The weekend before Halloween is upon us, and that can mean a lot of things: Halloween parties, last-minute Halloween costumes (hey, look, some suggestions), copious drinking, etc. Or you may just be in the mood to stay in and stream a good scary movie – but that’s a tricky proposition. As with most genres, the good horror movies are spread out across all the damn streaming services; you may not have them all (you may have none, in fact – and don’t worry, we’ve got you covered there, too), so you may just want to know what’s available on your platform of choice. Well, have no fear. We combed through the best of the scariest on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, Shudder, and YouTube, and plucked out our recommendations. Just click on the title and settle in.
The most ubiquitous of streaming services isn’t exactly making movies a priority these days – try looking for much of anything before 1960, good heavens – but they’ve always had a good-to-great selection of horror flicks, and the current crop includes some stone-cold classics and recent indie-horror faves.
The Exorcist : There’s a reason it has remained, to many, the definitive horror movie, more than 40 years after its release: a combination of terrifyingly convincing special effects, harrowing set pieces, and human interactions that ground the whole thing in a relatable reality. (Fair warning: this is the later, lesser “version you’ve never seen,” but the original theatrical cut isn’t streaming, so we’ll take what we can get.)
Jaws : Spielberg’s first giant hit, and still his best. Every frame is beautifully constructed, not a single shot is wasted, every character is unique yet carefully considered in relation to each other character, and the music is, well, the music. It’s the kind of movie where every moment plays like something out of a “cinema’s greatest hits” reel – while always seeming as fresh and vibrant as the first time you saw it.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare : Sadly, Craven’s original, and still effective, Nightmare on Elm Street isn’t streaming, but here’s the next best thing. His 1994 meta-horror, which steps outside the Elm Street frame to tell a story explicitly about itself (Craven, his studio boss, and his actors all play themselves) turns into a surprisingly thoughtful – but still scary – rumination on the power of horror movies and their relationship to our subconscious. Only a mild success at the time of its release, but an essential step on the road to his pop culture reemergence with Scream two years later.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night : First-time feature filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour made quite a splash with this clever, moody, cool-as-a-cucumber vampire hangout flick. Dubbed, perhaps smirkingly, the first “Iranian Vampire Western,” Amirpour’s film dodges the tonal hodgepodge that such a mash-up label might imply; it’s a startlingly confident debut, visionary in its images, patient in its storytelling, ingenious in its juxtapositions.
The Babadook : Even before the relentless title monster shows up, writer/director Jennifer Kent has already created one of the most harrowing and unnerving pictures in recent memory — because she’s made a movie about (shudder) parenthood. But it’s not just a case of child-in-peril gimmickry; by setting her bone-chilling thriller in a recognizably real world, where everyday horrors wait at every bedtime and birthday party, Kent creates a mood where the terror of the Babadook is utterly credible, and thus all the more frightening.
Prime also seems to be more focused on their original programming than their movie catalogue, but they’ve stepped up with a solid Halloween slate, including a couple of our all-time faves.
Carrie : Stephen King’s first hit novel was the story of a high school outcast with a Bible-thumping mother and a heretofore-unknown gift of telekinesis, which ends up being pretty bad news for the bullies and bitches that turn her prom night into a nightmare. King was not yet a brand name when Brian De Palma made this peerless adaptation in 1976, effortlessly fusing the novelist’s sensibility with his own baroque frills and flourishes, and cooking up one of the best horror films of the 1970s — no mean feat, that. Its hyper-kinetic energy, dreamlike vibe, and inventive split-screens were endlessly imitated, but Carrie remains one of De Palma’s (and King’s) finest films.
The Mist : A more recent King adaptation, and still oddly under-appreciated, which is a shame; it’s a disturbingly well-rendered, tight-space psychological horror flick in the Night of the Living Dead mold, with one of the most shockingly nihilistic endings to make its way into a modern, mainstream release. Amazon is unfortunately not streaming it in screenwriter/director Frank Darabont’s preferred black-and-white version, but you can adjust your monitors, right?
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre : Tobe Hooper’s horror classic was one of the most visceral, harrowing horror films of the 1970s—an era that didn’t exactly treat its audience with kid gloves. Amazingly, even after the corruption of its characters and iconography in countless sequels, remakes, and reboots, it still maintains its capability to shock. Hooper’s grimy, home-movie aesthetic makes the movie feel captured rather than staged, and the tension and power of its scares still land like the slam of that giant, metal door.
Rosemary’s Baby : Roman Polanski’s 1968 classic is a rather miraculous highwire act of diversion and misinformation; if you go into it cold (which, I know, is impossible these days), you’d be surprised by the way the screenwriter/director keeps its bombshell from the audience until the last possible moment. He spends his first two hours building up an atmosphere of unexplained haziness, fear and dread, leaving us uncertain of what, exactly, is wrong with Rosemary’s firstborn—until we find out. Oh boy, do we find out.
The Witch : This “New England folk tale” from writer/director Robert Eggers was this spring’s horror movie to see – and the source of some rather vehement disagreements among fans of current horror, as this is less a film of cheap, clanging jump-scares than general unease and distress. A Puritan family encounters a spectacular streak of bad luck; between the abductions, illness, bad crops, and sick animals, you might wonder if they are, as their mother comes to believe, “damned.” Eggers patiently threads his needle with themes of faith, family, and fear (of Satan, of goats, of feminism), and sews it up into a mélange of unsettling mood and unshakable images. It’s a movie that drifts along, haunting yet manageable, and then clobbers you.
Hulu is losing a fair amount of its art-horror library when the Criterion Colleciton migrates over to their new home at FilmStruck next month – so get ‘em while you can.
The Silence of the Lambs : Jonathan Demme’s 1991 adaptation of Thomas Harris’s best-seller was one of the most influential and awarded horror movies of its time. The prevalence of its spin-offs, sequels, and rip-offs render some of it less scary than it was 25 years ago – but Demme’s inventive use of subjective camera remains unmatched, and no matter who you are, that closing sequence is still scary as hell.
The Voices : Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) directs this startling pitch-black comedy about an awkward average Joe (Ryan Reynolds) whose only friends — his dog and his cat — seem to be urging him to kill and kill again. Satrapi gives the picture a bright, cartoon sheen that renders the serious darkness and considerable gore all the more disturbing; she seems, at first, to aim for a jovial nuttiness, but doesn’t let her characters or her audience off the hook that easily. This is a sharp and unpredictable movie, constantly zigging when you think it’ll zag, investing real pathos, depth, and charm into its characters and relationships, and ending with a grin and a punch in the gut, at the same time. Frankly, that goes for the whole movie.
Scanners : This one comes under the classy Criterion banner, but it still feels as scuzzy and disreputable as it did back in 1981. Cronenberg deploys a deceptively bland, sterile aesthetic to create this world of smug, sinister white men, and seems to take pleasure in violating it with his gross-out effects. But this isn’t just a freak show; the director is already a ruthlessly efficient thriller-maker, wielding satisfyingly blunt shots and bludgeon-like edits. Shades of Hitchcock color the narrative, which courts serious silliness (and occasionally succumbs), but Cronenberg’s confidence and style ultimately win out.
The Brood : More Cronenberg, with the Canadian filmmaker again grounding his horror in real-world domestic drama, marital jealousy, and familial anxieties, which help transform a fundamentally silly premise into something scary as hell. He takes an almost flat approach to the material, placing his actors in ugly interiors, giving his camera movements an unnerving unsteadiness, and wielding cutaways like a blunt instrument. The Brood comes to a stomach-churning (and tensely edited) conclusion, up to and including its wittily inevitable final cuts.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers : Don Siegel’s original 1956 Body Snatchers famously used its sci-fi/horror premise to disguise a sharp commentary on McCarthyism and the Red Scare. Phillip Kaufman’s witty 1978 remake targets a less dangerous but no less insidious movement: the organic, guru-based, self-help movement of the late ‘70s. It’s smart and entertaining, and its final scene is still unnerving as hell.
Shudder isn’t as widely known as the rest of our platforms, but it’s absolutely indispensable for the modern horror fan – a treasure trove of classics and obscurities, high-minded foreign fare and forgotten ‘80s slasher sleaze.
American Psycho : It’s still kind of astonishing that this adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel got made at all—much less that it has become such a cult classic. Its perseverance probably has less to do with the source material than the film’s take on it; director Mary Harron and her co-writer Guinevere Turner (Go Fish) play up the dark comedy and their own feminist instincts, creating not only an indictment of ‘80s materialism, but of misogyny in popular (and business) culture.
The House of the Devil : Director Ti West is a modern master of the cinematic slow boil — he’s utterly disinterested in delivering a shock or a kill every seven minutes, but instead follows the lead of pictures like Rosemary’s Baby, filling us with dread and uneasiness before really socking it to us in the last reel. His breakthrough film is a loving valentine to the babysitter horror flicks of the ‘80s – it’s even set in the period, and thus feels like a lost film that’s been trapped in a vault somewhere. But he fuses that subgenre with the real Satanist scares of the era, cooking up a picture that’s deliciously frightening, but with a sly wink.
The Innkeepers : Another scary treat from Ti West, here doing a riff on The Shining, and again giving us a tense build with occasional jolts that culminate in a climax of terror. Once he gets there, the austerity of his style goes out the window in a flurry of Dutch angles, scare zooms, and Kubrickian tracking shots. But West never loses control — this is a disciplined and skillful filmmaker, and a real standout in today’s ADD-laden horror landscape.
Nosferatu, The Vampyre : Look, I can give you the hard sell here, but it comes down to this: Klaus Kinski playing a vampire, for Werner Herzog. What else would you like to know?
Black Devil Doll from Hell : A true oddity of horror cinema, this 1984 shot-on-VHS blaxpoitation horror flick has become a beloved cult item. It’s an island unto itself, a staggeringly ugly-looking and incompetently crafted picture that simultaneously burns with the intensity of its creator’s passion and the sheer peculiarity of its being. It’s the kind of thing you sort of have to see to believe, and now is as good a time as any.
YOUTUBE / ARCHIVE.ORG
If you’re currently bereft of streaming services – no judgment, times are tough – no worries. More than any other genre, horror movies frequently slip into the cracks of “public domain,” in which copyright renewals are missed, or original rights are never asserted at all. That means just about anybody can put them on disc or online; thus, there are plenty of good (and entertainingly bad) ones streaming on YouTube, or available for download at the indispensable Archive.org.
Nosferatu : The granddaddy of them all, and still a stone cold chiller. German master F.W. Murnau’s unauthorized adaptation of Dracula (he changed the names, and little else) was an immeasurable influence on German cinema, horror movies, and popular filmmaking in general – and it still gets the job done, thanks in no small part to the nightmare-fuel lead performance of the great Max Schreck, a turn so convincing that its dramatization in the 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire, which posited that Schreck was really undead, seems totally plausible.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari : The phrase “German Expressionism” gets thrown around so much, it’s very easy to just nod and agree without actually knowing what the hell the user is talking about. As a form, it’s easier to show than explain, and that’s where a viewing of Robert Wiene’s 1920 silent classic comes in handy; with its stylized sets, lighting, and technique, the creepy and thoroughly disturbing Caligari set an aesthetic that influenced everyone from Hitchcock to Welles to Tim Burton. (And M. Night Shyamalan; it features one of cinema’s first “twist endings.”)
Carnival of Souls : Herk Harvey’s first and only feature often wears the pockmarks of its limited resources: flat acting, radio soap music, clumsy blocking, bargain basement production. Yet its creepy narrative and hallucinatory vibe turns those flaws into virtues, as Harvey uses stark black-and-white photography and an otherworldly oddness to tell a a genuinely unnerving ghost story (and, beyond that, a “who’s a ghost” story). He comes up with a fascinating mixture of existential art film and low-budget monster movie, filled with moments and images that will burrow into your brain and stay there.
Night of the Living Dead : An obvious choice, sure, but one of those horror movies you just have to revisit every now and again. Director George A. Romero was a successful industrial and commercial filmmaker from Pittsburgh who convinced his colleagues and pals to help him make a no-frills horror movie for fun; the stark, black-and-white film captures the dread wafting through the air circa 1968 (when it was first released), its implicit commentary on Vietnam and race relations combining with flat, documentary-style photography to create a film more uncomfortably close to reality than the average creature feature.
The Little Shop of Horrors : Roger Corman’s 1960 black comedy is better known for its origins – famously shot on the cheap in only two days, to get one last blast of use out of sets built for Bucket of Blood (below) – and its legacy, which resulted in an off-Broadway and big-screen musical adaptation. But it’s a decent little flick on its own, a grinning satire of the cheapo monster movies that were Corman’s bread and butter, with an uproarious cameo by an unfathomably young Jack Nicholson to boot.
Happy viewing – and Happy Halloween!