Assuming you’ve already watched the 1978 Halloween and the other spooky staples in your library (Hocus Pocus, The Nightmare Before Christmas, etc.), it’s time to paddle out into the streams—streaming services, that is!—for some macabre movies. This year we tried to go for some less-obvious titles—but a few old faves did make it into the mix, of course.
With a new American Grudge movie on the way next year, there’s no better time to revisit Takashi Shimizu’s original—actually the third film in the Grudge series after a pair of low-budget predecessors, but the first to make it to wide release in theaters. (It’s also the Grudge movie that caught Sam Raimi’s eye, instilling a love of the series that led him to produce both the 2004 American remake, its 2006 sequel, and Nicolas Pesce’s 2020 film.)
Back when every Asian horror movie was getting a Hollywood redo, Ju-On’s murderous ghosts (the black-haired wraith, the meowing kid) felt so familiar they lost a bit of their scare factor; there was even a Ju-On parody in one of the Scary Movie films. But now that some time has passed it’s easier to appreciate the stripped-down agony of the 2002 film, with its puzzle-piece story that follows different characters who unwittingly come into contact with a rage so violent it finds a way to exist beyond the grave.
Speaking of horror master Sam Raimi—who actually hasn’t directed a horror movie since 2009's Drag Me to Hell, though that’s apparently about to change—made this 2000 chiller right before he dedicated the next several years of his life to Spider-Man. With a story inspired by co-screenwriter Billy Bob Thornton’s own childhood, The Gift takes place in a small Georgia town filled with secrets, many of which are unearthed by the recently widowed Annie (Cate Blanchett), a single mom to three boys who drives a beat-up yellow Delta 88 (Raimi’s touchstone) and makes a living doing “readings” for troubled customers. When a local rich girl (Katie Holmes) is found dead, Annie’s visions become a key part of the case—and end up imperiling her, too.
While The Gift is more of a real-world murder mystery, it’s also laden with swampy atmosphere and psychic unease. Blanchett, Greg Kinnear, and J.K. Simmons give the most understated performances in a cast full of big-name actors who are simply delighted to rip into their characters’ Southern accents, with Giovanni Ribisi leading the charge for most scenery consumed, followed by Keanu Reeves (in a rare bad-guy-with-no-redeeming-qualities role) and Hilary Swank (then a newly-minted Oscar winner). You may figure out the whodunnit long before the clairvoyant does, but that won’t take away from your enjoyment of The Gift, which sneaks in a last-act twist to remind you of Raimi’s abiding affection for all things supernatural.
This 1986 release, an odd blend of comedy, PTSD, and supernatural beasties, has a surprising genre pedigree: It’s produced by Sean S. Cunningham (Friday the 13th) and directed by Steve Miner (Friday the 13th Part II and Part III, Halloween: H20); Ethan Wiley’s screenplay is based on a story by Fred Dekker (The Monster Squad, Night of the Creeps), and it stars William Katt (The Greatest American Hero, Carrie). A pair of popular sitcom stars, George “Norm on Cheers” Wendt and Richard “Bull on Night Court” Moll, also appear in key supporting roles.
Katt plays Roger Cobb, a best-selling horror novelist with a troubled personal life. He’s haunted by his time in the Vietnam War, but even worse, his young son recently disappeared—and the tragedy has strained his marriage past the breaking point. His dicey coping strategy is to move into the ghost-infested house where he grew up, a ramshackle Victorian last occupied by his elderly aunt, who hanged herself in one of its gloomy rooms. That’s a lot of trauma for one dude to deal with, but House has him face it head-on—in the form of tools that come alive, a literal closet monster, and a witch that resembles Henrietta from Evil Dead II—with a tone that careens wildly between despair and goofiness.
As it happens, Amazon Prime also has 1987's House II: The Second Story, an amazingly titled, Halloween-set sequel that’s completely unconnected to the first film’s plot or characters—though like House, House II was written by Ethan Wiley from a story by Fred Dekker, with Wiley directing this time.
As signaled by its punny subtitle, the film is much more of a comedy than the first film. Twenty-five years after his parents were mysteriously murdered in the old family mansion, Jesse (Arye Gross) brings his girlfriend Kate (Lar Park Lincoln, who played Jason’s psychic foe in 1988's Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood) and some other pals to the majestic yet neglected abode, which is filled with artifacts left behind by Jesse’s great-great grandfather, a Wild West adventurer who did a bit of tomb raiding on the side.
It doesn’t take too long for House II’s full-on commitment to goofballery to kick in, especially when Jesse and his buddy Charlie (Jonathan Stark) decide to dig up “Gramps” (Royal Dano) in search of a long-lost crystal skull, and find the self-described “170-year-old fart” to be full of jolly energy. Things really get going when the skull reveals magic powers that can manipulate time and space within the house, and interlopers from the past (a caveman, ancient warriors, Gramps’ zombie nemesis, etc.) start showing up and try to steal it.
That doesn’t even take into account things like the adorable mini-dinosaurs that follow Jesse and Charlie back from prehistory, the fact that Bill Maher plays Kate’s sleazy record-exec boss, or House II’s own random casting of a Cheers actor: John “Cliff” Ratzenberger, who pops up briefly as a surprisingly badass electrician.
Writer-director-editor Ti West’s best-known film is still probably his 2009 retro breakout The House of the Devil, but 2011's The Innkeepers also has its spooky charms. It’s set at an old hotel that’s long been a draw for ghost hunters but has mostly emptied out ahead of its impending closure—aside from a few final guests, including a former sitcom star (the excellent Kelly McGillis) who’s found a new calling as a medium. The last remaining employees, Luke (Pat Healy) and Claire (Sara Paxton), take it upon themselves to creep around the timeworn rooms with recording equipment, hoping to capture evidence that a tragic guest from the inn’s early days is still hanging around. A genuine sighting could be a real boost for Luke’s nascent paranormal website, while Claire—a recent college drop-out who’s starting to feel guilty about being aimless—is just excited to have some direction in her life.
Though some may call The Innkeepers “slow,” we’d go with “deliberate.” West’s approach to pacing carefully builds dread that’s punctured with jolts of humor and a few old-school gotcha moments—mostly of the gruesome variety, though it is startling to see a pre-Girls Lena Dunham pop up as an invasively chatty barista.
Here’s another franchise cornerstone well worth a rewatch, especially with excitement building over the Jordan Peele-produced “spiritual remake” due in 2020, which is said to have an as-yet unspecified link to Bernard Rose’s 1992 original.
Based on a Clive Barker story, Candyman focuses on Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), a folklore grad student who becomes obsessed with the “Candyman,” an urban legend (say his name five times into a mirror, and he’ll appear!) who’s apparently inspired a hook-handed copycat in Chicago’s most notorious housing project. But as she soon learns, the real Candyman (Tony Todd) has been kept “alive” thanks to the fear he inspires, and he doesn’t hesitate to shed gallons of blood when Helen’s research starts to diminish his power.
Candyman stands out because it tackles so many complex and difficult themes, depicting Chicago as a city that’s still struggling with racism and huge class divides 100 years after the real Candyman—an African American artist in the 1890s—was killed by an angry mob after falling in love with a white woman. It also tackles sexism in academia, as Helen and her thesis partner (Kasi Lemmons) see their work met with condescending bemusement by their male colleagues, including Helen’s dickish husband.
That said, watching it in 2019, it’s obvious that certain parts of Candyman haven’t aged especially well (which gives us yet another reason to look forward to that 2020 reboot). But no amount of cultural iffiness can take away from Todd’s unforgettable performance. He creates a character who’s equal parts alluring and foreboding—and never less than scary as hell.
Babak Anvari’s Wounds, which we recently reviewed, was just released on Hulu. But you’ll have to click over to Netflix to find the British-Iranian writer-director’s debut film, a harrowing tale set in war-torn 1980s Tehran. Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is anxious to return to medical school after an extended break, first because of the revolution, and then because of her pregnancy. But after she’s coldly informed she’s not welcome back at her former university due to her activist past, she’s forced to become a stay-at-home mother while her husband—who did get to become a doctor—is sent off to the front lines.
Making matters even more tense, Tehran is the target of frequent bombing raids, meaning Shideh—who prefers staying put rather than moving in with her husband’s judgmental family—and her precocious daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), must remain cooped up in their apartment. But cabin fever and the threat of missile strikes are nothing compared to the nightmares caused by a malevolent spirit—a djinn—that suddenly starts preying on the family amid the chaos. Under the Shadow has more than a few things in common with The Babadook, but its most impressive achievement is the way it uses its uniquely dread-filled setting to terrify audiences using supernatural and real-world frights.
Tommy (Brian Cox), a coroner descended from a long line of morticians, has faced just about every postmortem oddity—until Jane Doe (Olwen Kelly) shows up one night, the only unidentified victim pulled from an apparent crime scene in a home with multiple fatalities. As Tommy and his son (Emile Hirsch), who’s somewhat reluctantly training in the family business, begin their examination, they notice the body shows no signs of outward trauma—but the autopsy turns up a series of increasingly bizarre and confounding internal injuries.
It doesn’t take long to realize that Jane Doe’s corpse has arrived with some serious supernatural baggage, and alarming things begin happening throughout the claustrophobic basement that houses their morgue. Norwegian filmmaker André Øvredal, who broke out with Trollhunter, directed Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark earlier this year for producer Guillermo del Toro, but The Autopsy of Jane Doe—his 2016 English language debut, from a script by Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing—is still the scariest (and ooziest) thing he’s made so far.
Guillermo del Toro also produced this 2007 entry from Spanish director J.A. Bayona, who’s since gone on to huge projects like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series. You can see why del Toro was drawn to The Orphanage—it’s very much in his wheelhouse, with a story involving restless spirits, a long-buried mystery, imperiled children, and tons of gothic atmosphere. Much of the latter comes courtesy of the setting, a regal if aging seaside manor that was once an orphanage where main character Laura (a stunning Belén Rueda) lived until she was adopted.
Her memories of her time there are so cherished that she ends up buying the place as an adult, intending to re-open it as a care facility for special needs kids. But the property, which has been sitting empty for years, conceals some awful secrets—and the past soon begins intertwining with the present, affecting Laura’s cherubic young son more than she or her husband could ever have imagined.
The Orphanage contains a lot of tragedy and sadness, but it’s just too damn eerie to fully slide into melodrama territory. An entirely unsettling “spooky kid” character and some gruesome, shocking deaths make sure you never forget that this is, first and foremost, a horror movie. (Hulu)
It wouldn’t be the spooky season without some Stephen King, and while the world is overflowing with new King adaptations (including Hulu, which has a fresh season of Castle Rock currently underway), there’s always room for revisiting the classics (Carrie is on Netflix, FYI) as well as the deeper cuts, like 1993's The Dark Half, which was adapted and directed by no less than George A. Romero and takes place in and around you-know-which town in Maine.
Timothy Hutton stars as Thad Beaumont, a teacher and author who’s found some success penning violent, pulpy thrillers as “George Stark.” Ready to shift his career down a different path—and since he’s on the verge of being outed anyway, thanks to a pushy “fan”—Beaumont decides it’s time to stage a mock funeral for his alter ego and concentrate on putting books out under his own name. But the thing is, Stark really doesn’t want to die, even though he was technically never alive—and he’s willing to kill to get what he wants.
The Dark Half wastes no time going right for the heebie-jeebies—there’s freaky surgery (in which an eyeball is unearthed inside young Thad’s brain) during the opening credits, setting the tone for a movie that takes place in a world that feels real, but where decidedly surreal stuff can and will happen. Its themes of doppelgangers and author-fighting-his-inner-demons are textbook King, with familiar characters like Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Michael Rooker) only adding to the experience. Meanwhile, Hutton is clearly having a jolly time getting to play both an earnest family man and a greasy psychopath.
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