Lists…everybody loves lists. I don’t pretend that this selection of Halloween favorites is definitive; it’s a completely arbitrary roster of movies I like and recommend. Bear in mind that I am a major wimp and will not watch graphic horror or slasher films. I prefer “creepy” to “scary” and I’m always a sucker for movies that blend horror and humor.
For parents with younger kids I recommend indoctrinating your family to the Universal Pictures horror classics, especially Bride of Frankenstein (a great warmup for Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder’s brilliant parody Young Frankenstein) and The Wolf Man.
Let the Right One In – this highly original Swedish vampire tale is bloodier than most of my picks but I found it impossible to look away. A 12-year-old girl moves into an apartment complex and a lonely boy who lives there gradually learns her grim secret. If you absolutely refuse to read subtitles, the American remake Let Me In is quite good.
Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil – Eli Craig wrote and directed this sleeper about an escalating series of misunderstandings between two innocent backwoods friends (Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine) and some young people visiting a cabin for the weekend. It’s a parody of Friday the 13th-type stories and quite funny—but it doesn’t skimp on violence (or irony). This one deserves to be much better known and celebrated.
An American Werewolf in London – John Landis wrote and directed this modern classic that’s a full-blooded horror movie that happens to have a sense of humor. David Naughton and Griffin Dunne star and they hit all the right notes. Rick Baker’s Oscar-winning makeup effects predate the era of CGI and happen right in front of your eyes. A terrific film that holds up 100% even after 36 years.
The Orphanage – J.A. Bayona directed this gothic shocker about a woman and her husband who return to a seaside mansion where she spent part of her childhood when it was an orphanage. Their loving (adopted) son has always had imaginary friends, but in this strange new environment they turn violent. Bayona builds suspense and terror in classical fashion as a densely plotted story unfolds, with unusual parallels to Peter Pan.
The Others – Nicole Kidman stars in this engrossing ghost story set on the Channel Islands in 1945. A troubled woman whose husband has never returned form the war tries to maintain her creepy old house while protecting—or is it overprotecting?—her two young children. A new household staff may be part of the solution or just another manifestation of the problem. Like The Haunting, it’s not what you see but what you imagine that makes this so effective.
Close Your Eyes – A Scotland Yard detective (the wonderful Shirley Henderson) draws hypnotherapist Goran Visnjic into a troubling case involving a serial killer and a little girl who’s been traumatized since she was held captive by him. Mixing occult elements with a whodunit, this genuinely creepy thriller stays on track right to the end.
Mirrormask – Neil Gaiman collaborated with David McKean on this story about a teenage girl who feels alienated from her parents—and their threadbare traveling circus—and expresses her frustration by drawing. When her mother takes ill, the guilt-ridden girl goes into a dream state inspired by those drawings and attempts to save the world from being overtaken by dark forces. This wildly imaginative fantasy uses The Wizard of Oz as a template but the visuals are utterly original, the work of famed artist and designer McKean, who also directed.
Innocent Blood – Not as well-known as An American Werewolf in London, this is John Landis’s modern-day vampire saga set in Pittsburgh, with a killer cast led by Anne Parillaud (La Femme Nikita), Anthony La Paglia, and Don Rickles! A sexy French vampire sinks her teeth into mob boss Robert Loggia and unwittingly unleashes a brood of bloodsucking gangsters. It’s a wild and woolly crossbreed of urban action-thriller and horror movie with a wicked sense of humor. Many of the cast members later turned up in The Sopranos.
Shaun of the Dead – This engaging comedy helped launch the careers of director Edgar Wright and leading actor Simon Pegg, who plays a young working stiff who slowly—very slowly—comes to realize that London has been overrun by zombies. Clever and funny, whether you’re a fan of zombie movies or not.
28 Days Later – Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris and Brendan Gleeson star in Danny Boyle’s unforgettable film. It begins with an incident at a laboratory where animals are being used for medical research and leads to a deadly virus that spreads like wildfire throughout England. Alex Garland wrote this truly frightening story that’s particularly potent because you know it could actually happen.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein – The granddaddy of horror comedies, with Bud and Lou encountering Dracula (Bela Lugosi), Larry Talbot aka The Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange). An ingenious plot has Dracula going after Costello’s brain. The production values are slick in this Universal gem where Bud and Lou provide the laughs while the monsters play it absolutely straight. It’s great fun all the way.