From nightmarish fairytales to gritty psychological thrillers, Document selects 10 cinematic gems to watch this month
There’s something in the air, when the leaves change and the winds begin to howl. When pumpkins don crooked smiles, and costume stores multiply, beckoning kids inside with ghoulish garments and macabre masks. Halloween is approaching, and as you know, one of the best ways to invigorate yourself with the spirit of All Hallow’s Eve is by watching scary movies. We all know the revered horror classics—from groundbreaking films like The Shining and Night of the Living Dead to saucy slashers like Scream and Nightmare on Elm Street; not to mention fun, iconic flicks like The Lost Boys and Jennifer’s Body—both of which are dark comedy masterpieces. However, if you’re seeking out a lexicon of lesser-known horror films to casually drop at Halloween parties this year, look no further—here are some cult classics to help you get your scare on.
Possession, Andrzej Żuławski (1981)
Film connoisseurs were thrilled when Metrograph released this famed classic in 4K restoration. Its avant-garde director, Andrzej Żuławski, was known for his cerebral films and is often cited as a pioneer of European experimental cinema—and despite bombing at the box office and failing to win over critics, Posession has since garnered a cult-like status. Set during the Cold War, the film follows the marriage of Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and Mark (Sam Neil), a spy who returns home to find his wife growing increasingly distant. We watch as their marriage deteriorates and Anna begins to unravel—her disturbed fury juxtaposing with the cold, dilapidated world Zulawski paints. Possession is both a nightmare-fueled ride and a meditation on marriage and divorce. Yes, there is a monster (and plenty of blood and gore), but even more unnerving are the monsters within Anne and Mark, screaming to get out.
For fans of: David Cronenberg and Lars Von Trier.
Snack pairing: Beta blockers and seltzer.
Suspiria, Luca Guadagnino (2018)
Still reeling from the success of Call Me by Your Name, director Luca Guadagnino proved his range and artistic prowess in his remake of Dario Arrrgemento’s beloved ’70s classic, which was inspired by Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis, a series of influential essays examining the process of memory as influenced by hallucinogenic drug use. Shot on 35mm film (like the original) Suspiria gives off an aged, nostalgic vibe, and feels more like a work of art than the usual run-of-the-mill horror. With a female-driven, all-star cast, helmed by Dakota Johnson, Mia Goth, and Tilda Swinton, this story is set at the height of the Cold War and follows an American dancer who is accepted into a prestigious but secretive dance academy. Philosophical in nature and full of twists, this movie bewitches audiences until its last frame. Some interpret the film as an analogy for fascism, while others see it as a take on motherhood and power. It’s the perfect Halloween film to discuss with friends over a juicy bottle of red. But be warned, Suspiria makes other horror-thrillers look like child’s play.
For fans of: Stanley Kubrick and Mary Shelly.
Snack pairing: S’mores.
Gretal and Hansel, Oz Perkins (2020)
It’s always fun to see a classic story reimagined. The amazing Sophia Lillis (Sharp Objects, It) stars as Gretal in this nightmarish fairytale, which reinvigorates an old classic by presenting it through a realistic lens: one where the story is elevated and the horror, amplified. The tale is presented as an odyssey of sorts, with Gretal and her young brother Hansel (Samuel Leakey) being forced into the dark woods after their mother banishes them. They struggle to look for work and forage for food, eating mushrooms out of desperation, and encountering good and bad characters alike—a huntsman, a ghoul, and, of course, a witch (Alice Krige)—who still manages to terrify despite us already knowing how the story goes. The most striking element of the film is its cinematography, which is so breathakingly haunting that if you paused it at virtually any part of the film, you’d get something akin to a Caravaggio or Bosch painting.
For fans of: Pan’s Labyrinth and Dracula (the book, not the film).
Snack pairing: Pretzels and Chianti.
Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Ana Lily Amirpour (2014)
“Are you a good boy?” the Vampire asks a child in the night, before threatening to take his eyes out and feed them to dogs if he is not. This black-and-white, Iranian-American neo-vampire Western is an amalgamation of genres: a love story, a gritty crime thriller, a familial drama, and an adventure. With an eclectic tracklist that features everything from White Lies to Farah—and lots of synth-y, ’80s-esque music in between—it’s a wildly fun ride that’s unlike other bloodsucker flicks. Director Anna Lily Amirpour has created an Iranian vampire drama, written entirely in Farsi, that blends fantasy with the gritty realism of modern society—prositituion, drug addiction, and death. Many have called the film a feminist piece due to the fact that the titular character preys on men who mistreat to women (though Amirpour is hesitant to use one singular label). In an interview with Gawker, Amirpour cites the film as being a “mating call” of sorts: “I made it for all the vampires out there.”
For fans of: Spaghetti Westerns, classic cars, and Titane.
Snack pairing: Mexican coke or black tea.
Cure for Wellness, Gore Verbinski (2016)
When I first saw this at IFC, I instantly became a fan of its director, Gore Verbinski. It’s entertaining and unsettling, and sometimes that’s all you want from a horror movie. The exceptional score by Benjamin Wallfisch (Dunkirk, It) drives the film, capturing both the beauty and creepiness of Verbinski’s world. Dean Dehane (Place Beyond the Pines) plays Lockhart, a young American businessman sent to retrieve a board member from a mysterious sanitarium in the Swiss Alps. The story itself is quite ‘Hollywood,’ but the visuals and tone are artistic and, at times, meditative—which is probably why it failed to win over the masses at the box office. Admittedly, the second half loses steam and some believability, but by then it doesn’t matter, because you’re already hooked. Secrets are uncovered and blood is spilled as Lockhart races to find answers and save Hannah (Mia Goth), a mysterious patient he has grown to care for.
For fans of: Shutter Island, Apostle and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Snack pairing: Still water.
Saint Maud, Rose Glass (2021)
Glass’s surreal feature debut is as impressive as it is chilling, blurring the line between supernatural horror and psychological thriller. Morfydd Clark plays Maud, a devout christian caregiver with a mysterious background, who takes an assignment caring for Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a dying dancer in a sleepy town along the Yorkshire coast. As the film unfolds we realize that behind Maud’s meek demeanor is a disturbing instability that’s reaching a violent boiling point. “God talks to me,” she tells Amanda, though she reflects someone more shrouded in darkness rather than angelic probity. Rather than having Maud ruminate aimlessly as a means for audiences to access her inner monologue, Glass reveals her nature through these chilling conversations with God, and the unhealthy obsession she develops with Amanda after attempting to dissuade her from lesbian sex in the name of salvation. This film poses more questions than answers, but that’s the brilliance of it—it forces audiences to decipher what’s real and what’s Maud’s twisted imagination. “We all live in the same world but we’re all confined to our bodies and experience reality subjectively. You never really know what’s going on in someone’s head,” Glass says in an interview with Vulture.
For fans of: Black Swan, religious symbolism, Jean of Arc (person not film) and Nocturne.
Snack pairing: Milk and honey.
It Follows, David Robert Mitchell (2014)
With a minuscule budget of 1.3 million, this film awed audiences when it first dropped at Cannes. Its teeth-grinding horror juxtaposes with an ethereal soundtrack to create a world that’s both terrifying and alluring. Maika Monroe (Don’t Breathe) plays Jay, a soft-spoken young woman who, after going on a date and engaging in sexual intercourse, is pursued by a supernatural force. This mysterious villain is an entity that takes many forms and cannot be stopped once it sets its sights on you. It comes as your neighbor, your friend, your family member. Critics and enthusiasts speculate that the film’s monster is a metaphor for the AIDS epidemic that ravaged America in the ’90s, while others suggest that the monster symbolizes death’s inevitable approach. Those of you living in Brooklyn can decide for yourself—Williamsburg’s Nitehawk Cinema will be playing it on Halloween night. Snag tickets!
For fans of: 10 Cloverfield Lane, 28 Days Later and Slenderman.
Snack pairing: Pizza and Rolling Rock.
The Babadook, Jennifer Kent (2014)
“I’ll kill the monster when it comes,” 6-year-old Samual (Noah Wiseman) tells his mother Amelia (Essie Davis). Another IFC gem, this shadow-heavy film from Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent has a tight script and compelling performances. At its root, the film is about the trauma that stems from the loss of a parent, and the isolation that emotionally fragile adults and vulnerable children endure following such loss. For me, The Babadook—reconstructed from Babaroga, the Serbian term for Boogeyman—is the scariest movie to make this list, not from jump scares or gore but because of how real and grounded it is. The film plays off childhood fears as timeless as the ‘monster under the bed,’ but hits differently when told with a seriousness and grim realism.
For fans of: Hereditary and The Haunting of Hill House.
Snack pairing: Ice cream.
The Witch, Robert Eggers (2015)
Robert Eggers’ (The Lighthouse) A24 debut stands out among its contemporaries. This artfully-crafted New England nightmare takes place decades before the Salem Witch trials. It tells the story of a devout Puritan family that settles near an eerie forest after being banished from their encampment. Anya Taylor Joy commands the screen in the role of the eldest daughter, Thomasin (also her feature film debut). Unlike most period pieces, which gravitate toward modern language and clunky Hollywood tropes, The Witch retains a rare authenticity—the dialogue is old English and the characters feel real. Favoring shadows and desaturated color palettes, The Witch crackles slowly but never feels dull. With themes of hysteria and faith, this film pays homage to classics like The Crucible and The Shining, while still proving to be unlike anything we’ve seen in recent years.
For fans of: The Shining, The Exorcist, and the occult (obviously).
Snack pairing: Mead (though lager will do) and Triscuit crackers.
Let the Right One In, Tomas Alfredson (2008)
My favorite film on this list, Thomas Alfredson’s unique love story—both beautiful and horrifying—is near perfection. Penned by John Ajvid Lindqvist (who wrote the novel the movie is adapted from), Let the Right One In reminds us that sometimes the best stories are the simplest. The Swedish film tells the tale of Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a 12-year-old loaner who befriends Eli (Lena Leandersson), the girl next door—who happens to be a vampire. Rather than redefining the genre or diving into lore, Alfredson opts to focus on character. The camerawork is unembellished—leaving audiences to fully immerse themselves in the story and powerhouse performances. Popcorn and chocolate are a must for this 10-out-of-10 film. It’s a coming of age tale, a horror-fueled love-story and above all, an exploration of what it means to be human.
For fans of: Foreign films, vampires, and offbeat coming-of-age stories.
Snack pairing: Chocolate and popcorn.