We have no shortage of horror movie lists for you to peruse here at Paste, from our overall ranking of the 100 greatest horror films of all time, to genre-specific lists charting the best films about vampires and zombies,ghosts,
slashers,werewolves and more. So yeah—it’s not like you’re hurting for suggestions about what you should be watching. But what about more situational “what should I watch?” questions?
Here, let’s quickly focus on one scenario in particular: The annual Halloween party. So you’re hosting a Halloween shindig, and you want to have something appropriately spooky on in the background. You may want it to be something on the more familiar side, given that your guests are unlikely to be directing a large amount of attention in the film’s direction. For the same reason, it helps if the film is accessible, but still projects an unmistakably “Halloween” vibe. And of course, you may want to modify your selections based on the audience: Is this an adults only party? Are there going to be kids running around who shouldn’t be exposed to intense sequences of violence of sexuality? How cool are your friends with gratuitous blood and boobs?
In order to provide something for everyone, we’ve assembled the following short list of the perfect horror flicks to throw on at your Halloween party, for a variety of different audiences.
1. The Monster Squad (1987)
Director: Fred Dekker
Appropriate audience: An all-ages Halloween party
Given the ever-present surge of 1990s nostalgia, you’re not going to go wrong throwing on something like Disney’s Hocus Pocus at a Halloween party, but we recommend you ditch that more predictable choice and instead hit up The Monster Squad instead. This is a family friendly cult classic that pits a group of pre-teen outcasts—the titular Monster Squad—against a threat to the fabric of our world, masterminded by the classic Universal monsters: Dracula, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy and The Creature From the Black Lagoon. It’s a brisk, charming film with a premise that is immediately easy to grasp for anyone watching, and it beautifully updates the old monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s while bringing them into the glorious kitsch of the late 1980s. Anyone who loves something like The Goonies is going to fall in love quickly with The Monster Squad, and for younger viewers it’s a new seasonal favorite that is likely still waiting to be rediscovered.
2. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Director: Henry Selick
Appropriate audience: An all-ages Halloween party
You know it, you love it, it’s The Nightmare Before Christmas—one of the few films that is equally appropriate for either the October or December holiday party season, although we’ve always felt it’s ultimately more of a Halloween vibe than a Christmas one. This is a no-brainer for an all-ages Halloween party, as it’s not too frightening or objectionable for younger viewers, and most adults of a certain age have fond memories of Henry Selick’s seminal stop-motion film as well. It’s also a prime sing-along candidate, as tunes like “This is Halloween” and “What’s This?” beg for accompaniment. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a beloved classic that continues to age like fine wine.
3. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Director: George Romero
Appropriate audience: Old-school atmosphere
Night of the Living Dead is one of those films that everyone has heard of, but relatively few people under 40 have likely ever taken the time to watch. It’s the kind of thing that people will likely appreciate taking a glimpse at, but it also functions as background noise when you want a film that projects a spooky vibe but isn’t going to distract from conversation in a party. It helps that even those who have never seen NOTLD probably have a vague understanding of the story—zombies have showed up, and some people are trapped in a farmhouse—so the plot can be sussed out at a glance, even with the sound off. The slow, shambling zombies of Romero’s deeply influential horror classic will give your Halloween party a simple, effortlessly cool vibe. This is a good choice to throw on when nobody is really paying close attention to what’s on the TV.
4. Scream (1996)
Director: Wes Craven
Appropriate audience: Gen X partiers and film fans
Halloween party guests who were teens or young adults in the mid-1990s (the “MTV Generation”), when Wes Craven’s Scream came along, likely have fond memories of both the golden era slashers that came before in the 1980s, and an appreciation of how Scream paid deference to those movies and simultaneously revived the genre for a new generation. Scream is another one of those films that may be known more by reputation today than by its actual content—people have an idea of what the Ghostface killer is all about, and they probably recognize Sidney Prescott as a famous final girl. And that’s perfect—that’s all you need for a film to have on during a Halloween party. This one is easy to enjoy in bits and pieces while getting the gist of the whole, and it has no shortage of iconic sequences.
5. Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
Director: Michael Dougherty
Appropriate audience: Maximum Halloweeny-ness
When nothing else but a total saturation in the Halloween spirit will do, Trick ‘r Treat is your film. We’ve already written about this movie at length, describing it as the ultimate Halloween night film, but it bears repeating here—while other horror films may contain some elements of the Halloween season, none of them are as dedicated to the holiday itself as Trick ‘r Treat. Essentially a loose anthology of interconnected stories all playing out at the same time, Trick ‘r Treat celebrates a single small town’s Halloween festivities through the eyes of a ghoulish collection of characters, from a serial killer school principal, to a coven of werewolves or a group of drowned children who return for revenge. Overseeing every event is the delightful little “Sam,” the pumpkin-headed incarnation of the holiday itself, who punishes infractions to the sacred laws of Halloween. It truly is a delight for those who anticipate the approach of Oct. 31 every year, and it’s another no brainer for any Halloween party.
6. Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)
Director: Tom McLoughlin
Appropriate audience: Schlocky slasher lovers
You could easily throw on most of the middle Friday the 13th sequels at a party like this—say, entries 2 to 7—and have a good time, but if you can pick only one it might as well be the finest hour of Jason Voorhees, Jason Lives. This is the first time in the series that the hockey mask-wearing Jason is well and truly resurrected from the dead, returning as a full-on undead madman equipped with super strength and unbreakable durability, and they make the most of the opportunity to let him run amok. The body count in this entry is utterly outrageous, and the kills are well paced—it seems like very few minutes, someone else is dying in a crazy way, like having their head twisted completely backward or being folded up by Jason like a piece of patio furniture. This is a deliriously fun entry for Halloween parties on the rowdier side, where your guests’ demand for blood must be satiated.
7. Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)
Director: Benjamin Christensen
Appropriate audience: Sarcastic film snob weirdos (like us)
This 1922 silent film documentary is one of the stranger and more unnerving movies that even your film snob Halloween party guests likely haven’t seen. It purports to be a history of witch-hunting and a condemnation of the “backward,” religiously motivated attitudes of an earlier era, even as it also sought to titillate and thrill its audience in 1922 with gruesome depictions of events such as the Witches’ Sabbath. The imagery veers wildly between comical and genuinely disturbing, particularly in the way the film famously presents the devil as a puffy cheeked, deranged-looking imp with a long tongue lolling from his mouth. This is a film that will throw your preconceptions about silent film of this era to the wind, both in terms of its highly “modern,” cynical depiction of witchcraft, and its surprisingly intense depictions of violence and sexuality. If your friends are a bunch of film geeks, it’s likely to blow their minds.
8. Evil Dead 2 (1987)
Director: Sam Raimi
Appropriate audience: If comic ultraviolence is acceptable
The original Evil Dead would also be a fine choice, but the sequel seems more like perfect Halloween party material—less brutal and serious, and with more of a slapstick and gore-driven sense of humor for balance. Bruce Campbell turns in a comic performance for the ages, more or less as a one-man show for the first half of the film as he battles against the unnamed evil that threatens to swallow his soul if he can’t survive the night. It’s one of the most memorable physical performances of all time, as the guy is completely willing to play the buffoon and sacrifice his body in each and every take, while drowning in copious amounts of fake blood. This is obviously a selection for a party that will find over-the-top bloodletting amusing, rather than disturbing, but it helps that you’re meant to be laughing along with Evil Dead 2 rather than being truly disgusted.
9. Night of the Demons (1988)
Director: Kevin S. Tenney
Appropriate audience: If occasionally bared breasts are acceptable
Thematically, there are few films more appropriate for a Halloween party than Night of the Demons—this movie is literally ABOUT a Halloween party where things go terribly wrong. Believe it or not, demons are involved. A classic of the “a bunch of kids go somewhere they shouldn’t and all end up dead” variety, this one sees a gang of teens breaking into an old haunted mansion to have a sexy Halloween party, before stirring up the evil you know is just waiting for a chance to run amok. The tone is crude and bawdy, and there’s no shortage of voyeuristic shots of the female cast, but its loving pastiche of teen archetypes from the era can’t help but make you laugh. The effects, meanwhile, are classic ‘80s monster makeup all the way, and you can’t help but end up rooting for the demons as they gleefully embark on a campaign of carnage.
10. The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Director: Dan O’Bannon
Appropriate audience: If LOTS of bared breasts are acceptable
One of the greatest zombie films of all time, from the year that undoubtedly was the greatest year in zombie history, The Return of the Living Dead is a perennial classic that begs to be a late night selection for your Halloween party—likely after everyone has had a few drinks. This film was deeply influential on the genre in the ‘80s, for the first time establishing the idea that zombies specifically craved human brains, but it’s also just a blast in terms of its silly characters and outstanding practical effects. Even more so than in Night of the Demons, the camp value of the 1980s pop culture references and fashion is at its zenith here, but the campiness of these aspects is balanced by genuinely hilarious comedy and effects that are still appreciably gross all these years later. It’s even set to one of the most gloriously hard-rocking soundtracks of the era … and yes, there’s nudity. Lots of nudity. Don’t say you weren’t warned, but this is one of the most wildly entertaining films you can put on at any Halloween party.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.