Halloween is a day for doling out miniature candy bars, dressing up like Donald Trump or Daenerys Targaryen, and watching scary movies. But what kind of scary? Even bad horror movies offer moments that can make you jump out of your skin, like the renowned hospital scene from the otherwise dire Exorcist III. But truly great horror movies are after something grander. They want to get under your skin and stay there.
Of course, everybody knows Psycho, The Exorcist, and The Shining. So here are 11 spooky movies that you may not know. Not all of them will have you shrieking in fear, but they are sure to give you the heebie-jeebies.
The early 1930s produced classic horror pictures like the original Frankenstein with Boris Karloff and Dracula with Bela Lugosi, but none packs the wallop of Tod Browning’s story about a scheming trapeze artist who marries a prosperous sideshow midget in order to get his money. Her greed brings down the wrath of his colleagues, played by genuine so-called freaks—carny performers with real deformities. While the movie’s original ending (castration, melted flesh) was replaced by a milder one, Browning’s film remains a one-of-a-kind experience—by turns disturbing, terrifying, sensationalistic.
Eyes Without a Face (1960)
Talk about a killer premise. In this French classic, a crazed plastic surgeon begins grabbing women—and removing their faces in an attempt to graft them onto his daughter, who’s been disfigured in an accident. While this may sound grisly as the dickens, director Georges Franju infuses the spookiness with a strange, haunting poetry that lingers in the mind. More eerie than scary, this movie went on to inspire everything from a Billy Idol pop hit to the psycho killer’s mask in Halloween.
The Birds (1963)
Yes, Psycho makes you scream louder, but Alfred Hitchcock taps into a deeper current of anxiety in this story about a socialite (Tippi Hedren) whose delivery of lovebirds to a handsome lawyer (Rod Taylor) appears to unleash a series of malevolent, insanely violent bird attacks around Bodega Bay, California. Taut with suspense and surprisingly grisly, this endlessly interpretable film (based on a story by Daphne du Maurier) changes the way you see the world. Just as nobody has entered a shower in the same way since the Bates Motel, you’ll never look at birds grouping on a wire in the same way again.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
Here is one horror classic that lives up to the atmosphere of dread it creates. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie play a married couple who, after the death of their young daughter, travel to Venice; thanks to various psychics and sightings, they come to believe that their daughter is trying to contact them. Directed with amazing virtuosity by Nicolas Roeg—who skips between past, present, and future, between horrifying death and a legendary sex scene—the film not only evokes an incomparably sinister Venice but, in its teasing image of the girl in the red coat, offers one of the most unsettling images in modern movies.
The Tenant (1976)
You can’t think scary without thinking Roman Polanski, whose demonic Rosemary’s Baby is a well-visited landmark and whose psycho-slasher movie, Repulsion, still scares the heck out of me. Still, his most frightening film is probably this one. Polanski himself stars as Trelkovsky, who rents a room in a glum Paris apartment whose previous owner flung herself out the window. Surrounded by hostile neighbors and “clues” about his predecessor’s death, he begins to fall apart. Moving from black comedy to gotcha shock, this is one of the definitive movies about big-city paranoia and how it messes with your mind.
The Last Wave (1977)
What seagulls are to The Birds, freaky rainstorms are to this terrific Australian movie—proof the world is out of joint. Richard Chamberlain stars as a Sydney attorney who’s hired to defend a group of indigenous men (then called “Aborigines”) in a murder case. Soon, as if entering into one of the suspect’s dreamtime, he begins to have weird, terrifying premonitions of the apocalypse. Director Peter Weir has always been masterful at creating powerful moods, and this unfairly forgotten horror-thriller recalls The Shining and Poltergeist in its hints of cosmic retribution.
Although Andrzej Zulawski’s film is hard to classify—is it a marital drama, a psychodrama, a monster movie?—the one undeniable thing is that it’s scary. Set near the Berlin Wall, it stars Sam Neill as a spy who returns from a mission to discover that his wife (Isabelle Adjani, ravishing) wants a divorce. Sounds simple, right? But that’s before things start to go berserkers: You’ve got your blood, your sex, your doppelgängers, your mysterious creatures—all of which are played in a note of high hysteria. Hard to get your hands on, but a real cult classic.
Near Dark (1987)
Two decades before she won the Oscar for The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow announced her brilliance with this beautiful thriller about a gorgeous farm boy (Adrian Pasdar) who falls in love with a drifter (Jenny Wright) and gets pulled into the circle of a group of marauding vampires. At once lullingly romantic and unabashedly disturbing—the gang’s raid on a honky-tonk is ghastly and riveting—this is something rare: a genuinely original vampire movie.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s terrific thriller starts out like a conventional cop movie: A detective (the great Kôji Yakusho) is investigating who’s killing people and cutting a big X into their bodies. But it quickly becomes clear there’s nothing conventional about these murders or about the astonishingly creepy villain (Masato Hagiwara), who may be the limpest bad guy in movie history. No gaudy showman like Hannibal Lecter or Freddie Krueger, he’s something scarier—a man whose very passivity suggests a new, incomprehensible, and perhaps unbeatable form of evil.
Lost Highway (1997)
“Getting lost is beautiful,” David Lynch once told me. He might have added that it can also be scary. He’s never had a hero more lost than in this noirish head trip about a musician (Bill Pullman) who’s convicted of killing his wife (Patricia Arquette), and then, in prison, morphs into somebody else altogether (Balthazar Getty). Unfolding like a dark and uneasy dream—there’s aggressive music by Trent Reznor, a literally dazzling sex scene, a prevailing atmosphere of confusion and menace—the movie also contains perhaps the scariest figure in all of Lynch’s work: the pale, eyebrow-less Mystery Man, played by Robert Blake in his last performance before being arrested for (and acquitted of) murdering his wife.
A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
Derived from a Korean folktale, Kim Jee-woon’s beautifully turned gothic yarn is about two teenage girls—one bold, one silent—who return home from a mental institution to discover that home’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Their dead mother has been replaced by an overbearing stepmother who’s involved in a weird psychological war with their dad. Toss in some spooky dreams, visions, and memories (repressed and otherwise) and their house is a psychological pressure cooker. You just know bad things are going to happen.
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