Horror movies for a frightfully good Halloween

Michael Myers in Halloween Kills, now in cinemas. Picture: Universal Pictures International
Michael Myers in Halloween Kills, now in cinemas. Picture: Universal Pictures International

For some, Halloween means trick or treating and getting a massive sugar rush, for others it's a chance to dress up themselves and/or their houses in spooky style.

But for those of us who enjoy horror movies, it's a legitimate excuse to indulge in the genre, not that one is needed. Here are some thoughts and recommendations for movies to watch for scares and fun. I've tried to indicate levels of spookiness, gore, et cetera, but obviously, people's tolerance levels for the scary vary, so proceed with caution as you check out streaming services and DVD shelves.

Slasher films

Halloween Kills, now in cinemas, is the latest in the long-running franchise that began modestly with a classic, Halloween (1978). It wasn't the first "slasher" film but it was the one that really kicked off the sub-genre and made a star of Jamie Lee Curtis, whose mother, Janet Leigh, was in another must-see classic horror movie, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). The latter's virtues include its classic Bernard Herrmann score and plenty of dark comedy that makes it worth seeing even if you know the story. Avoid the remake.

The original John Carpenter Halloween is, after Psycho, a good place to begin exploring slasher movies: it's less violent and despite its low budget, more stylish than many of its successors and imitators.

This was the movie that made famous many of the tropes of slasher movies: a mysterious killer - in Halloween, Michael Myers - murders a bunch of people one by one until there's only the Final Girl - typically the one who's been the most virtuous; in Halloween it's Laurie Strode - in a final stand-off. Much can, and has, been written about slasher movies - for example, is their morality, and that of horror in general, largely conservative (dealing with the disruption and possible restoration of order and rewarding the "good", or sometimes subverting such expectations)? Maybe that's a point for discussion after a few drinks if you have a viewing party. If you take horror lessons seriously, it's safer than a lot of the other things you could do.

To see just how stylish Halloween is, compare it to the more basic and bloody Friday the 13th (1980), in which a killer murders young folks (including Kevin Bacon) at a soon-to-reopen summer camp. There's some good gory make-up and special effects here but as a director, Sean S. Cunningham is no Carpenter, let alone Hitchcock.

Both films have multiple sequels, remakes, imitators and rip-offs so you can really take a bloody deep dive if you're so inclined. Curtis cemented her status as Scream Queen in other slashers like Terror Train and also hacked out a mainstream career but sor Laurie Strode, the Road Runner to Michael Myers' Wile E. Coyote, this remains her signature role.

Classic horror

The old Universal monster movies from the 1930s through to the 1950s might seem a little quaint nowadays with their old-fashioned style and special effects - but they were hugely influential, with instantly recognisable characters, and are still a lot of fun.

Bela Lugosi's is an indelible characterisation despite the 1931 film being rather stiff and stagey. Boris Karloff managed to be both touching and scary as the Frankenstein monster (not the doctor himself) in the excellent Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). The Mummy films are a little samey - an ancient, shuffling brute just keeps on coming - but The Wolf Man, with Lon Chaney Jr, has its moments.

The British Hammer horror movies, often using the same characters, were frequently good - Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were genre stalwarts. Fair warning: they were bloodier and often sexier than their predecessors.

Sci-fi horror

The Thing (1982) is another Carpenter movie with a bigger budget and special effects that are still both grisly and impressive as well as a wonderfully paranoid atmosphere: it's set in a remote Arctic station with a shapeshifting monster that could be anyone. Invasion of the Body Snatchers - with people being replaced by aliens - is another exercise in paranoia that's been done multiple times. Notable are the 1956 small-town version with its echoes of McCarthyism and the 1978 big-city Me Generation remake.

Horror comedies

Scream (1996) parodies and deconstructs the slasher film but it and its sequels are also enjoyable slasher movies in their own right. There's a fair helping of violence. Although the sequels are variable, the first is lots of fun.

Night of the Creeps (1986) is loaded with genre in-jokes but is fun to watch on its own merits and although there are some gross-out moments, it's not horrible, and the characters are likeable. The film blends science fiction, comedy and horror in a tale of American college students contending with zombies and aliens.

Young Frankenstein (1974), beautifully filmed in black and white, is worth catching. If you enjoyed the first two Universal Frankenstein movies, Mel Brooks' affectionate parody-homage won't disappoint.

Ghost stories

The Sixth Sense (1999) is well done but far from original: see the low-budget Carnival of Souls (1962) for just one example of a similar idea. The Innocents (1961) is a fine, subtle adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, and The Haunting (1963) is a haunted-house movie that also delves into the psychological.

We haven't even touched on other kinds of horror - including anthologies like Tales from the Crypt, found footage features like The Blair Witch Project, devil movies like Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist and The Omen - but there's so much of it. Maybe next year.

Happy Halloween!

This story Have a frightfully good Halloween first appeared on The Canberra Times.