It’s that time of the year again! When that stretch of green begins its swan song by turning a gorgeous array of orange and brown. That time of the year when the relentless summer heat begins to fade into a crispness that beckons your favorite hoodie from the depths of the closet. A time when your favorite horror movies – and dare I say comfort ones – start making the transition into the mainstream light. If you just so happen to partake in horror 365 days of the year, there isn’t much within your daily viewing that changes. Because, when spring rolls around and you’re *still* watching Halloween 3: Season of the Witch (1982), you probably don’t think anything of it. But you are an exception; one that does not apply to the tradition of immersing oneself in a specific genre for 31 days, and 31 days only.
But for those of you out there that need to wade into the shallows before diving into the deep, dark waters of horror; fear not! Rather than make the grave mistake of biting off more than you can chew, I’ve compiled a list of transitional horror treats that work at easing you into a genre you may not be accustomed to. Films that pull far less tricks in turning your knuckles white and releasing a flood of nightmares that look to repel rather than entice. Don’t worry though, as I haven’t forgotten the true intent of the season, which is to provide a little spooky fun! Here you’ll find everything you need to become the coolest kid on prom night and not another victim to that bucket of pigs-blood!
So pour a pumpkin beer, get cozy under your ghost-printed fleece blanket and dive into these 10 horror films for the seasonally weary; by the time you’re done, you’ll be dropping your favorite quotes at the next pumpkin carving.
10. Lady in White (1988), directed by Frank LaLoggia
Telling of the Rochester, New York legend about, you guessed it, a lady in white who searches Eastman Park for her deceased daughter, Lady in White stars a young Luke Haas as Frankie, a boy who witnesses a ghastly murder before being strangled unconscious after two bullies lock him overnight in his school’s classroom. It’s an atmospherically rich and seasonally evocative ghost story that joins the ranks of the many kid-perspective horror films, infusing its ghastly imagery with spectacle and a sense of wonderment.
Embracing its New England lore, writer/director/producer and composer (phew!) Frank LaLoggia shot in upstate New York, capturing the brisk autumnal setting that bellows October! One so ensconced in its own season that its impenetrable fog and brisk air adds an immersing tangibility to its chilling horror. In capturing the youth of Frankie, LaLoggia manages to alleviate much of its sinister undertones, making Lady in White the perfect send-off into the supernatural sub-genre.
9. The Witches (1990), directed by Nicolas Roeg
What do you get when you take the director Nicolas Roeg, the puppetry of Jim Henson (his last before passing away) and the nightmarish storytelling of a Roald Dahl novel about a secret clan of witches? You get one of the most sinister children’s incarnations in recent memory! At the heart of the film is a touching relationship between a precocious boy named Luke and his grandma Helga (played by Jasen Fisher and the late great Mai Zetterling) who attend a seaside resort only to have Luke cast into a mouse by the Grand High Witch (Angelica Huston).
Nicolas Roeg, who previously spellbound audiences with his psychological horror masterpiece Don’t Look Now (1973), utilizes similar fish-eye lends to give off a terrifyingly dizzy look, one that causes the English country side to twist in horror. However, it’s the magic of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop that helps turn The Witches into one of the most frightening adaptations in the history cinema, as Angelica Huston’s Grand High Witch peels off her skin and reveals a terrifying and haggard face that will haunt children and adults alike.
8. Watership Down (1978), directed by Martin Rosen
Now I know what you might be thinking; how can an animated tale about rabbits, based on a novel by Richard Adams, be on such a list? Don’t be fooled. Watership Down is a stark, terrifying film that exudes a sense of cold isolation that few animated films do. Set in a once harmonious world that’s now ravaged by famine, Adam’s adaptation follows a group of rabbits as they begin their exodus in search of a new, more prosperous home. In pursuit are vicious and cruel rabbits hell-bent on stopping them, giving the film its underlying sense of dread.
Animation director Tony Guy (The Snowman (1982)) uses watercolors to paint a grim portrait of a land on the brink of decay, utilizing a color palette that evokes a sense of solitude and weariness unseen in most animated children’s films. Matching the films animation style is director/writer Martin Rosen (Plague Dogs (1982)), who maintains the novels violent source material to shocking effect. Not long into the film, we are introduced to graphic deaths, bloodied battles and a startling hallucinatory trip that establishes Watership Down as one of the darkest fables in the history of animation.
7. Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), Jack Clayton
Many children’s books are allegorical tales of growing up, ripe with thematic elements that are darker than perceived. Such is the case with Something Wicked This Way Comes, an adaptation of a Ray Bradbury novel that for the most part wasn’t all that children’s friendly to begin with. Titled after a line from Macbeth (definitely not kid friendly), “By the pricking of my thumbs/ Something wicked this way comes,” we are introduced to Will and Jim (Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson), two young boys who become suspicious of an ominous carnival that has sprung up overnight by the foreboding Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce).
Directed by Jack Clayton (The Innocents (1961)), Something Wicked This Way Comes features all the lightness and charisma of a children’s adaptation and wraps it around a densely layered tale of innocence, regret, secrets and fear. While there are quite a few effects used in bringing Mr. Dark’s carnival to life, it’s the practical side of things that illicit chills, particularly when our two young heroes awake to find their room crawling with hundreds of tarantulas. Afterwards, you may want to check your windows and doors for any creepy crawlers that might try to invade your subconscious – a place the horror genre is all too familiar with.
6. Beetlejuice (1988), directed by Tim Burton
Before becoming a household name, Tim Burton was an imaginatively eager (and bizarre) up and comer who introduced cinema to Paul Reuben and a particularly sought after red bike in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985). Underneath all that whimsical humor and eccentricities lies a director brimming with gothic fancy, one that would become an unmistakable trademark three years later with Beetlejuice; a film set within a macabre dollhouse that grudgingly becomes host to both the living and the dead.
Following the sudden deaths of Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis), audiences are thrust into a corpse strewn underworld that subverts the soft and playful tones of Pee-Wee’s playhouse with greens and purples. A shift that introduces us to death as the Maitland’s attempt to evict their living guests by soliciting the expertise of Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton), the Bio-Exorcist. When the duplicitous help-for-hire is brought from his dimension to ours, Burton begins unleashing a barrage of warped and twisted creatures, from a sand worm to works of gothic art that spring to life in the vein of Ray Harryhausen’s skeleton’s. It’s where Beetlejuice begins skirting the line between family friendly and family fiend-ly, giving us one of the eeriest children’s films to date.
5. The Cabin in the Woods (2012), directed by Drew Goddard
A group of college friends head out to a dilapidated cabin in the middle of the woods, where they inevitably must battle the supernatural darkness that has risen from the bowels of hell. Sounds familiar, right? The concept has been in constant rotation within the horror genre, playing off the fears of busty co-eds and wannabe heroes with letterman jackets. In The Cabin in the Woods, the splatter porn plot of The Evil Dead (1981) is amplified and satirized to maximum effect, turning multiple sub-genres (supernatural, slasher, zombie, creature feature) into an ingenious piece of horror-homage magic.
If Raimi’s classic is a little bit too much for you to take in, then Goddard’s directorial debut is a worthy warm-up, offering just enough meta-ness to mop up its blood-drenched floorboards. And in many ways it’s our 21st century Scream (1996), a slasher that also re-invigorated its genre by paying respect to its predecessors with a hip and clever spin. What The Cabin in the Woods does is acknowledge its place within horror, forging a charming balance between dread and humor that better equips those unprepared for what comes at night.
4. Shaun of the Dead (2004), directed by Edgar Wright
When director Edgar Wright re-introduced the world to the shuffling zombies of Romero’s canon with Shaun of the Dead, a collective moan of enthusiasm could be heard throughout the horror genre. It’s a film that quickly resurrected a sense of appreciation for the classic zombie that had been forgotten underneath the sprinters of 28 Days Later (2002) and the Dawn of the Dead (2004) remake, injecting the genre with a brilliant sense of charm. While Shaun of the Dead is full of dry British humor – a facet that makes its horror a bit more digestible – it manages to be down-right scary too!
While make-up artist Candice Banks and art director Karen Wakefield went above and beyond recreating the glory of Romero’s undead corpses – Shaun of the Dead’s central themes of listlessness is what really make it a frightening piece of horror-comedy, as well as a perfect send-up to Wright’s short-lived BBC show, Spaced (1999-2001). Shaun (played by Simon Pegg) favors pounding back a few pints and playing Timesplitters (great game!) with his flat-mate Ed (Nick Frost) over well, just about anything; especially change and commitment. Sure, Edgar Wright would later tackle similar themes of languid millennial ambition in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010), it’s here where lethargy comes stumbling from beyond the grave, seamlessly integrating the horrors of adulthood into a sub-genre that too often feels lifeless.
3. Jaws (1975), directed by Steven Spielberg
When audiences were introduced to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho back in 1960, it became evident that one thing had changed for everyone; showers. A commonality that when handled by the master of suspense can become an everyday fear, striking at the heart of hygiene. It turned a daily activity into a fearful chore, an accomplishment Steven Spielberg well-understood when he stepped behind the camera to adapt Peter Benchley’s novel. It – almost upon inception as an early summer popcorn flick – washed ashore a power unsuspecting to studios (specifically Universal), who saw a pocket-sized novel become the talk of Hollywood overnight.
Taking place in the fictional beach-side town of Amity (meaning friendship, in all its irony), Jaws finds its sheriff battling a cunning shark as tourists are picked off one-by-one, turning the water red and future summer vacations into an exercise in dread. And rightfully so! In not unveiling the shark well into its 3rd act, Spielberg crafts fear through minimalism, giving us a reveal that mirrors that of a Giallo. And for the most part, Jaws acts just like one, giving us POV’s and quick kills before assembling a rag-tag crew to blow it out of the water; leaving nothing behind but our unbridled fear of the ocean.
2. Frankenstein (1931), directed by James Whale
While Frankenstein’s monster first made its appearance in J. Searle Dawley’s 16-minute short for a studio owned by Thomas Edison (Edison Studios) – that actively produced kinetoscope films – it wasn’t until director James Whale’s 1931 adaptation that the modern Prometheus is given an effective (and narratively loose) treatment. Carving a path (along with Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931)) for future monsters everywhere, Whale’s adaptation – penned by some four screenwriters (one of those Garrett Fort, the playwright behind Dracula) – takes liberties with both the structure of Shelley’s novel and the monsters overall aesthetic, choices that would send galvanizing waves of electricity throughout the horror genre.
As the monster, Boris Karloff’s lumbering performance (and agonized brow) still manages to elicit tiny jolts of astonishment to this day, imbuing Whale’s interpretation with a sense of muddled sadness and intemperate anger. It’s a portrayal that co-exists harmoniously with the gothic laden trenches of Eastern Europe’s cemetery’s and villages, where its thick fog carries a sense of loss and confusion. What emerges is a tragic figure in an equally tragic landscape, beguiling its audience with doses of terror and piteous wonder that continues to affirm Frankenstein’s place as one of the greatest horror films of all time.
1. Scream (1996), directed by Wes Craven
Speaking of Scream, what kind of horror list would forget to include one of the reigning contenders in the genre, melding unbridled fear with tongue-in-cheek humor? Not this one, as Wes Craven’s slasher defibrillator helps find a pulse in not just the hack and slash of its respective genre, but all of horror. Focusing on the small town of Woodsboro, California as a masked horror fan stalks high school students, Scream introduces a bevy of hot, up and coming faces to theaters. What many of the slasher’s that arose from John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) carried with them is a sinister hand, often favoring grizzly kills over satire. As countless sleaze-drenched flicks are shoveled out such as The Dorm that Dripped Blood (1982), Splatter University (1984), and The Mutilator (1985), it became clear that the genre (for the most part) wasn’t interested going above and beyond its bloodbath.
Wes Craven – coming off his unfocused yet inspired Vampire in Brooklyn (1995) – wanted to inject new blood into a genre he helped shape with A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Teaming up with newcomer Kevin Williamson (whose only writing credit was a script that wouldn’t see the light of day for four years), the duo introduce the world to Ghostface; one of the most recognizable killers in horror. Playing off the meta-nature introduced in A New Nightmare (1994) two years prior, Craven and Williamson illuminate many of the tropes that defined the genre while never losing sight of how to effectively scare the audience. What emerges is a stepping stone for audiences inexperienced with horror. One offering up enough self-referential treatment, scares and laughs to ease anyone into the slasher genre.