It’s a horrifying prospect, coming up with 10 movie recommendations for the Halloween season: After all, those “best” or “scariest” lists that we’ve all come to know and love are so subjective.
To me, the best, at least, are the films that have generally stood the test of time without becoming dated or hokey. One thing I will say is, great horror movies aren’t all about the gore and sadistic torture, so don’t expect films like “Saw” and “Hostel” to pop up into my rental list anytime soon.
With a few relatively new titles thrown in — the types of movies that have a chance at being remembered 10, 15 or 25 years from now — here are my recommendations.
10. “Zombieland” (2009): Taking cue from the genius British zombie spoof “Shaun of the Dead,” “Zombieland” brings the plague of the walking dead to the good, old USA, dubbed Zombieland by survivors after a virus wipes out most of the population.
Among the handful that remain are a neurotic teen (Jesse Eisenberg), a grizzled, loose cannon (Woody Harrelson) and pair of con-artist teen sisters (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin), who all must learn to trust each other if their going to outrun the blood-thirsty — and uncharacteristically fast — zombie counterparts. Bill Murray also turns in a hilarious cameo as himself.
9. “Cloverfield” (2008): Filmmaker J.J. Abrams brilliantly imagines a Godzilla-like creature that we can call our own in “Cloverfield” — a pseudo-documentary movie that relies on a hand-held video camera that chronicles a group of friends’ tale of survival when a skyscraper-sized monster comes crashing down on New York City.
The movie is a match made in heaven for the reality-TV generation, as shaky camera shots give a manic point of view of the film’s unpredictable events. The film earns its high marks by employing good-old fashioned horror movie techniques to conceal the look of the creature until the film’s conclusion.
8. “Sweeney Todd”: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (2007): Flanked by his faithful, frequent collaborators, Tim Burton brings composer Stephen Sondheim’s classic Broadway musical “Sweeney Todd” to life with his trademark dark atmosphere, quirky humor and sense of visual wonder.
“Sweeney Todd” tells the wicked tale of a barber (Johnny Depp) who seeks revenge on a London judge (Alan Rickman) after the corrupt official unjustly sends him to prison for 15 years and destroys his family in the process. If you can stomach the gallons of bloodshed and Todd’s victims’ fates as the main ingredients of meat pies by an equally-sinister pie maker (Helena Bonham Carter), you’re in for a real treat.
7. “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992): Gary Oldman is mesmerizing as Vlad the Impaler/Count Dracula in director Francis Ford Coppola’s dizzying opus about the iconic vampire who will stop at nothing to be reunited with his love for the ages (Winona Ryder).
While Bela Lugosi’s “Dracula” still remains as the benchmark film version of Bram Stoker’s tale, Coppola’s interpretation of the story has a way of burrowing its way into your psyche, much in the same way London’s Hammer Studios did with its horror films in the 1960s and 1970s. Anthony Hopkins co-stars in an unmerciful turn as famed vampire hunter Van Helsing.
6. “Halloween” (1978): Although the origins of the iconic masked slasher Michael Myers has been re-imagined in two films by director Rob Zombie, its director John Carpenter’s groundbreaking horror thriller that is still imprinted on movie fans’ minds.
The story is pretty basic: Myers is a demented murderer institutionalized since childhood who escapes from confinement and goes on a killing spree. Even though it’s gruesome, the film’s biggest scares come from its scenes of spine-tingling piano theme, which amps up the suspense considerably.
5. “The Bride Of Frankenstein” (1935): Any number of the classic Universal monster movies could have made this list, but “The Bride of Frankenstein” has perhaps the biggest impact of them all on an emotional level.
Of course, the movie, visually, is mostly defined by the sight of the Bride’s (Elsa Lanchester) shocked head of hair; but it’s the tragic sense of humanity that we come to see in Frankenstein’s monster (Boris Karloff) that makes the movie memorable.
4. “Psycho” (1960): Alfred Hitchcock’s definitive horror-psychological thriller turned 50 this year, but age hasn’t worn the film down one bit. Brilliant in the role that typecast him for the rest of his life, Anthony Perkins is downright disturbing as Norman Bates, a seemingly harmless motel owner who has some serious dead mother issues.
The shower scene with Janet Leigh and a shadowed, butcher knife-wielding Perkins is, of course, the movie’s watershed moment — a frenzied gathering of shots (punctuated by composer Bernard Hermann’s piercing strings) that still ranks among the scariest scenes in movie history.
3. “The Shining” (1980): Although author Stephen King reportedly spurns it, most horror fans would probably agree that director Stanley Kubrick’s feature film version of “The Shining” is one of the best screen adaptations of the famed fright author’s work.
Disheveled and delightfully devilish, Jack Nicholson becomes Jack Torrance, an author who thinks that he’ll finish up his novel while babysitting a remote, snow-covered hotel resort over the desolate winter with his family. Even though Jack is haunted by bad memories, spirits and other supernatural beings, the scariest part of “The Shining” comes with the very real scenario of a guy completely loosing his mind and threatening his family because of it.
2. “Night Of The Living Dead” (1968): True, its effects pale in comparison to most every zombie movie that comes down the pike these days, but nothing can match the shock value of director George A. Romero’s original “Night of the Living Dead” — the film on which all other zombie movies will be judged.
Even though the film is in black and white, it doesn’t lessen the impact when it comes to the film’s psychological and physical horrors. Get ready to be shocked by some ghastly gore as the zombies feast on their victims, but the true horror comes with Romero’s poignant social commentary about the times — an essential through-line that connects every zombie movie he’s made since.
1. “The Exorcist” (1973): Thanks to the character’s guttural voice, her decaying face, her spinning head, and spewing, green vomit (in addition to a string of vile, blasphemous unmentionables), Linda Blair is horrifying as the devil-possessed teen Regan MacNeil in director William Friedkin’s horror film classic.
It’s arguably the scariest movie of all time, and if you watch it, count on it taking years before you can scrub the images of the film from your brain. May the power of your memory compel you to forget anything you’ve seen.