Interested in horror but don’t know where to start? Thaddeus has you covered with his helpful beginners’ guide to horror movies!
The spooky season has fallen upon us once again, and for those of you who don’t watch horror movies the other eleven months of the year, now is the time to begin exploring all things sinister and macabre. But, as we are all too aware, the horror genre is not for everyone. We all react to frightening things differently, and approaching something scary can be a daunting task. Where to begin? What to try? What to avoid?
Well, worry not, my friends! Your old uncle Thaddeus has been a fan of the genre since his adolescence, and decided to make a nifty little guide to horror, for those of you taking your first steps into the world of scary movies. Each film listed will have a short plot description, some brief thoughts about the film. They will also be categorized so you can more easily decide which ones are right for you.
THADDEUS’ GUIDE TO HORROR, LEVEL 1:
Let me elaborate real quick: To me, “spooky movies” are not inherently “horror movies.” In my own definition, spooky movies may incorporate themes, character archetypes, and aesthetics of horror movies, but are not necessarily intended to be frightening. By listing these films, my hope is to introduce you to the tropes and stylings of the horror genre, without throwing you directly into the deep end of the pool, as it were.
ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992)
A man with a chainsaw for a hand is transported to medieval times to fight demons with the powers of line-liners and slapstick comedy. Army of Darkness is very goofy and though it may feature demons and skeletons, it does so with a sense of humor. And though it’s the third of a trilogy, you really don’t need to worry about seeing the first two to get what’s going on here: there’s a recap at the beginning, and it also doesn’t really address anything that happened in the first two.
A deceased couple hire a bio-exorcist to scare away a family that moved into their old house. Classic Tim Burton aesthetics matched with some black humor and over-the-top costume pieces makes Beetlejuice a Halloween classic. This is also one of Michael Keaton’s best performances; probably my favorite outside of Birdman and Toy Story 3.
Three recently unemployed scientists begin their own business fighting ghosts in New York City. Regarded as a comedy classic, Ghostbusters showcases prominent SNL alumni in their prime in a film that indulges in its own silliness. Not everything in the movie may have aged particularly well, but there’s enough here to give you a chuckle or two.
When the monsters from his own books begin terrorizing Delaware, RL Stine himself must work with his daughter and her friend to get them back into their books. Like the books from which this film is based, this is aimed at a younger demographic, but there is still fun to be had here. I also have a soft spot for anything with Jack Black, so having him in your cast is already a plus for me.
HOCUS POCUS (1993)
After 300 years, three quirky witches are resurrected and exact their revenge on Salem, Massachusetts… But it’s also the 90s. A charming family movie, you can tell the three witches (Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker) had a lot of fun making this movie. And if you’re willing to give yourself over to the absurdity, you’ll have fun too.
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1986)
A dorky florist purchases a bloodthirsty plant in the hopes that it will save his floral business. A musical homage to campy B-movies of yore, Little Shop of Horrors features a do-wop inspired soundtrack, Steve Martin playing a greaser dentist, a carniverous singing plant, and Rick Moranis delivering what I consider to be his definitive performance. There are two versions: the theatrical version and the director’s cut, each with a different ending. I personally prefer the director’s cut, but I think both versions are enjoyable.
MONSTER HOUSE (2006)
A group of kids discover that a house in their neighborhood is alive… And it hates children. To be honest, it’s been a while since I’ve seen this one, but I remember loving it as a kid. I revisited it to write this list, and I was delighted to see that it’s actually still pretty good! I remember the house’s design capturing my imagination, and it still looks great! And a lot of the film’s humor actually lands, which is always a bit of a crap shoot in kids’ films. The mid-2000s was a lawless wasteland when it came to computer-generated movies, and it always makes me happy to find ones from the time that aren’t complete trash.
THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)
Bored with Halloween, Jack Skellington discovers Christmas Town, and becomes obsessed with Christmas. Another musical, this time with music composed by Danny Elfman, Nightmare Before Christmas was always a classic among mid-2000s emo kids, but it has a wider appeal than just that. It has an iconic artstyle, seriously impressive claymation, and catchy tunes than people are still singing nearly thirty years after its original release.
THADDEUS’ GUIDE TO HORROR, LEVEL 2:
Like spooky movies, thrillers are not necessarily inherently frightening. They do, however, make use of a lot of the same conventions as horror does: intensity and suspense, build-ups and releases of tension, and some bloody scenes to boot. It’s no wonder, then, that there is a lot of overlap between the thriller and horror genres, though the former seems to get more oscar nominations. Regardless, thrillers may help in the transition to scarier material.
BLACK SWAN (2010)
A ballerina slides into madness while fighting for the role of a lifetime. Psychological thriller at its finest, Natalie Portman turns in one of the best performances of her career in a film characterized by its intensity and atmosphere above any scares. Also, I don’t know anything about dance, but the choreography is beautiful to watch.
THE INVITATION (2015)
While attending a dinner party at his ex-wife’s house, a man begins to suspect she and her new partner have more in store for their guests than just dinner. The Invitation does a good job of immediately setting an uncomfortable and anxiety inducing atmosphere, and creates situations where you’ll constantly be second guessing everything. It’s a slow burn but doesn’t go too slow, and it all leads up to an exciting conclusion.
A struggling lower-class family slowly infiltrates the lives of a wealthier family, posing as their driver, tutor, therapist, and maid, respectively. Elisa already wrote an excellent article on this film, so there’s not much I can say that isn’t just reiterating what she said. It brims with social commentary, and is balanced out with a few bloody scenes and some creepy shots. There’s a reason this won “Best Picture” at the Oscars.
THE PLATFORM (2019)
A vertical prison with two prisoners on each level. In the middle of each level is a hole where a platform bearing food comes down, traveling from level to level. The higher you are, the more you get to eat… Another foreign language film with a boatload of social commentary, this one is from Spain and delves into science fiction and dystopia. I wouldn’t call it “scary,” though I would certainly call it “unnerving.” Not for those who can’t stand watching people eat food in a gross manner.
REAR WINDOW (1954)
Confined to his bed with a broken leg, a man takes to watching his neighbors through a pair of binoculars, and he slowly begins to suspect something sinister is afoot… One of Hitchcock’s best, he somehow managed to make an incredibly gripping film from inside a single apartment. This one is great for people who also really enjoy the craft of filmmaking.
THADDEUS’ GUIDE TO HORROR, LEVEL 3:
Though it may seem like an odd combination at first, horror and comedy actually have quite a bit in common, particularly with their respective reliances on set-ups and punchlines. When done well, the two genres compliment each other nicely, with the horror keeping you on your toes, the comedy relieving tension. The two elements work off of each other to punctuate their own ludicrous and fantastical nature, culminating into unique and enjoyable cinematic experiences.
A heavy metal band accidentally summons demons with their music. Being a big fan of heavy metal music, this one’s a personal favorite of mine. Deathgasm is masterful at combing the awkwardness of teen angst and romance, with the excitement and frustrations of being in a band, with some genuine scares and hearty belly-laughs. It’s not for everyone, but I love it.
SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004)
A slacker and his lazy best friend must fight through the zombie-infested streets of London so the slacker can save his mum, and get back together with his recently ex-girlfriend. Sure, there are a lot of colloquialisms and cultural things that may go over the heads of non-brits, but Shaun of the Dead is a love letter to George A Romero, and is filled sharp humor, social commentary, and one of the most gruesome zombie-related deaths since 1985’s Day of the Dead.
TUCKER AND DALE VS EVIL (2010)
Two rednecks take a vacation in the woods near some teenagers who think the duo are murderers. What could go wrong? Featuring some great chemistry between master character actors Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine, Tucker and Dale vs Evil is a great subversion of the “teens go on vacation in the woods and bad things happen” trope.
WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (2015)
A mockumentary about quirky vampires in New Zealand. If you’re a fan of the type of quirky and awkward humor you see in Flight of the Conchords, or in most of Taika Watiti’s movies, What We Do In The Shadows will be a treat considering it features both Taika Watiti and Jermane Clement. It perfectly and humorously answers the question “How would centuries-old vampires acclimate to modern culture?”
YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)
When he inherits his grandfather’s castle, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein decides to continue his granddad’s work alongside a cast of zany characters. One of Mel Brooks’ most celebrated films, Young Frankenstein is filled with quotable lines, fantastic set pieces, and acts as a loving homage to Universal monster movies of the 1930s. And who doesn’t love Mel Brooks, am I right?
A scrappy ragtag crew of survivors travel across the US in search of safety and twinkies. Zombieland is a film with genuine heart, combining themes of finding comfort and family in your friends, as well some of my favorite zombie makeup to date. There’s also a great cameo from comedy legend Bill Murray!
THADDEUS’ GUIDE TO HORROR, LEVEL 4:
“OLD” BLACK & WHITE HORROR
Horror and comedy are alike in another way: they are quick to age. What was cutting edge way back when does not always hold up under modern scrutiny, especially in terms of special effects. Even so, there are plenty of older horror films that are still compelling despite their age. They may not be considered very “scary” anymore, but they are foundational to the genre, and are still worth watching.
BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)
When his wife is kidnapped, Victor Frankenstein must create another creature to save her. Like its predecessor, Bride of Frankenstein combines elements from Shelley’s original work with original ideas. The original does more to develop the monster’s character, turning it into an even more compelling and sympathetic character. While not as influential as its older brother, it’s an excellent continuation of the first (though the title is a little misleading: the titular bride is barely in this thing).
THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI (1920)
The two men encounter a mad doctor at a carnival in Germany. The doctor reveals a hypnotized man who can allegedly see the future, and begins to make some horrific and accurate predictions. A piece of film history and arguably the most influential film of the German Expressionist movement, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari remains a seminal work in the horror genre, and its innovative use of shading was a milestone in the cultivation of color on screen.
EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960)
After accidentally disfiguring his daughter, a doctor kidnaps young women, hoping to graft their faces onto his daughter’s. The use of extreme closeups, makeup, and a truly unsettling mask all work to make a film that relies on atmosphere and suspense, masterfully creating a film that would make you squirm in your seat.
Bearing little resemblance to Mary Shelley’s book, a mad scientist creates a living being from body parts of the dead. I didn’t expect this movie to be as good as it was, but Boris Karloff turned in the performance of a lifetime as a misunderstood monster who simply doesn’t understand the world around him, and longs only to be loved. Yes, it only barely resembles Shelley’s original work, but it touches on many of the same themes effectively, creating a masterwork of the genre.
It’s the story of Dracula, but the production changed all the names in an attempt to avoid getting sued (look it up, it’s true). Sure, the acting is hokey by today’s standards, but Nosferatu’s use of makeup, set pieces, cinematography, and lighting are all iconic for all of the right reasons: you’ve definitely seen the image of the count’s shadow creeping up the stairs on his way to ensnare his next victim.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925)
A deformed murderer secretly teaches a young ingénue to sing opera. It also has one of the most famous face-reveals in all of cinema. Lon Chaney was one of the titans of the silent era, and The Phantom of the Opera is just one example why. His groundbreaking physical acting and makeup techniques alone merit a strong recommendation from me.
After stealing money from her employer, a woman flees to the Bates Motel and meets its proprietor, Norman Bates. This is one of the most celebrated and influential films in all of Hollywood cinema, and for good reason. The framing device allows for multiple twists, the plot is bolstered by Anthony Perkins’ stellar performance as Bates, and has one of the most iconic endings in cinema.
THADDEUS’ GUIDE TO HORROR, LEVEL 5:
HORROR MOVIES THAT AREN’T TOO SCARY
Scariness is subjective. What constitutes as “scary” can vary from culture to culture, country to country, and person to person. That being said, we’re all adults here, and I think I have a fairly decent grasp as to which movies are objectively “scary.” These films are so far the scariest on this list, but they’re a good level of scariness for people new to the horror genre. If you’ve made it through all the films so far, you’re probably ready to give these a try.
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981)
After a strange encounter in a local pub, two American tourists are attacked by a werewolf in the British countryside. Oddly enough, this film was directed by John Landis, the same guy responsible for many of the 70s and 80s most famous comedies, including Animal House (1978), The Blues Brothers (1980), Trading Places (1983), Spies Like Us (1985), and Coming to America (1988). That sense of humor is prominent in American Werewolf in London, and perfectly compliments the creepy makeup and prosthetics, as well as what I consider to be the best werewolf transformation in film.
EVIL DEAD 2 (1987)
Bruce Campbell fights demons in a cabin out in the woods… And it’s groovy. (Don’t worry about it being a sequel, you don’t need to have seen the first one to get what’s going on). The predecessor to Army of Darkness, Evil Dead 2 is certainly scarier than its younger brother, but still retains a slapstick sense of humor, and plenty of snarky one-liners from Bruce Campbell in his prime.
GET OUT (2017)
A black man goes with his white girlfriend to spend a weekend with her parents. It all seems normal at first, though he quickly realizes that not everything is as it seems. I’ve already written about this movie at length, but let me iterate that Get Out is not just “good for a scary movie,” it’s a great movie by any metric. It feels more like a Hitcockian thriller than it does a horror film, and I cannot recommend it enough to anyone who loves cinema.
After people in a small beach town are murdered by a giant shark, the mayor refuses to close the beach, and leaves the new police chief to take care of it. Another film I’ve written about before, my sentiment still stands: Jaws is Hollywood’s greatest shark movie, and there’s a reason it’s still a classic nearly fifty years after its release.
Read our review here.
Two police officers are tasked with tracking down a serial killer who commits crimes based on the seven deadly sins. One of the more morbid police procedurals you could watch, Se7en makes use of some truly disturbing visuals, strong performances from its A-list leads, and a compelling story that may be slow to start, but by the end you’ll be demanding to know what’s in the box too…
SHUTTER ISLAND (2010)
Two US marshals are sent to an asylum on a remote island to investigate the disappearance of an inmate. Like Se7en and Get Out, Shutter Island is really more of a thriller movie with horror elements. Still, this movie is creepy, and it’s sure to give you the fun kind of jitters. Leonardo DiCaprio gives a stirring performance in the lead role, and it’s also really fun to see Martin Scorcese direct something other than gangster movies.
SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999)
An inspector is sent to the titular town to investigate a string of murders, and sightings of a headless horseman. Another Tim Burton flick starring a very pale Johnny Depp (a very specific subgenre that’s basically a meme at this point), Burton’s signature aesthetic shines through in the gothic rural town of Sleepy Hollow. There’s a lot of blood though it’s highly stylized, and Christopher Walken is the main antagonist which is both terrifying and hilarious.
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
A young FBI recruit is tasked with finding a serial killer with the help of another serial killer. Silence of the Lambs is one of those movies I make a point of watching at least once a year: every time I watch, and notice something new that I hadn’t seen in my previous viewings. Yes, parts of it have not necessarily aged well, but the performances are masterful, the screenplay is sharp, and the direction gives us some haunting tableaus. Seriously, this is an easy candidate for my top 5 favorite films of all time.
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET
Oh hey, look at that: it’s another Tim Burton movie starring pale Johnny Depp. Crazy. Anyways, when the title character returns to London after years in exile for a crime he didn’t commit, he exacts his morbid revenge against any man foolish enough to sit in his barber’s chair. Adapted from my favorite stage musical, Stephen Sondheim’s score is a big selling point for me, and frankly I think Tim Burton’s gothy victorian aesthetic works really well here, resulting in what might be my favorite Tim Burton film.
THADDEUS’ GUIDE TO HORROR, LEVEL 6:
CLASSICS OF THE GENRE
And now at the bottom of the list are “classic” films, most, if not all, of which you’ll no doubt find on any given “greatest horror movies of all time” list. While these are not necessarily the scariest movies I can think of (that’s a different list entirely), there’s a reason we still remember these films decades after their initial releases. They’re not just “great horror movies,” they’re great movies! If you’ve made it all the way to the end of this guide, then I’d wager you’re probably ready to give these a shot.
After investigating a distress beacon from a mysterious planet, the crew aboard a spacecraft must fend off an alien that infiltrated their ship. An original take on the alien abduction narrative, Ridley Scott created a unique and horrifying alien aesthetic filled with damp humidity and border-line Lovecraftian design. Not to mention one of the most famous dining room scenes in all of cinema…
All Alien films ranked from worst to best: here.
THE EVIL DEAD (1981)
The original cabin in the woods movie, and the first of the Evil Dead trilogy (along with Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness). It’s a tour de force of what horror makeup and prosthetics would eventually be able to do, and was an early example of the great things director Sam Raimi and star Bruce Campbell would go on to do. I think it’s probably the weakest of the trilogy, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth watching.
THE EXORCIST (1973)
A young priest struggling with his faith is called upon by a mother whose daughter has been exhibiting disturbing behavior and physical changes. The Exorcist was once considered the scariest movie of all time, and while I don’t think that’s necessarily true anymore, there’s a reason it’s still regarded as one of the greatest horror movies of all time. The makeup and practical effects are still effective nearly fifty years later, and the pale demon’s face still haunts me years after I first watched it.
Fifteen years after his imprisonment, a murderer escapes confinement and returns to his hometown in search of his next victims. One of the films to popularize and write the rules for the slasher genre, Halloween is an example of how you can do a lot with very little. Made on a show-string budget, John Carpenter proved that he was a titan of the genre, both as a director and a composer, writing the film’s iconic and creepy score.
All Halloween films ranked from worst to best: here.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
The granddaddy of all modern zombie movies, a group of strangers hide out in a rural farmhouse as the dead walk with a ravenous hunger for human flesh. I’ve written about this film in the past, but it’s really that good and I won’t turn down an opportunity to sing its praises once more. I don’t think Night of the Living Dead was supposed to age this well, but George Romero’s feature-length debut is a timeless classic in the most horrifying way possible.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)
A severely burned man with a killer right hand stalks teenagers in their dreams. One of the late Wes Craven’s seminal works, A Nightmare on Elm Street gave the slasher genre something new: a killer with a face and a personality. It also subverts the tropes set by Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween by having teenagers you actually care about, and a killer who targets them where they are most vulnerable: in their dreams.
THE OMEN (1976)
After secretly switching his wife’s stillborn baby with an orphaned infant, a US ambassador notices a sinister series of events as the child grows. Characterized by extravagant death sequences and one seriously creepy child, The Omen creates a template from which decades of imitators borrow. To me, this is the ultimate creepy child movie.
A year after her mother’s murder, a teenager begins to suspect that the culprit has returned to continue their killing spree (Quick note: familiarize yourself with the slasher genre before watching this one because there are a lot of meta references and in-humor that will go over your head if you’re still a newbie). I’m a big Wes Craven fan, and I can only praise how well he is able to weave scares with humor in this 90s classic. The opening scene alone could be its own short film, and the rest is an original take on the well-traversed slasher genre.
THE SHINING (1980)
Tasked with caring for the Overlook Hotel, a man and his family slowly descend into madness while isolated during the winter. Though this film is famously unfaithful to its source material, Stanley Kubrick made the story his own with a cavalcade of extremely well-crafted shots, and a career defining performance from Jack Nicholson.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974)
A group of five young people run out of gas while driving in rural Texas, and get attacked by a chainsaw-wielding killer and his family. One of the things I like about this movie is that it doesn’t rely on the supernatural at all; all of the horror derives from a very disturbingly human place. Heavily inspired by the crimes of Ed Gein, there’s a reason why people like Guillermo Del Toro and even the film’s director Tobe Hooper went vegetarian for a while after watching it.
THE THING (1982)
A group of scientists in Antarctica are infiltrated by a creature that can assume the shape and likeness of its victims. Another John Carpenter movie, The Thing has some of the best practical effects put to film, and don’t you let anyone tell you otherwise. The visuals take some big queues from Lovecraft, and perfectly compliment a plot and aesthetic built upon claustrophobia and distrust. Fans of the videogame Among Us will probably get a kick out of this.
I hope this list has given you a good jumping-off point to get acquainted with this wonderful, weird, and spooky genre. If you’re still hungry for more, why not check out our Halloween Recommendations? Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll do a list of the scariest movies I’ve personally seen.
Happy Halloween, Boils and Ghouls!