It seems that Halloween has never fit better into a calendar than in our current year. Indeed, a day devoted to our greatest fears seems to hit particularly close to home in a year as truly terrifying as 2020. Yet I think this day serves as an astute reminder to all of us: sometimes the best way to move beyond your fears is to go straight through them. While in our childhood this often meant dressing up, mocking our terrors as we reap a cornucopia of sugary rewards, we as adults often develop other creative ways to step into a few of our fears. Enter the horror/thriller genre of film.
Now, to be candid, I’ve never been much of a horror aficionado; slasher films have always repulsed me, and my spiritual allegiances often mean that the on-screen presence of the demonic can feel a little too real. However, in recent years I have become increasingly intrigued by these sorts of movies – there is something fascinating about the human desire to enter into our dread, experience our own depravity, and find ourselves unscathed (at least physically) afterwards. As I have opened myself up to the genre in bits, I have also found its power to be striking. Horror and thriller images carry a potency that is difficult to match in many other genres, and when they are well-written and made, they have a unique ability to leave the audience in the midst of deep thematic wrestling long after the closing credits have rolled. These experiences and reflections have prompted me to make the following list of Top 10 Films To Watch On Halloween. Just a couple of notes to mention:
-First, if you are not a huge horror fan, that is okay: many of these films utilize common horror genre filmmaking techniques (their shot creation, music, etc.), but would fit neatly into the ‘thriller’ genre.
-Second, for you more committed horror fans: my hope is that this list compiles the more thought-provoking sides of the genre, eschewing excessive gore for thematic richness.
So, as you prepare your candy bowl for the inevitable spooky guests that will arrive at your homes tonight, consider throwing on one of these excellent films as you settle in to your couch. Happy haunting!
10. The Sixth Sense | Director: M. Night Shyamalan | LeavittLens Rating: 7/10
If you have somehow made it to 2020 without having this film spoiled, I envy your ability to watch it with fresh eyes. A terrific turn of the century supernatural thriller, this film served as the breakout for writer-director M. Night Shyamalan; though his career has produced, at best, mixed results, he expertly navigates this suspenseful flick. And if you’ve already seen it, don’t fret: it rewards a rewatch
9. The Babadook | Director: Jennifer Kent | LeavittLens Rating: 7.5/10
Featured at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, The Babadook rings in some excellent thrills at a low cost. Boasting only a $2 million budget, the film reminds us that horror has the ability to succeed even on small scales. At once monster movie and psychological thriller, The Babadook holds up as one of the best horror films released in the last decade.
8. Jaws | Director: Steven Spielberg | LeavittLens Rating: 8/10
Released in 1975, this Spielberg breakout has become iconic, and for good reason. It is widely considered the first ‘blockbuster’ film ever made, as Universal chose to release the film in over 400 theaters in its opening weekend. The result was palpable: it dominated the cinema that year, and upon re-watch continues to hold up. The opening scene still provokes terror, setting a tone that dominates the rest of the film. Jaws serves as a terrific example of what can be accomplished off-screen to create fear: the titular beast doesn’t appear fully on screen until an hour and twenty one minutes into the two hour runtime, reminding us that sometimes our deepest fear is really the unknown.
7. The Silence of the Lambs | Director: Jonathan Demme | LeavittLens Rating: 8/10
When this movie comes up in conversation, my wife always tells the story of her first (and only) time seeing it: against the direction of her parents, she watched at a young age, and to this day refuses to return to it. This refusal is due in large part to Anthony Hopkins’ haunting (and Academy Award winning) role as the cannibalistic Hannibal Lecter, a character that has produced spinoff films, TV shows, and plenty of parodies. A fascinating and dark exploration into human psychosis, this film retains its power largely due to Hopkins central performance.
6. A Quiet Place | Director: John Krasinski | LeavittLens Rating: 8/10
It is rare to find a film that at once lives largely within the confines of its genre while simultaneously creating an experience that is entirely original. Yet John Krasinski’s directorial debut does just this. It fits squarely into the monster movie hall of fame, but also gives a unique experience of sustained silence that enables tension to rise steadily for nearly the entire runtime. I can still remember seeing the film in the theater for the first time; the expert sound mixing and editing leapt from the screen, as many folks in the audience (myself included) vicariously lived through the characters, choosing even to set their popcorn aside in order to avoid making noise that might spark the arrival of a monster. An impressive feat of a thriller here.
5. The Exorcist | Director: William Friedkin | LeavittLens Rating: 8.5/10
It seems cliche to add this to the list, but cliches exist for a reason. This film deals with an evil that transcends the more natural antagonists that have dominated the list thus far, bringing religious imagery and mythos to the fold. The result is an evil that seems impossible to defeat throughout, a power beyond human comprehension and subjugation. Though it was released in 1973, the images nevertheless can still haunt the modern viewer, and serve as a clear reminder of the powerful and terrifying mystery that lies beyond the physical world we tend to notice. What is more terrifying than something beyond our control?
4. Pycho | Director: Alfred Hitchcock | LeavittLens Rating: 8.5/10
Directed by the “Master of Suspense,” and featuring one of the most famous scenes in all of Hollywood history, Hitchcock’s Psycho shows an artist in peak command of his craft, and though it may not be his best film, it certainly demonstrates mastery of the genre and form that remain unparalleled in filmic history. Beware: you won’t ever shower without locking the door again.
3. Annihilation | Director: Alex Garland | LeavittLens Rating: 9/10
Perhaps the least well known of the films on this list, Annihilation nevertheless remains one of my favorite films of the decade, and makes for an excellent Halloween watch. Addressing potent themes like human entropy and destructiveness, set within the backdrop of a powerful and indifferent unknown force, the film brings together the best of the sci-fi, mystery, drama, and thriller genres. The result is a movie that is beautifully haunting, combining deep dread with fierce wonder and resulting in an immensely rewatchable and thoroughly striking experience.
2. The Shining | Director: Stanley Kubrick | LeavittLens Rating: 9.5/10
One of the consensus greatest horror films ever made, The Shining reminds us that effective horror does not require grotesque visuals or blatantly spiritual powers: often the mystery of evil is its greatest terror. This is certainly true in Kubrick’s masterwork, which manages to communicate a dreadful presence that hovers over and penetrates every moment of the film. Eminently rewatchable, and home to a variety of fan theories and interpretations, this is a must-watch for anyone looking for a spooktacular Halloween.
1. Get Out | Director: Jordan Peele | LeavittLens Rating: 9.5/10
One of the greatest directorial debuts of all time, Jordan Peele’s astute, nuanced social commentary/comedy/horror is a genre-defying and groundbreaking work, likely to be remembered amongst the greatest horror/thriller films every made. Providing subtle nods to some of its most noteworthy predecessors, Get Out‘s timely critique of modern American culture, racial divisions, and social disparities is everything one can ask for in a good film: emotionally captivating, bitingly poignant, and resoundingly funny, this film will leave you processing long after you’ve turned the power off on your T.V. You can read my full review here.