Recommends: Top 15 Films to Enjoy this Halloween
Updated: Feb 11, 2021
Halloween is drawing ever nearer and with the possibility of a night-in for most, I have decided to reflect on some of my favourite spooky films from around the world. It is clear that many a classic has travelled overseas to our screens and in my search for better cinema, I have found a little collection I deem worthy enough to marathon. From the scary, to the atmospheric. From genius, to the ridiculous, these are my picks for some varied viewing this Halloween. In chronological order, there's too much Japanese Cinema for my own good and I've quested more for the spirit of the season rather than a list to unsettle the hardiest of viewers. It's all about fun on this list. Proceed to find a new favourite...
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Dir. Robert Wiene, 1920)
The German Expressionist movement was so influential, it not only shaped Gothicism and Horror on screen, it also brought us one the strangest horror classics of all time. An enticing mystery and eerie, psychological nightmare all in one, Caligari follows two young men, who upon attending a carnival encounter the titular Doctor and his somnambulist. A hypnotizes man, he predicts the death of one of the men. When it shockingly comes true the following day, the somnambulist is blamed. High contrast, sweeping, distorted shadows, off-kilter and nightmarish rooms all encapsulate the strange world of Wiene's as the labyrinthine plot unfolds, peeling each bizarre revelation. Caligari is terrifying, a crazed figure of theatre grotesquery as he creeps about the sets. It's the height of Expressionism and better yet one of the most satisfying silent films to date.
- Further unusual silent films to explore would be by Luis Buenel's and Salvador Dali's short The Andulasion Dog (1928) and Der Golem: How He Came Into the World (Wegener & Boese, 1920)
Häxan (Dir. Benjamin Christensen, 1922)
The Early days of cinema bloomed with delectable horror masterpieces, and none quite so startlingly original as Häxan, or as The Witches and Witchcraft Through the Ages. as it was known under it's initial English-language release A documentary-style silent film, it dramatized horror sequences whilst exploring the hysteria of the Witch Hunts across Early Modern Europe. Banned in some countries for it's nudity and violence, Christensen's film is one of a kind in it's striking visuals, having influenced many filmmakers even to this day with its a occult-ish visuals and unsettling atmosphere. A wonderfully bizarre way to approach Halloween.
- Further striking films by Scandinavian masters include The Phantom Carriage (Sjöström, 1921) and Vampyr (Dryer, 1932)
Nosferatu (Dir. F. W Murnau, 1922)
A Symphony of Horror that should, legally, never have been. The legendary story of the copyright dispute has been discussed tenfold but it still fails to overshadow one of the most powerful films in German, Gothic and Horror cinema. An (illegal) adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, with the rattish yet spell-binding Max Schreck playing the Count (Orlok this time), the vampire stalks the night whilst remaining a masterpiece in cinematic history. Another example of the brilliant German Expressionism movement from the early days of silent cinema, Nosferatu's iconic imagery and striking story-telling still holds up to this day, now saturated in our pop culture. Remade (Werner Herzog's 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre was not only a re-do, adding his own Herzogian existentialism spin to the tale, but also a homage to what he believes is one of the greatest films in German cinema), referenced and spoofed in every way possible, Nosferatu is the birth of the vampire, as we know it, on screen.
- If this caught your fancy, try more by Murnau such as Faust (1926) or explore another German master with the atmospheric thriller, M (Lang, 1931)
Eyes Without a Face (Dir. Georges Franju, 1960)
I don't tend to watch a lot of French cinema. That's the true horror of this list. But I do like a good surrealist piece, spending much of my time with Jean Cocteau and his fantastical fairy tales. But Eyes Without a Face lingered on the periphery, as some Icon in cinema, in Pop Culture, in the back of my mind. That face, that mask had always been in some way a part of me. I'd seen it referenced countless times with myself even singing along to Billy Idol's banging song of the same name, discussed in all my favourite cinema textbooks (I love a thick Palgrave Press), and is even directly inspire one of my favourite Pedro Almodóvar films, The Skin I Live In (2011), yet it took me the longest of time to finally watch it. And I had not regrets. An isolated mansion, an obsessive plastic surgeon and a disfigured daughter that he hides away from the world in his quest to find a new face for her. It's gothic and strange. Muted and skin-crawling, the film was controversial due to it's graphic depictions of surgery yet beyond that, it is a dream-like tale of psychosis, femininity and identity.
- For further Iconic French chillers, check out Les Diaboliques (Clouzot's, 1955) or pursue more modern gore-fests with Martyr (Laugier, 2008) and Raw (Marillier, 2016).
Kwaidan (Dir. Masaki Kobayashi, 1964)
Missed from my previous recommendations of Top 15 Japanese Films due to Kobayashi's overwhelming body of work beginning to crowd the countdown, I've finally found a place for this stunning anthology. A recent re-release by Eureka onto Blu-ray makes the entry even more significant as you can now get your hands one a sexy restoration that truly highlights the amazing cinematography and direction behind this eerie classic. Translating, literally, as 'Ghost Stories', it is based on a collection of Japanese Folk Tales, and follows four individual segments. My favourite is The Woman in the Snow, so chilling and startling are the effects and make-up, the performances and the sets that I often think back on it. But there is one story for everyone to enjoy, with a delectable palette only the great Kobayashi can deliver on.
- Check out more that the Golden Age of Japanese cinema has to offer in chills with
Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa, 1957), Onibaba (Shindo, 1964) and Kuroneko (Shindo, 1968)
Hour of the Wolf (Dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1968)
Bergman was known for a lot of things; a long career, infidelity involving multiple leading ladies, intensely wordy dramas. But he was not known for Horror. Not in the traditional sense, that is. Existentialism, psychological torment, death, faith (with all it's persecutions) and illusion have all played significant roles in his filmography. So one could argue that much of his work is Horror on a personal level. And Hour of the Wolf, one of the entries in Bergman's unofficial Fårö trilogy, encapsulates many of those themes. Only this time, Bergman draws his influence form the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer and German Expressionism to tell a bizarre, disjointed story of an artist (The late, great Max von Sydow) and his pregnant wife (the wonderful Liv Ullman, carrying the illegitimate child of her director). As though being interviewed, the wife recounts her husbands descent into madness on their isolated island, as he struggles with insomnia and nightmarish visons whilst also being plagued by their strange neighbours. It fast became one of my favourite Bergman films, powerful performances and impressive storytelling blowing me away through out. Certainly worth the time for some descension into madness.
- For other strikingly atmospheric work by Sweden's greatest director, check out: The Magician (1958), The Virgin Spring (1960) and Persona (1966)
Suspiria (Dir. Dario Argento, 1977)
Another a cinema I have failed to delve into as much as some of it's European counterparts, I must then beg for forgiveness for this being the only entry form Italy on this list. But what I great entry they got. Argento's infamous horror exploring witchcraft and an evil coven in a dance school. Neon-Gothic sets and lighting, garish blues and reds, vibrant blood and the snarling, hissing score by the aptly named Goblin, all make for a wonderfully strange Horror classic. A dance student transfers to a new school, but it is not long before a series of brutal murders uncovers a far more sinister side to her new home. Nothing has ever captured the look and feel to this iconic film no matter how they try, it's influence reaching far and wide. Do not bother with the 2018 remake, you would be doing a disservice to a phenomenal experience, for which only the original can provide.
- For more Italian Horror at it's finest, try Black Sunday (Bava, 1960), Kill, Baby... Kill (Bava, 1966) and The Church (Soavi, 1989)
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (Dir. Walerian Borowczyk, 1981)
I don't actually like this film. Not in the sense of watching it as high-art, or recommending it to friends or even considering it to be in my top five-hundred. Because it really isn't. I enjoy it. The way we enjoy anything we can't really understand or explain. Because Borowczyk goes places I didn't think were necessary to go. Still, he does it memorably with beautiful cinematography and a did-I-really-just-see-that? vibe. Taking the scenario of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, he turns it on it's head, or more so, turning it over and over and over and over... in a bath of milky like substance (not even making it up) and completely reinventing the story. This time, 'Mr Hyde' is a perverted maniac who terrorises Dr Jekyll's dinner party, attacking guests every which way but mostly through their abdomens with the grotesquely enlarged demonic weapon between his legs. Ya heard me. It's dumb. The plot is ridiculous. An 'erotic' fairy-tale that is just plain exploitative although the critics may argue the contrary, it's a kind of insane that it exists. So for Halloween, do yourself a favour and watch a classic tale of dual-identity and the monster within us all be turned into a sex manic murder-mystery. A beautiful mess.
- If this warped Fairy tale gone wrong has caught your fancy, check out some others including The Company of Wolves (Jordan, 1984) and The City of Lost Children (Jeunet & Caro, 1995)
Vampire Hunter D (Dir. Toyoo Ashida, 1985)
AND Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (Dir. Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 2000)
This is a worthy cheating slot. You see, one of these fabulous dystopian sci-fi horror films I have talked about before on my Top 20 most Influential Anime Films list. The other, I briefly mentioned. But now I can talk about the other whilst encouraging all of you to double-bill these bad boys. Based off of the first novel by Hideyuki Kikuchi, Vampire Hunter D follows 'D' (remember, he's a 'Dhampir' which is half vampire/half human) as he attempts to save Doris Lang and her farm from the evil, lusty clutches of Vampire Lord Magnus Lee who infects her after she trespasses on his land. I definitely prefer Bloodlust, for it's plot and visuals, but Ashida's 1985 attempt has that campy 80's vibe that makes for some very fun viewing. Along with some awkward nudity and relatively awesome battle sequences, the film hardly does much justice to the original artwork but has a lot of fun in the meantime. Therefore, it must be followed up by it's long-awaited sequel, handled by the fabulously OTT Kawajiri who seems to capture the best of Kikuchi's and the marvellous Yoshitaka Amano's art work whilst losing some of his own more exploitative style of storytelling. Go watch this double-bill. Anime and Vampires is a fabulous mix.
- Other great Anime Horror/Thrillers include the wonderful Perfect Blue (Kon, 1997), Akira (Otomo, 1987) and Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001) - its finale takes place at a Halloween Carnival, therefore it counts.
Funny Games (Dir. Michael Haneke, 1997)
The original for this list but with an English Language remake, made by the same director himself ten years later, that is equally as watchable, I choose another not really Horror but kind of is. Haneke is the master of psychological perversion. His desire as a filmmaker is to push his characters and the viewer to their limits and to subvert as much of their experiences as possible. In doing so, his films descend in to nightmares, often realistic, darkly humorous and incredibly bleak. Funny Games is the perfect example of this. A family, at their vacation home, are terrorised by a pair of youths, Peter and Paul, and forced to partake in their humiliating and violent games. Pretty bog standard. Except that Paul, throughout the film, turns his attention to the audiences and includes them in their twisted theatrics. With this, Haneke forces us to question our own participation in the perversion on screen, our enjoyment as a spectator and our own voyeuristic nature in this media-centric world. That's true horror.
- Check out Haneke's other unsettling films, not always Horror but are sure to leave you reeling: Benny's Video (1992) and The Piano Teacher (2001)
Dark Water (Dir. Hideo Nakata, 2002)
Of all of Nakata's works, despite his incredibly successful and influential Ringu Trilogy reintroducing the world to J-Horror and a series of almost always terrible remakes, it is still Dark Water that struck me the most. Perhaps it's that the story reminds me a little of the Elisa Lam case that freaks me the hell out, or the fact I really love an uninterrupted bath, this ghost story chills me to the bone. A single mother, struggling to raise her young daughter as they move to a rundown apartment complex begin to see apparitions of a little girl, with each new encounter growing ever more sinister. Maybe little kids freak me out too, but something of this film and it's attempt to socially reflect on the situation of the modern family in Japan, along with the genuinely spine-chilling moments hit harder than any other J-Horror of the era. It's shot wonderfully, bleak and foreboding, and is the perfect encapsulation of what makes Japanese storytelling so original.
- For more excellent modern Horror, check out Marebito (Shimizu, 2004), Suicide Club (Sono, 2001), Pulse (Kurosawa, 2001) and Audition (Miike, 1999)
The Orphanage (Dir. J. A. Bayona, 2007)
When I think about Spanish horror, which is not as often as I would like to think about it, this creepy ghost story always comes to mind. A big hit at the time of release and produced by the great Guillermo del Toro, it follows a woman who returns to her childhood home, an orphanage, with her husband and adopted son with the intentions of turning it into a home for disabled children. However, in time, her son goes missing and the apparition of a masked child begins to appear. It's a haunted house steeped in Gothicism, not quite as isolated and tactful as the wonderful The Others (Still one of the scariest 12 rated films of all time and directed by the wonderful Amenábar) and it has the heavy hands of del Toro on the production, overshadowing the voice of it's director. Yet in the end, it's a delightfully freaky story and a slightly nostalgic throwback to my teen years and the incessant bingeing of movies. I still really like it and find it is a satisfying addition to a night of Spooktacular cinema
- Del Toro may have only produced this one, but there are plenty of Halloween worthy films from the Mexican master, including Pan's Labyrinth (2006), Cronos (1993) and The Devil's Backbone (2001)
Let the Right One In (Dir. Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
Probably one of the greatest Vampire films ever made, it became an instant classic upon release and still stands tall and proud above it's weak American remake. A lonely, bullied boy befriends his new neighbour, a strange young girl who only comes out at night. A quiet film, a snowy Swedish estate becomes a place to fear as blood stains the snow and drains its characters of life. It's so different from mainstream cinema, exploring a bizarre tale from a familiar trope, that it strikes powerfully in its notorious twist. It may be creepy but there seems to be a lot more heart in this one than meets the eye. A coming-of-age, bloodsucking drama more so than an outright Horror.
- For more Vampire fun, check out A Girl Walks Alone at Night (Ana lily Amirpour, 2014, What We Do in the Shadows (Clement & Waititi, 2014), and Byzantium (Jordan, 2012)
Thirst (Dir. Park Chan-wook, 2009)
I. Love. Park. Chan-wook. He is a fabulous director, from his English debut Stoker (2013), his outstanding The Vengeance Trilogy (2002-2005) to his epic historical mystery The Handmaiden (2016), he has yet to disappoint me. But my favourite of his works is the beautiful vampire 'romance', Thirst. A Catholic priest is infected as a Vampire and soon begins to crave blood and sex. Meanwhile an abused woman catches his attention and a warped relationship unfolds. This is such a strange, grotesque film with a beauty and high-end style that only Korean cinema can deliver on. Once again exploring the psychological torment and sexual repression of his subjects, our director takes an genre over-saturated with schlock and reinvents it, making for some luscious, startling yet titillating viewing.
- For further wonderful examples of Korean horror, check out A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Jee-woon, 2003), The Mimic (Jung, 2017) and The Wailing (Hong-jin, 2016).
Julia's Eyes (Dir. Guillermo Morales, 2010)
Is it bad that one of my personal favourite creepy watches also happens to be ten years old? Probably. Although some of my honourable mentions on this list are far more up to date, when I think of a film that really did it's job well in conveying a psychological nightmare, it was Julia's Eyes. A woman is gradually losing her sight and also haunted by her sisters death. She is certain something more was involved in the suspected suicide. A pretty bog standard story. Yet it is tackled in what is still what I consider to be a marvellous effective trick. You see, as the film goes on and Julia loses more and more of her sight, so do we as a viewer receive a restricted view of her world until we are as much lost as she is. It's an exhilarating creative move on the director and DoP's part and takes the tension to whole new heights. It makes this Spanish thriller more unsettling than many other I have seen and therefore appears on this list.
- If you liked this recommendation and want to find other High-tension Spanish horror, check out some amazing work such as Tesis (Amenábar, 1996), [REC] (Balagueró & Plaza, 2007) and Who Can Kill a Child? (Serrador, 1976)
There we go, some of my favourites from around the world for this Halloween. I know that in this big old world, there's plenty more I am yet to see. With the Danish/Swedish co-production Koko-di, Koko-da (Nyholm, 2019) and a bunch of South Korean films I've missed during a binge of their romances instead, not to mention a wonderful amount of unexpected Iranian spook-fests to have come out in recent years, I am behind but hungry and optimistic for a fulfilling future in International Horror cinema. This is a rather shallow list in that respect. But until I culture myself with a broader selection, I shall be resigned to my shallow pit of ignorance.
Here's a way to begin you're To-Watch list for the creepiest night of the year.