Halloween is upon us, and yes, I embrace the horror writer stereotype in admitting that it is one of my favourite times of the year. How could it not be? And so my mind turns to appropriate viewing fare. My tastes, at Halloween, run toward the spooky and atmospheric over the visceral (I save Martyrs for Easter, obviously). So herewith is an off-the-cuff list of Halloween favourites, in historical order.
Carl Dreyer’s exercise in shadows and shades of grey is a dream caught on celluloid – the kind of dream where your anxiety builds as you realize it is about to tip into nightmare. The movie’s very existence feels tenuous, as if it were a lost, legendary, forbidden reel, sending you images from the chilling beyond.
The Uninvited (1944)
One of the most perfectly executed of ghost stories, with plenty of moonlit atmosphere and a properly twisted mystery for our characters to solve.
Night of the Demon (1957)
Yes, it has that highly memorable demonic manifestation, promised on the poster and worth the price of admission. But the rest of the movie (loosely based on MR James’ “Casting the Runes”) goes for subtler manifestations of the supernatural, gradually breaking down Dana Andrews’ skepticism. Its sceance is one of the creepiest ever.
Eyes Without a Face (1960)
No supernatural in this one, and the face transplant scene is gruelling for many audiences even today. But it’s also sublimely poetic, and perfect for the season. Edith Scob, masked and robed, wandering ethereally through her bright-yet-gothic home, is one of the most uncanny images I can think of.
The Innocents (1961)
This adaptation of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” captures the novella’s ambiguity. Are the ghosts real or is Deborah Kerr delusional? Either answer is chilling.
The Haunting (1963)
No ambiguity here. Hill House is malovolent, and it’s out to break Julie Harris. As faithful to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House as the 1999 film is a betrayal. The stark black-and-white photography is a world of abyssal shadows, and the moonlight-on-wallpaper scene will haunt your dreams.
Kill, Baby… Kill! (1966)
So many Mario Bava films to choose from. Never mind the staple that is Black Sunday, I hesitated over Lisa and the Devil and Shock too. But let’s go with this. Bava here proves that a gothic ghost story can be in glorious colour and lose none of its atmosphere. If Vampyr is the dream just as it turns into a nightmare, this is the nightmare full-blown, and it’s deliriously disorienting.
Horror Express (1972)
Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Telly Savalas versus a Thing-like alien jumping from body to body on the Trans-Siberian Express in the early 1900s. The combination is a magnificent as you’d expect.
Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972)
Some nastier stuff in here, and a barely veiled attack on the repressive socio-religious forces of Franco’s Spain. But also blood-drinking, sword-wielding, hooded Templar zombies on horses. In slow motion. And chanting. Why aren’t you watching it yet?
The Creeping Flesh (1973)
Cushing and Lee are back with a gothic story that gives us a panicked patriarchy AND a supernatural explanation for the slaughterhouse history of the 20th Century. Plus an unforgettable monster. Also robed and hooded.
The Fog (1980)
Yes, Halloween would have been the obvious John Carpenter film to go with, but this is more about the spookiness, and if we already have Templar zombies, why not leper pirate ghosts too?*
Half of you probably have Suspiria cued up, so I’m going to suggest this Dario Argento film too. Its poster is, I think, one of the most beautiful in horror, and it absolutely captures the aesthetic of the film. We have a hell of a spooky apartment building here, and as menacing as the witches are in Suspiria, now the developing mythology of the Three Mothers (inspired by Thomas De Quincey’s “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow”) gives us a world where evil can strike anywhere, at any time.
Session 9 (2001)
The asylum setting is not only terrifying, it’s real. And the sound design is some of the most chilling this side of The Exorcist.
The climax divides audiences, but it works for me, and the cavalcade of horrors is terrific. I’m forcing myself to go with only one film by a single director, so I went with the one where James Wan really came into his own as one of the contemporary masters of the horror film, but I could have gone with either of the Conjuring films as well.
The Woman in Black (2012)
I had to have at least one Hammer film, and I decided to go with the big comeback movie, where they proved old school gothic scares could still work wonders. Susan Hill’s novel (which is a masterpiece and you should read it), is given a fine cinematic treatment here.
The Witch (2016)
It’s as literate as it is merciless. Whatever else one can say about 2016, the year has given us a number of terrific horror movies, and this is one of the best.
*EDIT: Yes, I know the ghosts of The Fog aren’t really pirates. But they have a sailing ship, swords and hooks, and they’re after stolen gold. So I’m going to call them pirate ghosts because that’s cool.