“There’ll be food and drink and ghosts…and perhaps even a few murders. You’re all invited.”– Vincent Price in House on Haunted Hill (1959)
It’s that time of year when it’s perfectly acceptable to watch way too many horror films. When you tell people you enjoy watching horror movies in months other than October; you can sometimes get a side-eye. But the age-old question is still significant, what type of horror? Now, I do not pretend to be a movie critic or even understand every aspect of the horror genre. I do enjoy movies, and I have enjoyed many different types of horror films. But it does make you think; what kind of horror films do I like to watch the most? That is why I set out to compile what I feel are the five most enjoyable horror films I have watched. This top five list celebrates Halloween and the month of October, which I consider the one month when you can watch as many horror movies as you want without your friends and family starting to question you! Let’s explore my favorite horror movie list.
Horror Genre Background
Just the other day, my wife was getting ready for work, and our dog, who is 13, began to, what I call, “puppy out.” So, I called him the Beastmaster as I threw a toy, and he gave chase. My wife looked at me, puzzled, asking, “what is a beastmaster?” Somehow in all our years together, I had never used this noun to describe our small dog. I explained that it was from a random 1982 film, The Beastmaster, and is perfectly 1980s strange. I remember loving this movie. It was not horror, but frightening and creepy, had fantasy elements like Willow, action sequences like Conan the Barbarian, but not nearly as good as those. For some reason, I was allowed to watch this as a child, like Salem’s Lot and others, which my wife would never have seen. So, I jumped on YouTube and played the trailer for her. It was strange, really strange, like utterly bizarre. It allowed us to have a good laugh and for me to, yet again, reflect on my love of all sorts of films, even ones described as “phantasmagorical.”
When it comes to horror movies, I consider myself a fan of smart horror. Sure, I have been known to indulge in some terrible films. Still, I love the classics like Frankenstein, Dracula, and even throw in the comedies that center around those monsters like Abbot & Costello or Young Frankenstein. But my favorite horror films are those that both make you feel uneasy, slightly scared yet incorporate impressively written dialogue, cinematography, and score. Listen, I enjoy a stupid horror movie, and sometimes that’s precisely what I want at the moment, but when compiling a favorites list, you have to think about what makes a good horror film for you. So, the movies I like may not even be on the radar of experts or horror genre aficionados.
I am not a massive fan of the “Killer Genre” of horror, which includes the Nightmare on Elm St. franchise, Halloween or Friday the 13th films, and movies like The Hills Have Eyes and The Strangers. Those films are not for me and therefore are not even close to being included in any movie list I construct. Although home invasion type films are not usually my go-to, the film Hush is probably an outlier and the best of the “killer” genre for me. This is because it is incredibly well written, structured, and directed by Mike Flanagan, a rock star for smart new horror and an individual whose career improves with each film/show. I listened to a podcast recently, and Quintin Tarantino talked highly of him, his films, and the trajectory of his career. As a Tarantino fan, I see that as a glowing recommendation. Absentia, Oculus, Hush, Before I Wake, Ouija: Origin of Evil and Doctor Sleep are solid horror films Flanagan released from 2011 to 2019, with the massively popular and critically acclaimed show The Haunting on Hill House thrown in and this year’s Netflix hit, The Haunting of Bly Manor, which even my wife loved. Fantastic writer/director, and I implore you to watch his films.
I have never liked the overt gore (not including Zombie films) or disturbing material in this genre. This is true for the Saw, Wrong Turn, and Hostel movies, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes films or any that follow into that ballpark of a film style. Most of these films are examples of the killer/gore genre, which might be why I have never really gravitated towards the storylines or material. The scenes in many of these films are far too disturbing and uncomfortable for me to see any significant value in its goal as entertainment. Again, these are my feelings, and I am sure many people would disagree, which is fine. To push that point further, I am not a massive fan of art-filled spectacle horror films like Suspiria, Hereditary, Midsommar, or The Witch. Again, most of these are good films that offer unique stylistic techniques, but they do not align with my film enjoyment.
When thinking of horror films that usually produced an incredible viewing experience, several come to mind. Yes, some of those I enjoy might mix with genres I typically do not seek out to watch, but I feel the films themselves handled that material differently, less gore more implied. I enjoy the physiological thriller, the monster movie, the zombie/dystopian blockbuster, and the paranormal film. Comedy, suspense, or mayhem, no matter if the movie revolves around this sub-genre of horror, I will give it a try. Yes, movies like Jaws, Silence of the Lambs, The Shining, Misery, Aliens, The Quiet Place, Get Out, and The Babadook are impressive and included for the suspense, broad-scale sheer panic they produce. They stayed with me long after viewing. Horror/thriller and comedies like What We do in the Shadows, Ready or Not, The Frighteners, Anna & the Apocalypse, Army of Darkness, Happy Death Day, The Belko Experiment, Odd Thomas, and Zombieland are the movies within this sub-genre I enjoy the most. This is because these films, for the most part, do not take themselves too seriously while replicating horror tropes and finding a way to give something a fresh interpretation. For a similar reason, I enjoyed the film Krampus, which explored both horror, comedy, and holiday themes wrapped in one cinematic gift box.
Another sub-genre of horror I enjoy is the found footage film. For some reason, I do like these cinematic endeavors. Whether it is the original Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity films, or others like Trollhunter, Europa Report, Cloverfield, The Houses October Built, As Above So Below, Afflicted, VHS, Creep, Grave Encounters, and more, I enjoyed these films for their creativity and unique film style. While the found footage sub-genre may be overdone, it still allows for cinematic risks and a memorable viewing experience. It allows for a low budget film to take chances and explore their capabilities. Even now, under a pandemic lockdown, a movie like Host is seen from a new and unique perspective. While Unfriended and Unfriended: Dark Web used the computer screen’s point of view as its center framing device, Host uses it with the knowledge of a worldwide pandemic. This creates a sense of realism as to why the story is happening, which is a serious plot problem for found footage films. The viewers always ask, why is this being filmed? With Host, the answer is accepted without debate because the viewer has been communicating in the same manner going on seven months. The found footage sub-genre is something I will always give a chance, and about 30% of the time can find a real gem, while the other 70% of the time, you just enjoy the ride. Stayed tuned because next week, I explore the found footage film, Trollhunter.
Whether psychological, monster, paranormal, zombies or other, the horror genre does have many viewing types and tropes. As I have said, I rarely enjoy gory/overtly violent or disturbing films that seek, too often, to resemble real-world scenarios. I fault no one for enjoying these films and the artistic direction they take, but for me, I seek out those horror films that journey through long grass unplowed. I admire those movies that mix different genres or seek to terrify by focusing on fantastic dialogue or impressive camera work, or even the film’s color. You can see this in some of the most popular horror shows that have come out recently. Whether it’s Netflix’s Stranger Things, Santa Clarita Diet, Daybreak, Black Summer, Marianne, Locke & Key, and The Haunting of Hill House and Bly Manor – these shows have taken horror tv to new heights and lengths.
I feel those shows succeeded where American Horror Story, Outcast, The Walking Dead (recent seasons), and to a lesser extent, The Purge (TV Show) and even the Into The Dark movie series on Hulu, failed with me. Yes, I know they are hugely popular, but I am not a fan, especially American Horror Story, which I find off-putting. A few of these shows are focused more on shock value, the need to turn the viewer’s stomach and indulge in overtly grotesque material, rather than allowing the storyline to be more pointed, smart, and engage unique horror concepts with more tact. Even so, other shows like The Servant, Hannibal, What We Do in the Shadows, iZombie, The Strain, Being Human, Dead Like Me, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Pushing Daises, Crazyhead, Grimm, Sleepy Hollow, Ash vs. Evil Dead, and others did a far better, and more impressive, job mixing genres and constructing brilliant television. These shows crafted stories that, yes, many have taken risks but did so as an artful part of the story’s growth. I mean, this is ground shows like the X-Files paved years ago with its brilliant horror and suspense.
Pushing this point one step further is the Anthology horror show, of which I am a huge fan. Shows like the Original Twilight Zone hosted by Rod Sterling, Creepshow, Tales from the Crypt, The Terror, Amazing Stories, and Are you Afraid of the Dark? – are just a few of my favorite shows because they allow the creators, writers, and directors an opportunity to explore various themes in each episode or season. The show that has done this correctly within the last few years is Black Mirror, created by Charlie Booker. I have not experienced such high-quality performances, both in writing and direction, that makes me think and ponder more. A genuinely modern Twilight Zone that uses technology as that primary mechanism to explore the dangers/problems of human society. I could say more, but I would implore you to watch and be horrified and amazed by the content and quality of what anthology shows are capable of doing.
While films like The Witches, Gremlins, Critters, Fright Night, The Fly, An American Werewolf in London, and even Spaced Invaders are always on my mind when I think of horror films, they remain there. They do not make my top five, but they deserved the quick shout-out because, for me, they are classics. One of the best 80s horror movies is probably Lost Boys, with Corey Haim & Corey Feldman, Kiefer Sutherland, Tim Cappello (shirtless Saxophone player), and the song Cry Little Sister. Phenomenal! But that’s not on the list, so that I can do something with it another day! Don’t worry; I included another 80s horror classic.
With that stated, I think I have said enough to paint a somewhat more precise picture of the type of horror films and shows I enjoy to easily present and explore what I consider my five favorite horror films. More often than not, these films are the ones that I rewatch in October and the style of film I choose to seek out when looking for new movies. Whether psychological, monster, zombie, paranormal, and no matter if it is pure horror, comedic horror, or suspenseful, the following films act as captains of their respective teams.
*There “should” be NO spoilers – these films are older, recent, and a little in between.
Number FIVE: Mayhem (2017)
“Those of you who don’t want to be a part of this can leave now. But if you choose to stay, which it seems like you guys are choosing… You understand and agree to the following terms and conditions. One: You hereby waive your right to your own personal bodily integrity. Two: Per the state vs. Nevil Reed, my colleague and I will not be held criminally liable for any felony or misdemeanor that you may be a victim of, including but not limited to aggravated assault, aggravated battery, disorderly conduct, destruction of property, mayhem, and first-degree murder. And, three, terms and conditions may change or be updated whenever the fuck I want! Consider yourselves notified.”– Steven Yeun in Mayhem
Classified as an action, thriller, comedy, and horror, Mayhem has something for everyone. Staring Steven Huen (The Walking Dead) and Samara Weaving (Ready or Not, Guns Akimbo, Bill & Ted Face the Music), this movie is off the walls insane, and I loved it. Mayhem is similar to another movie I mentioned earlier, The Belko Experiment, this violent spin on Mike Judge’s movie Office Space, with a slight nod to Horrible Bosses. But Mayhem takes it up a notch by adding a splash of The Purge, the first film, not others or TV show, and then throw in a mutating virus that makes people rage out. Here is the “Rotten Tomatoes” synopsis: “Derek Cho is having a horrible day. After being unjustly fired from his job, he discovers that the law firm’s building is under quarantine for a mysterious and dangerous virus. Chaos erupts throughout the office as the victims of the disease begin acting out their wildest impulses. Joining forces with a former client who has a grudge of her own, Derek savagely fights tooth and nail to get to the executives on the top floor and settle the score once and for all.”
Equal parts funny and gore mixed with incredible acting and well-developed storylines, Mayhem is a solid film for October. In previous posts, I have said that I am all in on the brilliance of Samara Weaving, and this film is a precursor to her power, which is apparent in the high-profile movie, Ready or Not. But I feel this film is far superior. Her character has more depth, and her acting is flawless with impeccable dialogue. As a co-star, Yuen is fantastic with the ability to carry the film at points, and you root for him every step of the way. He can mix comedy with his characters raging anger towards his bosses while adding his narration, which I enjoyed.
Again, the horror-comedy is probably my favorite type of horror film, with the monster horror and anthology horror tied for second. It makes sense that a couple of my top five films fall into this category, and I am proud of it. Mayhem is one of the most unique films I have seen in a while. This film’s soundtrack is fantastic, which mixes with the insane action scenes and works perfectly while putting the viewer on the edge of their seat. I can’t count the number of times my hands were sweating during this film in anticipation of the battles, whether with Yuen’s character battling his bosses or Yuen and Weaving vs. Everyone! I loved these action scenes. Weaving was my favorite, and her action star chops are well recognized, and my need to see her in a John Wick film is here declared.
Overall, my number five favorite horror film. I get it; you want a more horror style film, right? But why? This movie has a virus, violence, victims, and victors; what else do you need to see to recognize its position within the thriller/comedy sub-genre of the horror category? Please, watch it, and you will do what I did, watch every movie Samara Weaving is in. Then I implore you to observe Yuen’s excellent acting skills that should not be solely remembered for the Walking Dead. He is perfect in this and is way more than just “Glenn.” It does not get much better than Mayhem, and the movie, as a whole, offers so much more if you are willing to give it a shot.
Number FOUR: Silver Bullet (1985)
“The last full moon of that Spring came a little more than a month before school let out for Summer vacation. Our town’s long nightmare began that night.”– Silver Bullet (1985)
I will start by saying this; Silver Bullet has not aged well. Not concerning the content, which, yes, even that toed a few lines, but rather the film’s quality. It looks dated, and the scare factor has lost its shine in the last 35 years. When I watched this movie as a young kid in the late 1980s/early 1990s, it terrified the shit out of me. It is more for nostalgia, childhood fears, and whenever I think of horror movies, I think of this film, for right or wrong. So, why not take this moment to give it a higher ranking based on those nightmares I had as a kid because of this film. Here is the “Rotten Tomatoes” synopsis: “A series of unexplained murders occur in the normally quiet town of Tarker’s Mill… When a young wheelchair-using boy named Marty (Corey Haim) encounters a werewolf one night, the pieces begin to come together.”
Silver Bullet is a classic 1980s horror movie based on Stephen King’s novella called “Cycle of the Werewolf.” The added power of an excellent narration at essential parts of the film’s early stages sets up the plot nicely. Silver Bullet was the first movie that introduced me to Gary Busey, who has become popularized through meme/gif culture, and Corey Haim, whose early films were legendary, especially those he stared in alongside Corey Feldman, like Lost Boys (1987). Sadly, and traumatically, because of abuse and personal trauma, his career never went where it should have, and his early death brought up questions of what could have been. But here, in Silver Bullet, both were fantastic, and their back and forth dialogue is something I vividly remember.
Overall, as I have said earlier, this movie falls within the horror genre that is more enjoyable and acceptable. It’s not a killer/slasher film, thankfully, but rather a monster/werewolf film, probably the first of this type I had ever seen. For the kind of film and how dated it appears now, all the actors were pretty solid within their given roles. Of course, Haim brought his boyhood charm, Busey his crazy uncle antics, and Megan Follows, as Marty’s sister Jane, was very good as her character came to believe her brother and his fear of a werewolf tracking him with each rising full moon. While the gore is comical now and the violence over the top and today pop culture mimics it, the film’s flow is quite terrifying. The music, sounds, lights, and cinematography helped create some insanely creepy scenes that I still vividly remember. Let’s say this; I can’t go into a basement, see a trellis, or watch any other werewolf film without first thinking of Silver Bullet.
Number THREE: Shaun of the Dead (2004)
“Shaun: I don’t think I’ve got it in me to shoot my flatmate, my mum and my girlfriend all in the same evening. / Liz: What makes you think I’ve taken you back? / Shaun: Well…you don’t want to die single, do you?– Simon Pegg & Kate Ashfield in Shaun of the Dead (2004)
I am 100% ok with zombie movies and television shows. As I mentioned previously, shows like iZombie, Black Summer, Daybreak, and Santa Clarita Diet are a few of the best ones I have seen in the last couple of years. Movies like Zombieland, Anna & the Apocalypse, Train to Busan, and a lesser extent, Warm Bodies, are some of the best zombie films that have made their way to my steaming service. There is only one movie that is truly the best, and my favorite zombie horror comedy and number three on my list, Shaun of the Dead.
Here the “Rotten Tomatoes” synopsis: “Shaun (Simon Pegg) is a 30-something loser with a dull, easy existence. When he’s not working at the electronics store, he lives with his slovenly best friend, Ed (Nick Frost), in a small flat on the outskirts of London. The only unpredictable element in his life is his girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), who wishes desperately for Shaun to grow up and be a man. When the town is inexplicably overrun with zombies, Shaun must rise to the occasion and protect both Liz and his mother (Penelope Wilton).”
Shaun of the Dead is bloody brilliant. I remember seeing this movie on opening weekend in Plymouth, MA when I visited my brother the night before running a 5K. I loved it. Simon Pegg was brilliant as Shaun and Nick Frost, who played the gentle but clueless best friend Ed, made Shaun of the Dead one of the best buddy/horror-comedy films of this century. When you think of buddy comedies, you may go with Planes, Trains, and Automobiles or Tommy Boy, but I argue that Shaun of the Dead deserves recognition and placement within that selective group. The writing, scene design, editing, music, and how this film mixes both hilarity, horror, and heart makes it not only one of the best horror movies ever made, but an absurdly good film that should be ranked way higher on IMDB. Current 7.9 is not high enough for a film that made me laugh uncontrollably and then could easily, one scene later, bring a tear to my eye.
I honestly feel that all horror-comedy films attempt to replicate what Shaun of the Dead successfully constructed. Pegg and Frost are a fantastic duo, and Director Edgar Wright, who co-wrote the movie with Pegg, paint a zombie apocalypse with a clear, entertaining agenda. They pay homage to the horror genre while inserting fresh and quick comedic dialogue, which Frost and Pegg are the only ones capable of perfectly illustrating. As I said, films since 2005 wish they could do what this film did. Whether it’s the cutaway scenes that move in a Tarantino flash style, or as Pegg and Frost sing with the grown of a zombie growl, or even the flash-sideways with Pegg hysterically planning out his next moves, which include getting safely to the pub the Winchester. Brilliant! The best scene of the film, and most rewatchable, is and will always be the zombie attack at the pub with Queen music playing on the jukebox. Iconic scene and delivered with glorious precision. This film has aged incredibly well, especially when movies like Anna and the Apocalypse seemingly pay homage and add in a musical element, which I enjoyed. I consider Shaun of the Dead the Groundhog Day of horror/comedy. It is the best and the measuring stick by which other horror/comedy films are evaluated. I measure every single zombie/comedic horror film to Shaun of the Dead, and the movie continues to deserve high praise.
Number TWO: The Descent (2005)
“Rebecca: The noise she’s making, she’ll bring every one of those things down on her head. / Sam: As long as it’s not on mine.”– Saskia Mulder & MyAnna Buring in The Descent (2005)
It’s 2020, and I know Silver Bullet may be campy and childish, even though it terrified me as a kid. Still, another monster movie scared the shit out of me when I first watched it and just recently terrified me in the rewatch. It is a film that may be on a few lists covering favorite horror movies. The Descent is one of those movies you can only watch the first time once. Like Se7en, The Usual Suspects, or The Sixth Sense – all have twists that will intrinsically alter the way you rewatch a film. While The Descent is not nearly a cinematic experience as those films, it is an incredible ride in the terrifying darkness. Here is the film premise from “Rotten Tomatoes”: “A year after severe emotional trauma, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) goes to North Carolina to spend some time exploring caves with her friends; after descending underground, the women find strange cave paintings and evidence of an earlier expedition, then learn they are not alone: Underground predators inhabit the crevasses, and they have a taste for human flesh.”
I watched The Descent on DVD in 2008 while living in Boston. On a large TV with surround sound, I watched it at night and attempted to create a substantial viewing environment. It worked. This movie stayed with me for several days later. In 2017, when I went to the Aillwee Cave system in the Burren’s beautiful landscape in County Claire, Ireland, I immediately thought of this movie when I was in the cave, in 100% darkness, and wished I had never seen it! The film was so intense, and while there was gore, it was effective in telling the story and maintaining the sense of dread for the characters. I mean, spelunking already seems scary to me, so a film with several women descending into dark caves and meeting monsters, yup, I’m terrified. Out of all the actors in the movie, I was unfamiliar with most, if not all, of them when I originally watched it, but one actor has grown more familiar. Having seen a few of MyAnna Buring’s roles recently, especially her performance on Netflix’s The Witcher, which is a great show, and she brought incredible depth to her essential character.
While the movie’s acting was perfectly acceptable for a film of this type, the real winner was the camera work, lighting, sound, and overall visual setup. Each scene is well developed and presented, and the dark “cave” tone adds a sense of dread and suspense, even when you have not seen any of the cave “monsters.” I mean, you know that the film is about six female spelunkers who will encounter these “things” as they go deeper and deeper into an unexplored cave. So, the audience knows what will happen, at least in terms of plot, but are still surprised and terrified by the creature’s appearance and the interactions with the women and how, or if, they will survive and make it back to the surface. Overall fantastic film, and watch it in the dark, you will experience some jumps!
Number ONE: Trick or Treat (2007)
“Ahh, smashin’ jack-o’-lanterns? Stealin’ candy? It’s OK. Believe it or not, I was just like you when I was a kid. ‘Til my dad set me straight, that is. See, my dad taught me tonight is about respecting the dead because this is the one night that the dead and all sorts of other things roam free… and pay us a visit. Sorry. All these traditions… jack-o’-lanterns, putting on costumes, handing out treats… they were started to protect us, but nowadays… no one really cares.”– Dylan Baker in Trick or Treat (2007)
My number one favorite horror film is one that is probably on a lot of people’s lists. There are several reasons this film should be on everyone’s list. It’s a horror anthology film, but in that best way where all the stories make sense, line up, connect, and each has a unique feel, both comedic as well as terrifying. Here is the film synopsis from “Rotten Tomatoes”: “Interwoven stories demonstrate that some traditions are best not forgotten as the residents (Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Dylan Baker) of a small-town face real ghosts and goblins on Halloween. Tales of terror reveal the consequences of extinguishing a Jack-o-Lantern before midnight and a grumpy hermit’s encounter with a sinister trick-or-treater.” The character of “Sam” was an instant classic when I first saw the film and, since, has only grown in cult fascination and entertainment. Sam, who makes an appearance in each of the five stories when a Halloween tradition is forgotten or broken, is a strange childlike creature who is trick-or-treating and wears orange onesie pajamas with a burlap sack over his head, eating some Halloween candy on a stick. Creepy as hell!
When I first watched the film, I would tell people about it to no avail, but now it seems like everyone has either heard of it or seen Sam costumes at Spirit Halloween. Writer and Director Michael Dougherty’s vision was superb, and the story feels fresh and flawless. I have said how much I enjoy Anthology horror, and I think this may be the first one I watched, and it drew me to the style, writing, and direction. Overall, I don’t want to say too much about the story or the film since I promised no spoilers as this is a movie that deserves an initial viewing to occur without spoilers. Still, the acting is top-notch with some huge names like Paquin and Cox. The use of gore is practical, not too over the top, and, while I have said the type of horror films I do not enjoy, this film successfully mixes all horror genres for every fan of horror films. Those who enjoyed this film, watch Krampus, by the same director, and you will not be disappointed.
Those have been my feelings on the horror genre, and five movies that I feel represent the best of the genre. Of course, many of the films that I do not enjoy might be on someone else’s list, and others may not even consider several of those on my list. That’s why it is fun to put these lists together and see what horror films others come up with, and then I can add any of those I haven’t seen to my watchlist. Hopefully, if you have not seen a movie in this post, you will check it and let me know what you think. Enjoy these films, and Happy Halloween!