Illustration by Ben Beechener
It’s October. The weather is getting colder, leaves are falling, and that can only mean one thing. Halloween season has officially arrived. For lovers of all things spooky, October is the perfect time of year to settle down with your favourite snacks (appropriately Halloween-themed, of course) in front of some seasonal film and tv.
For some, that means hunkering down with a horror film, turning out all the lights, and scaring yourself silly. There’s just something about hiding behind a pillow or peeking out between your fingers that is so satisfying. For others, an appreciation for the aesthetics of horror and darkness clashes with a very low threshold for actual scares. It’s a terrible struggle.
If you recognise the feeling of desperately wanting to get into the Halloween spirit, but finding that all the jump-scares, violence and tension of most horror just leaves you sleepless and terrified, then fear no more. We’re here to cater to the interests of both ends of the spectrum, from those who want to jump out of their seats, to those who’d rather stay firmly in them and have an early night.
Zahra’s Scare-Your-Socks-Off Recommendations:
The Nun (2018)
If you want a film that will keep you up at night, peering into the shadows of your room for movement, and wondering just what was that noise, then look no further. The fifth addition to The Conjuring Universe franchise, The Nun is the spin-off and prequel to The Conjuring 2. Though the film sees the return of the “Demonic Nun” from the latter, novices to franchises need not catch up, unless you don’t want to sleep for a week… Set in 1952, a Catholic priest and nun are sent by the Vatican to investigate a series of sinister and unexplained attacks at Saint Cartha’s monastery. Safe to say that they uncover an unholy secret or two – a sequel is in the works!
In addition to being the highest-grossing film of the franchise, it also has some deliciously horrifying fun facts. For one, during filming in Bucharest, Romania, the set was actually blessed by an Eastern Orthodox priest. Plus, if you’ve seen the rest of The Conjuring Universe, then you might notice a resemblance between Lorraine Warren and Sister Irene, who are played by real life sisters Vera and Taissa Farmiga. Neither are strangers to horror; recognise Vera from Bates Motel (2013-2017) as Mrs Bates, the excellent prequel television show to Psycho (1960), and Taissa from American Horror Story (2011-present) memorably playing, among other characters, Violet Harmon (Murder House).
Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013)
The sequel to the quite scary Insidious (2010), Chapter 2 picks right up from the murder of demonologist Elise Rainier at end of the last film (more spoilers ahead, sorry). Although Dalton Lambert has been rescued from The Further (and that red-faced demon) by his father Josh, it quickly becomes clear that Josh has not returned alone… Unravelling the mystery of the paranormal events which have plagued Josh since childhood, this is a very scary sequel which doesn’t disappoint. Not one to be watched alone.
The Insidious franchise is made up of four instalments to-date; in addition to the above, there are two prequels, Chapter 3 (2015) and The Last Key (2018). Both of these dig deeper into Elaine’s life right up to the moment when she gets the call to help Dalton Lambert in Insidious. All are worth a watch, but if you’re looking for just scares then stick to Chapter 2. If you like your horror with some heart, then you can’t miss The Last Key.
Shudder (available through Amazon Prime)
The Final Girls (2015)
Strictly speaking a horror-comedy, The Final Girls is the self-conscious slasher movie that you never knew you needed to watch. Featuring scream-queen Taissa Farmiga as lead character Max, this is a horror movie with a twist. While lamenting her notoriety as Nancy in the 1986 cult-classic slasher Camp Bloodbath, Max’s mother, actress Amanda, is killed in a car crash. Three years later, on the anniversary of her mother’s death, a fire breaks out at a screening of Camp Bloodbath. Slicing through the cinema screen to escape the blaze, Max and her friends find themselves inside the film. Max must reckon with her mother/Nancy, a serial killer on the loose, and an escape from the film itself – will they all make it out alive?
While slasher movies aren’t exactly scary, if you’re squeamish like me then this will definitely have you hiding behind a cushion. If you liked Netflix’s decidedly creepier Fear Street Trilogy (2021), then you’ll love this. If, after those, you still haven’t had your fill of teen slasher flicks, let me also introduce Scream the TV show (2015-19), based on the film series of the same name. Ignore the third rebooted season, and just binge the first two! Not only are they genuinely very good, but they’ll also have you guessing the identity of the Lakewood Slasher all the way through.
28 Weeks Later (2007)
The scariest film of all my picks, this post-apocalyptic horror genuinely gave me nightmares. That is, perhaps, something to do with me watching it at a much younger age but, regardless, I haven’t had the willpower to re-watch it. The sequel to 28 Days Later (2002), which followed the spread of the Rage Virus, 28 Weeks Later has an all-star cast (Robert Carlyle, Rose Byrne, Jeremy Renner, Idris Elba) playing out the long-term consequences of a pandemic (imagine that?). Unlike the recent pandemic, the one in the film has zombies. Lots of zombies. Robert Carlyle as a zombie, what an image. This is a tense and dramatic watch which will make you jump. If you do give it a watch, let me know if it’s as scary as I remember.
Imogen’s Horrific-But-Harmless Recommendations:
Old black and white films may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for the fear-averse, the classic horror films of Universal Studios provide the perfect level of spook-tacular entertainment, while also remaining charmingly quaint when it comes to actual scares. While many are worth a watch, Frankenstein is rightly one of the most famous. Although not exactly a faithful adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel, this film introduced many iconic elements of the horror genre, from Colin Clive’s hubristic doctor crying ‘It’s alive!’ to the groans of Boris Karloff’s melancholy creature.
You could pair it with the sequel, Bride of Frankenstein (1935), which is arguably even better (it includes tiny people in bottles, and Elsa Lanchester’s bride seemingly going without blinking for her entire screen-time). If you’re in the mood for something more comic, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974) is a lovingly-made parody which retains the spooky atmosphere of the original films (even using the same scientific equipment) while expanding their camp silliness into out-and-out comedy.
Available to rent on Amazon Prime.
Cat People (1942)
This is another black and white film, although a very different one to Frankenstein. If you like noir-ish lighting, beautiful 1940s outfits, an atmospheric dark romance, and well… cats, then this is the film for you. The story follows the meeting of Irena (Simone Simon), a young Serbian woman living in the US, and Oliver (Kent Smith), a deeply ordinary American man who initially takes a shine to Irena’s quirks. Without spoiling too much, the relationship quickly goes south, as we grow to realise that there’s more to the sweet yet tortured Irena than meets the eye.
The central ‘normal’ characters, Oliver and his sensible hat-wearing colleague Alice (Jane Randolph), might have been intended as the heroes when this film was made. But it’s Irena’s story. She’s tormented by a darkness inside her, which her bland husband Oliver fails to understand. As her character shifts across the film, we see how a woman alienated and othered by those closest to her falls down a path of vengeance. And if that’s not enough to convince you, Cat People also invented the jump scare. It’s got plenty of tension, but never crosses the line into actual scariness, and even involves some special effects which will make you laugh rather than scream (for instance, shooting a very obviously small black cat in close up to pass it off as a panther).
Addams Family Values (1993)
1991’s The Addams Family is a delightful film, but it was easily surpassed by this wonderfully dark yet hilarious sequel. Addams Family Values picks up not long after the first film left off, introducing a new member to the macabre clan, the moustachioed infant Pubert. What follows is a madcap adventure as Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd) falls for the charming yet manipulative new nanny, Debbie (Joan Cusack, in one of my favourite film performances of all time). Meanwhile, the elder children, Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman), are packed off to summer camp, clashing delightfully with overly perky fellow camper, Amanda (Mercedes McNab).
The Addams Family films work because they take all the visuals and themes of horror, and apply them to a family who, in their own unconventional way, love each other very much. Gomez (Raul Julia) and Morticia (Anjelica Huston)’s romance may be based in nightmares and torture, but they also have a much healthier, more loving relationship than their conformist bickering neighbours. The children spend their free time creatively coming up with ways to kill each other, but their rejection of normal society also leads them to rebel against their tyrannical, sinisterly-smiling summer camp counsellors. The offbeat, spooky humour of this film makes it ideal Halloween viewing, and reminds us that sometimes we should all be a little more Addams.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
There are many delightfully spooky TV shows which make for excellent Halloween viewing, but for me, Buffy, with its blend of horror, fantasy, comedy, teen drama, and late 1990s fashion, fits the bill perfectly. Since the show ran for 7 seasons and shifted tonally a great deal over its time on air, there are a wide variety of episodes to choose from, depending on taste. Three episodes are actually set on Halloween, of which Season 2’s Halloween (in which our heroes are cursed to turn into their Halloween costumes), and Season 4’s Fear Itself (featuring haunted house party decorations that come to life) are both worth a watch. If you’re looking for something a little scarier, but still perfectly manageable for the horror-averse, episodes like Killed by Death (a shameless Nightmare on Elm Street rip-off), Helpless (in which our heroine battles a serial-killer-turned-vampire) and Hush (an almost entirely silent episode featuring the freakiest villains ever to appear on the show) will provide plenty of scares in a reasonable 42 minute bite (no pun intended).
Although this film was marketed as family-friendly entertainment, Coraline is probably the scariest movie on this part of the list. It’s also Zahra’s favourite film, which tells you a lot about her. When I saw a trailer for it as a young child, the button-eyed creepiness of the ‘Other Mother’ gave me nightmares. But it’s also a wonderful, strange visual feast, with beautifully unsettling stop-frame animation taking us into the drab world of blue-haired Coraline (Dakota Fanning), who just wants her parents to pay attention to her. Her wish is granted when she finds a mysterious door in the wall of her new house, which leads to a colourful mirror-world where the food is delicious, the garden is a wonderland, and the mice dance and play instruments. But all is not as it seems, and this mirror world very quickly becomes a nightmare. Coraline may be designed for children, but will still give grown-ups the creep factor, making it ideal for placating your more fear-loving friends. The curiosity and tenacity of the lead character, alongside the impressive visuals, make this a film to come back to. Although if you’ve already got a fear of buttons and sewing equipment, this might be best avoided.
Available to rent on Amazon Prime
We began writing this article by asking ourselves, ‘Do you like scary movies?’. Between vampires, other mothers, zombies, demons, and ghosts, I’m sure you’ll agree that we’ve catered to everyone’s tastes. Whether in spooky-season or out of it, these carefully curated films and tv shows are sure to give you a scare, or not, if you prefer. We hope you enjoy watching them as much as we did. Happy Halloween (month)!