I got into Halloween a little on the late side—my mother was in a fundamentalist phase when I was little—but I love it. When we began engaging with the holiday at all, our first family tradition was to watch Apollo 13 every Halloween, and honestly, that’s a fine investment. But, if you’re at loose ends tomorrow and looking for something new and strange to whet your media-consuming whistle, here is my countdown to awesome for spooky entertainment.
13. Death’s Dream Kingdom
Getting the vanity out of the way, there’s my first book! This is a seriously overwritten Victorian gothic novel, about a young Catholic gentlewoman of London who is turned into a vampire by a fraudulent spiritualist. She must navigate the dangerous hidden world of the local undead, in which a civil war is brewing, until she discovers that there may be a way to reverse her transformation.
12. The Devil Rides Out
A 1968 Hammer horror, this is a solid entry in the so-bad-it’s-good catalogue. A young woman, and the man who loves her, are in the clutches of a Satanic cult that the Duc de Richleau must foil. Christopher Lee sticks out like a solemn sore thumb as the only person present who doesn’t know that this movie is terrible and is, accordingly, making an effort to act, which makes the total lack of conviction on the part of every other actor even funnier. The special effects are terrible, the plot is cookie-cutter and low-to-no stakes. Truth be told, it’s so unconvincing that it’s actually relaxing to watch it, because it doesn’t make any pretense for an instant that you’ll accept anything that’s happening.
11. Welcome to Night Vale
Pivoting from the awful to the magnificent, this is a podcast I fell in love with a few years ago (in fact the first podcast I ever listened to). Cecil Palmer is your host on this exploration of a small town with a lot of big secrets, run by hooded figures and haunted by malevolent presences. It’s a wonderful mixture of weird, satirical humor with genuine Lovecraftian horror, delivered in the medium of a placid public radio show. Monsters, conspiracies, the screaming nothingness of the void of space that surrounds us all, and romance, all in twenty-to-thirty minute segments. Go here for a brief sample.
More weird fantasy than straight horror (but with a kind of Roald Dahl ethos that embraces the horror aspects of fantasy), Coraline is a stop-motion film based on a Neil Gaiman novel. The title character, having just moved, discovers a portal to a mirror version of her house that is far more exciting and affectionate; but where for some reason everyone has buttons instead of eyes. Like The Babadook below, it plays on childhood fears and desires to make something genuinely creepy and brilliant—a little like if The Nightmare Before Christmas were a bit more artistically mature.
This is a fairly conventional slasher film, structurally speaking, with the innovative tweak of a deaf protagonist who turns her deafness to her advantage. An author, living alone in a fairly isolated house, is targeted by a serial killer who discovers her, and a game of cat-and-mouse ensues. It doesn’t revolutionize the genre by any means, but it’s a well-acted, well-made example of the genre, and it is seriously scary.
8. Man In the Window
In a stylistically similar vein, this one is a true crime podcast. The infamous Golden State Killer committed at least thirteen murders, fifty rapes, and over a hundred burglaries in the ’70s and ’80s, engaging in crime sprees that earned him local nicknames like the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker, before his crimes were connected. Man In the Window is about the course of the case and the life story of the principal suspect, Joseph DeAngelo, who was charged with being the Golden State Killer last year.
This is a hot mess of a film, and I kind of love it? It’s flawed in a Donnie Darko sort of way: it does not work at all, but you can absolutely see what they were going for, and it even has a few perfect moments. A gay college professor has to return to his homophobic and strongly religious childhood home, a fishing town, for his mother’s funeral, and things get weirder from there. The cast is mostly small- or no-name actors, except for some reason Tori Spelling is here, which, uh, okay; the plot is very vaguely drawn from H. P. Lovecraft’s short story The Shadow Over Innsmouth (one of his better stories in my opinion). The plot’s a mess and the script is poor to middling, but there are a couple of scenes—particularly a love scene near the middle (caution: butt stuff)—that are honestly really perfect and human.
This is a classic not only of early horror, but of early film in general, released in 1922. Loosely based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this was the first vampire movie, and first codified tropes that persist to this day, like vampires being unable to endure sunlight (a weakness unknown in earlier legends). Max Schreck’s performance as the vampire Count Orlok is still eerie, even to one familiar with modern special effects, and despite some odd choices, the film still works today. Give it a try.
5. The Invitation
A man and his girlfriend, along with some other old and new friends are invited to a fancy dinner given by his ex-wife and her new husband. Things get increasingly creepy as the couple and new friends share about a movement they’ve become involved in. This movie was really disturbing and brilliant to me; maybe it’s because I grew up in the midst of things like Waco and Heaven’s Gate, I don’t know, but this is a seriously excellent film. The acting and directing are superb, and the way it studies grief—in this case, the peculiar grief of losing a child—is amazing. This is in my top five horror favorites, and maybe in my top ten movie favorites.
4. American Horror Story: Cult
I have a mixed relationship to American Horror Story; some seasons set me on fire, others bore me to tears. Cult, Season 7, set me on fire. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, a Michigan woman with several debilitating phobias begins being terrorized by clowns that, apparently, only she can see; as the story unravels, a political (and increasingly religious) cult centered around a charismatic, unhinged young man is revealed, with ties to older movements and still-active figures. Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters quite honestly deserve every academy award forever, and the story does a particularly outstanding job of showing you both how every character got to where they are by completely understandable steps, without ever once forgetting that where they are is depraved and homicidal insanity. 11/10.
3. The Babadook
I am delighted that this movie got the recognition it did practically from its debut. A widowed mother and her son are persecuted by a storybook monster, the eponymous Babadook, and become increasingly terrified of it and of each other. A near-unknown director, practically anonymous actors, understated cinematography, and a childlike premise (one that strongly evokes much of Eve Tushnet’s talk on “The Humiliation of Authority in Horror Films” at 2017’s Doxacon) all contribute to this film’s sorcerous effectiveness. This is one of the best, and indeed only, examples of really effective allegory I’ve seen in recent years—not to be confused with coding or roman à clef.
2. The VVitch
Overstatement is the good critic’s nemesis. That said, this may be my favorite horror film of all time. I think some people were thrown by the fact that, in terms of structure, it’s more like tragedy than horror—which is exactly appropriate, given the depicted culture’s understanding of what the devil is and what his intentions and methods are. The performances are unimpeachable, the script and directing are superb (and land the period intention that director Robert Eggers expressed so beautifully), and, pardon the wordplay, it’s a damn good story.
1. Gravity Falls
I love this show. I cannot say that enough. It’s like if Adventure Time and Twin Peaks had a baby, or if Disney produced a kids’ version of The X Files. Twin 12-year-olds Dipper and Mabel spend a summer with their great-uncle Stan, who runs a tourist trap in a small Oregon town; but the region is soon revealed to be crawling with authentic paranormal weirdness. The script is really funny, the voice acting is great (early Justin Roiland makes a cameo!), the characters are endearing, the universe is delightful and weird, and there are genuinely creepy and mysterious plots with a cohesion you rarely see in cartoons. If you watch/listen to/read only one thing on this list, make it Gravity Falls.