It’s that time of year.
Whether you are a diehard fan of horror films or someone who only watches them around Halloween, now is the time when everyone wants to be scared. The trouble is that if you don’t like the Freddy or Jason films (or Freddy vs. Jason, for that matter) and are sick of all the other cliché teen slasher flicks, you might think there isn’t anything to watch to get a good scare. You might be sick of seeing the same films on TV every year or haven’t gotten around to seeing some of the classics that don’t get as much airplay as the fifth installment in the Halloween franchise. Want to try something new, eh?
Well, this year, you’re in luck.
Here are five of my favorite horror films to watch around Halloween:
Carnival of Souls
Carnival of Souls (1962, Herk Harvey) Carnival of Souls is a surprisingly bold and terrifying classic with amateur actors and a miniscule budget, yet the strangeness and the outstanding performance by Candace Hilligoss are what make this one truly memorable. Even today in the era of special effects and over-the-top grotesquerie, this one will still manage to give you nightmares.
Book of Blood
Book of Blood (2009, John Harrison) The framing story that began Clive Barker’s astounding Books of Blood series of short fiction is brought to life in all of its unsettling glory. At times gruesome, terrifying, and remorselessly dark, this is one of the best Barker adaptations in a new wave of outstanding Barker adaptations (see Dread and The Midnight Meat Train). You can’t go wrong with any of them…or really anything written by Barker.
The Cell (2000, Tarsem Singh) Singh hit a home run in his major directorial debut starring Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn. This is truly the most compelling visual masterpiece of any horror movie I’ve seen. The sets are both beautiful and revolting and never seem out of place. Singh was able to translate the intangible visions of the human mind onto film so well that no one before or since has come close to replicating it. Part detective thriller and part psychological-terror romp, this is one of the most underrated films of the last fifteen years.
The Thing (1982, John Carpenter) Carpenter’s films are hit and miss, but The Thing may well be my favorite movie. Kurt Russell gives an outstanding performance as an American helicopter pilot stationed in the Arctic with a handful of other researchers/workers. After a couple of crazed Norwegians fly over their camp trying to shoot down a mysterious dog, all hell breaks loose. A shape-shifting alien has infiltrated the crew through the dog with the ability to exactly mimic the behaviors and mannerisms of the bodies it absorbs. Russell has to figure out who among the crew is the alien and destroy it before it escapes into civilization as one of them, while at the same time proving to the other men that it hasn’t taken over his body.
Session 9 (2001, Brad Anderson) Session 9 was released in 2001 without much fanfare and has continued to receive mixed reviews from critics. Don’t listen to them. Anderson was able to make a truly disturbing film without needing gore, rape, or boogeymen to do it. The setting of the abandoned psychiatric hospital (Danvers) is enough to put you on edge, but the enigmatic figure Simon–an alternate personality of one of the hospital’s former patients (and more)–will have you looking over your shoulder at every turn. Definitely worth a second viewing to appreciate the subtleties.
While these films aren’t necessarily mainstream classics (with the exception of The Thing, which has a prequel of the same title being released this October) that you’ll see on TCM or AMC or even featured at your local video store (if you still visit one), they are worth the time and attention of even the casual fan of horror movies. So this year, rather than watching a marathon of every ridiculous Michael Myers sequel or the cartoonish Nightmare on Elm Street films from the late ’80s and ’90s (which isn’t to say that I dislike them), pick out something new and remember what it’s like to be truly terrified, surprised, disturbed, and vulnerable again.
Happy Halloween and happy viewing.
Joseph Williams at a book signing