HBO Max has gotten a lot of ink lately for a certain mega-sized superhero director’s cut, but the streamer is also stuffed with genre titles beyond its flashy premieres. We’ve already picked out the must-see (and deep-cut) fantasy and sci-fi; now, we’ve got eight horror suggestions for your next spooky movie night.
Yes, yes, we’re all well aware of Scanners’ glorious contribution to the advancement of exploding-head special effects (watch the trailer above), but David Cronenberg’s 1981 chiller is disturbing on many levels even beyond that. It imagines a world where certain people born with telepathic and psychokinetic powers are targeted by both a sinister military contractor (whose program is led by a doctor played by The Prisoner’s Patrick McGoohan) and a rebel group of “scanners” who follow a violent leader (Michael Ironside). When a powerful but untrained new recruit (Stephen Lack) steps into the middle of this psychic war, he discovers multiple conspiracies afoot—as well as the troubling truth about his own past and the origins of his “gift.” Scanners is uniquely weird and totally thrilling, and just remember, rewinding-rewatching that head-go-boom scene is well within any gorehound’s bill of rights.
After she survives a devastating car accident, a young organ player (Candace Hilligoss) picks up and moves from Kansas to Utah, but she can’t quite shake her tragic past—or the feeling that she’s either being haunted or going insane (or both). Director Herk Harvey’s 1962 cult classic proves that you don’t need a big budget or fancy production values to create a mood that feels like being trapped in a nightmare, a quality that would go on to influence other filmmakers working in the same surreal vein. To put it another way, Carnival of Souls is “Lynchian” before “Lynchian” was a thing.
A devastating car accident involving a troubled young woman also looms large over Georges Franju’s 1960 tale—but there’s no question about what’s wrong with her in this case, or what’s very wrong about the circumstances she now finds herself in. Desperate to help his once-lovely daughter, Christiane (Édith Scob), repair her disfigured face, a plastic surgeon (Pierre Brasseur) and his assistant (Alida Valli) kidnap women off the streets of Paris so that they can be made into unwitting face-transplant donors. Meanwhile, Christiane—who floats around her father’s mansion wearing an eerie white mask—is slowly losing her own grasp on reality, thanks to her confinement and the fact that she can’t reach out to her fiancé to let him know she survived the accident. Despite its subject matter, Eyes Without a Face is dreamy and gorgeous, though the sequence where Christiane’s body rejects her latest new face is as stomach-turning as any full-color splatter movie.
Found-footage horror may be played out at this point, but this 2012 Barry Levinson-directed holdover from its heyday—about a small coastal town in Maryland overwhelmed by a deadly parasitic outbreak thanks to toxins in the water—uses the gimmick to great effect. The Bay is framed as a top-secret collection of evidence pertaining to a government cover-up; we follow a news reporter (You’re the Worst’s Kether Donohue) who keeps her camera rolling as the situation gets scarier and exponentially grosser, while other sources (security cameras, video chats, etc.) also chime in to provide different (but equally alarming) perspectives. Taken as a whole, The Bay is proof that even grainy, shaky-cam glimpses of exploding boils and wriggling, flesh-gobbling critters can be a highly effective scare tactic.
With A Nightmare on Elm Street already on its fifth entry by 1989 (as it happens, it’s available on HBO Max along with a few others from the Elm Street series), creator Wes Craven turned his sights to a fresh boogeyman to try and replicate Freddy Krueger’s blockbuster success. He didn’t succeed in building a franchise with Shocker, but he did provide us with a slasher crafted around a central conceit that’s almost as bonkers as a guy who can murder you in your dreams.
A beefy, pre-X-Files Mitch Pileggi plays TV repairman-slash-serial killer Horace Pinker, whose execution goes sideways when he makes a Satanic bargain to turn into electricity after he dies, enabling him to possess people (or little girls, depending on who’s nearby) and continue his killing streak. Best of all, the ridiculous finale sends Pinker and his estranged son (Peter Berg) on a wild brawl across different TV channels, which sees them punch their way through vintage reels (including the Hindenburg disaster), manifest in a Leave It to Beaver episode, crash into an Alice Cooper video, burst into a John Tesh-hosted newscast, and more. Sleep all you want, but never watch TV again!
HBO Max has Andy Muschietti’s very good It and It: Chapter 2, but if you really want to give yourself a complex about clowns and storm drains, beep-beep yourself into the 1990 mini-series starring Tim Curry as Pennywise. The rest of the cast is pretty great, too—John Ritter, Harry Anderson, Annette O’Toole, Richard Thomas, Olivia Hussey, Seth Green—and the direction, by John Carpenter protégé Tommy Lee Wallace (Halloween III: Season of the Witch) keeps the many past-and-present moving parts of Stephen King’s giant book moving briskly along. But Curry’s flawless performance is the main draw here; even over three decades later, those pointy teeth will still give you nightmares.
Richard Attenborough directed this 1978 William Goldman-scripted (adapted from his own novel) tale of a wannabe magician named Corky (Anthony Hopkins) who decides his flailing act will benefit from the addition of a ventriloquist dummy named Fats. The little guy gives Corky’s career a huge boost, but his already delicate grasp on reality begins to suffer when he starts to believe that the controlling, foul-mouthed Fats is not only alive, but homicidal. It’s a campy concept, but the movie plays it pretty straight—especially Hopkins, who was 13 years away from bringing Hannibal Lecter to life and yet is just as terrifying (in an entirely different way) here.
Some horror movies throw a lot of plot and mythology and supernatural freak-outs at you. Others, like Chris Kentis’ 2003 survival thriller Open Water, come up with an idea as simple as it is devastating. On a group scuba trip, two divers are accidentally left behind by their boat—and have no choice but to helplessly bob around as the nearby sharks slowly begin to take notice of the free lunch in their midst. The end result is an absolutely agonizing take on the “vacation gone wrong” genre, with a sense of dread that closes in even though the hapless characters are surrounded by the absolute vastness of an empty, empty (except for all the sharks) ocean.
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