Horror is a big bucket. It can hold just about anything. In the case of the ten movies here, horror is anecdotally another way to explore the biggest moments in our lives. This list, while not an objective (nor even subjective) assessment of the best or even most self-defining horror movies that play in my image, is ten of the most life-altering movies and experiences I can put on a list. In this list, we’ll explore how our tastes develop and ten personal call-outs for horror experiences that very dramatically changed my taste, habits, and ultimately, my personality as a terror-seeking cinephile.
The Halloween Tree
As the veil thins and the liminal space between the living and the dead blurs, for 30 years now, I’ve had the same tradition. The Halloween Tree (1993), a made-for-TV special I have on VHS, DVD, and now digital, goes on immediately. This is the first course of action when transitioning into the Autumnal Equinox. The reason that it fits every year and is such a necessary seasonal watch is that it covers so much in so little space. Despite the name, this is not a celebration of just Halloween. What it really is, is a thorough examination of where Halloween comes from with the same exuberant energy as Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), it’s a terrific path through All Hallow’s history, granting perspective into Ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian cultures. It’s also a cherished book, a true autumnal treat from one of my favorite authors, the great Ray Bradbury. Perhaps his other spooky book Something Wicked This Way Comes looms larger in the public imagination, but no other book so beautifully captures all the aspects that make “Halloween” the greatest holiday of all:
Hold the dark holiday in your palms, bite it, swallow it and survive, come out the far black tunnel of el Día de Muerte and be glad, ah so glad you are… alive!RAY BRADBURY, THE HALLOWEEN TREE
What’s better than an autumnal favorite? I say nothing at all. Icing on the cake (or gourd?), The Halloween Tree has my all-time favorite animated voice performance for my all-time favorite movie character, as performed by the legendary Leonard Nimoy, who totally embodies the very peculiar Carapace Clavicle Monshroud, who is as slinky and strange as his name, and in his front yard, keeps a tree full of young children’s dead souls held inside pumpkins. Such an imaginative “villain,” whose true yearning is just to teach a new generation about the total history of their most loved holiday and to give them a task to prove what they would do to save one another.
With a gorgeous poetic story and era-specific made-for-television animation, there is no cozier Halloween watch in the world, and for all that, this is my most watched film of all time, and nothing else is really very close.
Every St. Patrick’s Day I get the same text from my Dad: “Where’s me gold?” and it takes me back to my childhood. At five years old, Leprechaun (1993) was my first “true” horror movie. It’s as essential to this list as it is unlikely to wind up on anyone’s list of anything. It’s absolutely crucial for me, for a number of reasons.
There’s the shared love of horror passed down from my Dad. Unselectively, we’d just scour whatever was at the local Hollywood Video — the story of horror’s popular and long-term resonance is the story of video stores — and Leprechaun remains the most influential film we picked up. It caused too many inside jokes between us and started this wonderful habit of checking pretty much anything out if the concept was weird enough and it seemed like a fun time.
You can’t be too pretentious when seeking out a good bad horror movie. It’s a visceral thing. You first become attached to these things at a visceral heart level. You don’t love horror, as your first and foremost genre, because they are the best-crafted films. The way you grow to love horror is by realizing that horror has the biggest bucket of all genres and that it contains so many multitudes of other genres, every kind of possible quality, and that every horror movie — even the most disreputable — can have these signature moments that identify it in the murky history of all the movies you’ll ever see.
It could be something as simple as a character with a bit of heart. For me, Warwick Davis’ Leprechaun is that slasher villain with a heart of (or a hunger for) gold. It’s such a simple and broad stereotype, such a silly thing to base a movie around like a commercial for Lucky Charms cereal come to life. The follow-up movies would invariably be consistent in their inconsistencies, whether patently offensive (Leprechaun: In the Hood (2000) & Back 2 Tha Hood (2003)) or equally unlikely in their excuse for sequels (Leprechaun 4: In Space, 1997), but all of them basically satisfy the want to see a foul-spirited Leprechaun doing dirty things, and there is no greater delight to a child.
The first movie was made for a cool million and did fairly decent in theaters but the true story of the Leprechaun movies belongs to the home video market and as such, this pick is really a celebration for the tradition of accessing movies from video stores. If you still have a good video store (here in Seattle we have the wonderful Scarecrow Video, with the world’s largest collection of physical movies), you owe it to yourself to go and grab a few movies you know nothing about and see how far you can expand your interests. Anything is possible in horror and the Leprechaun movies, ironically, are the movies that best showed me this truth. Horror is where the gold has been all along.
Is Jaws (1975) horror? In this essay…
Jaws is the only movie that ever conjured a connected nightmare. Here’s the scene. We’d just moved from the ocean-salted air of Washington into the corn cob-smelling countryside of Ohio. The first course of action was to put up oceanic-themed wallpaper in my room to remind me of home, as though we were admitting this place would never be home and my living space should still be coastally oriented. That was a hard enough bargain but I made sure it was the only initial accommodation I asked for, because I wanted it to happen so badly.
We should see Jaws, we thought, the same day we put up the whale and shark-themed wallpaper in my now very blue room. That would be a good combination of things. I’ve asked everyone I know if there’s any correlation between how close to the coast you were born and how young you saw Jaws and have sufficient data to suggest there’s direct causation here — we had to watch Jaws cause the sea was still in my blood, see, and the ebb and flow of the waves was the only thing that could drift my mind back home.
When I turned into bed that night, staring into the abyss of the endless blue, which stretched up and around my ceiling and over all the walls, the anxiety kicked in pretty well. I started having night sweats and fought sleep but eventually went to sleep, sinking deeper and deeper into a relaxed sleep until I dreamt of vicious sharks tearing my family apart, I presume as a metaphor for what I felt internally about our move, but also as a visceral reaction to the deadly shark movie. I’m pretty sure I’ve watched it most Summers since, that rare scary movie that also doubles as the best July 4 movie, with its hysterical examination of America, besides all the other great things Steven Spielberg achieved by not showing too much of the shark. Now when we’re swimming, my daughter still mouths those triggering sounds from the Jaws theme, the joy of every child imitating the deadly shark, and I’m reminded how different my childhood context for the movie is than her carefree fun-loving perception of Jaws as a pool game.
Is Jaws horror? It varies by person. If we keep making inclusions like this we’re gonna need a bigger list.
The best thing that can happen to you on your horror journey is that you might watch a stone-cold classic without any prior understanding of the film reputationally. The way we find movies now, over the internet, essentially leads us to the canon of what everyone else thinks are good movies. Unless you’re either really digging into the past, outside markets or getting to new movies first, the discovery phase is now stilted towards following other people’s discoveries.
The first way I discovered the canonization of horror was at the local library. Just a selection of movies recommended by the librarians that popped up one autumn. The Exorcist (1973) was the first film that I picked up and it had some written recommendations below it, stating that it was history’s scariest film and what every horror movie after it wanted to be. Good enough to take the video home and put it in the VCR.
I handed it off to my parents to check out, along with a survivalist story and a hockey novella for kids. The supposed scariest movie of all time and then some kids’ stuff. I remember that choice because after I watched The Exorcist, there was no room for sleeping that night, and I stayed up the rest of the night reading with a flashlight under a blanket like kids do in movies but I only did in real life this one time.
It was a wonderful kind of scary that I hadn’t accessed before the movie. True enough to its reputation. And now, I don’t feel it’s directly such a scary movie, perhaps out of seeing it so many times, but it reveals yet another truth, that horror can be about something, and that something is what’s actually scary. The horror of The Exorcist, as I can internalize it now but absolutely couldn’t then, is about a crisis of faith.
What The Exorcist gave me were my first questions about faith and God. The movie is about a very Catholic problem and the idea is that it fully implies the existence of God because it is a movie about the Devil. I hadn’t seen a movie about the Devil before that, not like this one, where I fully believed what it was saying about the Devil was more true and immediately apparent to me than anything I knew about a God. It made me realize that was more interesting.
Eventually, I ended up volunteering and then working at a library myself. I took ownership of the much-ignored DVD section for that library and wrote out recommendations. The first thing I placed on the shelves was The Exorcist, with roughly the same written recommendation as I had read in that library as a kid: “History’s scariest movie.”
Horror benefits more from the theater than any other kind of genre. It’s such an intense way to experience a movie and a funny human-specific behavior to seek out and pay a premium for something you want to scare the shit out of you.
The most I’ve ever been scared of a movie was 2002’s The Ring. It doesn’t make the most logical sense. Watching it now, it’s not the scariest movie, but watching it in the theater is the first time I truly understood the tantalizing prospect of being deeply terrified at the movies.
I felt my heart racing in my seat. Without exaggeration, I was sweating it out. There was something so insidious to my teenage brain, belonging to this first generation that was properly raised with technology at the forefront of everything they do, the prospect of tech-driven fear was utterly horrifying to my developing brain.
This entry celebrates something I love that horror movies do best of all. They are magnificent showcases of high-concept. Watch a videotape and in seven days you will die. Phenomenal logline. Well-executed here and effective for a kid who hasn’t yet seen the other cybernetic and tech-fearing thrillers and horror movies. This was merely the start of an interest that has stayed at the front of my mind.
It’s also a great Pacific Northwest horror movie. The Americanized series is one of the rare non-Twin Peaks entries shot out here and I think it makes such stunning use of the environment and understands, at least by some coincidence, how Japanese and Pacific Northwest tech cultures are deeply intermeshed.
Generally, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) would belong in this spot. That is my favorite regional cinema produced in the Pacific Northwest, after all, and has so much to say about the area, while also being a fascinating movie with deep sympathy for victims. Mr. Verbinski’s The Ring is not that movie but it had the far more extreme and immediate personal impact. While I had to grow into my David Lynch era, I was an immediate fan of Verbinski’s style of horror, from the channeling of Eastern horror themes, to the transplanting of the Pacific Northwest, to the really peculiar tech-horror paranoia, it all had such an immediate and resonant first-impact, that it remains one of the trips to the theater that I may never be able to let go of, a reminder of why we go to see movies exhibited, and do not always have to watch them at home.
Consider this as a placement for the whole Ringu series, which continues to fascinate me, but this one specific pick represents a movie that solidified my theater-going habits and set the course for a lifetime of engagement. In its own special way, it’s close to my heart, and that feels literally true, as my heart has never raced harder at a movie than this one. Eventually, you might become desensitized, as I now have, but you’ll always remember that moment of lost innocence, and how it changed your life for the better.
Under the Skin
You never know when it’s going to happen. It will happen but you can’t plan for it or choose it in advance. Eventually, a movie will move you deeply, shake you to your core, and redefine everything you thought you knew about cinema and why it is important to you.
For me, it was Jonathan Glazer’s artistic triumph Under the Skin (2014). The moment I knew was during one of the many stunning moments punctuated by Mica Levi’s score. I started crying. Nothing had even happened on-screen. Something had happened inside my heart. It’s not even a pleasant song, so discordant and broken-sounding in its disruptive rhythms. It sounded like I felt.
I thought it was the most gorgeous recorded sound I had ever heard. It spoke to me at a deeper soul level. I knew instinctively before anything really happened on the screen (although, we must also argue that an absence of identifiable visual information is also something happening), I just knew it.
What I knew was that there were movies before Under the Skin and there were movies after Under the Skin. I saw it on opening day, here in Seattle, and there was a slight buzz if you read the tea leaves but I wasn’t someone who intently followed anything like movie criticism until I saw Under the Skin.
It was a head-first plunge from here, as I began exploring Imagist cinema, that is, cinema with images like a visual tone poem, and began actively seeking from the trades recommendations for outsider vanguard work. I wanted something that not only made the cinema feel new but made me feel new and reborn.
I still get choked up hearing just about any part of Mica Levi’s score. The album of Under the Skin contains my favorite sounds ever recorded. Not all of the noises make sense in a logical way but all of them smooth the rough edges of my brain that are looking for dissonance and have been through enough of their own trauma that some dark sounds are all that bring those corners of my head any solace anymore.
This brings us to the strangest thing anyone can say about Under the Skin. It’s my dearest comfort movie. I don’t always watch the whole movie. Very, very often I’ll put on parts and pieces, whichever moments are most stuck in my brain, and we can say as a recorded visual, this movie is always playing in my head rent-free. I’ll put on whatever part of the movie, even the most stressful part, and feel my soul stirring in my body. I’ll feel connected and whole again, peaceful when I am feeling rough, creative when I am feeling listless and blocked. I’ve written more words to this score than any other piece of music.
Parasocial relationships, especially through the division of an artist creating a score for someone else’s movie and then us consuming it as intensely personal, are a very weird thing to pin down. But it would be no exaggeration to say what Mica Levi has done here has worked as my muse and that their contribution to cinema through their compositions means more to me than just about any other piece of existent art.
Some folks have 2001: A Space Oddysey (1968) and in the same way, I have Under the Skin (in my mind, they are directly comparable movies), cinema that brings meaning to my life and in no small terms altered the trajectory of who I am and how I consume art.
Don’t Look Now
The horror movie enthusiast is also likely to be a great connoisseur of physical media. Everyone wants to own their favorite horror movies. You don’t need to own all the greatest dramas ever made. Those will freely circulate around the streamers anyway. What you need to own are imminently rewatchable horror movies that must be consistently watched at specific moments in your life.
When I had my first engagement with Don’t Look Now (1974), it was out of a very self-cultivated experience. I was working at a bookstore and for weeks I had been thinking about starting a collection out of the Criterion section of the store. I’d walk through every few shifts and it eventually became fairly obvious where I should start.
I should start with a new experience that means something new to me, to best launch a new hobby of collecting. Don’t Look Now seemed like a terrific starting point. I was already a major fan of Roeg’s 1976 cult favorite The Man Who Fell to Earth. I knew there was even more ground to cover and this felt like the wisest kind of investment.
What you’ll hear about Don’t Look Now is probably one of a few things. You’ll hear about the did they or didn’t they of it all — in the category of Erotic Thrillers it has the distinction of having the most believable sex scene… of pretty much any movie. They totally did. The other thing you’ll hear about is the sinking city of Venice, which is so directly played up as part of the movie’s atmosphere, with horror being a genre where atmosphere accomplishes everything. You’ll also hear it’s a terrific psychic horror with a creepy villain who’s just always out of sight until they are confronted face-to-face in the brutal ending. You may also hear it’s a great story about the anxiety of parenthood, like what partnership is like after a kid is around and how that changes your worldview.
Checks across the board. So how did it go? It was perhaps my smartest blind purchase of a Criterion yet. Immediately after the movie ended, I started it again, and then the next day, I watched it again with commentary. There are only a few times this has happened to me with a horror movie — Don’t Look Now (1973), Alien (1979), and The Evil Dead (1981) each demanded immediate rewatches — you could hardly come up with three better movies every practicing horror aficionado ought to study closely and learn about the genre from.
I love horror franchises and Alien is the granddaddy of all horror franchises. Alien is daddy because it is best. It’s not even really down to consistency, as the series in total represents several different shades of possibility, but because each movie (besides maybe Covenant, which is at least pretty good), explores a different possibility about how the franchise can be, it is one of the most exciting and consistently engaging franchises to go through.
It takes time to become that kind of Alien fan. You have to watch all of the movies, first of all, and then you at least have to watch Prometheus three times, until you accept that it’s an essential piece and a canonizing component that really ties the series together.
The first film is our greatest sci-fi horror, the second is our greatest sci-fi action horror film, the third is an interesting David Fincher vs. The Studio proposition with fast aliens, the fourth film is… a Jean-Pierre Jeunet about motherhood and birth, the fifth film is Ridley Scott’s recentered narrative about the origins behind the story, and the sixth film is a deeply competent movie that is more standard than the rest but effective and a great time. So, there are only good movies.
Given that, like so many horror fans, I even love watching the really dicey franchises that have maybe one great entry and ten fair to middling entries, it’s pretty easy. to get on board with why Alien is the standout franchise to end all horror franchises. You’ve got to have the whole collection and they will make for valid and outstanding watches, each improving with every revisit, any time of year. These are not locked into holidays or seasons at all — you can plug them into any sci-fi watch without any interruption and every one of them is worth seeing both in theaters and having at home. Perfect desert island series.
These are also the first horror movies I watched while holding my daughter as a newborn. It was a pretty immediate impulse. I now want to experience what I love most while cradling her, the ultimate person that I love.
As Editor-in-Chief of this establishment, one of the first things I wanted is for us to have a defined sense of taste for horror movies. My initial ideas were funny about that. Should I just be the Horror Editor or enlist a friend to hold that kind of position? May we, every single October, absolutely flood the site with pieces celebrating our great collective love for horror, that genre that most effectively brings us all together for an entire month of shared-themed watches? (If you wanna talk horror, you’ve just gotta join us on Discord.)
My own enthusiasm and the collected enthusiasm of the initial site also made me think — that we’ve gotta do other things. It would have been so easy, with the group we had, just to become a genre movie site. Maybe that was an interesting direction. But with the direction we went — independent film-forward, cinema history-centered, hangout podcast discussions within our friend groups — it seems clear that we’ve still found a way to elevate horror as a core tenet of what we do at The Twin Geeks.
Take, for example, our first Film of the Year award. It went to Robert Eggers’ tremendous The Lighthouse in 2019. I could hardly think of any film of the last ten years that better embodies what we were interested in as a site around that time (Orson Welles’ terrific The Other Side of the Wind (2018) notwithstanding), and feel that choosing a film like The Lighthouse as the kind of project the site is about and wants to center as a signifier of our taste, is a great collective choice that celebrates both our unending passion for horror and our love for the old way of making movies.
Robert Eggers is also a goddamn genius and one of the best-working filmmakers. Imagine making The Witch and still having The Lighthouse in the tank. What else will he have to show us? We’ll be there to tell you about it. Horror editors or not, one of the things you can count on us for is to deliver interesting and perceptive reviews on all the buzziest horror movies. Speaking for myself, that’s simply the most profoundly interesting genre to write about. Every horror film is an essay prompt and their existence is also the reason for our existence. We’ll keep celebrating great horror as long as we’re here to do it. The genre is not going anywhere and neither are we.
Over the Garden Wall
Once we’ve experienced the baseline of everything we basically need to know, it’s time to pass it on. One of my great joys in life is sharing the things I love with my daughter. But even greater, still, is experiencing something new together. This category could have been several things — the great Scooby-Doo series Mystery Incorporated (2013 – 2015), the Amblin-inflected joys of Monster House (2006), or something more standard that my daughter might’ve chosen, like Coraline (2009) or The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Winners, all of them.
What’s most interesting to me though is the superbly ephemeral autumnal quality of Over the Garden Wall, an extremely succinct mini-series with classically-influenced animations, very funny characters, and a pretty gripping horror-centric storyline.
Just as the top of this list begins my story of horror movies with The Halloween Tree, so too does my daughter’s story begin with Over the Garden Wall. It’s just concise enough that we can fit it in pretty much every Halloween season — or at least dip in and out of our favorite episodes.
What I love most is the shared joy for the season here. That my daughter’s born around Halloween has one thing to do with it, establishing a clear preference for my favorite time of year, but also it’s really about the shared experience of the thing.
Over the Garden Wall is also utterly brilliant. It’s a fantastic modern slant on the way folklore stories are always told, totally modernized, perfectly hand-drawn, and deeply expressive of the season. My childhood may have been defined by a made-for-tv animation about Halloween and the journey of friendship about finding out what you will do to help your friends, with darkness lurking behind every choice, but so too can my daughter’s initial Halloween movie explore these very same themes.
If every animated series had half the effort of Over the Garden Wall, the world would be a better place. When we are watching, the world is absolutely a better place for my daughter and me. That’s a rock fact.