Have you ever wondered just what it was that set HeadStuff’s film writers off on their dark obsessions with haunting and horror? Look no further! In the run-up to Halloween our film team have divulged on the films that first got them interested in the horror genre. Read below to find out their Halloween origin stories: what made them into the fragile husks of humanity they are today. Enjoy!
There’s a magical period of childhood – let’s say between 7-11, when you are no longer a malformed glob of humanity, but a sentient, rapidly evolving being, roaming the environs in your home. Ridley Scott’s masterful, endlessly rewatchable Alien, is also about a rapidly evolving being – though this fledgling creature is roaming the environs of the Nostromo. And if you were an 80s/90s kid, one of your great fonts of joy was the television. Saturday morning cartoons – and in this case, Saturday night movies were undisputed life highlights. (Irish readers will also recall the midweek movie.)
So, picture it, you are a child – the parents are away, and you have that hallowed gift: unfettered television access. And flicking the channels, you alight on Alien. For your young, still-forming mind, it’s a pretty wild trip: the primal simplicity of its haunted house format; the oddly comforting, lived-in sci-fi setting; and of course, the xenomorph, one of the most memorable, and terrifying, creatures ever to darken the glow of your TV screen.
From its immaculate cinematography to HR Giger’s disturbing and provocative imagery, Alien is an all-time classic of both sci-fi, and horror. And for a little 10-year-old, staying up after dark, seeing an alien explode out of John Hurt’s chest is a vision that will last long in the memory. Jesse Melia
The Babadook (2014)
I was a latecomer to horror. I’d read my weight in Goosebumps as a child as well as perfecting my Scooby-Doo impression on Saturday mornings but that was horror marketed at kids. I tried psyching myself up by reading the backs of DVD covers in my local HMV until I was 16 when a friend persuaded me to see The Cabin in the Woods. Even then that was a comedy albeit one full of jump scares and gore. My introduction to proper For Adults Only horror came when I was 20.
It was a cold October night when I saw Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook in 2014. I went into the cinema blind. I knew nothing of Kent’s film but for the poster. I had seen Nosferatu the year earlier as part of my course in college but despite that film’s timelessness it was hard to be scared of a monster I’d seen in Spongebob before I saw the film. Even so, I was unprepared for The Babadook. The film’s drab, dull colour scheme presented a world already off its axis. It was set in Australia for God’s sake.
Single mother Amelia’s (Essie Davis) grief-stricken depression is disturbed only by the screaming of her needy, disturbed son Sam (Noah Wiseman) which adds a discordant, grating edge to a life put on pause. This edge is
sharpened into something serrated and dangerous when Sam finds a pop-up book called Mister Babadook.
Even as an initiate into horror I knew where things were going from here. Amelia and Sam are stalked by a tall, pale man in an overcoat and tophat. He moves through shadows, skitters across ceilings and haunts the end of dark hallways all while growling his own name in a slow Basilisk hiss. I didn’t sleep properly for three weeks. I was nine years old reading my first Goosebumps book all over again but somehow this seemed even more real. What’s more it threw open a door that had been left ajar for most of my life.
Once I got my sleep schedule back on track I realised what was missing: horror and lots of it. Much like Amelia reading to Sam The Babadook had awoken something in me. I was no longer satisfied with dipping my toe into Stephen King’s work. I had to go deeper into the black, frigid waters and discover the rest of the iceberg. I’ve never looked back, literally. I haven’t seen The Babadook since that chilly autumn evening. Some people dismiss it because it started what we now know as “Elevated Horror”, others find Wiseman’s Sam annoying. Maybe they’re right or maybe they’re wrong. Perhaps I haven’t revisited The Babadook because of these or other, murkier reasons. Perhaps I’m just afraid of what else I’ll discover back there in the dark… Andrew Carroll
Black Sunday (1960)
The importance of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday in my development as a horror fan is inseparable from the conditions in which I first saw it. I had the rare privilege, in my nowhere hometown, to see it projected on the big screen at a “picture palace” built in 1922. Though I can no longer pinpoint the year, The State Theatre once held a day-long festival of horror films. Among the highlights were a midnight screening of Night of the Living Dead (shot down the road from where I grew up), one of the Hammer Draculas, and an opportunity to meet Tom Savini.
However, it was a pair of Bava films that instantiated the deepest mania. Black Sabbath introduced me to the lurid Technicolor images I still associate with Italian horror, but it was Black Sunday that forever altered my relationship with the genre. To that point most of my exposure had been to American slashers with various degrees of visual competence. Bava, however, imbued Black Sunday with his unparalleled feeling for Gothic atmosphere. The opening sequence is itself a masterclass in horror filmmaking. It is brooding and brutal. Exactly the kind of thing every young, impressionable horror fan should stumble into. Thomas Mozden
Dracula: Prince Of Darkness (1966)
Regarding my introduction to horror as a genre, classics like Alien and The Thing really cemented my love for horror, showcasing that horror was not just a throwaway genre and that it was well capable of providing groundbreaking cinema to the masses. But it really was Hammer Horror that set me on my macabre journey, specifically Terence Fisher’s Dracula: Prince Of Darkness and The Curse Of Frankenstein.
Many cite Dracula (1958) as Hammer Horror’s defining moment focused on the creature of the night but it was its sequel, Prince Of Darkness, that I found deeply infatuating. The iconic Christopher Lee (the greatest onscreen portrayal of Dracula) was once again the pivotal factor here with a famous refusal to speak any of the dialogue presented to him based on the script not being very good and it set the stage for (arguably) the creepiest portrayal of The Count to this day. Bar a couple of hisses here and there, Lee’s towering, silent portrayal is truly haunting at times and mesmerizing to behold.
Oozing with atmosphere and terrific performances, Dracula: Prince Of Darkness has become a cult classic and rightly so. It was one of the first Hammer Horror movies I discovered and has always remained my favourite to this day. Although it can’t compete with the over produced sound engineering of modern jump scares or the intriguing tricks of the trade used nowadays, Dracula: Prince Of Darkness is still a chilling affair that deserves your attention and will hopefully set you along the Hammer Horror path like it did for me. A true classic of the genre. John Hogan
The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957)
Where Dracula: Prince Of Darkness was a beloved sequel that proved Hammer were not just one hit wonders when it came to iconic cinema villains, Terence Fisher’s The Curse Of Frankenstein was the movie that distinguished Hammer Horror as a successful brand of Gothic horror cinema.
The Curse Of Frankenstein was Hammer’s first colour horror film and really was the movie that set the standard for what was to follow. Once again containing an iconic turn from Christopher Lee and with a charming but maniacal Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein, Fisher’s gothic horror was a huge hit. Considered by many as the first true gory horror movie, The Curse Of Frankenstein was much more than that. It was layered, well written, atmospheric, and extremely well-paced – everything you would want from a horror movie.
The Curse Of Frankenstein, much like Dracula: Prince Of Darkness, was a movie that gripped me completely and instant infatuation led to an immediate desire to seek out more of its kind. Hammer Horror was a huge part of my teen years due to its movies containing lower rating certificates (meaning I could watch them without harsh scrutiny) and it acted as a progressive gateway to darker places of cinematic history and for that I am eternally grateful. John Hogan
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
A lean, grimly satirical vision of a society in freefall, Night of the Living Dead was first released six months after Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder and the wave of civil unrest that followed. The film redefined the horror genre (there would be a long stream of riffs and sequels), and projected a garish iteration of the American nightmare, torn apart by apocalyptic fears and hungers.
It tracks a loose assemblage of middle Americans, who together take shelter in a rural farmhouse, where urgent radio dispatches describe a “crisis” engulfing the country – a mysterious “epidemic of mass murder”, spread by hordes of walking cadavers that resemble “ordinary-looking people in a kind of trance.” As the tension escalates, we learn that radiation from a faulty space-probe may have catalysed the carnivorous resuscitation of the corpses that now stalk the land: this is Cold War cinema at its most brilliant and unsettling.
Even today, the cataclysm of the penultimate sequence seems gruesome and ferocious, as the troupe of internal refugees turn on each other, or are over-run by the dead: a vision of hell that churns in the gut. When the posse of vigilantes strolls into the final act, restoring order, they are far from heroic saviours; rather, in their laconic mercilessness, they enact the arrogance of all the kill-gangs of America’s past and future: trigger-happy, self-certain, and casually, ineffably white. Ciarán O’Rourke
The Innocents (1961)
Long before The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020), Netflix’s turgid and exposition-heavy take on The Turn of the Screw, Jack Clayton directed this masterful adaptation of the same novella: depending on your interpretation, either a tightly wound investigation of spectral disturbances, or a level-eyed study in unravelling paranoia and sexual repression.
Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens, hitherto a socially sequestered woman now set to take on work as a governess to two orphaned children, whose aloof uncle (Michael Redgrave) seems content to devolve all responsibility for their care to this kindly but inexperienced newcomer. As time passes, and Miss Giddens settles into her life and duties at the
cavernous and eerie Bly manor, the behaviour of the two children grows more troubled, while whispers abound as to the fate of their previous governess, Miss Jessel, whose death comes to shadow the thoughts (and nightmares) of her successor.
Kerr brilliantly captures Miss Giddens’s lonely, obsessive, fright-eyed need to understand her young wards, and indeed to be understood, herself, in the isolating circumstances that constrain her. Throughout, with striking deep focus cinematography and sharply controlled editing, Clayton creates an atmosphere of window-rattling dread, which allow
for coolly fascinated observation on his part, while also luring the audience into those fears and visions that drive Miss Giddens to the edge of sanity. A terrific film. Ciarán O’Rourke
Granted, Pinocchio isn’t the scariest film ever made – hell, thanks to Robert Zemeckis’ diabolical 2022 adaptation, it isn’t even the scariest Pinocchio film ever made. However, the original film strikes a perfect balance between the magical and macabre.
Sure, we’re heartbroken when Bambi’s mom dies, shocked when Scar gives Mufasa the old heave-ho, but is there a Disney image more startling than Lampwick transforming into a Donkey? The slow build; hands into hooves; the use of shadow; and, of course, the cries of “Mama!” slowly losing out to snorts and squeals. It’s a painful and drawn-out transformation, and no doubt an influence on John Landis’ horror masterpiece, American Werewolf in London (1981), featuring an equally harrowing metamorphosis.
To quote film critic Nathan Rabin, “Not gonna lie: some pretty fucked up shit happens in this movie.” From donkey-boy slaves to ginormous whales, it’s easy to forget how truly frightening Pinocchio was on first viewing – horrifying images somehow lost in the fog of childhood. For me, it was a gateway into Horror cinema, a gorgeous animation that embraces the light and dark in equal measure. “It is a nihilistic perception of a child’s world,” says Collider’s Adam Donald, “and how easy it is for ill-intentioned individuals to shamelessly rip away a child’s purity.” Attention now turns to Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (November 25th), and as if things couldn’t get darker, his adaptation is set during the rise of fascism in Mussolini’s Italy – so you can expect your nightmares to be populated with goose stepping donkeys from here on out. Brian Quinn
A beloved lost relic of the pre-streaming era, the video shop was a special place for a lot of 90s kids. A Friday night, after-school trip with a friend or parent is a resonant time capsule. And as you’d thumb the DVDs – or videos if you’re REALLY old – a distinctive cover would always strike a chord.
And is there a more distinctive cover than Hideo Nakata’s Ringu? The horrific, pinned-back, staring eye was nightmare fuel enough, but the film itself is a masterpiece. The simple virality of the premise – you watch the video, you die in seven days – lent itself to the word-of-mouth appeal of the film. And standing in the video shop, with that terrifying cover in your hand, it felt that you had a copy of the cursed item in your possession.
And the film matched the disturbing lore that preceded it. It deploys its scares with a masterful slow drip of dread. No big jumps, no big reveals. The fear comes from a half glanced reflection, a brief snippet of imagery that burrows under your skin long after the film is over. And the film’s antagonist, Sadako, is one of the most influential characters in
horror history. The long black hair, the white dress, and the shambling gait are a J-Horror shorthand and indelibly written into the horror movie canon. Jesse Melia
The Strangers (2008)
I have a theory that people are either scared by paranormal horror or realist horror, and never the twain shall meet. Okay. that’s definitely an oversimplification: but what I can say is that it’s the fear of what is more possible, more likely to happen, that paralyses me, rather than ghosts or devils or anything beyond our plane of existence. That’s why the narrative of two people, going about their regular lives, unknowingly surrounded by malevolent individuals with no motive other than to torture for fun terrifies me so. I hope it won’t happen, maybe it’s unlikely to happen. But… it still could.
That’s why The Strangers was so formative to my experience of horror. As I watched it through my fingers (while also covering my ears and trying to imagine I was somewhere else), everything just seemed too impossibly real. Liv Tyler standing in an open-plan living room, unaware of the figure behind her stopping to stare silently. The protagonists clawing their way through the mud of their rural surroundings, the isolated cottage that should have been their refuge turned into a prison in the night. Glenn Howerton succumbing to the fate he so often does in his cinematic turns.
Returning to it over twelve years’ later, I’ll admit that it’s all-too-real nature has faded somewhat. There’s moments that are clearly there to spook the audience, rather than the protagonists, and certain aspects that will take you out of the film’s immersion (seriously, just stop dying, Glenn!). But then again, it’s hard to ignore that sense of paralysis that’s haunted you for over a decade. And maybe, just maybe, knowing that the strangers are there, planting little visual and audio traps for me, the audience, doesn’t help shake my fears either. Sarah Cullen