I take my Halloween horror marathons very seriously. I take as much time off work as possible, and I usually start my spreadsheet planning in August (though I’m a little behind this year). I’ll write all about this year’s week-long marathon starting tomorrow and talk a bit about how I plan it out — don’t worry, there will be no spreadsheets — but if you don’t have a week to spare, allow me to suggest a 24-hour horrorthon instead. I’ve put together a list of some of my favorite horror movies that will keep you scared (and keep you awake) for 24 hours. Obviously I couldn’t fit every classic on this list, so please let me know in the comments what movies I missed that you would include in your marathon!
Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
This anthology film is the best way to get in the Halloween spirit. Written and directed by Michael Dougherty, Trick ‘r Treat is a love letter to Halloween-obsessed horror fans, featuring ghosts, werewolves, poisoned candy, slashers, and Sam, the perfect Halloween mascot. This movie had a delayed and limited release, but thanks to word of mouth, it has achieved the cult status it deserves. Trick ‘r Treat is a classic, and it should be required Halloween viewing.
Now that you’re in the Halloween mood, let’s keep going with another classic. I said this about Halloween when I ranked the films of the franchise, and I’ll say it again: this movie is brilliant, and it is always scary no matter how many times you watch it. Turn the volume up so that the iconic theme can get your heart racing. If you don’t already have all the lights off (which, you should really watch all of these in as much darkness as possible), then turn them off and enjoy the best slasher film of all time.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Zombie movies existed before George A. Romero began his directing career, but they were never the same after he took a shoestring budget and turned Night of the Living Dead into a classic of horror and indie cinema. Even if you don’t know or care about the film’s legacy, it’s a damn scary movie that is perfect to watch on Halloween night. Karen Cooper attacking her parents and Johnny’s reappearance as a ghoul always give me chills. I still can’t quite believe we lost Romero this year, but his work will live on, and he will forever be the godfather of zombie films.
Zombi 2 (1980)
Speaking of Romero — Zombi 2 (or Zombie, among other alternate titles; this movie is definitely an exception to the Piñata Principle) was an unofficial sequel to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Written by Dardano Sacchetti, it feels like a bridge between Romero’s zombie films and the zombie films of the ’30s and ’40s, when the undead rose from the grave because of voodoo rituals rather than atomic radiation. Directed by Italian master Lucio Fulci, this movie has two of my favorite horror moments: the eye splinter scene and Zombie vs. Shark.
ZOMBIE. VERSUS. SHARK.
Cat People (1942)
Produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur, Cat People is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Lewton is a horror legend, producing classics for RKO based on the agreement that he could do whatever he wanted with a film as long as it was short, cheap, and titled by the studio executives. Lewton took the sensationalist titles he was handed — Cat People, The Leopard Man, I Walked with a Zombie (one of the ’40s films I mentioned above that featured voodoo zombies) — and turned them into sophisticated, beautiful films. Cat People is about a woman named Irena who is cursed to turn into a cat when she is enraged or sexually aroused, but in the hands of Lewton and Tourneur (and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who also worked with Tourneur on the film noir classic Out of the Past), this movie is so much more than its plot or title would sugggest.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Depending on what time you started your marathon, you may be getting a little loopy right now from sleep deprivation. This is the perfect time for some German Expressionism. Robert Wiene’s stylized and surreal The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari tells the story of a hypnotist who uses a somnambulist to commit murders for him. The line between fantasy and reality is already blurred on Halloween; whatever slight boundary remains will be erased completely by this distorted nightmare. Embrace the chaos and enjoy.
The Wicker Man (1973)
We’re keeping things surreal with this next film. Police sergeant Howie, a devout Christian, investigates the disappearance of a young girl on Summerisle, a remote island whose residents worship pagan gods. He is appalled at the residents’ lack of “Christian decency” (if ever there were a man who would clutch his pearls, it would be Sgt. Howie). As the investigation continues, he requests the help of Lord Summerisle (played by Christopher Lee), the lord of the island who is just as unhelpful as the other residents are in locating the missing girl. Though viewers probably won’t be quite as appalled as Sgt. Howie — trust me, no one is appalled as Sgt. Howie — they will be just as curious about what is really happening on Summerisle. This is my favorite Christopher Lee film, and it has one of the all-time greatest horror endings.
The Howling (1981)
After the last two dream-like movies, The Howling will be a nice shot of adrenaline to keep your horrorthon going. Joe Dante’s werewolf movie opens strong, with news anchor Karen White (Dee Wallace) meeting up with serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo) as part of a sting operation. The encounter leaves Karen traumatized and suffering from amnesia, so her therapist sends her to The Colony, which sounds totally safe and normal and not at all like a creepy werewolf cult. Like An American Werewolf in London, The Howling excels at presenting a werewolf story that works well in any setting, urban or rural. And you have to see Rob Bottin’s brilliant onscreen werewolf transformation. That man is a genius.
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
No Halloween marathon is complete without Vincent Price. In gimmick maestro William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill, Price plays Frederick Loren, the perfect murderous husband/eccentric millionaire. His combination of campy and creepy is an utter delight. And if Price’s performance doesn’t put a smile on your face, the acid pit and cheap-but-oh-so-effective jump scares certainly will. This movie is probably most famous for Castle’s skeleton gag: at the precise moment that Frederick’s wife Annabelle is attacked by a skeleton and falls into the acid pit, a skeleton would fly through the theatre to scare the hell out of the audience. This movie is pure fun, which makes it a perfect palate cleanser if you find your horrorthon is getting just a bit too dark or intense.
The Haunting (1963)
The Haunting is the first movie I ever mentioned on this blog. It is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever watched, and there is nary a special effect to be seen in this haunted house story. The chills derive instead from director Robert Wise’s brilliant camerawork and judicious use of eerie sound effects. I recently learned that Wise worked under Val Lewton at RKO, which seems obvious in hindsight. He clearly shares Lewton’s storytelling talent and affinity for sophisticated psychological horror. In The Haunting, Wise demonstrates a masterful understanding of the power of suggestion; he knew that the way to frighten viewers is not to fling open a door and show us a monster, but to show us a door and let us imagine what terrible thing may be lurking behind it.
Night of the Creeps (1986)
The horrorthon is approaching hour 17 at this point, so some goofy fun and humor is required. Enter: Night of the Creeps. Written and directed by Fred Dekker, this is the purest and most beautiful love letter to B-movies that I’ve ever seen. It stars Tom Atkins as Detective Ray Cameron, which automatically makes it a classic in my book, and it includes this immortal exchange:
Detective Cameron: “I’ve got good news and bad news, girls. The good news is your dates are here.”
Sorority Girl: “What’s the bad news?”
Detective Cameron: “They’re dead.”
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Directed by James Whale, Bride of Frankenstein is widely regarded as the best of the Universal Monster films. Obviously I knew it by reputation prior to watching it, but I was shocked during my first viewing to see that the Bride appeared so late in the film. How could the performance be so iconic, I wondered, when the movie is almost over and the Bride hasn’t even appeared yet? But then I saw her. The hair, the costume, and the makeup – they created the look. But Elsa Lanchester brought the character to life, with her bizarre, jerky movements and her huge searching eyes and her unsettling hisses. Pop some popcorn, kiddies, and enjoy one of horror’s finest performances.
The Thing (1982)
Next up is The Thing, John Carpenter’s (…and Rob Bottin’s…and Dean Cundey’s) masterpiece. It was poorly received when it was released, with many reviewers criticizing it for choosing shock value over real scares and for being too deliberately disgusting. Dear readers, those reviewers were wrong. The effects are indeed shocking, but this is no mindless gore-fest. The Thing is one of the smartest, scariest, and most technically impressive movies ever made. Unlike many horror movies, it rewards – nay, demands – multiple viewings. Fortunately, time has been kind to the film’s reputation, with fans and critics alike recognizing it for the masterpiece that it is. We’re getting close to the end of the horrorthon, fiends, so if you’re getting a little sleepy, The Thing and its head-spider are here to help wake you up.
The Shining (1980)
This is another film that rewards multiple viewings. I haven’t seen this for myself, because I’m always too distracted by how beautiful the movie is – I’m a sucker for Stanley Kubrick’s fluorescent one-point perspective shots, and the Steadicam work deserves all the praise it gets – but evidently objects inside the Overlook Hotel move about on their own and eagle-eyed viewers can spot the differences from scene to scene. I’m going to try and spot them during my marathon, but I can’t promise I won’t get distracted again, because besides being visually thrilling this movie is terrifying. Room 237, the Grady twins, that dude in the bear costume…when you finish this movie, you’ll want to sleep with the lights on for a week and make sure there isn’t a hedge maze in the tri-state area.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Congratulations, you made it! I like to end my Halloween celebration with the reminder that horror is for every day, not just October 31st, and there is no better way to do that than with The Nightmare Before Christmas. Seeing evil toys attack children on Christmas Eve will help keep the rage at bay when you see Elf on the Shelf replace Halloween candy on store shelves. If that doesn’t work, turn your house into a replica of Halloween Town. When you’re shopping and you hear “Santa Baby” for the 85th time, start singing “Kidnap the Sandy Claws” and encourage startled passersby to join you. The possibilities are endless!
Now go forth and be creepy, my fiends. Happy Halloween.