Top scary TV shows to watch this Halloween
Ivan Radford | On 30, Oct 2017
Halloween is all about horror movies, right? Wrong. Because in this so-called golden age of TV, there are oodles of scares that can be found on the small screen – and not just the TV series that are based on horror movies. From ghosts and ghouls to aliens and the undead, we dig up the best horror TV shows currently available on-demand…
When was the last time a TV show surprised you? Penny Dreadful, starring Eva Green, Timothy Dalton and Timothy Dalton’s moustache, mashes up classic horror literature, such as Frankenstein and Dorian Grey, to produce a piece of pulp art that sounds trashy but rings with class. How close will it stick to the stories we all know? John Logan’s script weaves it all together with a taste for mortality – and adds a whole heap of freaky witchcraft in Season 2 (and Brian Cox in Season 3). The result would scare even the manliest of facial hair off, and never quite goes where you expect.
“I can’t emphasise enough the risk you’re taking,” cautions Father Marcus (Ben Daniels) at a key turning point in The Exorcist Season 1. He might as well be talking to writer/executive producer Jeremy Slater, who dares to invoke the holy ghost of William Friedkin’s 1973 movie on the small screen. But from the unsettling first episode, this TV series confidently brushes aside any doubts in the show’s ability to possess the spirit of the feature film for 10 episodes. Smartly expanding the film’s universe, introducing some cheesy new villains and finding time for some nuanced exploration of doubt and conviction? Sometimes, you’ve just got to have a little faith.
The hit show of 2016’s summer, if you haven’t seen Stranger Things, you’ve certainly heard of it. Netflix’s sci-fi horror mystery, which follows the disappearance of a young boy from a small US town in the 1980s, leaving his mum (Winona Ryder) devastated and his friends no choice but to play detective themselves, is a deft mix of retro nostalgia and modern-day storytelling. With its synth soundtrack, entertaining young stars and gripping screenplay, it takes strange children with telekinetic powers, nasty monsters, sinister scientific corporations and bike rides and turns them all into something entirely its own. If you haven’t seen it, watch it. If you have, watch it again to spot all the pop culture references.
The Walking Dead
AMC’s zombie smash hit is one of the biggest TV shows of all time – and it’s been willing to spill blood to do it. Andrew Lincoln brings gruff earnestness to the struggle of human survivors in the wake of an undead uprising, well balanced by a string of horrifying villains, from David Morrisey’s well-meaning Governor to Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s totally amoral Negan. Alongside strong character work with its supporting ensemble, the show never skimps on the red stuff either.
Over three seasons, Charlie Brooker’s Twilight Zone for the Twitter age has tackled everything from political engagement to relationships and all the pixels in between with a harsh, satirical hand. Brooker’s Big Brother zombie spoof proved his knack for scaring us, but Black Mirror goes one step further, tapping into a nerve in society and combining its fevered love of new technology with its most neurotic digital fears; a topicality delivered with detached cynicism that, even in its weaker instalments, feels bleakly, terrifying relevant.
An idiosyncratic FBI Agent investigates the murder of a young woman in the small town of Twin Peaks. If that premise sounds familiar, wait until you see David Lynch and Mark Frost’s show in action. Things quickly go from weird to strange, from strange to odd, from odd to disconcerting and from disconcerting to fascinating. Kyle MacLachlan is our window into this world as the FBI’s Dale Cooper, who has a thing for pie and coffee (and dictating things to his secretary, Dianne, who may or may not exist). But as a parade of bizarre characters grace our screen, the story takes a back seat to atmosphere and style, resulting in something that’s inexplicable, scary and downright iconic. Sometimes, it’s even funny too. If you’ve never binge-watched this remarkably unusual programme, do so – and then catch up on the 2017 revival. If you’ve seen it already, you don’t need us to convince you to watch it again.
Tired of zombies? The Returned – or Les Revenants – will wake you right up. Telling the story of a group of dead people coming back to life in a small French village, it’s spooky, supernatural and, most of all, stylish. Directed with panache by creator Fabrice Gobert, the misty streets and eerie-eyed undead are perfectly matched by music from Mogwai: an uneasy, atmospheric piece of composition that seeps through the whole thing. Tragic and twisted as well as terrifying, it’s a near-flawless fantasy mini-series, made even better by the fact it only lasts eight hours.
Beyond the Walls
David Lynch meets Doctor Who in this fascinating horror. The French mini-series sees a woman inherit a haunted house, but while that might suggest this is a run-of-the-mill bumps-in-the-night affair, Beyond the Walls is something unique. Spanning three episodes, it’s a masterclass in stretching out tension without breaking it. Writer-director Hervé Hadmar unfolds the mystery at his show’s heart at a slow enough pace to keep you unnerved throughout, but never bored. Our full review – plus where to watch it online.
The Enfield Haunting
Not impressed by The Conjuring 2? Sky’s mini-series telling the same true story is wonderfully spooky stuff. The three-part drama is a dramatisation of the terrifying and bizarre events that took place at an ordinary house in Enfield during the autumn of 1977. Timothy Spall plays Maurice Grosse, a paranormal researcher who strikes up a connection with Janet (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), when he investigates the strange happenings at the Hodgson family home. Matthew Macfadyen plays Guy Lyon Playfair, Grosse’s sceptical co-investigator, while Juliet Stevenson plays his wife, who is struggling to come to terms with his all-encompassing obsession with the investigation.
American Horror Story
Glee’s Ryan Murphy goes all-out every season with his horror anthology, which never fails to deliver fresh, spooky surprises. There’s fun to be had in the way that actors crossover between the standalone stories, but it’s the novelty of each new run that really works, allowing newcomers and aficionados to enter this twisted universe, from the circus-based Freak Show to the haunted house of Season 1 and the asylum of Season 3. The latest, Cult, shines a creepily pertinent light on modern America in the age of Donald Trump. Things don’t get more disturbing than that.
“Ever since creepy French drama Les Revenants became a surprise global hit in 2012, producers have been drawn to its basic premise – people return from the dead, but not as zombies. The latest spin on the idea is Glitch, from Australia’s ABC, and the happy news is that it works far better than the po-faced American attempts. The core reason for its success is an elegant simplicity. We have a taut plot, told over six episodes, focusing on a small band of characters, thus avoiding the flailing narrative strands that brought down the other shows. The six episodes cover a lot of ground, but Glitch doesn’t feel rushed or crowded. As many questions are raised as answered – why are they back, for starters? – and the season ends with a fantastic, tantalising twist.” Read our full review
What do you think of when you hear the word “residue”? The stuff at the bottom of a glass? That mouldy patch on your ceiling? You certainly don’t think of a sci-fi series starring people from Game of Thrones. Well, not until now. The sci-fi mini-series, which was shot mostly in Leeds, has the binge-watching hook of a show with 10 times its budget.
Natalia Tena stars as photo-journalist Jennifer, who is investigating a mysterious explosion that occurred one New Year’s Eve. With people starting to die in increasingly violent ways, and strange, dark material appearing on the death scenes, the centre of the town is cordoned off from the public. Jennifer’s gradual discovery of the weird truth behind events leaves you gripped, while director Alex Garcia (Channel 4’s Utopia) nails the sinister vibe with some eerie, excellent set pieces.
Whether you’re a fan of the 2016 reboot or not, there are countless hours of TV to enjoy from the colossal archive of the classic sci-fi series, from creature-feature-style shocks to tiny figures crawling through other people’s innards. A newcomer’s guide to the best episodes
Mouth-watering murders and precision-tailored suits. It that doesn’t have your attention, try the words “Hugh Dancy” and “Mads Mikkelsen”, or just plain old “Hannibal Lecter”. Bryan Fuller’s take on Thomas Harris’ antihero is a gorgeous, gruesome affair, elevating a crime procedural to disturbing, visually poetic heights. Season 1 and 2 are now on Netflix UK, while Season 3 is on Sky Box Sets and NOW TV. If you liked Mindhunter, you’ll love this.
Scream: The TV Series
“You can’t do a slasher movie as a TV series,” says Noah Foster (John Karna) at the start of MTV’s Scream. It’s par for the course for the franchise, at once undermining its own existence and yet staying faithful to the rules. That’s the series’ inevitable weakness: Wes Craven’s original film was a smart re-imagining of the slasher genre, subverting expectations and traditions at every turn. But if self-awareness is no longer novel, the series introduces something more surprising to the formula: sincerity. Led by Willa Fitzgerald’s Emma and Bex Taylor-Klaus’s Audrey, the characters actually have time to reflect on the growing pile of corpses, bringing an unexpected depth to the trashy, entertaining scares. The show’s aim throughout is to make you forget it’s a horror story – and then let that fact creep up on you every episode. You might not always scream, but for undemanding thrills, this TV series gets you every time. (Tip: Skip the Halloween special after Season 2.)
The CW’s series, based on the Vertigo comic book series, follows Olivia, a medical resident on the fast track to a perfect life… until she’s turned into a zombie. Transferring to the city morgue to get access to human brains, she finds that chomping on them gives her flashes of the corpse’s memories – including, at times, clues as to how they were killed. Her boss, a brilliant but eccentric conspiracy theorist, encourages her to embrace this gift and to work with an eager, unproven homicide detective to help solve these murders.
Ash vs Evil Dead
“How does it feel to be back?” “Groovy.” Ash vs Evil Dead nails its homecoming in its opening episode – and this series does feel very much like a homecoming. Small-screen spin-offs from popular movie franchises have become two-a-penny in recent years, but many are made by a different team to their source material. Sam Raimi is involved with this new show from the ground up – and you feel it in every splatter of blood right up until the final episode. The show catches up with Ash 30 years after the events of the first film, which plays out in brief visual recap for newcomers. He’s exactly as you remember him: not exactly PC, slightly dim, but darn good with a chainsaw. He’s not the nicest guy in the world. He’s not the smartest guy in the world. And he’s certainly not the kind of guy you’d choose to star in a typical, modern show. But when the undead crap hits the fan, he’s exactly the guy you want on the telly. How does it feel to have him back? Groovy.
Masters of Horror
Mick Garris’ anthology series from 2005 is a veritable orgy of talent, with everyone from Dario Argento to John Carpenter joining in to direct standalone episodes. Takashi Miike, Lucky McKee, Joe Dante, John Landis, Stuart Gordon and even Tobe Hooper, it’s a line-up most TV shows would kill for. Although it only ran for two seasons, the result still impresses almost 20 years on.
From the creator of Misfits, this twisted horror (which has already been snapped up by Netflix in the US) is reassuringly zany, fast-paced and gruesome. Any show that opens with a woman screaming and tied up, only to discover it’s her friend who’s doing it because they think she’s possessed, is a sure-fire winner. That breakneck warped humour doesn’t let up, as we watch Raquel (Susan Wokoma) attempt to conduct an exorcism based on what she’s reading off the internet on her phone. But there’s a unique streak to this Buffy the Vampire Slayer-esque affair – Raquel’s friend, Amy (Cara Theobold), thinks her ability to “see” demons is less a gift and more a symptom of mental illness. It doesn’t help that Raquel is so blunt that she comes across as crazy herself. The result are two fun, fleshed-out characters, who just happen to be killing evil spirits in their spare time, an inconvenience that makes their lives as young adults even more complicated. Two words: cold semen. Another two words: more please.
Inside No. 9
When The League of Gentlemen finished, the question on everyone’s lips was “When will the gang get back together?” When Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith teamed up to make Psychoville, then, you expected something special – a promise delivered upon in their standout Rope-pastiching episode, which co-starred Mark Gatiss as a detective stumbling across two serial killer fanatics. While Psychoville developed The League’s loosely-connected sketch format into a more plot-driven tapestry, though, 2014’s Inside No. 9 goes in the other direction, telling six standalone stories. The result is a more controlled showcase for Pemberton and Shearsmith’s combination of horror and comedy, refining their knack for colourful characters and shocking situations into a string of perfectly formed 30-minute plays. The sheer diversity of the bill is striking, but within each genre is an impressive level of precision. Flawless, funny and always unsettling, the result is the BBC’s best horror show in years – and a programme that, in its best moments, even manages to eclipse The League of Gentlemen.