Halloween, for the fearful and squeamish, can prove a challenging holiday. The date on the calendar doesn’t transform me and my cowardly compatriots into horror buffs or slasher fans. If we submit to the cultural expectation of masochistic fright infliction, the effects may linger; I still have nightmares I’m convinced stem from a slumber party viewing of “The Ring” over a decade ago.
Yet it feels wrong to spend Halloween dressed as a fairy princess and watching “When Harry Met Sally,” pretending the holiday is something it’s not. How can we get into the spirit of the season without causing semi-permanent psychological and/or emotional damage to ourselves?
Never fear (really, don’t), my fellow scaredy cats: I’ve rounded up some of the least gory, least horrifying movies that are capable of giving you a few chills or at least getting you in the Halloween spirit. Whether it’s a murderous dark comedy or a low-violence suspense flick, these unsettling films will give you a delicious tingle up your spine without provoking months of nightmares.
Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe -- the perfect cast for a lightly violent, lightly suspenseful, super tragic drama that somehow feels like it’s YA-inspired despite being rated R. The aura of impending doom hangs over the film from the beginning, as we watch scheming stepsibs, and lovers, Sebastian and Kathryn plot to destroy those around them, even as Sebastian begins to fall for one of their targets, innocent and virginal Annette. There’s romance; there’s intrigue; there’s just enough shock and horror to make it unsettling.
Hitchcock knew his stuff. And not just the in-your-face terror of “Psycho,” but more manageable psychological suspense, like “Vertigo.” This film won’t leave you terrified of taking showers, or anything really, but it will give you the serious creeps, at least while the movie’s on. Scottie, a detective who suffers from vertigo, is enlisted by a friend to follow his young wife, who’s been acting erratic. But there are many more layers to the mystery than Scottie understands -- until it’s too late.
I’m not gonna lie to you: This movie is sorta violent. But the unconventional reversed structure of the film, and the focus on the protagonist’s psychological unraveling, keeps “Memento” from devolving into a slashfest. The existential horror at the heart of the story will leave you reeling.
The 1940 film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel will strike terror into your heart. It stars Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine flexing their old-school Hollywood acting chops, and the plot itself produces the kind of creeping unease that will make you question everything around you. And yet, it’s never exactly violent -- it’s even a bit hopeful. Watch with your sweetheart and periodically pause the movie to grill him or her about the dark secrets you will come to believe he or she is keeping from you!
Keep the fun going with another movie bound to undermine your once-trusting relationship without subjecting you to too much gore. If you haven’t seen this blockbuster yet, you’re probably living under a rock, or, like myself, unwilling to risk being trapped in a theater watching potentially gruesome scenes. That said, reports indicate the horrific violence is limited to just a scene or two, with most of the movie, like the book, relying on the tension of the unreliable narrators and the unsettling mystery at its core for suspense. Consider this one for Halloween movie night with the gals or guys after a particularly brutal breakup.
So, you really want to get into the Halloween spirit? Would a mysterious serial killer do it for you? “Zodiac” takes on the all-too-true story of a murderer who preyed on San Francisco in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and was never caught. In the hands of David Fincher, it’s less gore and more psychological intrigue -- just the right amount of chills.
“Drop Dead Gorgeous”
A beauty pageant movie starring Kirsten Dunst as a cheery Minnesota ingenue, “Drop Dead Gorgeous” seems all wrong for Halloween. But the “drop dead” part of the title isn’t figurative. Dunst works at a funeral home after school, giving makeovers to corpses, a job that’s mined for morbid humor. When she becomes competitive in the local pageant, other girls start dying in mysterious accidents -- and it seems like she might be next. Blackly funny rather than bloodily horrifying, this movie is a comedy buff’s alternative to a grim, grotesque slasher.
OK, OK, “Penelope” is more rom-com than creepfest. Still, the fantasy flick features witchcraft, a curse, a girl with a pig snout for a nose, and a romantic climax set at a Halloween party. If you prefer your Oct. 31 to be whimsical and uplifting, this love story between the cursed Christina Ricci and handsomely scruffy James McAvoy fits the bill.
“Witches of Eastwick”
Based on the John Updike novel of the same title, this film will always be known for uniting Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon on an absurd magical journey that’s heavier on silliness than scariness. Three single women in a small town, unaware they’re actually witches, accidentally form a weekly coven. The bizarre events that follow, featuring Jack Nicholson as a devilish suitor, could only be due to the dark workings of magic.
There's just something about three witches uniting their powers that makes for a hilariously spooky time. This time, it's Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy as three sisters who were executed for witchcraft in Salem -- only to return on Halloween three centuries later to wreak some comic magic.
Listen, "Jaws" is scary. You may never go swimming again after that one. Go for the kitsch alternative and listen to the screams of utterly unconvincing actors as "tornados" full of "sharks" spin through Los Angeles, wreaking havoc on the lives of Tara Reid and Ian Ziering, who find that they're gonna need a bigger chopper. It’s the perfect accompaniment to a night of binging on sour gummy worms and bright orange jello shots with your other easily frightened buddies.
In this bittersweet, lush film about the pains of father-son relationships, magic may be more a narrative device than anything. And yet, the supernatural seems not just enrapturing but somehow possible in the movie, as journalist William Bloom tries to come to terms with the fantastical tales his father has always told him, which come to seem more truthful than he'd ever imagined.
“Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events”
After treasuring each volume in this series, and adoring the movie, I hoped for more films in the series that never came. Apparently not everyone appreciated this adaptation. But if you’re into the light steampunk aesthetic, unfortunate situations that are pleasurably frightening but never lurid, and movies you can enjoy with impressionable kids, this is the ideal Halloween night entertainment.
AND A BONUS:
The "Harry Potter" movies
Anything magical is appropriate on All Hallows Eve. If you have the whole Saturday to get spooky, these make for a great marathon. Duh.
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