Do you like scary movies? That’s the question asked in the first scene of Scream, and one to ponder as we enter October. With 31 days in the month that brings us jack-o’-lanterns and trick-or-treaters, there’s no better way to make Halloween last all season than by watching a different horror movie every night. And since you’ve probably already seen classics like The Shining, The Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead, and, yes, Scream, why not focus on the ones you’ve always been meaning to see?
October 1: The Thing (1982)
The Thing (a loose remake of a 1951 flick) could be anyone, which is what makes it so dangerous. Set at a research station in Antarctica where a group of scientists uncover an alien lifeform that takes over the bodies of its hosts without changing their appearance, it’s an all-timer of sci-fi horror directed by the one and only John Carpenter (see also: Halloween, Escape From New York, They Live). Kurt Russell stars as the helicopter pilot trying to keep his cohorts not only sane but human, an increasingly futile endeavor that helped make body horror a subgenre unto itself.
October 2: It Follows (2014)
“This thing, it's gonna follow you. Somebody gave it to me, and I passed it to you.” So goes the warning given to Jay, our heroine in It Follows, after she sleeps with her not-quite-boyfriend for the first time. Any number of teen-centric horror films revolve around the dangers of sex, but only this one features as its antagonist a kind of sexually transmitted monster who can take on any form and will relentlessly pursue its current victim until he or she passes is it on to someone else. David Robert Mitchell takes this potentially silly premise and makes it as pulse-pounding as possible, aided in no small part by a killer score and a lead performance by Maika Monroe worthy of the great scream queens of yore.
October 3: Audition (1999)
Kiri, kiri, kiri. The ultra-prolific Takashi Miike has made more than 100 movies, none better than Audition. Beginning with a premise that wouldn't appear to even lend itself to horror — a middle-aged widower holds “auditions” for a new wife following his wife's death — it slowly morphs into one of the most disturbing movies you'll ever see. Miike never shies away from controversy, but he's far too gifted for detractors to dismiss him as anything less than a master.
October 4: Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
“We belong dead!” The original is a stone-cold classic in its own right, but, for once, the sequel is even better. Adding depth and dimension to Frankenstein’s Monster while also introducing a new character to the mythos, James Whale’s sequel to his own 1931 film saw the return of "uncanny" Boris Karloff alongside Elsa Lanchester as both Frankenstein author Mary Shelley and the title character. A knockout of a dual performance, it’s a crucial part of what makes Bride of Frankenstein as tragic as it is terrifying.
October 5: Ganja and Hess (1973)
Spike Lee has declared Bill Gunn “one of the most under-appreciated filmmakers of his time,” and it's easy to see why after experiencing Ganja & Hess. As essential to the Black cinema canon as it is to horror, it follows an anthropologist-turned-vampire (Duane Jones, who also starred in Night of the Living Dead) and mixes African mythology with Christian iconography — an intoxicating blend even before you factor in the chalices filled with blood. Pair it with Lee’s loose remake Da Sweet Blood of Jesus for a trippy double feature.
October 6: Alien (1979)
In space no one can hear you scream, but they’ll certainly be able to in your house while watching Alien for the first time. The movie that put Ridley Scott and Sigourney Weaver on the map while launching one of sci-fi’s most enduring franchises, Alien remains one of the scariest movies ever made — and, like Jaws, much of the terror is owed to how little you see of the eponymous creature until the very end.
October 7: Martyrs (2008)
Few horror movements have polarized critics and audiences quite like the New French Extremity, which reached a bloody crescendo with Pascal Laugier's Martyrs. Only recommended for those with the utmost tolerance for cinematic violence, it’s a revenge tale that will have you questioning the very notion of vengeance — though whether that’s intentional remains up for debate more than a decade later.
October 8: The Blair Witch Project (1999)
In addition to being one of the most influential films of the last 20-plus years — seriously, how many found-footage imitators have been made? — The Blair Witch Project is also one of the most viscerally horrifying. Brilliantly bare-bones and simple, it follows the less-is-more approach to its logical (and nerve-jangling) conclusion: a lo-fi trek through haunted woods in which you see little but constantly hear strange, discomfiting sounds just out of frame. Endlessly parodied and imitated, The Blair Witch Project has still never been replicated.
October 9: The Innocents (1961)
The trailer for The Innocents, which utterly belies how frightening the film itself is, does ask one pertinent question: Do they ever return to possess the living? Jack Clayton's take on Henry James' 1898 horror novella The Turn of the Screw featured a script co-written by none other than Truman Capote, which goes a long way toward explaining why this early '60s chiller was so much more elegant than its contemporaries. No less essential is the lead performance from Deborah Kerr, here playing a governess to two young children living on a rural estate whose residents aren’t all of the living variety.
October 10: Wake in Fright (1971)
The Australian New Wave isn't the most well known of cinematic movements, but films like Wake in Fright suggest it should be. A cult classic long thought lost, it reemerged from the shadows 10 years ago after the original negatives were rescued and restored. Since then, Ted Kotcheff’s chilling genre exercise — which follows an outsider who is stuck in a brutal Outback town — has rightly been recognized as a classic (including by Martin Scorsese, who called it “deeply — and I mean deeply — unsettling and disturbing … visually, dramatically, atmospherically and psychologically, it's beautifully calibrated”).
October 11: Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
If ever you need proof that grief is the heart of horror, look no further than Jacob's Ladder. Adrian Lyne followed up 9½ Weeks and Fatal Attraction with this story of a Vietnam vet played by Tim Robbins for whom the war never truly ended, as he’s haunted both in his dreams and waking life by horrific visions of what he endured in the conflict. The rare horror movie that’s no less sad than scary, Jacob’s Ladder is ultimately about the struggle to overcome our demons — only some of which are figurative.
October 12: Pulse (2001)
If you haven’t been scared in a while, this scene from Pulse ought to do the trick — just don’t plan on falling asleep anytime soon. Insightful and terrifying in equal measure, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s meditation on our connection to — and dependence on — technology as we entered the 21st century somehow feels more prescient with each passing year.
October 13: The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)
These days, even adaptations of short stories are feature-length. Not so in 1928, when James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber had the good sense to keep their take on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" to a crisp 13 minutes. Culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant even before it was enshrined in the National Film Registry 20 years ago, the dialogue-free short gets at heart of what made Poe’s work of Gothic fiction so creepy in the first place: a pervasive atmosphere of dread in which you never feel more than a few seconds away from another unsettling twist.
October 14: The Others (2001)
When recalling Nicole Kidman’s most memorable performances, the same projects tend to come up: The Hours, Moulin Rouge!, and, more recently, Big Little Lies. The Others isn’t typically thought of alongside those roles, but it should be. As good a ghost story as we've seen onscreen in the last 20 years, Alejandro Amenábar’s period piece stars the Oscar winner as a mother of two whose children are allergic to sunlight and must therefore live by candlelight day and night — but the truth has a way of revealing itself even in the darkest of places.
October 15: Black Christmas (1974)
Anyone familiar with the original Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre probably thinks they’ve seen every classic slasher flick under the sun. Were it not for Black Christmas, they would probably be right. Lesser known than its genre cohort but no less essential, this take on the "babysitter and the man upstairs" urban legend follows a group of sorority sisters being stalked by a madman who may or may not be celebrating the holidays by taking up residence in their attic. A cult classic that’s been remade twice (with diminishing returns in each iteration), it’s the Festivus of horror movies.
October 16: Masque of the Red Death (1964)
If you need to know anything more about Masque of the Red Death beyond the fact that it’s an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation starring Vincent Price, how about the fact that it was also directed by Roger Corman? A luminary of independent film whose influence on other filmmakers ranges from Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese to Jonathan Demme and James Cameron, his absurdly prolific career led to a long-overdue honorary Oscar in 2009. The film itself is a hoot, full of vivid colors and spooky narrative beats, with Price at his scenery-chewing best. If you enjoy it, you’re in luck: Corman directed seven other Poe adaptations.
October 17: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
If you watched Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon go at it in Feud: Bette and Joan but have yet to see What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, it's time to correct that oversight. That critically acclaimed Ryan Murphy miniseries chronicled the making of Robert Aldrich’s psychodrama, which finds Bette Davis and Joan Crawford at their over-the-top best as aging sisters whose relationship could politely be referred to as dysfunctional. A tale of confinement, captivity, and camp, it was hugely successful — not despite the long-simmering tension between Davis and Crawford, but because of it.
October 18: The Changeling (1980)
Martin Scorsese has called The Changeling one of the scariest movies ever made (this George C. Scott horror film, not the 2008 Angelina Jolie vehicle with a similar name), and who are we to disagree? Ten years after winning (and refusing) the Academy Award for Best Actor, Scott put in another Patton-worthy performance as a composer who moves into a house that could generously be described as haunted. What unfolds from that familiar premise is anything but — seeing movies like this one is very different from actually seeing The Changeling.
October 19: The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963)
It wouldn't be Halloween without a little giallo. If you're unfamiliar with the Italian horror tradition, start at the beginning with Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much. The word “giallo” itself simply means “yellow,” a reference to the color of paperback novels popular in the country at the time, but denotes much more: Marked by mystery, sex, and stylized violence, the genre is deviously entertaining. That’s certainly true of of Bava’s innovative classic, which follows a young woman who witnesses a murder while visiting Rome — a scary enough occurrence on its own, but one made strange by the fact that the authorities can't locate the body in question.
October 20: Possession (1981)
When Polish auteur Andrzej Żuławski pitched the idea of Possession to Paramount Pictures, he described it as a film about a woman who copulates with an octopus. Paramount passed. The movie got made anyway, and we’re all the better for it: Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill (a dozen years before Jurassic Park) are both fantastic as a couple whose relationship is already violently strained by the time we’re introduced to what’s only ever called “the creature.” Though it's only occasionally frightening in the traditional sense, Possession is deeply uncomfortable — and excellent — from its first scene to its last.
October 21: Outer Space (1999)
Almost certainly unlike anything you've ever seen, Peter Tscherkassky's 11-minute Outer Space is an experimental masterwork. Made entirely of found footage from existing films (namely 1981’s The Entity), it’s a marvel of editing and processing that results in a dialogue-free collage of creepy imagery with no set narrative beyond the one you impose on it.
October 22: The Devils (1971)
Ken Russell rarely shied away from controversy, and his propensity for pushing the envelope reached its zenith in The Devils. The film covers the Loudon Possessions, perhaps the most famous witch trials this side of Salem; it takes place in 17th-century France and follows the trial of Father Urbain Grandier, a parish priest who was accused of signing a pact with the devil. Salacious, violent, and irreverent, the film received an X rating in both the United States and United Kingdom, and was banned in several other countries. The Devils is much easier to see now than it was even a few years ago, thanks to its shaky history of home-video releases, and there’s no time like the present for jury duty.
October 23: The Vanishing (1988)
Have you ever truly seen an unhappy ending if you haven’t seen The Vanishing? There’s only one way to find out, but it isn’t recommended for those with delicate (or even normal) sensibilities. George Sluizer's 1988 downer about a man searching for his girlfriend after she disappears at a gas station during a road trip was so well received that the Dutch filmmaker remade it in English five years later. Though his American version starring Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock was fine, it pales in comparison to the original.
October 24: Near Dark (1987)
In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow became the first (and, to date, only) woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director. In 1987, she made her first great movie: Near Dark, a fresh take on the vampire concept starring Bill Paxton, Jenny Wright, and Lance Henriksen. You might not think that bloodsuckers and bikers would get along as well as they do here, which is part of the fun: Near Dark subverts genre tropes even as it plays into them.
October 25: Sisters (1972)
If you aren’t familiar with Brian De Palma, think of him as a raunchier Alfred Hitchcock. Endlessly indebted to the master of suspense and utterly afraid of pushing the envelope, the Carrie, Dressed to Kill, and Body Double director made his first classic with this story of conjoined twins who were physically separated long ago but remain as emotionally connected as ever — including when one of them is suspected of committing a grisly murder.
October 26: Trouble Every Day (2001)
Most of Claire Denis’ films are unsettling in one way or another, but only once has she ventured into genuine horror. Trouble Every Day is a vampire movie as only the French auteur behind Beau Travail and High Life could make one, full of strange eroticism and a growing sense of unease as its true nature — and that of its characters — comes into the light.
October 27: The Wicker Man (1973)
Just because the remake (starring Nicolas Cage) is meme fodder doesn’t mean the original isn’t a masterpiece. Any movie you’ve seen about an outsider happening upon a rural community whose folksy customs belie a sinister underbelly is indebted to The Wicker Man, which takes place on a Scottish islet where the locals break into song and put on a happy face despite the fact that a little girl has gone missing there. Suffice to say that something is amiss on Summerisle, but what it is will keep you guessing until the very end.
October 28: Kill List (2011)
There’s disturbing, and then there’s Kill List. What begins as merely stressful and odd gradually turns into one of the most unsettling movies you'll ever see, with a finale so haunting you'll feel it in your bones. Following two veterans-turned-hitmen whose latest assignment is far more than they bargained for, Ben Wheatley’s sophomore feature turns into a violent fantasia within its first 30 minutes and keeps getting darker and more disturbing with each successive twist. You’ll never see the last of these coming, but by the time Kill List is over you’ll know it couldn’t have ended any other way.
October 29: Onibaba (1964)
Long before J-horror was considered a genre unto itself, Kaneto Shindo was scaring viewers witless. Along with Kuroneko, a sort of sister film, Onibaba remains the late, great auteur's best-remembered — and most frightening — effort. Set during a 14th-century civil war, it tells of two women who eke out a meager existence by murdering wayward soldiers and trading their weapons and armor for food. Shindo directed nearly 50 films in the full century he spent on this planet, many of which were considered allegorical representations for the bombing of his hometown of Hiroshima — including Onibaba. If that doesn't sound particularly frightening in the traditional sense, know that the title itself translates loosely to “demon hag.”
October 30: Eyes Without a Face (1960)
How many horror films can you think of that inspired a Billy Idol song? Georges Franju's classic did that and more, all without the benefit of blood and gore — a calculated decision he made to go avoid censors. It worked, both intentionally and artistically. Between the shadows and the expressionless mask worn by Édith Scob's character, a disfigured woman whose plastic-surgeon father will do anything to give her a face transplant, what you don't see is often more frightening than what you do.
October 31: The Witch (2015)
Wouldst thou like to live deliciously? All you have to do is watch The Witch. Quite possibly the best horror movie of the past decade, Robert Eggers’ debut as writer-director follows a 17th-century Puritan family doing its utmost to avoid falling under the thrall of a sorceress who may or may not reside in the nearby woods. But that’s hardly their only problem, as food is scarce and strange happenings are abundant — chief among those being their goat, Black Phillip, whose behavior becomes ever more sinister as the family’s circumstances grow more dire.
Featured image credit: stefanopollio/ Unsplash