The leaves are turning brown, the dark evenings are drawing in, and the supermarkets are filling up with pumpkins, monster masks and fake blood. It can only mean one thing: Halloween season is upon us.
While you’re planning your costumes and stocking up on sweeties, there’s no better time for getting a good old seasonal movie on for some frightening fun. And you could do a whole lot worse than any of the following 10 selections.
25. Sleepy Hollow
Tim Burton has been the reigning king of Gothic chic in cinema ever since he arrived on the scene in the 80s, so it’s surprising that it took him until 1999 to make a fully-fledged horror movie – but it was well worth the wait.
This autumnal tale casts Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane, a principled yet cowardly detective sent to the remote village of the title to investigate a series of grisly murders which locals say are the work of a headless horseman, back from the grave for revenge.
24. ET: The Extra-Terrestrial
Okay, Steven Spielberg’s 1982 classic isn’t exactly your standard definition of a Halloween movie, given that there isn’t too much that’s spooky about it – but it is set at Halloween, and it seemed fair to include something on this list for people who don’t like spooky stuff for some reason.
While creepiness isn’t exactly the main order of business, the central Halloween night sequence gives us one of the best representations of trick-or-treating ever put to film.
23. Night of the Demons
Way over at the gorier, trashier end of the spectrum, director Kevin Tenney’s 1988 B-movie extravaganza sees a bunch of mischievous high school misfits get more than they bargained for when they break into a supposedly haunted mansion for a Halloween party.
Piled high with lurid thrills and belly laughs, this crude comedy horror is a lot like parma violets or peanut butter chocolate: it’s never going to be to all tastes, but those who like it are going to love it.
22. Monster House
We’re back on more family-friendly ground for our next pick, although director Gil Kenan’s 2006 animated adventure is considerably creepier than your average PG-rated blockbuster.
The fun yet frightening film follows three kids whose trick-or-treating plans are derailed by the shocking revelation that the creepy old house across the street is literally alive – and eating people.
21. Idle Hands
Back on the distinctly non-kid friendly side, this October-set 1999 teen horror-comedy is one of the most entertaining genre entries to emerge in the wake of Scream.
Devon Sawa (later seen in Final Destination) stars as a lazy slacker who unwittingly turns into a serial killer when his hands get possessed, whilst Jessica Alba co-stars as his long-suffering girlfriend.
20. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
It just isn’t Halloween without the classic monsters of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man – so what better movie to mark the occasion than Universal’s 1948 romp which brought the iconic trio together to face off against comic double act Bud Abbott and Lou Costello?
Sure, it isn’t actually set on October 31st, but it’s still positively oozing with that Halloween party spirit.
19. The Nightmare Before Christmas
We could argue forever about whether it’s a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie, but anyway you look at it this beloved 1993 animation from Tim Burton (yes, him again) is perfect viewing anytime in the last three months of the year.
Bursting with memorable songs courtesy of Danny Elfman, the enjoyably eerie tale sees the disillusioned king of Halloween Jack Skellington set his heart on taking over Christmas, with disastrous results.
18. Hocus Pocus
Maybe there was something in the water in 1993, as that same year brought us another family-friendly film which quickly became a perennial Halloween favourite, in Hocus Pocus.
Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy star as the Sanderson sisters, three witches who are resurrected on Halloween night by unwitting teenager Max (Omri Katz, of awesome early 90s TV series Eerie, Indiana).
Bit of a no-brainer; how could anyone let the spookiest night of the year pass them by without the time-honoured classic which made the night properly scary to begin with?
Near-perfect horror entertainment, 1978’s Halloween kick-started the slasher movie craze, spawned ten sequels (so far), established Jamie Lee Curtis as a scream queen for the ages, and launched director John Carpenter to an incredible career – but you just can’t beat the original.
16. Trick ‘R Treat
Arguably no film has encapsulated the spirit of Halloween quite so perfectly as this anthology horror extraordinaire from writer-director Mike Dougherty.
Telling a number of loosely overlapping tales that explore the ancient traditions of All Hallow’s Eve and colourfully bring them to life, this one’s definitely more treat than trick, and it’s begging to be watched at least once (if not more times) before October ends.
15. The Shining
Only The Shining could turn the idyllic Rocky Mountains into a place of menace. When Jack Torrance becomes the winter caretaker for the remote Overlook Hotel, he and his family leave behind all other human contact – and very soon their little domestic life turns otherworldly. Telepathy, ghostly visitations and cryptic messages abound in this psychological horror movie.
In 2004, researchers at King’s College, London created a formula to determine the most terrifying movies of all time, taking into account their levels of suspense, realism, shock and gore. They concluded that The Shining is the greatest scary movie to date, with its terror-inducing escalation.
14. Get Out
Get Out (2017) starts off as the tale of a young couple on a weekend trip with family, yet it soon devolves into a nightmarish mystery. Rich in symbols of slavery and racism, this movie puts the most distressing aspects of US history into cosy suburban life – but it is also peppered of jokes. This came as no surprise to fans of Jordan Peele, the comedian who made this movie his directorial and film-writing debut.
This movie features a wide-ranging soundtrack, with tunes ranging from (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life, to the Flanagan and Allen song Run Rabbit Run. The composer Michael Abels created blues-inspired tracks for the film, and would return for Jordan Peele’s next horror movies, Us and Nope, bringing a similarly evocative and mournful atmosphere.
13. What We Do in The Shadows
Castles, crypts and dungeons are the typical abode of the vampire – but the bloodsuckers of this mockumentary share a flat in Wellington, New Zealand. Viago (Taika Waititi) is a 17th century dandy with a heart of gold; Vladislav the Poker (Jemaine Clement) is enchanted by the possibilities of Facebook; and Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) loves to knit but hates doing the dishes.
Petyr, their 8,000-year-old roommate, hides in the basement and closely resembles the iconic vampire Count Orlok (whom you can find later on this list). The vampires’ long-suffering lackeys are ‘Familiars’, humans who dream of becoming vampires themselves someday. Thanks to its immense popularity, What We Do in The Shadows has spawned a four-season TV show of the same name.
12. The Rocky Horror Picture Show
“Tasteless, plotless and pointless,” one critic wrote, while another summarized it as a “film horror”. But the Rocky Horror Picture Show developed huge audiences as a so-called ‘midnight movie’, with revellers gathering in their hundreds at cinemas to sing along, shout and mimic the actors with props. The movie is every bit as raucous as its cult following, with a lead performance by Tim Curry as the extravagant Dr Frank-N-Furter.
Placing a respectable young couple into a family of ultra-camp misfits, this 1975 film worked wonders for young people who felt they didn’t belong. “I know of a lot of people whose lives were saved by this movie,” said Larry Viezel, president of The Rocky Horror Picture Show Official Fan Club. “Especially for those in the LGBT community, it’s a place where they could be themselves and find people who were their family.”
11. Jennifer’s Body
Jennifer’s Body follows the misadventures of an undead cheerleader who attacks her male classmates, much to the chagrin of her best friend Needy (Amanda Seyfried). Upon its release in 2009, this zombie movie faced some problems. It was marketed towards teens – in particular, as the film’s screenwriter Diablo Cody wrote, “boys who like Megan Fox” – but it was R-rated. Fox was considered just the pretty face of the Transformers franchise, while Diablo Cody was viewed as a one-hit wonder after her earlier work Juno. It bombed at the box office, and was described by the LA Times as a “sorely lackluster scare flick.”
However, the movie has since been re-evaluated by critics and is now considered a staple of feminist horror. In its clever subversion of the “damsel in distress” trope, Jennifer’s Body explores the questions of sexuality and gender that teen girls face, and packs some thrilling chases and jump-scares too.
10. The Exorcist
Whether it’s a 360-degree head turn, levitation over a bed, or the ‘spider-walk’ down the stairs, you’ve probably come across The Exorcist’s iconic tropes even if you haven’t watched the movie itself. Widely considered the best horror movie ever, it saw audience members run screaming from the sneak preview alone. The Exorcist also features one of the creepiest child performances ever to reach the silver screen, with the young Linda Blair later becoming a staple of horror and exploitation movies.
“The thing with The Exorcist, which is my favourite film of all time, is that it still stands up to this day,” the critic Mark Kermode has said. “…I know there is a new generation who don’t find it frightening. But I still do – even after all this time and having written a book about it and made a documentary on it. It’s never, ever failed me.”
9. Rosemary’s Baby
Set in Manhattan, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is about a young couple named Guy and Rosemary who are awaiting the birth of their first child. Guy befriends their middle-aged neighbours, the Castevets – but Rosemary soon detects something very sinister in them, suspecting that they may be involved in a satanic plot.
Rosemary’s Baby was actually in jeopardy during filming. The lead actress Mia Farrow was in the process of splitting from her husband Frank Sinatra, and he served her divorce papers via a lawyer in front of the entire cast and crew. Farrow considered dropping out of the film to appease Sinatra and rebuild their marriage – but the director Roman Polanski convinced her otherwise. She went on to receive widespread critical praise for this chilling role that helped redefine horror.
8. The Babadook
Truly a modern movie, The Babadook (2014) was partly funded by an online Kickstarter campaign. The scary effects were all done on a budget, using traditional techniques like stop motion. But this simple story, which follows the lives of a grieving single mother and son pursued by a monster, packs a whole lot of horror.
Even William Friedkin, who directed The Exorcist, was shocked by this movie. “I’ve never seen a more terrifying film,” he commented on Twitter. “It will scare the hell out of you as it did me.” But it’s a tale often handled with humour and love, with light-hearted moments to break the tension.
7. The Thing
In another tale of critical ridicule to glory, The Thing is a 1982 sci-fi classic by John Carpenter. It narrowly recuperated its $15 million budget at the box office, where it was in competition with the far more family-friendly E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The movie shows a team of American scientists cooped up in an Antarctic research station. The group is infiltrated by a terrifying, shape-shifting monster, who destroys and then perfectly imitates other living organisms.
Unable to tell whose body is harbouring this creature, the researchers turn on each other with violence and paranoia. Although critics derided it as the “quintessential moron movie of the 80s”, and its over-the-top gore was ridiculed, The Thing has received far more appreciation from modern audiences. Starring Kurt Russell, A. Wilford Brimley and Keith David, this film has gone down in history as one of the greatest works of horror.
6. Silence of the Lambs
The Silence of the Lambs is the story of young FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who must fend off violent threats, sexism and red tape to pursue her case. But it’s also the tale of Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), the convicted murderer and cannibal who becomes Starling’s unlikely mentor. Lecter delivers some of the most memorable lines in cinema, including the quip “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti”, and his strangely moving words to Clarice: “The world is more interesting with you in it.”
This film won the Academy Award for all five major categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. To date, it is still the only horror movie to win Best Picture. A sequel and two prequels have since been released, but only The Silence of the Lambs emerged as an undisputed horror masterpiece.
Heathers is the ultimate teen black comedy, providing a hilarious and devastating contrast in the era of John Hughes romances. Released it 1989, it details the little cruelties of a high school clique, nicknamed ‘The Heathers’ for their shared first names. Their latest addition is Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder), who is led into violent antics by her rebellious boyfriend J.D. Dean (Christian Slater).
When J.D.’s musings turn to murder, Veronica is dragged into a wild revenge conspiracy. With their extraordinary slang, massive shoulder-pads and boozy parties, the Heathers are a twisted throwback for kids of the 80s – but for younger audiences, they are the foundation blocks for many dark teen tales. “Dark, cynical, and subversive, Heathers gently applies a chainsaw to the conventions of the high school movie – changing the game for teen comedies to follow,” Rotten Tomatoes summarized.
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is the oldest work on our list. Released in 1922, it’s a silent movie of the German Expressionist movement, and it is based on the tale of Dracula. However, while Dracula’s violence spawns more vampires, there is no escape from Nosferatu’s Count Orlok – he simply slaughters his victims and leaves the local townsfolk living in terror.
Today, this film has a PG rating – but that doesn’t mean it won’t scare you. With its eerie music, the disturbing movements of Count Orlock himself and the gradual build-up of dread, this movie is distinctly unsettling even after 100 years.
In the same year that he directed E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Spielberg brought a very different story to the silver screen. Poltergeist is the supernatural horror flick about a family gripped by ghostly activity. Their little girl Carol Anne speaks to an entity through the television, and soon afterwards she tells her family: “They’re here.” Chaos ensues, and the family calls in a spiritual medium in a last-ditch effort to bring peace to their home.
The filmmakers spared no expense in making this movie’s effects as creepy as possible – but in one instance, they reportedly obtained their most gruesome props from a cost-saving perspective. According to lead actress JoBeth Williams, the skeletons in the movie were real. “A few years later, I ran into one of the special effects guys, and I said, ‘You guys making all those skeletons, that must have been really amazing,’” Williams told Vanity Fair.” He said, ‘Oh, we didn’t make them, those were real.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Yeah, they were real skeletons.’” It’s rumoured that real skulls were cheaper than plastic recreations at that time.
2. Night of the Living Dead
Night of the Living Dead is a 1968 horror movie about seven survivors of a flesh-eating zombie attack, trapped together in an isolated farmhouse. To make this independent movie, director George A. Romero recruited the friends and families of the cast, used very simple makeup effects, and filmed in a cemetery chapel marked for demolition.
Thanks to Romero’s cost-cutting efforts, the film was completed on a budget of about $100,000 – and its spectacular performance at the box office made it one of the most profitable movies to date, as it earned $18 million internationally. Lead actors Duane Jones and Judith O’Dea, who were previously unknown in Hollywood, shot to fame as a result. Jones in particular was unusual in being one of the first black actors cast in a lead role where the script did not specifically ask for one.
1. Little Shop of Horrors
Little Shop of Horrors had a complicated journey to Hollywood: it was originally a 1960 black comedy that was later adapted to a stage musical, before it became a horror comedy rock musical of 1986. Directed by Frank Oz, this film is about how a sentient, bloodthirsty plant plans to take over the world, starting from a flower shop in the decrepit neighbourhood of Skid Row.
It is a bonanza of comedic and musical talent, starring Rick Moranis as the dejected florist Seymour, Ellen Greene as the sweet and squeaky Audrey, and Steve Martin as a sadistic dentist. Its best-known songs are Skid Row (Downtown), Somewhere That’s Green, and Suddenly, Seymour, as well as the majestic rock song Feed Me! from Audrey II, voiced by Levi Stubbs.