The leaves are changing colors, the air is getting cooler, and fall is officially upon us. And with every fall, comes Halloween, the spooky spectacle replete with ghosts and goblins, pumpkins and parties, candy and costumes. And scary movies.

Jason Voorhees, "Friday the 13th"

For many of us, when we think of scary movies, we tend to focus on the boogeyman. From Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th to Michael Myers in Halloween to Freddie Kreuger and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Films with distinguishable fiends. Or sometimes, the focus is on the visual horror – blood and guts. Everything from Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses to Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

But I’m not a big fan of modern horror films. I don’t understand the torture porn genre or the need for a Saw XVII. Films whose sole purpose is the “gross out” factor, devoid of any redeeming quality. Films that recycle plot points, feature one dimensional characters, and exist only to satisfy the most inane sense of macabre. 

Yet, every so often, amidst these horrific horrors, a real scary film will surprise audiences with purposeful plots, quality storytelling, unexpected twists, tongue-in-cheek humor, and old fashioned suspense. Films like these don’t come around every full moon, but when they do, they’re totally worth the while.

So, in the spirit of Halloween, my picks this week include 10 scary movies from the last few years that offer a little more than a knife wielding serial killer stalking a class of college co-eds. Ghosts, zombies, vampires, and more. Grab the popcorn, turn out the lights, and enjoy some inspired and truly, frightening tales!

-Mark Sells, “The Reel Deal”

This Week’s Picks:

(10) The Mist – Best known for The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption, Frank Darabont has made a career out of adapting Stephen King’s work to screen. And The Mist is no different. When a small community comes under attack from creatures within a thick cloud, artist David Drayton and the town’s survivors must make a final stand against this invisible foe. Features great cinematography, political allegory, and one mind blowing ending.

(9) Cloverfield - Ever since The Blair Witch Project, I twinge with nausea at the thought of another hand held motion picture. However, in director Mike Reeves’ “monster takes Manhattan project,” the effect enhances the suspense. And effectively captures the realism of a group of twentysomethings fighting for their lives on the rooftops and streets of New York after a surprise going away party goes south when a gigantic lizard terrorizes the city.

(8) Trick ‘r Treat – A tribute to all things Halloween, this surprisingly deft anthology co-mingles four unique tales a la Creepshow. And does so with terrific continuity, stylistic imagery, editing, and one creepy kid. Starring Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, and Dylan Baker, the film was actually shelved by Warner Brothers for 2 years before releasing to DVD. And since that time, has become a bit of a cult classic. Just remember the four rules of Halloween and you’ll be okay. I think.

(7) Zombieland - Speaking of rules, you’ll want to check out all the zombie rules in Zombieland, telestrated by Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg). In a world overrun by zombies, these two have concocted a method for survival and embark on a suspenseful and hilarious journey that includes the search for the last Twinkie on earth. The Double Tap, Skillet, Ziplock, and Bowling Ball – all part of the fun. And don’t miss the scene stealing cameo!

(6) Drag Me to Hell – If you’re a fan of The Evil Dead series, you’re bound to love this morality tale by Sam Raimi (Spider-Man). When an ambitious, young loan officer turns down an old lady’s request for an extension, she finds herself the subject of an evil curse, which turns her life into a living hell. Featuring graphic, over-the-top imagery, the film never strays from slapstick. Cleverly toying with audiences throughout, Raimi turns terror and grotesque into crazy fun.

(5) Pontypool – This suspenseful little gem is one of the most original takes on the zombie genre ever. It depicts the story of a big city DJ who gets booted off the air and takes a morning show job in the small town of Pontypool. Shortly after, one uneventful day turns into something serious as shocking reports from around town describe horrendous acts of violence as locals begin to develop physical abnormalities and odd speech impediments. Could the radio station be the one to blame? Shot almost entirely within the confines of the radio station, this is one potboiler not to be missed.  

(4) The Orphanage – Produced by Guillermo del Toro, who directed The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, comes this haunting tale of love and loss. After a former orphan grows up, marries, and has a child, she returns to her seaside home to restore the orphanage where she experienced her fondest childhood memories. But those memories fade quickly close to opening day, when she discovers something sinister in hiding. A perfect example of how the most terrifying things come as the result of waiting and anticipation. 

(3) The Descent - Detailing the spelunking expedition of six young women gone awry, this claustrophobic, high adrenaline horror ride has a lot of bite. And it’s the kind of low-budget thriller that Blair Witch wishes it could have been. Writer-director Neil Marshall knows the genre well and introduces his cast and their relationships quickly and efficiently before tossing them into the great unknown. The rest is non-stop fear and suspense. Just make sure you catch the original, unrated version. Trust me.

(2) Shaun of the Dead – Hats off to Edgar Wright for creating one of the most hysterical horror films around. As London is slowly taken over by brain hungry zombies, underachieving electronics salesman Shaun is more concerned with getting back together with his girlfriend who just dumped him. Starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Bill Nighy, and many of the cast from the British version of “The Office,” the film has fun with priorities, expertly balancing wit and satire with zombie fears.

(1) Let the Right One In – Forget the infatuation and appeal of vampires a la Twilight. In Tomas Alfredson’s masterpiece, being a vampire is a burden, with tragic consequences. Here, a bullied 12-year old boy encounters a young, female vampire who unexpectedly becomes his friend and protector. Helping to set the right mood and tone, Hoyte van Hoytema gives a master class in cinematography, balancing feelings of bitter cold, desolation, and delicate beauty. Hollywood remade this Swedish gem a few months ago as Let Me In, starring Chloe Moretz and Richard Jenkins (see my interview with Richard here). But sometimes the original is so perfect, so visually stunning, it needs no embellishment.

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