ByC. J. Smith, writer at
Science fiction writer, horror enthusiast, blogger, scourge of plutocracy, creator of
C. J. Smith

It is almost that time of year and scare junkies are pondering which movies are worthy of their annual Halloween frightfest. Perhaps you will delve into your classics collection this time around or maybe there is something new on your ghoulish agenda. Is this a year for lesser-known titles, for foreign language horror fare, or sequels that didn't quite live up to their genesis? Perhaps there is a particular franchise that is just screaming out for a late night marathon.

Whatever your fiendish plans entail, here is a top 10 list of those movies that you never quite seem to tire of; those that, regardless of your initial schedule, always seem to creep back into the fold.

10. Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

George A. Romero's quintessential zombie flick is an exercise in low-budget artistry, a movie that inspired the likes of Carpenter and Hooper to pick up a camera, armed with the belief that much could be done with very little. And that is exactly what Romero achieved here.

Shot on a budget of $114,000, this is a seminal movie in terms of both genre and politics. Not only did it give power to the independent filmmaker, it tackled issues such as the Civil Rights Movement and was able to make a suitably detached yet relevant commentary on the dehumanizing horrors of the Vietnam War. But besides all of that, it is simply a great movie.

There were zombies before and there would be zombies after, but Night of the Living Dead is undoubtedly the landmark sub-genre picture. To modern zombie fans the movie might seem dated — subsequent incarnations were faster, nastier and much more gruesome — but there is something infinitely more terrifying about a docile entity whose tireless persistence will get you in the end — assuming your so-called brothers don't get to you first.

9. Fright Night (1985)

Perhaps not a great film, but pretty darn close when judged in relative terms. Fright Night may not be as iconic or as fondly remembered as The Lost Boys, nor as marketable or brightly colored, but as a movie it is much more skillfully defined. Its scares are scarier, its laughs giving one's teeth a sharper prominence, and its setup allows for an infinitely richer experience.

For a teenage boy, perhaps the only thing scarier than having a vampire move in next door is having a handsome single man develop an eye for his mother. But what happens when the two combine? For one, nobody believes your tales of demonic debauchery, especially when you're dealing with slick, quasi-suburbanite Jerry Dandridge, and when your tantrums ultimately bring the two together, Nosferatu is invited into your home and you're up shit creek without a crucifix.

With wonderful Thriller-era special effects and a smoldering '80s soundtrack, Tom Holland's under-appreciated romp is a blast from start to finish. Whether it's Chris Sarandon's wryly sadistic vamp or screeching geekazoid Evil Ed, it is clear that the cast are relishing in a playful screenplay of bloodsucking delight. But the star of the show is Roddy McDowall as the fictional vampire slayer who inevitably turns out to be little more than a cowardly ham. His transition from pathetic wimp to wily warrior makes him one of the most endearing horror heroes of our time.

8. Wolf Creek (2005)

On July 14, 2001, British backpackers Peter Falconio and Joanne Lees were pulled over by Bradley John Murdoch, a mechanic who claimed to have noticed something awry with their exhaust pipe. Parked on Stuart Highway, about 2000km from Wolfe Creek National Park in Northern Australia, Peter got out of the car to investigate. He was never seen again.

And therein lies the basis for Greg McClean's 2005 debut feature Wolf Creek, a brutal and breathless thrill ride that is often hard to stomach but impossible to look away from. Here, three teenagers travel to the famous Wolfe Creek Crater in Western Australia, where a blossoming romance is stopped dead by Crocodile Dundee clone Mick Taylor, a seemingly charming "bushie" with a penchant for the grossly macabre.

Cinematographer Will Gibson paints a claustrophobic picture as the captured prey toil in the seclusion of their predator's tin roof outpost while utilizing the vast, open landscapes to reveal the true futility of their predicament. Mick is played by Australian new wave actor John Jarratt, who adds an acerbic edge to the character, a juxtaposing wit that brings some much needed balance to a searingly visceral experience.

7. Suspiria (1977)

If you value logic above all else then Argento's towering netherworld is perhaps not the movie for you. Make no mistake about it, Suspiria is one of the most effective horror movies ever put to celluloid, a frenzied attack on the senses — at once ethereal and tangible, as the lithe, young cast of a ballet school succumb to the furtive bloodlust of a witch's coven.

Like the Expressionist cinema to which it pays due homage, dialogue and character development take a backseat as the movie swims and pulsates within a palette of irregular colors, creating an atmosphere distinctly at odds with reality, and a rabbit hole that invariably becomes our own.

But perhaps most unsettling is Goblin's original score, a scorching, insidious ode to the aura of the occult, which howls and groans and jump starts the nerve endings, chasing us through labyrinthine realms it would otherwise be advisable to steer clear of.

6. Rear Window (1954)

There's a little bit of the voyeur in all of us, particularly the great Alfred Hitchcock, whose mocking wit is once again on display in his 1954 classic. Should we be punished for our instinct to impose on other peoples' privacy? Hitchcock seems to think so, and his victim here is James Stewart's L.B. Jefferies, a photojournalist whose broken appendage has confined him to a wheelchair and six weeks of stationary boredom. Or so he believes.

Drawn to the everyday lives of his rear window neighborhood, Jefferies is entranced by the humdrum and the tragic as a wealth of characterization plays out through a telephoto lens. Filmed largely using POV shot, our protagonist's suspicions become our own as we are drawn to the dubious world of Lars Thorwald and the sudden disappearance of his troublesome wife.

This is Hitchcock at his most ingenious and resourceful, as the movie's immaculately crafted events creep from unease to sheer terror, culminating in the kind of acerbic crescendo we have come to expect from the unrivaled master of suspense.

5. Blade (1998)

Born moments after his mother was bitten, Blade has all the strengths of a vampire and none of the weaknesses. Known as "Day Walker" to the whispering parasites who fear his very shadow, Wesley Snipes's comic book hero uses a specially crafted serum to assuage his thirst for blood and a whole host of other gadgets to dispose of the vermin who changed the course of his life forever.

Made just prior to the Marvel movie boom, the low-key Blade got lost beneath the clutter, and a couple of average-to-lame sequels only served to bury it for good. But don't let the fickle world of marketing dissuade you. This lesser-known character may not have the mainstream appeal of Spiderman or the X-Men, but he has all the charm and personal conflict to prove just as engrossing, and with a deliciously dark edge to boot.

As a feature, Blade is a slick, face-paced joyride with a thumping soundtrack and exhilarating fight sequences that were very much high-tech at the time of its release. Drenched in pallid daylights, the movie's aesthetics are suitably cold, while its comic book framing and time-lapse photography only add to its authenticity. Oh, and the wonderfully cantankerous Kris Kristofferson dons the leg brace as our antihero's no-nonsense sidekick Whistler.

Need I say more?

4. [Rec] (2007)

The Blair Witch Project may have catapulted the found footage sub-genre onto the mainstream, and it may have run out of steam in recent years, but this 2007 Spanish zombie flick utilizes the concept like no other. Set entirely in an apartment block in Barcelona, the movie is a claustrophobic assault on the senses that doesn't stop to breathe for a single moment.

Manuela Velasco plays Angela, a TV reporter documenting a day in the life of the city fire department, but a routine call turns into something rather more serious when a contagious virus begins to spread through the stairwells and the government moves to quarantine the building. One by one, those inside begin to turn on each other, first emotionally, and then in ways rather less humane.

Making devilish use of drab lighting and deep frames, the movie glimpses at distorted figures, while shaky retreats and frantic close-ups blind us from sudden, ferocious turns. This is a movie of such unrelenting violence that it would have seemed excessive in the wrong hands, but intimate portraits of characterization provide a counterbalance which elevates it above your standard zombie fare. A gruesome delight of breathtaking effectiveness.

3. A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)

After a host of goofy sequels transformed child killer Fred Krueger into a pop culture icon, old pizza face stepped into a realm of self-parody that killed the fear factor dead. This was a horribly disfigured monster who went from visceral mutilation to unbridled merchandise machine, selling everything from hip-hop culture to pint-sized Krueger pajamas.

But take down the circus tent and we are left with a concept like no other. Dream worlds are meant to be a sacred place, a personal domain where no one can pry, impose or cause you harm. Frightened of the demon in the cupboard or the unseen shadow lurking under your bed, you could be safe in the knowledge that exhaustion would eventually lay waste to your unforgiving imagination, but when Krueger arrived on our screens, all of that changed.

Like Halloween before it, A Nightmare on Elm Street was a low budget affair that relied on its director's resourcefulness and ingenuity. Its beauty was its seamless transitions from dream world to reality, that sensory void captured through an almost illusory filter. This hypnotic ambiguity was a result of Craven's technical mastery, but can also be attributed to Charles Bernstein's original score, a scathing lullaby of chimerical highs and gut-wrenching lows.

Craven never wanted a sequel for what would become his most successful franchise. As far as he was concerned, Freddy Krueger was a one-off nightmare, a character whose end would be swift and memorable. This led to infamous offscreen squabbles with New Line producer Robert Shaye, who was beset on a sequel and needed an open ending to advertise as much. Craven preferred a subtler, dreamlike conclusion that would fit in with the overall tone of his once-in-a-lifetime creation. Their compromise was to combine the two, resulting in a quite ridiculous twist that transformed a potential masterpiece into a flawed mainstream triumph.

But Krueger's legacy is indelible, his impact on the genre palpable. Not since the likes of Boris Karloff's Frankenstein has there been a face so iconic. Krueger oozed malevolence, preying on the young and misunderstood with a sadistic relish that set him apart from those other seek-and-destroy barbarians who were at least merciful enough to dispose of their prey with one brutal blow. Any chump in a hockey mask can player Jason Voorhees, but try separating Freddy from Robert Englund at your peril. His ethereal gunslinger can never be recreated, a testament to both the character he portrayed and the movie itself.

2. Let The Right One In (2008)

Titled after the lyrics of a Morrissey hit, Let the Right One In is just as bleak as its pop star inspiration, but not nearly as ironic. Set on a snow-plunged council estate in small-town Sweden, it is a love story of necessity rather than fate, of convenience rather than affection, but one that proves all the more rewarding as a consequence.

Largely neglected by his downtrodden parents, blue-eyed Oskar is a bullied child with a half-buried grudge against society, and it takes the dark, oddly wizened Eli to nurture his ruthlessness in an environment thick with oppression. Wandering barefoot in the icy dread of night, Eli seems impervious to these hardships, and although it appears that a certain commonality has brought the two together, we find that the girl seeks more than just friendship as a general understanding develops into something more symbiotic.

Let the Right One In is a vampire movie like no other. Unique in story and execution, it is a touching, darkly poetic experience saturated in exquisite dread, where dull, innocuous landscapes explode in explicit turns of violence, and the vague reflections of an invisible boy are forced to choose between the living and the undead.

1. Halloween (1978)

Perhaps a part of you groaned to see the most obvious choice top this list, but the quintessential Halloween movie has to be Carpenter's titular offering, and not merely because of its savvy festive marketing. Made on a shoestring budget of $325,000, his 1978 classic went on to gross $70,000,000 at the US box office alone, and his tale of a masked killer inspired an entire generation of filmmakers as the slasher genre exploded in a sleazy splatterfest of oversaturation.

Carpenter was always at his best when backed into a financial corner, and some of his later, bigger budget offerings were something of a letdown, but this is the great man at his most resourceful. Armed with a Steadicam and a cast of relative unknowns he would rely on his technical mastery and musical intuition to establish a mounting sense of dread that is as potent in the drab palettes of the daytime as it is in the dead of night.

See how the camera haunts the foregrounds as Michael stalks his promiscuous high school prey, or how it frames those unsuspecting victims, making relevant the wide open spaces where the hint of something malevolent lingers.

Take the scene where Nancy flirts obliviously while our monster's mask dissolves in and out of darkness, or the close-up of a sobbing Laurie Strode as an emotionally detached Michael sits up in the background, triggering the first urgent notes of Carpenter's blood-curdling original score.

Of course, every great slasher needs an iconic killer, and there is none more memorable than the ghost-faced Myers, a largely docile brute whose giant, dead eyes ooze detachment. There are some classic boogeymen in the horror lexicon, but who else can go from childlike inquisitiveness to animalistic brutality with such a sharp and devastating turn?

Pessimistic about the array of potential masks at his disposal, Carpenter would cut holes in the eyes of a William Shatner mask and spray it white in order to define his most iconic creation. It's amazing what poverty can do for human ingenuity.

Still short on ideas on what to watch? Check out some of the best horrors of the last century and start building your Halloween marathon watch list:


Which of these movies ranks highest for you?


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