Halloween is next week (!!!), which means a lot of cinephiles & horror nerds out there are currently trying to cram in as many scary movies as they can before the best day of the year (except for Mardi Gras, of course) passes us by. We here at Swampflix watch a lot of horror films year round, so instead of overloading you with the full list of all the spooky movies we’ve covered since we launched the site, here’s a selection of the best of the best. I’ve tried to break it down into a few separate categories to help you find what you’re looking for. Hope this helps anyone looking to add some titles to their annual horror binge! Happy hauntings!
Dario Argento is one of the all-time horror movie greats, right up there with Mario Bava as one of the masters of the highly-influential gaillo genre. His work is a perfect blend of art house cinema & trashy genre fare, the exact formula the Swampflix treasures most. Mark has been tirelessly covering Argento’s films over the past couple months & here’s the best of what he’s reviewed so far.
Suspiria (1977) : “Color and immersion are much more important here than they are in a lot of other films from the same period (or today). Contemporary critics took issue with the film’s plot structure, apparently failing to realize that Suspiria is intentionally dreamlike, influenced by fairy tales and nightmares more than monomyth. Even the opening narration, which others consider to be out of place and somewhat silly, contributes to the film by acting as a kind of horror-tinged “once upon a time.””
Phenomena (1985): “Phenomena is not a giallo picture in the way that many of Argento’s works definitively are or even Suspiria arguably is; although there is a mystery at its core, the crimes cannot be solved by the audience, making this much more of a slasher movie than other entries in the director’s canon, which may have contained elements of the slasher genre but were narratively focused on investigation. Running throughout the film is an undercurrent of terror, which is paired with distinctly beautiful imagery to create a film experience that is more haunting than inquisitive.”
Deep Red (1975): “Deep Red is the apotheosis of many of Argento’s tropes, but it also reflects his growth as a director and the instigation of newer concepts that would become part of his repertoire in the films that followed. His new focus on developing women characters is cited above, but this was also Argento’s first of many collaborations with prog-rock legends Goblin, who composed most of the score for the film after Argento was dissatisfied with Giorgio Gaslini’s initial composition (although some of Gaslini’s tracks are still present in the final score).”
Tenebrae (1982): “Tenebrae (aka Tenebre, although this is less of a translation of the title as it is a miscommunication about promotional material from day one), released in 1982, is Argento’s first picture to be filmed in the eighties and is the definitive giallo of that decade, despite being less well known than his preceding films in that genre. Most importantly, however, this is the first time I’ve really felt that Argento had a thesis with his movie. His previous gialli ranged from good to bad, but one thing they all had in common was that they were first concerned with cinematography and mystery, with meaning and metaphor playing inconsequential roles in the overall structure. […] Here, however, Argento addresses criticism of his work and its themes as well as what he perceived to be a rise in random acts of violence in his contemporary world.”
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970): “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was the first film directed by Argento, who was already relatively well known as a screenwriter, and the reference to the Master of Suspense in the film’s advertising is well placed, as the traces of Hitchcock’s influence are all over this film like fingerprints at a murder scene; this is not a criticism, per se, but it is nonetheless true.”
Opera (1987): “Widely considered to be the last great Dario Argento film, Opera (promoted in the US under the unwieldy Agatha Christie-esque title Terror at the Opera) is a sharp movie with a fast pace and some great new ideas from the aging director. Argento was invited to La Scala after Phenomena and asked to produce and mount a stage opera; he was happy to do so, but the project never went anywhere due to artistic differences. Instead, he channeled that idea into his 1987 film, which concerns a production of Verdi’s Macbeth staged by a transparent avatar of himself, with heavy influences from the plot structure and recurring images of The Phantom of the Opera.”
Mother of Tears (2007): “Mother of Tears is effectively creepy, pairing the psychological horror of a destabilizing and self-destructive society with the unhinged and violent imagery of a slasher, with some occult horror thrown in for good measure. Asia Argento turns in an absolutely dynamite performance, and looks gorgeous doing it, and her scenes with her mother are quietly beautiful despite the uncannily awful CGI–not the only bad CGI in the movie, but, to the movie’s credit, the effects are largely practical. The lighting and score are perfection, and the overall ambiance was reminiscent of Wes Craven’s work in the nineties like Scream and New Nightmare, with sumptuous visuals that play up earthtones in place of the vivid colors of Argento’s earlier work. Although the film seems to be rather widely reviled, it’s actually great–even perfect–in some places, and its weaker elements aren’t awful enough to weigh down the film as much as I expected.”
Art House Horror
If you’re looking for an escape from the endless parade of trashy slasher movies & want a more formally refined style of horror film, this list might be a good place to start.
Peeping Tom (1960): “It’s near impossible to gauge just how shocking or morally incongruous Peeping Tom must’ve been in 1960, especially in the opening scenes where old men are shown purchasing ponography in the same corner stores where young girls buy themselves candy for comedic effect & the protagonist/killer is introduced secretly filming a sex worker under his trench coat before moving in for his first kill. Premiering the same year as Hitchcock’s Psycho and predating the birth of giallo & the slasher in 1962’s Blood & Black Lace, Peeping Tom was undeniably ahead of its time. A prescient ancestor to the countless slashers to follow, Powell’s classic is a sleek, beautifully crafted work that should’ve been met with accolades & rapturous applause instead of the prudish dismissal it sadly received.”
Possession (1981): “Let’s just get this out of the way: Possession is a masterpiece. It’s a cold, incomprehensible film that confidently unleashes cinematic techniques like deadly weapons. Filmed in Berlin in 1980, Possession occupies harsh, uncaring architectural spaces, but populates them with passionate characters that remain in constant, violently fluid motion. The camera moves with them, rarely allowing the audience to settle as it chases its tormented subjects down sparse rooms and hallways like a slasher movie serial killer. In one shot the central couple undulates back & forth in front of a blank white wall, constantly swirling around each other during a bitter argument, but seemingly going nowhere as if trapped in a void.”
Beyond the Black Rainbow (2012): “Beyond the Black Rainbow is not a straightforward cinematic experience, but instead works more like ambient music or a poem. In an age where the lines dividing cinema & television are becoming increasingly blurred, there’s an exponential value in movies that work this way. Recent mind-benders like Beyond the Black Rainbow, It Follows, Upstream Color, Under the Skin, and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears are much-needed reminders that there are still things cinema can do that television can’t, no matter how much HBO wants you to believe otherwise.”
Blood & Black Lace (1964): “Mario Bava’s celebrated Italian thriller, Blood and Black Lace, is a landmark in horror cinema and one of the earliest giallo films in existence. It’s also considered to be the first “body count” horror film, so we can thank Bava for all of those campy, raunchy 80s slasher flicks. Watching this film is like taking a walk through an art gallery. It’s chock-full of rich colors, eerie scenery, deep shadows, and impressive camera angles. The outstanding cinematography alone is a good reason to watch the film.”
The Masque of the Red Death (1964): “The Masque of The Red Death is one of eight films in the Corman-Poe cycle: a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations directed by B-movie legend Roger Corman for American International Pictures. The Masque is widely considered the best of the Poe cycle as well as one of Corman’s best films overall, a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with. There’s so much about The Masque that’s firmly in my wheelhouse: over-the-top set design, an early glimpse of 60’s era Satanic psychedelia, Vincent Price taking effete delight in his own cruelty, a fatalistic ending that doesn’t stray from the pessimism of Poe’s story, Corman pushing the limits of what he can get away with visually on a shoestring budget.”
The Black Cat (1934): “1934’s Unversial Pictures production of The Black Cat is fascinating not because it’s a loose, full-length adaptation of a Poe short story, but because it features the first of many onscreen collaborations between horror movie legends & professional rivals Bela Lugosi & Boris Karloff. Lugosi & Karloff are a match made in horror nerd heaven, especially in this gorgeous, alarmingly violent film that allows them to stray from their usual typecast roles as Count Dracula & the Frankenstein monster. Although there are eight Lugosi/Karloff collaborations in total, it’s difficult to imagine that any of them could possibly match the delicious old school horror aesthetic achieved in The Black Cat. It’s an incredible work.”
The Raven (1935): “Although Karloff receives top billing for The Raven, something he was also awarded in The Black Cat, this is unmistakably Bela Lugosi’s show. Watching the horror legend recite Poe’s “The Raven” in front of an exaggerated raven’s shadow, don surgical gear to apply a knockout gas to the camera lens, gleefully give tours of his torture chamber, and recite lines like “Death is my talisman, Mr Chapman. The one indestructible force, the one certain thing in an uncertain universe. Death!” are all priceless moments for oldschool horror fans.”
Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages (1922): “Even nearly a hundred years since Häxan’s release, the message is still potent. There are still huge flaws in our treatment of mental health & we still need flashy, sinful entertainment to draw our attention to them. Along with its hellish practical effects & creature design, the film’s central message has a surprisingly long shelf life.”
The Spirit of the Beehive (1973): “Both Under the Skin & The Spirit of the Beehive reach beyond the typical ways a movie can terrify, beyond the methods pioneered by classic monster movies like Frankenstein. They achieve a transcendental beauty in images like Beehive’s honeycomb lighting & endless doorways and Under The Skin’s liquid void & free-floating flesh. It’s a terrifying beauty, though, as it is a beauty of the unknown. Both films are transfixing, yet horrifying, because they cannot be truly, completely understood, like the graveyard landscape at the beginning of Frankenstein. For the more than 80 years since mysterious men were curiously robbing graves on that foggy, otherworldly set, ambiguity and obscuration have been used to terrify audiences in countless films. The three mentioned here are mere steppingstones in the evolution of cryptic, atmospheric horror, perhaps only loosely connected to one another in terms of genre, but connected all the same in a hauntingly vague, undead spirit.”
Halfway between high art & the depths of trash, these titles occupy a strange middle ground that defies expectations. They also are some of the scariest movies on the list in completely unexpected ways.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994): “My personal favorite Wes Craven film is 1994’s New Nightmare. It’s not his scariest, nor his most tightly-controlled work, but it is an incredibly smart picture that manages to bridge the gap between the dream-logic horror of A Nightmare on Elm Street with the meta genre reflection of the soon-to-come Scream franchise. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is a perfect way to remember the filmmaker for all he accomplished, not only because it marries those two defining moments of his career in a single picture, but also because he plays a role in the film as a fictionalized version of himself.”
Phase IV (1974): “It’s easy to see why Phase IV was given the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment, but I feel like that brand of mockery is selling its other merits a bit short. Visually bizarre, technically impressive, tonally unnerving, and backed by a wickedly cool soundtrack of droning synths (recently made available 40 years late by Waxwork Records), Phase IV is a thoroughly strange film.”
Crimson Peak (2015): “Crimson Peak is a classic Gothic Horror, with the storyline sticking closely to the standard tropes of the genre – isolation, bloody histories, unnatural relationships, menacing architecture, Victorians, obvious symbolism, endangered virgins, things that gibber and chitter in the night, etc. Del Toro makes references to the Hammer Horror aesthetic, appropriate for a movie with such an overstated sense of dramatic Victorian style (although, to be fair, the Victorians were really dramatic to begin with).”
Triangle (2009): “Part of Triangle’s fun is figuring out just where the plot is going. Your initial viewing will most likely be filled with nagging questions of just “What. Is. Happening. Here?” Familiar explanations of time-travel, ghosts, and the whole ordeal merely being a nightmare will all creep up. They will also prove false as the movie escalates from a slasher flick to a psychological horror to, most terrifying of all, a philosophical one.”
Spring (2015): “Revealing too much about Spring’s story would be a disservice to you so I’m just going to have to stop there and ask you to take my word for it: it’s a great movie.To illustrate how difficult the tone & intent are to pinpoint here, check out the genre listed on the film’s Wikipedia page: ‘supernatural romantic science fiction horror’- expialidocious. You can go ahead and add the word ‘comedy’ to that list as well, as the film is frequently hilarious in a satisfyingly adult way.”
It Follows (2015): “It Follows doesn’t get everything right. It loses momentum at several points and builds toward a somewhat tepid climax, but these are small grievances. Overall it is an exceptional horror film that plays around with horror genre tropes, but feels modern instead of regressive. There is also potent subtext about the nature of our sexual attachments and intimacy anxieties.”
Near Dark (1987): “Near Dark is not a perfect film. It frankly gets by more on style & mood than it does on content, but it’s so stylistically strong that it can pull off a lack of depth with ease. Just the basic concept of a Kathryn Bigelow vampire-Western with a Tangerine Dream soundtrack is enough to inspire enthusiasm on its own.”
Burnt Offerings (1976): “The way that the house in Burnt Offerings uses its occupants to act out violence against each other is also quite scary. The tension builds slowly in this film, starting first with images of life and renewal (a dead potted plant suddenly has a green leaf, a burned-out light bulb begins to work) before more outrageous elements occur (gas leaks in locked rooms, dilapidated siding and roof tiles flying off of the house and being replaced by fresh fixtures). If the film had spent less time establishing the Rolfs as a happy family before tearing them apart, the escalation of terror wouldn’t work half as well as it does, and I can’t believe such a great film has faded into relative obscurity.”
Do you want to see some weird/gross/creepy/goofy monsters? Check out these bad boys.
The Thing (1982): “If I only catch one film during this mini-Carpenter Fest, I’m glad I at least got to experience The Thing for the first time on the big screen. The movie’s visuals are on par with the best the director has ever crafted. The strange, rose-colored lighting of emergency flares & the sparse, snow-covered Antarctica hellscape give the film an otherworldly look backed up, of course, by the foreign monstrosity of its titular alien beast. The film’s creature design is over-the-top in its complexity and I sincerely hope every single model made for the film is preserved in a museum somewhere & not broken into parts or discarded. Also up there with Carpenter’s best work is the film’s dark humor, not only in Kurt Russell’s drunkenly cavalier performance, but also in the absurdity of the film’s violence & grotesqueries. It played very well with a midnight, BYOB audience.”
Nightbreed (1990): “Honestly, the critics were kind of right about the film’s underdeveloped characters and confusing plot, but can’t a movie just be tons of ridiculous fun? I think so, and that’s really what Nightbreed is all about. With loads of gore, terrible acting, rad monsters, and an incredible score by Danny Elfman, what’s not to love?”
Marabunta Cinema: “There are definite patterns & tropes common to the way killer ants, often called “marabunta,” are portrayed in cinema, but the quality of the tactics & results vary greatly from film to film. Them! & Phase IV certainly represent the apex of the killer ants genre, but they don’t capture the full extent of its capabilities.”
Night of the Lepus (1972): “Night of the Lepus is a lot of things all at the same time: both generic & bizarre, both adorable & nightmarish, both super cool & super lame. These inner conflicts are partly what makes it such a fascinatingly re-watchable cult classic. Well, that and the gigantic, murderous rabbits.”
Razorback (1984): Just as a dehydrated traveler would hallucinate in the Australian wild, Razorback‘s visual eye is a horrifically detached-from-reality trip through a dangerous landscape ruled by dangerous reprobates & and ripped apart by a supernaturally dangerous boar that ties the whole thing together in a neat little creature feature package.”
Here’s some recommendations in case you’re looking to have some yucks along with your scares.
What We Do in the Shadows (2015): “What We Do in the Shadows is as great as a vampire mockumentary could possibly be. An exceptionally funny comedy overstuffed with loveable, but deeply flawed characters (they are bloodthirsty murderers after all) and endlessly quotable zingers, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect, more rewatchable execution of its basic concept. In other words, it’s an instant classic.”
John Dies at the End (2012): “The trick to appreciating John Dies at the End is allowing yourself to get on its wavelength & roll with the out of nowhere punches. The film does adopt a helpful interview & flashback story structure to vaguely rein itself in, but it’s mostly a loose collection of horror movie tangents that take on subjects as wide & as varied as zombies, alien invasions, exorcisms, demons, the Apocalypse, abandoned malls, heroic dogs, white rappers and alternate universes.”
Housebound (2014): “There’s also the obligatory gross-out moments, including a head-exploding bloody finale but Housebound also has an emotional core that addresses the rebellious nature of youth and learning to accept one’s parents that still resonates despite the craziness that surrounds it.“
Innocent Blood (1992): “A decade after An American Werewolf in London, John Landis brought the public Innocent Blood, a movie about a French vampire in … Pittsburgh. Marie, the fey French vampire, decides to help herself to Pittsburgh’s criminal element. Mistakes are made, spinal cords are left intact, and before too long Marie and ousted undercover cop Joe are duking it out with a proliferating vampire Mob. There’s something for everybody! Stunts! Grotesque special effects! Gallons of blood! Strippers! Don Rickles! Innocent Blood is entertaining, weird, and a little self-conscious.”
Highway to Hell (1991): “I forgot to mention that AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ does not play at any point in the movie. I think this is super funny because when I tell people about this flick, the first they usually say is ‘Did someone seriously make a movie based on that song?’ Sadly, Highway to Hell wasn’t cool enough for the song to be in the movie, but there’s some of the strangest songs I’ve ever heard on the soundtrack. Some unknown band called Hidden Faces did the music for the film, and the singer sounds like he’s singing through his butt. Just one of the many fun things that can be found in Highway to Hell. God I love this movie.“
If you’re looking for a little irony in your horror comedy yucks, these films tend more towards the so-bad-it’s-funny side of humor, sometimes intentionally and sometimes far from it. They’re the best we have to offer in terms of bad taste.
Monster Brawl (2011): “Monster Brawl gets so much right about both its pro-wrestling-meets-classic-horror premise, that it’s impossible not to love it (given that wrestling or gore-soaked horror are your thing). Scripted & shot like a broadcast of a wrestling promotion every disturbed ten year old wishes existed, Monster Brawl is camp cinema at its finest.”
Pieces (1982): “Pieces is a solidly hilarious and gratuitously gory flick about a campus killer who murders women with a chainsaw, full of ridiculous and unrealistic dialogue that would give a more modern postmodern horror spoof a run for its money. Shot largely in Spain and set in Boston, Pieces will leave you breathless, but from laughter, not fear. This movie is a camp masterpiece, and has set the bar high as my new standard for horror comedy.”
Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965): “Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, (which is also known by the titles Frankenstein Meets the Space Men, Mars Attacks Puerto Rico, Mars Invades Puerto Rico, and Operation San Juan) is firing on all its batshit crazy cylinders, squeezing a surprising amount of camp value out of its limited premise & budget.”
The Brainiac (1962): “I loved The Braniac (or, as it was known in its native Mexico, The Baron of Terror). It’s such a bizarre little horror cheapie that didn’t need to try nearly as hard as it did. Check out this plot: It opens with hooded executioners of the Spanish Inquisition expressing their frustration that a specific victim, a philandering Mexican baron, was surviving all of their torture methods by bending the laws of physics like an omnipotent god. When they sentence the baron to a death-by-burning execution, he escapes by hitching a ride on a passing comet and promises to return in 300 years to murder the descendants of the Inquisitors. He delivers on this promise in the form of a forked-tongued space alien beast. All of this transpires in the opening 20 minutes.”
The Love Butcher (1975): “This is a fun, and funny, movie. In much the same way that Tristram Shandy satirized the novel as a form despite being one of the first ten or so novels in the Western world, The Love Butcher mocks, subverts, and emulates the slasher despite having been conceived when that concept was only beginning to solidify. It’s an exploitation film that will use a cartoon sound effect when an older man shows off his bicep in one scene and then have a woman beaten to death with a sharp rake in the next.”
Midnight Offerings (1981): “Melissa Sue Anderson (Mary Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie) and Mary Beth McDonough (Erin Walton from The Waltons) step away from their well-known country girl roles to become dueling teen witches in this made-for-TV horror flick. When I first realized that Midnight Offerings was a made-for-tv movie from the early 80s, I expected it to be a joke of a horror film, oozing with campiness, but to my surprise, it was actually a little more on the serious side.”
If for some ungodly reason the campier titles listed above still aren’t trashy enough for you, we also have drinking games for the following two slices of schlock: the found footage sasquatch flick Exists (2014 & pro-wrestler Kane’s grotesque slasher vehicle See No Evil (2006). If you dare participate in such cinematic horrors, beware & take care. You’re going to need the alcohol.
-The Swampflix Crew