When I first began OcTerror in 2016, I didn’t really have that much of a plan or a long-term idea. It was simply one of those notions I’d had where I wanted to try something new and learn more about a genre that I’d long been denied and was interested in. Writing about it seemed like the best excuse. So I made my initial list—full of favorites, obvious picks, and classics—and dove into my reviews.
And here we are five OcTerrors later. With the exception of 2018 (a very bad year), I’ve committed October to this ongoing event ever since that first run. It’s changed over time: as I’ve learned more about horror, depending on my schedule, adding or taking away features here and there. What hasn’t changed, though, are the movies. I set out every year to watch movies from the last 100 years and review them. As of today, I’ve reviewed 260 movies. From silent films to the newest releases, those made for adults and those made for kids, from all over the world, with lots of different subgenres. So, it’s about time that I put out my own list of personal favorites.
How did these movies make the list? A) Longevity. These are films that stand the test of time—personal classics. B) Memorable. I’ve made unique connections with most of these films, some visceral and some intellectual, but they all own a piece of me. C) Watch-ability. I have seen each of these films at least twice, sometimes more. If it’s possible to have a comfort horror movie, they may be it. D) Value. I could make the argument that most of these are “good” horror films for any number of reasons. They have scares, suspense, revulsion and everything you could want in a movie meant to terrify. Lastly, E) Qualified. Only films I have previously reviewed on Reading Malone qualified (as of this round) for the list. So while I do immensely enjoy Apostle or The Ritual, I haven’t reviewed those films yet.
So, with that in mind, let’s count our way down my Fifteen Favorite Frights of the past Five OcTerrors…
15. House on Haunted Hill (1959). You know I had to have at least one Vincent Price movie, right? This is one classic I can watch every year, any time because the story and frights feel so timeless. Price and Carol Omhart’s performances haven’t aged a day, and their banter and sniping dialogue are fantastic. It takes some of my favorite tropes of the haunted house investigation subgenre, combines them with a fun mystery and murder, and twists it all up elegantly.
14. American Psycho (2000). Directed by Mary Harron, this film balances madness, comedy, and murder so well against the cold narcissism of capitalism. Christian Bale’s performance as Patrick Bateman is noteworthy from the opening monologue to the final moments. The cinematography is sharp and crisp and so many scenes have become iconic. Who can forget the ad-within-movie for Huey Lewis and the News? The supporting cast is also stacked and some of the editing techniques help lead to our frenzied misunderstanding of the mindset of Bateman.
13. Final Destination 2 (2003). This franchise about a group of survivors trying to outsmart Death’s plan is, weirdly enough, my comfort series. Maybe it’s because all of the freak accidents and how they fall into happening is very much how my anxious brain works anyway. The second film is my favorite because who can forget that amazing highway sequence? We shall never drive behind logging trucks safely again. I also think it tries new things the other films ignore a bit, but I enjoy. A.J. Cook is also one of the better leads, giving us just enough hope that things might turn out different this time.
12. The Orphanage (2007). While I had seen Pan’s Labyrinth years earlier, J. A. Bayona’s debut is what really drew me into the potential of Spanish horror. I still remember the suspense and then shock as the twist revealed itself for the first time. Even watching it again, I was still absorbed by Belén Rueda’s performance and the very human elements of a story that leans toward the speculative. In some ways, I think foreign horror really gets at ghostly tragedies much better than Americans do, and I’m still haunted by this film.
11. The Shining (1980). I had to have at least one King adaptation on this list and I was a little torn between this and It: Chapter One, but Kubrick wins in the end. This is one of those films where I can appreciate it despite its differences from the source material (and it even removed the scariest part for me). Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall play off of each other so well, especially in the climax. This movie works because it has about a dozen tropes done well: haunting, possession, creepy kid, etc. We also can’t discount how Kubrick’s meticulous nature does shine in capturing a beloved horror setting. Plus, from a writer’s perspective, this is the grand-daddy of writer’s block representations.
10. Get Out (2017). What I love most about Jordan Peele’s horror debut are the layers and non-verbal storytelling elements. It’s a film that, on every watch, reveals something new. Additionally, I really appreciated that the villains in this story weren’t quite what we expected in a “racial horror” because, as in real life, sometimes bad behavior isn’t as obvious as a white robe. Daniel Kaluuya is brilliant in how he navigates the different social aspects of the scenes, coming to a head in the climax. Additionally, the twist has very much become a phrase I use in my writing because it feels like it should be A Thing.
09. The Lost Boys (1987). I bet you were wondering where the vampires were. After all, vampires were my gateway into the genre. I don’t even know how many times I’ve seen Joel Schumacher’s film (or its sequels). At one point, I had the poster on my bedroom wall. There’s something intentionally of its moment and yet timeless about these partying vampire teens in the 80s. Corey Haim and Corey Feldman are at their peak here. Plus, we have an awesome dog! This movie is a good time, terrifying in its potential seduction, but maybe worth your soul anyway.
08. Candyman (1992). I’m a bit of a sucker for Clive Barker adaptations, and this one is my favorite (shout-out to Hellraiser and Dread). Not only is the protagonist, Helen, a graduate student (a horror in itself), but how her investigation into urban legends becomes a reality is a great plot. Virginia Madsen and Tony Todd play off of each other so well as Helen and Candyman, making the horror into a terrifying romance. The symbolism and cultural analysis of the film are all present but, even without those, it would still be a compelling story.
07. Scream (1996). Wes Craven is one of my favorite horror directors, but choosing my favorite wasn’t that hard. I mean, I literally use it to separate between the Heyday and Experiment eras. It’s the perfect meta/self-referential film that Craven was qualified to make, with a great balance between scares and laughs. The opening sequence is one of the best of the genre, especially for its initial marketing. The cast is stacked, and performances like Matthew Lillard’s keep me coming back. Plus, we have one of the great, ever-attacked final girls—the perfect blend of innocence, rationality, and badass.
06. The Ring (2002). While I do appreciate the original Hideo Nakata film, the American remake, directed by Gore Verbinski, is more my cup of tea. It was one of those horror movies I’d heard about long before I actually saw it, where kids on the playground would joke about “seven days” or mysterious phone calls. When I did actually watch it, it became one of the few films to give me anxiety/nightmares after. Every time I watch I find new things to love: the score, the performances, the lore, the editing, the color palette. As far as effective PG-13 horror goes, this is always my example.
05. Rosemary’s Baby (1968). This is, perhaps, one of the most faithful book-to-film adaptations ever, largely because chunks of the original text by Ira Levin were literally used. And since the book is one of my favorites, this also follows. I watched the film before reading the book, and was absorbed in this tale of gaslighting, consent violations, paranoia, and witchcraft. Mia Farrow carries this film and the focus on her growing unease, especially toward the climax, helps build the audience’s own as well. This story will forever be tied into that time of my life, but—even without that—it’s still a powerful narrative and performance.
04. The Cabin in the Woods (2012). If I love Scream because of its meta-narrative then it makes sense that this latter film would also make this list. It leans a little more toward horror than comedy, but—from the first jump scare—I knew I was in love. This takes all of our beloved horror tropes, flips them, turns them back around, and creates something new in its wake. Additionally, the climax is one of my favorites, and full of lots of amazing monster designs. For a directorial debut, Drew Goddard really nails it and his writing is equally delightful. This is a film I never get tired of.
03. Midsommar (2019). The newest film on my list is also (surprisingly) high? However, Ari Aster’s sophomore film holds a special place in my heart. Not only was it the first film I saw by myself in a theater (sobbing quietly with only two other people to hear), but I vigorously studied it during my MFA. So I’ve watched it multiple times, taking notes, on both the theatrical and director’s cut. And I’ve read the screenplay. This was the first time I really saw my grief and pain reflected on-screen. It’s also cool because Aster and I are both detail-oriented and I love picking out the backgrounds or world-building that makes this film as effective as it is. Plus, Florence Pugh’s performance is god tier.
02. Jennifer’s Body (2009). If you’ve been with OcTerror long enough, then you know that this was one of my first “real” horror films (along with Dread and Sorority Row). I’m one of those lucky fans who has been on the bandwagon since the beginning, and I’m so glad others are finally appreciating it. This film is so honed in on girlhood, trauma, and queerness, thanks to Karyn Kusama, Diablo Cody, and performances by Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried. The dialogue is its own thing but works to build this narrative about hunger, injustice, and sexuality. I’m also so glad I bought the soundtrack way back when because it is a banger. My relationship with this film has changed because every time I watch it I find a new layer to unravel, some new horror to discover, but the overall aesthetic and wonder keeps me coming back. I can’t resist Jennifer’s Body.
So, what’s number one? What is my favorite horror movie from the past five OcTerrors? Well, it might be a bit controversial…
01. The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Some would call this a thriller, but I’m firmly in the “this is horror” camp. Between the serial killer, the cannibal, the found footage climax, and the suspense, it all adds up—in so many ways—to a certain kind of horror. This is another book adaptation that I really like, even as it changes a few things up for the sake of cinema. It still captures the magic of Clarice Starling, a woman trying to be taken seriously in a man’s workplace, as she becomes the person most-qualified to find Buffalo Bill. The give and take between Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster is magnetic. Hopkin’s Hannibal Lecter, for what little screen time he has, captivates and terrifies. The cinematography and direction are top-notch in the aesthetic it creates, how it lingers or skims, and what scenes and dialogue have become such iconic parts of our culture.
I could have made more honest (though still biased) lists of films I consider “Scariest” or “Best”, but, honestly, having a current list of my favorites is way more my style. Perhaps in the next few OcTerrors I might discover a new movie that will jump into the top 15 and shake things up. But isn’t uncovering new horrors the best part of this event?
I hope you think so as well. What’s your favorite scary movie? Until next year, this has been OcTerror.