Since it’s Spooktober, I figured I’d do something special and offer up a horror movie recommendation for every letter of the alphabet. Some of them may be obvious, but some—I hope—are not. This isn’t a list of my all-time favorites (though some are on here); it’s simply a variety of films, all of which I have really enjoyed, all by different directors. I’ll be splitting it up into two parts to last the rest of the month.
Here’s A – M:
Everyone and their mother knows about Ridley Scott’s Alien, long-touted as the best sci-fi movie of all time, but you could also argue it’s one of the best horror movies of all time. When the crew of the cargo ship Nostromo detects a distress signal somewhere in space and are forced to investigate due to company policy, it leads to a predatory alien infiltrating their ship by way of one of the crew members. More than an iconic slasher in space (which has launched a seemingly never-ending franchise, all centered around the xenomorph), Alien is also an important lesson in today’s pandemic world: respect the rules of quarantine.
Black Christmas (1974)
Fun fact: one of Steve Martin’s favorite films. Often in contention with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for the title of the “First Slasher,” this story of a sorority house stalker is groundbreaking in many ways, from its killer POV shots, to its creepy phone calls, to the lack of a revealing (or relieving) ending. Olivia Hussey plays the pregnant Jess, who wants to get an abortion, despite her boyfriend’s wishes. She is one of my favorite final girls. She brings a strong sense of self and sophistication to a role that is later often boiled down to how convincingly you can scream. It’s wild that the director, Bob Clark, was also at the helm of A Christmas Story, a holiday staple in my family.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
The impact of German Expressionism on the horror genre cannot be overstated. Where would we be without Caligari? Nosferatu? Metropolis? In Robert Wiene’s 1920 film, the dreamy—or, more appropriately, nightmarish—set design is the star of the show. With angular shadows, twisted paths, and cartoonish street lamps, the mostly painted environment serves to distort the reality of the characters. Dr. Caligari is a hypnotist who uses the body of a somnambulist (sleepwalker) to carry out murders…though is this the true reality? The twist ending gets you thinking, and being one of the earlier contributions to the genre, Caligari has been interpreted in a myriad of ways, especially having been created in the wake of WWI.
Les Diaboliques (1955)
Allegedly, Hitchcock wanted to buy the rights to the Pierre Boileau story that this film is based on, but he didn’t get to it before Henri-Georges Clouzot, and maybe we’re all the better for it, because Les Diaboliques is a fantastic film that also happened to inspire Psycho. In it, a boarding school teacher devises a plan to rid herself of her abusive husband with the help of another teacher who is emotionally tortured by him. After the deed is done, they discover the body is not where they left it. Diabolique is at once a mystery, ghost story, and psychological thriller, with a final twist so shocking that there is an actual disclaimer in the end credits, which implores the viewer not to spoil the story for friends.
The Evil Dead (1981)
It might come as a surprise to many that Sam Raimi, who launched his career with this spectacle of low-budget gore and ghouls, directed the original Spiderman trilogy. The Evil Dead is the story of a group of college kids who go to a cabin in the woods and inadvertently summon evil spirits by playing an incantation on a tape recorder. The movie has been referenced and parodied countless times, most famously in Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods. It also spawned two sequels, a remake, a TV series, multiple video games, and some comic books. What makes it so great, besides the charismatic Bruce Campbell (Ash), is the amazing and obviously cheap practical effects: bodies that explode oatmeal (maybe grits?), milk vomit, white contact lenses, and demonic tracking shots that were accomplished by mounting cameras to 2x4s and bikes. My favorite part though, is the absolutely bananas stop motion sequence at the end.
Fright Night (1985)
Fright Night is Tom Holland’s homage to all the classic “rules” of vampiredom: the aversion to daylight, crosses, and garlic, the absence of a reflection, the need for an invitation, and the ability to transform into a bat or a werewolf, among other things. It is also a quintessential 80’s teen flick. The movie follows Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), an adolescent horror nut who convinces a has-been TV vampire killer (Roddy McDowell) to help him slay his suave, bloodsucking neighbor, Jerry (Chris Sarandon). Fright Night is a delightful satire with genuine thrills and impressive practical effects. It’s been speculated that Jerry the vampire is constantly eating apples because he’s part fruit bat.
Get Out (2017)
As if meeting your girlfriend’s parents wasn’t scary enough, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) has to worry about how Rose’s (Allison Williams) white family will react to his being Black. Little does Chris know, the Armitages are already quite familiar with him, and they hope to make him an even “closer” part of the “family.” Jordan Peele’s directorial debut (which he also wrote) is nothing short of masterful. You can watch it multiple times and still not catch every cleverly placed symbol or foreshadowing moment. A commentary on racism, as well as simply a damn good scary movie, Get Out will no doubt be—scratch that, already is—one of the most important films in the annals of horror history.
Dust off your whip and leather choker, because things are about to get kinky. In Clive Barker’s film, based on his own book, a man who was destroyed by interdimensional beings summoned by a magic puzzle box is accidentally resurrected when blood is spilt in the attic in which he perished. When a couple moves into the house, the woman discovers that the resurrected mass of muscles and bone is her husband’s brother, Frank, whom she had an affair with previously. Frank convinces Julia to lure random men to the attic so he can feast on their blood, become whole again, and rekindle their lurid affair. Crazy, right? This film has inspired 9 other Hellraiser movies, and it’s one of those franchises in which a single character (the “Cenobite,” Pinhead) is more famous than the actual story. It’s no surprise, because the Cenobites look awesome, and the Hellraiser lore runs pretty deep. Hellraiser is a difficult movie to sum up, and while sex and horror are by no means strange bedfellows, it is refreshing to see them linked in such an imaginative way.
It Follows (2015)
Proof that a simple premise can go a long way, David Robert Mitchell’s film is about Jay (Maika Monroe), a young woman who, after having sex with her boyfriend, is unendingly stalked by an entity that takes the form of any random person. After proving to Jay the existence of said entity, the boyfriend explains that if the thing catches her, it will kill her, and then move on to the previous person to have passed it on. Sound like anything familiar? (Hint: it ain’t a urinary infection.) The simplicity of It Follows encourages the viewer to appreciate even more the cinematography, music, and tone of the film. It manages to feel like an 80’s movie and a modern one at the same time, and is one of the scariest films I have ever had the displeasure of having multiple nightmares about.
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
After returning home from the Vietnam War, postal clerk Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) suffers nightmarish hallucinations and flashbacks as reality appears to warp around him. His relationship with his girlfriend falters as he is haunted by visions of his dead son, and he is unaware if his visions are a product of chemical warfare (as his veteran friends expect), or something else entirely. Adrian Lyne’s film is a puzzle, but one that you should go into expecting missing or chewed up pieces. In other words, it’s a thrilling and emotional ride, so focus on enjoying it rather than fitting all of it together–the jolting conclusion will be answer enough.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
The poster for the theatrical release simply says, “It’s craazzy!” …Yeah, that’s about right. When Mike and Debbie are smashing faces at the local “make-out point,” they see something bright fall from the sky. They uncover a UFO shaped like a circus tent and strange clowns lurking inside. Of course, when they run to tell their story to the cops, Deputy Mooney doesn’t believe them. The Klowns proceed to incapacitate all the humans with their popcorn guns, shadow puppets, and phoney pizza deliveries, so they can capture them all in cotton candy cocoons and drink their blood through silly straws. Directed by the Chiodo Brothers, the genius creature-creators behind projects such as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Elf, and a handful of episodes of The Simpsons, Killer Klowns delivers exactly the B-movie schlock that you’d expect from such a title. It’s fun for the whole fam. Well…maybe don’t let the kids watch.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)
Undoubtedly one of the most underrated low-budget horror movies ever, John Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (don’t judge it by its title– it doesn’t make sense) refuses to be explicit in its narrative, and thus takes on an eerie, dreamlike quality. After Jessica (Zohra Lamprey) is released from a mental institution, she and her husband (Barton Heyman) move to an old farmhouse with their friend, Woody (Kevin O’Connor), only to discover that a mysterious woman (Mariclare Costello) has been squatting there. When Jessica starts hearing voices and seeing things, she fears her sanity is unwinding again. Lamprey and Costello are both magnetic in their performances, and Orville Stoeber’s unsettling electronic soundtrack helps set the tone perfectly.
I would be remiss not to include a Stephen King story on the list, and considering The Shining and Carrie are two obvious choices, how about the only adaptation to win an Academy Award? That prize belongs to Best Actress Kathy Bates, who played Annie Wilkes, a psychotic nurse who, after discovering her favorite author (James Caan) wounded on the side of the road, takes him to her house and holds him hostage until he writes her another installment of her beloved Misery series. (And unlike Kubrick’s The Shining, Rob Reiner’s effort is an adaptation that King himself actually enjoys.)
TO BE CONTINUED…