The joys of Halloween are far too layered for just one form of entertainment to demonstrate in full. This is why I’m sure I’ll have plenty to write about next year. This Halloween season, my tribute went out to the good old fashioned scares, and now it’s time to cap them off with my 7 favorite horror movies.

 

Note: On my “favorite movies” list, I already covered A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), The Shining (1980), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). I’m not fond of repeating myself, and you can probably guess this means that they’ve pretty much been given the all-time favorite award. So there’s no need for me to repeat myself, which I’m not fond of.

 

 

7. Frankenstein (1931)

 

 

Here’s another one on the very short list of old black and white horror movies that managed to hit me with the intended effect in just about every shot. Frankenstein is moody, unsettling, and fully-realized. It has something to say, and it knows how to speak with both words and body language.

 

It’s a bit funny to think that many of these elements have become camp clichés in the present day. Though the later sequels are mostly responsible for this, it’s the title “Frankenstein” that they’re more or less grouped under. For this, first time viewers may be a little surprised by the movie they get; Boris Karloff’s monster is not a robotic zombie, grunting, lumbering and lunging at everything he comes across. He’s a blank slate trying to understand his surroundings, and unfortunately, anger, sadism, and fear are some of the first things he learns from his peers. And Dr. Frankenstein is not a cartoonish mad scientist who just happens to choose insane, nonsensical experiments as his favorite way to pass the time. He’s a real one. He’s a man whose ambition is so high, he teeters on the line of brilliance and insanity, rushing a daring dream into the realm of a heartless nightmare. And the surprise is that as he comes to understand the consequences of his actions, he becomes sane again. This is one thing his creation can never truly do, and it’s the reason why, no matter which of them was truly the monster in all of this, Dr. Frankenstein is the one who receives a chance at redemption.

 

6. Halloween (1978 )

 

 

You know the one. Halloween captured lightning in a bottle. It formed the groundwork for maniac-on-the-loose slasher movies now done to death by giving us only the core elements of what makes it all so frightening. And it gave them to us in spades.

 

Actually, while the movie earns every bit of its reputation as a classic, it did show me a downside that its biggest lauders probably didn’t care about: The buildup seems to drag a bit. As well done as it is, it keeps going, with no action in-between, after it’s already accomplished everything it set out to do. All the pieces – the mysterious stalker escaped from the asylum, the doctor who’s vowed to stop his evil, and the babysitter who keeps spotting him over her shoulder – are in place, and none of them are moving. But this, rest assured, is a small price to pay. When it gets moving, move it does, raising the pulse scene-by-scene. And while we may have seen these scenes before, this is perhaps the only time in which none of them are going through the motions.

 

5. Manhunter (1986)

 

 

Those of you not familiar with the lesser-known first film to feature Hannibal “Lecktor” should consider it. While its Oscar-winning follow-up The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is a sharp and scary movie, this underappreciated cult classic is the one I name as my favorite of the series. Aren’t I an edgy mind who knows how to think against the grain?

 

Actually, based just on content, the “edgier” viewer would probably side with Silence of the Lambs, which is the grittier, more descriptive and more openly grotesque movie. Manhunter is more stylized and more subtle. Often times, it only alludes to the horrors that took place or tells us in passing. It’s almost free of gore, trusting the power of the viewers’ imaginations. And with Tom Noonan’s performance as the horrifying yet human Francis Dollarhyde driving them, that’s a pretty good bet. This is not in and of itself a superior approach, granted, but in the end, the truth is that I just happened to find Manhunter more intriguing.

 

What sold me more than anything else, however, was William Peterson’s star turn as Will Graham, the FBI agent hired to catch the criminal. The character he conveys is both a driven soul determined to save lives and an unstable mind that could have easily become as bad as the criminals he’s so talented at reading. He admits, at one point, to having dreamed “the ugliest thoughts in the world” while investigating a case. And even more disturbing, perhaps, is the fact that this is his most sympathetic trait of all.

 

4. Misery (1990)

 

 

My favorite Stephen King adaptation after The Shining, Misery is one of the tensest movies I’ve ever seen. Imagine, if you will, that you’re an author at the end of a Faustian bargain, making your fortune on a commercial series of romance novels that you don’t enjoy writing. The last novel in your series has just hit the shelves, and you’re driving the manuscript for your proudest work in some time to your editor, when your car skids on any icy back road and careens over a hill. You wake up in the home of a large, jovial woman, who claims to be your biggest fan. She’s a nurse who’s already applied splints for your broken legs and tells you she needs to contact a hospital just as soon as the roads clear up.

 

Now imagine that through daily conversation, your excellent caregiver slowly reveals that she doesn’t just love your romance novels. Her life seems to revolve around them. She gushes over the main character like a beloved daughter, and she asks you everything about the writing process, flaring up at odd intervals when you tell her something she doesn’t particularly like. One day, moving around the room in your new wheelchair, you discover something suggesting what you’ve vaguely feared, that this woman might not be a safe or stable individual. And now imagine that she’s just finished your newest novel, in which you’ve killed off the main character.

 

Misery squeezes everything from its simple scenario and the performance of its two leads, that being James Caan and – especially powerful – Kathy Bates. Caan’s author walks a very thin tightrope, balancing what he must force himself to do physically before it’s too late, with the very likely chance of failure, against what he shouldn’t do, lest he force his tormentor’s hand. Bate’s nurse conveys love at its most twisted, as a passion that drives her to hurt, the results of which fuel her fire even more. The two of them engage in a psychological duel, which evolves and devolves into a very complex relationship, and when things are bad, it’s scary enough to make the movie even more morbidly spellbinding when they’re good.

 

3. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

 

 

Would you know it, the sequel that had even less to do with the novel topped the first one. Bride of Frankenstein delivers more of what Frankenstein did so well, with unsettling, gothic moments and superior art direction, while also adding a subtly campy and humorous tone, just enough to be funny without stripping the story of its dignity. But it also adds something that, against what logic would suggest, pushes it above its predecessor: A little bit of heart.

 

In turning Boris Karloff’s monster into more or less the main character, it adds a very humane element, watching the creature start to long for personal peace and harmony. This shows in spades during its most famous scenes, in which the monster comes across a blind hermit living by himself, and both are grateful to have found each other. It’s a touching sequence that we bear in mind for the rest of the movie and can tell the monster does as well. But once again, nobody has a way in mind to redeem what has transpired, leading to an ending that’s not entirely happy or sad and can only be summarized by the monster’s immortal statement: “You stay. We belong dead!”

 

2. Paranormal Activity (2007)

 

 

Aw heck, sue me. This divisive movie, from the divisive “found footage” genre, is among the number I can count on one hand that legitimately scared me. I’ve seen the four corners of horror. I’ve watched brutal gore and been everything from mildly intimidated to depressed. I’ve seen some of the most stylish and creative monster movies ever made. I’ve watched supernatural forces at work just off screen and waited for depraved beings to emerge from around the corner and spring their horrific trap. I’ve seen blood, guts, shadows, campiness, and leviathans that make us realize how infinitesimal we really are. But Paranormal Activity is the only one, during and after, to make me uneasy at the thought of what could be concealed in the dark, just out of sight.

 

It’s often compared with The Blair Witch Project (1999), which seems to be the marginally more respected of the two. Personally, I thought Paranormal Activity answered some of the issues people take with that movie, including the shaky cam and the total reliance on vague speculation for scares. A couple setting up a camera to record strange phenomena in their house takes away the limits on what they’d be able to record, allowing the movie to show us as much or as little as it wants.

 

The movie appeals to our tendency to cling to the possibility that unexplained everyday occurrences could be caused by something out of the ordinary. Just the possibility fires the imagination, and Paranormal Activity plays on this with a simple approach that directly turns the product of this imagination into its antagonist. At first, the movie is almost wish-fulfillment, sating the urge we share with the protagonists to see our suspicions confirmed. But as the possibility of danger becomes more prominent, we begin to search for answers, and the movie provides terrifying implications for us to swallow. And all of it builds to a climactic strong contender for the single most unnerving final sequence I’ve ever seen.

 

1. Aliens (1986)

 

 

The first Alien (1979) is a movie experience that might be forever lost to me, on account of a damaged VHS and a dim screen. I think I’ll wait at least a couple more years before I try again, just to make sure it has a chance to top itself, after striking me as a very good movie none the less. But I think we can at least agree that it’s not as overwhelming a movie as its sequel. Alien had peaks and valleys. Aliens had me from the start.

 

I was legitimately surprised by the story given to Sigourney Weaver’s returning character, Ellen Ripley. Instead of just a second-in-command trying to fend off a dangerous invader to her ship and crew, she is now a woman who’s lost everything. Stranded and preserved in space after the events of the first movie, she’s missed her daughter’s entire life and has nothing left, except her knowledge of the horrible creature she faced and killed. This movie is about her fighting to win back her life.

 

But most importantly, the fight itself is an onslaught of horror. Stranded with a militia near a hive’s worth of aliens, Ripley struggles to save them all from the impending attack. A militia in a base are able to fight back much better than her former crewmates, but the alien blitz is overwhelming and absolutely horrifying. Its staged to perfection, and it doesn’t let up on the rapid-fire, gruesome rollercoaster of an attack, even for a moment. If the movie has a flaw, it’s that it’s all too much to be with it every step of the way. The movie can actually desensitize viewers to itself. Not a bad problem to have, really, as I’d rather a movie be sure it gave us everything than hold something back. It guarantees that the uplift we hit at the end is genuine, a sweet relief that everyone has truly earned after an enveloping nightmare.

 

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