Of the many Halloween season rituals I have, one of the most essential has always been watching horror movies. While I occasionally watch horror during the off-season, easily 99% of all the horror films I see in a given year are watched in September and October.
However, there’s a difference between a horror movie and a “Halloween” movie. Some horror movies don’t make great Halloween movies, and some Halloween movies aren’t horror. While this list is comprised by and large of movies in the horror genre, it’s more about the kind of films that just feel right to watch with some kettle corn and a pumpkin beer while candles and orange lights shine dimly in the room. It is NOT just a list of the best horror films I’ve seen, or the order and contents would be quite different.
Halloween 3: Season of the Witch – This entry in the venerable Halloween series gets a lot of flack as the black sheep due almost entirely to the lack of Michael Myers. The only evidence of the brief flirtation with turning Halloween into a series of unrelated stories (which would have been awesome, by the way), Halloween 3 is a weird, fun, very 80’s horror movie with tons of great classic Halloween imagery. The montage of trick or treaters starting out their night in various cities across America is delightful.
Bride of Frankenstein – Black and white photography, crumbling castles, moonlit graveyards, fog, uncanny science equipment, and of course, man-made monsters. Bride of Frankenstein is actually more Halloweeny and more Frankenstein-y than the original. It manages to be both funnier and more poignant. It barely misses the top ten only because modern audiences might take issues with the slow 1930’s pace and moments of silliness.
Tales of Halloween – Who knows? A couple of years from now, this movie might earn a stop in the top ten, and maybe even a high spot. It’s just too new to make the call. But as a great companion piece to trick or treat and a unique experience of its own, I could see Tales of Halloween becoming part of the annual rotation very easily. Read my review.
10) The Thing (1982)
Probably John Carpenter’s most technically accomplished film (and his own personal favorite), The Thing is a shining example – possibly THE shining example – of how to use practical special effects in a horror movie. I’ve considered this and the remake of The Fly to be spiritual partners in that both are remakes of corny 1950’s sci-fi movie that took 80’s practical effects to their horrifying limit. But this one barely tops The Fly for excellent use of tension, suspense, and characterization.
9) Night of the Living Dead (1990)
I know it’s blasphemous to include this remake (directed by special effects guru Tom Savini) above the 1968 original, but the fact of the matter is, this one makes for a much better Halloween movie. The pace is faster, the acting is better (generally), the lead female is a capable fighter with a character arc instead of a mewling, fainting cardboard cutout, and of course, the special effects are phenomenal.
I’ve said it time and time again, but a well-done horror anthology, be it film, TV, or literature, is a beautiful thing. Creepshow is loaded to the brim with everything that makes a “fun” horror movie, namely camp, gore, and the macabre. As is typically the case with anthologies, the quality of the individual tales varies, but none are total duds, and each just has a twisted, pitch black sense of humor. And that wraparound story is delicious.
7) Return of the Living Dead
The first notable example of a comedic zombie film, this is a perfect movie to watch around Halloween with a few friends after you’ve already had a couple beers. It’s hysterically violent, filled with gratuitous nudity, and as 80’s as can be (the main characters are all stereotypical punk rockers). Plus, this is where the trope of zombies craving brains specifically, and vocalizing that desire, originated.
6) The Shining
What more is there to say about The Shining? Its reputation as one of the finest horror films of all time is bulletproof. Some take issue with the incredibly slow pace and the cryptic nature of the story (especially the final shot), but this is a film that absolutely rewards repeat viewings. Kubrick’s patience and legendary attention to detail make this a movie that gets DEEP under your skin, and of course Jack Nicholson’s performance is unmissable. Provided you’ve seen the movie in its entirety already, this one is best viewed while you’re attending to other Halloween-related activities, like carving pumpkins.
5) A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
The origin of millions of childhood nightmares, appropriately, the original Nightmare on Elm Street strikes the perfect balance between horror and dark humor. Freddy Krueger himself is one of the most ingenious concepts for a villain in all of horror history, and this is where he’s at his best. The confusing, producer-manadated “twist” ending is a complete joke, but in a way that adds to the appeal. It’s a scrappy, energetic, fun 80’s slasher movie, and you can’t ask for anything more than that. Review…
4) Poltergeist (1982)
My favorite example of my favorite horror sub-genre – the haunted house movie. I have more memories of being haunted and kept awake by fear of scenes from this movie than of any other. It’s got it all: Creepy trees that come to life, skeletons emerging from graves, killer clown dolls, horrifying spectral beasts too ghastly to describe, and good old fashioned malevolent spirits. And Craig T. Nelson. Review…
3) The Nightmare Before Christmas
It seems a lot of people count this one as both a Halloween movie and a Christmas movie. It’s obvious why, but I’m afraid I have to go ahead and say that’s horse shit. Christmas may be a big element of the plot (and the title), but the style of the movie is 100% Halloween. Besides the brief scene near the beginning when Jack Skellington goes to Christmas Town, every frame of the movie is soaked with Tim Burton’s signature creepy vibe (even though he didn’t direct it). Hell, the first song, This is Halloween, is a staple on almost everyone’s Halloween music playlist. I watch Nightmare Before Christmas at the start of every Halloween season, and it feels so right. Also, the director agrees with me.
2) Trick R Treat
Strictly speaking, this is the most “Halloween” movie I’ve ever seen. It’s quite literally a tribute to the Halloween holiday; all its myths and traditions. The tone is perfect – spooky, macabre, violent, but with a knowing, mischievious grin. That it’s an anthology of non-chronological, interwoven stories a la Pulp Fiction just takes it to a higher level. In one film you get zombies, vampires, werewolves, murderers, and a pumpkin monster. But sadly for me, no ghosts. Here’s to hoping for Trick R Treat 2. Review…
1) Halloween (1978)
Yeah yeah, super obvious number one, but I have to be sincere about this. Halloween is not my number one Halloween movie simply because of the title. And yet, it’s also not number one strictly because of the quality of the movie itself. As I’ve said before, Halloween is pushing 40 and really showing its age. But what makes it number one on this list is what it represents. Remarkably, it’s the first movie to be called Halloween and to revolve around the holiday in particular. It’s the film that set the slasher movie template that would be repeated and iterated ad nauseum for the next few decades. It introduced an utterly iconic horror movie villain in Michael Myers, as well as a legendary theme song. But most of all, the mood it sets is just perfect for Halloween night viewing. Start the movie once the first trick or treater has knocked on your door, and hand out candy while it plays. By the time the movie is over, the trick or treating ought to be dwindling down and Halloween itself will be drawing to a close. And as those final shots play with the sound of Michael Myers breathing beneath his mask, and the iconic Halloween Theme twinkles away on the piano, you’ll feel just like a kid again, emptying your pillowcase haul of candy out on the floor and reflecting on the greatest holiday there is. Review…