While you may not guess this from my morbid cynicism and reputation for killing off characters in screenplays, I’m not actually a big fan of horror films. Don’t get me wrong, I consider them a crucially formative genre in film’s history – and one of the most fascinating to study – but it is incredibly rare that I personally would choose to watch a horror film, least of all enjoy one. In fact, there is only one ‘proper’ horror film that I would say I enjoy watching (Cabin of the Woods, 2012) and that is most likely due to its examination of the genre itself, plus its co-writer (Joss Whedon, of course).
However, I am a BIG fan of any excuse to watch more movies – especially if that gives me an excuse to share my opinions about said movies! So I thought rather than share a list of horror films that I do not enjoy, I would instead put together a less conventional collection of my own personal recommendations for seasonal viewings that anyone can enjoy, whether they enjoy being scared or not! These range from Halloween horrors to camp comedies and just vaguely autumnal favourites. Enjoy!
The Campy Cult: The Craft (1996)
Written by: Peter Filardi Directed by: Andrew Fleming Starring: Robin Tunney, Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell, Rachel True
How could I possibly talk about Halloween films without mentioning The Craft? It’s an cult classic for a reason! The Craft is in no way a scary film (aside from my phobia of snakes and that sequence…) but it is wonderfully spooky and full of witchy goodness. Think Mean Girls meets the most aesthetically pleasing wicca Pinterest board. With Fairuza Balk. Not only is this film full of amazing outfits and teen-movie indulgence, but it’s also an interesting interpretation on cliques, coming-of-age and femininity.
The Self-Aware Horror: Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Written by: Joss Whedon & Drew Goddard Directed by: Drew Goddard Starring: Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kanz, Jesse Williams
Cabin in the Woods holds a special place in my film lists because of its connection to Joss Whedon (CitW co-writer) and Fran Kanz (Dollhouse (Whedon, 2009-2010)) – particularly because of its impeccable, unique and hilarious script. While the film is a parody in some sense, it takes its horror elements very seriously and does provide many jump scares, eerie suspension and outright horror. The fact it manages to be a successful horror whilst also satirising and analysing the genre is remarkable. While many horror films parody the genre, they tend to thus make themselves not scary, however Cabin in the Woods retains its fear factor throughout the entire film. In fact, the self-awareness of the characters (particularly at the final revelations of their wider place in the plot) is arguably the most scary aspect because of its understanding and highlighting of the genre. If you are a fan of horror films, a filmmaker or a fan of the genre you need to see Cabin in the Woods.
The Indie Horror: 3 Dead Trick or Treaters (2016)
Written and directed by: Torin Langen Starring: Holden Levack
Now I should preface this suggestion with a disclaimer – I’m not 100% positive that this film is available to watch anywhere yet, so it may be one to add to your watchlists!
I attended Southampton International Film Festival last weekend as my film, Grey, was up for an award, and one of the films frequently nominated was 3 Dead Trick of Treaters. While I wasn’t able to catch the whole film screening, I saw several clips from it and the trailer has been released online. Just from what little I’ve seen, it looks to be an exceptional horror with a very unique story. The cinematography and art direction alone are worth watching and this is undoubtedly the most Halloween-themed film on this list. I’m always keen to shoutout more independent films and given the number of awards and nominations 3 Dead Trick or Treaters has garnered at festivals I’ve no doubt it has earned its place on this list.
The Foreign Horror: Timecrimes (2007)
Written and directed by: Nacho Vigalondo Starring: Karra Elejalde, Candela Fernandez, Nacho Vigalondo
During my three years at university I watched more horror films than I have in all my other years combined (and that has definitely influenced this list!) – one of those films I was gratefult to be ‘forced’ into watching was Vigalondo’s Timecrimes. To be blunt, it is a non-linear, time-travelling mind fuck of a film, but one that I think deserves to be mentioned here. We studied the time-travel elements of Timecrimes, which are excellent, but I think the horror aspects are just as worth mentioning. While there are no gruesome murders, serial killers or deadly monsters, the parts of this film that make it scary are truly horror. They are unsettling and uncanny – not outright terrifying enough that you know ‘I should be scared’ but just not right enough that you are constantly aware of your surroundings. If you want a horror film that will leave you feeling it crawling on your skin for days after, and lead you to many frantic internet analyses, then Timecrimes needs to be on your watchlist.
The Creepy Kid Horror: The Orphanage (2007)
Written by: Sergio G. Sanchez Directed by: J.A. Bayona Starring: Belen Reueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Princep
One of my closest friends is a horror fanatic (which has caused many an issue when it comes to choosing films – she normally wins) and yet I cannot convince her to watch The Orphanage, despite my raving about it. So hopefully I can persuade some of you to watch it at least. The Orphanage is another Spanish horror that seems predictably scary – and in some ways, it is. However it manages to tell a rather unoriginal story in a unique way. I always tell people that it isn’t about creating an original story, it is how you tell is; because 99.9% of the time you will not find a story that’s never been done before! The Orphanage is a prime example of that. It takes the creepy children, spooky old building tropes and refreshes them into a film which is petrifying. This is definitely the most outright horror film on this list, but I felt it deserved a mention purely for the fact it’s one of the only ‘real horrors’ I’ve seen which I find scary and not stupid. The characters aren’t the most developed in the world, and the story isn’t entirely new to the genre, but the care and thought with which the film has been crafted makes the film a uniquely haunting one.
The Zomedy: Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Written by: Simon Pegg & Edgar Wright Directed by: Edgar Wright Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield
If it didn’t feel like a cop-out, I would have put the entire Cornetto Trilogy on this list. But when it came down to it, I felt that Shaun of the Dead is the most iconic for a reason. And you can hardly have a list of horror/Halloween films without a zombie movie on there!
Edgar Wright’s trilogy of comedies explore humanity and what is means to feel apart from that, and your community, via different perspectives. They throw you (and the characters) into what should be a familiar setting, then turn it upside down. Shaun of the Dead was Wright’s big break movie and he hasn’t disappointed since. Wright is the master of practical comedy and unrivaled editing slickness – add in the peerless Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and you find three of the best comedies of all time.
The ‘too real’: Wind river (2017)
Written and directed by: Taylor Sheridan Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Jeremy Renner, Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham, Kelsey Asbille
This may seem like an odd suggestion for a horror film, but when watching Wind River (read my review here) I felt sincerely creeped out. The film is two hours of uneasy suspense, building up to a climax of reality that finds you feeling sincerely unrelieved. Not because the film lacks closure or narrative development, but because it turns around to stare you right back in the face and leaves you to confront everything it has brought into the light. Wind River is breathtaking and quite overwhelming – it is not a scary horror, but one that is all too real and honest to not be entirely horrifying.
The Scary Series: Stranger Things (2016)
Created by: Matt & Ross Duffer Starring: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Joe Keery
When the first Stranger Things trailer came out I thought ‘that looks amazing, but I don’t think I’ll be able to watch it by myself’. Fast forward several months and the world was obsessed – the time had come. I roped my mum into it and we binged the entire series in three evenings (if it had been up to me it would’ve been a single day!) And what better time to reccomend Stranger Things when the brand new season 2 has just been released on Netflix! I’m sure the Netflix original may not be everyone’s idea of scary, but I found it downright terrifying in places. The element of children in peril (particularly ones that are actually developed characters and well written!) is of course a factor, but I think the added storyline of government conspiracies and cover-ups is one of the scariest parts of the series. The entire show is excellently crafted, with brilliantly written characters and a true sense of world-building.
The Psychological Thriller: Shutter Island (2010)
Written by: Laeta Kalogridis Directed by: Martin Scorsese Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo
I may well be alone in this one, but I personally have always found Shutter Island to be a scary film. Not outright hide behind a pillow, never-sleep-again-terrifying; but nevertheless a very unnerving film that leaves you not just on edge but hanging from that edge and whimpering. Which is why it makes it to my unconventional list. As far as psychological thrillers go, you can’t get more genre-tight than Shutter Island, yet it embraces all the conventions with such style that you hardly notice them. It’s a masterclass is pathetic fallacy within cinema – so much so that even as someone who adores the rain and grey skies in real life, the moment I see the weather clouding over Shutter Island I get scared. The lighting is remarkable, the story and narrative are excellent. Even the flashbacks are heart-wrenchingly well done; which says a lot because I tend to be slightly against using flashback solely to cause sympathy. Shutter Island is one of those films you hear about and always mean to watch but never get round to, so this is your time – get round to it!
The Sci-Fi Horror: Under the Skin (2013)
Written and directed by: Jonathan Glazer Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams
Under the Skin is perhaps a strange one for this list – it is hardly your traditional horror, nor your traditional science-fiction film. I could have chosen from a plethora of films about extraterrestrial terrors and body horrors like the Alien series. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, Kaufman) or The Fly (1958, Neumann); I even considered Moon (2009, Jones) which leaves you more scared of humanity than anything else. But nonetheless, I had to go with one of my personal ‘scary films’. While Under the Skin is undeniably both a horror and a sci-fi film, it skims over both genres and lands in an art film centre layer. The way in which it examines both our humanity and the possibilities of threatening aliens seems to give it a double-edged sword of scariness. It doesn’t fully villainise Johansson’s character of a (presumed) alien, nor does it make her likable – simply alluring. Yet when she is later faced with her own predator of a more human variety, we empathise with her and despise her attacker. Under the Skin is a bleak depiction of the world in its current state, and leaves the audience considering that perhaps we don’t have to look quite as far beyond earth to find horrifying creatures.
The Queer Horror: Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl (2016)
Written and directed by: A.D. Calvo Starring: Quinn Shepard, Erin Wilhelmi, Susan Kellermann
Of course we couldn’t discuss any kind of film list without a queer entry, so for horrors we have the recently-released Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl. This film is by no means a game-changer for the horror genre, nor is its queerness overwhelmingly progressive, but it is a beautiful watch. Stylistically, the film is gorgeous and full of eeriness even in its most predictable moments. The sound design coupled with the art direction and slow-pace build up a haunting tension that creeps through you during the 76 minutes. I think this film is one which would benefit from repeat viewings and analysis, as there may well be more beneath the surface – or at least different interpretations. It is an entirely absorbing, disturbing film that – whether you enjoy it or not – will leave you thinking about it for days after.
The Musical: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Written by: Jim Sharman & Richard O’Brien Directed by: Jim Sharman Starring: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Richard O’Brien, Barry Bostwick, Patricia Quinn, Nell Campbell, Peter Hinwood
You can’t expect me to talk about Halloween films and not mention RHPS! I actually put off watching this film until I was about fifteen or so, because I thought it looked scary (spoiler: it isn’t) and now I adore it. The campness, the queerness, the comedy, the music… it’s an all rounder. Rocky Horror follows a newly-engaged couple who seek help in a menacing mansion and find themselves stranded overnight with the ‘mad scientist’ and his staff members – who happen to burst into song regularly. The film is a pastiche of the science-fiction and B-movie horrors of the 1930s-1970s and celebrates them in a truly spectacular homage. Why ever you may love horrors, I suggest you indulge in Rocky Horror because it is undoubtedly an experience you shan’t forget.
The Creature Feature: Blackfish (2013)
Written and directed by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Perhaps this is a bit of a stretch for this list, but when it came to a classic ‘creature feature’ to include in this collection I just couldn’t find one that I genuinely thought was a good film and also an unconventional horror film. So what’s more unconventional for this suggestion than a documentary? As I’ve mentioned above, the thing I find most unnerving in horror films is when it turns out to be our humanity and us that is the scariest thing of all. Perhaps this is why I don’t enjoy the more obvious, typical horror films. Blackfish is a documentary about an orca, Tilikum; his life in captivity and the resulting deaths. Ever since I first watched it it has haunted me. Having visited (and been enraptured by) SeaWorld when I was young – and even dreaming to work there one day – this documentary left me questioning everything. It is the only documentary I remember ever having loved as much as a fiction film, and I’ve rewatched it near fifty times. It is stunning, heartfelt, moving and important. The issues it raises with animals in circus-like captivity, and the treatment of these animals, makes Blackfish possibly the scariest film of this entire list.
I hope you all enjoy exploring some unusual horror film suggestions and have a happy, safe Halloween period. And remember…