I was raised by film nerds. High school English teaching, music playing, hippie film nerds. So when, at the age of eight, I thought I was being rebellious by saying I wanted to watch horror movies, my mother devised an age-appropriate viewing schedule. I was shown King Kong, silent films, avant garde creepiness, and eventually we got to the good stuff. So after many decades of film watching, here are my credential-free suggestions of what I will be watching for Halloween.
This list is in no particular order of importance due to the impossibility of genre comparison.
Suspiria (1977), Suspiria (2018)
I am dual utilizing this slot to pay homage to a classic and a new fantasmic experience.
1977: Dario Argento’s Suspiria is its own world; truly creating a kaleidoscopic realm of witches and sinister corners of imagination. A young woman travels to a ballet school, whose teachers and students at first seem secretive and mysterious. However, as the story goes on more and more sinister trappings await all. This classic film is irreplaceable; archetypal uses of color, space and sound immerse the viewer.(streaming in lo-res on Daily Motion, available remastered on DVD)
2018: it is important to remember this is not a remake; the creators took Argento’s screenplay and re-directed it, setting the story in a modern dance studio in 1977. Using a mixture of English and German, using post-WWII Berlin as an atmospheric backdrop, I thought this was an amazing re-imagining. Excellent use of body horror and dance as a vehicle for witchcraft (streaming on Amazon Prime).
Although I enjoyed and recommend Ari Aster’s 2018 debut, Hereditary, I think Midsommer is a much more concrete story. It is the story of three friends who travel to Sweden for a mysterious summer festival in a small, remote community. The imagery is both archetypal and haunting. The use of emotion as magic is almost hard to watch, drawing the viewer deeper and deeper into the depth of the world the director has created. The use of runes and art are worthy of study. This film is long, clocking in at three hours, but the pacing is intentional and absorbing (DVD released 10/8/19).
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Adapted from Ira Levine’s chilling novel, this was an early horror film for me. It taught me that horror can be slow and build; like drama it is deep. Ruth Gordon gives an astounding performance, and William Castle is truly convincing as a Satanic leader. However, it is Mia Farrow in the role of Rosemary that brings this ensemble cast alive. Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse are a young couple hoping to start a family in an apartment in New York City, whose new neighbors are perhaps a little too helpful in settling them in (available streaming on Hulu).
The Ritual (2017)
Some white guys go hiking in Scandinavia and decide maps are for chumps. Ok, it’s more complex than that but if anything this feels like if the Blair Witch Project had a concrete ending. The cinematography is gorgeous, showing fjords and forests, and the acting is generally solid. It is the imagery, from massacred animals throughout the woods, increasingly horrifying wounds, and a monster the likes of which previous films of its genre lacked that make this film a modern indie classic (streaming on Hulu).
The Haunting (1963)
I am a huge Shirley Jackson fan, and I read this book long before seeing the film. A number of films borrowing from this title and premise have existed, but this is the only movie truly based on the book. This is the story of a woman running from herself, and a house where even the angles are wrong. I dislike how later versions complicate what is otherwise a fantastically simple story with an unreliable narrator (available on DVD).
The Witch (2015)
If you want a historical look at witchcraft, religious persecution, and the life of early settlers in what is now America, this is for you. Also, if you like creepy stuff. Robert Eggers’ directorial debut is set in early 17th century New England. Eggers was painstakingly exact in recreating that era, from the words and tools used to the fabric the costumes are sewn from. A father, angry with the teachings of a modernizing Protestantism, moves his family into the wilderness. There, increasingly sinister events unfold (streaming on Netflix).
The Exorcist (1973)
I really wrestled with my final selection, which I wanted to balance between new, old, and horror types. However, The Exorcist will always be within my top fifteen films regardless of genre. Linda Blair’s childhood transformation from adorable innocence into horror that cannot be unseen is not only remarkable, it has stood the test of time. Even as a fan of the novel, I cannot take away from what video gave to this story. This film was one of two films on this list condemned by The Catholic Church, and the history of the theater run is dramatic, including patrons being hauled away on stretchers.. Although I often consider extended re-releases excessive, the 2004 directors cut realizes the original vision. It is, generally, an excellent day for an exorcism (available on remastered DVD).