From a 70s folk horror masterpiece to a classic case of a paranormal haunting, today’s picks are both must-watches
October is here once again, which means all things spooky, creepy, and outright horrifying are currently making their way into the homes of millions of people – through their screens, of course. All Halloween aficionados know that this is the month where we attempt to watch as many horror movies as we can, marathoning as much blood and guts as anyone might be able to stand (or delight in). It may as well be a sacred tradition.
In that spirit, Knotfest has called on our very own Ryan J. Downey as well as resident film critic Nicolás Delgadillo to put together two individual lists of vital Halloween horror picks for every day of the month. The wide variety of macabre favorites range from classics to more obscure cult films and feature zombies, demons, serial killers, vampires, and monsters of all kinds from all different eras.
Today’s picks are decades apart but equally as essential. Both are masterful works of nerve-wracking tension that build their respective atmospheres of dread so effectively that they’ve become favorites among horror fans of all kinds.
‘The Wicker Man’ (1973), directed by Robin Hardy
“Not the bees!” No, really, not the bees. The Wicker Man remake released in 2006 is responsible for the hilariously excellent “Not the bees!” memes featuring Nicolas Cage. While the remake is undoubtedly fun on its own, the original 1973 “folk horror” film is decidedly cooler and indeed more sinister.
Based on a 1967 novel called Ritual by author David Pinner, the remote island setting of The Wicker Man creates high tension and suspense for our hero, Police Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward). Howie is dispatched to the island searching for a missing girl, someone the inhabitants of the isle insist was never there. The secluded Summerisle population is a matriarchal society devoted to pagan Celtic gods of old. The women there are welcoming and pleasant, if secretive, on the surface. But all is not what it seems, leading up to one of the best twists in British horror history.
The Wicker Man moves slowly in a few spots as it builds to reveal its mystery, but mostly, its tension is quite effective.
Sir Christopher Lee developed the movie with Robin Hardy, who made his directorial debut. Lee plays Lord Summerisle. He was, of course, already well-known for his countless villainous turns in multiple Hammer horror films — Frankenstein’s monster, the mummy, and most famously, Count Dracula. (Later in life, he played Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies and Count Dooku/Darth Tyrannus in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.)
Lee reunited with his The Wicker Man costar Britt Ekland in the following year’s James Bond franchise entry, The Man with the Golden Gun. Bond aficionados know Eklund as Mary Goodnight, and her reputation as a blonde bombshell and horror icon persists to this day, thanks in large part to Get Carter (1971) and The Wicker Man. Unfortunately, producers saw fit to dub her lines in The Wicker Man due to her Swedish accent. But she’s nonetheless magnetic as one of the cunning island villagers.
The cast also includes Ingrid Pitt, another Hammer Films cult icon. Both Lee and Pitt have heavy metal connections, too. In 1998, Pitt reprised her role as Countess Bathory for Cradle Of Filth’s classic concept album, Cruelty and the Beast (one of my favorite albums of all time). Lee released a series of heavy metal albums in his nineties, including Metal Knight, A Heavy Metal Christmas, and A Heavy Metal Christmas Too. In 2013, Studio Canal released The Wicker Man: The Final Cut in celebration of the movie’s 40th anniversary. Approved by Hardy, The Final Cut is a beautiful restoration of a cult horror near-masterpiece.
‘The Conjuring’ (2013) Directed by James Wan
This is another one of those franchises where the first has never really been topped. James Wan, who directed Saw, Dead Silence, and Insidious, would solidify his mark on horror with 2013’s The Conjuring before moving on to action blockbusters like Furious 7 and Aquaman.
What makes The Conjuring so brilliant is way Wan took the classic haunted house approach and made it feel new again, unleashing a variety of clever film techniques to terrify audiences so effectively that it earned the movie an R-rating despite its lack of violence, language or sexual content. It’s is one of those scary movies that genuinely feels like its possessed by some kind of sinister energy – that’s just how effective it is at scaring you.
The film is based on the reports and cases of hauntings investigated by the infamous paranormal investigator couple Ed and Lorraine Warren. This particular case occurred on Rhode Island, where an innocent and loving family experienced horrific supernatural things in their house. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson play the Warrens, and its their flawless performances of the real-life couple that show their love for each other and their need to help people who have no one else to turn to. It’s the heart that carries the movie even as things become increasingly terrifying.
It’s one of, if not the best film in Wan’s eclectic career so far (although this year’s Malignant is making me consider a new favorite) and shows how he’d become a true master of the craft by that point. It’s a modern horror must-see.
Knotfest 2021 Halloween Horror Coverage: