It’s not easy to create a horror movie that doesn’t rely solely on sudden loud noises or gore to shock viewers – which is perhaps why so few films in the horror genre rise above mediocre. A movie like Carrie has some wonderful scenes, but the overall mood is ruined by shifts in tone as if it can’t make up its mind what kind of movie to be. Hellraiser has its share of frightening scenes, but the overabundance of gore makes it difficult to watch. And movies like Portergeist suffer from being too absurd, concocting elaborate explanations for the supernatural. What I admire are movies that create a sense of horror with more subtlety and artistry. While the following movies are not all completely in the “horror” genre, they all thematically deal with horror. In alphabetical order, here are my top 13 picks to put you in the Halloween spirit.
1. The Blair Witch Project – 1999, dir. Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez. This modest, low-budget film proved that you don’t need flashy special effects to successfully create a mood of terror. The story is presented as a documentary of actual amateur footage found in the woods after three students vanish while researching a local legend known as the Blair Witch. We become the characters, watching the footage from their perspective in the viewfinder as they filmed it, which draws us in and heightens the chilling climax.
2. Carnival of Souls – 1962, dir. Herk Harvey. While on her way to take a job as a church organist, a woman is haunted by a bizarre apparition. It compels her to an abandoned lakeside pavilion, beginning an eerie chain of events. Harvey’s macabre, low-budget masterpiece, with its appropriately eerie organ score, has become a cult classic.
3. Donnie Darko – 2001, dir. Richard Kelly. Time travel, an improbably terrifying man in a rabbit costume and a protagonist who may or may not be slipping into mental illness form the mystery at the core of this cult film that straddles sci-fi and horror, yet is much more than either genre. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Donnie Darko, a troubled teenager in suburban Virginia who tries to make sense of seemingly disconnected, baffling threads and hallucinations. Everything finally comes together on the night before Halloween, when Donnie is forced to confront a decision that will change his future, and his past.
4. The Exorcist – 1973, dir. William Friedkin. Even putting aside the hype, this remains one of the all-time best horror films. Ellen Burstyn plays a mother who becomes distraught over the increasingly bizarre behavior of her daughter (played by Linda Blair). Not wanting to admit the possibility that her daughter has become possessed by the devil, she nevertheless agrees at last to bring in an exorcist. The minimalist music from Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield, which builds slowly and inevitably like the movie, was not originally composed with horror in mind, but just a few bars of the theme can raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
5. The Haunting (original version) – 1963, dir. Robert Wise. This is the original film version of Shirley Jackson’s novel about a paranormal investigator and his three companions who gather in an old house known for its terrible past. Claire Bloom plays the psychologically fragile Nell who slowly falls under the maleficent spell of the house. Despite a few campy moments that don’t date well, the movie still manages to retain its power. Wise understood that terror often lies in what is not revealed.
6. The Nightmare Before Christmas – 1993, dir. Henry Selick (written by Tim Burton). In this inventive stop-action fantasy, the leader of Halloween Town (known as Jack Skellington, the “king of the pumpkin patch”) conspires to breathe new life into the repetitive celebration of Halloween by kidnapping Santa Claus and imposing his own dark spin on Christmas. The visuals are engaging, and the ghoulish music by Danny Elfman brings just the right balance of humor and good-natured fright.
7. Onibaba – 1964, dir. Kaneto Shindo. This black-and-white Japanese horror movie takes place during the 14th century civil wars that rocked the country and resulted in mass starvation. A woman and her daughter-in-law survive by selling the armor of wayward warriors that the two women lure to their death. The element of the supernatural is subtle, and the minimalist use of images such as wind-blown pampas grass beneath a dark sky or the Noh demon mask is masterly.
8. The Others – 2001, dir. Alejandro Amenabar. Nicole Kidman plays a nervous woman who escapes to the English countryside with her two photophobic children during World War II, waiting for her husband to return from the front. This twist on the classic haunted house theme is done with just the right touch of pathos and supernatural dread.
9. The Phantom of the Opera (original version) – 1925, dir. Rupert Julian. Lon Chaney appeared in the title role in this silent film about a masked, disfigured musician who haunts the Paris Opera House and falls in love with one of the Opera’s singers. It is famous for Chaney’s intentionally horrific, self-applied make-up. Later remakes, including the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, are rather lame in comparison to the power and horror of the original.
10. Pitch Black – 2000, dir. David Twohy. It may have the facade of a sci-fi movie, but the story is really about one of our primal fears: the dark. A merchant ship crashes on a desolate planet where two suns keep the planet in seemingly perpetual daylight. The survivors discover a mysteriously abandoned outpost and slowly come to realize that something horrific waits to be released when the planet is subject to the darkness of a total eclipse. Vin Diesel plays the convict with special vision who they must learn to trust in order to survive the night. This movie scared the pants off me.
11. Scary Movie 3 – 2003, dir. David Zucker. The horror genre is ripe for parody, and the third installment of the Scary Movie franchise skewers not only flicks like The Ring and The Others but everything from American Idol to Michael Jackson. The scene at the wake had me laughing so hard it hurt.
12. Shutter (original version) – 2004, dir. Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom. A photographer and his girlfriend accidentally run over a young woman who appears out of nowhere on a dark highway, then guiltily flee the scene. The dead woman begins to intrude into their lives, appearing first in photographs and gradually taking on a more corporeal presence. The final scene is a disturbing image that will haunt you long after the movie ends. Be sure to watch the original Thai version, not the American remake.
13. The Silence of the Lambs – 1991, dir. Jonathan Demme. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins star in this thriller about an FBI agent who seeks the help of a convicted homicidal psychiatrist to track down a serial killer. Rather than the supernatural, it’s reality that makes this film so frightening, eliciting our fear of the real-life monsters in our midst.