Halloween isn’t Halloween without autumn. Could you imagine the holiday happening in the middle of summer? It’s a magical time of year- it’s gorgeous, the leaves are changing, light begins fading fast and the sky gets more and more grey. I’ve never known whether autumn makes Halloween spooky or if it’s just the opposite, but we can all certainly agree that it just feels spooky. This is all a roundabout way of trying to say that, if Halloween is inextricably linked to autumn, some of the greatest horror films (the other thing that is as essential to Halloween as autumn) just don’t fit the season.
The Thing and The Shining are two of the all time greatest movies, period- but with their frozen settings feel more appropriate for a night when you’re snowed in. Let The Right One In is another masterpiece, a somber portrait of childhood loneliness through the lens of a vampire story- and there is nothing remotely fun about it. A terrible choice for a Halloween movie.
Even with its potential for pure terror and spooky autumnal fright, Halloween is at its core a fun holiday. It’s a time to get in touch with our nightmares and our fears, but also a time to get in touch with our childlike enjoyment of the whole thing.
With all that said, here are ten great movies to watch this month- horror movies that were made for this season. Movies to watch while you carve pumpkins, binge on candy, light candles, and crack open the windows for the smell of wood smoke to linger in.
Dawn Of The Dead (1978)
The middle section of George A. Romero’s original Dead trilogy is my personal favorite. In some ways, its predeccesor Night Of The Living Dead is spookier and more seasonally appropriate, with its black and white cinematography and decaying farmhouse setting. But what makes Dawn Of The Dead special is the soundtrack by psychedelic Italian rock band Goblin, which sounds like mall muzak re-written by the phantom of the opera. That, and the totally fake looking bright pink blood, spilled by the gallon, thanks to DIY special effects legend Tom Savini. It’s so Halloween feeling, twizzlers might as well be spilling out of their gaping gut wounds.
Halloween Night (aka Hack-O-Lantern) (1988)
I had to throw in a totally insane one, for good measure. I was privileged to see the theatrical premiere of this 1989 film last year (wrap your head around that) when Exhumed Films screened it. It immediately joined the ranks of my fondest movie going memories. This is so-bad-it’s-good movie heaven. There are fantasy metal sequences, people making out unknowingly on the corpses of their family members, extended joke monologues about turkeys, repeated throwing of “the horns,” and so, so much more.
Halloween III: Season Of The Witch (1982)
The commercialization of Halloween can certainly take away from the magic of the holiday, to the point where November 1st comes along as a bit of a relief. This second sequel to the John Carpenter’s masterpiece that started it all finds a creative way to incorporate this consumerism into its plot: A few common folk try to unpack a possible conspiracy involving a mysterious mega corporation and their plans to peddle strange Halloween masks to children everywhere before the holiday strikes. It’s the one and only sequel not to feature Michael Myers, when they were considering turning it into an anthology series. Ironically, it feels more tonally connected to the original than any of the other sequels, of which it is by far the best.
Hocus Pocus (1993)
I’ll happily defend this movie to anyone. If you’re a millenial who grew up with cable, you might have watched this on Disney every Halloween like I did- usually after coming back from trick ‘r treating with a bag full of candy. As an adult I was pleased to find that it’s somehow even better with age. This Salem, MA set movie has everything: cauldrons, evil books, black cats, undead Robert Smith looking Frankensteins, mean bullies, lovelorn teenagers, and of course, witches. On top of all that, it’s hysterically funny. It may be a kids movie, but if you let yourself enjoy it, it’s great for us grown ups too. If you wrote this off long ago as just kids stuff, I encourage you to give it another look!
Resolution is a low budget flick that gets by on what it doesn’t show…and to be honest, it really doesn’t show much. Two old friends reunite when one shows up to force the other into a withdrawal from crack cocaine. They’re stuck together in a cabin. This is going to end well, right? It’s best to go in cold- I had to wrestle with the ending for a while before I decided I liked the movie. Then I realized that I loved it. Like Halloween III, it works great as a subtle condemnation of the genre- a movie for horror nuts who feel like they know every trope a movie is about to commit before it happens.
For older millenials, this was our Nightmare On Elm Street– our Friday The 13th. This was the horror flick we grew up watching over and over again. It serves as a love letter to the genre, and a righteous indignation of a tired formula as well. To me it serves as the ultimate turning point of horror cinema- a before and after type of cultural shift. But it would be meaningless if it didn’t work great as a movie on its own. It’s almost a genrefied critical essay, one that bests many of the films it deconstructs.
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Remember when everyone wasn’t sick and tired of Tim Burton? There was a time, believe it or not. In that time, he managed to take America’s most enduring scary story and bring it to life, staying true to the source content while also turning it into very much a Tim Burton movie. This movie has it all- changing leaves, heavy coats, terrifying trees, a perfectly haunting Danny Elfman score, a headless horseman, and plenty of blood and guts for the gorehound in everyone. It’s eerie and creepy, but most of all, it’s FUN, like your elementary school teacher telling that perfect Halloween tale with all the lights off in the classroom.
Watching Suspiria is an almost religious experience for horror movie lovers- few other films ever made can match it as a sensory experience. The colors. The set design. The music (another all time classic Goblin score). The plot is ludicrous and laughably incoherent (as is often the case in Italian horror)- but what an incredibly haunting world to be in for 90 or so minutes. On Halloween night, when trick ‘r treaters by the design are coming to my door, I open my windows and crank the soundtrack. WITCH!
The Fog (1980)
This is the one movie where I’ll be breaking my own rules. This movie is set during spring- April 21st, the date of which they repeatedly mention. But the gentle balance of dread and spooky fun that this movie creates through its minimalist piano soundtrack and gorgeous photography, makes this a Halloween essential. All thanks to the master, John Carpenter. Halloween is his clear masterpiece, and would be number one on this list, but the obviousness of that choice made me feel like leaving it out. This one is about pirate ghosts who travel in a mysterious fog, returning to a Northern California coastal town to seek revenge on its inhabitants that betrayed them long ago. Though fairly slow and sometimes lifeless, the tone is supernatural perfection.
The Innkeepers (2011)
If the “Mumblegore” genre is a real thing (it is), this has got to be the best of the bunch. Wilmington, DE born Ti West followed up his breakout hit The House Of The Devil with this 2011 flick, starring Pat Healy and Sara Paxton as the titular innkeepers looking after an old small town inn as it is about to close its doors for good. It feels like a classic haunted hotel story, but West is up to something more in his depictions of twenty something aimlessness (as seen through a horror lens, of course). Like Resolution, the scariest part is much more in what we don’t see. On top of that, the loose and quippy, almost Noah Baumbach influenced script also makes this one a ton of fun- a horror film that doubles as a hangout movie.