My girlfriend doesn’t really care for horror movies.
Well, hold on. I guess that’s not entirely accurate. A better way to phrase that would be: “My girlfriend doesn’t really like being frightened by horror movies.”
To most, these traits wouldn’t be deemed particularly important. But horror movies are my life. They’re one of those things people say when they’re describing me—I’m “that guy who knows a lot about horror movies,” except people are less likely to say “a lot” and more likely to substitute “everything,” or “a disturbing amount,” regardless of whether those are accurate or fair (half-truths!). Suffice it to say: The horror genre means a lot to me, to the point that I spearheaded Paste’s effort to compile the 100 greatest horror films of all time. As a result, I was mildly distraught to first learn that my significant other couldn’t enjoy them in quite the same way as I did.
Turns out, I needn’t have worried. What I’ve come to discover over the last couple of years is that she by and large actually does like horror movies—provided they’re the right kind of horror movie.
What is the “right kind”? Horror-comedies are a natural fit, given that they temper their scares with humor, but you don’t want to limit yourself from ever being able to watch films that are legitimately “horror.” The rare crossover of “horror/romance” can also be effective … if you know which of those films are worth watching.
Here, then, are 10 suggestions for your next horror movie date night. I’ve focused on films that are accessible and exciting, without being the kind of thing that will give either partner nightmares. Some of them are even approved by my significant other…some maybe will be in the future. But they’re all great choices to use as a guide for many upcoming October evenings on the couch.
Even if your significant other doesn’t watch horror movies, they’re probably familiar with the ideas and tropes of a so-called “home invasion” thriller, which is what makes Adam Wingard’s You’re Next so effective: It’s specifically designed to have audience members come to the conclusion that they know where it’s going, right before it pulls out the rug from underneath them. It focuses on a family dinner party attended by Erin (Sharni Vinson) and her fiancé (AJ Bowen), which is interrupted by the arrival of several animal-masked assailants who begin picking off members of the group—until it becomes clear our female protagonist is quite a bit more capable and resourceful than we’ve been led to assume.
Australian actress Vinson is excellent as Erin, in a role that really should have catapulted her into the mainstream of American cinema. You’re Next is a taut thriller with interesting characters and plenty of bloodletting, but also a streak of grim, gallows humor, which defies tropes when it needs to and embraces them when desired. There’s a lot more going on under the hood than the viewer initially realizes, and it remains the reason, along with 2014’s The Guest, that Wingard once showed promise as one of the next great American genre movie directors.
Vampire movies do tend to involve bleak romance and star-crossed lovers, but the most devastatingly sincere of those romances takes place in this Swedish film, Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, between two (apparent) children, one of whom is not what she seems. The friendship and blossoming, largely unspoken romance between 12-year-old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) and the strange vampire girl next door (Lina Leandersson) is equal parts touching and disturbing: Moments in the film feel painfully real, as the audience questions the nature of attachment and especially of codependence. Eli, our vampire, has been around for hundreds of years, and the film implies to some degree that she has long since evolved beyond true relationships or attachments. Rather, the men who attach themselves to her, servicing her every need as familiars, are themselves only tools for her survival, just means to an end. To be love, how reciprocal must love really be?
The performances in Let the Right One In are astounding, full of vulnerability and ugliness. Oskar is profoundly unusual for a protagonist, seeming at times to be a budding young sociopath who lacks only the courage to turn the tables and exact revenge on his equally disturbed schoolyard bullies. In that sense, perhaps he’s drawn as much to the power that Eli represents as she is. Regardless, the film is among the most thoughtful of modern vampire films, perfect for a shared bottle of wine with the significant other.
And while I’m on the subject: Although we’re recommending the original Let the Right One In, you could do much worse than Matt Reeves’ 2010 American remake, Let Me In. A very faithful adaptation that was unfairly judged next to the Swedish original, it actually addresses a few specific ideas better, and more than justifies its existence.
If the first Evil Dead represents director Sam Raimi’s trademark style in its infancy, then Evil Dead II is the film when were first able to witness, no doubt, that style fully formed. Its premise is almost exactly the same as the first film’s—people head to a cabin in the woods before demonic possession runs amok—but the now self-aware Raimi simply tightens everything up in the second go-around, infusing his “sequel” with a relentless pace. Only five or ten minutes pass before the first decapitations, and from there we’re off to the races: With a pitch-perfect blend of over-the-top gore, absurdist comedy and an all-time charismatic performance by Bruce Campbell as Ash, Evil Dead II is the perfect midpoint between the (slightly) more serious tone of the original and the exaggerated, campy comedy of Army of Darkness, the final film in the series. Few flicks better convey both the darkly comedic sensibilities and joy of gory excess that were common to the horror genre in the late ’80s.
Eli Craig’s Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is a film to watch with your significant other after you’ve already watched something like Hatchet or the aforementioned Evil Dead II, because it’s about both the tropes of those “cabin in the woods” movies and the characters’ knowledge of those tropes. We’ve been conditioned through decades of films in the mold of The Hills Have Eyes and Deliverance to assume the worst about “backwoods country folk,” and that’s what Tucker & Dale uses to its advantage. Rather than making its group of young college kids our POV protagonists, we instead commiserate with a pair of good ole boys who are simply trying to enjoy a relaxing weekend of fishing at their “vacation home,” a run-down cabin in the woods that looks like your stereotypical Murder Shack. When the two groups cross paths, a series of steadily mounting misunderstandings and accidents result in an impressive mound of college kid bodies.
Tucker & Dale is a warm, likable horror comedy, easy on the “horror” and heavy on the comedy, that still pays homage to woodsy slasher films such as Sleepaway Camp or The Burning. Its lead characters, played by Tyler Labine and Firefly’s Alan Tudyk, are perfectly conceived and executed examples of genre tropes, while generating big laughs.
The Faculty is one of those rare films that is much more fun to watch now than it was at the time of its release, almost 20 years ago, both as a sincere appreciation of its legitimate entertainment potential and because it stands as such a nostalgic time-capsule of late ’90s “teen horror.” Which is all to say: If you and your significant other are ’90s kids, then this is the perfect date night movie.
Just a quick perusal of the cast reveals a who’s who of stars both current and nostalgic. There are adults who survived the ’90s and early 2000s with their “movie star status” still intact: Salma Hayek, Famke Janssen, Elijah Wood, etc. But then there’s Josh Hartnett. Or Jordana Brewster. Or Danny Masterson. Underneath all that dying star power is a slimy “aliens masquerading as adults” sci-fi horror feature, with all the cartoonish verve you would expect from Robert Rodriguez. Although watching Scream would scratch the same sort of ’90s itch, what with its prominent dose of Matthew Lillard, you’re better off going with the less-heralded The Faculty for a source of nostalgia more genuinely surprising (and consequently enjoyable).
What can I say: Sam Raimi movies just make for good date night material. This one is a colorful, stylish return to his roots after coming off the massive disappointment that was Spider-Man 3. Drag Me to Hell is a tight, well-oiled thriller that plays like a Twilight Zone-esque moral play/parable. After Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) lets her ambition get the best of her, spiting an old woman looking for a loan extension at Brown’s bank job, the woman (actually a gypsy of some renown) lays a heavy curse on her. Within a few days, unless she can somehow reverse the process, a demon called the Lamia will appear in broad daylight and grab hold of her soul, literally dragging her to hell.
That’s all we need for this humorously mean-spirited supernatural thriller with a quirky but nuanced central performance by Lohman, but what really makes the film stand out almost a decade later is the depth of its subtext. Maybe Raimi has an all-engrossing oral fixation, but the specter of eating disorders haunts the film. Without research, it’s hard to say why the writer-director became so obsessed with the concept while plotting the story, but the themes of sustenance, and of things going in and coming out of people’s mouths throughout are too profound to ignore. Anyone who has ever dealt with an eating disorder, whether first-hand or not, in the past will likely feel a connection to these themes, even as they’re being willingly taken along on a classic shock-and-awe horror story—complete with an excellent ending.
If you’re spending Halloween night at home with your significant other (like this year, when it falls on a Tuesday), know this: Mike Dougherty’s Trick ’r Treat is basically the ultimate Halloween night movie. So many horror films venerate particular slashers, or monsters, or characters, or settings, but Trick ’r Treat is all about respect for the holiday itself, and that gives the film a wondrously nostalgic quality. As a kid who grew up considering Halloween to be his favorite holiday, for me the film taps into a sentiment that has always been a big part of my childhood. Dougherty’s film feels like an aside from a good friend, assuring you, “I know exactly how you feel.”
Trick ’r Treat is essentially an anthology, although its stories aren’t unrelated or sequential. Rather, they the stories occur simultaneously in the same small town on Halloween night, weaving in and out of each other in unexpected ways. As one story finishes, it tends to enrich the presumed endings of previous installments, giving the audience a new perspective on events they’ve witnessed 20 or 30 minutes beforehand. Our one constant presence is Sam, the pint-sized “spirit of Halloween” whose function is to carry out messy vengeance upon those who trample over Halloween’s sacred traditions. It’s a charming, occasionally spooky film with a great ensemble cast, from Brian Cox to a pre-True Blood Anna Paquin. There’s a little something in Trick ’r Treat for everyone.
Do you love the original Scream? Then Behind the Mask might well be your new favorite horror film. Ignore the silly title, if you can—the documentary-like inclusion of the “Leslie Vernon” portion feels like it might have cost the movie wider exposure—because it’s one of the smartest meta-horror-movies of the last 20 years. If Scream dabbled in its deconstruction of slasher movie tropes, Behind the Mask attempts to literalize them: We follow a film crew tailing and interviewing a fledgling killer as he trains, preparing himself for the challenge of becoming a legendary slasher.
What follows is a meditation on the roots of slasher convention, while engaging in some of the classic questions that audiences would ask about any slasher: Why do they do what they do? How can they seemingly be in two places at once? How does a single man manage to take down a dozen teens? Behind the Mask delivers answers and splendid performances from relative unknowns, although horror fans will appreciate Robert Englund as Doc Halloran and a cameo from a pre-Walking Dead Scott Wilson.
If you know the name Katharine Isabelle, it’s probably in reference to the actress’s classic portrayal of a high school werewolf in 2000’s Ginger Snaps, which would also make an excellent addition to this list. But Jen and Sylvia Soska’s American Mary was the star vehicle the actress must have been waiting for in the years after Ginger Snaps, a bloody, sexy dive into the rarely witnessed (in cinema, anyway) “Canadian underworld.”
The film follows an American surgical student in Canada who drops out of school and begins working degrading jobs relying upon her physical beauty rather than her medical talent. However, she soon finds her way into the illicit world of body modification, taking on clients with fantasies and desires to change themselves in ways “frowned upon” by the legitimate medical establishment. What follows is a unique thriller that revolves around questions of identity and physical representation of one’s inner self. It’s certainly the best feature film to date by indie directorial duo The Soska Sisters, who appear as a pair of vampiric, codependent clients who wish to have some of their body parts swapped and grafted onto each other’s bodies. All in all, American Mary is an icky but surprisingly heartfelt body horror thriller with a uniquely empowered female protagonist.
It would be easy to cast this Nicholas Hoult “rom-zom” film aside as simple teen fluff, but Warm Bodies is more entertaining than the serious horror geek might expect, and if your significant other isn’t so fond of exploding heads or people being torn apart in typical Romero-esque fashion, this film might be exactly what you’re looking for. Hoult plays “R,” a rather morose zombie whose days are spent endlessly wandering a defunct airport with hundreds of his brethren as the last vestiges of his humanity slip further and further from memory. That is, until he sees Julie (Teresa Parker) for the first time, and his cold, dead heart inexplicably begins to beat once again. What follows is something of a “Romero and Julie” situation, as we’re combining star-crossed zombies with the threat of Julie’s dictatorial father (a “I heard there was a paycheck here to be collected” John Malkovich).
Still, the best things in Warm Bodies aren’t necessarily the romantic aspects, but the amusing camaraderie between its characters. “R” has what amounts to a zombie bro, played by Rob Corddry, and their minimalistic, coworker-esque small talk is a highlight that is nicely integrated into the plot as the other zombies begin experiencing some of the same awakenings as “R.” Likewise, Julie’s own teenage existence in a heavily gated, walled survivalist community is the sort of thing you don’t often get a chance to see in more serious, horror-centric zombie fiction. All in all, Warm Bodies is a pleasant surprise that will appeal to the romantic comedy enthusiast and the zombie buff in equal measure.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film writing.