Happy Halloween! With most of the country still predominately shut down, it’s likely that costume parties and trick-or-treating will not be available for most this year. This means that one major Halloween tradition will be more important than ever: scary movies. While there is a plethora of traditional monster, slasher, and gore films to fill out the season, what about options for those less interested in traditional genre offerings?
Do you like to laugh while being scared? If so, horror-comedy is a great way to allow humor to diffuse the tension. This is a hard balance to strike, due to the polarity of laughter and fear, but when done right, films can scare and amuse in the same scene. This is especially effective when handled with a self-aware edge.
Horror-comedy sounds like a bit of an oxymoron. One genre is intended to terrify, the other to make you laugh. The relative extremes of both, however, can combine beautifully to make films that are equal parts frightening and hilarious. Some of my favorite horror movies have had comedic edges while still bringing legitimate scares. It’s a tough tonal balance, but these films achieve it beautifully.
It would have been so easy for “Jennifer’s Body” to be phoned in and boring, another paint-by-numbers flick about a man-eating demonic cheerleader. That’s exactly what audiences and critics viewed it as when it first came out, boasting a tragic 45 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. In recent years, however, it has gained cult status, and deservedly so. Diablo Cody, fresh off winning an Oscar for “Juno,” penned a script that is filled to the brim with quips and fun characters, and Megan Fox delivers the only good performance of her career thus far.
While the first “Evil Dead” film has a charming, campy quality, it’s a disturbing straight horror. The closer of the trilogy, “Army of Darkness,” is more of a fantasy action-comedy. The middle entry, “Evil Dead II,” is the perfect example of how horror-comedy can excel in both genres. Bruce Campbell stars as the arrogant, selfish, charming everyman who must face the demon versions of his friends after they stumble upon an evil book in the cabin in the woods they rented for spring break. Sam Raimi’s direction, Campbell’s performance, and fantastic creature design turn this film into a masterpiece of horror and humor.
Self-Aware and Satirical
Sometimes, the clichés of the horror genre can get tiring. The genre is permeated with strict and obvious rules and conventions, which allows formulaic slasher films to be pumped out with dull regularity. Some, however, comment brilliantly on the formula functions in both fiction and society, while still providing earnest scares and engaging stories.
After creating one of the most unique and iconic movie monsters, Freddy Krueger, and solidifying the now-clichéd slasher tropes, Wes Craven turned them on their heads with “Scream,” a satire in which the central teens, chased by a masked killer, are all well-aware of how slasher movies work, having spent their adolescences watching them. “Scream” both critiques and plays into the classic tropes, allowing the characters to behave in a believable manner even when making terrible choices. The twist ending is one of horror’s best. So… “Do you like scary movies?”
If you’re tired of the predictable formula of watching a jock, a slut, a nerd, a stoner, and a virgin get picked off one by one by some supernatural entity in a remote cabin in the woods, “Cabin in the Woods” is the perfect film for you. The staid genre conventions are lampooned beautifully by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard in a film that follows two bureaucrats (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) setting up the cabin death trap as part of a ritual to appease vengeful gods.
The film satirizes the genre conventions by having the bureaucrats manipulate the teens into out-of-character and moronic decisions. This movie is a fun and clever watch with a wild premise that is just crazy enough to work. Plus, you can see a pre-fame Chris Hemsworth as the book-smart, thoughtful team leader, who is inevitably reduced to the dumb jock stereotype.
In horror, sex typically equals death, especially for teens in slasher films. “It Follows” makes this rule literal, following a teenage girl, Jay, who finds herself pursued by an entity set on murdering her, one that is only passed on through sex. Is it a metaphor for STDs? Moral panics? A cautionary tale about the dangers of promiscuity? Regardless of meaning, it’s a creative twist on the typically stale slasher genre and a thoroughly enjoyable movie.
Sometimes, you’d prefer something that makes you think, something that gets under your skin rather than playing to instinctual fears. The scares in these films build slowly, relying on atmosphere, tension, and dread to achieve their effect.
No one plays with the psychological and increases tension better than Alfred Hitchcock. If you’re looking for something traditional, you couldn’t go wrong with any of his classics: “Psycho,” “The Birds,” “Rear Window,” “Strangers on a Train,” “Vertigo,” and many others.
However, special mention must be made for the absurdly underrated “Rope,” my personal favorite of his works. Seemingly captured in one shot, the movie takes place at a dinner party, in which the hosts had just committed a murder and hid the body in the chest they are using as a table.
Jimmy Stewart plays excitingly out of type as the murdering pair’s teacher, whose intellectual exercises in discussed amorality might have inspired their wicked act. John Dall and Farley Granger are delightfully frightening as the murderers, based loosely on Leopold and Loeb, and their chemistry and performances brought to life a truly twisted pair and a fascinatingly unhealthy relationship.
A masterclass of character development, suspense, and tension, it is an absolute masterpiece, taking place in real-time and pioneering the one-take film that would later create movies such as “Birdman” and “1917.”
If Hitchcock was the master of suspense and defined the psychological thriller and horror, David Fincher continues his legacy, crafting compelling and exciting films on everything from Facebook’s founding to disaffected young men punching each other to protest materialism in the late ’90s. Of his oeuvre, “Se7en” and “Zodiac” best capture the Halloween spirit.
“Se7en,” directed by Fincher, follows two detectives in their quest to catch a serial killer who is selecting victims based on the seven deadly sins. It’s haunting, disturbing, and compelling, with a gut-punch of an ending. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman give stellar turns as the respectively idealistic and world-wearied cops, and Kevin Spacey is chilling as the serial killer. Some of the kills are deeply disturbing — the film is not for the faint of heart — but it tells a story that is equal parts devastating and intriguing.
“Zodiac” takes the serial killer story and flips it in a different direction. Rather than focus on the cops, like in “Se7en,” or understanding the killers, as in the excellent Netflix series “Mindhunter,” the movie tells the true story of newspaper cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose collaboration with reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) in covering the case of the Zodiac Killer leads him to an obsession that will overtake his life.
It feels almost reductive to recommend “The Shining,” as the Stanley Kubrick behemoth is widely considered to be one of the best horror movies of all time. Watching Jack Nicholson’s slow descent into madness is an absolute treat. For so long and slow a movie, it never eases the tension once, resulting in a brilliant final product even non-horror fans will adore.
The plot of Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” sounds more like a drama than a horror movie. A young woman named Dani, played by Florence Pugh, joins her emotionally distant boyfriend and his friends on a trip to Sweden to witness a commune’s midsummer festival. Dani is left traumatized from the death of her parents and sister in a murder-suicide perpetrated by her mentally ill sister. The darkness surrounding the commune and their cult-like practices is slowly unfolded, but witnessing Dani’s indoctrination is the true horror.