Filmmaker Recommends 13 Films to Stream for Halloween
With “Halloweekend” upon us, Filmmaker recommends 13 horror films perfectly catered to the season. As the site’s newly-minted Web Editor, I wanted to infuse the list with long-time personal favorites of my own and recent genre standouts. It also felt important to highlight our existing coverage of these films/filmmakers, while also ensuring that each title is readily available to stream for all those who’re interested in checking them out.
Due to these self-imposed restrictions, a number of horror highlights (at least in this writer’s opinion) were regretfully omitted in the end: Álex de la Iglesia’s Day of the Beast (1999), Joaquin Cociña and Cristóbal León’s The Wolf House (2018), David Prior’s sleeper hit The Empty Man (2020), the filmmaking Adams family’s recent Hellbender (2022), Rob Savage’s killer double feature Host (2020) and Dashcam (2022), Lesley Manning’s eerily effective BBC mockumentary Ghostwatch (1992), among others.
In the same vein, it would have been easy to include recent “elevated” picks a la Hereditary, The Witch and Raw, or hellish art house staples like Climax, Possession and Trouble Every Day. And all of those films are great! In all likelihood, though, Filmmaker readers are looking for something a bit more unexpected. Hopefully I delivered, with the following list boasting a healthy mix of lesser-seen indie gems and genre-shifting staples that deserve more love.
Family Potraits: A Trilogy of America. Filmmaker Doug Buck’s notoriously disturbing short film saga might not be the breeziest Halloweekend streaming option, but it will make an undoubtably profound impression on those who choose to view it. Despite being released in the early aughts, the film’s three distinct narratives—Cutting Moments, Home and Prologue—feel as shattering in their real-world relevancy as ever, particularly as they pertain to the naive idealism of American domesticity. In a move that’s both merciful and unsparing, Buck presents the audience with the goriest, most brutal segment straight away, the sinister survey of familial trauma as gaping wounds fittingly named Cutting Moments. Many might feel deterred from sitting through the rest of Family Portraits after witnessing 25 minutes of severe bodily mutilation, but just trust that the film cuts far deeper than a few fleshy pounds of adipose tissue. It gives the “torture porn” subgenre of post-9/11 American horror films a run for their money, all while carefully surmising the cruelty at the heart of this country’s culture.
La Llorona. Jayro Bustamante’s stunningly vital horror film utilizes a nearly-ubiquitous figure of Latin American folklore to confront the genocide committed by Guatemala against its own Indigenous population under the dictatorship of Efraín Ríos Montt. Not to be confused with the abominable 2019 Conjuring spin-off The Curse of La Llorona, Bustamante’s film is nothing short of a powerful political reckoning. When retired war criminal Enrique (Julio Díaz) and his immediate family are trapped in their expansive abode due to intense protests right outside their front door, the nearly all-Indigenous staff—housekeepers, cooks, servers—leave out of fear for their own safety. Fearing they’ll need to completely fend for themselves, the family is delighted when a beautiful Mayan woman named Alma (María Mercedes Coroy) bravely pushes through the crowd to work for the family. Hinted at by her vaguely spiritual Spanish name and the unexplainable phenomena that occurrs shortly after her arrival, it’s clear that Alma is not who (or what) she appears to be. As Bustamante explains in a post ahead of the film’s Sundance premiere in 2020, viewers should note the life-sustaining properties of water in La Llorona in contrast to its presence in the popular urban legend.
Knife + Heart. An exquisite ode to outsider cinema, Yann Gonzalez’s Knife + Heart blends elements of American slashers, Italian giallo and underground gay porn to create a slickly chilling final product. Featuring a heart-pumping score by French electronic group M83—with member Anthony Gonzalez being Yann’s brother—Knife + Heart is a recent horror achievement that subverts genre conventions as often as it outright pays homage to them. The film is also radically queer, with Gonzalez saying in an interview with Kyle Turner for us back in 2019 that “I’d say we tried to be as silly and innocent as the French gay porn films from the late ’70s..but also trying to be as naive as possible in the mise-en-scène, not in order to make fun of those films—quite the opposite, actually, as we tried to pay tribute to those porn pioneers who seemed to make porn as if they were a bunch of nonsensical queer young adults.” Yet Knife + Heart is not solely concerned with queerness as it pertains to the porn sets that director Anne (Vanessa Paradis) oversees—there’s unrequited romance, extended LGBTQ clubbing scenes and, of course, a cruising killer.
The Reflecting Skin. For those who prefer their horror offerings infused with a heavy dose of melodrama, British storyteller Phillip Ridley’s The Reflecting Skin is a perfect pick. Ridley channels his broader artistic oeuvre—which encompasses stage plays, novels, photographs and songs—through his first entry in a trilogy of filmmaking efforts, all similarly investigating aesthetics of the macabre and supernatural. On the subject of the film, Dave Alexander provided an excerpt from his anthology Hidden Horror: A Celebration of 101 Underrated and Overlooked Fright Flicks for the site back in 2014. He perfectly distills The Reflecting Skin’s ethos, writing that “the obscure 1990 feature takes the prairie gothic aesthetic made famous in paintings by the likes of Edward Hopper (House by the Railroad, 1925) and Andrew Wyeth (Christina’s World, 1948) and renders it into a surreal world where delirium is the inevitable harvest of a place sowed with predators, cruelty, and the grotesque.” Told via the perspective of a young boy living in ‘50s-era rural America, the film also incorporates a surreal vampire subplot involving a beautiful widow who’s perplexingly named Dolphin Blue (and played by acclaimed stage actress Lindsay Duncan). The film’s true horror, however, lies in the inevitable, wail-inducing corruption of childhood innocence.
Excision. Richard Bates Jr.’s twisted coming of age tale is a veritable splatter-fest, depicting the most unsavory psychosexual fantasies of a macabre teenage girl named Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord). Obsessed with blood, guts and death, Pauline has delusions of becoming a surgeon despite her clearly masochistic nature. It’s best to keep the more shocking plot developments of Excision under wraps, as the shock inherent to these prosthetic-heavy scenes is best when it blindsides you. When Filmmaker interviewed Bates ahead of the film’s 2012 premiere at Sundance, the filmmaker stated that “I wanted to make a film that would have had a profound impact on me had I seen it as a teenager. In a lot of ways it’s a film I wish I’d made in high school but didn’t have the guts to.” Morbidly-obsessed high schoolers are certainly a great audience, but genre enthusiasts of all ages will appreciate the film’s finer philosophical musings on mortal morality.
The Alchemist Cookbook. Most films by Joel Potrykus deserve a spot on any horror recommendation list worth its salt, if only on the merit of the indie filmmaker’s fascination with nauseating noshes. Buzzard features a spaghetti eating scene that rivals Gummo in its repulsiveness, while Potrykus’s latest feature Relaxer boasts a milk-fed barf that’s nearly unwatchable. The Alchemist Cookbook, the third film by the writer/director, manages to top these aforementioned gross-outs by portraying someone chewing on slimy morsels of cat food. Predictably, the horror only ramps up from this moment onward. Loosely inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, the film follows Sean (Ty Hickson), a recluse dabbling in alchemy. As his practices sway from the scientific to the occult, the young wizard unwittingly summons a demon that begins to terrorize his psyche. Accompanied only by his cat and the expansive woodland that surround his isolated caravan, Sean’s sanity rapidly unravels, much like Potrykus’s did while filming, writing for us back in 2019 that “I threw up every morning while shooting The Alchemist Cookbook.” Much like enduring performance anxiety, watching a grown man slurp down some viscous meat goop is a surefire way to turn one’s stomach.
Begotten. A cult sensation, E. Elias Mehrige’s Begotten is arguably the most arthouse horror film ever made. Yet a considerable percentage of millennials have probably encountered the film’s opening scene—God disemboweling himself—as a curious image circulated on Tumblr than having actually sat through the 72-minute feature. At the time of its incredibly limited release in 1991, Susan Sontag championed Begotten, proudly proclaiming that it’s “one of the 10 most important films ever made.” In this writer’s opinion, more should follow Sontag’s lead. Chuck Stephens spoke with the director for Filmmaker upon the release of Mehrige’s second feature, Shadow of the Vampire, writing in the Q&A’s intro that Begotten is “one of the strangest American independent movies of the last 20 years. Scratched, mottled and sometimes altogether obliterated, Begotten’s images of dying gods and umbilical martyrs—all created on an optical printer that Merhige built himself—seemed to suggest something like a new creation-myth of the world or a lost artifact from the silent cinema that had been found decaying at the bottom of the sea.”
- No more excuses! The film is free to view on YouTube.
Spree. Eugene Kotylarenko’s blood-soaked survey of American rideshare anxiety is innovative, disturbing and hilarious in equal measure. Much of this is thanks to the impeccable performance of Joe Keery as Kurt, a wannabe influencer based in the suburbs of LA whose vlog viewership rarely inches past single digits. That is, until he embraces a twisted social media challenge of his own invention, which involves him streaming the heinous acts he commits upon random, unlucky users of the Uber-esque Spree app in real time. The audience views much of Kurt’s mayhem through virtual platforms—livestreams, video uploads, profile pages—and as a result is increasingly enmeshed in the rapid-fire commentary provided by an ever-increasing viewership. Of this Internet-era approach to narrative, Whitney Mallet wrote back in 2020 that “this constant meta-commentary is how many people today consume a majority of their video content, especially those who tune into gamers’ channels on Twitch and YouTube. And it’s the first representation of this I’ve seen in cinema…Even if Spree comes across superficial at times, it’s this pursuit of depicting an honest hyper-contemporary experience that makes Kotylarenko’s work always feel worthwhile.” You’ll laugh, you’ll cringe and you’ll wonder why no one else has been able to execute a screenlife film this effective in years.
Unfriended. The terror that lurks just beyond the digital ether is exploited to its full potential in Levan Gabriadze’s 2014 feature Unfriended. A tangible inspiration for Jane Schoenbrun’s sublime festival hit We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (with the director programming Unfriended alongside her debut effort for a BAM series earlier this year), Unfriended is the first feature film to take place entirely within the confines of a computer screen. Though the premise has been re-hashed countless times since (most successfully, in my opinion, in Rob Savage’s Host), the film follows a group of teenage friends on a communal Skype call who becom the witless targets a recently-deceased classmate’s ghost. The spirit targets each teen individually as their friends watch the encroaching torment via webcam. “Each of the characters had their own room in the house and each had a laptop with a GoPro connected to it,” said DP Adam Sidman of the filming process in an interview with Matt Mulcahey. “The GoPros sent an analog signal out to a surveillance box—like the kind you would see in a convenience store that does the 3×3 split screen so you can see all of the cameras on the screen at the same time. That signal was then sent back to everyone’s laptop so the actors could see everyone else at the same time.”
Cam. No streaming list from Filmmaker would be complete without a few former 25 New Faces of Film making an appearance, and this one is no exception. Cam director Daniel Goldhaber and screenwriter Isa Mazzei made the list back in 2018, their inclusion predicated, in part, on the strength of this detailed thriller. The film centers on a camgirl known to her well-paying subscribers as “Lola_Lola,” whose grasp on reality begins to slip when she becomes the victim of what initially appears to be identity theft. Locked out of her lucrative camming profile, she’s perplexed to see that her Lola_Lola account is nonetheless currently streaming to followers. She’s initially sure it’s a scam—that is, until she tunes into the stream and sees a mirror image of herself broadcasting from her home studio. Is our protagonist the victim of a doppelgänger, or something much more sinister?
- Stream on Netflix
Master. Another former 25 New Face whose debut horror effort deserves considerable praise is Mariama Diallo’s Master. A freshman at the fictional Ancaster University in Massachusetts, Jasmine (Zoe Renee) immediately feels out of place as a Black woman among her predominantly white peers. Her fears surrounding failed assimilation attempts are only amplified when hushed stories of legendary witch Margaret Millet begin to circulate—with Jasmine suspecting that the vengeful entity might have set its sights on her, specifically. While the film’s premise is frightening in its own right, it’s also a thoughtful takedown of the prejudice inherent to American academia. Diallo knows this all too well, having attended a university that used the archaic “master” label to refer to the role that is now known as “head of house.” The titular Master in the film is Gail (a spectacular Regina Hall), who must navigate between the anti-Black origins of the institution she represents and the enduring specter of racism as it affects her on a daily basis. Speaking to me ahead of the film’s premiere at Sundance this past January, Diallo noted that “There are a lot of band-aid solutions that are being enacted by academic institutions, and that is not going to be their path to redemption.” She emphasized, however, that “there are also serious reckonings that can happen.”
- Stream on Prime Video
Resurrection. With Andrew Semans’s taught psychological thriller now available to stream on Shudder, it’s well worth encouraging those who may have missed the film during its recent theatrical run to check it out. Rebecca Hall gives yet another enrapturing performance as Margaret, a single mother whose life descends into mayhem after her abusive ex (Tim Roth, another actor with consistently magnetic screen presence) reappears. Like many films on this list, Resurrection is best enjoyed knowing as little context as possible beforehand, so as to not spoil its signature winding narrative. Erik Leurs interviewed Semans for our Summer 2022 issue, which features the director teasing a central fascination of the film: “I found myself intrigued by the parental vigilante genre that continues to be very popular. I must’ve had the Taken movies on my mind and was attracted to the genre as something to mess around with. It felt very primal, like something anyone could understand and relate to regardless of whether or not they were a parent.” In truth, Taken can only dream of being as full of bodily viscera as Resurrection is.
Cure. Finally, no Halloween-themed recommendation list would be complete without the distinguished presence of J-horror. One of my favorite first-time watches of 2022, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure felt like a natural addition. Curious, contemplative and intensely creepy, the film revolves around one detective’s (Kōji Yakusho) dogged pursuit for clues after a rash of seemingly ritualistic murders leave victims horribly mutilated. Bodies are all found with a grisly “X” carved into their necks, the murderers typically found in a state of confused shock near each victim’s body. Puzzlingly, the perpetrators always readily confess to each murder. However, they can never recall their motives—or what drove them to carve that distinguishing “X.” The unreliability of memory and eyewitness testimony leads the detective to the phenomenon of mesmerism and hypnotism—and not to mention some very unsettling monkey corpses.
- Streaming on the Criterion Channel