This Halloween, the movie is coming from ... inside the house! Yes, cinemas are back open across Canada – and some at full capacity, too – but the reality is that a good portion of audiences this month will choose to be scared at home rather than in the company of others.
Yet with so many horror films available at the touch of a button, choosing your favourite psycho-killer adventure is a real nightmare. Does Jason Voorhees slay harder in the second Friday the 13th or the ninth? Is the first iteration of Michael Myers more terrifying than the rebooted one? Or the reboot to the reboot to the reboot? These are the bloody-minded questions of our times.
To optimize your spooky-season streaming, here are the best entries for each of horror cinema’s 10 biggest franchises, and where you can stream them right now. (For the sake of my sanity and yours, I’m not including series where the first film is far and away the best. Sorry, fans of the extended Psycho / Exorcist / Texas Chainsaw Massacre / Jaws / Paranormal Activity / Hellraiser / Amityville Horror / Saw / Poltergeist universes.)
12 films, including sequels, reboots and spinoffs
Best Film: The obvious answer is to go with John Carpenter’s 1978 sensation about a boy and a babysitter, whose low-fi creepiness birthed a thousand lesser psychopaths (I’m talking both fictional killers and their bloodthirsty producers). The contrarian take is to say that David Gordon Green’s 2018 film, also and confusingly titled Halloween, is the slicker version of what Carpenter had in mind. But I’m not going to risk angering anything or anyone to do with Michael Myers, and will simply say that the first Halloween is the undefeated slasher. Everything from the score to the performances to the underlying suggestion that, hey, maybe we shouldn’t be watching any of this, screams peak Oct. 31 pleasure. (Streaming on Shudder)
Friday the 13th
Best Film: Even though Jason Voorhees has killed enough teenagers to spark a national crisis, most of his cinematic exploits are, let’s be honest, boring. So much so that the best sleepaway-camp slasher is the Voorhees-free 1981 film The Burning. But if you must spend this month watching a hockey-masked beast wreak havoc in the woods, then 1984′s Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter is your go-to gore gala. The fourth film in the series – the “final” in the title means nothing – delivers on multiple fronts: inspired casting (Corey Feldman, Crispin Glover), gonzo violence and a gnarly narrative that underlines the series’ twinned interests of sex and punishment. But I’ll reserve a special shout-out for 2001′s Jason X, which sent Voorhees to outer space (!) and also boasts a David Cronenberg cameo (!!) and a solid virtual-reality joke about Voorhees’ predilection for promiscuous teens. (The Final Chapter is available for rent/purchase on Apple TV/iTunes, Google Play and Cineplex Store; Jason X is on Apple TV/iTunes, Google Play and Cineplex Store)
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Best Film: Hardcore Krueger-heads will go to bat for 1987′s gooey A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. But series originator Wes Craven hit the scariest, smartest, slickest Elm Street note with 1994′s New Nightmare. A delightfully twisty and meta take on the horror genre two years before Craven would pull off a similar but better-financed trick with Scream, New Nightmare takes the concept of cinema’s favourite pedophile boogeyman and adds a thick, deeply unsettling layer of genuine real-world terror. (Available for rent/purchase on Apple TV/iTunes and YouTube)
Best Film: On the eve of a new Child’s Play television series, Showcase’s Chucky, it’s as good a time as any to remember the weird evolution of Don Mancini’s series. What started off as a straight-forward horror flick – albeit one in which the villain was a toy possessed by the soul of a serial killer – has morphed into a kitschy dark comedy. Which is where Mancini found his sweet spot, especially with 1998′s Bride of Chucky. I mean, if we’re watching a movie about a murderous doll, why not go full camp? (Streaming on Hollywood Suite; available for rent/purchase on Apple TV/iTunes and Google Play)
Best Film: The success of James Wan’s Conjuring cinematic universe – most of the films following “demonologists” Ed and Lorraine Warren – is proof that all moviegoers want now and then are some refined, decently budgeted jump-scares. The series works best, though, when the Warrens are on the periphery, as in 2019′s Annabelle Comes Home, which is the sequel to a prequel (Annabelle: Creation). Here, horror cinema’s second-favourite evil doll (Chucky’s quips put him in first place) stirs up trouble after being placed in the Warrens’ cabinet of supernatural curiosities. Think The Indian in the Cupboard meets Toy Story, but all the playthings are blood-thirsty spirits. (Streaming on Netflix)
Living Dead series
Best Film: George A. Romero is the undisputed father of the modern zombie film. But jeez, the director’s undead filmography is an up-and-down affair, with as many hits as head-scratchers (anything post-Day of the Dead). While Romero’s 1968 touchstone Night of the Living Dead cracked the genre’s chest cavity wide open, his masterpiece remains 1978′s Dawn of the Dead. Following a group of zombie-apocalypse survivors seeking shelter in a suburban mall, the film is both a broad-but-effective satire of consumer culture and a thrill ride. Romero’s concept works so well that it inspired Zack Snyder’s better-than-expected 2004 remake. (Not digitally available in Canada. But search YouTube and you’re bound to find a decent-quality version. Shhhh.)
Best Film: The Final Destination films stumbled upon a perfect formula: Open with a character having a premonition of attractive young adults getting killed in malevolent ways (plane explosion, roller-coaster ride gone wrong, bridge collapse), then follow those survivors as they get picked off in Rube Goldberg-esque incidents caused by the physical manifestation of death itself. Good, gory, super-stupid-but-also-super-smart fun. Each entry has its own charms, but I’m partial to 2003′s Final Destination 2, whose highway pileup scene is absolutely terrifying. (Streaming on Amazon Prime Video with Starz; available for rent/purchase on Apple TV/iTunes)
Best Film: Before a new Scream hits theatres this January – titled, in modern horror-filmmaking fashion, Scream and not something that makes search-engine sense, like Scream 5 or Scre5m – it’s funny to remember how upset people were when producers started sequel-izing the series. Wes Craven’s first Scream is great, deconstructive entertainment. But scary movies are designed to be repurposed. And so when tasked with doing just that, Craven came up with a killer follow-up: Scream 2 has all the shocks and humour of the first film, but with a bigger cast (Timothy Olyphant, Liev Schreiber, Sarah Michelle Gellar) and a neat commentary on, well, the perils of sequels. (Streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Crave and Shudder)
Four films, with fifth in production
Best Film: Sam Raimi’s Exorcist-meets-Three Stooges series remains a pure delight from start to finish (minus Fede Álvarez’s intense but not-so-fun quasi-remake). But Raimi and leading man Bruce Campbell reached the height of their goofy-gore powers with 1987′s Evil Dead II, which tells the same story as the first film but with a higher budget and more black-comedy shtick. It is as hilarious as it is revolting. (Streaming on Hollywood Suite; available for rent/purchase on Apple TV/iTunes)
Rob Zombie’s Firefly trilogy
Best Film: Rob Zombie’s name strikes fear in the hearts of horror fans. But not for the reason(s) you might think. On one hand, the filmmaker is responsible for the limpest horror reboot in modern history (2007′s Halloween). On the other hand, Zombie’s 2009 sequel Halloween II was enjoyably gnarly, and he’s also delivered the ultra-ambitious, if wildly uneven, trilogy following the homicidal Firefly family. That series’ first film, 2003′s sloppy House of 1,000 Corpses, has its admirers, as does the franchise’s capper, 2019′s 3 From Hell. But the high-point is Zombie’s middle chapter, 2005′s The Devil’s Rejects, which mixes grindhouse exploitation with a Southern-fried nastiness. At least you’ll never listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird the same way again. (Streaming on Netflix)
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