How do you like to celebrate the arrival of October and true autumn? Perhaps you have a favorite sweater you like to pull out of the drawer; or maybe you’re a fiend for consuming pumpkin-spiced… everything! For ourselves, it’s always been about putting on that first horror movie (or three). While the whole year is a fine time to watch scary movies, there’s something especially crisp about a favorite chiller to match the cool evenings outside.
Spooky season has to start somewhere, and for us it might as well be with a film that either makes us shriek or smile. So if you’re looking for suggestions on how to best ease yourself into the reason for the season, these are the movies that we think make Halloween a wickedly fine time.
It’s not Halloween until I watch… The Shining (1980)
There aren’t many of the usual Halloween trappings in The Shining. The Overlook Hotel isn’t crawling with cobwebs, werewolves, or slashers. Save for one notable exception of a dead lady in a bathtub, there is nary a ghoul to be seen. But none of that matters when October rolls around, because The Shining is the perfect Halloween mood-setter.
Stanley Kubrick’s (loose) adaptation of Stephen King’s third novel is, as the kids say, a whole vibe. Wide open shots of empty hallways combined with a sparse, yet pounding score hypnotize viewers into the proper horror mindset. The movie itself seems haunted, as if the Stanley Hotel (where the exteriors were filmed at) cursed the very film stock it was captured on. The Shining is not so much a movie as it is a Halloween tulpa—or at least that’s how I view it. Spooky season doesn’t officially start for me until all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. – Alec Bojalad
It’s not Halloween until I watch… The Wolf Man (1941)
Universal Pictures’ original The Wolf Man is not the first of that studio’s fabled monster movies I watched. Nor as an adult do I recognize it as the best Universal Monsters movie. But it was my favorite growing up, and the one I wore out the VHS tape on every October.
Screenwriter Curt Siodmak alleged late in his life that the idea for The Wolf Man occurred to him because as a German Jewish immigrant who fled the rise of the Nazi Party, he had seen firsthand how “good men” turn into monsters. And there is something primal about the battle between good and evil in the story of Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), the unlikely son of a Welsh nobleman who returns home from America after his brother’s death. What he finds is the most werewolf-obsessed town in movie history… and eventually an actual werewolf to boot.
As a kid, the appeal to me was Jack Pierce’s iconic monster makeup that glued Yak hair to Chaney’s face, as well as the overwhelming Grimm Fairy Tale quality to a film that seems simultaneously set in the early 20th century and the land of medieval Europe that time forgot. Later I came to better appreciate the underrated sense of despair in Chaney’s performance conveyed through his doleful eyes. And the movie is heightened further by two truly great performances courtesy of Claude Rains as Larry’s doubting father, Sir John, and Maria Ouspenskaya as the Romani woman who sees all. When those two interact around Sir John’s wayward son in the finale, it’s as good as any monster movie there’s ever been. – David Crow
It’s not Halloween until I watch… Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Like most American horror fans of the past century, I first met classic Victorian monsters not as literary figures but as characters in Universal productions from the 1930s through the ‘50s. James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Jack Arnold’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) were staples of my Saturday nights when I stayed up late to watch horror classics on Fox 17 in southwest Michigan. As tame as these films may be to most people of my generation, they still scared me, and I required a spoonful of comedy sugar to help the spooky medicine go down (obligatory Scary Mary drop here).
Enter Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), the first of several films that paired the fast-talking duo with Universal horrors. Universal had tried to do monster mashes before, with the deadly dull House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). But in Meet Frankenstein, rail workers Chick Young (Bud Abbott) and Wilber Grey (Lou Costello) find themselves at the center of Count Dracula’s (Bela Lugosi) plot to revive Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange) with the help of a mad scientist (Lenore Aubert). Meanwhile the Wolf Man, aka Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), recruits the bumblers to thwart their evil plot. Legitimately scary in the classic Universal manner with some fantastic jokes (Abbott: “Do you ever look at yourself in the mirror?”; Costello: “Why would I hurt my own feelings?”), Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is horror comedy perfection. – Joe George
It’s not Halloween until I watch… The Blair Witch Project (1999)
In October 1993, three young filmmakers disappeared while shooting a documentary deep in the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland, never to be seen again. But in 1999, footage from their harrowing journey into the realm of the Blair Witch was finally recovered and brought to the big screen for all to see. At last, we had incontrovertible evidence that true evil beyond our understanding really was out there, just waiting to get us in the darkest corners of the world. At least that’s how this game-changing horror film wants you to feel as you step into witch country with Heather, Mike, and Josh for 80 minutes of terror.
A viral hit unlike any we’d seen in cinemas before, The Blair Witch Project’s internet marketing was so good—directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez even launched a website documenting fake police reports and interviews about the case—that the movie really did spark debates about the authenticity of the footage. But beyond all that, Blair Witch is still just downright scary all these years later, no matter how many times you sit down to watch it. Told from a first-person perspective, you’re a voyeur watching what basically amounts to a slow-burn snuff film, as the monster in the woods first divides our doomed trio, then drives them mad, and finally leads them to her cabin where they face an unknowable fate. If you like to start your Halloween season with a big scare, there are few better movies. – John Saavedra
It’s not Halloween until I watch… Angel Heart (1987)
The spooky season, for me, begins with Angel Heart. Mind you, I may watch it in the middle of June, but it will set off a binge of deep psychological satanic horror that will last until Christmas. Every year, I follow Mickey Rourke’s Harry Angel from his private detective’s office on 23rd Street, down to Coney Island, and off to New Orleans for the all-consuming thrill of dread. But be warned: most horror films will pale in comparison, leading viewers to a deeper dive into demonic terror looking for a more potent dose. There are none. Angel Heart is horror perfection.
Made by master storyteller Alan Parker, the devil is in the details, and they are always shrouded in a corner, framed by burnt color coding, and teasing foreshadowing. Robert De Niro’s Louis Cyphre is a Mephistophelian marvel, which is a mouthful in Manhattan, whose very presence tingles with the charge of sinister energy. He invokes the most evil parts of Martin Scorsese for a charismatic and seditiously seductive overseer. Charlotte Rampling brings ice cold, dead-eyed menace to her Margaret Krusemark, alias Madame Zora, alias the Witch of Wellesley, the debutante with the ceremonial dagger, and the right hand of a convicted murderer, cut off while his neck was still in the noose. But the most damning temptation is the young voodoo priestess Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet), the true victim and lost salvation.
The private detective signed on for a simple missing person case, a golden-throated singer who skipped out on a personal contract, and gets dragged so deep in the muck that the audience feels dirty. As Johnny Favorite rides the elevator to perdition, we are more than scared. It feels like we’ve sinned. – Tony Sokol
It’s not Halloween until I watch… Ed Wood (1994)
Is Ed Wood about Halloween? No. Does it deal in the supernatural? Nope. Is it even a horror movie?!? Absolutely not. And it’s a true story that doesn’t feature a single murder or even an investigation into an alleged paranormal happening? Correct. Yet despite all of these apparent strikes against it, Ed Wood, perhaps more than any of Tim Burton’s other work (and that’s saying something), evokes the shadowy, creepy, yet also strangely warm and nostalgic feelings that often go along with the season.
Not a horror movie, but a movie about and for people who love horror movies, Burton’s black and white masterpiece isn’t a rehabilitation of the reputation of the alleged “worst director of all time” (we disagree), but a sympathetic portrait of the outsiders who try their damnedest to fit into a world that simply isn’t theirs. Lit to resemble the kind of shadowy B-picture that would populate broadcast TV late nights in October, Ed Wood is a celebration of the wonder of weird, contrasting the bright daylight of its 1950s Hollywood with the creepy nights where the titular director would shoot his lousy movies with borrowed props and an assortment of freaks, misfits, and outcasts in front of and behind the camera.
The fact that one of those freaks is none other than the ultimate Dracula, Bela Lugosi (played to tragic perfection by Martin Landau), as he’s nearing the end of his life, enfeebled by alcohol and morphine addictions, and yet still able to conjure his eerie screen magic, is the equivalent of getting a full-sized candy bar in your Halloween bucket. It’s likely Burton never had more fun than his note perfect re-creations of scenes from Wood’s infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space (itself a late night TV spooky season staple). I couldn’t decide between Lugosi’s Dracula and Burton’s Beetlejuice when first asked to contribute to this list, but Ed Wood gets the best of both worlds. – Mike Cecchini
It’s not Halloween until I watch… Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
The UK does not do Halloween properly. We try. The shops certainly have a good old go at hawking orange and black tat ahead of the Christmas push. And certain pockets of the spooky community make it work in their own way. But as a people, Brits suck at Halloween. So there’s a bittersweet joy in watching peak Halloween perfection, Trick r Treat, the anthology movie from writer/director Michael Dougherty.
This is a cheeky, chilling showcase of everything Halloween should be. Five stories are carefully and cleverly intertwined, each featuring the appearance of a ghoulish little fella named Sam, a child-like entity dressed in an orange onesie with a burlap sack on his head who punishes the residents of a small Ohio town if they break Halloween traditions. Don’t take your decorations down before midnight! Don’t steal the Halloween candy! And don’t mock the victims of a horrific bus crash…
Trick r Treat is so much fun and it’s packed with a great cast including Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Dylan Baker, Leslie Bibb, and more. There’s long been talk of a sequel, and I am here for it, even if it just serves as a further reminder of all the spooky season delights we in the UK do not nail. – Rosie Fletcher
It’s not Halloween until I watch… Scream (1996)
Believe it or not, I used to be the biggest scaredy cat when it came to horror movies. Jump scares, blood, and monsters were just not my thing, and I was convinced they never would be. However, on one of the many days I was home sick during my senior year of high school, I was flipping through the channels and came across Scream. Without anything better to do or watch, I decided to give it a try, prepared to watch through my fingers or shut the TV off if things got too intense. Little did I know though that this would finally be the thing that got me into horror.
Scream is the perfect combination of suspense, mystery, and scares, and yet the movie never takes itself too seriously. This movie helped me realize that horror can be scary and fun at the same time, and I don’t have to be uncomfortably anxious every second to have a good time with the genre. Ever since that day, I’ve made it a habit to rewatch Scream (and its sequels) every year. Even though I’ve seen every movie in this franchise enough times that nothing in them really scares me anymore, they still remind me of that day at home, discovering that horror might just be for me after all. I’ve watched many (many) horror movies in the years since, but it’s not really Spooky Season until I’ve watched Sidney Prescott save herself and Woodsboro from the Ghostface killer at least once. – Brynna Arens
It’s not Halloween until I watch… Malignant (2021)
Somewhat lost in the pandemic, horror master James Wan returned to the big screen in 2021 with Malignant, an audacious slasher with a magnificent twist that also introduced an instantly iconic villain to the genre in “Gabriel.” The film follows Madison (Annabelle Wallis), a pregnant woman who begins to have visions of people being murdered, including her abusive husband. But these aren’t just visions, it’s all happening in real life. Having lost her baby and now feeling alone and scared, Madison embarks on a quest to find out who is responsible for the spate of murders.
Malignant isn’t afraid to embrace old school giallo visuals and blend them with a retro 2000s approach, including a pumping intro montage packed with random clues. Even with these clues, you will have no idea where the film is heading, but I think it’s worth kicking off your Halloween by taking a gamble on a more recent movie that divided audiences because those are usually the ones that often endure and become cult classics. Kicking off your Halloween with a first viewing of Malignant is like tossing a coin. On one side “camp masterpiece” and on the other “absolutely terrible”. There’s a 50/50 shot you’ll love it, and that ain’t bad. – Kirsten Howard
It’s not Halloween until I watch… Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968)
Forget howling werewolves, comical cackling witches, and Bobby Pickett gurning through the Monster Mash, here’s a proper Halloween soundtrack: silence, howling wind, the single high pitch note of an ancient whistle, the rustle of bedsheets, and Michael Holden’s professor quietly, desperately, repeating the words “oh no, oh no, oh no, no.”
Adapted from M.R. James’ short story and directed by Jonathan Miller, this 1968 BBC production conjures a disquietingly spare atmosphere. Set on the blustery Norfolk coast (the British seaside in winter filmed in its natural black and white), it’s about a Cambridge don staying at a guest house for a week to investigate a coastal graveyard. It’s a wonderfully restrained film, only 42 minutes long with very little dialogue, but lacking nothing. When Professor Parkin (Holden) unearths an historical instrument engraved with the Latin motto “Quis est iste qui venit” or “Who is this who is coming,” he naturally blows into it to find out. What follows is a moral lesson about solitude, terror, and the hubris of intellectual pride. Watch it alone, in a dark room, wearing headphones, with a window open to the whistling wind. Eerie perfection. – Louisa Mellor
It’s not Halloween until I watch… Young Frankenstein (1974)
When you’re a horror wimp, Halloween might seem an odd choice for your favorite holiday, but I’m all over the PG ooky spooky and campy horror. Young Frankenstein is simply in a league of its own in this category; a Mel Brooks classic, co-written with Gene Wilder, and riotously silly, spoofing textbook horror movie tropes often with proper laugh-out-loud results.
Wilder is unleashed to play at his comic over-the-top best as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, alongside slapstick guru Peter Boyle as the Monster and the delightfully daft Marty Feldman as hunchback sidekick Igor. Terri Garr and Madeline Khan take on amusingly suggestive roles parodying the ‘damsel in distress’ motif as lab assistant Inga and Frankenstein’s fiancee Elizabeth respectively, alongside a very funny matriarchal Frau Blücher in Cloris Leachman.
If you’re looking for high art or razor-sharp wit, you’ll be disappointed, but if your comedy tastes fall more in the ‘dad jokes’ territory, Young Frankenstein will tick all your boxes. But it’s a self-aware production – it’s not trying to be clever, it just knows what makes its target audience laugh – so I dare even the more sophisticated comedy/horror fans not to crack a smile at some point while watching this. – Laura Vickers-Green
It’s not Halloween until I watch… Stephen King’s It (1990)
I watch this prove that it can’t hurt me anymore. I watch it to look Pennywise square in his bloodshot eye and mentally say “Great commitment to a role, Tim Curry the actor. You are Good at Acting.” Because acting is all this is. There is no blood-filled balloon in my bathroom sink. There is no screaming bird foetus in my fortune cookie. And there is definitely not a befanged killer clown in the storm drain across from the shop on my walk to school.
Andy Muschietti’s 2017 and 2019 It adaptations are great and I loved them, but nothing will top the memory of being so scared by this two-parter that it felt like it physiologically altered something in my brain. In the UK, BBC One showed it over two nights in August 1994. I was 12 years old and I really should have been watching anything else.
I didn’t realize then that this made-for-TV ABC adaptation is thought of as laughably cheap and verging on PG-friendly by some hardcore horror fans. Watching it now, it’s clear that the Broadcast Standards and Practices restrictions on TV that those guys thought softened it actually did the opposite and made it scarier. The filmmakers weren’t allowed to show little Georgie’s arm being pulled off, so viewers had to imagine it. All the blood and guts had to be kept well away from the child actors and body parts, so it turned up in far weirder and more unsettling places. It is just acting though. Only pretend. And that’s why I give it a watch once a year on Halloween, to make extra, double-double sure. – LM
It’s not Halloween until I watch… It Follows (2014)
Horror die-hards are not big fans of the 2010s critical categorization of “elevated horror.” That’s understandable as the condescending term suggests that there weren’t any artistically viable horror films before the 21st century (which, to be clear: obviously isn’t true). Still, I can’t help but be slightly grateful for the “elevated horror” monniker. Without it, my pompous ass might not have given It Follows a shot and would not have learned to fall in love with horror as a genre all over again.
David Robert Mitchell’s superb 2014 effort is as goofily low-concept as any B-movie slasher. What if there was a sexually transmitted ghoul that killed hot teens? What makes It Follows … elevated (OK, I see the smugness now!) is how gorgeously rendered the concept is. This is a film that’s positively steeped in atmosphere from its surreal suburban imagery and unclear chronology to its dreamlike depiction of murderous venereal corpses that are always, always following. There’s no better way to get in the Halloween mood than with this evocative nightmare of a film. – AB
It’s not Halloween until I watch… Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Sleepy Hollow might just be Tim Burton’s most Halloween-ish production. Yes, that would even include The Nightmare Before Christmas (which is obviously about Xmas, not Samhain!). By very loosely adapting the first American fairy tale, and certainly the first one to help spread the idea of All Hallows Eve parties into the wider subconscious, Burton turns a story about yokels tricking a snobbish city mouse into a Gothic horror fantasia full of Jack O’Lanterns, Headless Horsemen, and accursed forests.
Burton’s command of his spooky atmosphere and aesthetics is happily overwhelming here, all while the film affectionately homages Hammer horror productions of the 1950s and ‘60s. It was one of the last times the director felt so stimulated by his material, as opposed to at odds with it, and in the process he crafted a film that has more rolling heads than the French Revolution–and yet, somehow, retains the understated dryness and humor of his better works. For proof, look no further than who Burton cast as the Headless Horseman: Christopher Walken. This movie really does aim to both play tricks and give us a treat. – DC
It’s not Halloween until I watch… Halloween (1978)
What can be more Halloween than, uh, Halloween, a movie so iconic that it spawned two more movies with the exact same name? The classic from director John Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill has everything you’d want to celebrate the holiday, from kids carving pumpkins to trick-or-treaters, to punks pulling pranks. More importantly, it captures the sense of dread that lurks around even safe places like the suburbs. Carpenter may have shot the film in California, and yes you can see palm trees in some background shots, but he and cinematographer Dean Cundey nail the Midwestern feel of my youth, with fallen leaves littering the streets and jackets pulled over costumes.
Beyond these trappings, Halloween works so well because it carries the force of urban legend. This first entry provides no explanation for Michael’s killing spree, no rationale when the Shape hunts Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). As the movie’s final lines prove, Michael is simply the Boogeyman, the monster we all knew was there, even if we pretended that it wasn’t. That’s why the Halloween season doesn’t truly begin until I hear the sounds of Carpenter’s simple, unrelenting score. – JG