Scream of the crop - our top horror picks for Halloween will have you cowering behind a cushion
Great films can be rare in horror, a genre prone to trashiness and overkill
No one needs an excuse to watch a good horror film, but scaring oneself half to death has a special appeal at this time of the year. The IFI's annual Horrorthon is well under way, and the ghoulish delights on offer this year include a screening of the late, great Tobe Hooper's killer crocodile chiller Eaten Alive, the Irish horror Torment, and the stylish Vietnamese film Housemaid, which tells the story of an amorous maid who's haunted by the ghost of her lover's late wife.
For those who prefer to frighten themselves at home, the terrestrial channels will show a smattering of classics over the next few days, from The Wicker Man and The Ring to Poltergeist, Scream and The Amityville Horror.
But I'm fussy about horror films, and with good reason, for this is a genre inherently prone to trashiness. Most horror films, even the entertaining ones, are eminently forgettable, while others are nasty above and beyond the call of duty. It's hard to come up with a frightener that's genuinely original, and visually strong enough to stand the test of time. So here are my favourite horrors, some very old, some new, and one released as recently as this year.
If any film proves that horror movies don't have to be dumb, it's Get Out. Jordan Peele's witty and sophisticated drama used an ingenious 1970s-themed horror plot to tackle the subject of racism. Daniel Kaluuya played Chris Washington, a Brooklyn photographer who's dreading his first meeting with his girlfriend's family. He's black, she's white, and her parents don't know that Chris is African-American.
When he gets to the family's spacious rural estate, however, all appears to be well. Her parents gushingly welcome him, and insist that they'd have voted for Barack Obama a third time if they could have. But something's amiss: they have servants, but they're all black, and doesn't the house look a bit like a southern plantation? Currently available on DVD and digital download, Get Out shouldn't be missed: it proves there's more than one way of telling a scary story.
But from the very start, film-makers have been drawn to the visual potential of fairy tales and ghost stories, and it was the Germans who created the first great horror classics.
Directors like Robert Weine and Paul Wegener used European legends and the stark aesthetic of German Expressionism to create such extraordinary and unsettling films as The Golem and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. But perhaps the most memorable German horror film of the silent era is Nosferatu. FW Murnau's 1922 film is shrouded in legend, much of it concerning its enigmatic star, Max Schreck, who so terrified extras and crew that they began to think he might actually be a vampire.
Schreck was Count Orlok, a terrifying Transylvanian vampire who causes havoc when he descends on an unsuspecting German town. But this was no slick ladykiller: Nosferatu's vampire was a bald, stooped, translucent predator who crept up on his victims in the dead of night, his ghastly shadow following him up the stairs. He was a nightmare, and a very effective one, but the film was not a success.
Nosferatu was loosely based on Bram Stoker's Dracula, but unfortunately Murnau and his producers had neglected to secure the rights first, and were sued by the Dublin writer's estate. A judge ordered all copies destroyed, but happily a few survived.
That austere German aesthetic eventually found its way to Hollywood, and its influence was evident in the great Universal Studios horror films of the 1930s. Tod Browning's Dracula (1931) was full of impressionistic shadows and light, and featured a compelling turn from the most memorable bloodsucker of them all - Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi. But the best Universal horrors were James Whale's Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, two beautiful and melancholic updates of Mary Shelley's gothic yarn starring Boris Karloff as a monster more sinned against than sinning.
The horror genre was flogged to death by Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s, as stock characters like Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy and the Wolfman were trotted out. As a result, the genre fell from favour, but would rebound spectacularly in the 1960s.
Executives at Paramount were so horrified by Alfred Hitchcock's plan to make a film loosely based on the exploits of serial killer Ed Gein that they refused to finance it. So the great man poured his own money into making Psycho (1960), shooting in black and white to keep his costs down.
Janet Leigh played a young woman on the run who pulls into the wrong motel, and Anthony Perkins was wonderfully convincing as Norman Bates, the mother-obsessed psychopath. Technically excellent, innovative in its storytelling, Psycho was a huge hit, proved that audiences still loved horror and, for better or worse, also launched the slasher genre. A few years back, Guardian and Observer critics voted it the best horror film of all time - it just might be.
British horror has always ploughed its own distinctive furrow, from the tacky delights of Hammer studios to more sophisticated chillers. An English cousin of Psycho, Michael Powell's Peeping Tom was released in May of 1960, a month earlier than Hitchcock's film, and so could lay claim to being the first slasher film of all. It told the chilling story of Mark (Carl Boehm), a technician at a movie studio who spends his spare time working on a film he calls his "documentary".
It's actually a record of all the women he kills with a spike concealed in his camera. Powell intended the film to be a sophisticated critique of cinema's prurience, but critics were horrified that the director stooped to this kind of unpleasantness. His career was ruined.
Nicolas Roeg's 1973 masterpiece Don't Look Now used to be shown a lot on television, but hardly ever is now, which is a shame, because it's bloody terrifying. Set in Venice and based on a story by Daphne du Maurier, it stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a couple who move to the watery city after their child dies in a terrible accident. Initially, the change seems to do them good, but when the wife starts thinking she's seen her dead child running away from her down dark side streets, things go from bad to worse.
Maybe you have to have been raised a Catholic to fully appreciate the creepy charms of The Exorcist (1973). William Friedkin used light, mood and the music of Mike Oldfield to tell the compelling story of a Washington actress (Ellen Burstyn) who becomes convinced her 12-year-old daughter is possessed. The film caused mass hysteria among audiences when it was first released, and rumours abounded of an on-set curse. It certainly wasn't cursed at the box office.
Opinions have always been divided on Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Some critics, like the New Yorker's Pauline Kael, found Jack Nicholson's performance "tiresome". But time has been kind to Kubrick's film, a sweeping, visionary chiller that breaks horror rules and introduces new ones in telling the story of Jack Torrance, a caretaker who goes bananas during a long winter at a closed and snowbound hotel.
Kubrick's originality is sadly lacking in most horror films, which tend to be derivative and formulaic. But in recent years a new breed of chiller has emerged that's full of innovation and new ideas, and has been dubbed by some critics, 'post horror'.
And I loved A Ghost Story (2017), David Lowery's glumly poetic tale starring Casey Affleck as a man who dies in a car crash then rises from the mortuary slab and trudges wearily back home, where he's doomed to float powerless and invisible while his girlfriend moves on with her life. If that's what happens in the afterlife, you can keep it.
Netflix and chills: five best horror films to stream
Train to Busan (2016)
Korean horror is justly celebrated, and in this accomplished thriller, a businessman boards a train with his daughter just as their home city is overwhelmed by a plague of zombies. Some of those onboard may be infected, and as the train hurtles south, a terrible battle for survival ensues.
The Host (2006)
In this deliciously creepy Korean classic, a giant, deformed amphibian emerges from a chronically polluted river to torment the people who live along its shore, particularly a poor family of grifters who battle to get their child back when the creature grabs her.
The Babadook (2014)
In this endlessly inventive low-budget Aussie chiller, a young boy is plagued by nightmares about a monster in the basement. His mother thinks he's making it up until a sinister-looking children's book called The Babadook starts showing up all over the house.
The invitation (2015)
When a man is invited to his ex-wife's house to meet her new beau, bad things happen as old slights and shared traumas are aired. Part slasher, part psychological drama, Karyn Kusama's film is a slow-burning treat.
It Follows (2014)
When a dreamy young woman goes out on a date and things get frisky, she finds out that sex has passed on a supernatural curse, and that she's now being pursued by a shape-shifting entity that will keep on coming until it catches and consumes her. Nice.