Now I know what you might be thinking, why not just make a list of the best horror movies ever? After all, isn’t every horror movie an appropriate movie to watch on Halloween? Well, the answer is a little bit more complicated than that. While it is true that the best Halloween movies are going to be horror movies, I’m just not convinced that it works the other way around.
This is because while Halloween is meant to be a time of scares and chills, it’s mostly meant to be that sort of time in a fun way. The season is every bit as much about playing dress-up (for kids and adults), eating and giving away obscene amounts of candy (or apples, if you’re going to be that person), and basking in the crisp fall weather while you’re doing it.
Basically that means that the best Halloween movies are going to be the ones that reflects that same fun spirit (pardon the pun) of the season that say, a great foreign horror art film like Let The Right One In is just not going to quite capture. Similarly there are many great psychological horror movies like Repulsion and The Silence of the Lambs that, though truly terrifying from a lingering horror level, don’t quite have the entertaining scares that are entirely conducive to excessive candy eating.
In order to sift through the mountainous piles a good horror films to land at whatever might be the best for October 31st, I’ve developed a simple rubric to judging a film’s appropriateness which I call the “Treehouse of Horror”-test. For the uninitiated, the “Treehouse of Horror” is an annual Halloween themed episode of The Simpsons which usually puts the Simpson family in more peril as usual as they spoof the horror genre in general.
(Coincidentally, just doing a “Treehouse of Horror” marathon is an entirely appropriate way to spend Halloween night)
My “Treehouse of Horror” test basically works like this:
- If the movie has been spoofed in a “Treehouse of Horror” segment then the film qualifies for this list.
- If I could easily imagine how a movie could be spoofed as a “Treehouse of Horror” segment, then the film qualifies for this list.
- If without too much adjusting, I could imagine this movie being a glorified feature-length segment of the “Treehouse of Horror” then the movie is appropriate.
Basically the “Treehouse of Horror” test ensures that the movies that make the list are going to be campy, monster-filled, macabre, classic, or any combination of those qualities. But most importantly these movies are ultimately going to be scary AND fun.
Cabin in the Woods, The Conjuring, Get Out – These three excellent horror movies suffer from being too new which makes it especially hard to supplant some of the more established “classics” of the genre. Of course, this also means that these are the movies that have the best shot of climbing up in the coming years as more distance from the release date affords them a chance to stand on their own, rather than rely on their “contemporary” status. Basically I’m saying these are still excellent choices for Halloween night.
The Thing – John Carpenter’s bleak Antarctic horror show was the movie I agonized over the most to include in the Top 10. I am willing to concede that leaving it out might be an egregious error.
A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – These two entries suffer from being in a sub-genre overcrowded with great candidates, namely the slasher film which (spoiler-alert) will already have two other films make the list.
Night of the Living Dead – … I promise I’ll cover this seemingly glaring omission (twice!) when we get to the list.
Every Universal classic horror movie, every Hammer horror film ever created, and every horror movie starring Vincent Price – If whole categories of films were eligible to being included on this list there is no doubt that these three categories would be fighting for the number one slot. The Universal movies of the 30s and 40s basically established the tropes of horror film and feature the most iconic monsters ever created. Hammer Horror basically took those horror monsters of the 30s and 40s and remade them with a healthy dose of gore, sensuality, and over-the top theatricality which in effect injected new life into the genre and was the genesis of modern horror. Vincent Price’s contributions to the genre has already been illustrated on this blog. But while collectively these three categories are hall-of-fame worthy, there isn’t really an individual film that stands out as especially great (with one exception as we shall soon see).
10. TRICK ‘R TREAT (2007) dir. Michael Dougherty
In a sense Trick ‘r’ Treat is tailor-made to end up on a list like this. It is after all an anthology series that takes literally takes place on Halloween, covers all the major traditions of Halloween, and features a monster in the middle who could undoubtedly become the mascot of Halloween in years to come. But the sheer obviousness of this pick shouldn’t diminish the fact that as far as anthology movies go, this one is a proverbial blast. Unlike most horror anthology movies, there really isn’t a bad segment and each story is aided by the others as they intersect with one another creating a terrific atmospheric movie that finds the perfect balance between being actually scary and humorous as well.
9. CREEPSHOW (1982) dir. George A. Romero
With all respect to the previous pick Trick ‘r’ Treat, I argue that this is the anthology horror movie of first choice for the season. First, it’s because the movie’s horror credentials are top notch as it is directed by horror maestro George Romero and written by none other than the king of horror himself Stephen King. Second, the premise of the movie as a classic horror comic book come to life lends itself more to the actual childhood ritual of telling of campfire ghost stories. But finally and most importantly, the movie is a campy blast as it romps through gothic tales, alien invasions, twisted killers, monsters, and body horror. It basically has something for every taste in horror making it more than suitable viewing for the night. (Also it gets a George Romero movie on this list, which keeps the list from being completely invalidated).
8. SCREAM (1996) dir. Wes Craven
A common theme for many movies on this list is that they don’t take themselves too seriously, and this is most certainly the case with the 90s slasher flick Scream. It is at one level a comedic parody of all the slasher flicks that have gone on before, going so far as to even break the fourth wall in dissecting all the tropes of this sub-genre. But unlike the more banal horror comedy parodies like Scary Movie, what makes Scream so great is that it also functions perfectly as a terrifying slasher film in its own right with the slasher Ghostface being a worthy addition to the Horror Hall of Fame (wherever that place exists).
7. THE HAUNTING (1963) dir. Robert Wise
Unlike the first three entries on this list, there is very little intentional camp to be found in The Haunting. Instead it is an old fashioned ghost story, told in a creepy and foreboding mansion, in which unsuspecting humans try to tempt fate with the mansion’s malevolent power, and that uses every cinematic trick in the book with the single intention of trying to scare you. Now since this is a movie from the ’60s, chances are that it will not succeed in its ultimate intention, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that there isn’t gold to be found with this movie. The influence of this movie on horror is wide and varied, and I can guarantee watching this is going to be more fun than the inevitable Ghost Adventures marathon on the Travel channel on Halloween night (or other shows of its ilk).
6. ALIEN (1979) dir. Ridley Scott
One of the more remarkable things about this movie is how restrained it is. Nothing about the first 45 minutes or so hints at the horror that will eventually follow as the crew of the Nostromo respond to a distress signal in the middle of an unknown planetoid. The normal mundane of life of the ship’s contract crew lulls you into a false feeling of security, which makes the films sudden and ultimate shift into chaos and death all the more shocking. What we remember is the descent into madness as the xenomorph reeks destruction on a helpless crew, but the reason it effectively haunts our mind is because before the everything goes horribly wrong we are given this calm glimpse of what a stable status quo looks like. (Also the xenomorph is cool and bursting guts are also really cool and Ripley is super duper cool. Just had to put that out there)
5. SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) dir. Edgar Wright
This is the film that most faithfully follows my “Treehouse of Horror” rule, as the whole movie could really and truly be an extended segment in those episodes (all you’d have to do to make a lazy “Treehouse of Horror” segment is replace Shaun with Homer). This very funny film does have the benefit however of taking the very American genre of zombie films and transporting it across the pond to England, where the act of translating the zombie movie for British sensibilities only highlights the ridiculousness of both of those things. Also, as avid readers of this blog will have recognized by now (all three of you), this writer will take any and every opportunity to extol the virtues of Mr. Edgar Wright’s movies and Shaun of the Dead is very likely his best one. But most importantly, it gets zombies onto this list, in the perfect homage to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Between Romero’s Creepshow and this film making the list, I hope it’s at least a little justification for why Romero’s classic debut doesn’t.
4. THE SHINING (1980) dir. Stanley Kubrick
Readers of this blog may also realize that I probably overrate just how good The Shining actually is compared to the rest of Kubrick’s filmography (for example: here and here). But due to my love of horror movies, that’s just what’s going to happen and doesn’t negate the fact that The Shining is just a really good movie. It is the rare horror film that has all the prerequisite scares and iconically creepy scenes and yet is made with such craft and care that every aspect of the film whether is is the cinematography, the soundscape, the production design, or the acting are simply exemplary.
3. GHOSTBUSTERS (1984) dir. Ivan Reitman
If the key element about a Halloween movie is the synthesis of horror and fun, then this list has to include the funniest movie ever made about ghosts and ghouls. Just about everything from the deadpan humour of the cast to the sheer ridiculous visual spectacle on display is a treasure trove of comedy that is eminently rewatchable and quotable, whose delights are silly, simple, and nourishing to my inner child. But what kept me from placing this movie on the “Best Family-Friendly Halloween Movies” list (besides some subtle R-rated humour) is that portions of the movie are in fact scary and on par with any of the other horror movies on this list. It is the foolish parent who puts this movie in remembering the humour but forgetting the terror that is Zuul. But as something to put in after the kids have gone to bed, it is close to perfect.
2. THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) dir. James Whale
As I mentioned earlier, just about every classic Universal horror movie is entirely appropriate viewing on Halloween, but one film from that canon rises above the rest and that is The Bride of Frankenstein. While it picks up exactly where the original movie left of, Bride exceeds the original because James Whale relinquishes faithfulness to the novel in favour of a campy romp. Here the Monster smokes, gets drunk, and learns to speaks humorous phrases. The only slightly mad scientist Henry Frankenstein of the original gets overshadowed by his suitably off-the-wall bonkers scientist mentor who deals in homunculi and for reasons not quite fully explained, argues that the solution to the Monster’s destruction is providing him a bride. And the Bride is truly an iconically riotous creation in her own right. Taken together, it has all the makings of a horror classic that takes all the best parts of the original and makes it twice as fun.
1. HALLOWEEN (1978) dir. John Carpenter
With respect to Leatherface, Ghostface, Freddie Krueger, and Jason, the undisputed ruler of slasher movies is Halloween’s Michael Myers. Unlike all those other characters, what makes Myers so absolutely chilling is that he has no real personality or emotion. He is simply a remorseless and seemingly indestructible killer who stalks his prey without any noticeable motive. And in this the original instalment of the behemoth franchise we find him at his best mostly because Myers is distilled to his pure ferocious form while later movies would try to add some backstory to the proceedings. All this make Halloween the perfect movie to close-out this grisly night (and season) of celebrating all things horrific, frightful, and macabre.