13 (Mostly) Scary Movies to Watch With The Lights Off

Originally posted on This Problem is Unsolvable

It’s that time again, the nights are getting longer, the first winter’s chill is in the air, all the old ghosts come about us, and they speak to some. Whether you’d like to spend the rest of the night climbing the walls in anxiety until sunrise, or if you’d just like to kick back with a drink and some friends and watch the world burn, here’s a list of great movies, some available for streaming and others worth the splurge if you care to rent them, that are sure to get you in the spirit of things. So go get a bowl of popcorn, put your feet up (for comfort and possibly for safety), and remember to switch off all the lights.


“Let the Right One In” (2008) (Netflix)

let the right one in

Sometimes finding a real connection with another person seems impossible. Two young people, both solitary and withdrawn by their natures, find comfort and a sense of belonging in one another’s company. It just so happens that one of them is a malevolent supernatural creature that must secretly feed on the blood of the innocent in order to survive. But this is by no means your standard love story involving creatures of the night. What sets “Let the Right One In” apart are the little things. For starters, its two eleven-year-old leads, the result of a casting search that scoured the length and breadth of Sweden, are remarkably well-suited and live their roles beautifully. Excellent cinematography and a minimal and naturalistic approach to the violent subject matter give it the haunting feel of a simple childhood drama that happens to have horrific elements, but which grows more and more complicated and sinister as it progresses. The result is chilling and surprisingly tender-hearted, a well-crafted collision of the everyday and the otherworldly. In style it’s long on atmosphere and characterization, very short on gore, but it knows just when to use the latter for extreme emphasis. Directed by Tomas Alfredson (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) and adapted from John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel of the same name by Lindgvist himself, it was also adapted in 2010 into a U.S. version, but do yourself a favor and watch the one with subtitles. These performances alone are worth the price of admission.


“Cronos” (1993)

cronosWhat would you do if you thought you could live forever? What price would be too high to pay?

Before there was “Hellboy,” or “Pan’s Labyrinth” or “Pacific Rim,” there was “Cronos.” When an antique store owner discovers an odd-looking gadget, and feels its mysterious bite, at first things seem great: he feels younger, has more energy, and things generally are picking up. But the device’s purpose and its effect on him awaken dark appetites that he isn’t well inclined to feed. His life takes an irrevocable turn for the strange, and unbeknownst to him, a race among ruthless and powerful people had begun capture this horrific secret of eternal life. The approach to the material is thoughtful and heartfelt, and undeniably hair-raising, and there is even something like a message here, for anyone interested. Things soon go from good to bad to worse to awful, but we are compelled to keep following this earnest, well-rounded and sympathetic character through to his journey’s end. The directorial debut of director and screenwriter Guillermo Del Toro, and loaded with the lush and surreal imagery, creepy twists, and odd details he’s since become famous for, Mexico’s then-most expensive film ever made remains a classic of simple yet powerful storytelling at its best. Plus, Ron Perlman, to whom you should always say yes.


“Absentia” (2011) (Netflix)

absentiaWhat could be worse than knowing the people who mean the most to us could someday vanish, leaving no trace, never to be seen again?

Tricia is finally taking steps to move forward with her life. When her sister Callie arrives for a prolonged visit of support, she has begun the necessary paperwork to have her husband Danny, missing now for over seven years, declared legally dead. But when she finally starts getting answers to the questions she’s asked for so long, no one is prepared to accept or cope with what those answers might mean. Deceptively mundane and down-to-earth in its opening and most of its delivery, but eerily haunting in its premise and its points of stress, this open question of an indie film is likely to crawl into your head and nest there for days. The film’s strengths are in its performances, its nearly flawlessly naturalistic dialogue, the reality of the emotional weight the story has on its characters, and in the simple, clever and chilling terrors it brings out when the lights go off. Seeking to explore what is perhaps the ultimate “adult” fear—being utterly abandoned without warning or explanation by the people we’re connected to—the film ultimately goes after the often invisible line between a reality we can’t accept and the rationalizations we use to shield ourselves from it, and reaches further and cuts deeper than one initially expects from its easygoing and simplistic style. Written and directed by Mike Flanagan (“Oculus”), at times it does seem hampered by its Kickstarter budget, and its emphasis on story over action may not appeal as strongly to die hard horror fans, but if you want to be scared of tunnels for life, in a good way, go watch it.


“Shaun of the Dead” (2006)

shaun of the deadIs there a better way to say “I love you” than surviving the zombie apocalypse together?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright are the best thing to happen to comedy since the bygone golden days of the nineties faded. Here, the trio brings to life Shaun (Pegg) and Ed (Frost), an underachieving retail clerk and his even underachieving-er flatmate, respectively. When Shaun’s lady love Liz leaves him for being a layabout, he realizes he has to turn his life around if he’s going to win her back. Fortunately for him, and for us, it is at just this point that the dead rise from the grave to overtake the earth in a slow wave of mindlessly unstoppable carnage, so he’ll have lots of chances to prove himself worthy if he just wants to stay alive. The solution? Grab Liz and her family and friends, go to the Winchester, grab a pint, and wait for this to all blow over. If only it were that easy. Slick editing, unmatched wit, imminently quotable, your new best friend on a disc. There is no aspect of the classic undead thriller film formula that this gem of an action-comedy doesn’t celebrate with affection and at the same time tear to pieces. The first of director Wright and co-writer Pegg’s “Cornetto Trilogy” (named for the ice cream consumed in each entry) and followed by the stylistic successors “Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End,” this screamingly hilarious, irrepressibly warmhearted romp is in general a landmark in 21st century film; if you haven’t seen it yet, just go buy it. You can thank us later.


“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978) (Netflix)

snatchersHow do you know the people around you really are who they seem to be? What’s going on in their heads? How can you ever be sure?

There is something wrong with people today. Everyone seems detached, cold, yet weirdly efficient and even-tempered. Everywhere you go, people seem to be staring at you. Your parents/spouse/SO/roommate treat you politely but like a stranger at the bus stop, they already have all the chores done for once without being asked, and you see them go empty a dust bin of ash into a garbage truck waiting outside. You meet a friend out for lunch, and try to tell them that the people at home are acting oddly, but you soon realize your friend is acting the same way. And they have this weird little flower pod they’d like to to wear. You look tired, they suggest, maybe if you’re so worried about all this you should lay down for a short nap? Often hailed as the greatest remake ever remade (based on the 1956 original film and the 1954 novel “The Body Snatchers” by Jack Finney), this thriller’s edgy handheld camera work, eerie and unnerving sound design, and constantly upward-ratcheting tension go a long way towards bridging the culture gap of 36 years since its release. Performances from an almost impossibly young Donald Sutherland and Leonard friggin’ Nemoy of all people, not to mention an apparently infant Jeff Goldblum and countless easter-egg cameos. When you think about it, it’s also one of the most chilling, calmly executed, and effective disaster films. Watch it with someone you care about if you can; if nothing else, you can agree on secret code words in case one of you wakes up different tomorrow…


“The Fly” (1986)

the flyProbably one of the most distressing realizations that can grip us from time to time is that our bodies are just tissue, flesh and bone, a complex of chemical structures interacting entirely by the dictates of our genetic code, and having nothing at all to do with who we are as people. To intrude on that sense of self, to violate it, to change it in a way that it essentially no longer survives, is to call into question our identity: we become organisms first and people second after all.

Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is optimistic that he’s first on the threshold of the greatest technological revolution since the car or the atom bomb. It’s a sci-fi premise you’ve seen in the first five minutes of any episode of “Star Trek:” people get into a transporter, “teleportation pod” here. Powerful computers record their body’s complete molecular structure, break the body down, then convey the information to the destination where the person, or at least their body, is reconstructed on the spot. Brundle has taken the prototype teleportation pods back to his place for further work, and while experimenting finds he needs a human test subject. He gets in, it scans his DNA. And a little fly gets in, too… He seems to come out fine, but soon things go wrong. Horribly horribly wrong. Featuring some of the best special make-up effects and prosthetics work ever captured on screen and a performance from Goldblum so heartbreakingly convincing that it singlehandedly confirms the invalidity of Academy Awards by his not having even been nominated. Come for the creepy tone, the subtle changes to watch for and the sarcastic banter, stay for the eye-melting effects and philosophical implications. But maybe watch it while the sun’s up.


“Seven” (1995)

sevenWhen we say that a human being is evil, are we describing their behavior or their character? What’s the difference?

It almost always rains in the city. Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) won’t miss it much when he retires in a few days. He just has to train up Detective Mills (Brad Pitt), this cocky young pup who’s new to the city, and clear this last strange homicide they’ve found. The only problem is it’s suddenly not the only homicide of this kind. And then there’s another, and another… Now it seems the two detectives are more than matched against someone seeking to reflect the world’s own wicked nature back at itself, one deadly sin at a time. The movie that practically invented the grungy look in modern filmmaking, there are stories from production of the studio executives complaining about the quality of the sets, because it wasn’t clear that they were hand-crafted to be exactly as scratched, dismal, and decaying as the director and designers wanted. And the work is effective: The melancholy setting and chilling, disgusting atmosphere of the city and its unhappy citizens permeates the melodramatic and grotesque twists of the plot, giving the story at the same time both a fairy tale weirdness and a torn-from-the-headlines feel of disheartening realism. Arguably the film that dragged the creative spirit (and the reputation) of a then-young David Fincher (“Fight Club,” “The Game,” “The Social Network”) back from his disastrous debut on “Alien3,” “Seven” is an irresistibly fascinating expedition into the furthest logical reaches of the awful and the distressing. A marvelous dark engine of hideous contortions. Try and keep it out of your dreams.


“The Cabin in the Woods” (2012) (Netflix)

cabin in the woodsThere are movies that succeed by obeying a straightforward formula. There are movies, like “Shaun of the Dead,” that seem to know that they are following a formula, and swerve to avoid it while pointing the formula out. Then there are movies written by Joss Whedon.

Five conventional-seeming college kids head out of to the woods for a weekend away. Curt (Chris Hemsworth) has a cousin who has a cabin they can use. Does it look familiarly creepy when they pull up? A more appropriate question may be: How many bodies are under the foundation? (It’s even more than you think.) When they go down in the basement (Why? There’s actually an answer!) and summon an unstoppable evil, things soon start to get bloody. But then one of them finds a camera, and things start to get confusing, except for us in the audience, who have seen the workers in the secret high-tech installation nearby: Tor us, things finally start to make a strange sort of sense…

If you hate horror films, if they never made sense to you or if they all seemed to be the same, or if you can’t see what the appeal is at all, please watch this movie. Let it be a crash course in what makes the genre excellent. It equips you with the experience to tool apart and enjoy pretty much any other (good) horror movie ever made. And it gets so much better than it seems like it can get so many times you’ll probably want to start it over again as soon as it’s finished. Directed by Drew Goddard and written by Goddard and Joss Whedon. For fans of “Dollhouse,” the works of H.P. Lovecraft, or “The West Wing,” attendance is mandatory. Let’s get this party started.


“The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) (Netflix)

silence of the lambsIn “Under Western Eyes” (1911), Joseph Conrad remarks, “The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.” I can conjure from my memory no clearer, more compelling, or more awfully mesmerizing an illustration of how far down reaches the human capacity for depravity than this film.

By now we all know Hannibal Lecter (if you don’t know him, stop reading this article and watch the movie now). He’s suave, sophisticated, after a few moment’s conversation he knows us better than we know ourselves. He can sketch from memory the Duomo in Florence as seen from the Belvedere, and if you’re alone with him without his restraints he might remove your face with his teeth. Lecter aside though, have you seen this movie recently enough to remember the little details? The way the camera switches to a first-person point of view just when we feel like something is expected of us that we don’t expect ourselves? How creepy good Ted Levine (“Monk,” “American Gangster”) is at playing the proper villain Jamie Gumm? The lighting and the way the camera cuts between Starling’s face and that of her impromptu mentor when she’s talking about her time living on a farm, and when it cuts, and why? Screenplay by Ted Tally, adapted from the novel of the same name by Thomas Harris, directed by Jonathan Demme. The only horror film ever to receive the Academy Award (if it matters) for best film, not to mention also those for best actor, best actress, best director, and best screenplay. You may never hear “American Girl” the same way again.

Nota bene: For those who can’t get enough of the Thomas Harris mythos, the first-ever adaptation of his novels, Manhunter (1986), based on the since re-adapted Red Dragon, is also available on Netflix at the moment; Brian Cox (The Bourne Identity, Red, uncle Argyle from Braveheart) plays Lecter here, only it’s spelled Lektor, a perfectly adequate if somewhat less enthralling performance.


“The Thing” (1982)

the thingWho goes there?

At an American base camp in Antarctica, winter is setting in, and a lone dog flees from out of the snowy wastes towards the front door. Close on its heels comes a low-flying helicopter, with a seemingly deranged Norwegian hanging out the window, discharging firearms and grenades at the poor dog as if his life depended on stopping it. The men of the American base (lead by Kurt Russell, a sensibly badass Wilford Brimley, and Keith David, among others) save the dog from this crazy man, and he is stopped by gunfire before they can understand what he was doing or why. If they had only known then what they were bringing across their threshold, they would have leapt at the chance to side with the Norwegian. If “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is a disaster movie, this would be a locked-house murder mystery. Combining what essentially makes that film terrifying, and the central theme of “The Fly” explored above, together with enough incredibly well-turned gore and intense action to fill three movies, “The Thing” is possibly the best example of a fascinating little science fiction problem brought painstakingly and horrifyingly to life. Aficionados of the days before movie magic relied on computer graphic imagery will feel their eyes glue themselves to the screen over the practical visual effects alone, which have held up over time almost across the board with chilling realism and with absolute believability. Rob Bottin, the man in charge of the effects, put himself in the hospital overworking the job. Directed by John Carpenter (“Halloween,” “Escape from New York”) and adapted by Bill Lancaster from a story by John W. Campbell, “The Thing” is less a remake of the 1951 adaptation (“The Thing from Another World”) as it is a different take on the source material. It is an excellent film. And it will get to you, one way or another.


“Evil Dead II” (1987) (Netflix)

evil deadSometimes, and not nearly often enough, a movie comes along that makes the viewer feel simultaneously giddy with childlike glee and profoundly grateful that they’re a grown-up.

Although it is a sequel, “Evil Dead II” is more than capable of standing on its own merit. In fact, it commences with a more or less a ten-minute synopsis of the events of the first film, in case there’s anyone in the audience who’d like to know the premise. What is amazing about the movie is that after it’s done racing through 90 minutes of material in just the first 10, it never really slows its pace back down again. Instead it rushes headlong from one insanely entertaining scenario of grisly problems and brutal solutions to another, until you don’t really know anymore if you’re laughing (or crying from laughing) or if you want to go put boards over the windows to keep the darkness safely outside. It never lets you think it’s the most important film ever made, in fact most of the time it seems to almost be tripping over itself just to get you to like it, but its shameless marathon of pulling zero punches and leaving no gag untried makes it all the more delightful for that. More than half of the running length is essentially a one-man show from the unquenchably audacious Bruce Campbell; written by its director and his then-roommate Scott Spiegel, this movie is the reason why you know who Sam Raimi is (“Spider-Man,” “Drag Me to Hell,” “Oz the Great and Powerful”). If you have a friend who’s been talking about how great this movie is for years, do yourself a favor and watch it with them. If not, this is your chance to become that person for your friends. By the time the movie’s over, that is a person you will want to be.


“Ghostbusters” (1984)

ghostbustersWhat more needs to be said? Who you gonna call?

To be fair, I would recommend this movie to watch with the lights off or on, in winter or summer, on a plane or in the rain. I would probably recommend this movie to people who are pathologically frightened by ghosts, proton guns, electric shocks, and/or Bill Murray himself, just to see if it could cure them. But who can blame me.

The dead are rising in New York, and for these three paranormal psychologist cum entrepreneurs business is booming. Trouble is, these ethereal ghouls and spirits may be bringing much worse with them. Dan Ackroyd and the late great genius Harold Ramis worked up the screenplay from experiences and conversations Ackroyd had with his father about actual paranormal activity, investigation, and the possibility of elimination. From a zany story lead by John Belushi (then still living) about crusaders through time and space zapping spirits left and right, it was eventually grounded by Ramis into real life and changed into the seemingly accidentally perfect mixture we know and love today. Featuring the ad-libbing immortal Bill Murray as Doctor Peter Venkman and Harold Ramis as Doctor Egon Spengler, not to mention the intrepid Rick Moranis as Louis “Keymaster” Tully and Sigourney Weaver as Dana “Gatekeeper” Barret, thrills that legitimately make the skin crawl and the heart pound, visual effects and sound design that do better than hold up today, and an unforgettable music score (and the pop song of course, but who needs to mention that). By any measure, it set a standard of entertainment that the 21st century is still striving to catch up to.


“The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993) (Netflix)

nightmare before xmasIf you’re anything like me, it is possible to get a little weary of all the shrieks and screams and tension of a long night of having your senses lovingly flayed by light of the TV screen. Fortunately there’s a movie for times like these, too. So if you’re feeling like you’ve started to see the limits of the good that scary can do for one evening, go grab another drink, or maybe a hot chocolate, get another bowl of popcorn (and maybe throw some nonpareils on top ooh boy!), and treat yourself to the ultra-surreal imaginary playground of “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Although Mr. Burton’s morbid style can sometimes be too much of a good thing, here all the spider’s webs and moody lighting is pointed at a definite end. What seems at first like a romp for kids through an abstract mash-up of holidays turns out to be a funny, thoughtful, and moving work pursuing meaning in the balance of life and art and personal identity. Directed by Henry Selick, with a screenplay by Caroline Thompson & Michael McDowell from a story by Tim Burton & Joe Ranft. Wonderful music by long-time Burton collaborator Danny Elfman, who also provides the singing voice of our hero Jack, the Pumpkin King. From a technical point of view the stop-motion modeling and work itself is a beautiful towering achievement that may never be surpassed. For many, this movie is practically a member of the family; if you haven’t seen it, go find out why.


(Honorable Mention: Netflix Round-Up)

Still need more? Online you can also find “The Host” (2006), a mostly-action South Korean flick with a lot of wit and heart and an amazing movie monster (**+); “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), creepy enough and scary mostly as a tale of paranoid isolation among one’s closest friends and family (***); and George Romero’s immortal “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), the movie that probably gave us the modern zombie, along with inventing the “it’s-so-violent-but-they’re-not-cutting-away-from-the-violence-why” shot. Happy Halloween, and Happy viewing.

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