Halloween is such a glorious time for horror enthusiasts, partly because it allows both fans and television networks to indulge in horror movie marathons. It’s a ton of fun to watch horror movies over the course of the night, but things feel almost special when the events of the film are actually going down on All Hallow’s Eve; almost like what you’re watching is happening parallel to you and outside your door while you’re tucked away safely inside.
Or supposedly safely.
In honor of the season we thought we’d look at some of the best horror films that take place on Oct. 31, all of which should be added to any horror movie marathon.
Tales of Halloween
Okay, so Tales of Halloween is practically tailor-made for this sort of list. The movie presents 10 short films, all of which are set on Halloween and offer up a different director’s take on the holiday. Like any anthology that provides a number of entries in the double digits, the quality here varies, but the bulk of these shorts are surprisingly consistent.
Some of the best installments explore topics like parents who have lost children dealing with a swarm of triggering trick or treaters, neighbors warring over the superior Halloween decorations, a genetically engineered man-eating pumpkin, and of course, candy. This is the perfect sort of film to watch with a group of people and it’s just fun, candy-sized pieces of Halloween horror.
The Changeling is a very special sort of ghost story that follows a man who’s recently lost his family and trying to restore the normalcy to his life. He is thus suddenly recruited by the ghost of a young boy who’s looking for closure of his own regarding his recent, untimely death.
This film pushes all the right buttons and keeps you guessing until the end, and while the fact that Halloween transpires over the course of the movie has nothing to do with anything, it’s just a nice extra detail that has John Russell particularly on his toes and feeling isolated.
May is a great little horror movie that shows a still growing Lucky McKee refining his trade, as well as Angela Bettis getting on people’s radars and blowing them the hell out of the water. This is a wonderfully executed story about the titular May, who has more than a few problems, and her ailments are beginning to get the better of her.
Bettis plays this role to perfection and tells this tale as May increasingly loses her grip on reality. Halloween comes into play here in one of my absolute favorite ways, which is largely to get May and the film’s characters into Halloween costumes. May’s rag doll get up is an excellent metaphor for what she is going through, which adds an extra eeriness to the proceedings. The film is truly scary, but a weird humor comes into play when everyone has some sort of ridiculous costume on display.
Night of the Demons
Night of the Demons isn’t a part of enough people’s Halloween marathons, and it’s a damn shame. Not only are there a few of these films, but they take place at a Halloween party and pretty much jump immediately into the action. What’s not to love about that?
So the big Halloween party in question here is going on in a (haunted) mortuary of all places, which is another solid start to things. The wise idea of holding a séance for a laugh is brought up and it’s not long before an actual demon in the crematorium is let loose and wreaks havoc after possessing a partygoer. If you squint, Night of the Demons is kind of the It Follows of its day with the film being an allegory about promiscuity. The film’s demon is constantly shifting from host to host with sexual conduct usually being the source. It’s a horror romp from the ’80s through, so what do you expect?
There’s a respectable body count here, as the film really goes for it in terms of the gore and death quotient. While initially it had a lukewarm reception, it’s easy to see how this could spawn a number of sequels. This is also one of those nice horror movies where inexplicably the dangers are going to end at the break of dawn the following day. This is just one super bad Halloween party that these people have to get through, but once the clock runs out, they’ll be fine.
Pet Sematary/Pet Sematary Two
It always surprises me a little with how well done this Stephen King adaptation is. It’s certainly no Misery or Carrie, but it gets the job done while creating some genuinely creepy scares along the way. The zombie pets and resurrection aspect of these films ends up being tied to the haunting essence of the holiday, and how it almost functions as an “all bets are off” regarding the supernatural.
Yes, it’s ultimately the powers of the Native American burial ground doing the work here, but Halloween gets death on Louis’ mind and helps push the film naturally in the right direction. Keeping with this theme, even Pet Sematary Two chooses to unleash a good deal of carnage on Halloween night.
The Exorcist is without a doubt in top-tier horror territory, with many publications going as far as classifying it as the scariest film of all time (including us!). It’s a haunting tale of possession and demon exorcism (go figure) that shows the very real strain that it places on the MacNeil family.
Halloween is more of an afterthought in this picture and just a nice little bonus detail to help explain all of the demonic activity that’s going on within the film. Regan and her family are more than a little preoccupied throughout the movie, but it’s a little fun to think about someone trick or treating at their door while all of this was going on. I bet your monster costume isn’t going to top Pazuzu’s.
Sinister is one of my favorite recent horror movies, and Scott Derrickson’s film delves into some truly disturbing subject matter. Yes, at the end of the day, there is a literal bogeyman of sorts, but there’s also plenty of watching snuff tapes where children kill their families in horrific ways. Films like The Shining or Session 9 get to me so much because there’s something very real about losing yourself in someone else’s life, especially when you’re isolated.
It’s brilliant that Ellison’s (Ethan Hawke) work pushes him to watch more of these tapes that are systematically destroying him. Ellison has children, and so Halloween inevitably deals with them getting excited over the holiday while Ellison’s sanity continues to decline. It’s just a nice little button to this already disturbing endeavor.
Trick ‘r Treat
Trick ‘r Treat has gained a nice little cult following through the years and it feels like every October or so, there are more rumblings about Michael Dougherty and friends putting a sequel into production. It’s long overdue.
Trick ‘r Treat is one of those examples of anthology films where the events that are all happening concurrently on Halloween. While people tend to just talk about Sam when bringing this film up in conversation, all of the segments here offer some sort of twisted holiday value. Dylan Baker also delivers some dynamite work, but when doesn’t he?
House II: The Second Story
Okay, a lot of big House fans reading this? No? Well good, because House II is completely unrelated to its predecessor (which shamefully has nothing to do with Halloween), and it’s somehow even more comedic than the original, as it really playing into the sillier side of things. In House II: The Second Story (cute), some people are moving into an old mansion that’s been in their family for generations, but upon doing some digging, they come across photos of their great-grandfather at a Mayan Temple with a crystal skull of all things.
Naturally, things move to exhuming the body with the hopes that he miraculously was buried with the skull, and in the process his corpse comes to life and attacks them. Yet, rather than things shifting into dangerous territory, this corpse is instead chummy with them all since they’re family. They even call this cowboy zombie (yes, cowboy zombie) “Gramps,” and things comfortably move into lighter Weekend at Bernie’s-esque fare.
This eventually culminates with a Halloween party being thrown at the mansion/Mayan temple where Gramps naturally blends in with the rest of the partygoers. These humble people are tasked with keeping their home safe from the forces of evil; you just wouldn’t expect that to include things like dinosaurs, dalliances with time travel, and dog-erpillars. House II throws a lot at its audience, but much like the holiday of Halloween itself, part of the joy of this film is the bonkers grab bag of the supernatural that it serves up.
Rob Zombie’s 31, has its flaws, but it’s a strong example of passionate filmmaking and someone completely committed to what they’re doing. 31 almost feels like a horror version of The Hunger Games, with a number of people being placed within a murder maze full of deranged clowns with names like Psycho-Head, Sex-Head, Death-Head, and of course, Doom-Head.
31 plays with the concept that Halloween is the night that most people go missing due to kidnappings. Rob Zombie dresses this grueling tale of endurance as one of these random disappearances, casting the disturbing idea that horror like this is going on all the time under our noses. If you squint real hard you can pull out some social commentary from the idea that this is all a “sanctioned” scenario that the extremely wealthy can use for entertainment.
Thinking about what all of these characters do on any other night of the year makes all of this material shine brighter, and Zombie pushes this angle in your face. This film is pretty gratuitous, over-the-top madness, but that’s the damn point. Malcolm McDowell’s character is named Napoleon-Horatio-Silas Murder, for God sakes!
Halloween III: Season of the Witch
Now look, you were surely expecting to see John Carpenter’s Halloween on this list. Of course you were. I love it. Everyone loves it. And it takes place on Halloween! And after years of increasingly weird and contradictory sequels, we finally got a truly great sequel to the original with Halloween (2018). So why waste a slot on those, right?
On the other hand, Halloween III: Season of the Witch actually does a lot more with Halloween itself and tries to weaponize the holiday. This deviation from Michael Myers in this film was meant to mark a point where the Halloween films would become an anthology series with each one depicting some new horror taking place on Oct. 31.
That plan didn’t pan out, but in spite of Season of the Witch’s bad rep, there are a ton of disturbing set pieces in this thing. Anything involving masks that affix themselves to you or turn you into something is powerful in my book and this movie goes about trying to turn hordes of children into monsters.
Yeah, that’s right. You forget that this classic piece of horror also happens to take place on Halloween. The film certainly doesn’t dwell on it too much, but it’s another fun detail added to the supernatural chaos that’s going on for the Freeling family. There’s so much to love in this movie, between the TV stuff, the gigantic demons, or anything involving the Other Side.
Once again, Halloween isn’t made into a real plot point in the film, but it’s another great situation where trick or treaters coming to their door and stumbling upon Caroline and co. in the midst of things could make for some very traumatic experiences.
Ernest Scared Stupid
This ridiculous slapstick comedy actually starts 200 years in the past with a vicious troll by the name of Trantor wreaking havoc on a village. Trantor’s got a penchant for turning children into life-size wooden dolls, but thankfully Phineas Worrell (Ernest’s great-great-you get the idea-grandfather) is able to save the community by sealing Trantor in the stump of a tree.
This seal however comes with the condition that Trantor is able to be let loose on the night before Halloween, but only by the hands of a Worrell (and, unfortunately, the Worrells are getting increasingly stupid through the years). I sort of like the implication that Ernest’s intelligence is the result of some generational curse that involves a troll that he had nothing to do with, but regardless, the scene is appropriately set.
What I love about this Ernest movie (and I’m hardly a staunch supporter of the franchise) is that while it does lean into a lot of stupid sensibilities, it does try to be genuinely scary while relying upon many of the sensibilities of classic monster movies and the rhythms of proper horror films. As a child, this film actually scared me a lot, and the film surprisingly gives Trantor a rather high body count. Watching him turn people (and Ernest’s dog, Rimshot) into wood is really unsettling, and the solitary scenes with Trantor claiming more victims almost feel like they’re out of another film entirely. Ernest Scared Stupid turns out to be one of the better Ernest films. Also, “mother’s care” is definitely the weirdest euphemism for milk that I’ve ever heard, but I’ll take it for the whacked out visuals of milk-laden attacks on Trantor.