Oscar season approaches, but for now, it’s scare season, and the Criterion Collection has plenty of gems for your consideration (and palpitation). If all the films in Criterion Collection were available online, one could pick a thriller, ghost story or psychological drama for each of October’s 31 days. From the abridged collection available on Hulu, here are 13 titles apt for the season, along with suggested occasions for viewing.
Häxan (1922), Benjamin Christensen
The silent-era gem Häxan is a nonfiction procedural in four acts, illustrating Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen‘s thesis about witches throughout history. He makes a psychological, social and political case for how women were identified and persecuted as witches by authorities. In a particularly debauched scene toward the end, he shows a whole convent go mad and desecrate the Eucharist, then follows up with a rational, superstition-free explanation for such events. The theories and commentary are familiar (and also a little dated), but the vignettes Christensen creates remain visually interesting to this day.
Best occasion for viewing: For those who love classic and silent films, this one should probably top the list as it is one of the most well rendered. It’s also great to have playing on a big screen during a party. The visuals will complement the vibe without becoming too distracting or demanding constant attention.
Vampyr (1932), Carl Th. Dreyer
The most famous silent era vampire film is undoubtedly Nosferatu (1922), and with good reason. The character design was iconic and genuinely creepy. There’s a lot less of that happening in Dreyer’s Vampyr. The plot is looser and the scenes meander a good deal more, making it more surreal. It’s more dreamy than nightmarish. Dreyer’s more famous later work Day of Wrath (1943) is straight drama, but it’s ten times more anxiety-inducing.
Best occasion for viewing: Watching Vampyr and expecting a scare is a recipe for disappointment. That would be like ordering 5-star spiciness at a taqueria and getting sour cream instead of hot sauce. Vampyr is absolutely not scary, so it’s perfect for date nights when you want to be able to watch something while cuddling and having other conversation. (Or, again, play it for a crowd during a party.)
The Phantom Carriage (1921), Victor Sjöström
The final silent film on this list (and also the oldest) is Victor Sjöström‘s colorful The Phantom Carriage. The plot is based on a folk legend that says that the last person to die on New Year’s Eve becomes the driver of death’s carriage for the following year. This makes it the more plot heavy of the silent trio on this list. It is a seminal work in Swedish cinema that all film buffs should see, if only because it had a profound influence on Ingmar Bergman.
Best Occasion for Viewing: Like the other silent films, you could play this one at a party, and guests will admire its ghostly, double-exposed tableaux. However, it does deserve an attentive audience. And because the main protagonist is a drunk who promises to reform by the end, it can appeal to heavy-drinkers and teetotalers alike. Cheers!
Cries and Whispers (1972), Ingmar Bergman
Ingmar Bergman is known for his taut psychological portraits, and there is a tinge of horror in his films, whether physical or supernatural. The most famous examples in that vein would be The Seventh Seal, Hour of the Wolf and Through a Glass Darkly. Seal and Glass are also both available in the Criterion Collection on Hulu.
It’s tough to say, but I think my favorite among all of these is still Cries and Whispers. The film is just so striking at every moment. It hums between lushness and austerity, vitality and agony in extremis, compassion and cruelty. There is death, mutilation and unwelcome resurrection, but nothing grotesque. It’s all believable and humane, even when it pitches toward the uncanny valley.
Best Occasion for Viewing: Any time you want to see a spellbinding film, Cries and Whispers is a good pick. I can’t recommend it to people dealing with terminal illness unless they are especially stoic. Harriet Andersson plays the dying Agnes with vivid accuracy. You stand on the precipice with her, and the view is not pretty.
Bonus: Check out the Criterion Collection’s official site to see Bergman’s original trailer for Cries and Whispers. It deserves its own place in the Criterion Collection for being a masterful bait-and-switch. Nothing Bergman says in his voice-over is inaccurate. However, the movie he suggests is a pleasant, period melodrama, not the fraught psychological study you actually get.
House (1977), Nobuhiko Obayashi
This is a slightly more affected film that includes elements of family drama and isolation. (It is no less memorable, though.) Everything about House is goofy—even when the hapless victims are dismembered and eaten by the eponymous house. You almost don’t expect this turn of events, given how frivolous it all appears at the start. Nobuhiko Obayashi intentionally gave the film a naive look, but the failings of the music and transitions cannot be attributed to this. (Obayashi is still a good director, though. See Emotion, also available on Criterion Collection.) House is not great film-making, but it remains a cult favorite for its bizarre mix of post-war anxieties, ghost stories, pop cultural stereotypes, low-tech special effects and a dash of kung-fu.
Best Occasion for Viewing: House is a perfect stoner flick. The effects may not be convincing, but they are trippy. Get too altered, and it might actually become genuinely unsettling, too.
Onibaba (1964), Kaneto Shindo
The feudal world that Kaneto Shindo creates in Onibaba is desperate, brutal, petty and so very human. He constructs it with a small cast and just a few sets in a vast marshland. The camera lingers on the tall grasses, swaying and hissing day and night. Those blades aren’t the only ones in the marsh, though. On the fringe of constant war, murder has become a way of life for a pair of women there. Selling the blades of fallen samurai is a dirty, meager business, but it sustains them. When a third figure enters the picture, jealousy and deception follow, building to an abrupt, vicious end. As the film comes to a frenetic close, we do not doubt the woman screaming “I am a human being.” We know she is. And under the circumstances, that is precisely the problem.
Best Occasion for Viewing: Onibaba actually ratchets up the dread from start to finish. Watch it if you want a slow burn and don’t mind an ambiguous ending. Unlike the two other Japanese films on this list, it doesn’t require knowledge of Japanese history or lore to fully appreciate. (Yea, it would add context, but perhaps the lack thereof would increase its eerie oddity.)
Kwaidan (1965), Masaki Kobayashi
Made just a year after Onibaba, Kwaidan could not be more visually different. Shindo’s film is austere, almost penurious, and shot in stark black and white. Masaki Kobayashi uses extravagant sets, costuming and choreography to tell four ghost stories. The third (Hoichi Miminashi) is the most dramatic and suspenseful, but never too gruesome. The stories are from medieval Japan and were recorded in a book by Lafcadio Hearn in the 19th century. However, the filmmaking (the colors, the sets, the pacing) is all clearly of the 60s. The movie is less scary because it embraces its artifice, but it makes for a visual feast.
Best Occasion for Viewing: Kwaidan is still eerie, including its short, meta finale. Watch it when you want something beautiful and haunting.
La Main du Diable (1943), Maurice Tourneur
La Main du Diable (also known as Carnival of Sinners) was shot like a noir film, even though it’s a supernatural tale. It’s a ghost story with a satisfying arc, involving a virtuoso’s cursed, severed hand. Maurice Tourneur knows how to craft a shot, and there are many visually striking moments. (The central character is a painter, and his art is far less interesting than the scenes that frame it, actually.) It’s a film that I might have missed had it not been included in the Criterion Collection, and I’m glad that I haven’t.
Best Occasion for Viewing: Trying to dissuade yourself or others from doing something underhanded to get ahead? This is a nice, creepy morality tale on the subject.
Eyes Without a Face (1960), Georges Franju
The carnivalesque opening music of Eyes Without a Face suggests this film will be a lot campier than it is. Don’t be fooled. It has a genuinely gruesome premise and is told rather poetically. Eyes Without a Face inspired later horror directors and provided more than just the framework for Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In. Georges Franju had to make cuts and adjustments to meet censorship standards before the release of his film, and it may actually be stronger for it. By leaving the gorier bits to imagination and spending time on personal dynamics and setting, the creep factor remains strong today.
Best Occasion for Viewing: A Halloween-themed Botox party…or any night you want something creepy but not overwrought.
Diabolique (1955), Henri-Georges Clouzot
Sometimes the dead just don’t stay dead. Sometimes there is a perfectly rational explanation for it…but even then, it is quite sinister. Diabolique still holds up as a suspenseful, psychotic revenge tale over fifty years later. Henri-Georges Clouzot directed many mysteries in his career, and this is his finest.
Best Occasion for Viewing: A good movie for audiences who are skeptical about the supernatural and who know humans are capable of causing havoc without monsters.
M (1931), Fritz Lang
There has been a revival of interest in Fritz Lang‘s masterpiece Metropolis in recent years. Lang himself, however, considered M to be his greatest achievement. A serial killer preying on children is taboo enough, but the complicated view the film takes of criminality and psychopathy was indeed ahead of its time. It can’t resist breaking the fourth wall at the end and become a sort of extended PSA (an effect typical of its age). Up until that point, Lang presents many convincing characters, both monstrous and sympathetic.
Best Occasion for Viewing: This is film noir, not black magic. Save it for a crowd that likes serial killer thrillers but doesn’t care for slashers and gore.
Clean, Shaven (1994), Lodge Kerrigan
Lodge Kerrigan takes viewers for a disturbing ride in Clean, Shaven. One gets a tiny glimpse inside the reality of a schizophrenic, and one’s own reality and expectations get quite skewed in the process. It’s a relatively short film, which is a mercy in this case. Too much longer in the fractured reality of the main character (excellently acted by Peter Greene) would be too exhausting for most viewers. Its portrayal of obsessive and violent law enforcement remains rather timely, too.
Best Occasion for Viewing: This is one is good any time you want to feel a little altered. (I wouldn’t recommend watching it while altered on other substances, though.)
Eraserhead (1977), David Lynch
Eraserhead didn’t have mainstream success, but it established David Lynch among art circles and fellow directors. Today, many people know of it, but I meet many who haven’t seen it. It’s something of a body horror film, but most Lynch films at least have a horror element. Horror is more of a strategy for Lynch, not the genre. Eraserhead is just so bizarre, most of the time you can’t track what’s going on enough to feel afraid. You just know that something is terribly wrong, even when a girl with flaky, globular growths on her face sings “In heaven, everything is fine.” Good to know, but we’re clearly not there. The grotesquerie is pervasive, distorting everything from sex and birth to food and industrialization.
Best Occasion for Viewing: Everyone should see Eraserhead (at least) once. It’s a reminder of the potential of cinema to tell stories that just cannot be told in any other medium. At this point, certain aspects are so iconic, knowing them is part of cultural literacy. It’s also the most genuinely horrifying film on the list, though still far from a gore-factory. Some may say that showing Eraserhead to people who are expecting a child is in bad taste. As for me, I think it’s a perfect way to adjust them for what’s to come. Pop some popcorn and some pre-natal vitamins and kick back.