Sacred Walloween: Travis’ Favorite Horror Movies

As Sacred Walloween comes to a close, I look back on my five years running this site, and I’ve realized something. For the most part, my lists – both for Sacred Walloween and beyond – have focused on the “best” films in any given genre or subject. And that makes sense, because objectively, I am always right. But something that I don’t do often enough (in fact, not since my very first year) is a list of my favorites in a genre – the films that have personally stuck with me, regardless of their wider impact, and have tickled me to no end. And so, I thought we could end the month getting to know the real Travis, with my list of my Top Ten Favorite Horror Movies.

Let me start off by explaining the rules, just to help you understand. While I’ve previously done a list of the Top Ten Horror Movies, and a list titled “Top Ten Favorite Halloween Movies,” this list will be a little different. Unlike the Top Ten Horror Movies list, there will be no semblance of objectivity. While my brain knows that Psycho is the greatest horror movie ever made, in my heart of hearts it would probably rank 12th or 13th. Meanwhile, while my Favorite Halloween Movies list featured the likes of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Hocus Pocus, my Favorite Horror Movies are more focused on thrills and chills than silly Halloween shenanigans. Oh, and because I’m taking the definition of “horror” as literally as possible this time around, some of my usual October suspects are ineligible. This means that Zodiac, which is on my All-Time Favorite Films list, and yet is more of a thriller, is out. Ditto What We Do In The Shadows, which would be in the Top 3 if it weren’t more comedy than horror.

So before we reach the Top Ten, let’s look at the Honorable Mentions. These are films from all over that may have run chills down my spine during its run, but had me leaving the theater or turning off the TV with a big smile on my face. Starting with the classic movie monsters, I’m particularly fond of Nosferatu, Frankenstein, the original 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi, and the original 1958 The Fly (the Cronenberg one is good too, but doesn’t chill me the way the original does). As I’m a sucker for a good ghost story, I’ve also watched and loved The Orphanage, The Innocents, and The Sixth Sense, which for all of Shyamalan’s flaws I do view as a near-perfect movie. I’m apparently not as fond of zombie flicks, but it’s hard not to fall in love with Train To Busan and Night of the Living Dead. Meanwhile, despite my aversion to gore, I apparently hold a soft spot for nasty body horror films, like Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn, the Tarantino/Rodriguez double-feature Grindhouse (Death Proof in particular might be Tarantino’s best work), Mandy, and Jacob’s Ladder with its insane twist ending.

Moving on to the campier side of things (horror films that were either not supposed to be funny or kept the horror/comedy balance more even than, say, Shadows), we have the troll-less Troll 2, the gender satire of The Love Witch, the self-aware The Guest, the gonzo intentionally-bad House, and the murderous tire of Rubber. Moving into the realm of slashers, I hold a special place in my heart for I Know What You Did Last Summer, You’re Next, and Friday the 13th Part 6: Jason Lives! (it’s funnier and more enjoyable than even Part 1!), while in the ream of psychos (only vaguely different from slashers), we have the Japanese cult hits Audition and the animated Perfect Blue, the British Peeping Tom, the Austrian Funny Games (I’d argue one of the greatest films ever made, even if there are a few films I like more), and the Spanish mindf*ck erotic body horror The Skin I Live In. And then there are the films I just can’t define because they are so originally insane: the 2005 cave horror The Descent, 1998’s television ghost horror Ringu, and the film I came closest to picking, 2019’s nightmare-fuelling Climax. This should serve as a pretty good introduction to my taste in horror; so now that this is all settled, let’s jump right into my official Ten Favorite Horror Films!

The Conjuring

Before The Conjuring, I wasn’t a very big horror fan. I didn’t even see horror films on the big screen – the idea just didn’t bring me any sense of enjoyment. I saw The Conjuring on a whim, during a matinee on my day off from work. And holy sh*t did it blow my mind. The Conjuring is, as a story, perfectly structured – and a good story is a prerequisite for most horror films for me. If I’m not invested, then getting scared is the only goal, and I am not about that sh*t. The family’s journey was earnest, the introduction to the Warrens (played with loving affection by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) makes perfect sense – as does their own arc – and the scares all come at the perfect time. Speaking of the scares, how good is each scare set up in The Conjuring? They are all introduced subtly, and play off of a sense of dynamic tension, as opposed to the lazy jump scare formula that can be seen a mile away. Simple things like echoing claps, hanging feet, and beyond are used to get the heart racing far more than a 7 foot man in a hockey mask jumping out with a machete. The Conjuring taught me that horror could be fun and smart (ok, kind of smart), and it was the film that opened the door to a whole new genre for me.

Halloween

Far and away my favorite horror film, Halloween may be one of my favorite films of all time. It is perfectly structured in every sense, and is shot, edited, and acted to perfection. John Carpenter and his producer/girlfriend Debra Hill (both integral to the success of this film) not only created the slasher genre in their go-for-broke indie film, they crafted one of the simplest, scariest films ever made. The reason Halloween works when so other slashers failed is threefold. The first is that Carpenter actually had something to say. Having grown up in a corrupt and racist suburban town, Carpenter wanted to show the seedy underbelly, where neighbors don’t look out for each other and there are dark secrets deeply suppressed. Second, and most importantly: for this to work, you have to care for the characters. Their deaths should mean something, and therefore you have to establish them as three-dimensional. Enter Hill, who rewrote Carpenter’s dialogue so that Jamie Lee Curtis, P.J. Soles, and Nancy Kyes looked, acted, and sounded like real-life teenagers. And third, the film eschewed the common “jump scare” technique of the modern slasher, instead utilizing The Shape (later known as Michael Myers) as a symbol of dramatic irony and foreshadowing. I can confirm that the scene where The Shape sits up in the background and slowly makes his way to the camera while the characters sit unknowingly is scarier than all twelve of the Friday the 13th films combined. This is a perfect film, and easily my favorite horror of all time.

The Haunting

Oh man, did I fall head over heels in love with The Haunting when I saw it for the first time a few years ago. I’ve always had a soft spot for Robert Wise, who can do any genre he wants perfectly, from sci-fi (The Day The Earth Stood Still) to musicals (West Side Story, The Sound of Music). The Haunting, easily the best adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s acclaimed novel (f*ck off Mike Flanagan), is a simple premise made better by its underlying themes. There’s a haunted house, and a psychiatrist has hired a group of random civilians to live there in order to study potential paranormal activity. There’s a psychic (played with an overpowering sexuality for everyone and everything by Claire Bloom), the owner’s cocky nephew (Russ Tamblyn, who should be in everything), and Eleanor (Julie Harris), a frazzled woman who’s had a rough life. And that’s where things get great. The Haunting explores the mental deterioration of poor Eleanor, and the effects on childhood trauma later in life. As great as the set pieces are – the breathing door, the crying children, and of course “Who’s holding my hand?!?” – the fact that all these experiences are, potentially, all in Eleanor’s mind elevates The Haunting from a good horror film to an all-time great one.

House on Haunted Hill

It’s hard to explain why I love House on Haunted Hill. When I first watched it off my DVR a few years ago, I wholeheartedly believed it was a straightforward horror film, full of ghosts and scares. Instead, what I got was a self-aware flick that delivered terrifying scares on top of self-aware punchlines. Vincent Price hams it up as the host of a dinner party where he and his wife (Carol Ohmart) constantly try to outsmart each other in a scheme to scare the other to death over affairs and fortunes. The plan? Their several guests must spend the night with the couple in a haunted house, the survivors getting $10,000 each. What makes Haunted Hill so special – and particularly endeared it to me – is that the film manages to be both terrifying and hilarious at the same time. The biggest scare comes when a decrepit old crone suddenly appears behind Carolyn Cook, to great effect, only to slowly wheel out of the room humorously. And I would give anything to witness the famous 1960s showings where, in the film’s climax, an (intentionally) fake skeleton attacks Ohmart’s Annabelle, and producer William Castle lowered a skeleton to fly around the auditorium. As silly as it is scary, House on Haunted Hill is a real treat.

The Night of the Hunter

While not technically a horror film, there are few films in any genre that have resulted in such an awe-inspired and visceral reaction on my part. The only film directed by Charles Laughton, the film functions as something of a living nightmare for two children, often resorting to dream logic as their father’s former cellmate, a corrupt false prophet named Reverend Harry Powell lulls an entire town into a false sense of security through his fire and brimstone preachings whilst he marries the children’s mother in order to find a stolen fortune. Robert Mitchum knows exactly how to inspire terror as Powell, using his deep voice to so casually explain his hatred of women, captivate a town, and slowly and melodically tell a little girl that he will brutally murder her and her brother. Laughton’s filmmaking inspires a dreamlike terror, from the Gothic murder sequence to a body floating underneath the water. It is a bizarre, nightmare-fueled ride with much to chew on, and it is for all these reasons it stands tall as one of my favorite horror films.

Poltergeist

Poltergeist was the first horror film I ever saw. I’m not sure if that’s what helped it stay with me, or if it’s the impeccable directing by Tobe Hooper. It definitely ties into the infamous clown doll scene, in which a young boy is nearly murdered by his psychopathic toy that absolutely should not be at the foot of his bed – a scene that I will confirm gave me nightmares well into my teen years. Most likely, it is a combination of all of the above. The fact it was my first horror movie certainly helped make a special, but I think I would have fallen in love with it regardless based on the strength of its story. An ordinary suburban family whose house suddenly becomes haunted, with ghosts ranging from the mischievous (chairs on the ceiling) to the malevolent (kidnapping little girls and trying to murder their brothers with clown dolls – no I’m not over it). The family members are all believable and entertaining (older sister Dominique Dunne, younger sister Heather O’Rourke aka “They’re here,” dad Craig T. Nelson, etc.). The elevation of the scares happens naturally. And just for good measure there’s a lovable-yet-uncanny psychic played by Zelda Rubinstein. Poltergeistscared me as a kid, it scares me now, and it will always be one of my favorite horror films.

The Silence of the Lambs

Yes, yes, I had to include the only horror film to ever win Best Picture. How can I not? I can discuss the reasons I love it ad nauseum, in terms of the filmmaking. Jonathan Demme crafted a brilliant horror film about the mistreatment of women in society and the sexism present in the upper echelons of the system (much of the film involves Clarice being condescended to and sexualized by everyone but Hannibal Lector). Anthony Hopkins and Ted Levine crafted two of the best horror movie villains in Hannibal Lector (a so-called “Good man in a bad body”) and Buffalo Bill. And Jodie Foster carries the film as the scared-but-not-showing-it recruit who cracks the case wide open. But if you’re asking me why I’m picking this as one of my favorite horror films of all time, it would have to be the rewatchability factor. There are certain movies that, when on cable, just suck up the rest of your evening because you can’t look away. For some people, it’s The Shawkshank Redemption. For others, it’s The Departed (also me). For me, Silence is certainly one of those. Each story beat is perfectly executed, the lines so effortlessly quotable, the scares so viscerally engaging, and each sequence, from the tete-a-tete between Hannibal and Clarice to the “It rubs the lotion on its skin” scene to Hannibal’s escape to the thrilling lights-out conclusion at the climax, each scene grabs you and refuses to let go. The Silence of the Lambs is enough brain food (I’m sorry) to sustain you, but enough comfort food to entertain. The perfect balance for a horror film.

The Sitter

Technically a short film, The Sitter is the opening scene to When A Stranger Calls, and just that. While Carole Kane admittedly gives a better performance in the remade opening, I actually prefer the simplicity and honesty of Fred Walton’s original short. Without having to carry a 90-minute film, The Sitter can get in and get out without having to carry out a decades-long plot. It’s also important to note that Lucia Strasler, while lacking Kane’s talents as an actress, possesses a more simplistic, “Girl Next Door” vibe that inspires more terror through its very ordinary-ness. There are no gimmicks, no gotcha moments, nothing like that. Just the simple terror of a babysitter receiving prank phone calls that slowly reveal she’s being watched. It all culminates in the immortal line from campfires everywhere: “The call is coming from inside the house!” I believe that this short film holds up better than either its 1978 counterpart or its 2006 botched remake. And its stark portrayal of filmmaking prowess make it one of my favorite horror films, hands down.

Suspiria

I had no idea what the f*ck giallo was before seeing Suspiria for the first time. I’m not even sure how I’d first heard about it. I think rumors had swirled around Film Twitter (not to mention a terrific joke on The Office) for a few months before I learned of a special screening in my local arthouse theater, involving a rare 35mm film print with the score intact. And so, my first showing of Suspiriaand the beloved Italian horror genre came on the big screen, with my horror aficionado brother in toe, with a crowd of stoned-out 50-year-olds and twenty-something goths. And you know what? That was the right way to see it. Suspiria is a visceral experience. The bright colors make the brutality of the blood, hangings, and beheadings all the more potent. The sound design is so unnerving that when a character tries to escape a murderer by jumping into a room full of razor blades, it sends an electric jolt down the spine despite no utilizing “accurate” sounds. And the score. My God, the score! Goblin created one of the greatest horror themes of all time with the stalking, unsettling melodies. Suspiria creates a shocking, interactive experience for its audience, and experiencing it the “right” way certainly helped make it one of my favorite horror films.

Wait Until Dark…

Full disclosure, I first watched Wait Until Dark… to impress a girl I was trying to woo. It worked – it ended up being my longest relationship. But in the aftermath of our breakup all those years ago, what has stuck with me the most was her favorite film, a horror movie titled Wait Until Dark…, which I have wholeheartedly loved ever since. Every scare in Wait Until Dark… stems from its central premise: Audrey Hepburn’s Susy is blind, and has inadvertently come into possession of a doll filled with heroin. The doll is wanted by a team of criminals, including two con artists played by Richard Crenna and Jack Weston, as well as a sadistic, smooth-talking gangster played by Alan Arkin. The terror of the film involves the way the men begin tormenting her, fabricating stories and casually cutting phone lines. It’s a twisted mind game throughout, but the real fun comes when the third act takes effect, when Susy evens the playing field by eliminating the lights and executing its third act in complete darkness. It is a psychologically taut, thoroughly entertaining horror flick, and one that I’m glad I watched, regardless of circumstances!

 

Well, I hope you’ve all had a wonderful Halloween month! It’s been a spooky fun time with you all, and I look forward to a month off before A Sacred Wall Christmas. Maybe I’ll do another theme month like I did in September…maybe superheroes? We’ll see. At any rate, enjoy trick or treating tonight, watch a good horror film (maybe one from this list), and stop, look, and listen, because it’s Halloween.

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