While there are plenty of modern horror films to choose from this Halloween, there’s something particularly unsettling about the early classics. The Sixties and Seventies were particularly chilling decades, producing hair-raising favourites including The Wicker Man, Rosemary’s Baby and Psycho. From ghostly tales to terrifying bloodbaths, these are the cult horror movies that are sure to send shivers down your spine.
Cult Horror Movies To Watch This Halloween
No Halloween film list would be complete without Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Ira Levin’s modern-day tale of Satanism and occultism. Macabre and darkly comic, it tells the story of the emotionally-fragile Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes), who move into a swanky-yet-spooky New York apartment. The young couple are trying for a baby and when Rosemary falls pregnant, she becomes obsessed that her husband – along with the seemingly friendly elderly neighbours Minnie and Roman Castevet – are all in a plot against her and the baby. Thus begins her spiral into a dark, dark world of unease and paranoia.
A British gothic cult classic, directed by Robin Hardy and loosely based on the novel Ritual by David Pinner. The protagonist is Police Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward), who is sent to the remote Scottish island of Summerisle in search of a missing child. But, surprise surprise, all is not as it seems. A devout Christian, Howie is shocked to discover that the isle’s inhabitants now practice a sinister form of paganism, fraught with bizarre rituals and provocative behaviour (Britt Ekland’s naked dance as the seductive innkeeper’s daughter Willow is one such example) – even human sacrifice is on the agenda.
A thriller of epic edge-of-your-seat proportions. In Nicolas Roeg’s haunting adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s shattering short story, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie play grief-stricken couple John and Laura Baxter, who head to Venice in a bid to try and forget about the untimely death of their daughter Christine. Here, they encounter two elderly sisters who claim to be in touch with the young girl. While Laura takes heed, John ignores the psychics and omens. That is until a series of inexplicable, hideously scary experiences – including spotting a red-coated figure who resembles his daughter flitting amongst the local canals – leave him no choice, with what is often described as one of the greatest endings in horror history.
This timeless blockbuster from prolific Hollywood director Richard Donner features arguably one of the most terrifying children to ever appear on screen. American diplomat Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) and his wife Katherine (Lee Remmick) are living in Rome when she gives birth to their first child, a son. After tragedy strikes and Robert is informed that the baby has died, the hospital chaplain — bizarrely — convinces him to adopt another baby whose mother died during childbirth and to keep the switch a secret from his wife. Five years later, the decision comes to haunt Robert and his wife, as their “son,” Damien (Harvey Spencer Stephens) is gradually revealed to be a devil child, wreaking horrific havoc on their lives. The final shot will leave you unsettled for days to come.
Brian de Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s much-loved tale of the same name has gone down in blood-soaked horror history. Sissy Spacek plays the titular Carrie, a bullied, telekinetic teen who lives with her fanatically religious mother, Margaret. When Carrie is invited to her high school prom by one of the most handsome and popular boys in her class, she thinks perhaps her peers are finally starting to accept her – but, of course, the opposite is true, with bully Chris pulling the cruellest of pranks. It led to one of cinema’s most memorable scenes of all time – Sissy Spacek famously wore her blood-spattered prom gown for three days straight while in character as the murderess – which has left a permanent mark on mainstream culture.
It’s been almost 50 years since William Friedkin’s The Exorcist first terrified filmgoers, and it’s no less horrifying today. Based on William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel – which in turn was inspired by the true account of an exorcism that happened to a 13-year-old boy in a psychiatric clinic in 1949 – it follows the demonic possession of 12-year-old Regan and her devoted mother (played by Ellen Burstyn) as she attempts to rescue her via an exorcism performed by Catholic priests. The Oscar-winning flick is often dubbed the scariest film of all time, and with good reason – after a slow-burn start, it builds up to an intense and wild climax, proving nothing is more chilling than a possessed child.
Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s thriller has given us some of cinema’s most famous lines and delivered one of horror’s most stellar performances in Jack Nicholson’s tormented Jack Torrance. It tells the story of an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic who accepts a position as the off-season caretaker of a vast, isolated hotel in the Colorado Rockies, along with his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and young son, Danny (Danny Lloyd). As Danny discovers he is gifted with ‘the shining’ – psychic abilities that allow him to see into the hotel’s gruesome past – Jack slowly starts to descend into madness. Darkly compelling, the plot has kept fans guessing for decades.
Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful psychological thriller proves you don’t need blood and gore to terrify audiences – in the film’s infamous shower scene you never actually see a blade striking flesh, nor are there any wounds, yet it remains as profoundly shocking and petrifying as anything you’re likely to see in a full-blown slasher movie. Nominated for four Academy Awards, it follows on-the-run Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) as she checks into the Bates Motel and meets the shy proprietor, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). With its slick direction, tense atmosphere and unforgettable score, it’s often ranked among the greatest films of all time.
While many may be more familiar with the 2002 Hollywood remake of the same name, starring Naomi Watts, film critics and horror buffs agree that the Japanese original is far superior. Directed by Hideo Nakata and based on the 1991 novel by Koji Suzuki, it follows reporter Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matushima) as she investigates the mystery behind a cursed videotape when her niece and three friends die after watching it. Based in part on the 18th-century Japanese ghost story Bancho Sarayashiki, it offers up a deft demonstration of our reliance on technology and hums with minimalist intensity that builds up to a heart-stoppingly horrifying ending.
Featuring some of horror’s most-loved haunted house tropes, including bleeding walls and wild-eyed stares from feral animals, this supernatural thriller is reportedly based on the real-life Lutz family and their experiences living at 112 Ocean Avenue, the former site of a grisly mass murder in Long Island, New York. James Brolin and Margot Kidder play George and Kathy Lutz, a young married couple who move into their dream home with their three children. But they quickly learn all is not as it seems when the Catholic priest they call over is unable to bless the home. The paranormal events culminate in one stormy night, when a now-possessed George tries to kill the children with an axe. This is slasher fun at its finest.
One of the earliest examples of ‘giallo’ filmmaking, which literally translates as ‘yellow’ and is the Italian term for a certain type of stylish psychological thriller-horror, Mario Bava’s masterpiece is a sumptuous feast for the senses. The plot centres around a masked serial killer, who begins to pick off the models working within an Haute Couture fashion house in Rome one by one in a bid to get his hands on a scandal-revealing diary. It’s a location that lends itself to breath-taking visuals, with a deeply saturated use of colour one of the film’s trademarks – no wonder it’s gone on to be a major influence on everyone from Quentin Tarantino to David Lynch over the years.
Dario Argento’s much-lauded supernatural thriller was responsible for bringing the Italian horror subgenre ‘giallo’ into the mainstream in the 70s and 80s, and its stylish cinematography and demure pastel costumes have inspired everyone from Nicolas Ghesquière to the Rodarte sisters. The film follows Suzy (Jessica Harper), an American ballerina who transfers to a prestigious German dance academy only to discover, after a series of brutal murders take place, that it is in fact secretly a front for a coven. With its score by progressive rock band Goblin, stylistic flair and overly saturated use of primary colours, it’s a riot of sound and imagery that’s both terrifying and poetic in equal measure.
Often referred to as the horror buff’s horror film, Jack Clayton’s retelling of Henry James’s most famous ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, is a quietly simmering triumph that doesn’t rely on typical tropes of gore or violence to get its menacing message across. Co-written by none other than Truman Capote, it follows the potentially mad governess Miss Giddens – played by the multiple Oscar-nominated British actress Deborah Kerr – as she is hired to look after troubled Flora and Miles by their uncle (Michael Redgrave). Famed for its black and white cinematography and its elegant visuals, provided by legendary cameraman Freddie Francis (who worked with the likes of David Lynch and Martin Scorsese), this is one of the most stylish horror films in cinema history.