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Night of the Living Dead
George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead finds seven people trapped in a Pennsylvania farmhouse forced to fend off a never-ending attack from the undead. The film’s gore courted controversy and calls for censorship, but its shock value made it one of the most popular and profitable horror films ever produced. Reflecting on the chaos and tumultuous cultural unrest of 1968, Romero continued with the series for an additional five films and with each adding a bold social critique of the times in American culture. The film also marks an important moment in colorblind casting with Duane Jones’ taking the leading role.
Hereditary and Midsommar
Celebrate this Halloween with a double feature from one of modern horror’s master filmmakers Ari Aster. Hereditary and Midsommar are high-concept art-horror united by an abject fascination with the trauma of loss and each anchored by unforgettable performances by Toni Collette and Florence Pugh, respectfully. Aster proves himself a horror maestro in each film when he reaches shocking crescendos. Their superb production design, concise editing, and masterful cinematography elevate these contemporary horror films that will surely be cemented as classics in the near future.
A post-modern pastiche of horror, comedy, and feminist fable, Teeth is an absolute delight. Directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein, son of pop artist Roy, the film explores the vagina dentata myth through the sexual coming of age of chaste Christian Dawn O’Keefe (get the reference?), played by Jess Weixler, who won the Grand Jury Prize for Acting at the Sundance Film Festival. What starts as a hilarious horror satire chastising patriarchal sexual mores becomes a compelling and empowering fairy tale that deserves entry into the modern horror canon.
As the story goes, French director Henri-Georges Clouzot swiped the source material from the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. In the end, Clouzot produced one of cinema’s greatest suspense stories. It would be criminal to give too much away, but it takes place at a children’s boarding school run by a tyrannical headmaster who terrorizes the children, his wife, and mistress. The two women form an unlikely friendship as they try to end his power over them and the school. Diabolique remains one of the ultimate films of female revenge with a twist. It’s a film that might literally scare you to death.
Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror
A definitive dissection of the horror genre through the prism of race and representation. The documentary, produced by the horror streaming site Shudder, is a thoughtful look at the tropes of horror and how the black perspective complements and enhances the genre. It is an excellent survey examining films from the silent era to the cultural shift of Jordan Peele’s Get Out. For a bonus, the film spends a good amount of time discussing the cultural significance of Duane Jones’ performance in Night of the Living Dead as well as examining films like Us and Ganja & Hess.
It made the simple phrase “They’re here” terrifying. Poltergeist follows the Feeling family after they move into their home in a new housing development. Bizarre events occur throughout the house escalating in severity until their youngest daughter seemingly disappears into their television. Desperate to retrieve their daughter and exercise the spirits, the family turns to parapsychologists and spiritual mediums. This terrifying tale doubles as a striking condemnation of suburban sprawl and capitalist greed from the minds of director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and writer Steven Spielberg
A suspenseful slow-burn, The Invitation is a dinner party from hell. A man accepts an invitation from his ex-wife to return to their former shared home with a group of friends and becomes suspicious of her motivation. Director Karyn Kusama conducts a symphony of social anxiety and evokes the shadow of the Manson Family Murders with the Hollywood Hills setting. The film’s most terrifying contribution is through its exploration of shared trauma and the desperate ways we try to discover catharsis.
The Addams Family
A seminal film for an entire generation of goths, The Addams Family, a remake of the classic television show, manages to subvert all the expectations of the quintessential suburban family. The film follows the return of Uncle Fester to the Addams clan, and with that, a return of the repressed. Excellently cast and darkly funny, The Addams Family is one of the best family-friendly Halloween films around. One standout scene to watch on repeat is a bloody funny rendition of Hamlet at a school talent show. You can also watch the film on Amazon Prime along with its sequel Addams Family Values.
Arguably Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro’s finest film, Pan's Labyrinth, is spectacular storytelling. This dark fantasy follows the young girl Ofelia on a quest to the underworld. The impact of the film comes from blending the personal with the political. Set during the Franco regime following the Spanish Civil War, Ofelia must also combat fascism in the form of her step-father. Few films have captured childhood better, and the film's visuals remain hauntingly beautiful to this day. Once you see the film, seek out del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, a kindred spirit of Pan's Labyrinth.
The One I Love
How well do you know the one you love? What would you like to change about that person? Would you change them? Should you change them? Would they be them then? These are some of the questions posited by Charlie McDowell’s The One I Love, a horror sci-fi rom-com hybrid. Like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, the film follows a couple in counseling who take a sojourn to work on their relationship and encounter their paramour doppelgängers. Full of twists and turns, it’s a provocative and existential look at relationships.
A touchstone of 1950s science fiction horror, The Blob shows the destruction possible when a meteor brings a gelatinous red substance to Pennsylvania. Starring “King of Cool” Steve McQueen in his first starring role, The Blob remains one of cinema’s B-movie cult classics. Vivid color cinematography and ingenious special effects elevate the film. What the blob is or means is open to interpretation – perhaps the spread of communism, fear of the upcoming space-age, or the idea of contagion. The film pairs well with other 1950s sci-fi horrors like The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Jordan Peele followed his Oscar-winning cultural phenomenon Get Out with the ambitious and daring Us. While on vacation at their secluded lake house, the Wilson family finds themselves under attack by their own doppelgängers. Embracing the great horror trope of “The Other” in the form of the tethered, Peele crafts a socially conscious take on the home invasion thriller genre. Compete with a critique of classism and privilege. Us is a heady, funny, and terrifying examination of contemporary society in America.
Death Becomes Her
A camp classic about the unending quest for eternal youth and beauty, Death Becomes Her is a '90s special effects smorgasbord that blends comedy with dark commentary. The pairing of Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep recalls What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as two life-long “friends” who hate each other’s guts. A female friendship from hell full of jealousy and animosity, Death Becomes Her has become an LGBTQ+ cult classic.
Eyes Without a Face
If you like your horror more poetic, look to the French classic Eyes Without a Face. After his daughter has been disfigured, a scientist will go to any lengths to repair her face. Blending horror with the love between father and daughter creates an eerie concoction that would influence Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In. The original film was not well received at the time but has since been reevaluated as a subtle modern masterpiece of horror. Edith Scob’s performance as the daughter, limited to only her eyes and movement, is a standout in the film.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
Another father-daughter tale of horror, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, is the prequel to the landmark television series. Reviled upon its original release, the film now stands as one of David Lynch’s most unsettling films as it examines the last seven days of Laura Palmer’s life. The perfect example of expressionist filmmaking, the film’s greatest legacy is the truly breathtaking performance by Sheryl Lee, in what may be one of cinema’s greatest performances.
If you’ve felt trapped in your apartment for the last six months, The Tenant is the perfect horror film for you. A man finds himself living in a new Parisian apartment after the previous tenant was injured in an attempted suicide. This slow-burning psychological thriller ratchets the tension as paranoia builds until a concluding crescendo of truly abject horror. This Kafkaesque cult classic is the pinnacle of modern urban alienation and features freighting ambiguity and the darkest of dark humor.
The original film relaunched the slasher subgenre in the '90s, and its fourth iteration arrived when reboots had taken over horror cinema. A legacy of horror satire seeps into Scream 4, which finds the original trilogy’s final trio Sidney, Dewey, and Gale back in Woodsboro where a killer has decided to reboot history, slaying a new crop of teenagers. As witty and winky as ever, Scream 4 marks the final film of master horror filmmaker Wes Craven. The film is perfect for this Halloween as production on Scream 5 has commenced.
Massively mismarketed at the time, Jennifer’s Body has been experiencing a renaissance in the last few years as a hilarious horror-comedy. In Devil’s Kettle, Minnesota, the mousey Needy (Amanda Seyfried) must deal with her bombshell bestie, Jennifer (Megan Fox), becoming a literal man-eater. A tale about female friendship told through a horror film's lens, the film scores with feminist undertones and clever pop-culture nods. The writing by Oscar-winner Diablo Cody and Fox and Seyfried's performances created a wicked feminist fable that will have you screaming with laughter.
Let the Right One In
A subtle Scandinavian reimagining of the vampire film, Let the Right One In is a tale of an unlikely friendship, following a bullied 12-year-old who finds solace with a mysterious girl next door. One of 2008’s most celebrated films, this modern gothic tale highlights humanity's darker side and ponders what makes a monster. The film was remade two years later as Let Me In, but you won’t want to miss the Swedish original's cold, eerie beauty.
We Need to Talk About Kevin and Mother
Spend Halloween with your mother and enjoy a chilling double feature about motherly love. Both films ask the question: What if your child is a monster? In Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, Tilda Swinton plays Eva, who has had a strained relationship with her son Kevin (Ezra Miller). In Bong Joon-ho’s Mother, the titular Mother, played by Hye-Ja Kim, has spent her life protecting her intellectually disabled son, played by Won Bin. When both sons are associated with horrific acts of violence, each mother must navigate their own sense of responsibility and guilt as well as test how far they are willing to go to protect their child.
Ganja & Hess
Once a forgotten outlier of American cinema's 1970s Blaxploitation genre, Ganja & Hess has reemerged as a true classic of avant-garde horror. An esteemed anthropologist, played by Duane Jones from Night of the Living Dead, becomes a vampire when his research assistant stabs him with a cursed artifact. Merging lore from Dracula to African mythology, Gunn’s film also folds in fascinating cultural critique making the film a moody and meaningful entry in the genre of horror. In 2014, Spike Lee paid homage to the film’s legacy with his own remake Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (available on Amazon Prime).
Made by one of cinema’s greatest contemporary filmmakers Bertrand Bonello, Zombi Child is a provocative tale in the mold of bygone horror like the films of Val Lewton. Revolving around a new friendship between Fanny and Melissa, who has relocated to France following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Bonello crafts a film that operates on multiple levels. Turning to voodoo in an attempt to win back her first love, Fanny finds herself in over her head. The lasting impact of the film is a tale about the horrors of colonialism and cultural appropriation.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Perhaps the best on-screen pairing in the history of cinema, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? brings together off-screen rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford for a macabre comedy. Former stars and rivals, the sisters live together in a musty house where Jane (Davis) takes perverse pleasures in tormenting the wheel-chair bound Blanche (Crawford). The extra-textual tension between the leading ladies only fed this campy horror classic's dark humor and launched the psycho-biddy genre, AKA hagsploitation, trend. The film's making even inspired a television series Feud by Ryan Murphy, but nothing compares to the source.
This 1968 classic expertly merges two great Japanese genres — the samurai film and traditional ghost story- with chilling results. After a brutal attack, two women return as ghosts to enact revenge on the men who killed them. One by one, the men fall at the hands of these all-powerful female spirits. The crisp black-and-white cinematography combined with exquisite blocking in the widescreen format makes the film’s visuals as seductive as the women who lure their murderers to their deaths. Kuroneko captures a haunting and graceful tone that is rare in the horror genre.
Images and Persona
Isolation plus identity issues yield horror in Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film Persona and Robert Altman’s 1978 Images. Both films feature women on the verge of a nervous breakdown compounded by living in deceptively tranquil environments. In Persona, tension builds between a mute actress and her caretaker on a Swedish island where queer desire and unfixed identity combusts. In Images, a mentally fragile children’s book author suspects her husband of infidelity while haunted by her own past affairs and soon struggles to distinguish reality from horrific fantasy. These explorations of isolation and madness are anchored by a trio of remarkable performances by Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, and Susannah York, respectively.