6 New Horror Classics for Your Halloween

by Kevin on October 7, 2011

This month I’m dedicating my column to talking horror movies, from the classics to the modern era. I’ve always been a horror fan, but I’ve noticed a shift in the genre over the years to include torture porn (the Saw movies, Captivity), awkward scares (The Grudge, The Haunting in Connecticut), remakes of horror classics (Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street), and nonsensical gross-outs (The Human Centipede). While none of this is new in horror or entirely unwelcome — the first Saw is great, and The Grudge is exceptionally terrifying — too many horror movies are ignoring what makes the genre fun and truly special.

So, I wanted to put together a list of some of the recent horror and horror-related movies that I plan to watch this Halloween season. I’m sure I’m missing quite a few, as seeing new horror hasn’t exactly been my priority, so please let me know in the comments what I should be checking out. That’s why I’m posting this list so early in the month: I definitely want to include as many as possible.

Trick ‘r Treat (2007)

Taking cues from “classic” horror anthology films such as Creepshow and Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, Trick ’r Treat is an indulgent collection of loosely-stitched segments with vampires, werewolves, ghosts, psycho slashers, and a spooky little Halloween creature named Sam. Somewhere between cute and terrifying, Sam shows up on Halloween to make sure the people he encounters are adhering to Halloween traditions, such as giving out candy to trick-or-treaters and respecting the jack-o’-lantern. He also fucks with Brian Cox a lot.

What I love about Trick ’r Treat is how much reverence it shows not only the horror genre but Halloween itself. A lot of great films, including the original Halloween, make the holiday the focal point of the plot, but few imbue the day itself with supernatural power over its central characters. Trick ’r Treat plays like a movie genuinely thrilled simply to exist, especially considering how many delays it faced in getting a theatrical release, only to finally appear straight-to-DVD a year or so later.

Halloween in our culture today is more about having fun than being scared, and the best horror has fun with the ways it scares you. Trick ’r Treat has plenty of fun scaring you, and while it falls short in a lot of areas, it’s one of my favorites for the way it isn’t afraid to laugh right along with you — after making you jump out of your seat.

Paranormal Activity (2007) / Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)

I almost didn’t include the Paranormal Activity movies because of their ubiquity, but I had so much fun watching the original last year with my wife while pumpkin carving (she still hasn’t forgiven me, by the way) that I had to give them a nod. Movies like PA/PA2 and The Blair Witch Project have shown that there’s a lot of potential in the “found footage” genre: in the right hands, these movies can be incredibly immersive and enjoyable, and can provide a fun and frightening perspective on a familiar story.

Movies about hauntings are commonplace, as studios tend to release several a year even in the middle of summer. Paranormal Activity came out of the gate with a story of a fairly straightforward haunting of the “it’s-not-the-house-it’s-the-person” variety and presented it in a whole new way. This is to say nothing of the genius marketing push to promote the movie, which showed people watching the movie and jumping out of their seats with screams of fright. The whole thing gave the movie an air of authenticity and appealed to our desire to see something different, instead of the same old big studio polished product (no matter how manufactured that authenticity actually is).

Of course Paranormal Activity 3 is out this month, so we’ll see how it stacks up to the other two soon…

Let the Right One In (2008)

The horror genre seems especially guilty of failing to adhere to the “less is more” approach to storytelling, assuming that movies should be excessively graphic in order to scare you. Too often for me the result is disgust, not fear, which is why Let the Right One In deserves a spot on this list and might be one of my favorite horror films of all time.

This minimalist Swedish vampire film tells the story of Oskar, a lonely boy constantly bullied at school, who meets his mysterious new neighbor, 12-year-old Eli. Naturally, Eli is a vampire, and as the children’s friendship develops, Eli’s home life and ability to sustain herself is thrown into jeopardy. Even the finale, which I admit was expected pretty much from the beginning, is shot in such a remarkably clever way that I completely forgave any possible contrivances. Plus, the cat-throwing scene is pretty hilarious.

Let the Right One In’s style is impressive, and the bleak, wintry backdrop perfectly sets the mood as our characters become increasingly desperate. If subtitles aren’t your thing, the English remake, Let Me In, is an adequate substitution, with most scenes being fairly straight-forward pickups and very few major changes. The cinematography on the ending, however, doesn’t quite match up, and a few of the relationships, including the one between the lead and his father, is problematic. Either way, you’ll get the important stuff.

Coraline (2009)

While I appreciate that Coraline isn’t especially a “horror” movie, it has a genuine creepiness that makes it perfect Halloween viewing. Coraline is a beautiful stop-motion movie from Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach) that tells the story of a girl who dreams of another world and discovers one, only to find that it might not be as wonderful as it seems. Ghosts and giant spiders are abundant, not to mention that people with button eyes are pretty goddamn freaky. Horror fans should find a lot to like in Coraline, and it makes a more light-hearted addition to this list.

What surprised me the most about Coraline, which is based on a short book by Neil Gaiman that I hadn’t read until after I saw it, is how actually scary it is. Not so scary that I’m going to have nightmares, but significantly scarier than the movie I was expecting, which was more like The Nightmare Before Christmas. I’d be reluctant to call this a “kids’ movie,” at least where younger kids are concerned. But Coraline has a healthy appreciation for the creepy, Gothic aesthetic that I think works well among some of the darker movies you’re likely to watch this season.

Drag Me to Hell (2009)

Connoisseur of quirky horror Sam Raimi’s demented, occasionally hilarious return to all things scary, Drag Me to Hell, did not disappoint. Essentially a straight-forward morality play, Raimi pulls no punches in teaching us a valuable lesson about greed, compassion, and not pissing off gypsies. Fans of Raimi’s canonical Evil Dead films should appreciate the extended gross-out scenes and attention to detail, and the gypsy character might be my favorite of Raimi’s since the “Swallow Your Soul!” demon from Evil Dead II.

My only complaint about Drag Me to Hell would be the casting: Alison Lohman didn’t carry the film as well as I think another stronger actress might have, especially when a movie is this physical, but she’s cute so I guess that’s what counts here. And Justin Long? Let’s just say I’m not exactly a member of the Justin Long fan club (if such a thing even exists). But the characters are secondary: that could have been any young couple with their whole lives ahead of them, and that’s exactly the point. Drag Me to Hell shows us that we’re all a gypsy’s curse away from being, well, dragged to Hell.

The House of the Devil (2009)

Ti West’s exercise in style and homage to the horror movies of the early 80s boasts a painstakingly handcrafted aesthetic that comes off as simultaneously pretentious and endearing. Shot on 16mm film and set during a lunar eclipse for that oh-so-spooky nighttime vibe, The House of the Devil is diabolically suspenseful and uses its clichéd premise (baby-sitter in a creepy house, unseen evil in the upstairs bedroom) to set a very specific, very creepy mood.

Some of the details (the old Coke label, the struggle to reach something in another room when your phone is plugged into the wall) are obviously winking at us, but the true measure of success is the tone. Yes, it “looks” like it was made in 1983, and the soundtrack and titles are blissfully appropriate, but for a 90-minute film, The House of the Devil takes its time. We know right away something is amiss, but the movie reminds me more of John Carpenter’s Halloween or The Amityville Horror in the way that our hero becomes aware of the danger only after the audience does. While that sounds like textbook horror, it’s worth noting how few movies these days actually let suspense do the work, rather than throwing our hero in danger in the first act and watching scare after scare until we’re yawning.

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