Whether you’re venturing out this Halloween or sheltering in place as the pandemic continues, there is no better way to celebrate the holiday than with some popcorn, a rubber skeleton, perhaps some cotton cobwebs, and a great scary movie or two.
For those watching their pennies, we’ve selected a wide range of slashers and moody, spooky chillers, all available to stream for free, either on ad-based services like Tubi, Vudu, Roku, Redbox, Pluto TV, and others, or the public library-based services Hoopla and Kanopy. Stay safe this Halloween, but also: be afraid… be very afraid.
Alice, Sweet Alice
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Alfred Sole’s Alice Sweet Alice (1976) should have catapulted its maker into the annals of horror, but the movie suffered from terrible luck. It was a flop when it was first released as Communion, and then actress Brooke Shields, who, at age 12 is in the movie for about 20 minutes, became a huge star for her blue jeans adds. So, the distributors changed the title and raised Shields’ name above the title, trying this gambit more than once; needless to say, viewers were nonplussed.
But Sole’s film, viewed in its restored director’s cut, is an incredible piece of work, a brilliantly sustained, canny use of color, sound, mood, and tension. There’s a mysterious killer in a yellow raincoat and a creepy, translucent mask, a little girl blamed for the killings, and a rash of very strange, off-kilter characters. Though Shields’ role is small, her angelic presence is important, given that she’s the kindest character in the story. (She’s the soul of the movie, really.) Enthusiastic critics and filmmakers at the time proclaimed Sole the next Hitchcock or Polanski, but he only made two more films after this.
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Spending most of his career on low-budget horror films, the Italian filmmaker Mario Bava was nonetheless one of the greatest stylists and one of the most intuitive directors in history. He began as a cinematographer, learning how to light and move the camera before making his directing debut with this exceptional horror film. Based, more or less, on a Nikolai Gogol story, and originally titled La maschera del demonio (The Mask of Satan), Black Sunday (1960) tells the story of a 17th century witch (Barbara Steele) who is sentenced to death, and a mask of spikes is hammered into her face. Two centuries later, two travelers (Andrea Checchi and John Richardson) accidentally revive her, and then meet the beautiful Katia (Steele again), who lives in a creepy castle nearby.
The plot, which eventually involves blood-drinking vampires as much as it does witches, isn’t exactly air-tight, but Bava’s incredible black-and-white moods and rhythms more than make up for it; many images from this film are not easy to forget. This is the English-language version, which is slightly different from Bava’s cut and contains a musical score by Les Baxter. (Also seek out Bava’s Black Sabbath, Blood and Black Lace, and Bay of Blood.)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
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Robert Wiene’s essential The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is an unquestionable landmark in cinema, influencing everyone from Murnau and Lang to Hollywood filmmakers of the 1940s. Rather than attempting to capture “realism,” which was the general method of the time, Wiene went the opposite route, slathering the screen with forced perspectives and all kinds of bizarre diagonals and slants; there is hardly a right angle to be found in this film. It results in vivid, dreamlike logic and a terrifying lack of control.
Werner Krauss stars as the doctor, who enters a carnival with his main attraction, a somnambulist (Conrad Veidt) who predicts people’s deaths, and might well be the cause of same. When his best friend is found murdered, Francis (Friedrich Feher) immediately suspects Caligari and sets out to prove his hunch. A prologue and epilogue were apparently added over Wiene’s objections to lessen the overall impact of the film’s sheer, unrelenting madness.
Carnival of Souls
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This moody classic has fallen into the public domain, but at least some of the streaming services offer a nicely restored transfer. Director “Herk” Harvey had been a maker of industrial films when he decided to craft a horror feature in the style of Ingmar Bergman and Jean Cocteau, and Carnival of Souls (1962) was the result.
Shot in black and white with a sinister, nightmare-inducing, organ-driven music score, it tells the story of Mary (the method-acting-trained Candace Hilligoss), the only survivor of a terrible car crash, who accepts a job as a church organist. She begins seeing things, like a strange ghoul man standing outside her car window (while the car is moving) and other freaky things in an abandoned carnival. It’s more of a triumph of nightmare logic than of storytelling, but it’s unsettling and spooky enough to have established a cult following. Even George A. Romero was a fan; it inspired him to make Night of the Living Dead.
Dark Water (2002)
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Japanese director Hideo Nakata is perhaps best known for his 1998 Ringu (also available to stream free on Tubi), but his Dark Water (2002) is equally effective, if not more relevant (who’s afraid of a lil ol’ videotape these days anyway?). Based on a short story by Koji Suzuki, this ghost story begins when a mother, Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki), in the middle of a messy divorce, moves into a cheap apartment with her young daughter, Ikuko (Rio Kanno). Water stains appear on the ceiling and slowly grow worse. A mysterious red bag appears, and then re-appears. Then things get really scary.
Nakata plays with the idea of creeping, dripping water not as a life-giver or a cleanser, but as a deadly force; the film is like a darker, wetter Psycho shower scene. Jennifer Connelly starred in a 2005 American remake, which, it goes without saying, isn’t nearly as good.
Dead of Night
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Dead of Night (1945) was not the first horror anthology movie, but it is routinely cited as the best, and it has lost none of its power to terrify. Mervyn Johns plays a man who decides to spend a weekend in the country after being plagued by a nightmare. There, he is shocked to meet several people he has previously seen in his dream. They all begin telling stories, ranging from a silly one about two golfers, to two supremely spooky ones about a haunted mirror and a ventriloquist’s dummy. Another one takes place at a children’s Christmas party! There are five stories in all, plus the wraparound and a jaw-dropping ending.
Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Robert Hamer, and Basil Dearden, this English film has had a troubled past, with segments chopped out for various releases and falling out of print, but it has been recently restored to its full glory, with beautiful image and sound.
The Exorcist III
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The original author of The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty, wrote and directed this movie based on his own 1983 novel Legion. It has little to do with the original film—there’s no green vomit—and takes things in a new, more intellectual direction. It ignores the events of the ill-fated Exorcist II: The Heretic and follows a character from the original film, Lt. Kinderman (once played by Lee J. Cobb and now played by George C. Scott). He is investigating brutal beheadings that seem to have been committed by the executed “Gemini Killer” (based loosely on the real-life Zodiac Killer).
The clues lead Kinderman to an asylum and a mysterious, but familiar patient (Jason Miller), as well as one of the most memorable scares in recent movie history. Brad Dourif (the voice of “Chucky”) co-stars in another sinister role, and Samuel L. Jackson has a small cameo as a blind man. As with many horror movies, it was scorned upon its release, but is worthy of a second chance.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
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Ana Lily Amirpour’s amazing A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) was described as “the first Iranian vampire Western,” although it’s not like any vampire movie you’ve ever seen, it has only the most cursory elements of a Western, and it’s not actually from Iran. (Director Amirpour lives in the United States, but the film is presented in Persian with English subtitles.)
The story takes place in Bad City, which is populated with drug dealers and other shady characters. Handsome Arash (Arash Marandi), who wears a tight, white t-shirt and drives a 1957 Thunderbird, meets a mysterious girl (Sheila Vand), who glides spookily along the night streets on a stolen skateboard, with her long black hijab acting like a Count’s cape. Shot in black-and-white, some scenes go by wordlessly, or enhanced with pop songs; some scenes are funny or spooky or dreamy, and sometimes all three at once. This is the kind of movie that die-hard cinephiles used to discover and would dare their friends to see.
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In the 1980s, Clive Barker’s short story collections, the Books of Blood, left horror fans gobsmacked. It wasn’t long before he turned to movies, writing and directing this adaptation of his own 1986 novella The Hellbound Heart. His film Hellraiser (1987) proved that he was as imaginative and spellbinding behind the camera as he was on the page. There is a puzzle box, and if you solve it, you unleash monsters called the Cenobites. One of these is “Pinhead,” the movie’s most iconic character. A man (Sean Chapman) who has been captured by the Cenobites finds that when his family members accidentally spill blood on the floor of his home, he is restored to life. But he needs more blood to be brought back to normal. Unfortunately, at the same time, his niece (Ashley Laurence) has herself found the puzzle box.
Barker’s effort is serious, more inspired by Argento, Bava, and Fulci than by the more humorous or slasher-related efforts of the day, and it’s a powerful debut. After only two other features (Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions), Barker became disillusioned with the movie business and went back to writing.
The House of the Devil
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Written and directed by Ti West, The House of the Devil takes place in the 1980s, complete with feathered hair and Walkman radios. But it begins like a 1970s horror classic, with a grainy look, chilly autumn weather, and a freeze-frame title card. Yet the new film miraculously manages to avoid most of the formula horror chestnuts that have become prevalent since then. It starts relaxed and assured, with pretty Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), who needs cash to move into her own place. She finds a flyer for a babysitting job, but all is not as it seems. The job is actually looking after an old lady in a creepy house, while the owners (Tom Noonan, from Manhunter, and genre legend Mary Woronov) are away doing something related to a full lunar eclipse.
Almost nothing scary happens during the first two-thirds of The House of the Devil (2009), and yet it’s absolutely riveting, an expert building and layering of suspense out of little more than a blank slate. Dee Wallace, from E.T. and Cujo co-stars, as does future director Greta Gerwig.
The Love Witch
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Several movies lately have tried to pay tribute to that special kind of bold, pastel-colored European horror film of the 1970s, but only Anna Biller’s The Love Witch (2016) is so authentic it seems to have arrived as if via a time capsule. It’s so thoroughly steeped in its design that no hint of the modern day comes through (it was shot on honest-to-goodness 35mm film).