Don’t look now, but Halloween is less than a week away. I know! So it’s time to fill up your queue with scary movies, warm up some hot chocolate, and scare the bejesus out of yourself. And the subscription streaming services are loaded with recent horror movies – good luck sifting through all of those, in fact, but that’s another list for another time. But if you’re up for some old-school horror, your choices are spread out piecemeal over a whole bunch of them. But not to worry; we’ve tracked down some of our favorites, and will send you right to where they’re waiting to haunt your Halloween nightmares.
We may as well start with the granddaddy of them all, this vampire classic from director F.W. Murnau, which dates all the way back to 1922. An unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu changes the names but keeps Stoker’s basic story and characters intact. So why has this antiquated, silent chiller kept such a high profile, 95 years after its original release? Two reasons: the film’s distinctive German expressionist photography, all shadows and contrasts (the cinematographers were Fritz Arno Wagner and Gunther Krampf), and the unforgettable lead performance by Max Schreck, a turn so convincingly otherworldly that it inspired a subsequent film (Shadow of the Vampire) predicated on the notion that Schreck was no actor but was, in fact, a real vampire. (Available on Amazon Prime, FilmStruck, Shudder, and Fandor.)
No studio is as synonymous with horror as Universal – specifically, their run of monster-based chillers in the 1930s and 1940s. Shudder is currently featuring a program of six of those classics, beginning with the one that kicked the cycle off, Tod Browning’s 1931 authorized Stoker adaptation. Fair warning: it’s a rather slow-moving and old-fashioned picture that begat countless vampire movie clichés, and it’s hard (initially, anyway) to watch Bela Lugosi work without thinking of the smack-addicted washout of Ed Wood. But given half a chance, Dracula takes hold — its quiet power (there’s no music score, which is strangely effective) casts a spell on the viewer, and Lugosi’s performance is iconic for good reason. (Available on Shudder.)
When RKO hired Val Lewton to produce low-budget horror movies, they were expecting nothing more than cheap programmers that would fill out the bottom halves of double bills, and then quickly disappear. Little did they know that his debut effort, this 1942 creeper from director Jacques Tourneur (and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who would later team with Tourneur on the quintessential noir Out of the Past), would become one of the most iconic and influential chillers of the era. Moody and mighty, and without a wasted frame in its compact 73 minutes. (Available on FilmStruck, along with five more Lewton chillers.)
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, tight-fisted, bluntly effective result brought an unblinking realism and semi-documentary aesthetic to the creature feature, capturing much of the unrest of the era within the broad metaphor of a zombie uprising. A new 4K restoration is playing in major markets, but if you’re not in one of those, there are (thanks to its dodgy copyright status) copious opportunities for home viewing. (Available on Amazon Prime, MUBI, and Shudder.)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
The late 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. And it’s not as gory as its reputation (or title) might lead you to believe, not that it’s any less unsettling as a result; 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. (Available on Amazon Prime.)
Spielberg’s first giant hit, and still his best. Every frame is masterfully 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 – yet somehow always seeming as fresh and vibrant as the first time you saw it. (Available on Netflix and Showtime Anytime.)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Don Siegel’s original 1956 Body Snatchers (which you can stream on Amazon Prime) 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 (and its epicenter, San Francisco). It’s smart and entertaining, and its final image – and, yikes, sound- is still unnerving as hell. (Available on Hulu.)
As with the best of David Cronenberg’s work, this 1979 chiller grounds its horror in real-world domestic drama, marital jealousy, and familial anxieties, which help transform a fundamentally silly premise into something scary as hell. Though one of Cronenberg’s earlier productions, it’s filled with hints of the directions he’d take, from obvious trademarks like body horror to intense, bristling therapy sessions (shades of A Dangerous Method). He takes an almost flat approach to the material, placing his actors in ugly interiors, giving his camera movements an unnerving unsteadiness, wielding cutaways like a blunt instrument. It comes to a stomach-churning (and tensely edited) conclusion, up to and including its wittily inevitable final cuts. Creepy, sharp, funny stuff. (Available on FilmStruck.)
An American Werewolf in London / Gremlins
The trouble, more often than not, with horror/comedies is that they can’t get the mix right — they’re either too funny at the expense of the scares, or too scary to be funny. But these two ‘80s faves are perfectly modulated; the wry wit and buddy-comedy dynamics of John Landis’ Werewolf is a perfect counterpoint to the jaw-dropping transformations (for which the legendary Rick Baker won a well-deserved Oscar), while Joe Dante’s Gremlins cleverly paints an almost saccharine portrait of Norman Rockwell-eseque small-town life before gleefully burning it to the ground.