Spoiler Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead for the titles on this list.
With Halloween fast approaching, it seems like a good time to once again dabble in the spookier side of cinema! Horror has never been my favourite genre, but at this time of year I’m not averse to the occasional spooky film.
This short list is a follow-up to a similar list I wrote last Halloween, so if you’d like to see five more horror films that I recommend, you can do so by clicking or tapping here.
Horror as a genre can be incredibly varied. From jump-scares to the psychological terror of something unseen, and with such diversity of monsters, ghouls, and creepy critters, there are a lot of different titles that put their own spin on the horror concept. Whether you’re looking for serial killers, vampires, zombies, or demons, chances are you can find an excellent horror film that successfully brings them to screen!
I confess that I’m particularly sensitive to jump-scares, and now that I don’t feel the same kind of pressure to join in with horror titles as I did in my younger years (when watching horror films was almost a rite of passage!) I tend to favour films that don’t go for that style. Despite that, I hope you’ll find a varied mix of titles on this list!
Number 1: The Birds (1963)
Alfred Hitchcock is still considered one of the greatest directors of the horror and thriller genres, and for good reason. His pioneering style put viewers right at the centre of his stories, and every shot and every sequence was meticulously planned and crafted to maximise suspense and fear. The Birds is one of Hitchcock’s later films, coming toward the end of his career and following on from the likes of Vertigo and, of course, Psycho.
As a kid, I can remember being terrified by The Birds. The slow, tense build-up that Hitchcock’s films are known for is on full display in the title, with every scene and sequence gradually ramping up the threat to a terrifying climax. But more than that, the sheer randomness of birds as the “villain” of the piece is genuinely unsettling.
Birds are generally harmless. The worst a bird might do is steal your chips at the beach, but The Birds asks a question no one ever thought to ask before: what if they were working together to a menacing and aggressive end? It’s this premise – taking something harmless that we generally pay little attention to and making it scary – that makes the film succeed.
Number 2: Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Johnny Depp stars in this adaptation of the famous Washington Irving story, and the film brings the Headless Horseman to life in genuinely frightening fashion! The story of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman is an old one, dating back to the early 1800s, and Washington Irving is considered one of the first great American authors.
Unlike the earlier Disney adaptation, Sleepy Hollow takes a distinctly adult horror tone. Director Tim Burton makes a number of changes to the source material, making the film an unpredictable ride even for those familiar with the original short story. Johnny Depp puts in a wonderful dramatic performance as Ichabod, too.
There’s something inherently frightening about the undead, and the first time the Headless Horseman is seen on screen manages to capture that feeling pitch-perfectly. Johnny Depp manages to perfectly convey Ichabod’s fear as well, ramping up the tension and making Sleepy Hollow a truly scary and spooky watch!
Number 3: The Omen (1976)
The Omen is an outstanding example of how to build up fear and tension without resorting to too many jump-scares or a lot of gore! It’s also a deeply disturbing film because of the implications of shadowy cults and conspiracies – and that’s before we even get to the birth of the literal anti-Christ!
When I first watched The Omen I was left unsettled for days afterwards. There’s a specific scene that I won’t spoil for you, but the build-up to a particularly shocking reveal in an Italian graveyard – and the implications it had for the film’s protagonist – left me stunned and disturbed! That particular memory is still vivid for me now, decades later.
As a film about demons, Satan, and the anti-Christ, The Omen was designed to be shocking and unsettling, especially to folks with any kind of religious convictions. And it succeeded beyond its wildest ambitions, becoming an absolute classic of the horror genre and spawning a franchise that still gets periodic updates and instalments today. Oh, and if you’re looking for a Star Trek connection, the film’s lead, Gregory Peck, was the grandfather of Ethan Peck – star of Discovery Season 2 and soon to be appearing in Strange New Worlds!
Number 4: 28 Days Later (2002)
With 28 Days Later, director Danny Boyle reinvigorated the zombie genre in a new and truly terrifying way! Prior to the film’s 2002 release, most zombies in cinema followed a pattern first popularised by George A. Romero in Night of the Living Dead – slow, shuffling, mindless creatures that were scary en masse but could be outrun by anyone fit enough. 28 Days Later introduced us to the infected – humans who were still alive but infected with a virus that turned them into killing machines… killing machines that could sprint!
Seeing the zombie horde running after the film’s protagonists was a new and incredibly shocking experience in 2002. Though a number of titles have used this more aggressive style of zombie in the years since, for me the portrayal in 28 Days Later remains one of the best and most frightening.
Technically not a “zombie” film as the infected aren’t undead, 28 Days Later nevertheless has a post-apocalyptic feel that is present in a lot of zombie fiction. Anyone who’s seen The Walking Dead (or read the original comic books) should note an eerie similarity in the way 28 Days Later opens… and remember that the film was released before the first issue of the comics!
Number 5: The Shining (1980)
The Shining is an adaptation of a Stephen King novel, and as such it’s an unpredictable and very disturbing ride. Stanley Kubrick directed one of his last films, and adapted the book in truly inspired style. Some of the best-known moments in The Shining, including the famous line referenced above, weren’t present in the original book, and the film adaptation is arguably a rare example of a film surpassing its source material.
The film features some truly outstanding special effects. The “blood flood” scene has gone on to become iconic, and was shot in miniaturised form using detailed scale models. The practical special effects give the film a unique charm that today’s CGI can’t match, and in some cases the use of incredibly realistic practical effects ramps up the fear factor.
Jack Nicholson gave the world one of cinema’s most iconic scenes. But The Shining is so much more than that, and his character’s slow descent into madness is what makes the film so tense, exciting, and frightening.
So that’s it! Five horror films to get you into the Halloween spirit.
Remember to check out last year’s list for five more horror titles you might enjoy – you can find it by clicking or tapping here. And if you’re interested to see my review of last year’s television adaptation of another Stephen King work, The Stand, you can find that by clicking or tapping here.
I tried to put together a collection of films with different themes, styles, and subjects! Horror is an incredibly varied genre, and just in the five films above we have the natural world turned against us, an undead horseman, Satanism, technically-not-zombies, and finally a film with ghosts and a mad man. And we’ve barely scratched the surface!
Halloween is almost upon us, so stay tuned over the next few days – I have a couple more spooky ideas before the main event rolls around!
All titles included on the list above are the copyright of their respective studio, distributor, production company, broadcaster, etc. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.