Although there’s certainly enough real-life horror occurring in the world right now to leave us all pale and shivering, Halloween offers an opportunity to explore evil forces that are frightening but thankfully fictional (we hope) – especially on streaming services. Horror has exploded in popularity over the last decade thanks to films and filmmakers who were not content to simply follow the same formulas that others invested years before them – or to take those formulas and turn them upside down. Monsters, slashers, and spirits used to be the genre’s bread and butter, but whether inside or outside of those conventions, storytellers are terrifying viewers by adding new elements and creating new ways to leave them startled and upset.
There are of course actual horror-focused streaming services like Shudder that offer a combination of original programming, distribution acquisitions and curated older titles. And to celebrate the creepiest month of the year, Criterion assembled a collection of 1970s horror films worth checking out. But Netflix and Amazon Prime have replenished their own libraries with movies both from their own production studios and featuring hits new and old, ensuring plenty of opportunities to explore scares in a specific mode from the 1970s to today. Check out just a handful of the frightening films for offer at the click of a button.
The Car (1977)
Steven Spielberg’s Duel is arguably the best version of this particular story, but Elliot Silverstein gives it his best shot with this thriller about a mysterious matte black car that starts terrorizing hitchhikers, cyclists, and eventually the local population. The kitsch value of this particular offering on Netflix is probably higher than its actual ability to scare an audience, but if you’re in the mood for a fun palate cleanser after watching something more genuinely unsettling, check out James Brolin and Ronny Cox in this roadside scarefest. (Netflix)
The Evil Dead (1981)
Sam Raimi not only launched a franchise but his entire career with this low-budget classic about a group of college students who unwittingly release a demonic entity while on a weekend trip to a cabin in the woods. To some degree it’s fair to call the film a dry run for what would become his magnum opus, the hilarious, disgusting, disturbing Evil Dead II, featuring a number of gags Raimi would flesh out again (and more successfully) a few years later. But what this film lacks in hijinks, it more than makes up for in creeping dread, making it an equal installment in what became a cornerstone of the filmmaker’s career. (Netflix)
Questions endure whether it was Steven Spielberg that really directed this chilling, effective supernatural thriller, but whether it was him or Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), it endures as one of the best movies of the Amblin era, a scary movie (PG rated, no less!) that has heart and creativity and a surprise around every Corner. Jerry Goldsmith’s score offers a children’s chorus to unsettle audiences as a spiritual entity begins haunting a family whose house is built on land that has, well, a complicated past, while Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams fight to save their children from evil forces manifested in increasingly terrifying ways, from children’s toys, to – shudder – the television. (Netflix)
Fright Night (1985)
Tom Holland’s debut ranks among the best horror movies of the 1980s and one of the best horror comedies of all time. The movie follows a teenager (William Ragsdale) who becomes convinced that his next door neighbor (Chris Sarandon) is a vampire, and enlists an aging horror television host (Roddy McDowell) to help him prove it – and defeat him. There are so many great ideas here it’s hard to know where to start, from teenage speculation to the idea that a vampire would relocate to the suburbs. But performances by Ragsdale, McDowell and Sarandon transform this into a thrilling battle between good and evil with plenty of laughs and scares in between. (Amazon Prime)
If Wes Craven’s horror pedigree included only a limited number of slashers, his most straightforward foray into the genre was, perhaps appropriately, one that deconstructed their conventions. Working from a script by Kevin Williamson (Dawson’s Creek), Craven follows a group of teenagers over-educated about horror movies as they try to live through a string of murders committed by a masked assailant. Even if you didn’t spend all of the 1980s watching one deranged killer after another rack up a co-ed body count, Craven’s film delivers real thrills while simultaneously taking apart the clichés that made the subgenre such a commercial force. (Netflix)
Paranormal Activity (2007)
It’s hard to believe this first film languished at local genre festivals for several years before Paramount acquired it for distribution, but in an era when brutality dominated the horror landscape, director Oren Peli delivered one of the most chilling scarefests of the 2000s with this story of a couple’s quiet deterioration into mayhem and murder after they move into a new home. The movie’s found-footage approach and its unrelenting stillness still wrings absolute dread from viewers peering into shadows of each unmoving frame, while Peli’s patient script builds steam to a terrifying, unforgettable climax. (Netflix)
Cabin in the Woods (2011)
Drew Goddard directed and co-wrote this endlessly inventive deconstruction with Joss Whedon, about, sure, some folks in a cabin in the woods, but more accurately, the demanding forces of horror fans that control the fate and future of their favorite genre. To some an indictment of the people who watch and react to the entertainment that folks like Goddard and Whedon create, and to others a tribute, the film navigates multiple layers of storytelling as the characters in the cabin make their choices, and the middle-management lab employees watching them attempt to appease the unseen Old Gods reacting to the combination of conventions and clichés that they alternately demand to be entertained – or else. (Amazon Prime)
There are plenty of underwhelming horror franchises in the last 20 years, but Sinister isn’t one of them. Directed and co-written by Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange), the film stars Ethan Hawke as a true-crime writer who moves with his family into a new home he soon discovers was the site of a series of grisly murders. Deciding to investigate further as a prelude to writing a new book, Hawke’s character soon becomes obsessed with the crimes, and begins finding mysterious and grisly clues about their details, which were recorded on film he finds in their attic. As strange occurrences suggest that the crimes not only were not resolved, but may be part of a larger plan, Hawke and his family are drawn deeper into this deadly chain of events – until it’s too late to complete the cycle and see what happens. (Netflix)
Green Room (2015)
Jeremy Saulnier wrote and directed this white-knucle thriller about a group of punk rock musicians who must defend themselves from a group of neo-Nazi skinheads after accidentally witnessing a murder outside the club where they’re playing a gig. Anton Yelchin is fantastic as the young leader of the band, first circumnavigating the troubling beliefs of their neo-Nazi audience, and later, evading capture and seemingly inevitable death when they are targeted for extinction. But it’s Patrick Stewart as the Nazis’ menacing leader who leaves the most vivid impression, offering a chilling turn that makes you forget all memories of his earlier turn as the benevolent, thoughtful Jean-Luc Picard. (Netflix)
The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)
Based on the 2014 novel of the same name, Colm McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic thriller follows a small team of scientists and soldiers seeking the cure for a disease that turns its victims into running, mindless zombies. Young Melanie (Sennia Nanua), the key to their research, proves valuable once their facility gets overrun by “hungries,” because she can move between the world of the living and the dead without detection. But the team’s attempts to set up a new lab creates problems that lead them to important discoveries that not only forces them to make fateful choices, but put their trust in a young charge that just days earlier they viewed as a test subject. (Netflix)
Gerald’s Game (2017)
Mike Flanagan (Doctor Sleep) directed this Stephen king adaptation about a woman fighting to free herself after her husband handcuffs her to their bed and promptly dies of a heart attack. Carla Gugino’s one-woman performance is the real showstopper of this psychological thriller, but as her dead husband, Bruce Greenwood adds an imaginary chorus reacting to her choices, and soon enough, her deteriorating mental state after the situation conjures trauma past and present that she thought she’d locked safely away. (Netflix)
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween (2018)
Both of the Goosebumps films are adapted from R.L. Stine’s best-selling book series, but this one takes its overlap between real life and imagination into another world as Jack Black, who plays the voice of iconic Stine creation Slappy, the possessed ventriloquist’s dummy, and Stine himself, whose role in the story is resetting the real world after one imagined in his books runs amuck. This is of course horror for more of a family-friendly audience – so the thrills include being attacked by evil gummy bears – but the adventure is fast-paced and imaginative, offering more for audiences than grade-school scares. (Netflix)
Ari Aster (Midsommar) wrote and directed this unforgettable horror movie about a woman reckoning with the death of her estranged mother, and the dysfunction and pain that ensues in the wake of her absence. Toni Collette attracted attention for her performance as a mom trying to wrangle both her kids and her late mom’s legacy while Alex Wolff as her son must deal with the tragedy and responsibility of what occurs. Aster’s film is simultaneously hauntingly beautiful and startlingly frightening, guaranteeing that it leaves an impression on everyone who watches it – if they can make it all the way through without covering their eyes. (Amazon Prime)
A decidedly less campy follow up to his own remake of Pirahna, Alexandre Aja directs this skillful, suspenseful story about a young woman trapped underneath her father’s house while alligators hunt her, with water rising from a tropical storm. Kaya Scodelario brings an uncommon degree of level-headed improvisation to the plight of this aspiring swimmer and the situation in which she finds herself, while Aja allows the showdown to unfold between her and the alligators with a surprising, effective sense of reality.
J.D. Dillard directed and co-wrote this monster movie about a young woman who washes up on a deserted island after her boyfriend’s charter boat sinks during a storm. Kiersey Clemons plays the quiet, resourceful Jenn, whose fight for survival gets more complicated when she discovers that there’s something in the waters just off shore that ventures inland for food – and plans for her to be its next meal. Combining understated, astute social commentary with a straightforward, smart and often frightening story, Sweetheart is the kind of video-on-demand cast away that is overdue for wider appreciation. (Netflix)
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