While you may be tempted to curl up with an old favorite this Halloween, consider giving something new a try using this helpful guide.
As the leaves tumble to the ground and the jack o’ lanterns begin to glow, one of the biggest questions I get asked is recommending horror movies to those searching for a new horror movie to compliment their brisk fall evening.
Now, I understand that the casual moviegoer is, by default, going to resort to the tried-and-true classics that linger along the front lines of the genre. No doubt the usual rotation is going to feature Halloween (a given), A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, the Universal Studios classic monsters, and a slew of gateway horror movies (Beetlejuice, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Hocus Pocus, The Nightmare Before Christmas).
Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with putting the classics on when those cozy October nights come calling. Hell, I dabble in them myself. But I also (pumpkin) spice it up with several chillers that sit just outside the mainstream.
Here, I have taken some of the most popular horror movies watched around Halloween and given a recommendation for a film that is similar. If you haven’t ventured down one of these dark paths, I encourage you to make the trip.
Like Universal Studios Monsters?
Universal Studios’ line of classic monster movies is practically the definition of the Halloween season. During the month for all things creepy, it’s practically a given that Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Wolf-Man, and others would claw their way out of their crypts and lumber across your television sets and into your living room.
Universal’s famous line of monster movies began during the silent era with 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, followed up by 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera, both starring the whirlwind that is Lon Chaney, a titan of the horror genre. Their brand of monster movies would really hit their stride in 1931 with Tod Browning’s Dracula, which introduced the world to Bela Lugosi and his iconic turn as the purring Count.
It would prove to be a colossal hit, followed by Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf-Man, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. And this doesn’t even include their sequels or the films that didn’t star their legendary line of ghouls.
Universal’s run of gothic horrors would shift drastically in the wake of WWII, with the studio jumping aboard the Atomic Age sci-fi chillers that loomed over the 1950s. As giant bugs and irradiated creatures wandered out of the mushroom clouds, Drac and the gang retreated to their cobwebbed tombs.
However, they wouldn’t stay dead and buried for long…
Try Hammer’s House of Horror.
Across the pond in cheery Great Britain, a production company based out of London began churning out horror movies beginning in the mid-1950s. In 1957, their brand exploded with the arrival of The Curse of Frankenstein, which reimagined Frankenstein in vibrant technicolor along with plenty of – gasp! – candlewax blood and plunging necklines bursting with – eek! — cleavage!
Followed by Horror of Dracula in 1958, the Hammer House of Horror was officially open for business, led by the immeasurable talents of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who would headline most of the horror shows helmed by the studio.
Embracing an edgier vibe that Universal pictures were prevented from tapping into, Hammer released myriad gothic horror films begging to be rediscovered. They offer a wickedly violent revamp of The Mummy, and their searing venture into lycanthropy, The Curse of the Werewolf, is an emotionally shattering freakout. They also pumped out numerous sequels to the Frankenstein and Dracula movies while dabbling in zombies, Psycho-inspired slashers, reptilian menaces, the occult, and more.
As Hammer left the ‘60s and entered the harder-edged 1970s, their films embraced a seedier vibe that attempted to run with some of the harsher films overtaking the genre. They would ultimately fizzle out as the ‘70s wore on, and the marketplace began to crowd itself with masked slashers.
In recent years, Hammer has seen something resembling a revival, with a handful of films (Let Me In, The Woman in Black, The Quiet Ones, The Lodge) making their way to the screen with the Hammer name glowing in triumphantly bright red at the start of the picture. To that, I say, welcome back, old chaps!
Halloween Hammer Recommendations: The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), The Mummy(1959), Brides of Dracula (1960), The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), The Plague of the Zombies (1968), The Devil Rides Out (1968), Twins of Evil (1971), and Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974). Oh, and when you’re about five pumpkin beers deep and plunking down after that wild costume party – The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974)
Like The Friday the 13th Franchise?
Two short years after John Carpenter lit the wick of the slasher craze with Halloween, Hollywood caught masked maniac fever as they rushed to pack theaters full of homicidal madmen carving up horny teenagers in the woods. In 1980, director Sean S. Cunningham sent audiences into a tizzy with Friday the 13th, setting the stage for one of the most popular film franchises in history.
Famously not introducing hockey-masked lunatic Jason Voorhees as the main antagonist (even then, he didn’t sport his iconic face ware until Part III) until a year later, Friday the 13th was a dark and gloomy hit from a big studio eager to replicate the success of Halloween. Astonishingly, against all odds, the first run of Friday the 13th films got increasingly entertaining as they went on, giving a chef’s kiss over an endless barrage of sex and gore that morphed it into a cinematic juggernaut that guaranteed to serve up plenty of sensationalism.
As the franchise entered the latter portion of the 1980s, the premises became more absurd, sending Jason to the mean streets of Manhattan and banishing him to Hell in the early ‘90s.
In 2001, he was sent to space in what is probably one of the lowest points of the entire franchise before Hollywood quickly squared him up with Freddy Kruger in what is still one of the most talked about crossovers in the horror genre.
In 2009, director Marcus Nispel and producer Michael Bay attempted to revive the franchise with a remake that stands as arguably one of the worst of the remake sensation that dominated the early 2000s. Trust me, it’s an embarrassment.
It’s nearly impossible to deny the impact that the Friday the 13th franchise had on the horror genre as it entered the ultra-conservative Regan era.
With its arrival, it broke open a sub-genre within a slasher arena, leading to a flurry of slaughter fests set at remote summer camps…
Try The Burning (1981).
A year after Friday the 13th left its bloody prints all over Camp Crystal Lake, director Tony Maylam dared to explore the Cropsey urban legend in The Burning, another summer camp-set slasher flick that took cues from Friday the 13th and blended them with the “giallo” subgenre made famous out of Italy by directors like Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and others.
The Burning tells the story of Cropsey, the loathed caretaker of Camp Blackfoot, who finds himself the victim of a horrific prank gone wrong. Several years later, the disfigured Cropsey is released from the hospital, returning to the camp to unleash his vengeance on any summer camper unlucky enough to cross his path.
Set to a haunting score by Rick Wakeman, keyboardist of Yes, The Burning is a moody little slice of mayhem that hits hard with some seriously nasty special effects work from Tom Savini, the maestro responsible for all the spurting arteries on Friday the 13th.
In fact, the violence of The Burning is so hair-raising it got it slapped on Britain’s famous “video nasty” list, with major cuts being made to several sequences, including the sobering raft attack scene, which has to be one of the scariest slice-and-dice sequences in any slasher movie around.
Packed with many familiar faces (Jason Alexander?! Holly Hunter?!) that somehow all manage to stand out and a viciousness that will strike like a viper, The Burning is an essential summer camp slasher boasting an outstanding antagonist that dispatches his victims with a gleaming pair of hedge clippers.
It’s a debauchery-laced 42nd Street blast that will hit you right in the gut.
Like Halloween (1978)?
Since the moment it hit theaters, John Carpenter’s immortal 1978 classic, Halloween, has been the ultimate cinematic experience for the month of October. It’s nearly impossible to let the season slip by without giving it a spin, and it’s universally treasured by EVERYONE.
With almost every inch of it hailed as a masterpiece, Halloween became one of the most successful independent films of all time, carving up multiple sequels and remakes of sadly diminishing returns. No matter, even when Michael is at his worst, he’s still the unofficial mascot of October.
While there is really not much to be added to the discussion of Carpenter’s original film, it should be reiterated that it’s a tour-de-force of atmosphere and tension. Michael strikes like an otherworldly phantom, claiming his victims in horrific ways without ever revealing a drop of blood. Its characters are boldly drawn, its monster alarmingly simple, and oh, that iconic score that dances like ghosts on falling leaves and glowing jack o’ lanterns.
It’s an American classic.
But over in Italy, another seemingly unstoppable homicidal maniac was leaving his own trail of death and destruction…
Try Absurd (1981).
Released three years after Halloween struck theaters, 1981’s Absurd was originally conceived as a sequel to the notoriously shocking 1980 splatter epic Antropophagus. Once again teaming writer and star George Eastman and director Joe D’Amato, the duo reconfigured their script and came up with this surprising salute to blossoming American slasher films.
Heavily indebted to Carpenter’s Samhain celebration, Absurd tells the tale of a Greek man named Mikos Tanoupoulos (played by Eastman), who has been awarded an experimental healing procedure from a mysterious church-led science lab.
Hot on his tail is one of the priests (played by Edmund Purdom) responsible for creating this madman, who has been busy leaving a trail of dead bodies as he lumbers through the American countryside. With the body count rising by the minute, authorities race to figure out a way to end the bloodshed once and for all.
While not particularly original, Absurd morphs from a total rip-off to an effectively gothic slasher with an endless supply of grisly violence that may be a bit too intense for some.
The number of calls to Halloween will certainly leave you chuckling, but the simplicity of Absurd makes it a proper paring on a double bill with Carpenter’s 1978 gamechanger.
From the whispers of the boogeyman to even the score, a synth-rock hybrid that channels Carpenter’s legendary soundtrack, Absurd is a fiercely focused deep-cut treat that lurks at the bottom of your trick-or-treat candy bag.
There may not be a jack o’ lantern in sight, but the chilling twilight mayhem is a solidly comparable alternative.
Like Night of the Living Dead (1968)?
In 1968, a small group of young filmmakers led by George A. Romero helmed a low-budget horror movie shot on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. Fueled by blood, sweat, tears and a terrifying idea, Romero and his enthusiastic band presented Night of the Living Dead, which gave birth to the modern zombie movie as we know it today.
Brimming with nerve-shattering claustrophobia and tension-laced urgency, Night of the Living Dead has become one of the heavyweights within the midnight horror realm. Its black-and-white cinematography allows it a newsreel-esque feel while its shocking violence gives it a modern-day bite, much like the undead ghouls that surround that rickety farmhouse.
Since its release, Night of the Living Dead has become something of an All Hallows staple.
It’s played out before characters in several Halloween-themed movies and has made the rounds in real life on cable and made theatrical runs, even playing on Halloween weekend at the tiny little twin theater that used to be nearby my house.
Night of the Living Dead would go on to open the door for multiple sequels, all crafted by Romero.
What many don’t realize is that 1988 saw another off-shoot helmed by one of NIGHT’s most iconic zombies…
Try Flesheater (1988).
Twenty years after those pesky zombies plagued the terrified group huddled inside that dingy farmhouse, cemetery zombie himself, Bill Hinzman, wrote, produced, and directed the wonderfully gruesome slasher/zombie hybrid Flesheater, which would act as something of an unofficial sequel to Night.
Cleary made on a shoestring budget, Flesheater brings more zombie mayhem your way, with heavier doses of violence and nudity in an attempt to run with the more gratuitous slasher movies that were dominating the horror market.
While Flesheater may get off to a wobbly start, the film gains momentum to become an impressively bonkers zombie opus that finds Hinzman desperately trying to forge a legacy for his iconic undead cannibal. And I’ll be damned if he doesn’t nearly pull it off!
Set on Halloween and lurching ever ravenously to a beautifully simple yet atmospheric score that would make John Carpenter proud, Flesheater is an unsung autumnal treat perfect for an uproarious Halloween party where you can laugh and cheer over ice-cold Steel City brews.
It’s a gut-munching monster mash of a trip!
Like Gateway Horror (Ghostbusters, Beetlejuice, Sleepy Hollow, Killer Klowns)?
While many horror fans like myself love to go all in with some heavier choices to compliment my 31 days of pure bliss, many casual fans out there may feel more comfortable on the softer side. And ya know, that is totally fine!
There are plenty of accessible semi-spooky movies that can be enjoyed with the entire family. The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline, Corpse Bride, and ParaNorman are all great little additions that can be enjoyed before bedtime with big fistfuls of candy. And it is almost a given that many families love to take a spin in Ecto-1 with Ghostbusters.
Also, don’t think I haven’t noticed the rapidly increasing affection for Hocus Pocus!
Even Marvel is getting in on the creepies with a superhero-sized tribute to the Universal Monsters with their October special, Werewolf by Night.
For edgier fare, couples may choose the kooky antics of Beetlejuice or chuckle at the shenanigans of the cotton-candy-mad Killer Klowns from Outer Space. Or Tim Burton’s Hammer heavy spin on Sleepy Hollow, which bottled the gray gasps of late fall and lobs plenty of severed heads right into your lap.
But one hair-raising gem based on a popular’s children’s book begs to be rediscovered…
Try Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019).
Upon its release way back in 2019, there was a strong level of excitement about the release of director Andra Ovredal and producer Guillermo del Toro’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. And then, much like one of the specters haunting our band of teen heroes, it seemed to fade away like Sarah Bellows’ ghost.
Based on the morbid children’s series by Alvin Schwartz, which presented some truly hellish illustrations that seared the mind of every boy and girl who dared crack one open, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a truly demented and heartfelt celebration of gateway horror and the Halloween season.
Ripe with several ghouls that look like they wandered out of those famous books, Scary Stories strikes the proper balance of scares that are measured perfectly for a younger crowd while also twitching with an affection for classic horror sure to make the adults – particularly more mature monster kids – beam in delight.
Its opening sequence alone, featuring our cast of Goonies-style protagonists preparing for a night of trick-or-treating and playful shenanigans as Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” slinks its way over the soundtrack, captures the giddy adolescent thrill Halloween provides.
While it may be a tad dark for the really young viewer, Scary Stories is an atmospheric tale of terror with whiffs of the regional horror fare of the ‘70s, making it a delectably fun haunted house tour-de-force that is deserving of more attention than it receives.
Like A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)?
To most casual moviegoers, the mere mention of the horror genre sketches the image of a fedora-sporting dream demon clad in a ragged red and green sweater and a glove outfitted with razor-sharp knives. I’m talking, of course, about none other than Freddy Kruger, the wise-cracking antagonist of Wes Craven’s wildly popular 1984 slasher A Nightmare on Elm Street.
An instant commercial success, A Nightmare on Elm Street is perhaps the most popular horror franchise ever to hit movie screens.
Wholly imaginative and thoroughly freaky, the ’84 original is more than deserving of its royal status within the genre. Even those who don’t covet the horror genre as we do have acknowledged Craven’s accomplishment, and it’s virtually impossible not to recognize Robert Englund, who morphed Fred Kruger into the iconic character he is today.
Given the massive success of A Nightmare on Elm Street, a slew of sequels followed in its wake, most of which have robbed the franchise of the power wielded by the first installment.
Outside of 1987’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and 1994’s New Nightmare, the other installments relegated Freddy to a cartoonish buffoon who spouted cheese-drenched one-liners like, “Welcome to prime time, bitch!” Of course, this has also simultaneously fueled its legacy and continued to keep Freddy as the commander-in-chief of the monster legion.
In the wake of ‘94’s New Nightmare, Freddy himself took a prolonged siesta, shaking awake for 2003’s heavily anticipated Freddy vs. Jason, a fright-night smackdown that did little to erase the silliness surrounding the two titans of terror.
In 2010, director Samuel Bayer helmed a remake of the original film, replacing the unrivaled Englund with Jackie Earle Haley, a seemingly inspired casting choice that succumbed to an uninspired cash grab of a film that was riding the wave of remakes which were all the rage at the time of its release.
It’s been twelve years since audiences have had their dreams invaded by ol’ Fred.
But in 2014, one director took inspiration from the ’80s slasher craze and crafted his own nightmare designed to taint hanky panky forever…
Try It Follows (2014).
Much like the way Wes Craven spun the slasher picture on its head way back in the heyday of the slasher boom, so too does director David Robert Mitchell with his 2014 knockout It Follows.
While certainly not a film that flies under the radar, It Follows generated a massive amount of buzz when it first hit theaters. Then it faded away into the endless swarm of horror content that has been bombarding the silver screen and streaming services in the handful of years since it first debuted.
Much like A Nightmare on Elm Street cleverly used sleep as the catalyst for the bloody atrocities splashing about the screen, It Follows uses sex, which brings a deadly curse that won’t cease its pursuit unless it is passed on to another person. And while It Follows may not boast a fedora-wearing nightmare ghost with a glove outfitted with knives, it unleashes a string of diseased entities who take on a terminally evil appearance that would make Freddy smile.
Smartly toying with how slasher films have used sex since Friday the 13th warned the Regan-era youth that sex = death, It Follows has been interpreted as a metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases, which has always seemed a bit too shallow for me.
There is a chilling ambiguity to the way the film reads, but attempting to decipher it entirely makes it a true enigma that keeps calling you back for a deeper look. It also makes you wonder if that simple parable is really what Mitchell is trying to convey.
With its Scooby-Doo band of protagonists navigating the bombed-out backdrop of Detroit and coasting to a crackling electronic score that calls back to ‘80s slasher movies, It Follows uses a truly unique tactic to scare you out of your wits. It’s a modern-day horror classic that can potentially be a new wave A Nightmare on Elm Street.
It’s just patiently waiting to be rediscovered and then giddily passed on like a curse.
Like It (2017)?
When it hit screens in the early fall of 2017, director Andy Muschietti’s slickly produced remake of Stephen King’s It was an instant phenomenon. Released to near-universal acclaim from critics and audiences who scampered to showings like young Georgie to his paper sailboat, It also gave birth to a new towering cinematic boogeyman in the form of Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise.
Since its release, It’s popularity hasn’t waned. In fact, quite the opposite! Merchandise has been nearly inescapable, with action figures, Funko Pops, costumes, clothing, and more flooding the crowded horror marketplace.
It has also maintained a level of fervor that has crowned it something of a modern-day classic, kickstarting a new wave of Stephen King-based horror movies attempting to ride the King Kraze.
There was also its clearly fast-tracked sequel, It: Chapter Two, which paled in comparison and gave off the vibe that all who were involved were under pressure to pump the film out so they could cash in on Pennywise fever.
Certainly deserving of the attention that it’s been showered, It has become a Halloween movie staple.
Hell, even LeBron James dressed as the Dancing Clown the Halloween following its release. Even those who don’t much care for the horror genre are familiar with the movie, which has It walking the fine line between something resembling a gateway horror movie, just with more murder. Its Goonies-by-way-of-Stand By Me influence awards it a level of accessibility that many horror films don’t allow.
And the knockout performance from Skarsgard as the kid-eating jester himself has Pennywise cackling along with horror royalty like Freddy and Jason.
While I do enjoy It, I will sigh over the fact that the movie has gotten overplayed, leading me to point you toward another supernatural adventure that may have alluded your radar like a gliding silver sphere…
Yet, I think the film is overplayed, and other supernatural adventure worth your time may have sadly alluded your radar like a gliding silver sphere…
Try Phantasm (1979).
Slipping out in 1979, director Don Coscarelli’s independent thrill-ride Phantasm debuted in front of audiences to decidedly mixed reactions. However, the film would soon gain momentum and unleash a string of sequels starting in 1988.
Phantasm tells the story of young Mike (played by A. Michael Baldwin), who stumbles upon a mysterious presence that seems to have set up shop in the nearby mortuary. He confides in his older brother, Jody (played by Bill Thornbury), and Jody’s best friend, Reggie (played by Reggie Bannister), explaining that he believes a recent handful of deaths may be attributed to this presence.
Together, the trio begins investigating the disturbance, which includes a wide array of bizarre characters, including a shapeshifting Tall Man (played by Angus Scrimm), who appears to command an army of demonic dwarves and various other threats that seem to be visitors from another world.
With its attention turned to a small group of young adults navigating a seemingly unstoppable threat of supernatural origin running rampant in a picturesque small town, one could easily assume that Muschietti probably encountered Phantasm at some point and mined a smidge of inspiration for It.
Smartly, Phantasmnever gives much of an explanation for who these murderous visitors are, which ratchets up the fear level considerably on a small little indie film hindered by budget constraints.
Still, there is plenty to marvel at in Phantasm, and you can’t forget to stress the intimidating presence of Scrimm’s Tall Man, the gaunt, superhuman villain stalking after our group of meddling teens. Sadly, the film has been largely overlooked through the years by the casual viewer, only recently starting to make itself known through a restoration at the hands of superfan J.J. Abrams.
Believe me when I say you owe it to yourself to check out this eerie little oddity.
Like The Conjuring Series?
In 2013, director James Wan skyrocketed to superstardom with the release of The Conjuring, a big-budget haunted house joint that told the supposed true story of Ed and Lorraine Warren, a pair of paranormal investigators whose most famous case was the Amityville haunting, which was the obvious inspiration for the 1979 classic, The Amityville Horror.
It was a smash hit for a guy who had somewhat of a rocky start to his filmmaking career. It began promisingly enough with Saw, dipped considerably with Dead Silence and Death Wish, and then beautifully recovered with Insidious.
Using the momentum found in Insidious, The Conjuring found Wan completely assured and confident with a big summer blockbuster, delivering an old-school, ’70s-styled haunted house movie that was genuinely petrifying and richly rewarding.
With audiences and critics bewitched by the demonic forces that plagued the film, Wan went on to make a smash follow-up in 2016 and then passed the directing reigns on to Michael Chaves for 2021’s The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, which was met with slightly less enthusiasm.
Since the first outing for the Warrens, there has been an entire cinematic universe sculpted around The Conjuring films, most of which have struggled with critics but seemed to hold the interest of the Average Joe. Yet it’s easy to see why The Conjuring is such a popular franchise, especially when the autumn months descend. They are slick, scary, and, most importantly, emotionally investing.
They have also ridden a wave of interest in paranormal investigation, which has sparked in popularity with a number of reality shows featuring colorful personalities bobbing around abandoned structures screaming over an unseen presence touching their shoulder.
Yet, before Wan and the Warrens exploded into the mainstream, another upcoming filmmaker delivered an equally horrifying study of things that go bump in the night…
Try The Innkeepers (2011)?
In 2011, Ti West was still making a name for himself in horror. He’d directed 2009’s The House of the Devil, which was generally well-received by genre fans and critics, yet he had also directed Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, which wasn’t exactly beloved by all.
Two years later, he would erase any doubt cast his direction and solidify himself as a talent to watch with The Innkeepers.
The Innkeepers tells the story of a pair of hotel workers, Claire (played by Sarah Paxton) and Luke (played by Pat Healy), riding out their final days of employment at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a once spectacular hotel with a long, winding history. As it turns out, it is also haunted, and our pair of employees have been moonlighting as paranormal investigators eager to capture proof of their undead residents before the doors close for good.
Using a real location with real paranormal history, The Innkeepers is a genuinely charming and genuinely frightening overnight stay with what I consider to be one of the freakiest jump scares in all of modern horror.
There’s no doubt that many may initially be bored with The Innkeepers, mostly because West takes his sweet time getting to the things that go bump in the night. But he drops some seriously tense moments that will have you holding your breath, slipping in a faint knock here or a lone piano note there when one of our main characters is alone in the dark with nothing but a voice recorder.
While it may not benefit from the splashy blockbuster sheen cast over Wan’s paranormal excursion, the ever-modest The Innkeepers matches it in the character department with a pair of charming leads who effortlessly radiate chemistry. Even the small supporting cast will nab smiles, even if their presence is minimal.
When West turns the terror up to eleven, he leaves a good majority to the imagination, firmly understanding that what you don’t see is actually much scarier than what you do see.
After the ghosts have all retired to their rooms, West quietly sends you off with a seriously bleak ending and a need to dig out a nightlight.