The House of the Devil
A slow-burning throwback to 1980’s horror films with a Satanic panic twist from one of horror cinema’s newest and most exciting directors working today, Ti West. Genre favorites Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov terrify as a mysterious couple who hire an unsuspecting babysitter (Jocelin Donahue).
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The Cabin in the Woods
Co-written by Joss Whedon and featuring a cast of familiar Whedonverse players, The Cabin in the Woods lovingly pokes fun at horror tropes, while managing to be scary and thought-provoking at the same time.
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This stylish anthology film by Italian genre icon Mario Bava offers three tales of terror — one starring monster movie legend Boris Karloff. The moody and atmospheric stories bear trademarks of the giallo genre that Bava helped shape (most evident in “The Telephone”), but segment “The Wurdalak” is dripping with gothic horror.
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Stuart Gordon directs this H. P. Lovecraft-inspired film featuring a maniacal performance from Jeffrey Combs as the ultimate mad scientist who attempts to reanimate the dead. The twisted tale combines the best of 1980’s horror: pre-CGI gore, buckets of blood, nudity, and dark humor (we mentioned the famous “head scene” in our scream queens article). Listen for the score heavily influenced by Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho theme.
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F. W. Murnau’s 1922 silent masterwork transformed German actor Max Schreck into death itself — an otherworldly image that has haunted audiences for decades. The use of expressionist shadows and exaggerated silhouettes adds an atmospheric artistry to the adaptation. The film cemented the vampire’s mythic allure in the decades that followed.
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Pieces is the perfect title for this disjointed, but ridiculously fun slasher flick from Juan Piquer Simón. The poster’s tagline reads, “It’s exactly what you think it is!” and, indeed, we get what we came for: campy, gory, mind-boggling good times. A chainsaw-wielding madman attacks the student body at a college, and a ragtag team of investigators scramble to stop him. (This has to be the only movie featuring a tennis player/undercover cop.) The hysterical dialogue and unforgettable characters (look for the “kung fu professor”) make up for the messy everything else.
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Night of the Demons
The era of the slasher film was still going strong when Kevin S. Tenney’s Night of the Demons was released in 1988. Most movies were forgettable and headed straight to VHS, never to be heard from again, but horror fans latched on strongly to a few, like Tenney’s film. A group of high schoolers decide to put the “fun” back in funeral and host a party at an abandoned funeral home. The ruckus accidentally awakens a demon. The story and characters are cliché, but that’s part of the fun. We already know everyone is set to die a horrible death, and Night of the Demons kills its cast in gruesome, absurd ways. Fan favorite moments: the Bauhaus dance sequence and scream queen Linnea Quigley’s famous “lipstick scene.”
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The Passion of Joan of Arc director Carl Theodor Dreyer cast his investor, non-actor Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, in the role of a traveler and student of the occult who winds up at an inn where a vampire has a terrified family in its thrall. What follows is a surreal trip that blurs the lines between dream and reality. Loosely based on the work of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Vampyr‘s eerie imagery leaves an indelible mark — like the dream sequence where our traveler watches his own funeral.
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House on Haunted Hill
This William Castle classic stars horror legend Vince Price as an eccentric millionaire who offers ten thousand dollars to party guests willing to be locked away in a spooky house overnight. House on Haunted Hill uses timeless horror tropes to give audiences the creeps, with atmospheric chills. Stay clear of the 1999 remake and stick with Castle’s old-fashioned fright fest.
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The Evil Dead
Sam Raimi set the bar for inspired, low-budget filmmaking when he made The Evil Dead, starring genre icon Bruce Campbell. He plays the demon-slaying Ash who fights the undead at a remote cabin in the woods. The series (Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness) is usually remembered for its slapstick humor and unrelenting gore, but the original film reins in the one-liners, making it legitimately creepy. Creative camerawork, admirable practical effects, and over-the-top violence make Evil Dead required Halloween viewing.
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Trick ‘r Treat
Inspired by the horror anthologies of yore, Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat is a true love letter to the spookiest holiday of the year and quickly became a Halloween classic after its release in 2007. The mysterious, masked trick-or-treater named Sam (he wears a creepy burlap sack with button eyes) ties four different tales together. He watches over all to make sure people respect the traditions of Halloween. Trick ‘r Treat transports viewers back to their childhood, when Halloween was the most fun, but still felt a little dangerous.
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Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro produced this phantasmagorical, and surprisingly emotional, story from director Juan Antonio Bayona, about an abandoned orphanage with a dark past. “It lingers to create atmosphere, a sense of place, a sympathy with the characters, instead of rushing into cheap thrills,” Roger Ebert wrote of the gothic chiller. “Photographed by Oscar Faura, it has an uncanny way of re-creating that feeling we get when we’re in a familiar building at an unfamiliar time, and we’re not quite sure what to say if we’re found there, and we might have just heard something, and why did the lights go out?”
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John Fawcett’s coming-of-age werewolf film smartly and accurately captures the sheer horror of high school and puberty, with feminist overtones. The death-obsessed Fitzgerald sisters (Katharine Isabelle and Emily Perkins) are social misfits whose lives are turned upside down when one of them is bitten by a wolf. The lycanthropic transformation is likened to adolescent yearning — which tests the bonds of the sisters’ relationship.
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One of the cornerstones for the New French Extremity movement, Alexandre Aja’s High Tension pays homage to the American horror greats of the 1970s (for example: Philippe Nahon’s baddie looks like a gone-to-seed Michael Myers, minus the mask) in a tale about college students who are put through the wringer by a mysterious killer. A major plot twist (that aggravated a lot of people) shakes things up, and the film features brilliant FX work (all practical) by Italian goremeister Gianetto De Rossi (The Beyond, Zombie).
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Dark Night of the Scarecrow
One of the better made-for-television horror films, Frank De Felitta’s 1981 film Dark Night of the Scarecrow — about a mentally challenged man wrongly killed by vigilante citizens in a small town — was an intense tale for network television. Larry Drake and Charles Durning deliver strong performances in the old-fashioned frightener about the darkness that dwells inside every human being.
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Carnival of Souls
1962’s Carnival of Souls is an underappreciated gem, created by a commercial director, featuring a cast of unknowns. The film is often compared to Night of the Living Dead, which is similar in scale (Romero has also cited the film as an influence), but more overtly horrific than Carnival. A young church organist is involved in a car accident and finds herself haunted by a ghostly figure (played by the director). She starts her life over in a small town, where she becomes inexplicably drawn to an abandoned carnival pavilion. Harvey’s black-and-white cinematography and dreamy visuals draw attention to the uncanniness of the everyday. Candace Hilligoss’ character is a compelling study of female anxiety during the 1960s.
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Written and directed by a 24-year-old Francis Ford Coppola, and produced by B-movie king Roger Corman, Dementia 13 (heavily influenced by Psycho) — about a murderous woman — is a blend of gothic and slasher tropes that offers a fascinating early look at a burgeoning talent.
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Season of the Witch
An unhappy housewife becomes involved in witchcraft in George Romero’s third film, Season of the Witch. Made during the second-wave feminist movement, the film touches upon ideas about female empowerment, sexuality, and identity, making it more of a character study with horror threads than an outright fright film.
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One of the seminal giallo films, movies featuring black-gloved killers and shocking murder set-pieces, Deep Red marked the arrival of director Dario Argento as a visual stylist. The film showcased what would become his signature (extravagant camerawork and creative framing being a few characteristics) and builds its murder mystery story — about a foppish pianist who teams up with a tough-minded journalist (Daria Nicolodi, Argento’s wife and muse) — in tense, intriguing layers.
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Night of the Living Dead
Taking the zombies out of the jungle and voodoo mythology, George Romero’s iconic horror film set the undead in modern-day America. The 1968 film is filled with social commentary about the Vietnam War and how Americans viewed the war on the nightly news. Notable for featuring an African-American man as the film’s hero, Night of the Living Dead is essential Halloween viewing — and remains shocking and disturbing to this day.
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