The spooky season is once again upon us—my favorite time of year—so I thought I’d share a few horror-movie recommendations. Despite my curmudgeonly assertion this past spring that I don’t enjoy movies anymore, each suggestion below gives lie to that.
In compiling this selection, I tried to choose A) relatively recent movies, from the last few years, that B) you’ve likely never heard of, hence the reason worthy entries like Get Out, Split, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Conjuring, and The Witch didn’t make the cut.
What all of the following lacked in budget they more than compensate for in creativity; they remind me of what I found so exciting about filmmaking in my youth, before corporations controlled all of our popular entertainments, and Hollywood was ushered into our ignominious Era of the Endless Reboot.
As always, I’ve included each movie’s Save the Cat! genre classification.
It Follows (2014)
Genre: Monster in the House (“Supra-natural Monster”)
This one you may have already heard of (it isn’t quite as obscure as some of the titles to come), but I had to include it for the simple reason that it’s the most terrifying horror film I’ve seen since I was a kid.
After a one-night stand, a college student finds herself afflicted with the mother of all STDs: an invincible supernatural entity (which can shapeshift to appear as anyone: an old woman, a middle-aged man, etc.) that follows her ploddingly but relentlessly—night and day, wherever she goes, however far she runs—and will kill her upon catching her. The only way to rid herself of the demonic fiend? Pass on the “curse” by sleeping with another person! Of course, if the wraith kills that unlucky fool, it reverses course to work its way back up the vectorial chain—meaning there’s no way to permanently outrun the malignant spirit pursuing you!
Just like an STD, It Follows leaves a stinging sensation you just can’t seem to shake once exposed. (I’m actually looking over my shoulder as I type this at 12:45 in the afternoon.)
Don’t Breathe (2016)
Genre: Monster in the House (“Domestic Monster”)
In a Detroit ghetto during the middle of the night, three young thieves break into the home of a blind Special Forces veteran sitting on $300,000 in cash—settlement money from his daughter’s death in a car accident—figuring it’ll be an easy, in-and-out score. But the vet proves more formidable then they’d anticipated, and a harrowing game of cat-and-mouse ensues in the darkened nooks and crannies of the house—which the blind man navigates with considerably greater ease than the burglars!
Don’t Breathe is a nail-biting thriller that pulls off a feat I’ve never seen in any other movie: an entire set-piece in which all the characters grope blindly through a pitch-black basement, devoid of any light whatsoever. How does the director keep his characters in the dark without doing the same to his audience? You’ll just have to watch it to find out.
The Boy (2016)
Genre: Monster in the House (“Nihilist Monster”)
Lauren Cohan (The Walking Dead) plays an American woman who flees her abusive ex-boyfriend by taking a nannying job on a gloomy estate in the British countryside. The rub? The parents are an elderly couple—huh?—and their eight-year-old “son,” Brahms, is a life-sized porcelain doll who they seem to wholeheartedly believe is a real boy. Cohan goes along with the charade; it seems benign enough, after all. But when they leave her alone to care for Brahms while away on a trip, along with a list of inviolable rules she promptly ignores (‘cause what’s the point in catering to an inanimate object?), she learns from a local grocer that the real Brahms died in a fire on the property over twenty years earlier, and soon comes to suspect the dead boy’s spirit has possessed the doll, which has an unnerving habit of appearing in places other than where she last left it.
Every time I thought I knew where the plot was going, it took an unexpected turn. This film will give you a skin-crawling case of the willies—on a PG-13 rating, no less! As far as creepy-doll movies go, The Boy is a far more effective and satisfying chiller overall than Annabelle (2014), which got a much wider audience on account of its position in The Conjuring franchise; watch this one instead.
Bone Tomahawk (2015)
Genre: Monster in the House (“Pure Monster”)
Here’s an example of a popular literary genre that is woefully underrepresented cinematically: the “weird Western.” In the 1890s, a one-horse town is terrorized by a clan of cannibalistic savages that dwells in caves along the outskirts, and the sheriff (Kurt Russell) assembles a posse (Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox) to rescue a small group of locals that have been kidnapped by the barbarous troglodytes. Bone Tomahawk had about one percent of the budget afforded to the recent Magnificent Seven remake ($1.8 million versus $107 million per Wikipedia), but it also has the characterization, tension, and originality all of Mag7’s money couldn’t buy. It also has the great Kurt Russell!
As big a movie star as Russell has been for the past forty years, one can’t help but wonder if he would’ve been bigger still in the heyday of the Hollywood Western: Some of his best work, including Bone Tomahawk, Tombstone (a classic that only improves with age), and The Hateful Eight (which, admittedly, is more interesting than it is good), have been Westerns, and many of the genre-bending films he made with John Carpenter—Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China, Escape from L.A.—are merely Westerns in disguise (you can see shades of Clint Eastwood in Snake Plissken, and his performance in Big Trouble owes a huge debt to John Wayne). Russell has always had a great eye for material that transcends its B-movie ambitions and budgetary limitations, and his presence—he’s one of our great, underrated leading men—elevates every project to which he contributes; Bone Tomahawk is simply the latest in his reliable oeuvre.
A horror anthology (hence the exclusion of a Save the Cat! genre classification) perfectly summarized by its preexisting logline on Rotten Tomatoes: “On a desolate stretch of desert highway, weary travelers—two men on the run from their past, a band on their way to the next gig, a man struggling to get home, a brother in search of his long-lost sister, and a family on vacation—are forced to confront their worst fears and darkest secrets in these interwoven tales of terror and remorse on the open road.”
Several filmmakers contributed to Southbound, but the overall result is cohesive and creative—and there is a narrative through-line that runs through all the vignettes. And when the story comes full circle at the climax, you’ll feel compelled to watch the movie again to better appreciate the meticulous method at work behind its patchwork madness.
Genre: Buddy Love (“Forbidden Love”)
A young American man, grieving the recent loss of his mother, takes off for the Italian coast to escape his troubles, and soon falls in love with an enigmatic woman harboring a monstrous secret. To say any more about the story would be to spoil the surprises in store.
Structurally, Spring bears much in common with its subgenre brethren Twilight (also “Forbidden Love”), but this supernatural love story is handled with the maturity, thematic depth, and emotional complexity so lacking in Edward and Bella’s juvenile romance; Spring understands the painful truth Twilight could never—over five movies!—find the courage to confront: that true love requires sacrifice.
What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
Genre: Institutionalized (“Family Institution”)
If Spinal Tap’s Christopher Guest directed an adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, it would surely look like this comedy about a coven of centuries-old vampires in Wellington grappling with the complexities of modern existence.
In our reality-TV culture, the mockumentary format has grown tiresome and subject to misuse by filmmakers that don’t understand its very particular “rules” (here’s looking at you, Parks and Recreation and Modern Family), but Shadows is a truly clever sendup of the conventions of both the docucomedy and Gothic horror. It’s mostly just funny—gut-bustingly so—but manages to spring a few scares, too.
The Love Witch (2016)
Genre: Superhero (“Fantasy Superhero”)
Once in a generation a movie like this comes along—one with a look and feel like no other. Elaine is a present-day witch, simply looking for love, who casts a literal spell over every man she meets, one so effective it leaves a trail of broken hearts—and dead bodies, natch—everywhere she goes. Director Anna Biller’s glorious Technicolor tribute to sixties genre cinema—from Hitchcock to Hammer to sexploitation schlock—is about the irreconcilable expectations men and women bring to romantic relationships.
The last movie I saw this aesthetically unique was Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula—another “Fantasy Superhero” entry that invoked the cinematic stylistics of a bygone era—exactly a quarter century ago. This is hands-down one of my favorite films of the last decade, easily, but fair warning: It is not for all tastes. It’s weird and it’s wonderful—as thought-provoking as it is visually arresting.
Here’s hoping one or more of the above help make your Halloween a happy one! If you take the time to watch any of these movies, be sure to come on back and let me know what you thought of them. Pleasant nightmares!