People equate Halloween with horror, and these days that sadly means a not-so-fresh batch of found-footage sequels or lackluster horror films all made with the same gray filter. It’s a shame, because there is nothing better to do on Halloween than get some candy and sit down for a horror movie marathon.
In honor of the most sinister holiday, here are some of the best films and television episodes for Halloween. They might not seem like the obvious choices, but they’re thrilling and much better than many current Hollywood offerings.
Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein trilogy
In the 1930s and 1940s, Universal was the king of horror, in part because it adapted classic monsters from myth and literature. One of its most iconic series was its take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The series lasted for many more films, but the first three feature Boris Karloff’s archetypical performance as the Creature.
Frankenstein sees Colin Clive’s titular Doctor Henry Frankenstein embark on a maddened quest to create life. His creative energy leads to a violent creature set loose on the countryside. In the sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, the doctor has to deal with the consequences of his creation as others try to exploit Frankenstein’s talents for their own gain. It’s a strong character arc that actually lets the characters grow.
The story culminates in Son of Frankenstein, where the doctor’s son, Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), has to deal with his family’s legacy in a country that doesn’t trust him.
Scary, haunting and surprisingly character-driven, these three films are not the most accurate take on Shelley’s novel, but they form a powerful trilogy telling one strong story.
Franklyn is an odd film. It’s not an outright horror film, nor does it really have anything to do with Halloween. But Gerald McMorrow’s debut feature is a dark, psychological masterpiece perfect for the holiday.
The film follows four people who are lost in life. In a very bleak London setting, a young man (Sam Riley) finds himself left at the altar, a depressed woman (Eva Green) decides to turn her suicide attempts into art projects and a father searches for his missing son. And in a twisted, steampunk-esque world called Meanwhile City — where the one rule is that everyone must have a faith, no matter what it is — atheist and vigilante Preest (Ryan Phillippe) investigates a mysterious cult called Duplex Ride.
Franklyn is a dark study on isolation and despair. Meanwhile City is a fully realized world out of some kind of nightmare, while modern London seems equally sinister. Each performance is amazing, and the four narratives come together an unpredictable, fascinating way.
Not all Halloween films are outright scary. Sometimes a film works more with a mood, and can involve elements outside of the horror genre to bring in a larger audience. One of the best examples of this is Alex Proyas’ The Crow. The plot is straightforward, but compelling: a couple is murdered the night before their Halloween wedding, and the would-be groom (Brandon Lee) rises from the grave a year later to hunt down those responsible.
There’s something in The Crow for everyone. It’s a slasher film, except the killer is the good guy and a complex character to boot. It’s also one of the bleakest takes on urban crime in recent memory and surprisingly one of the best romance films in the last two decades, even with its tragic start. It’s even something of a superhero film.
It comes together in a dark, modern Gothic film anchored by Lee’s haunting, final performance (Lee died in an accident on set). For films set on Halloween, ignore the Halloween series and go with The Crow.
The Wolfman (2010)
Universal’s films from Hollywood’s Golden Age are iconic, and Lon Chaney Jr.’s tortured Wolf Man is one of the most famous. There is good reason for it — in a relatively short run time, director George Waggner and his cast dealt with romance, horror and a complex father-son relationship between Chaney Jr. and Claude Rains. Its brilliance is topped only by its 2010 remake.
Returning home after the death of his brother, Lawrence Talbot (Benecio Del Toro) is forced to reconnect with his estranged father (Anthony Hopkins). Things are soon interrupted, however, when a large wolf attacks, and Lawrence finds himself cursed to become a werewolf.
The cast is excellent, and the plot is one of the smartest in recent memory with a strong psychological-thriller bent. Director Joe Johnston brings a classic horror tone to the film — atmosphere and suspense was emphasized over gore and cheap surprises — and it really worked. And then there’s the makeup: Instead of the truly bad CGI werewolves from Harry Potter or Twilight, The Wolfman puts Del Toro in practical effects to create a terrifying and iconic monster.
Boy Meets World, “And Then There Was Shawn”
Boy Meets World is one of the quintessential ’90s television shows. It was funny, had heart and followed a relatable group of people from middle school through college. The show dealt with many issues facing teenagers and put a heavy emphasis on its characters and their relationships.
And then there was that episode where a killer trapped the cast in a school and started picking them off.
“And Then There Was Shawn” works both as a comedy and a horror story. It expertly deconstructs and parodies slasher films, and offers genuine scares at the same time. And Jennifer Love Hewitt even shows up in a random appearance that creates some wonderful jokes.
Part of why “And Then There Was Shawn” works is that the episode is truly unpredictable. Even with jokes about who is likely to die, the deaths are unexpected and the killer shows up at unexpected times to wreak havoc. For a teenage drama, this is a thrilling installment.
The Twilight Zone, “The Howling Man”
The Twilight Zone is the classic speculative fiction show. It tested morality, thrived off uncertainty and paranoia and used the audience’s imagination against it. “The Howling Man” is the show’s horror side at its finest.
Seeking shelter from a storm, a man arrives at a monastery. The monks let him in, but warn that he must stay away from a prisoner said to be demonic. But the prisoner says that he’s being held captive by a crazed, murderous cult. Who’s telling the truth, and what answer is the most frightening?
The show does so much with so little. Charles Beaumont’s script doesn’t rely on big scares or effects, instead playing with both its protagonist and the audience and testing them to see who they believe: the prisoner or the monks. Does superstition or mistrust of humanity win out? It’s a tale that can only be found in … The Twilight Zone.