Keep your warm-colored lights and green pine trees. For some of us, October is the most wonderful time of the year. You can smell it as autumnal leaves drifting across the grass; you can hear it as children laugh in their most beloved Halloween costumes; and you can see it with the cornucopia of horror movies to watch.
Aye, horror flicks are the most important part of the season to some. For 31 days, you don’t need an excuse to indulge in the wicked and the weird, and to hopefully scare yourself silly. But in an age of streaming, and when countless mounds of content is being thrown at you, how do you decide what to watch? Well, at least when it comes to Amazon Prime Video, we have a few ideas…
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
It’s rare for any subgenre of horror to have a single definitive movie that all can agree is the gold standard. But with the exception of Lon Chaney Jr.’s iconic turn as The Wolf Man in 1941, writer-director John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London remains unchallenged as the greatest of all werewolf movies. Partially that’s because this is a modern update of The Wolf Man for ‘80s sensibilities: a likable if oblivious American everyman stumbles into a world of ancient superstitions and monstrous destinies while walking along English moors during a full moon. What a dumb-dumb.
So, yes, David Naughton’s David Kessler isn’t the brightest, but the movie’s affable comedic streak makes him startlingly sympathetic and human… which causes his transformation into a hell-beast to be all the more shocking. Done in a brightly lit room, the transition from human to monster achieved by makeup artist Rick Baker is still one of the all-time greatest sequences in horror, with the movie’s soundtrack use of “Blue Moon” suggesting a detached cynicism about the carnage that is to follow. – David Crow
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
For better or worse, directors/writers Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez changed the horror genre for decades to come with their creepy little chiller in which three campers investigating a local legend get lost in the woods and self-document their own impending doom. While the “found footage” style of filmmaking has been both used to great effect and abused with awful results in the years since, there’s no dismissing the fact that The Blair Witch Project is still a genuinely frightening film.
Even with the rough-hewn visual palette, it manages to create an overwhelming aura of terror and several nightmarish sequences through what it doesn’t show—which inevitably remains more effective than showing us everything possible. The three unknown actors, Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard, all give impressively natural performances as well. In the end, this brilliantly executed exercise showed us how much one could do with so little.– Don Kaye
Director Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992) will always be a classic of the genre. It’s a brilliantly unsettling mixture of ancient Gothic horror and modern urbanity via the projects of Cabrini-Green in Chicago. (It also gave us that tremendous Philip Glass score and Tony Todd as the Candyman!) But the movie also played with loaded imagery that it didn’t fully appreciate with its story about a ghostly Black man whose life ended in violent lynching, and whose afterlife is now spent pursuing wealthy white women at the expense of his poor Black victims.
Writer-director Nia DaCosta, working from a screenplay she co-wrote with Jordan Peele, updates the Candyman mythology with a lot more awareness—and also even more grisly blood. As much a movie about a curse as a ghost, the picture follows artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) as he unpacks the brutally sad history of Cabrini-Green and the Candyman… just as he finds his own story forcefully meshed into a larger tragic narrative that’ll never end. This is grim, gory, and glorious. – DC
Dan Curtis’ Dracula
Dan Curtis created TV’s first great vampire, Barnabas Collins, when he invented the Gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows. He then began mining horror classics to put an American TV spin on. Hence before Frances Ford Coppola did it on the big screen, Curtis used the title of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” for this 90-minute TV movie in 1974.
Written by Richard Matheson, the TV movie is one of the first to draw the link from the caped count to the Transylvanian warlord Vlad Tepes, aka the Impaler. He even gets impaled to drive the message home. Jack Palance is the fangiest of all the Draculas. He leads with his teeth. Palance’s nocturnal prince doesn’t need telepathic command of children of the night, he’s got sharp canines. He’s been working his bicuspids and it shows. Forget about magnetic stares or easy escapes into puffs of mist. This is the most grounded vampire performance captured on screen. Curtis condenses the novel into tragic romance and failed revenge fantasy. – Tony Sokol
The Descent (2005)
Neill Marshall’s direct and terrifying The Descent remains one of the best horror movies of this century. Made during a moment when most Hollywood-financed chillers were remakes or torture porn, The Descent is a visceral, barebones nightmare about a group of friends, all women, going spelunking in the wrong North Carolina cave.
Deep beneath the surface of the earth, the protagonists discover a long forgotten subspecies of humanity that’s adapted to the dark and the taste of human blood. They’ll also discover not-so-forgotten slights and betrayals within their friend group that should’ve been left buried… – DC
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it,” Dr. Jekyll is told. He may as well have discovered an addicts’ enabling cry for relapse. Dr. Jekyll turns into Mr. Hyde for the same reason rock stars flocked to Dr. Roberts in the swinging ‘60s: the drugs. The handsome and wealthy Dr. Henry Jekyll (John Barrymore) is community pillar and a living saint; treating Victorian London’s poor and footing the bill, engaged to the loving and devoted Millicent Carewe (Martha Mansfield). But he takes one walk on the wild side and gets hooked on the feelings.
He is transfixed at one glance by the Italian dancer Gina, played by Nita Naldi, who would seduce the world and Rudolph Valentino two years later in Blood and Sand, and gets hooked on transformation. The doctor concocts a serum, rents a cheap place on the sleazy side of town, indulges his most wanton desires, and goes home to his professional practice when the potion wears off.
This film also transformed its lead actor into a stage legend. He made his first motion in 1914, but it took the magic of director John S. Robertson’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, to cement Barrymore as a star of the silver screen. His transformation scenes are nothing short of breathtaking. Even before the makeup is applied, his facial muscles morph his natural appearance, appearing to elongate his own skull to accommodate the upcoming effects, and spreads through his hands and fingernails until he infuses them into his whole body. – TS
Final Destination (2000)
U.S. and UK
Of all the new franchises that have popped up this century, Final Destination has to be the most purely fun. Fun, and of course, stressful. The first one sets up the premise that the sequels would expand upon (there’s a Final Destination 6 in the works): A character has a premonition about an impending disaster (in the original FD, this is a plane crash) and escapes death with a bunch of others.
But death isn’t have any of it: a series of random accidents start picking off the survivors in the order they would have passed. Inducing a fear of loose screws and dangling cables forevermore, the next four installments (all available on UK Amazon, by the by) prove there is no end of damage that can be done by household objects. – Rosie Fletcher
Fright Night (2011)
During the glut of horror remakes in the 2000s and early 2010s, few redos earned the right to be remembered. Yet Craig Gillespie’s reimagining of Fright Night proved to be the exception to the rule. While it is hard to say if it surpasses the 1985 camp Gothic classic, the 2011 iteration from the future director of I, Tonya and Cruella certainly makes the material its own. How can it not when the vaguely patrician vampire played by Chris Sanderson is replaced by Colin Farrell in a wife-beater?
Playing the vampire next door with an aggressive, toxic alpha vibe, Farrell brings a palpable sense of danger to the material while a screenplay by Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mad Men) cleverly reinvents this supernatural riff on Rear Window by moving the location to Las Vegas. There, it’s not weird to have pseudo-vampire hunters like David Tennant’s rock star magician practice the occult, or for there to be a neighbor who sleeps during the days because he “works” nights. But as voyeuristic teenager Charlie (Anton Yelchin) finds out, that work leans toward the gruesome. – DC
U.S. and UK
So you might’ve heard that there’s a Hellraiser reboot afoot over at Hulu. But if you want to see the original and still best entry in the franchise, you got to scroll over to Amazon. Written and directed by Clive Barker, who adapted his own novella The Hellbound Heart, this 1987 movie was never just about the kinky mix of S&M torture and supernatural entities from another dimension. I mean, it is that too, but Doug Bradley’s “Pinhead” character (a name Barker would come to detest) is only in the first Hellraiser for about 10 minutes.
Why the original still works so well is it’s a psychosexual tragedy about a doomed marriage between a wife, a husband, and the husband’s brother. See, Julia (Clare Higgins) is still enamored with Frank (Sean Chapman), the hot younger bro of her husband Larry (Andrew Robinson). Frank and Julia even had an affair atop her wedding dress the week of the wedding—one might say they have a pair of hellbound hearts? So when Frank comes back from the dead, after seeking still greater taboo pleasures by playing with a puzzle box called “the Lament Configuration” that sent him to an inter-dimensional hell where the flesh was slowly stripped from his bones, Julia can’t help but still be drawn to him… and his need for fresh corpses to make himself whole.
This is really a familial tragedy brought all the more into sharp relief by the movie’s riff on an ‘80s final girl: Poor Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) is the one left to pick up the pieces, literally, after her uncle gives her the puzzle box that summons demon-like creatures into her bedroom, demanding their pounds and pounds of flesh. Oh, and they have such sights to show her… – DC
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
U.S. and UK
The original House on Haunted Hill, which is not to be confused with The Haunting of Hill House, is a camp classic worthy of a watch every October. As the brain child of B-movie king William Castle, it stars Vincent Price as an eccentric millionaire who offers a group of strangers $10,000 each if they can survive the night in a haunted house. Hey, $10k went a lot further back in the day, not that any of the contestants will necessarily live to spend it.
The movie is hammy, utilizing carnival barker tricks and tropes to scare the audience, and today it’s become all-ages fun. Alas, modern viewers will never have the proper Castle experience from ’59 where some theaters lowered a skeleton with glowing red eyes during the climax of the film, which involves a skeleton rising from a vat of acid on the screen. – DC
Let the Right One In (2008)
U.S. and UK
Tomas Alfredson wistful, delicate vampire movie, based on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s book and screenplay, is rightly recognized as a modern classic within the genre. In it a bored and bullied little boy in ‘80s Stockholm meets an odd little girl who’s a lot older than she looks.
It’s a story of friendship and sacrifice, with multiple layers ripe for further exploration. So much so, in fact, that as well as the U.S. remake and stage adaptation it inspired, a TV series based on the material and starring Demián Bichir is on its way. – RF
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The zombie movie that started it all, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is responsible for our modern concept of shuffling, brain-eating corpses. There’d be no Shaun of the Dead without Romero, no The Walking Dead or World War Z. For it was this extremely independent writer-director from Pennsylvania who took the vaguely obscure idea of “zombies” out of folklore and Voodoo superstitions, and placed them into the modern world where they’d become a pop culture inkblot test onto which we could place all our anxieties.
Take 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, for example, the barebones chiller about a group of strangers forced to work together (or not) inside a crumbling farmhouse as hordes of corpses rise from their graves of a nearby cemetery. It’s spooky, primal stuff, but it’s given so much more power and meaning when the proverbial hero of the lot, Ben (Duane Jones), is a Black man who is trying to survive the night despite the cowardly prejudices of the white “family man” who seeks to lock Ben outside the house. The ending of the movie is still disturbingly relevant to this day. – DC
Planet of the Vampires (1965)
Legendary Italian director Mario Bava had mostly populated the initial phase of his directing career with Gothic horror films, giallos, and sword-and-sandal adventures before officially turning to science fiction with Planet of the Vampires. But what a way to enter the genre! The film follows the crews of two spaceships as they crash land on an unexplored planet and are possessed by its incorporeal inhabitants, who have sinister plans for the human astronauts.
Perhaps slow-moving and creaky by today’s standards, Planet of the Vampires nevertheless shows Bava at the height of his powers, using eye-popping colors and tons of atmosphere to create an eerie miasma of dread and uncertainty. The movie is encoded in the DNA of later modern classics like Alien, Event Horizon, and others, and its pulp-magazine-cover aesthetic is a triumph of imagination over budget. – DK
U.S. and UK
Matthew Holness, aka Garth Marenghi, makes his feature directorial debut with this haunting and disturbing horror that sets out to make your skin crawl. It’s mostly a two-hander with Sean Harris as a former children’s entertainer returning to live with his grubby stepfather Alun Armstrong and his own trauma. This is artsy, grimy stuff, and even the look of the film is unsettling (including the poster), with a horrible reveal that might leave you wanting a shower. Not a fun film, then, Possum is still a unique and disturbing watch. – RF
Saint Maud (2020)
U.S. and UK
Slated for release just as the pandemic hit, Saint Maud didn’t get the theatrical release and the mass acclaim it deserves. It’s the debut of Brit Rose Glass and it’s an extraordinary film which deserves to be talked about with the same fervor as Hereditary, The Witch, and The Babadook.
The movie sees Morfydd Clark (currently playing the Lady Galadriel in The Rings of Power) as a pious young palliative care nurse who believes her calling is the save the soul of her dying patient, played by Jennifer Ehle. This is psychological, religious, and corporeal horror as young Maud struggles with the conflicts of mind, body and soul. If this passed you by, rectify that immediately, it’s sublime and essential. – RF
Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The police procedural and the psychological horror movie had been kissing cousins for years, but Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs brought them together in an almost-perfect marriage of director, cast, source material, and style. The result was a film that even the Academy Awards had to acknowledge as a masterpiece (having previously dismissed both genres) with wins in all five major categories, including Best Picture.
Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins certainly earned their Best Actress and Actor trophies as well as FBI trainee Clarice Starling and imprisoned cannibal serial killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Their escalating mind games play out against Starling’s urgent search for a different killer before he claims a new victim, and a feminist subtext that may not have been as apparent in Thomas Harris’ excellent novel. The latter adds a deeper resonance behind the film’s surface horrors. Lecter, of course, became a cultural icon, but this film still presents this superbly conceived boogeyman at his most feral and atavistic. – DK
What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
The series is an absolute joy (available on iPlayer in the UK, and Hulu in the U.S.), but this movie from Thor: Ragnarok and Jojo Rabbit director Taika Waititi is where it all began. It’s a mockumentary about four vampires who share a house in Wellington, New Zealand and bicker about chores and getting into nightclubs.
Waititi plays the endlessly sweet Viago, with Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement (who also co-wrote this movie) as Vladislav the Poker, Jonathan Brugh as young buck Deacon, and Ben Fransham as Nosferatu-like Petyr. They’re doing fine until the accidental creation of a new vampire in the form of Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer0). This is very funny, packed with one-liners and a Halloween must-watch. – RF
White Zombie (1932)
U.S. and UK
While most people associate zombies with the reanimated corpses of Night of the Living Dead, the original concept is far more insidious. Taken from the sanctified spiritualism of the Caribbean and bleached into black magic by Hollywood, living zombies cast a terrifying spell. White Zombie is a pre-Code cautionary tale, and Bela Lugosi’s eyes give unfair warning, luring the audience into the tropical heat of psychological surrender on the hypnotic island of Haiti. “Murder” Legendre, Lugosi’s character, tortured a local witch doctor for his supernatural secrets, appropriating not only the culture of the island but its most powerful inhabitants. All he needs is a scarf.
Director Victor Halperin brings atmosphere, romance, eroticism and subtle social commentary to the low-budget creeper. Ominous things happen in the shadows, soulless hands reach out mindlessly in a silent grab for attention, while screams can be heard in the distance, begging to be ignored. The background music is relentlessly evocative. Made during the Depression, White Zombie can also be seen as pro-labor agitation, as Legendre’s work ethic seemed a business model for gainful employment.: You just had to give up your soul. – TS