For me, there’s nothing more exciting than the shot of adrenaline I get when I watch a horror movie that has well-orchestrated, story-driven frights, and whose characters are fleshed out and steeped in historical folklore. Today, with streaming services, on-demand, and DVDs (yes, they still ship), it’s easier than ever to get your horror mojo on. So there’s no excuse why you can’t cuddle up with someone special or a room of friends and get spooked this Halloween season.
Some of these picks will definitely date me, but as a child of the 80s I cherish re-visiting some of the horror film classics that have inspired hundreds of others over the last three decades, many I personally watched in a proper cinema, complete with broken seats and butter-coated floors (at least that’s what I hope it was — eeekk!). Here are my top ten horror film classic recommendations (plus one) to see over this Halloween season:
1. The Exorcist (William Friedkin) – 1973
”When a child is possessed by a mysterious entity, her mother seeks the help of two priests to save her daughter.”
Without a doubt, my all-time favorite horror film. The film that launched a hundred nightmares, shook me to the core and still works on me today. Continues to hold up after three decades. If you’ve seen it a dozen times, see it again. If you haven’t, you owe it to yourself to see it for the first time. To say anything more about this one would be an injustice to its craft and mantel in almost every horror fan’s “best of” list. I dare you to see this one alone with the lights turned off and the volume up high. I double dare you…
2. Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero) – 1978
“Following an ever-growing epidemic of zombies that have risen from the dead, two Philadelphia SWAT team members, a traffic reporter, and his television-executive girlfriend seek refuge in a secluded shopping mall.”
While the grandfather of the zombies kicked off the genre with his 1968 Night of the Living Dead, it’s his Dawn of the Dead that caught my attention a decade later since I actually got to see it play in a theater when released. Seeing humans with black, hallow eyes tearing the flesh of vulnerable live victims changed the game for me once more and solidified the genre as my favorite. And this Cuban American has given four decades of the reanimated dead and continues to work and excel in the genre he bore. Chock full of period-relevant political commentary. See if you can spot the parables.
3. The Thing (John Carpenter) – 1982
“Scientists in the Antarctic are confronted by a shape-shifting alien that assumes the appearance of the people that it kills.”
The remake that became a classic that inspired a prequel. An ensemble cast that was heaven-sent (can we say that in horror) for a movie of this type. Lots of scary moments balanced out with plenty of humor to boot, with fantastic specials effects that were ground-breaking during it’s debut and still hold up because of Carpenter’s storytelling and visually-astute abilities. The only “man against other” flick that edges out Alien (1979) in my collection due to its abundance of memorable characters (and star quality) that seamlessly fit together in this doomed oasis horror/sci-fi/thriller.
4. Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro) – 2006
“In the fascist Spain of 1944, the bookish young stepdaughter of a sadistic army officer escapes into an eerie but captivating fantasy world.”
One of the reasons I started Latin Horror. After watching del Toro’s hand at work in this masterpiece I knew there was a market about to be born in earnest in the genre of horror for Latinos. A masterful blend of horror and fantasy with a strong dash of historical folklore based on Franco’s dictatorship thrown in. Picture perfect, be prepared to have your nerves and sense of dread put to the test with this one – but let a modern master storyteller take you by the hand.
5. The Orphanage (Juan Antonio Bayona) – 2007
“A woman brings her family back to her childhood home, where she opens an orphanage for handicapped children. Before long, her son starts to communicate with an invisible new friend.”
Another masterwork from in the Spanish horror armada, this crafty piece of horror is tone perfect, suspensefully jarring. Films with children in jeopardy are always an egg-shell walk, but every moment introduced in this film has a payoff. Be ready for the room to get dusty so have your tissue ready. A great film to watch a second time just for the subtleties. See it together with Pan’s Labyrinth as a double-header.
6. Se7en (David Fincher) – 1995
”Two detectives, a rookie and a veteran, hunt a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins as his modus operandi.”
A cross between a cop procedural, thriller and horror film, this gem just drips with atmosphere – you can almost feel and taste it. And it’s one of the better cop buddy films ever made. Its plot and characters are well defined, and every clue builds and leads to the climax. This one stands in a class by itself.
7. REC (Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza) – 2007
“A television reporter and her cameraman are trapped inside a building quarantined by the CDC after the outbreak of a mysterious virus which turns humans into bloodthirsty killers.”
In recent years Spain has been on fire as an excellent creator and exporter of high-grade Latin horror, and REC is a prime example. Plot and spine-tingling suspense merge to curdle the blood in this “found footage” sub-genre done right. Intense and claustrophobic, it even spawned an American remake – Quarantine – a year later. Good complimentary snack: Sloppy Joes.
8. Halloween (John Carpenter) – 1978
“A psychotic murderer institutionalized since childhood escapes and stalks a high school girl and her friends while his doctor chases him through the streets.”
The original, and the film that kicked off the horror franchise to some large degree. And what better date to ground a horror film in? Intense jump frights throughout and insane cat-and-mouse gimmicks that have become the standard for most of modern-day masked psycho/madman/killer flicks. Campy but not boring by any stretch of the imagination. You’ll never look at a costumed stranger on Halloween the same way again. And starring scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis. ‘Nuff said. 😉
9. Tales From the Crypt (Freddie Francis) – 1972
”Five people get lost in a crypt and meet up with a strange crypt keeper who tells them stories of how they died.”
The first horror film I ever saw, and the first film anthology as well. A true classic in my personal collection. As a fan and avid collector of comic books, the film’s multiple story convention felt right at home. A creepy horror film that for me is the epitome of the style and pace of films from the 1970s (at least as I remember them). Its English stoic nature might feel a bit outdated for some American horrorheads who’ve grown up on slasher gore, but not for true fans of suspense and the macabre, as well as the connoisseur of the classic bleed. Guaranteed.
10. Insidious (James Wan) – 2010
”A family looks to prevent evil spirits from trapping their comatose child in a realm called The Further.”
I had not intended to see this film but went on the recommendation of filmmaker Franc. Reyes. And I’m glad I heeded his nod. This film provided me with a few genuine “tossed popcorn” moments – something I hadn’t experienced since my teens. Deftly helmed to make the most of the quiet moments, this film takes advantage of the bizarre, and also plants the viewer in an unbalanced and otherworldly realm that continues to provide pleasant surprises to the very end.
Plus 1: Drácula (George Melford) – 1931
“The ancient vampire Count Dracula arrives in England and begins to prey upon the virtuous young Mina.”
No, the accent in the film’s title isn’t a mistake. This Spanish language version was shot concurrently with its English counterpart (starring Bela Lugosi) on the same sets during the night after the English crew would wrap its day schedule. As part of its 75th anniversary, Universal Studios released a commemorative 2-disc edition that contains both versions. The Universal monsters series are some of the most memorable, and this anomaly is a rare instance. Find it. Watch it. Compare. A favorite in my collection to share with friends.