Redbrick Film’s coven of writers convene once more on All Hallows’ Eve to recommend the best movies to watch at this spooky time of the year
Matt Taylor – A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Wes Craven’s original A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of those films that everyone claims to be among the best horror films of all time, to the extent that you’d be forgiven for wondering if it could ever live up to that reputation. Perhaps the most surprising thing about it is that it does – and then some. Elm Street is a stone-cold classic that still carries the power to terrify 35 years after its original release.
The premise is simple: teenagers in Springwood, Ohio find themselves being terrorised by a mysterious presence in their dreams, and, after a handful of extremely gruesome deaths, decide to try and fight back. That mysterious presence takes the shape of Robert Englund’s now-iconic Freddy Krueger, the demonic spirit of a child-murderer who was burned alive by the parents of the children he’d killed. Englund is utterly transfixing in the role, and never anything less than terrifying. Whether he’s pushing himself through the very fabric of a bedroom wall (perhaps the film’s most genuinely unsettling scare), reaching his hand out of a bathtub, or pulling a kid into a bed before blitzing him and unleashing a torrent of blood into the room, Freddy is an astonishing villain. While it’s a shame that none of the films that followed seemed to be able to do Freddy justice, Englund’s work here remains astounding. From his voice and dialogue to his enthralling physicality and superb face makeup, it’s no wonder 80s teens were so scared of Krueger. And who could ever forget that knife-glove?
The acting is about what we have come to expect from 80s slasher films – cheesy but serviceable. Heather Langenkamp plays lead character Nancy as an everywoman, making her instantly both likeable and relatable. Her group of friends are perfectly fine for the most part; the film opens with Freddy stalking Tina in her dream, and is effective at getting us onside without even knowing her name. An unrecognisable Johnny Depp shows up as Nancy’s useless boyfriend Glen, but the highlight (for all the wrong reasons) is Ronee Blakely as Nancy’s mother, a character always referred to by Nancy as ‘mother’, rather than ‘mum’, and who, hilariously, sleeps with a bottle of vodka. Granted, her alcoholism feeds into the key idea that these children are paying for their parents’ sins, but the fact that she sleeps with an expensive bottle of spirit next to her is utterly magnificent.
One of the most interesting aspects of Elm Street is its almost complete lack of character development. By the end of the film, we know next to nothing about any of the main characters aside from their names – but I say this not as a criticism, because somehow, bafflingly, against all odds, it works. Craven trims every possibly millimetre of fat from the film, meaning what he leaves is a lean, brisk, 87-minute thrill-fest that never lets us stop for breath. On a budget of only $1.8m (a miniscule amount by today’s standards), it’s easy to see why this is the case, but it results in the film not wasting a single moment – something it is undoubtedly all the better for. We open on a scare, we close on a scare, and damn near everything in-between is a scare. Always suspenseful, and never boring, the OG Elm Street is a surefire hit for a creepy movie night this Halloween.
Charlotte Tomlinson – Ghostbusters (1984)
It’s 1984, Halloween and you’re craving some action without the gore of The Thing: who you gonna call? Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson star as the titular Ghostbusters – four disavowed parapsychologists hiding in abandoned fire station, eating Chinese food, catching ghosts and eventually fighting off the destructor of civilisation itself, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Side characters include Dana and Louis, played by Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis, who become possessed by Zuul and Vinz Clortho, servants to Gozer, evil incarnate. Our unfit, nerdy action heroes with cigarettes balancing off their lips, must grab their sticks, heat them up, and cross the streams in order to save the day.
The highlight of the comedy is in the chemistry of the cast. Ray Stantz enthusiastically throws psychoanalytic terms about whilst being surrounded by ectoplasm. Winston Zeddemore, like the audience, doesn’t really understand what is going on, but is happy to go along for the ride. Egon Spengler is comically analogue and rigid, with hobbies that famously include collecting spores, mould and fungus. Peter Venkmann uses science as an attempt to hopelessly pull women. Basically, a quipping, ass-kicking Wizard of Oz with unlicensed nuclear accelerators on their backs.
The script is written by fellow stars Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis, and the film benefits from this with the perfect characters they have written for each other. As previous SNL cast members, they have crafted a rhythm in the dialogue, balancing scientific jargon with memorable one-liners. Through this, Bill Murray’s sardonic wit shines, particularly when his deadpan delivery contrasts to the interdimensional chaos around him (‘Okay, so, she’s a dog’). Sigourney Weaver also noticeably shines under the comedic writing and direction, who just after playing the iconic heroine in Alien is openly accepting the campiness and theatricality the role of being possessed requires.
Ghostbusters was the first comedy film to rely heavily on special effects, and director Ivan Reitman perfectly balances the laughs and ghouls to ensure the film is not overshadowed by it. Despite not being completely convincing supernatural beings, the animation of the ghosts has a charm to it, such as the famous Slimer, appealing to a wider audience. Even the terror dogs are scary in a cartoonish way, as to not undermine the tone of the film.
Reitman, who had previously worked with Ramis on other comedies such as Animal House, through his balanced direction ensured this motion picture would be a masterpiece. Upon also producing this project, he knew that this was a film without subtext or wider themes, but more importantly knew exactly how to make it work. The actors are clearly enjoying working together in each scene, which as a result means we enjoy every moment of the film. This is perhaps why subsequent sequels and reboots have struggled, as they failed to recapture the same feel.
The score by Elmer Bernstein is rarely unnerving but carries spooky undertones with it and creates a simply awesome and mystical atmosphere. All this is complemented by Ray Parker Jr.’s iconic song, which was deservedly nominated for Best Song at both the Oscars and Golden Globes.
Ghostbusters is just pure fun. The perfect Halloween film, that has truly earned its place in the American National Film Registry.
Amy O’Neill – Hocus Pocus
Hocus Pocus is a lasting childhood Halloween classic. The now-cheesy effects are so incredibly nostalgic, and paired with the larger-than-life performances of the three witches, Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy, its appeal has endured the 26 years since it was first released.
What makes Hocus Pocus so magical is its genuine hilarity. There are moments that are funny, but you can’t tell whether it was intended that way, or if it has just aged to the point of amusement. One such moment is when Binx (the talking cat/cursed seventeenth-century child) gets shockingly run over by a van, then re-inflates in a way that can only be likened to a beach ball. These moments are offset by the genuinely hilarious situation of three bumbling witches navigating 1993 Salem, having died in 1693 – encountering sprinklers for the first time and fearing the ‘Burning Rain of Death’, and thinking firemen are witch hunters. What was terrifying as a child – I was truly spooked by Billy Butcherson, something about his sewn-up mouth was so unsettling – is now amusing, but the plot, and cackling performances of the three witches, remain truly worthy of its status as a Halloween classic.
The performances of the witches are second-to-none – Bette Midler and Sarah Jessica Parker are such naturals in their roles as the somewhat incompetent, preying witches. However, all three are wacky, cackling and evil, amusing to watch as an adult but a definitely scary as a child. Bette Midler as the eldest of the three sisters, Winifred, is brilliant, the evil mastermind leading her admittedly more silly sisters as they try to capture the children to consume their life-force to attain ever-lasting youth. Her mood twists and turns, making her unpredictable, the driving force behind the sisters’ actions, and a hilarious, big-haired delight to watch. Sarah Jessica Parker too is fabulous, in a role so different to what you’d usually find her in. Sarah, the youngest of the three, is at once giggly and sinister, with her immature actions and haunting song, ‘Come Little Children’. Kathy Najimy completes the witchy trio as Mary, bringing them together in a bundle of comedy and Disney-fied threat.
Hocus Pocus is the perfect Halloween story, and has retained all of its fun and charm all these years later. No matter how old you are, I’m sure this film is still at the top of your Halloween watch-list, and will be for years to come. Its plot remains creepy – who wouldn’t be scared of witches trying to steal your youth? – and is at the same time a heartwarming tale of family and friendship, with a happy ending; a truly bewitching experience for the spookiest night of the year.
Ellie Burridge – Scream
For the past three years, I’ve watched the same film every Halloween. The thing I most look forward to on 31st October – more than dressing up or going out – is settling down with a blanket and a hot drink and watching Wes Craven’s Scream.
I was never a big fan of traditional ‘horror’ movies when I was younger: I was too easily scared by serial killers and not scared at all by anything I considered beyond the realm of the believable (apologies to all the extra-terrestrial sewer clowns and zombies out there). It’s taken some time for me to recognise that there’s more to horror films than how much they scare you – there are ones that provoke thought (Get Out), ones that make you laugh (What We Do in the Shadows), and ones that make you obsess over the characters to an extent that worries everyone in your life (Interview with the Vampire). But the first horror film to show me that I shouldn’t discount the entire genre was Scream, and perhaps for that reason it’s remained my favourite horror movie for five years.
One great thing about returning to Scream every Halloween is that with each passing year I become more literate in the horror tropes that Scream (lovingly) parodies. When I first watched it (in my A-Level film studies class on the conventions of the horror genre, incidentally), I’d never seen Psycho or Halloween or The Shining. I still haven’t seen all of the films Scream references, but with each year I add more of the classics to my repertoire and increase my appreciation of what Craven had to say about the genre he loved.
Besides all the winks and nudges, Scream is an insanely entertaining film. From the iconic opening scene’s misdirection to the final confrontation between Sidney Prescott and Ghostface, there’s never a moment where the film loses its momentum. Even just watching the teens discuss who they think the murderer is has a thrill to it, with razor-sharp dialogue and a ton of social commentary thrown in for good measure. For all of its millennial trappings (the killer even says, “It’s the millennium, motives are incidental”), there’s something about its depiction of teenage life that has resonated for the twenty-three years since its release. In fact, Scream (1996) probably says more about teenage life in the twenty-first century than Scream 4 (2011).
All of this is why watching Scream is my favourite Halloween tradition. The film never stops being funny, insightful, and scary – and sometimes there are even new people to share my love for it with. In any case, my 31st of Octobers are certainly less embarrassing than my Christmases, when I leave my family for two hours and ten minutes to watch Iron Man 3 by myself.
Todd Waugh-Ambridge – Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island
Peri Cimen – The Sixth Sense
We might not (all) be able to see dead people, but almost all of us have seen The Sixth Sense, and no matter how many times you’ve seen it, it’s impossible to watch and not get chills. Not only is it a genuinely compelling and haunting film, it achieves this feat without having to try very hard at all. Admittedly, M. Night Shyamalan has made several miscalculations throughout his career, but The Sixth Sense is certainly not one of them; this intelligent and timeless horror about a young boy that can communicate with the dead will always be a masterpiece.
After a disastrous encounter with a previous patient, child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is tormented by this failure and becomes increasingly estranged from his wife. In order to restore his faith in his work, he begins to help a troubled nine-year-old boy named Cole (Haley Joel Osment), whose case is eerily similar to the one he longs to put right. Unknown to Malcolm, however, are several dark and unsettling revelations that, in the two decades since the film’s release, have become iconic and unforgettable in their own right.
The Sixth Sense is an impressive film all round, with interesting and subtle cinematography (involving some disorienting shots through reflective surfaces), and a highly suspenseful score by James Newton Howard. But if there’s one reason to watch – or re-watch –The Sixth Sense this Halloween, it’s Haley Joel Osment. Rarely are child actors able to come across as eloquent and haunting as Osment does in this film, and he does it impeccably well. The idea that such a young boy has to deal with truly horrific encounters on a daily basis is distressing enough, but Osment’s emotional maturity as Cole never ceases to amaze. With very few central characters, the film relies on the intimacy developed between Cole and Malcolm, as well as the tension built by the secret of Cole’s torment, and this is one of its greatest successes. Cole is both thoughtful and frightening; Malcolm is troubled and trying very hard to right the wrongs of his past to little avail, and together they form a mutually supportive relationship that, oddly enough, is genuinely touching to watch.
Shyamalan plays effectively with these shared human experiences and fears – loneliness, intimacy, death – to create a horror film with unexpected depth and heart… but even without all the blood and guts, The Sixth Sense is still scary as hell. Whilst it might seem to lean more towards the supernatural thriller side of the spectrum, it cannot be underestimated as a horror. There are more than enough jump-scares to keep everyone entertained amidst the more patient, psychological aspects of the film, making it the perfect pick for a Halloween viewing.
Amy Henderson – Coraline
Yes, this is technically a children’s film, but it must certainly count as one of the top films to watch this Halloween season. If for some reason you have been living under a rock and are unaware as to what the film Coraline is about, it follows the story of young girl Coraline (not Caroline), who is bored and unentertained by her parents and her new house. Whilst exploring, she finds a strange door which leads to another world – a complete parallel of her own but much, much more fun. In this world her “other” parents are attentive, playful, and imaginative – they shower her with gifts, love, and affection. All seems perfect – aside from the fact they have jet black buttons instead of eyes – sinister enough yet?
This film is completely stop-motion animation – a masterpiece from the genius director that is Henry Sellick (see The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach). His distinctively disturbing and spooky style fits the overall theme of Coraline so well, from the Other Mother’s sudden transformation to the more ambiguous details such as her never eating any food, yet being described as ‘consuming’ the lives of children. Neil Gaiman, the original writer of the book Coraline, actually loved Sellick’s films so much he approached him himself and asked him to adapt the novel.
Rather than just focus on the characters bringing the story to life, Sellick goes a step further using the colour of the set itself to depict the difference between the two worlds: the real world is grey and bleached of most colour, whereas the Other World is brightly coloured, with lavishly decorated apartments and lush gardens. The Other World is portrayed as inviting and lively, yet there is a running theme of performance throughout which slowly falls apart as the Other Mother’s true intentions with Coraline are revealed.
The score, composed by Bruno Coulais, brings the whole tale together – spine-chilling, mystical whispering throughout the music adds to the melancholy tone. Even the fun piano song the Other Father sings (by the band They Might Be Giants) has a hidden foreboding message in the lyrics. The choral pieces heard throughout are actually sung in a made-up language – possibly to add to the idea of unease and confusion throughout the film.
Everything about this film is full of subtle details that, when brought together, weave a story so dark and intensely eerie that it is more than perfect for Halloween. Ominous and tense, it is just the right balance of morbid fascination to keep you fully invested in Coraline’s adventure. As with many children’s films it has a key message we can all still learn from to this day – be careful what you wish for…
Antonio Aguila – Orphan
In some aspects, Orphan is not a good horror movie due to its over-brimming excess of exploitative entertainment. In some aspects, Orphan is a great horror movie due to its over-brimming excess of exploitative entertainment. Centred around violent, sexual acts carried out by a ‘child’, its tone combines melancholic boredom with ludicrous amounts of gore and disturbing splashes of sexuality. It is a slow-building suspense film that, for some, takes too long. However, it is this stretched-out quality that enables the disgusting, gruesome sensations it takes from Gothic literature.
Combine this enigmatic sense of carnal eroticism with a final act slaughter-fest and you get a startling and undoubtedly entertaining climax. All led up to with dark humour and requisite scares. Oddly, its plot and character developments are brilliant, yet a lot of the movie lacks logic and realism at the same time. In one moment we may be caught up in Isabelle Fuhrman’s talented, creepy performance and in the next we may be frustrated watching the characters not realise the blatant, obvious truth. Despite its interesting premise, the film is inconsistent in terms of maintaining the suspension of disbelief. At times, this converts its melodramatic tone into something clumsy and edgy rather than contributing to its targeted exploitative flair. Thus, the audience is reminded that the movie’s excess is just that: excess.
A hallmark scene of Orphan is its controversial romance scene. It leaves the audience shocked, questioning judgements, and feeling more than slightly put off. Many of Orphan’s scenes can be disputed to be cheaply made – on the contrary, this scene is art. There is no other way to say it: it is simply art. I watched this film not knowing the twist, which probably aided consumption of all the excessive elements. The marketing team, however, blew its chance of success out of the water once they completely spoiled it. Although, if you don’t know, then go in blind.
This movie is unquestionably exploitative, but that doesn’t denigrate from its value. Horror is a genre that encapsulates the certain inevitable unknown of life: death. Our collective unconscious fear of it is so powerful that it allows horror to succeed even in low-budget, trashy scenarios. Orphan combines this fear with other quite raw sensations like eroticism and melodrama making it a top-tier exploitative film. It hits all the wrong and right spots in such a spectacular fashion.
Samuel Zucca – Raw
There are many ways to make a horror film. As a genre it is usually confined to one feeling, one emotion: fear. But really, there are many facets of this emotion that cinema has explored. You can shock an audience with over-the-top stylised gore, like in Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Creep them the hell out with long buildups and a constant withholding of the monster, like in Alien or Jaws. Or you could chuck them something strange, uncanny, and entirely out of the blue, like in David Lynch’s discombobulating Eraserhead. With Julia Doucournau’s Raw, however, the main emotion the film evokes is discomfort.
The film is a hard sell, as in a very short amount of time the viewer is subjected to scene after scene of body horror, psychological hazing, and one of the most swift and terrifying character arcs in recent times. Raw follows Justine, a sixteen-year-old starting out at veterinary school. She has been a vegetarian her whole life, but after trying meat for the first time, she develops a taste for it, and begins to crave it. To say more would be to give away much of the film’s effect, but to be sure, it is not one for the squeamish or faint-hearted. In my only viewing of the film, I had to take a break halfway through just to prepare for the next painful moment.
Raw is one of the most difficult films I’ve seen recently, especially due to the uneasy nature of its content, much more than being a long and confusing endurance test. But that’s not to say that it wasn’t worth watching, or that I won’t (at the right time) watch it again. The elements of disgust and discomfort in the film are tied to its themes of the horrors of meat-eating, and an uneasy relationship to one’s self and one’s body. At its core, Raw is an outsider film, tending away from the supernatural but finding much about our own world to find horror in. At this veterinary school world, where live animals to treat are contrasted with dead ones to eat, you cannot help but view this world as strange, alien, and uncomfortable.