’Tis the season for scary movies.
“While not every horror movie takes place during this time, there’s definitely something in the air that encourages the creepy and suspenseful experience of watching one,” says Annie Wixted ’22, an educational studies major and film & media studies minor from Moorestown, N.J.
But with the seemingly endless list of films to be screened or streamed, from slasher fare to the supernatural to the psychological, it can be hard to choose.
Below, Wixted and three of her classmates from this fall’s Studies in Genre: Horror course, along with three faculty members and a staff member of the Film & Media Studies Department, share their favorites. Created by some of the most accomplished directors in the world, these films offer all manner of chills and thrills this Halloween.
Rodney Evans, associate professor of film & media studies
I tend to be more scared by films that haunt my mind and leave me with questions to grapple with long after the final credits fade. Given this predilection, the film that truly frightens me is Safe (1995, directed by Todd Haynes). Although the main character, Carol White (played to finely calibrated perfection by Julianne Moore), is experiencing signs of severe illness, including epileptic-like seizures, random nosebleeds, and extreme trouble breathing, doctors can’t seem to find anything physically wrong with her. She sees a commercial about environmental illness and finds a flyer at her gym for a discussion group about it. Due to the fact that she and her symptoms are dismissed by the other characters in the film and deemed likely psychosomatic, the viewer questions whether she is really ill or if it is all in her mind.
Is it possibly an unconscious rebellion against the seemingly empty bourgeois life that she is living, where the major crisis of the day is that the new couch she ordered is black and not teal as she had specified? There is no catharsis or release for the character as we leave her further isolated from her family and previous reality. The film could not be more prescient in its parallels to the present state that we find ourselves in on a global scale, where every cough holds the very real potential for contagion.
Catalina Lassen, film & media studies administrative assistant
While anyone who walks into my office can see that I’m a huge Alien fan, I want to highlight a different horror favorite this spooky season: Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (1992), also known as Braindead. Practical effects are my bread and butter, and this film is positively bursting with them. Sure, is it a bit of a goofy watch? One hundred percent! But that’s part of the joy of the ride, alongside the over-the-top scenes of absolute gory mayhem. In fact, the movie is one of the bloodiest in film history, using well over 300 liters of fake blood in its final scene alone. If you’re looking for a not-too-serious horror flick with truly artful practical effects, consider giving Dead Alive a shot. I don’t think it will disappoint for a good Halloween spoop!
Bob Rehak, associate professor and chair of film & media studies, who teaches the course Studies in Genre: Horror
Calling my pick an “oldie but a goodie” makes me feel ancient: I first saw Alien in 1979 in its second or third week of release. I was 13, which would have been too young for this R-rated thriller if I weren’t already a jaded consumer of scary hand-me-downs, thanks to my elder siblings. It instantly became one of my top three favorites and has never been dislodged. Ridley Scott’s second feature film has been justly hailed as an exquisite blend of science fiction and horror; the freighter/refinery Nostromo is basically a haunted house in deep space, and its seven working-class astronauts fall prey to a voracious, shape-shifting “xenomorph” until just one — Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, playing and exceeding the genre’s traditional Final Girl — is left to do battle. Alien’s influences are myriad, and it has exerted equal influence on terrifying sci-fi/horror hybrids that followed. Watch it for the production design, a master class in world-building: From Ron Cobb’s grubby, functional starship interiors to H.R. Giger’s deeply unsettling biomechanical alien and the dank, dripping chambers of the crashed ship from which it spawns, Alien speaks volumes through its look, clearing the table of unnecessary exposition and allowing the predator/prey scenario to unfold with a pitiless, geometrical logic of extinction.
Scott’s direction keeps the alien largely off-screen until the end, causing us to believe it could strike from anywhere; I recall taking a bathroom break at the theater and nervously looking over my shoulder in case something toothy and reptilian should drop from the ceiling or lunge from a toilet stall. Still flawless after 42 years, I encourage everyone to watch Alien at least once, or revisit it again.
Jake Rothman ’23, English literature major and film & media studies minor from Lewisburg, Pa.
The Cremator (1969, directed by Juraj Herz) is a Czechoslovak dark comedy that reshapes the meaning of a “horror” film, as it places you, the viewer, into the mind of a horrifying man. The premise of the film, as found on Google, is: “In Prague, Kopfrkingl enjoys his work at the crematorium perhaps a bit too much, having gained a perverse idea of reincarnation from his haphazard studies of Tibet.” I will divulge the film’s plot no further, for a great deal of the immense pleasure to be derived from this depraved film comes from discovering where in God’s name it is taking you, as you are being pulled deeper into the mind of this man who burns bodies for a living. Please watch this movie. I don’t know anyone who’s seen it and I desperately need to talk to someone about it. Thank you.
Chelsea Semper ’22, biology major from Warren, N.J.
Out of the many films I have watched so far for my Studies in Genre: Horror film class, one my favorites has been Raw. This unique 2016 French film is by far the most horrifying, skin-crawling movie I have ever seen, and its artistic uses of experimental cinematography will cause many scenes to have a strong permanence in my memory. Covering the college coming-of-age experience, familial relationships, and cannibalism, this horror movie expands well beyond simple blood and gore to explore the themes of self-control, addiction, and discovering and embracing/rejecting one’s true self. I would highly recommend it to anyone who is craving an atypical horror movie viewing experience, or who wants to be made to feel uncomfortable in a strangely satisfying way.
Sunka Simon, professor of film & media studies and German
For someone who is a tad more squeamish about body-part horror than my colleagues might be, I prefer psychological horror, and the one that left a lasting impression on me when I first watched it dubbed on German television back in the ’70s is the 1964 Bette Davis feature, directed by Robert Aldrich, Hush … Hush Sweet Charlotte. It features Davis as the at-turns naive and brave Charlotte, whose “lost relatives” aim to drive her crazy to inherit the property after her father’s demise and her lover’s murder (in which she is considered a suspect by many). Soon she, and the audience with her, cannot distinguish what is in her head and what is right in front of her. Utilizing the conventions of low-key lighting, off-screen space, and sound design to their fullest, the film speaks to the repressed secrets of the Old South, including the intersections of class, race, and sexuality. Watch this film if only for a chance to see Agnes Moorehead and Olivia de Havilland square off against Bette Davis. A young Bruce Dern and Joseph Cotten round out the amazing cast.
Ellie Tsapatsaris ’24, of Ridgewood, N.J.
In my opinion, a successful horror film is the perfect blend of multiple genres; rather than relying on the shock factor of suspense and gore, it encourages the viewer to feel its horrific elements on an internal and subconscious level. Us (2019) does just that. Although it is marketed as a horror film, Us also features comedy, action, and social commentary. There are certainly overt scary moments throughout the movie, but some of its most chilling messages — those of social injustice and the state of our country — are hidden within the film’s metaphorical and formal elements. Overall, Us’s rich themes paired with Jordan Peele’s directorial decisions make the film a shining example of the horror genre, and one of my personal favorites.
Annie Wixted ’22, educational studies major and film & media studies minor from Moorestown, N.J.
While I feel as though I simultaneously have seen so many and yet none at all, I must say that my favorite scary movie I’ve seen is The Others (2001). It isn’t intensely frightening, but the suspense and twists (no spoilers here!) make it a great watch, no matter if you know what to expect. The first time I ever saw The Others, I watched it with my mom, who is not big on horror. But we both really enjoyed it for its uniqueness, plot, and intriguing suspense. I don’t want to say too much, but the story revolves around a family whose two children are allergic to sunlight; there also seems to be something sinister lurking in their home. I definitely recommend it!