They say the barrier between the living and the dead is thinnest here at the end of October. To protect ourselves from angry or vengeful spirits that might break through, we must put on disguises, decorate our homes with scary stuff, and, best of all, flood our homes with the sounds of scary movies.
You’ve probably already seen all the most famous fright flicks: The Exorcist, Halloween, The Shining, and the rest; probably more than once. So, I’ve scoured the best streaming services and come up with 24 unsung treasures. The first 12 are presented here, and the second half will run tomorrow, October 27. Please do come back for that.
John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine, Devil) directs this found-footage movie, and while it has many irritating qualities (jump scares, nausea-inducing camerawork, clichéd characters, and so on), it also has a genuinely unsettling, spine-tingling atmosphere that makes it linger in the memory. It also has a great lead character, the adventurous Scarlett (Perdita Weeks)—who you might imagine as the daughter of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft—who deserved more and better movies.
In As Above, So Below (2014), Scarlett learns that the legendary Philosopher’s Stone may be located in a series of creepy catacombs below the streets of Paris, France. So, she rounds up her translator friend George (Ben Feldman), local guide Papillon (François Civil) and his fearless crew, and her cameraperson Benji (Edwin Hodge) to head down into that twisty, nightmarish maze. Unfortunately, the nature of reality itself begins to bend in horrific, unholy ways. In the end, the good stuff—the puzzle, the chilling horror, and the intrepid lead character—is enough to outweigh any of the other stuff.
A solid reboot of the famous “Chucky”/killer-doll slasher movies, Child’s Play (2019) casts Mark Hamill as the voice of the new Chucky, and he provides a sweet, sinister tone, perhaps a little confused, as opposed to merely homicidal (which is not to take anything away from Brad Dourif’s memorable line readings in the earlier seven movies).
This time Chucky is not the host for the deceased spirit of a murderer, but rather a doll that had its safety protocols turned off by a disgruntled factory worker. It’s a small distinction, but it makes a huge emotional difference. The doll goes to Andy Barclay (Gabriel Bateman), a lonely, hearing-impaired boy living with his single mother Karen (Aubrey Plaza).
Chucky promises him lifelong friendship, and even gets him his first real friends, Pugg (Ty Consiglio) and Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos). But then the killings start and a neighboring police detective, Mike Norris (Brian Tyree Henry), begins investigating. Henry and Plaza skillfully layer subtle bits of humor into their roles, making this film feel all the more human.
Director Stuart Gordon began his career in Chicago underground theater, and then directed two notable H.P. Lovecraft adaptations, Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986). Dolls (1987) was his third feature, and though it has no Lovecraft origins and is not as well-loved, it’s just as perverse and bizarre.
The film begins with an ages-old setup: during a storm, several different travelers take cover in a mysterious old mansion. The residents are a kindly old couple who make extraordinary dolls. Among the visitors, only a little girl—the child of an anxious father and a vicious stepmother—and a sensitive young man who loves toys seem to avoid getting brutally murdered by mysterious, tiny, predators. Gordon infuses the gory attacks with his own infectious brand of nasty humor.
After going off the rails a bit with his Spider-Man 3, Sam Raimi returned to the horror genre and to a (comparatively) lower budget. The result, Drag Me to Hell (2009), is just as looney, creepy, and satisfying as his Evil Dead trilogy.
Banker Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), is hoping for a promotion, and under pressure to be more thick-skinned when it comes to loans. The witchy Sylvia Ganush (Lorna Raver) comes to her and asks for an extension on her mortgage, which Christine reluctantly denies. Sylvia puts a curse on Christine, and it’s only a matter of time before she will be “dragged to hell,” unless she finds a way to reverse the curse and find forgiveness.
Christine enlists the aid of her professor boyfriend (Justin Long) and a medium (Adriana Barraza), as the clock ticks. Raimi keeps up the perfect pace with his smoothly kinetic visuals and penchant for shock, as well as a sly sense of humor; the movie plays it straight, but behind the camera Raimi is laughing his head off.
In the Mouth of Madness
Stream it on the Criterion Channel
New Line Cinema
A few of director John Carpenter’s films are justly recognized as masterpieces today, but many more of his films are waiting to be re-evaluated, especially In the Mouth of Madness (1995). One of a handful of movies in the 1990s that started to peel back the curtain on horror, this film tells the story of insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) who is sent to look for missing horror author Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), and winds up in a fictional town from one of Cane’s books.
Trent discovers he must prevent Cane’s latest novel from ever seeing the light of day. The book is narrated from an insane asylum, and the movie itself is decorated with insanely crazy designs, colors, and spaces, filling the frame as Trent’s hold on reality slips away. Julie Carmen, Charlton Heston, and David Warner co-star. Carpenter co-composed the score.
Stream it on the Criterion Channel
David Cronenberg is a singular voice in horror movies, even though he hates being called a “horror director.” His films are always rooted in some kind of physical, bodily experience, something to do with how the human makeup reacts with its environment, or with a particular stimulus.
Though The Brood (1979) was a grindhouse/drive-in classic and Videodrome (1983) is now a critic’s darling, Scanners (1981) came in-between and seems slightly underrated. It is oft-remembered for its astounding exploding-head scene.)
A man named Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) discovers he is a scanner. He is captured by men in suits, given a drug to quiet the voices in his head, and recruited to stop an evil scanner (Michael Ironside) from forming a scanner army and taking over the world. As always, Cronenberg’s approach is curious and scientific, with clean, simple framing and use of man-made spaces; this low-budget film still looks great. Howard Shore provided the eerie, throbbing music score.
The Black Cat
Stream it on the Criterion Channel
Director Edgar G. Ulmer, who had been a set designer in Germany on films like Metropolis and Sunrise, brought a taste of Expressionism to the utterly bizarre The Black Cat (1934), the first official teaming of superstars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
Following an accident, a young, honeymooning couple and their traveling companion Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi) are forced to spend the night in the nearby house of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). It turns out that Werdegast and Poelzig are old-time rivals, the source of their hatred having something to do with Werdegast’s wife and child. The visitors also happen to arrive on the eve of a planned Satanic ritual, to take place in the sinister lower levels of the house.
This amazing, surprising movie gets away with some pretty vicious stuff, including a character tied up and flayed, but its best features are the incredible set design, ultra-modern and yet coldly metallic. Karloff and Lugosi are at their best as well, both devouring the screen, even in quiet moments, such as playing a chess game to the death.
Stream it on Hulu
Warner Bros. Pictures
After blitzing the box office with Furious 7 and Aquaman, director James Wan returned to his regular stomping grounds with the polarizing horror movie Malignant (2021). Some fans appreciated its lunatic storytelling and bonkers filmmaking, and others… well… didn’t. Indeed, parts of the movies—such as a monster leaping around like a parkour practitioner—are flat-out ridiculous.
Pregnant Madison (Annabelle Wallis) is attacked by her husband. A monster appears, kills the husband, and sends Madison to the hospital, where she loses the baby. She soon begins to have weird visions, as if she were being transported to the scenes of other murders, where she can see but cannot move. A clue to what’s going on might lie in Madison’s past, a time she doesn’t remember.
Wan gleefully borrows from all kinds of low-rent genre films and sends his camera whizzing all over the place. He’s a master of three-dimensional space and knows how to use walls, corners, darkness, and other factors to suggest that something dreadful could be lurking just about anywhere.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe
Stream it on Hulu
Norwegian director Andre Ovredal’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) takes place mainly on a single set, a morgue, and involving just a handful of characters, one of them dead. Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch star as Tommy and Austin Tilden, father-and-son morticians. Austin is about to knock off for the night, headed to the movies with his girlfriend, when a mysterious murder victim comes in. Austin decides to stay to help his dad. It’s not long before strange, spooky things begin to happen. There are impossible wounds on the body, such as broken ankles with no visible exterior damage, and then the lights begin to flicker out and a vicious storm begins brewing.
Ovredal establishes the space beautifully, with only a creaky, wobbly elevator and a heavy storm door providing access in or out of the sprawling, underground chamber. But the movie gets its drive from the fascinating family relationship onscreen, with two top-notch performances fleshing it out. Extra credit goes to actress Olwen Kelly, who plays the title “Jane Doe.” She manages to convey an eerie, striking presence throughout without ever uttering a word or moving a muscle.
Fear Street Trilogy
Stream it on Netflix
Based on a series of Young Adult novels by R.L. Stine and directed by Leigh Janiak (Honeymoon), the three Fear Street movies achieve the neat trick of feeling like YA stories, but also including grown-up gore to please more sophisticated horror fans. Fear Street: Part One – 1994 sets up the tale about a centuries-old witch, “Sarah Fier,” who possesses the bodies of teens and goes on murderous rampages (accompanied by some cool, vintage alt-rock tunes).
Fear Street: Part Two – 1978 is a summer-camp movie with high socks (think Meatballs meets Friday the 13th). And Fear Street: Part Three – 1666 transports all the actors back in time, playing earlier incarnations of themselves, and ingeniously wrapping things up. There’s lots of carnage and gore, but Janiak’s bright, robust tone keeps it from feeling too intense. Sadie Sink (Stranger Things), Gillian Jacobs, Kiana Madeira, and Benjamin Flores Jr. play just a few of the many characters.
Stream it on Shudder
Directed by husband-and-wife team Vanessa and Joseph Winter, Deadstream (2022) manages to find something fresh in the old found-footage subgenre. Joseph Winter plays the obnoxious protagonist, social media influencer Shawn Ruddy, who makes videos about facing his fears. He once posted a video so controversial that it resulted in a six-month ban, and now he’s back. To win back fans and sponsors, Shawn announces that he will spend the night in a haunted house and livestream every minute.
His goal is to uncover the mystery of amateur poet Mildred Pratt, who died by suicide in the house. He sees the infamous “corner ghost” and receives a weirdly timed visit from an uber-fan, Chrissy (Melanie Stone). Shawn’s constant yapping, as well as the scrolling comments from viewers, make things feel fast-paced, but the filmmakers slip some truly creepy stuff in there, oftentimes in the background, and it all clicks together surprisingly well.
Huesera: The Bone Woman
Stream it on Shudder
A feature debut by Mexican-born filmmaker Michelle Garza Cervera, Huesera: The Bone Woman (2023) is bold enough to turn the purity of pregnancy and motherhood into a brutal bodily horror show. Val (Natalia Solián) is a furniture-maker who, along with her husband Raúl (Alfonso Dosal), badly wants to have a baby. But when she finally becomes pregnant, it comes with a strange curse — involving a broken-bone demon — as well as plaguing doubts: what if she doesn’t want to be a mother after all?
Cervera’s film juggles many elements, including black magic, supernatural stuff, toxic family dynamics, and callbacks to Val’s previous life as a punk-rocker rebel, as well as commanding, confident compositions. It all adds up to a deeply disquieting, and personal, experience that comes from a real place. And you will never forget those icky snapping sounds.
More to come!
Come back tomorrow for Jeff’s second installment of freaky favorites!