It occurred to me recently that there are far too many unsung awesome horror movies, and that the best way to spread the word about some of my favourites that people don’t know about would be to compile them into a list designed to entertain and educate! It was tough finding films that Robin hasn’t already covered in Robin’s Underrated Gems, but I managed to pull it off, so if you’re looking for a semi-obscure horror movie to impress your friends, you can just consult this list and lord your fine tastes over theirs. As a special bonus, a segment from my number eleven pick – Dead of Night – which just barely missed making my list, can be seen above!
10. Drag Me To Hell
This one comes in low on the list not because of its quality – I think it’s actually one of the best horror movies mentioned in this article – but because it’s a recent film and attracted a reasonable audience upon its release. Sam Raimi gets right back to his Evil Dead roots with this campy, scary and gross film that plays like the plot of a Stephen King novel: when a stuck-up loan officer denies a creepy old Romanian lady an extension, the woman puts a curse on her! Soon the loan officer, played by Alison Lohman, is being tormented by a demon who plans to – you guessed it – drag her to hell, but not before it drives her insane! Drag Me To Hell is such a great horror movie that it’s hard to believe it’s only rated PG-13, but don’t let that rating dissuade you from seeing this. It’s tense, disturbing, and even laugh-out-loud funny, and if you like horror from the old school (Drag Me To Hell opens with the 1980’s Universal Picture logo), then this movie is for you.
9. High Tension
The breakout film by director Alexandre Aja, who has since gone on to direct many a horror remake (Piranha 3D, The Hills Have Eyes), High Tension is an exercise in suspense, and it’s right there in the title. If you crave scenes of edge-of-your-seat, ratcheting tension, then look no further than High Tension, as it is literally scene after scene of slowly burning horror. A pair of friends – young French women – are on a road trip to visit family in the countryside. As they settle into their isolated surroundings, getting ready for bed, a heavy-breathing killer waits for his moment to strike. What follows is 90 solid minutes of cat-and-mouse suspense, with many clever twists and turns along the way. I should warn the reader, however, of the somewhat lackluster ending that may or may not make sense. It’s a bit of a cop-out, but the point isn’t the destination with High Tension…it’s the journey.
8. The Haunting
Saying that The Haunting isn’t a well-known horror film may cause some people to call “foul”, but the fact of the matter is that more people today know The Haunting as the 1999 Jan de Bont attrocity than the 1963 Robert Wise ghost story masterpiece that it is! Adapted from Nelson Gidding’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, the film centers on a group of people taking part in an experiment that will attempt to uncover the secrets of the paranormal. As the group spends the night in the big, scary mansion that is Hill House, strange events begin to occur…but is it the work of ghosts? Or have the imaginations of those taking part in the investigation begun to play tricks on them? The Haunting‘s strength is in its ambiguity – nothing is spelled out, and even by the end of the film you’ll find yourself wondering whether there really was a haunting or not. The scare scenes are cleverly handled, and considering how old this movie is, the terror is still very palpable even by today’s standards! Thus, The Haunting remains one of my favourite ghost movies of all time.
7. Let The Right One In
Once again, I’m ranking a stellar horror movie low on the list because of the exposure that it has gotten since its release. Let The Right One In is a vampire tale like no other, and a refreshing antidote to the emo vampires that have been a popular trend in recent years. Oskar, an outcast with a morbid curiosity about him, finds companionship when he meets the girl who just moved in next door, named Eli. But as their relationship develops, Eli’s monstrous nature becomes apparent and the blood begins to flow, making for a bleak, innocently chilling vampire film. Think Fargo with fangs! Honestly, I think Let The Right One In is one of the best horror movies ever made. Be sure to find a DVD that comes specifically with the “Theatrical Subtitles”, because the subtitles from the initial DVD release failed to capture the dark humour of the film entirely.
Before Black Swan, Suspiria was the be-all, end-all of ballet-themed horror movies. Dario Argento’s psychedelic suspense/horror story about a dancer who discovers that her ballet school is run by a coven of witches is widely regarded as a classic among horror buffs – a title that it definitely deserves! Suspiria‘s strangely vivid colour scheme and eerie portrayal of the witches’magic make it a most unusual movie, and quite unlike other movies of the genre. It’s a psychological, artistic film, rife with tension and anxiety, scored by synthesizer tracks provided by Argento’s band Goblin, brilliantly coloured and darkly sinister, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you can’t truly call yourself a horror fan.
Hausu is so unlike every other movie I’ve ever seen that I honestly don’t know where to begin! On the surface, Hausu is about a Japanese schoolgirl and her six friends who travel to the country home of the protagonist’s ailing aunt. Once they arrive, however, inexplicable supernatural events begin to transpire, and the film just goes completely mental as the girls are consumed by the house’s evil forces. Director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s primary experience before making Hausu was directing TV commercials, and when writing the script he consulted his pre-teen daughter for ideas, saying that adults “only think about things they understand…everything stays on that boring human level” while “children can come up with things that can’t be explained”. And it’s true, because the events of Hausu are certainly inexplicable, such as a girl being literally devoured by a piano or a watermelon that turns into a flying human head and bites a schoolgirl’s derriere. The film is a bit of an assault on the senses with its random nature and intentionally unrealistic special effects, but if you can brave it, Hausu is quite the experience to view.
4. Cat People
Not to be confused with the 1982 remake (with its David Bowie soundtrack), the 1942 Val Lewton film Cat People is a landmark horror movie that proves less is more. When marine engineer Oliver falls for the striking and exotic fashion designer Irena, he has no idea what’s in store for him. As the two of them become more involved, it’s revealed that Irena believes she is descended from a family of Serbian cat people – lycanthropes who can assume both human and feline form! What makes Cat People so fantastic is that, like The Haunting, it never spells out its answers. The scares are shrouded in mystery, and in many cases, the filmmakers chose to leave the really frightening stuff up to the imagination of the viewer. The fact that this movie still holds up 60 years after its creation is testament to its superb quality, and any self-respecting horror buff owes it to himself/herself to seek out a copy of Cat People.
3. Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns/The Black Cat
I’m cheating a little with this one. Masters of Horror was an anthology horror series that ran from 2005-2007. Each episode was an hour-long movie directed by a famous horror director. The roster included Dario Argento, Joe Dante, John Landis, Tobe Hooper, and today’s two star directors: John Carpenter and Stuart Gordon. I consider both these episodes to be just as good as any feature horror film, and so they both rank high on my list because they’re awesome and little-known.
Cigarette Burns, directed by Carpenter, follows Kirby Sweetman (The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus), a sort of private investigator for rare films, as he’s hired by an eccentric cinephile named Bellinger (Udo Kier) to find the only existing print of a movie titled La Fin Absolue dur Monde. Apparently the film is cursed or embued with evil energy or something, because when the film premiered it caused the audience to break into a homicidal riot and massacre everyone present. As Kirby gets closer to the film, he discovers that watching the movie may very well alter the fabric of reality. This is pulpy John Carpenter horror at its finest, doused with a bloody splash of gore and some wicked, weird imagery.
The Black Cat was directed by Stuart Gordon and is an adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe novel of the same name. And what a tremendous adaptation! Horror icon Jeffrey Combs stars as Edgar Allan Poe (the spitting image of the man!) as the famous author struggling from writer’s block and tormented by his beloved’s black cat – a nasty, wretched creature that will at once inspire him to write one of his most famous stories and drive him to the brink of madness. The details of Poe’s actual story are interwoven with fictionalized details from Poe’s life, and it works really, really well. This is my favourite episode of the series, and by including it here, I’d like to emphasize that I consider it to be just as good as any feature-length, big-budget horror release, if not better. Just a warning, though: if you’re a cat lover, this film might traumatize you on a primal level.
2. Stir of Echoes
Stir of Echoes had the bad luck of being released right around the same time as The Sixth Sense, and was therefore largely overlooked in favour of M. Night Shyamalan’s film. But personally, I think that Stir of Echoes wins in the long run – in no small part because its plot doesn’t rely heavily upon a twist ending. After he allows his sister-in-law to hypnotize him as a party trick, construction worker, husband and father Jake begins to see haunting visions of a ghostly girl and becomes obsessed with finding out who she is. This is a ghost film guaranteed to make you jump, and the word “haunting” doesn’t even begin to describe the dark, sad, haunted feeling that Stir of Echoes instills in the viewer. A unique take on psychic phenomenon, a jump-out-of-your-chair shocker, and a chilling mystery all combine to make Stir of Echoes a great film, and one that I feel is all too often sadly overlooked.
I consider the deft filmmaking skill on display in Christopher Smith’s film Triangle to be equal to that of Christopher Nolan’s in the film Memento! When a group of friends take a cruise on the open sea, they suddenly find themselves capsized and stranded in the water. A massive cruise ship chugs past and they climb on board only to find it deserted. Saying too much more about the plot would only ruin this film for those who haven’t seen it, but seeing as this is my number one pick, you can believe me when I say that the rest of the movie is a twist-a-minute, mind-bending, thrilling puzzle of a film that you’ll want to watch a second time the moment the end credits roll. One of my favourite films of all time, Triangle is overlooked far more often than it should be, and its clever tricks deserve serious, serious accolades. Even if you skip every other film on this list, don’t miss Triangle – viewed with friends and discussed over beers afterwards.