Movies set at or around Halloween offer a distinct shivery pleasure—Jack O’ Lanterns, crisp leaves, the dread of premature sundown—so watching this super-dark, ghoulishly comic anthology on October 31 itself is real horror heaven. Trick ‘R Treat weaves together four stories from a seemingly-normal small town on Halloween night, but one in which everyday events and stock figures—the grumpy school bus driver, the virginal good girl—can suddenly turn nightmarish . Oh, and there’s a child-sized apparition with a pumpkin-shaped sack over its head, mutely ducking in and out of the narrative like a malevolent sprite and leaving carnage in its wake. Things breeze along with with such audacious self-awareness and wit that you’re swept along when heads start flying and proceedings get plain nasty. Plus: Brian Cox!
Newbie scare alert: Even hardened horror fans will be staggered by how willing this movie is to kill off multiple children. Plus the cold open’s Scream-like pay-off is pretty yucky.
Army of Darkness, a.k.a. Evil Dead III (1992)
The very definition of a funhouse ride. No knowledge of the first two Evil Dead movies is required to plow straight into this preposterously entertaining romp: all you need to know is that Bruce Campbell’s time traveler Ash has been transported back to a quasi-medieval land threatened by janky demons, and he is not happy about it. The super-goofy humor and sight gags will appeal to comedy fans and older kids, while the film nerds can get insufferably excited over the “army of skeletons” homage to FX legend Ray Harryhausen. A warning: do NOT get it wrong and accidentally cue up The Evil Dead instead. Unlike its two sequels, this one is a genuinely grim horror movie, and you don't want to be the guy/gal who killed Halloween with heel-slicing and tree assault.
Newbie scare alert: The jump scares of the opening set piece—where our hero Ash is tossed down a well to fight it out with the demon hiding within—are still pretty hard-going.
The Nightmare Before Xmas (1993)
I’ve had several almost-physical fights over whether this one is a holiday movie or a Halloween movie—and I’m calling it as the latter, so there. (What sicko watches a horror movie at Christmas?) This movie terrified me in the theater as a kid, and while I’m ready to concede it’s not anywhere near as scary as my nine-year-old self perceived it, don’t be fooled by the animation and the earworm songs: it’s still genuinely creepy as only Tim Burton’s early work can be. I strongly recommend pairing it with Burton’s ghoulish animated short Vincent, which was shown in theaters as a pre-feature treat before Nightmare. Narrated by horror icon Vincent Price, it might be the funniest/bleakest 10 minutes you’ll spend on YouTube this year.
Newbie scare alert: The Oogie Boogie Man, with his burlap-sack body oozing maggots at the seams, is a truly disgusting villain, and way too sadistic to be in what’s meant to be a kid’s film. Which is to say: he’s amazing.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
This movie is what you get when very funny horror fanatics make a horror flick: a loving, hilarious homage to the cinematic classics that’s also delightfully scary in parts. The Brit trio of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright may be bona fide Hollywood players now, but this movie remains the best thing they’ll ever do: the tale of a London loser trying to keep himself and his friends alive during the zombie apocalypse, mainly by hiding in their local pub. While zombies have—quite literally—been done to death onscreen in the ensuing years, Shaun of the Dead somehow still feels fresh and really funny.
Newbie scare alert: A wink to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead it might be, but the intestinal fate met by a key character at the film’s climax is plain horrible.
This underrated B-movie gem definitely falls on the side of “comedy with gross bits,” but is no less enjoyable for it. The draw here, for adults at least, is a cast which has no business being as good as it is: geek favorite Nathan Fillion as the beleaguered sherriff investigating an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-meets-The Blob crisis in his sleepy hometown, while Elizabeth Banks and horror royalty Michael Rooker give 100% in the background, and generally treat the whole shebang with more respect than it probably deserves. It’s the perfect combination of sweet, ridiculous and disgusting, propelled along with a nice sense of pacing and its own absurdity.
Newbie scare alert: Weirdly, the family whose home suddenly comes under siege from killer slugs from outer space evokes a strange sense of authentic home invasion peril. (You won’t be laughing when it happens to you, okay?)
Another slice of early Tim Burton genius, but that’s because he was, for a time, the undisputed king of the creepy fantasy-comedy. With a genuinely unhinged performance from Michael Keaton as the decomposing “bio-exorcist” of the title, there’s very little not to love about Beetlejuice, whether it’s a young Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin as very earnest, very dead newlyweds trying to navigate their new afterlife, an even younger Winona Ryder as the depressed daughter of the hideous yuppies that move into the couple’s house or Burton’s vision of the underworld as an inferno of bureaucracy. It’s supremely silly, very funny and still spooky after all these years.