My wife Jillian and I recently completed a “31 days of horror” challenge in which we watched 31 scary movies in 31 days. We each picked roughly half of the films on the list and tried to focus on watching stuff we’d never seen before. Below are brief, informal reviews of the films that I originally posted on Facebook. They are ranked from favorite to least favorite and I affixed a letter grade to each. I hope this list comes in handy to anyone hoping to do a 31-days-of-horror challenge next year!
1. NIGHT OF THE DEMON (Jacques Tourneur, UK, 1957): A+
Jacques Tourneur (CAT PEOPLE, OUT OF THE PAST) was a master of cinema and this late entry in his filmography is one of his best. Dana Andrews is a skeptical American professor who travels to England to attend a parapsychology conference and ends up investigating a Satanic cult led by an Aleister Crowley-like figure. Chock-full of remarkable noir-ish visuals and almost unbearably suspenseful set pieces from beginning to end. A masterpiece.
2. SUSPIRIA (Dario Argento, Italy, 1978): A
The most famous of all Italian horror films centers on an American girl arriving at a ballet school in Germany and discovering that it’s run by a coven of witches! There are startling images galore (maggots, a room full of razor wire, attacks by a rabid dog and a bat, etc.) but it’s the bold, stylized color and lighting schemes that truly give this beautiful and surreal film the illogical, uncanny feeling of a nightmare. I’d never seen it before and I’m glad my first time was with the new 4K restoration. Recommended by David Hanley.
3. THE BODY SNATCHER (Val Lewton/Robert Wise, USA, 1945): A
This is what I’m talking about! Boris Karloff is a carriage driver in 18th-century Scotland who provides cadavers — by any means necessary — to a medical school in exchange for cash. The interesting thing is that Karloff’s character, a very charismatic murderer, isn’t the villain. The stick-in-the-mud doctor running the school (who has a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about where the bodies come from) is. Great script and performances and stylish cinematography. The scene between Karloff and Bela Lugosi (reuniting 11 years after Edgar Ulmer’s masterpiece THE BLACK CAT) is an all-timer. So much fun.
4. THE ENTITY (Sidney Furie, USA, 1982): A
This was straight-up the scariest movie of the 31 that Jill and I watched. It’s about a single mother of three who is repeatedly sexually assaulted by an invisible presence in her own home. The attack sequences, accompanied by what sounds like an industrial version of the PSYCHO shower theme, are horrifying. Director Sidney Furie gets a lot of mileage from showing the incursion of evil into a totally banal suburban California setting, and Barbara Hershey’s lead performance is incredible.
5. WITCHFINDER GENERAL (Michael Reeves, UK/USA, 1968): A
Wow, this was an intense and disturbing film! It features what was reportedly one of Vincent Price’s favorite roles and it’s easy to see why: Matthew Hopkins, a real-life self-appointed “witchfinder” who traveled 17th-century England torturing and killing “witches” for money, was the most evil character he ever played. Every one of Price’s line readings is amazing — the unique softness of his voice providing ironic counterpoint to the utter vileness of Hopkins’ deeds. Although not entirely historically accurate, this film nonetheless gets to the heart of the hypocrisy of witch hunts better than any film I’ve seen (aside from Dreyer’s DAY OF WRATH).
6. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (George Romero, USA, 1968): A
I hadn’t watched this in over 20 years so it was a real pleasure to see it again in MoMA’s beautiful new restoration (which George Romero oversaw shortly before his death). Very few popular subgenres descend so definitively from a single movie the way the “zombie film” does from this one. Such a lively piece of filmmaking and such a powerful allegory for American unrest during the Vietnam War and Civil Rights era. The occasionally stilted acting by a cast of unknowns only enhances both the realism and the horror.
7. THE WICKER MAN (Robin Hardy, UK, 1975): A-
A police inspector travels to a remote Scottish Isle in search of a missing girl but the inhabitants are less than forthcoming and nothing is what it seems! I had never seen this much beloved British “folk horror” film before – nor, thankfully, knew any details of the plot – but immediately got what all the fuss was about. Christopher Lee FTW. Recommended by Natalya Oshurkova.
8. THE UNINVITED (Lewis Allen, USA, 1944): A-
Great, atmospheric ghost story set in the UK but made in Hollywood by the non-auteurist-approved director Lewis Allen. Beautiful black-and-white cinematography and impressive ghost effects (even if the film isn’t actively “scary” by today’s standards). Ray Milland and Gail Russell are very appealing as the central couple. I was amazed to learn that the famous standard “Stella by Starlight” was written for this film (Russell’s character is named Stella).
9. RITUALS (Peter Carter, Canada, 1977): A-
A good reason to do a 31-days-of-horror-challenge is to try and seek out underrated or overlooked gems that you’ve never even heard of before. This Canadian “survivalist horror” movie served that function better than any other title on the list. A group of five friends (all of whom are doctors) go on a fishing trip together and find themselves menaced by an unknown assailant. This is a brutal but very well made film featuring a good script, great performances (especially Hal Holbrook as the lead) and taut direction. Obviously influenced by DELIVERANCE, which it’s just as good as and twice as scary as.
10. THE FOG (John Carpenter, USA, 1980): A-
Perhaps John Carpenter’s most underrated movie, this has to do with ghosts from a leper colony seeking vengeance on the citizens of a coastal California town whose founders deliberately caused their demise a century before. Beautifully shot and edited, the whole thing feels like a feature film version of the kind of campfire ghost story being told by John Houseman in the irresistible prologue. This was the second and final screenwriting collaboration between Carpenter and Debra Hill (not counting the obligatory HALLOWEEN II, which Carpenter didn’t direct) and it’s obvious in hindsight that she brought a welcome female energy to his work that can’t be found in his subsequent movies.
11. ISLE OF THE DEAD (Val Lewton/Mark Robson, USA, 1945): A-
Another Lewton/Karloff joint that I hadn’t seen before. A group of people quarantined on a Greek Island after an outbreak of the plague in 1912 break off into two camps: those who believe in science vs. those who believe in superstition! This has atmosphere to spare and the live-burial climax is terrifying.
12. A CERTAIN KIND OF DEATH (Grover Babcock/Blue Hadaegh, USA, 2003): A-
This is a different kind of horror movie: a documentary about what happens to people (and their possessions) when they die with no known next of kin. With cool objectivity, the filmmakers follow several Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office employees going about their daily routines. While the movie isn’t remotely sensationalistic (even if shots of corpses in various stages of decomposition will make this difficult viewing for some), it becomes incredibly haunting precisely because of its matter-of-factness. Recommended by Rob Christopher.
13. IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (John Carpenter, USA, 1995): B+
Jill picked this, which we’d seen before but it’d been a while. John Carpenter’s last great film. Sam Neill is terrific as an insurance investigator who loses his mind while looking for a missing horror novelist. The final scene shows Neill’s character entering a movie theater and watching a film titled IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS starring himself and directed by “John Carpenter.” After plunging down this meta-horror rabbit hole there was really nothing else left for JC to do.
14. ANGUISH (Bigas Luna, Spain, 1987): B+
Wow. I’d never even heard of this crazy Spanish-American co-production until Patrick Friel recommended it (and Adrian Martin backed him up). It starts off as a straightforward horror movie about an eye surgeon with mommy issues then unexpectedly transforms into a self-reflexive exercise about horror movies. I greatly enjoyed the Hitchcock homages (to PSYCHO, SPELLBOUND and THE BIRDS in particular) and Michael Lerner’s performance is great though I’m not sure the conceit sustains its cleverness for the entire run time.
15. DREAMS OF A LIFE (Carol Morley, UK, 2012): B+
Inspired by our unconventional pick of A CERTAIN KIND OF DEATH, Jill searched for other “scary documentaries” to round out our list and came up with this one and DEAR ZACHARY (see below). This is about a 38-year-old woman who died of unknown causes while wrapping Christmas presents in her London apartment but whose body wasn’t discovered until over two years later. By including interviews with those who knew the woman as well as reenactments of her life (one such sequence owes a debt to CLEO FROM 5 TO 7), this asks a lot of questions about how a relatively well-off young person in an urban environment can end up totally forgotten by society. Scary (in an existential sense) and heartbreaking.
16. ALICE SWEET ALICE (Alfred Sole, USA, 1976): B+
When a little girl (Brooke Shields in her film debut) is murdered on the day of her first communion, her troubled older sister seems to be the culprit. But is she? As a film, this may not have much to “say” but the murder sequences (perpetrated by a spectacularly creepy masked figure in a yellow raincoat) are scary and potent even by today’s standards. Recommended by Max O’Connell.
17. THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (Roger Corman, USA, 1964): B
Although I’ve seen many films produced by Roger Corman (including two elsewhere on this list), this adaptation of one of Edgar Allen Poe’s most famous stories is the first Corman-directed film I’ve ever seen. It’s a fun movie with two things to recommend it: Nicolas Roeg’s beautiful color cinematography and the way that Vincent Price seems to relish delivering every line of dialogue.
18. THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW (Piers Haggard, UK, 1970): B
A farmer in 17th-century England digs up a demon corpse while plowing his field. The grisly discovery has the consequence of turning the village children into a Satan-worshiping coven. Worth seeing for the impressive period detail and some genuinely frightening moments but the script leaves something to be desired – especially the way the local judge abruptly emerges as the hero in the final act.
19. TALES FROM THE HOOD (Rusty Cundieff, USA, 1995): B
Clever anthology in the TALES FROM THE CRYPT/CREEPSHOW mode but the filmmakers here use the horror genre to explicitly comment on racial and social ills. An unhinged Clarence Williams III is fantastic as the narrator in the framing segments. “Welcome to hell, motherfuckers!”
20. THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (Terence Fisher, UK, 1968): B
As a big fan of Terence Fisher’s earliest Hammer horror films (e.g., THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA), I was hoping this tale of an astronomical society fronting for a satan-worshipping cult — supposedly the movie that brought the studio into the modern era — would be a deathless masterpiece. It’s not — it’s a little too hokey and lightweight for that (especially in comparison to something like ROSEMARY’S BABY, which came out the same year) but it has its moments and Christopher Lee, as a good guy, is magnificent as always.
21. DEF BY TEMPTATION (James Bond III, USA, 1990): B
A nice surprise! Horror/comedy about a female vampire stalking male “players” in the bars of Brooklyn. The first film to use vampirism as a metaphor for AIDS? Beautifully photographed on a shoestring by Spike Lee’s then-regular DP Ernest Dickerson. Kadeem Hardison is charismatic AF and should’ve become a big star. Crazy that writer/director/actor James Bond III never directed or acted again after this. Recommended by Janina Bradley.
22. BODY MELT (Philip Brophy, Australia, 1991): B-
Jillian picked this outrageous Australian body horror/black comedy, which has something to do with a vitamin pill causing deadly side effects in test subjects. I didn’t fully grasp what was going on on a plot level but it was visually inventive and funny enough to the point where I also didn’t really care.
23. GALAXY OF TERROR (B.D. Clark, USA, 1981): B-
Roger Corman-produced ALIEN knockoff but with more sex and violence. Entertaining trash from beginning to end with a good cast that includes Robert “Freddie Krueger” Englund and Grace “Sarah Palmer” Zabriskie. Recommended by Patrick Friel and Bowls MacLean.
24. THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (John Hough, UK, 1973): B-
This Richard Matheson-scripted yarn about paranormal investigators venturing into the “Mt. Everest of haunted houses” is a decently entertaining PG-rated affair. Roddy McDowell gives a very committed and sweaty performance. Recommended by Alan Hoffman.
25. TALES FROM THE HOOD 2 (Rusty Cundieff/Darin Scott, USA, 2018): B-
Same concept as the original – and nearly as good – but updated for 2018 (which means, of course, it comments on Trumpism). Well worth seeing but this gets docked half a letter grade for the didactic Emmett Till segment.
26. HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (Barbara Peeters, USA, 1980): C+
Imagine CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON but with gore and nudity. Relentlessly silly but compulsively watchable. The climax with sea-monsters running amok at a carnival is a riot. Apparently Andy Warhol’s favorite movie. Recommended by Aaron Leventman.
27. HOCUS POCUS (Kenny Ortega, 1993): C+
Jillian picked this. Kind of cute in an early ’90s/Disney kind of way, and Bette Midler is a hoot (especially when she sings Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ immortal “I Put a Spell on You,” but this lacks the subversive edge that it sorely needs, an edge that someone like, say, Joe Dante would’ve brought to to it.
28. JUST BEFORE DAWN (Jeff Lieberman, USA, 1981): C
This has a good reputation among slasher aficionados and I can appreciate that it’s the kind of thing that’s well done for what it is — but “what it is” (a film about young people going camping and being murdered one-by-one by a large backwoods dude with a machete) will never really be my thing.
29. DEAR ZACHARY: A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER (Kurt Kuenne, USA, 2008): C
A filmmaker makes a sort of “video diary” about his murdered friend for the dead man’s infant son. This is one of the earliest entries in a still ongoing documentary trend (see THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS) in which admittedly incredible true stories are put across in a thriller-like manner with an emphasis on unexpected developments and bombshell revelations. I was annoyed by the overly-fast cutting and treacly score.
30. SOCIETY (Brian Yuzna, USA, 1989): C-
This cheesy low-budget 1980s body-horror actually has a great climactic party sequence full of impressive and outrageous “practical effects.” But…it’s kind of a dull journey getting there.
31. FREDDY VS. JASON (Ronnie Yu, USA, 2003): D
Jill picked this. It’s very bad, of course, but it does contain certain stylistic hallmarks (e.g., red-and-blue lighting, copious fog) of director Ronnie Yu, who once upon a time made great movies in Hong Kong (e.g., THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR).