You’re about to read another one of my super biased top-5 lists. Last time we covered horror video games, but let’s talk movies now that it’s spooky season. This isn’t a definitive list of all the horror movies I’ve seen. Rather, it is a short list of ultimate horror favorites (not ranked in any way), that you should curl up with this holiday season. After all, nothing is better than a mug of hot chocolate, a cozy blanket, and some good-old-fashion murder playing on TV.
- Crimson Peak
The Basics: Directed by Guilermo Del Toro, “Crimson Peak” was released in theaters in 2016 and is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The film stars Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastaon, Tom Hiddleston, and Jim Beaver. The story centers around aspiring author Edith Cushing, who occasionally witnesses ghosts, navigating her role in society as a woman in the early 1900s in a spectacle of peak (ha!) gothic storytelling.
What I Like: My favorite genre of fiction, in any medium, is gothic. Whether it’s vampires, ghosts, or reanimated corpses, I love the dark and twisted ways gothic fiction explores reality. “Crimson Peak,” meets all the hallmarks of a gothic work: gender anxieties, the tensions of tradition and technological advances, morality conflicts in the context of religion (or in this case ghosts), and sexuality taboos. Moving past my geeky academic reasons, one of my favorite things in film is how color is used as a mode of storytelling. The film is painted in contrasting shades of blue and red that are used to show the tensions between Edith and those who would oppose her. The film is visually beautiful, and the soundtrack also deserves a shout-out. The music isn’t particularly unique, but it acted as an undercurrent to the story and never really overpowers it. As a horror film, there are plenty of terrifying ghosts, apparitions and stylized gore. These elements don’t over shadow the character driven plot. Instead they add to the movie which has become a rare thing in the world of horror film, (sometimes a movie feels like a collection of scares, with filler in between and that’s not any fun).
What it Gets Wrong: This movie is almost perfect; there’s no glaring aspect to point out. However, the plot ultimately boils down to jealous lovers. The film’s climax is a much bloodier cat fight. There’s no way to change that without drastically altering the plot, which I adore, but I’m getting sick of watching movies that are centered around women fighting over a man. There’s more to life than hot guys, even if the one in question is Tom Hiddleston.
- The Autopsy of Jane Doe
The Basics: Directed by André Øvredal, “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” was released in theaters in 2016 and is rated R by the MPAA. The film stars Emile Hirsch, Brian Cox, and Olwen Catherine Kelly. The story follows small-town coroners, Austin and his father Tommy, as they attempt to perform an autopsy on an unidentified body that has extensive internal trauma but no external signs of trauma, or cause of death. During the autopsy, the father and son duo are beset by apparitions (Ghosts? Demons? Witches? It’s unclear), and uncover an unlikely connection to the early days of witchcraft. Witchcraft that leaves a slew of unexplainable and unprecedented deaths in its wake, making the audience wonder if Austin and Tommy will suffer a similar fate.
What I Like: In a feat of immeasurable talent Kelly, playing the corpse, is in each of the scenes the corpse is in. Most films would’ve used a dummy to ensure the ‘corpse’ wouldn’t move, but not this movie. In this movie Kelly sports latex prosthetics during the autopsy and is physically in these scenes. I dare you to rewatch and try to find a moment where she moves, or even breathes because, she doesn’t. In this film, there is no happy ending. It is the first horror movie to ever scare me after the fact. I saw this movie for the first time when I bought the DVD. It was unsettling and disturbing, which means I loved it instantly. If you’re familiar with my experiences and thoughts on the mortuary industry, you know it’s a subject I view seriously, and I typically don’t watch many movies that circle around funeral homes as it tends to add onto the stigma surrounding end of life and after-life care. This film might be the only exception. It frames Austin and his father as positive figures tasked to care for those who are no longer living and discover their causes of death as an act of service and justice for the dead. This movie is terrifying, and a lot of that comes from the stretches of time without overt scares while they are conducting the autopsy. Slowly things start to unravel and go wrong. These moments aren’t rife with jumpscares but a more insidious sort of scary. Samples taken and stored rot inside the cooler, and the corpse isn’t deteriorating or leaking as it should. To that effect, there’s a lot of real science behind this, and it’s pretty accurate from my understanding. The ending features a huge shift in tone: while the unclaimed corpse is driven to another funeral home leaving devastation in her wake an upbeat song plays over the radio. It is a brilliant way to end such a terrifying movie.
What it Gets Wrong: The subtle scary moments don’t last forever, the film’s latter half quickly switches into an all out fright fest including jumpscares featuring apparitions (Ghosts? Demons? Witches?). These apparitions cause physical changes in the environment and try to hurt them, resulting in one particularly saddening accidental death. These apparitions also bug me. One of the strongest points of the film is the limited explanation, however the connection to witchcraft makes me question what exactly the apparitions are. I’m unsure if witches could command ghosts, or, if because of the satanism element, if it’s demons. Speaking of which, one of my biggest pet peeves is when demon summoning and satan worship are conflated with witchcraft. First of all, the Church of Satan doesn’t even believe in Judeo-Christian mythology and uses “satan” as a buzzword to attract attention, so any practice in which Satan as Lucifer and his legions are implicated isn’t satanism or witchcraft. My point is I tend to ignore witch movies as they always conflate witch craft with satan, and the entire film fell apart a little for me when they came out and said “iTs WiTcHeS!!1”.
The Basics: Directed by Ari Aster, “Midsommar” was released in theaters in 2019 and is rated R by the MPAA. The film stars Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, and Will Poulter. The story is about Dani Ardor who, after a family tragedy, is invited along on her boyfriend and his friend’s trip to a Midsummer celebration in Hälsingland, Sweden. Dani’s inclusion was an afterthought on her boyfriend’s part who was trying to break up, and was unable to due to Dani’s mourning. Once at their destination, the Hårga commune, Dani and the others quickly find out the peaceful community is not what they were expecting and neither are they.
What I Like: This film doesn’t look like a horror movie. It’s set in an idyllic Swedish commune located in the middle of picturesque fields. The commune’s overall aesthetic choices are white with accents of primary colors, and it’s beautiful and light, which is absurd considering how much cult shit goes down in this movie. Cults are one of my favorite vehicles for horror as they can and do exist (looking at you Scientology). This movie is filled with so much lore regarding the cult and their religious practices that I’ve watched it three times, and I’m still noticing new things in the details. Dani’s story really resonated with me. I think in some way most people who date men could relate to her journey throughout the film. Throughout the entirety of the film, her boyfriend Christian is cold, distant, and downright mean. The film ends with Dani choosing him as the final sacrifice, and the last shot of the film is her facial expression changing from horror at her own choices to a smile. I don’t think most people feel this strongly after being jerked around, manipulated, or abused by an ex-boyfriend but there was something satisfying in seeing Dani triumph over him. This is also part of what makes the movie so smart, and it’s truly terrifying that Dani is warped by the cult to the point where she is an active participant in this death. On a less serious note, the movie has a bunch of gory and messed up deaths, (the one with the bear is my favorite).
What it Gets Wrong: This is maybe one of those movies where a little more exposition would’ve been appreciated. I like to theorize and puzzle things out, but I just kept wanting more information on the cult’s religion and what they actually believe in. But the movie was phenomenal without it, so maybe there’s nothing wrong with it.
The Basics: Directed by Ari Aster, “Hereditary” was released in theaters in 2018 and is rated R by the MPAA. The film stars Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, and Gabriel Bryne. The story follows the Graham family, from Annie’s mother to her two children, and traces the patterns of mental illness and grief through the lens of motherhood. Oh, there’s also a cult focused on helping their favorite hellspawned demon to possess a human body, but ya’ know, family first!
What I Like: Everything. If you went into this film blind, like I did, you’d assume Charlie is the main character. If you went to see the movie on opening weekend like I did, you were most likely also completely blindsided when that was NOT the case. My point being, this entire film is a roller coaster that never seems to turn the way you think it should, and I love it. The film also really plays with light and dark and perspective as metaphors and elements of visual storytelling. Toni Collette’s Annie is a miniature model maker, and there are a lot of cool shots that ask the audience to question reality. The soundscape of the film is pretty sparse, which allows us to focus on the family drama unfolding at the heart of the film, and it’s absolutely masterful. Aster is having a moment right now in the horror film scene and these movies are honestly the closest to perfect I’ve ever seen.
What it Gets Wrong: Nothing, to me, this movie is perfect. I’m continually stunned with how Aster is able to capture these moments of the female experience and write them so removed from any sort of male gaze or influence while being a man.
- A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
The Basics: Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” was released in theaters in 2014 and is rated R by the MPAA. The film stars Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Mozhan Marnò,Marshall Manesh, and Dominic Rains and has been called “the first Iraninan vampire Western.” The story follows the unnamed vampire, credited only as ‘the Girl’ who walks the streets of a ghost town acting as a vigilante against harmful men. The film is completely in the Persian language and shot in black and white.
What I Like: I, above almost all things, love vampire movies. I can’t say the same thing for Westerns, but apparently they work well together. The minimalist film’s black and whie coloring and sparse dialogue results in this really wonderful and moody aesthetic. It feels very Western, while still feeling unlike any other american made movie from the last twenty years. Our lead vampire is vengeful yet caring and conservative yet seductive existing in the small inbetweens of what should be polar opposite existences. The moments of vampirism are infrequent yet effective. At one moment we see the Girl bite a man’s finger off, and it’s one of the best parts of the movie. I also unexpectedly liked the romance subplot between the Girl and Arash. It wasn’t something I felt the film needed, but I’m glad they included it anyway. It gives us more of an insight into our vampiric leading lady without delving into too many specifics, and the mystery of this is a really interesting element. The film also features a really cute cat, who (on Wikipedia at least) is credited as being named Masuka. Masuka did a very good job, and I want the entire world to know that.
What it Gets Wrong: I have no complaints with this movie. I would’ve maybe liked some more context on our vampire and how she became a vampire. That backstory could’ve been interesting to see. However, the film operates wonderfully without it.
- The Shape of Water (Special Mention)
The Basics: Directed by Guilermo Del Toro, “The Shape of Water” was released in theaters in 2017 and is rated R by the MPAA. The film stars Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Octavia Spencer. The film is Guilermo Del Toro’s love letter to “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” and has become infamous for it’s fish-love happy ending. I was originally only going to include five films, but when I looked back on the list, I saw a ghost movie, a witch movie, two cult movies (one with some demon stuff sprinkled in), and a vampire movie. It’s a great list, but it wouldn’t be in the spirit of Halloween to not include a straight-up monster movie.
My Thoughts: To be fair, this isn’t exactly a horror movie. It doesn’t have jumpscares, and follows the ultimately happy love story of an outcast woman and a fishman. But parts of this movie are scary; there’s sexual harassment in the work place, racism, homophobia, domestic violence, and the scariest thing of all, malevolent government agencies. As a monster movie, with elements of real world horrors, I dub it a horror movie and allow it this space as a “Special Mention” in this list of movies. To add to the Halloween spirit, watch this movie after “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” If you’re like me, maybe take a moment to compare and contrast why “Creature” is considered a horror classic while being a thinly veiled metaphor for real world horrors, and this movie isn’t while overtly stating them. Is it because of the happy ending? I don’t think so. Being transformed into any sort of monster seems to be a clear marker for a horror movie (look at any werewolf or vampire flick involving transformations). Also, my favorite sequence in the film is absolutely horrific; the main villain’s idyllic American dream life rots away (literally, via a severed finger that won’t reaffix and he leaves bandaged to his hand as it rots).