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5 Horror Movies You Must Watch For Halloween

At the behest of a co-worker, I have scoured Netflix for the 5 horror movies you must watch this October. This is, by no means, a list of all watchable horror on Netflix right now, just move these suckers to the front of your queue (remember when you could do that?!) Think of this as your intermediate course in horror; you're no longer a novice, but you haven't quite made it to master level yet. Feel free to make additional suggestions - I love to hear your thoughts!

Hellraiser (1987)

Written and Directed By: Clive Barker
The Gist: There is a puzzle box that allows you access to Hell and carries the promise of fulfilling your dreams. Unfortunately, Hell has its own agenda and things end badly for anyone foolhardy enough to summon up demons.

You'll find Hellraiser on many "best whatever" and "scariest whatevers" movie lists WITH GOOD REASON.

Picture this: it's 1980 and the horror cinema landscape is about to shift dramatically. The past 20 years of horror have been filled with sociopaths lurking next door, stalkers, slashers, conspiracy, and a crushing sense of paranoia.

Now, to help "lighten the mood" and to better reflect the youthful, over-indulgent, flippant, care-free social mentality, horror is becoming comedic. The grainy, home-made feeling of the 70's giving way to a BRIGHT and playful, effects-laden generation of horror. you could even argue that the early 80's gave fun back to films.

Did the fun go too far?

By the mid-80's, the horror scene had become so blended with the gross-out comedy scene, one could hardly tell the two apart; examples include The Monster Squad, Chopping MallHouse, and Re-Animator.

Enter Hellraiser: it's deadly serious.

Hellraiser is like a punch to the face that splits your lip, knocks out some teeth, cracks your nose, and leaves you reeling. It shows us a dark, erotic world of subversive sexuality and crippling obsessions populated by sardonic demons and back-stabbing, greedy humans. 

The story itself is threaded with challenging questions and accusations; will we truly be eternally punished for indulging in our desires? What is more important than family? You can't cheat death.  Would you kill someone to save someone you love? Is that ever okay? What could tempt you to give into Evil?

The true strength of the story is that it's not simply a supernatural horror film, it's an engrossing journey inside ourselves. We come out at the end of the movie wondering what we may be capable of. It's also a tragic story (at it's heart); a girl loses her father to the greed and lust (couple of great sins there) of her uncle and her step-mother. Even though she races (literally) through hell and back to save him, she's just too late.

The true strength of the movie is more than just the depth of the story, it's the incredible visuals. Clive Barker has a dark, vivid, twisting imagination that just leaps form the screen and burns itself into your brain. Thankfully Hellraiser was made during the absolute peak of practical effects because crappy CGI would really ruin the horror (as you can see in some of the later, ABSURD, direct-to-video sequels).

Hellraiser is filled with many of my all time favorite horror images: Andrew Robinson being torn to pieces or when he cuts his hand on the nail and bursts into the attic room, blood gushing everywhere. Sean Chapman's resurrection- those grotesque, slimy skeleton arms popping from the floor at painfully disconcerting angels. Grace Kirby, the female cenobite, with her throat splayed open. 

If you're still not sold, the winding ethereal soundtrack will make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end.

Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer (1986/1990)

Co-Written and Directed By: John McNaughton
The Gist: A serial killer does what he does best, kill.

Henry has created a fair amount of controversy for itself over the years; the MAPP had a field day slapping ratings and restrictions on it. Certainly not the first movie to be accused of excess, Henry's faux documentary style (read here, "simulated reality") and intense subject matter increased the scrutiny it received.

Henry is both a dramatized look inside the mind of a serial killer and a complex evaluation of relationships. It is also an exploration of what it means to have an unusual, off-beat, sociopathic "moral code." During the movie, Henry talks disinterestedly about being abused by his mother, murders prostitutes, and protects his friend's sister from being raped (only to murder both the friend and the sister later).

Some critics have said that Henry is an excessively violent movie. Others call it excessively graphic. Both of these interpretations seem off base when you consider the films made around the same time: Henry was produced in the mid 80's (that crazy time full of gross-out horror) making its production values seem subdued and old fashioned by comparison.

Coming more than 10 years after Last House on the Left, Henry is an equally gritty (equally unsettling) look at the dispassionate sociopathy running seemingly rampant in our society's disaffected youth. The depiction of violence in Henry isn't what strikes such a deep, terrifying chord within people. The utterly cold and totally believable portrayal of a remorseless, compulsive serial killer (by Michael Rooker) is what leaves us shaken and distrusting of every stranger we meet.

I've read that Michael Rooker was so nervous about "getting the character right" (Henry was his first major film role) that he stayed in character the entire time they were shooting. When he left the set for breaks, he'd go back to his dressing room (where he'd covered all his mirrors and the windows) and sit alone in the dark. In an interview (later in life) he said that he could bring back Henry at a moment's notice because it was character that had never really left him.

Henry has a disconcerting way of burrowing under your skin and sticking with you once it has ended. You'll also never look at Michael Rooker the same way again. Ever.

Apparently, I can't embed the trailer for this one so you'll have to do the legwork yourself.

Tucker And Dale VS Evil (2010)

Written and Directed By: Eli Craig
The Gist: A group of 20-somethings goes camping in a remote Southern hill town. They meet two hillbillies and assume the worst. The comedy of errors that ensues leaves those judgey, 20-something assholes all dead.

Tucker and Dale VS Evil (TDVSE) is a horror-nerd's wet dream! It stars two genre actors we all love, Tyler Labine (who ABSOLUTELY made the show Reaper!) and Alan Tudyk (who I don't have to tell anyone starred in Firefly) as the most absurdly lovable hillbillies you've ever seen in a movie. They are the perfect, modernized embodiment of Laurel and Harty's classic "nice mess" they've gotten into.

The story is an impeccably written satire the likes of Shaun of The Dead. And that's actually why I think this movie works so well: Shaun of the Dead strikes the perfect balance of laughing at genre conventions with the fans. There's no ironic usage of conventions designed to make the fans feel stupid for liking movies that use those elements seriously. Instead, Shaun of the Dead employs a kind of cartoonish absurdity to situations fan can recognize; often we're the terrified witness of a creature sneaking up on one of the actors. They are seemingly oblivious to their impending doom. Many times, these set ups are literally unbelievable. NO HUMAN could be THAT oblivious. In Shaun of the Dead, Simon Pegg wander out of his hovel, down the street, into a shop and back, all COMPLETELY unaware of the shambling zombies, fleeing humans, broken windows, and bloody hand prints.

Take this loving penchant for absurdity to the furthest level and you get the charmingly horrific comedy that is TDVSE. Every death has the build up of a Wile E. Coyote scheme with hilariously bloody results.

One does not watch TDVSE to be scared, they watch it for a fucking great laugh.

Nosferatu (1921)

Directed By: F.W. Muranau
The Gist: hapless nincompoop heads to Transylvania on business, crosses paths with a vampire who becomes interested in said idiot's wife, said wife uses her charms to defeat said vampire. Life makes sense again.

When you start to talk about Nosferatu, people start to throw around words like "classic" and "masterpiece." You'll also hear "ground-breaking" and "influential." Even if you've never seen the movie before, popular culture has appropriated so many images from the movie that you feel it's somehow familiar to you already. Take (for instance) Max Schreck's dramatic death scene:

While Nosferatu is firmly on my "must watch" list, I should add here that it isn't some action-packed thriller with a thumping dub-step soundtrack or a bunch of beautiful, scantily clad co-eds showcasing their expensive, plastic racks.

It is, however, an outstanding example of German Expressionist film in which the actors used exuberant performances marked by grand gestures to communicate the complex range of internalized emotions their characters were feeling. These films often suffered from exceptionally small budgets as they were being produced during WWI. To compensate for lack of money and materials, set designers created unique, bizarre, surreal set pieces to represent everything from landscapes to shadows to less tangible concepts like "terror" or "isolation".

I have some crazy love for pre-1930's, silent, horror movies. Removing the distraction of spoken dialog, you're allowed to watch the movie through a super tightly focused lens. You notice costumes and sets. You begin to pick up on body language and facial expressions. You're able to start feeling the subtext that listening to conversations tends to obscure.

Watching Nosferatu is an exercise in understanding human interaction and appreciating the impressive nuances of emotion that one can convey, sans spoken language.

For an interesting take on Nosferatu - spend a little time with Shadow of the Vampire (also available on Netflix). Although I do strongly suggest watching Nosferatu first.

House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Written By: Robb White
Directed By: William Castle
The Gist: Eccentric millionaire hosts a "haunted house party." Visitors who stay through the night win a large sum of money. The others? They'll be dead.

I can write here, with complete honesty, that my life is significantly lacking for never having met William Castle. He is one of my long-dead idols. He was the Walt Disney of the horror world. Both men were remarkably grounded mavericks running around Hollywood with these gigantic plans for bringing joy to people. Both worked in film but realized that the enjoyment of a movie didn't just stop at images projected on a screen.

Castle is best known, not for his movies, but for the gimmicks he created to accompany those movies. Theatre seats wired to give audiences shocks, flying skeletons, magic coins, invisible ghosts you need special glasses to see, the list goes on and on. The bulk of his movies are considered "B Movies", but that shouldn't make you think they are "bad movies". His films are well produced, well written, and often times feature exceptional actors. (Vincent Price and Joan Crawford for example).

House on Haunted Hill is one of his best known (and most successful) movies. This is, of course, aided by the 1999 remake (of the same name).

SIDE NOTE: If you're under 30 and you've only ever seen that remake - do yourself a favor and check out the original. While I'll admit that Famke Janssen and Geoffrey Rush are fucking brilliant in the leading roles, neither of them can hold a candle to Vincent Price's performance in the original.

The real fun of House on Haunted Hill comes from it being a mystery that the audiences is stumbling through alongside the characters. As clues start to be revealed to us, we start to get a better handle on what's actually going on. Positioning the audience in this way helps bring them into the story and keep them interested in what's happening. Newer horror often overlooks this type of storytelling, opting instead to set the audience outside of the story by telling them everything up front. The audience becomes passive observers and can only muster so much "give a fuck" about the characters.

Another joy of House on Haunted Hill is that it presents as a "ghost story" but turns out to be something significantly more sinister; a complicated plot by a jilted husband to punish his cheating wife and her lover. And when I write that the plot is "complicated", you should be hearing in your head, "Rube Goldberg-ian" - it's really that layered.

If that list isn't enough to fulfill your horror needs this October, here's an added bonus! Five additional movies that I absolutely recommend BUT have already blogged about:
  1. Funny Games (1997)
  2. American Psycho
  3. The Serpent and the Rainbow
  4. v/h/s
  5. Fright Night (1985)


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