It’s nearly October 31st, and the ideal time to cuddle up in front of a good horror film if you are too old to be dressing up and trick or treating for chocolate and sweets, or too nerdy to be invited to a good Halloween costume party for adults.
So what are the best films to be watching for a creepy night in? That’s a hard one to call as everyone’s definitions of what is scary differ wildly . . . many people would rate tension and psychological horror as superior to a flat-out gore flick, so please understand this is an extremely subjective opinion, just one that happens to be entirely correct!
10. Psycho (1960)
Back in the day, before CGI or even terribly convincing special effects, telling a horror story relied on plot, narrative, performances and inventive use of light and darkness by the cinematographer. Psycho is a master class in all these aspects, and remains both one of Hitchcock’s most memorable works and also the template for movie twists for the next 50 years. No longer were lead characters safe or the bad guys exactly who you thought they were. Anthony Perkins launched a career that never quite shook off the mantle of Norman Bates, and his under-stated and convincing performance remains genuinely creepy.
Did you know? Hitchcock experimented with several different “Mothers” by leaving them in Janet Leigh’s dressing room. When he finally got a scream, he knew he had the right one to use in the film.
9. The Thing (1982)
Essentially a remake of The Thing from Another World, this updates the 1952 anti-communist polemic into a full-blown psychological horror-thriller interspersed with some of the most innovative – and gruesome – special effects of its time. Considered a flop on release, (losing out to Spielberg’s rather cuter E.T. at the box office), John Carpenter’s tale of isolated Antarctic scientists struggling to identify and survive a shape-shifting alien is now considered a masterpiece. Revisited again by a rather bland ‘prequel’ in 2011, the original still stands as a perfect blend of paranoia, horror, action and humour. Sadly it was one of last quality films that carpenter produced before his career started to slide.
Did you know? The set nearly burned down on the first take of the scene above. Rob Bottin had used volatile plastics as part of the effects which exploded when Kurt Russell used the flamethrower on it.
Remarkably now 33 years old, and still as scary as ever, Ridley Scott’s masterpiece is described as a classic ‘haunted house’ film set in space. Spawning numerous sequels that never quite lived up to the tension and horror of the original (including Scott’s own vastly disappointing Prometheus), Alien combines classic archetypal fears with high cinematic realism and truly innovative concepts and visual design.
Did you know? Ridley Scott never seems to have an easy life on his sci-fi films. There was friction between himself and Harrison Ford on Blade Runner and for Alien he had frequent arguments with the eccentric H.R. Giger over elements of the creature design.
7. The Haunting (1963)
Not to be confused with the utterly lamentable remake by Jan de Bont in 1999, Robert Wise’s original showcased what a versatile director he was by producing an understated – and truly terrifying – work of art. A team of investigators stay in Hill House to determine if it truly is as haunted as its reputation suggests, only to find that one of them is being actively targeted by the presence within. Notable for being scary without ever actually showing anything, it’s a showpiece of achieving creepy effects with camera angles, zooms, lenses and simple lighting (plus an verty atmospheric location set).
Did you know? Russ Tamblyn had his contract threatened to force him to accept the role. He later admitted that alongside his musical performances for MGM, it was one of his best parts.
6. The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s film deftly mixed psychological and supernatural horror with Jack Nicholson’s increasingly-deranged janitor being edged into psychosis by the resident ghosts of the Overlook Hotel. Again, playing on deep rooted fears of isolation, the unknown and extremes of human behaviour, The Shining is one of the few films that can get an audience to visibly jump off their seats by the sudden use of a caption.
Did you know? Stephen King’s inspiration for the hotel was the Stanley Hotel in Colorado, but most of Kubrick’s location footage was taken at Timberline Lodge in Oregon. Shelley Duval spent so much screen time crying that she felt exhausted and dehydrated for most of the shooting.
5. Ringu (1998)
As with so many successful international films, it didn’t take Hollywood long to jump on the emerging Japanese horror market and produce their own sanitised and unsubtle versions. The original, Ringu, is a genuinely unique blend of creepiness and supernatural folklore lurking behind the modern and technically advanced Japan. Loved by critics for being one of the films that actually does try and reach out from the screen to touch the audience, it also highlighted how scary things can be with just some long hair and unusual camera work.
Did you know? The chief characters of Sadako and her mother are loosely based on two real Japanese women who claimed to have psychic abilities at the turn of the 20th century.
4. The Woman in Black (2012)
Originally a short story by Susan Hill, it was adapted by Quatermass supremo Nigel Kneale in 1984 as a terrifying TV film only shown twice in the UK. In 2012 a newly-resurrected Hammer Studios made this their debut feature and in the meantime it’s being scaring audiences as a long-running play to boot. As another psychological thriller with plenty of “Lewton Bus” shocks, it’s pretty standard, but a quality supporting cast and Hammer’s unfailing eye for location and set dressing make it genuinely creepy.
Did you know? Daniel Radcliffe’s godson plays his screen character’s son in the film.
3. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Another iconic film that fathered all manner of slasher and “torture” films, the fictional movie billed itself as a true story which also helped the marketing in the same way as the Blair Witch Project enjoyed many years later. Somewhat loosely based on murderer and body snatcher Ed Gein, a group of hitch-hikers and dropouts pick the wrong neighbourhood in order to stop off. The portrayal of a brutal, distorted and psychotic element to rural America was a popular theme of the seventies, and may have added to the general disapproval of these films by the mainstream film authorities.
Did you know? Most of the filming was done in sweltering heat, including one marathon shoot of 36 hours. With limited costume changes and various animal and meat props putrefying in the heat, one of the actors (Edwin Neal) declared it as the worst time in his life, including his service in Vietnam.
2. Jaws (1975)
A decidedly average book by Peter Benchley became one of the most sensational screen experiences under Spielberg’s masterful direction. Credited as spawning the summer box office blockbuster, Jaws saw millions of people worldwide think twice about taking a swim, and was also accused of pushing several shark species to the brink as a result of fishermen trying to even the odds. Notoriously plagued with technical difficulties of every sort, Spielberg had to rely on some basic elements to keep the production moving, resulting in a waterline camera used for many of the shots and John William’s famous two-tone soundtrack.
Did you know? Shooting was such an ordeal that Richard Dreyfuss gave a television interview before the film’s release to heap criticism on studio interference for the film’s inevitable failure! It’s also a popular myth that Robert Shaw improvised his USS Indianapolis monologue . . . it was actually cut down from several scripted pages.
1. The Exorcist (1973)
Unavailable in its uncut form for many years in the UK (due to the ‘video nasty’ phenomenon of the eighties), The Exorcist is a tour-de-force of a good vs evil story, set against personal stories of faith, doubt and the failure of rationality. Based loosely on a the story of a botched exorcism which author William Peter Blatty heard about whilst at a school run by Jesuits, director William Friedkin put actors on edge by firing guns on set to get the requisite “startled” responses and refrigerated the bedroom in which Linda Blair did most of her scenes as the possessed Reagan, so their breath would show as vapour.
Lauded by critics as a worthy film in itself, as well as a classic horror film, there has recently been a popular run for exorcism-based horror films which seems to indicate that film-makers think enough time has passed to rival The Exorcist’s dominance.
Did you know? During filming Jason Miller (who plays Father Karras, one of the exorcists) was approached by a Catholic priest who gave him a St Christopher’s medal “for protection”, deeming that a film that mocked Satan might attract attention of the wrong sort. This is the same medal used in the climactic scenes at the end of the film.
So there you have it – ten horror films that will ensure you won’t want to open the door to any trick or treaters, and at least be grateful that it’s morning and daylight on the 1st November if you watch them all back-to-back! Alternatively, why not use any one of these as an inspiration for a Halloween fancy dress costume and really turn some heads at a party (although not as literally as The Exorcist, perhaps).