This list includes the eight best horror films and shows I have in my various streaming queues right now - tried and true classics, great indie horror, and much more.
(Screen shot from 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari', source:MoMA)
2020 has been a year that the best of horror directors probably couldn’t dream up for the big screen. Still, us horror movie diehards never get tired of the genre when the horror in question is properly executed.
What follows is a list of the eight best horror films and shows I have in my various streaming queues right now. It includes tried and true classics, great indie horror, and much more.
Director/writer Mike Flanagan (‘Gerald’s Game’ - based on the novel by Stephen King - and another Netflix horror title) brilliantly executes the taught, intricate, and sublime writing of this first season of the anthology series.
While I have not yet watched Season 2 of the series – ‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’. Considering a penultimate piece of gothic horror is the inspiration for the second season – Henry James’s terrifyingly-beautiful 1898 novella, “The Turn of the Screw” (read a copy free here, courtesy of Project Gutenberg)– I have great expectations.
Either way on ‘Bly Manor’, ‘Hill House’ is a masterpiece of psychological slow-burn horror.
2. ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ (Hulu)
2011’s ‘Cabin in the Woods’ is beautifully-bloody, comedic, existential horror with some elements of weird, Lovecraftian fiction, and a liberal sample of irreverence all at the same time. Leave it to writers Joss Whedon (‘Firefly’) and Drew Goddard (2018’s ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’) to nail that combination while preserving the potency of every individual element in this strange brew of comedic horror. Kristen Connolly (‘House of Cards’) and Chris Hemsworth star.
3. ‘Hereditary’ and ‘Midsommar’ (Amazon Prime Video)
Writer/director Ari Aster rapidly ascended in the ranks of horror directors with his first film – 2018’s ‘Hereditary’ – and his sophomore effort, 2019’s ‘Midsommar’. Read my thoughts on ‘Hereditary’ by heading to this link.
‘Midsommar’ stars Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor (‘Free Fire’) as an American couple who head to a tiny town in Sweden, near the Arctic Circle, to attend the summer festival. Their experience slowly morphs into something horrific as they realize the townspeople may have some very strange designs on them.
Aster is a exceedingly-innovative director and writer – the location of the narrative in ‘Midsommar’ allows him to do some incredible things with horror and light.
4. ‘The Lighthouse’ (Amazon Prime Video) and ‘The Witch’ (Hulu)
Writer/director Robert Eggers is another filmmaker who does some incredible things with light and folk horror as a genre.
His first feature length film, 2015’s ‘The Witch’, follows a New England family who were expelled from their settlement in the 1650s because of accusations of witchcraft. They then build their cabin in a forest that – thanks to Eggers’ brilliant use of light – seems to grow ever more claustrophobic. Eggers tremendous historical eye really shines in 'The Witch' too - actual dialogue from witch trials was used in much of the movie.
2019’s ‘The Lighthouse’ stars Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as two lighthouse attendants on a small island in the Atlantic circa 1890. The performances are powerful (especially Dafoe’s), the story is perfect psychological terror, and Eggers shows a very deft hand in filming using strictly black and white.
The horror fanatic will recognize the cinematography in ‘The Lighthouse’ as a sublime homage to the pioneers of horror who influenced Eggers’ work, especially F.W. Murnau (director of the original ‘Nosferatu’ from 1922 - stream it free on Tubi) and Carl Theodor Dreyer (director of 1932’s ‘Vampyr’ - stream it at HBO Max).
(Screen capture from 1962's 'Carnival of Souls').
5. ‘Carnival of Souls' (Tubi)
1962’s ‘Carnival of Souls’ is a film with basically no recognizable talent. Its director, Herk Harvey, directed industrial safety videos in the Midwest as his main occupation.
Make no mistake, just because there’s no recognizable talent does NOT mean the film is subpar. Harvey takes what were horror cliches and reframes them in a compelling and entertaining way in the film about a woman who becomes drawn to a mysterious carnival after suffering head trauma in a car accident.
Check out the trailer below:
6. ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ (Tubi)
‘Caligari’ is essential viewing if you are even a bit of a fan of horror. Please do not be deterred by the fact that it is a silent movie either. You would be doing yourself a great disfavor. A full print of the film can be found below:
The story involves Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his "psychic" somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) who go from town to town putting on their show at carnivals. This situation soon enough escalates to something frightening.
Directed by Robert Wiene in the Weimar Republic in 1920, this is the first horror film EVER. It all started with ‘Caligari,’ even the twist ending.
The sets in ‘Caligari’ are incredible. All shadows were painted on and the rough geometry of the buildings points to the powerful sway Expressionism held over the German psyche at the time.
1977’s ‘Suspiria’ is another to watch for its set design and incredible use of vivid color.
Suzy (Jessica Harper) is an American in Berlin for ballet school. When her fellow students end up dead and a series of very bizarre events takes place, she attempts to solve the mystery going on around her.
Director Dario Argento is considered one of the pioneers of the Italian film genre "giallo" or "gialli". Giallo usually involves beautiful women, a serial killer, and a mystery to solve. The term itself comes from the Italian word for yellow, like the cheap, pulp paper giallo novels were printed on. Thus it is the Italian version of American pulp movies which typically fell in the film noir style.
If you find that you really like the giallo aesthetic, also check out director Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘The Neon Demon’ (on Amazon Prime). While it is not pure giallo, Winding Refn is very bold in how he wears his artistic influences. The coloring of the film is utterly breathtaking.
8. ‘Red Dragon’ (Netflix)
I prefer ‘Red Dragon’ to 2001’s ‘Hannibal’ and in certain respects to ‘Lambs’ because the killer being chased (Ralph Fiennes) by Will Graham (Edward Norton) has a more vicious and fascinating pathology than Buffalo Bill did in the first film.