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What’s Your Favorite Scary Movie?

The writers of The Simple Cinephile write about their favorite horror films to celebrate Halloween.

The writers of The Simple Cinephile talk about their favorite horror films.

Little Shop of Horrors

Little Shop of Horrors (1986) – source: Warner Bros.

Cast: Steve Martin, Ellen Greene, Rick Moranis, Bill Murray
Director: Frank Oz
Where to watch: iTunes

In 1960s New York City, a plant store struggles financially. In order to save his boss’s business, Seymour Krelborn tries to attract new clients with a new exotic plant he’s just acquired during an eclipse. Thanks to his finding, Seymour brings prosperity to the store and great fame to himself, but with a heavy cost.

This movie has EVERYTHING. A giant singing carnivore plant, Rick Moranis looking like Jack Antonoff, Steve Martin as a bad boy biker, Ellen Greene dreaming of being a steady house wife and even Bill Murray. Little Shop of Horrors is truly a camp masterpiece adapted from the Broadway musical by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, that was itself adapted from a 1960 film of the same name by Roger Corman. And let’s be honest, the original soundtrack is killer! Even amidst the ridiculousness, Little Shop of Horrors is impressive for many of the directing choices and set designs. This film does not shy away from its stage background which definitely sets it apart from other musicals. Frank Oz’s adaption is perfect for a movie night between friends, or honestly any occasion.

Written by Salma

Scream

Scream (1996) – source: Dimension Films

Cast: Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich, Matthew Lillard, Courteney Cox
Director: Wes Craven
Where to watch: Netflix

I never used to be a big horror fan, but Scream was the outlier. Wes Craven’s original and meta take on the slasher sub-genre maybe isn’t as fresh now as it was when the film was first released, but I still find it to be clever and entertaining. Everything about it is inviting even if you’re not into scary movies, and Sydney will always be one of my favorite final girls.

Written by Trudie

Misery

Misery (1990) – source: Columbia Pictures

Cast: Kathy Bates, James Caan
Director: Rob Reiner

Misery is my favorite Stephen King story, so I thought it would be fitting to spotlight it this month. The story of a writer held captive by his number one fan is every celebrity’s nightmare. It holds even more relevance in today’s internet culture with influencers being stalked and the now infamous “catfishing.” Kathy Bates earned herself Oscar for her unsettling performance as Annie Wilkes—going from sweet to crazy at the drop of a hat and cementing herself as one of the scariest characters of the 90s. Rob Reiner studied up on Hitchcock to direct this movie and it shows. Every scene leaves you on the edge of your seat, hoping that Paul Sheldon gets out of Annie’s house alive. It’s no wonder the film hits as hard today as it did almost 30 years ago. Long live the King!

Written by Doug

Continued love for Scream

Scream (1996) – source: Dimension Films

Most movie fans know that the brilliantly clever and genuinely scary film Scream is directed by the late Wes Craven, who brought his signature eye to all four films in the franchise (all of which I love, don’t @ me). But some might not be aware that the original film is written by Kevin Williamson, the man responsible for creating several memorable and beloved television characters for shows such as Dawson’s Creek and The Vampire Diaries (he also wrote Teaching Mrs. Tingle and I Know What You Did Last Summer, which basically makes him a hero in my corny 90s-loving household). Williamson calls himself a cross between John Hughes and John Carpenter, and that is on full display in Scream—easily my favorite horror film and one of my all-time favorite films in general.

Following Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott through a string of grisly stabbings in her hometown of Woodsboro, Williamson’s expertly-clever writing makes it clear that he’s a lifelong horror fan. Meta references to the genre through Jamie Kennedy’s Randy create the perfect balance of humor and horror. But the thing I still love about Scream (and its successors) is that the genuine suspense created upon seeing it for the first time doesn’t wane, even when you already know who is behind that now-iconic mask. I can’t say enough about how much I love this franchise—watching it makes me miss this sort of movie, where genuine care is taken with both the characters and the scares. Scream rarely takes the easy way out—and when it does, it’s quick to make fun of itself before you can.

Written by Georgi

The Witch

The Witch (2015) – source: A24

Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Katie Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger
Director: Robert Eggers
Where to watch: Netflix, Kanopy

Long before Warner Bros. made us all dream of the day our Hogwarts letters came, there was folklore about witchcraft—tales that passed from generation to generation claiming that witches were unmarried women, possessed with a terrible, evil force. It’s precisely in this context that ​The Witch​ is set.

Expelled from the community in which they lived because of religious disagreements, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her family are forced to move to an uninhabited area surrounded by a mysterious forest. After her younger brother disappears while in her care, a series of sinister events are triggered, bringing out the worst in each family member. By dealing with a period when society was completely patriarchal and based on biblical principles, Robert Eggers masterfully captured the mess such as religious hysteria and female empowerment, blending them with extracts from real folktales—the word choice of the dialogues is entirely inspired by old English.

In a place dominated by the absurd, Thomasin’s fears are quite real. As a young girl, she reaches puberty with the weight of an unwanted future knocking on her door—being the wife of a stranger who will provide her with shelter and food in exchange for obedience and children. With breathtaking sequences, daring us not to take our eyes off the screen, part of the excellent quality of the film is due to the brilliant performances from the cast. It’s possible that another scary movie will replace​ The Witch as my favorite, but I will always be grateful to it for introducing me to the talented Anya Taylor-Joy—and the genius of Robert Eggers.

Written by Leticia

The Babadook

The Babadook (2014) – source: Entertainment One

Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman
Director: Jennifer Kent
Where to watch: Netflix

If there’s any trend that has become more prevalent than the rest over this past decade, it’s the idea of elevated horror. It’s not a monster or ghost complemented with a bevy of jump scares, but a kind of filmmaking with more patient editing, rejecting typical horror tropes. Some titles that come to mind while thinking of this trend include Hereditary, Get Out, Suspiria, It Follows, The Witch, and the most formative for me and first of this kind I remember seeing, Jenifer Kent’s harrowing horror, The Babadook.

Dealing with the trauma from recently losing her husband, Amelia (Essie Davis) is now struggling with her son, Samuel, (Noah Wiseman) and his fear of a monster under the bed—the monster then starts to manifest all around them in a now-iconic design. Kent suggests that there is always something lurking—but she never admits to what it may mean or how it can be gotten rid of. Instead, The Babadook itself illustrates the illness and doubts we all fear, and manipulating our brain is what Kent chooses to scare us, not a legitimate monster.

Not only does the depression, trauma, and guilt of Amelia losing her husband fall on the same day as Samuel’s birthday, but the titular monster manifests itself into what she isn’t living up to as a mom. Furthering the guilt and sadness, Amelia doesn’t think she can nurture Samuel as well as cook and clean all while putting on a smile—she is left to struggle with it all while The Babadook takes on a more physical form. With every interaction shown from Amelia’s perspective, we are left to wonder if everyone is oblivious to her mental illness or if they are all just minor delusions. While Kent’s 2019 release The Nightingale was met with controversy over its use of violence, The Babadook is quite tame in comparison, as it never opts for gore or jump scares even when the opportunity seems apt. It remains an astounding directorial debut, one of the best horror films of 2014 and one of the best horror films of the decade.

Written by Jack

Climax

Climax (2018) – source: A24

Cast: Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub
Director:  Gaspar Noé
Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

Gaspar Noé brings us a dance horror invoking a literal trip down the rabbit hole from hell. A dance troupe rehearsal rapidly turns sour when the after-party sangria is laced with LSD—the catalyst for an anxiety inducing experience you are unlikely to ever forget.

As its audience, we are immersed into Climax’s chaos through its unrelenting soundtrack and visually jarring red color palette. Capitalizing on nauseating tracking shots, Climax is designed to disorientate. As Noé guides you through the complex’s confining hallways, deranged dancers litter the scene, pulsing in abnormal and disturbing ways.

With no clear culprit, the groups distrust and paranoia culminate to a point where no single person is left untouched by the horrifying effects of the spiked sangria. Climax is a bold exploitation of abuse, paranoia, sex, and violence, which left me feeling unsettled for hours, if not days, after viewing.

Written by Emily

It Comes at Night

It Comes at Night (2017) – source: A24

Cast: Joel Edgerton, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Riley Keough, Christopher Abbott
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

Trey Edward Shults’ sophomore film It Comes at Night built off of his debut Krisha to ensure audiences knew he wasn’t a one-trick pony. With his third feature Waves releasing in theaters very soon, this seemed like the perfect fit for this list, both because of the timing and because it’s a phenomenal psychological horror film. It follows a family who live a solitary yet safe life in their house, deeply secluded away from a post-apocalyptic world. Their peaceful existence is upended when a family arrives seeking refuge.

When It Comes at Night released during the summer of 2017, it was met with mixed reception. Critics lauded it for its atmosphere and smart character choices, while audiences were left divided over the cold, hopeless nature and the supposed lack of any major “point” to the story. This made me very sad to see when I first watched it. I found that the grim tone and bleak narrative structure contributed to a more thoughtful viewing experience. It takes its characters and traps them in this state of paranoia that I feel a lot of people can relate to. It’s a nightmare that makes you feel sick to your stomach, feeling like you’re trapped somewhere, unable to move or speak.

Something I love about Shults is the way he builds tension in his films. His scripts utilize traditional methods of assembling fear inside our minds and souls, because the way he writes his characters allows us to relate to their state of terror, whether it be reflected in the environment around them or an internal conflict. It Comes at Night straps the two families into chairs and locks them in a pitch-black room, leaving them to grapple with the mounting pressures of distrust and isolation. I would call it The Shining for the new age, at least in terms of how it uses solitude as an external force that continually pushes at its subjects until they ultimately explode into violence.

But something that makes this film a force to be reckoned with is the way it forces the audience to interpret the characters’ motivations and immerse ourselves in their emotions. Shults purposefully chooses to make Paul (Edgerton), Sarah (Ejogo), and Tyler (Harrison) the main characters and not Will (Abbott) and Kim (Keough) because he knows we’ll start the story seeing things from the first family’s perspective, and continue to follow it that way. While I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, all I will say is that villainy is subjective, but it takes two sides to compare good and evil. That’s what makes the last 15 minutes so powerful. It’s only upon reflection that you begin to unravel the events from the perspective of both sides. and that’s when I knew that this film is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. Watching Paul and Sarah stare at each other has to be one of the most shattering endings of the decade.

It Comes at Night is a darkly resonant film that leaves the viewer deeply saddened and disturbed by the climax long after the credits roll. Shults’ examination of humanity’s inner violent nature and revelation that we are our own worst enemies isn’t the movie a lot of people want to see, but it’s one they need to see. The script is both misery and wizardry, a blend of traditional dread and sociological conflict rarely seen (and done this well) in the industry. Shults is a master of examining our dark sides, and I for one, am already willing to hail this as a modern classic.

Written by Owen

John Dies at the End

John Dies at the End (2012) – source: Magnet Releasing

Cast: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti
Director: Don Coscarelli

It’s hard to pick just one favorite horror film, so I’m going to choose one that perhaps deserves more attention. One so insane that it was actually the first Blu-ray I ever purchased: Don Coscarelli’s John Dies at the End. Based on the book of the same name by David Wong, the genre-bending story follows Dave (Chase Williamson), a slacker who recalls the party he attended with his best friend John (Rob Mayes), and how they ended up taking a black-colored drug that promises inter-dimensional travel, inhuman knowledge and out-of-body experiences. The drug in question is simply known as Soy Sauce.

John Dies at the End is one of those films that spins completely out of control the more you watch it. It’s comedy-horror at its most outlandish, meaning it certainly isn’t for everyone. A doorknob turns into a penis at one point, and that either works for you or it doesn’t. But it has fantastic gore, witty humor and it’s full of crazy surprises. If mustaches becoming sentient, peeling off faces and flying around the room is too odd for you, then maybe take a step back, because it gets much weird than that. Rolling Stone magazine once called it “stoner Ghostbusters” and I can’t argue with that statement. Dave and John have to gather their bearings pretty quickly in order to save the world from gross, shape-shifting creatures, and while a little incoherent at times, it completely works. And I know what you’re thinking: does John actually die at the end? Well, how much time do you have?

This film is one I had a lot of fun watching because I couldn’t believe what was happening. If it sounds like something you might enjoy, then I absolutely urge you to check it out! 

Written by Toni

Continued love for The Witch

The Witch (2015) – source: A24

Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Katie Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger
Director: Robert Eggers
Where to watch: Netflix, Kanopy

Whilst The Witch isn’t your standard quiet-quiet-loud horror film, it’s entirely its own beast in terms of sheer terror and dread. From the moment the film starts, it overwhelms the viewer with an extreme sense of impending doom and unease. It sinks its hooks into the audience and refuses to give up for the duration of the film and also a few hours afterwards, sitting uncomfortably in the pit of your stomach, taking root. There’s a sickeningly delicious tension underlying every shot and sound in this film. A sense of quiet, of something lurking always around the corner, or maybe behind you, or maybe underneath your seat?

Eggers seems to be showing off; it’s an intense and steady handed masterclass in how to pitch and tone a horror film without having to rely on the macabre or cheap scares. Anna Taylor-Joy is a true delight to watch in this film, a brutally still and terrifying performance, one that will stay with me for life. She’s such a force on screen, breathing horrific and anxiety inducing life to a character that made me shift and squirm in my seat before I even fully understood where the film was taking me. From the grey and cool color palette to the sharp cinematography, the meticulous details behind the much too vast yet somehow suffocating setting of the sweeping remote forests and the terse interactions between the family members as more ominous events occur, Eggers creates a world shrouded in gloom and fear. This is without even mentioning the birth of an iconic modern horror character in Black Phillip and the gift of dialogue such as “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?

Written by Rachel

The Shining

The Shining (1980) – source: Warner Bros.

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd
Director: Stanley Kubrick

Stephen King’s stories have always been a hot collection to rifle through in terms of big screen scares and though this 1980 horror classic isn’t overloaded with scares, it’s positively gushing with dread. Stanley Kubrick crafts an ominous tone from the offset with the camera flying overhead leading us the clearly isolated location of The Overlook Hotel. The wintry crests of mountains are a perfect cabin-fever setting for ghosts, bloodshed and menace which is further backed by the incredibly effective chills of the haunting score throughout and ballads wafting out of the spectral ballroom.

It isn’t only the music to let paranormal shudders course over your skin, but the howling winds of heavy snowfall entrap the Torrance family and aid the growing madness inflicted upon struggling writer Jack. The craziness is pitched to 11 with Jack Nicholson but Shelley Duvall is a shrieking icon who plays against her co-star greatly, as does kid actor Danny Lloyd who is staggeringly impressive in his delivery of the Shining gift and his wide eyed fear of room 237 and what’s to come.

The author of the novel may notoriously dislike The Shining with gusto but I can watch this 2 hour plus movie with ease anytime because there’s something so effortlessly entrancing about it. The unique camera angles, the quotable dialogue and striking imagery make this horror an unforgettable experience.

Written by Troy

Continued love for Scream

Scream (1996) – source: Dimension Films

Cast: Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich, Matthew Lillard, Courteney Cox
Director: Wes Craven
Where to watch: Netflix

Directed by Wes Craven in 1996, Scream nowadays is something of a cliché —the once hip irony of a teenage girl home alone, a telephone call that moves from sexual remarks to an violent threat, and the chaotic unnerving endeavor of “will or won’t they?” be slashed to pieces, is somewhat of a joke-stand when it appears in films twenty-years on. And, yeah, the rumors of a serial killer targeting only the bad high school teenagers in a spooky Halloween costume named “Father Death” can evidently come across as a mediocre response to starting a slasher film, but Scream is a bloody and gruesome one, and is by far one of the most superior self-deconstructing films that uses the horror clichés as a path to its gory plot.

There’s no denying Scream‘s iconic influence throughout cinema today. The in-jokes and the amount of self-aware characters that perpetuate the inevitable within its film is remarkable, especially when its presence in a genre so typical for high kill counts and unintelligent characters lay at the very heart of what the audience first expected. Wes Craven created a refreshing blend of comedy and well-executed gore, offering cinephiles around the world a timeless classic that is both ultra-quotable and a pleasure to watch at any time. It’s also worth noting that Scream also violates one of the oldest rules in film history: it’s about characters who watch films and have a clear understanding on the motives and actions the pieces showcase throughout. This is mostly represented in Jamie Kennedy’s character Randy, who, as every horror fan’s relatable favorite, recites and reasons with the rest of the characters the “horror movie rules” whenever he has the chance. The film is a blatant focus of how the horror genre has implemented its layout through the course of the script and scenes, engulfing a wide love for stabbings and disembowelments with gushes of blood-and even changing the game for “final girls” in future films. And during its duration of tantalizing charm, the film still doesn’t bring the least bit of boredom over the countless times I watch it. Scream is fully aware of the quirks it expresses, but it’s also aware that those very things are the ones that make it downright fun.

When the jokes land and the blood splatters, carried through by the manic action that stalks the suburbia, it’s quite wholesome to see a film that revitalizes the slasher-horror genre so well that it’s practically perfect. Craven provides both tension and self-satire as the body count rises, and it’s quite riveting. There’s no denying that there’ll never be another film quite like it that captures that essence of enjoyment through the numerous killings it provides: not even with its sequels, parodies or remakes — Scream just hits the mark right on the chest.

Written by Keli

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