she tries to solve a ghost-led murder mystery that becomes surprisingly intertwined with her own husband’s murder. Once a psychiatrist in a women’s mental ward, she is now behind bars as prime suspect. With the aid of one terrifyingly aggressive ghost, she must piece together her memory and the crime. Dark and atmospheric, “Gothika” serves up some impressive scares, including a pool scene that will make you never open your eyes underwater again.
5. Best Orphanage: “The Devil’s Backbone” (2001)
Long before Guillermo del Toro won the Academy Award for his dark fantasy, “Pan’s Labyrinth”, he wrote “The Devil’s Backbone” as a young film student. Set during the final days of the Spanish Civil War, it tells the tale of twelve-year-old Carlos, who is sent to a haunted rural orphanage full of terrible secrets. He befriends a boy ghost, Santi, determined to unveil the true monster—his killer—with the orphans’ help. Melding classic horror (del Toro was an avid devotee) and historical melodrama, this foreign frightfest pumps screams, shudders and tears. The nighttime sequences following ghostly sighs and footsteps are deliciously frightening, and even the appearance of Santi himself is far from give-me-a-break laughable, but it’s the final scene that really scratches that itch for poetic justice.
6. Best Kids’ Horror: “Something Wicked This Way Comes” (1983)
This 1983 classic, adapted from Ray Bradbury’s novel and written for the screen by the author himself, is neither horror nor fantasy, but somewhere in between. Classified as a “family film” and stamped by Disney, parents unwittingly let their kids get the bejeesus scared out of them as Mr. Dark and his Dark Pandemonium Carnival invade small-town Illinois one crisp October night. The library scene made my eight-year-old heart bang violently against my ribs, as well as the grotesque freak show, but it’s the overall fear of impending doom with no adults to believe or help you, that really make this chilling tale wonderfully wicked.
7. Best Babysitter Scares: “When A Stranger Calls Back” (1993)
Sure, “When A Stranger Calls “was scary. Every babysitter’s worst nightmare finally put on the big screen. Then, more than a decade later, “When A Stranger Calls Back” was released with even more squeal-and-squeeze suspense, including an opening sequence as expertly crafted and terrifying as the original’s. It’s quiet, dark and tense, and has a what-the-what? plot reveal that is both horrifying and ridiculous. Still, this sequel is a smart scare that made my teenage babysitting nights hardly worth the $7 an hour—and a knock on the door the most petrifying sound ever (even if it was only the pizza delivery guy).
8. Best Foreign Horror: “Let the Right One In” (2008)
A refreshingly original, modern vampire story with young love at the heart, “Let The Right One In” is a foreign horror must-see. Dark, cold and at times just plain weird, this Swedish adaptation of the bestselling book is way better than the recent American remake, “Let Me In”. When a bullied twelve-year-old boy befriends an eccentric neighbor girl—a young vampire responsible for the town’s recent deaths—he finds friendship, his first love, and a protector who literally goes for the throat. Intelligent scares abound but it’s the ending pool scene that is so graphically shocking and—for anyone who’s ever been bullied—brilliantly satisfying that you’ll want to hit rewind to witness it once more.
9. Best Monster: “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006)
Another del Toro masterpiece. Both breathtaking and terrifying, Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a haunting fantasy-drama that may require more than one screening to digest. Set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, it follows an imaginative young girl as she constructs a fantasy world to overcome the real-life conflict around her. Every part of the underworld is so elegantly realized that you don’t even flinch when outlandish monsters, such as the child-devouring creature, Pale Man, threatens the young protagonist. The scene where Ofelia awakens the monster by eating two grapes from his eternal feast is so frightfully suspenseful that—as del Toro tells it—it made Stephen King squirm in his seat.
10. Best Haunted House: “The Changeling” (1980)
Long before Angelina Jolie put on roller skates and made that horrible movie by the same name, there was “The Changeling”. Full of ivy-covered estates, self-playing piano keys, intense séances, pounding sounds from the attic, and balls rolling mysteriously down staircases (even after they were disposed of in a remote river!), this eighties ghost story is one that gets it right. Where it fails in a little corniness and deflated ending, it shines in atmosphere and slow-burn storytelling that undoubtedly influenced the haunted house genre of today. It may not be well known but it’s well worth a viewing for fans of creepy old houses with walls that talk.