Despite its origins in Celtic culture and its spread to countries around the globe, there are few things more American than Halloween. As we continue to survive the scariest year of our lifetimes, suddenly witches, ghouls, vampires, and werewolves don’t seem so frightening. Luckily, when even the outside world is more fearsome than ever, horror films provide a much-needed catharsis of anxiety.
Both the horror industry and Halloween’s increasing ubiquity as an economic force in the United States have helped to usher in the rise of Shudder, a niche streaming service analogous to Netflix but catering specifically and exclusively to horror fans. Shudder has recently reached a major milestone: the burgeoning brand has just hit 1 million subscribers, meaning that the relatively new company is likely to become even more influential in the coming years.
Shudder’s philosophy and eccentric catalog of exclusive content has helped the brand establish itself as unique in a crowded streaming marketplace: curator Sam Zimmerman’s expanded notion of horror often includes rare foreign films and arthouse creations on the fringes of horror culture that are not often spotlighted by more typical fans of the genre.
To celebrate the brand’s newfound success, and to help usher in the spooky spirits who haunt the world every October, we’ve picked 31 of our favorite films from Shudder’s impressive repertoire. Check out our (unranked!) list, below:
The history of horror films has been unfortunately white since the genre’s inception. Horror Noire, a documentary by Xavier Burgin, traces the patently racist tropes so often employed in horror and shows how newer films have transformed Black people from prototypical victims into the genre’s greatest heroes. It’s an eye-opening exploration into a topic that remains under-discussed amongst horror fans and therefore should absolutely be considered essential viewing.
A sadomasochistic relationship is pushed to extreme limits when a dominatrix’s client gets a bit too obsessed. In this artfully shot Finnish film, actress Krista Kosonen is beautiful and frightening as both victimizer and victim. Not exactly a traditional horror film, but fans of A24’s brand of “elevated horror” will surely find something to love here.
Highbrow film critics often dismiss Rob Zombie as a schlock artist, but his first feature-length film — despite its repugnant plot — is a visual treat. Few directors have attempted to tell horror stories in neon color palettes (and even fewer have succeeded) but Zombie’s zeal for unusual composition and scenery — juxtaposed against stomach-churning ultra-violence — makes this a unique movie despite itself.
The incomparable Meiko Kaji (best known for playing the infamous Lady Snowblood, a role that would go on to inspire Kill Bill) stars as the eponymous incarcerated anti-heroine of this multi-part series of films. Director Shunya Ito creates bizarre and surreal landscapes filled with suffering women in these expressionistic and strange stories about an unconquerable inmate nicknamed The Scorpion. #701 is beyond brutal, as are all the films in the series (the first four of which are on Shudder), but the cinematography and poetic story structure are unforgettable.
In this Indonesian ghost story, a young woman is poised to inherit a mansion from the biological family that abandoned her. When she goes to claim the property, she accidentally uncovers a village’s darkest secrets. What ultimately unwinds is a supernatural tale about cursed shadow puppets — but the film’s unsettling setting is enough of a selling point.
The Ring became a cultural phenomenon in the United States when Gore Verbinski’s Westernized remake of this 1998 film dropped in 2002. The original movie (itself an adaptation of a novel by the same name) doesn’t go down quite as easy as the American version, but there’s a lot of cultural contexts that were lost when this movie made its way around the world. The cursed videotape itself is strikingly different in this version, and the whole conceit makes a bit more sense through a quasi-Shintoist lens.
Although it would be easy to dismiss Knife + Heart as a campy slasher flick (it’s true — the killer uses a dildo as a deadly weapon), the poetics of this decadent film are shockingly powerful. With a gorgeous and haunting soundtrack by M83, watching Knife + Heart is like being transported into a James Bigood photoshoot that ends in a terrible tragedy.
Halloween isn’t technically the first slasher film ever made, but it certainly crystallized a formula that would be endlessly repeated for decades. The subject of smart criticism by feminist film scholars like Carol Clover, Halloween revealed to us the power of The Final Girl while also turning America’s spookiest holiday into even more of a national phenomenon. An absolute classic without which scores of horror films created in its wake barely even make sense.
Lynchian in its depictions of an abandoned, factory-filled suburbia — but set in an “Iranian ghost town” instead of America’s heartland — A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is an artistic interpretation of the international mythos around vampires. Recontextualizing this lore, director Ana Lily Amirpour creates a beautiful and dark romance that sits just on the edge of the horror genre.
A classic of both Japanese and avant-garde cinema, Tetsuo has influenced almost every contemporary Japanese filmmaker with its psychotic vision of the future. It’s more experimental than your average horror film — a man inexplicably morphs into a metallic monster while losing control of his body (and perhaps reality itself) — but fans of boundary-pushing art will surely appreciate its strangeness.
Rosemary’s Baby — but then make it queer. The beats of this film are a bit predictable if you can trace the movies it takes direct inspiration from, but director Stewart Thorndike managed to create a pretty moving piece of psychological horror cinema on what appears to be a shoestring budget. It’s rare that lesbian love is taken seriously in American filmmaking at all, and for that alone accolades are deserved.
A frightening and transgressive example of the home invasion subgenre, Angst tells the story of a recently incarcerated serial killer on a manic murder spree. The events are depicted mostly in real-time, emphasizing every agonizing moment of the protagonist’s sexual savagery and insanity. It’s deeply disturbing without a single jumpscare.
Darren Stein’s unapologetically campy horror-comedy stars Rose McGowan at the height of her powers. The movie is deliciously bitchy from start to finish — every line of dialogue is dripping in venom. Every outfit is a 90’s retro dream come true. Jawbreaker is like the demented cousin of Heathers — or Clueless’s evil step-sister.
Hellraiser became a midnight classic almost instantly upon its release in 1987. The eye-popping visual effects to this day are unparalleled in grotesquery. Critics were not entirely wrong to point at the threadbare plot, but Clive Barker’s story of unbounded sexual desire is eternal. The film’s main villain, affectionately named Pinhead by fans, has become an icon of the horror genre writ large.
There’s something imminently impressive about a film that plays with time loops and still makes sense. Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl uses the tropes of supernatural horror as a framing device to tell the story of unrequited gay love, making the movie sort of doubly transgressive. It’s more atmospheric than straight-up scary, but it’s a great example of how horror can be used to tell so many kinds of stories.
Almost a year into this pandemic and the scariest thing anyone can think of is yet another Zoom call. The conceit of a horror movie held entirely over video chat certainly sounds gimmicky and exhausting, but the cleverness of Host exceeds expectations. Sure, it’s a little predictable and thin on character development, but the ingenuity required to even make this movie — the whole thing was shot by the actors themselves in individual isolation — deserves accolades.
A paradigm of 80’s dark comedies, Heathers is a rare example of a female-focused film that stuns with both its wit and viciousness. Aside from the endlessly fashionable outfits, Heathers also features impossibly quotable dialogue and deeply complex characters. What at first appears as a deeply vapid film about popular girls in a suburban high school devolves into a sort of ode to misanthropy and violence.
Although it was released in 2009, House of the Devil somehow feels like a relic of horror’s heyday in the 1980s. It’s a true slow-burn, with the movie’s Satanic events reaching a frightening crescendo about ¾ of the way through. While most horror films follow a sort of obvious pacing, House of the Devil plays with these expected formulas to surprise even the most jaded fans.
America’s most beloved, buxom horror hostess finally got her big break in 1988 with this absurdly goofy horror-comedy. Elvira exudes a kind of tacky gothic glamour in every scene — her Macabre Mobile (a 1958 Ford Thunderbird decked out in spider webs and skeletons) is especially opulent. The plot of the movie is entirely beside the point — Elvira’s putrid beauty and punny wit are the selling points here.
The rape-revenge horror subgenre can often be too brutal for your average audience and Revenge might be a bit too viscous for more casual horror fans. That being said, the film has poignant moments of beauty interspersed between explosions of violence and sexual terror. New York Times critic A.O. Scott was right to call this film “a synthesis of exploitation and feminism” — meaning that anyone hoping to take away a clear moral message might be disappointed — but ethical complexity isn’t something we should shy away from.
Jessica Forever is a French experimental sci-fi horror film with a plot left purposefully vague. Jessica is the modelesque leader of a hunky band of paramilitary “orphans” who are endlessly pursued by a swarm of drones for unknown reasons. The group’s members are forbidden from falling in love — but boys will be boys and love can’t be contained. If you can think of Jessica Forever as an artistic allegory for loneliness and ostracization it works incredibly well. But if you’re looking for a more fleshed out plot with lots of world-building, you’d be better off pursuing more lowbrow fare.
Comparable to the cult hit The Witch, Hagazussa is a German folk horror story about an isolated mother and daughter sometime in the 15th century. The pair fear they are falling victim to The Devil as illness takes their sanity. The movie’s seemingly minimalist approach makes its conclusion all the more shocking. Unlike most American horror, Hagazussa requires a bit of patience but the psychedelic payoff is darkly rewarding.
What would you do for fame? It’s a simple question asked by artsy auteurs like David Lynch for decades, but Starry Eyes takes the desperation of a young actress as a serious subject for consideration. What can she offer to the devil in exchange for success? This movie got slept on when it was released in 2014, but it deserves credit for offering accessible social commentary while actually remaining quite frightening.
Audition is a classic of Japanese horror cinema, widely interpreted as a poignant and poisonous critique of Japanese femininity and the unfair expectations put on Japanese women. The movie is often derisively described as “torture porn” — and while there is a fair bit of extremely cold-blooded violence, ignoring the social criticism implicit in the movie means you’re really missing the point. But besides the moral messaging, the movie is absolutely terrifying, even in moments astonishingly beautiful.
Train to Busan might at first seem like a fairly exciting — if not a bit typical — zombie film. More astute audiences will be able to read between the lines to see a story about wealth inequality, but even if you can’t detect the latent social criticism, the action scenes are enough to keep less academic viewers entertained and engaged.
Anna Biller’s campy retro melodrama The Love Witch might repulse your typical slasher fan with its sophisticated and slow-paced take on feminist themes. But if you’re down for more cerebral, arthouse horror — or interested in eye-popping object styling and costuming — The Love Witch is likely to be a new favorite. Biller’s eye for retro aesthetics is impeccable and the movie’s ’70s-inspired mise-en-scene is so dutifully recreated that it barely feels like a film from 2016.
As time progresses, horror movies have had to become more extreme to keep up with an increasingly desensitized fanbase. With that in mind, it’s surprising how truly revolting Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains to this day. Yes, it’s true, there’s a sophisticated criticism made in the film about the increasing ruin of the rural world brought about by urban sprawl — but most will have trouble seeing those themes beyond all the bloodshed in this gory and grotesque nightmare. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the few classics of the genre that remains as sickening today as it was decades ago.
Takashi Miike has been dubbed a master of horror by critics and Ichi The Killer is often considered his bloodthirsty magnum opus. Based on the manga of the same name, Ichi tells the story of an eponymous psychotic gangster whose cruelty borders on the magically real. The violence of this movie is truly next-level — only the most intrepid viewers will ever need to see this film twice.
Panos Cosmatos stunned critics with his opaque sci-fi thriller Beyond the Black Rainbow in 2010. His follow-up film, Mandy, shared a lot of the same visual themes and motifs: lots of psychedelic scene-chewing and maximalist design. Whereas Black Rainbow was cold and humorless, Mandy is inherently campy thanks to a deeply unhinged performance from Nicholas Cage. But it’s not just funny, Mandy’s visuals are entirely unique and the movie’s more existential themes somehow don’t contrast with Cage’s silliness.
Technically an adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft short story (but bearing little aesthetic resemblance to the ominous prose of the writer that inspired the film) Re-Animator is a classic horror-comedy with gruesome special effects that remain impressive in 2020. It’s not the most sophisticated sci-fi ever made, but there’s a lot of charm to the movie’s classic 80s gross-out humor.
Considered the first zombie film ever made, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead has since its release become understood as an emphatic rebuke of American racism. Romero’s decision to cast a Black lead actor was almost unthinkable at the time and changed the entire context of the film. Less talked about is the movie’s gorgeous, expressionist cinematography and use of chiaroscuro. It’s a near-perfect movie and remains an important piece of American culture that exposes the more insidious nature of American identity.