by Jason F. Koenigsberg
Sick and tired of the same horror movies every year? Looking for something gritty and scary to watch leading up to Halloween? Look no further. Here you should be able to discover some new scares that you probably never experienced. I have already written about new Halloween Horror Classics and I made sure not to repeat any of the titles from that article, even the ones that were just an honorable mention. Plus last year brought about three very exciting and diverse horror films with the thought provoking film The Witch, the claustrophobic Green Room, and the visceral Don’t Breathe. Well if you have seen all of those here are ten of the best horror movies you probably have not seen or even heard of.
10. Thinner (1996) directed by Tom Holland
Stephen King has become and extremely popular commodity in recent months. 2017 has seen adaptations of three of his most beloved properties adapted to film with The Dark Tower, Gerald’s Game (a personal favorite King novel of mine) and of course the massively successful It. One of his more overlooked novels that I greatly enjoyed published under his pseudonym Richard Bachman was Thinner. It’s the story of a greedy and obese lawyer who accidentally kills a woman while he was distracted driving and her father curses him to rapidly and uncontrollably lose weight. The movie flew under the radar and was met with undeservingly harsh reviews from critics. Some of the make up effects and acting may have been subpar, but Thinner remains one of the better King adaptations from its time and provides smart scares with just the right amount of comedy, tension and gruesome gore. None of the characters are likable and maybe that is why it was not well received. Despite its shortcomings it is still a worthwhile horror film.
9. The Orphanage (2007) directed by J.A. Bayona
Spanish director J.A. Bayona’s first full length feature film and thus far only one in his native language was an international hit and an arthouse success in the USA. It has lead towards him directing some big budget studio pictures like The Impossible (2012) and his next film is Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom due out next summer. So things have been going pretty good for him, why not check out where he got started with this gothic horror ghost story. A woman brings her family back to the house she grew up in which used to be an orphanage for special children. Sure enough her son starts to communicate with a mysterious new friend. It’s terrific and easy to understand why filmmaker Guillermo del Toro wanted to produce this film since it is very similar to his work.
8. The Toolbox Murders (1978) directed by Dennis Donnelly
Probably the worst movie on this list in terms of quality, but sometimes a low grade, sick little B horror movie hits the spot. The Toolbox Murders is very much a product of its time, an exploitation grind house piece of schlock that is fun in its own way. A depraved maintenance man goes around killing people in his apartment complex with various items from his toolbox. A unique bottom of the barrel slasher flick that has redeemable qualities as a relic of the 70’s and a guilty pleasure.
7. Frozen (2010) directed by Adam Green
Not to be confused with the overrated Disney movie of the same name, Adam Green’s intense horror thriller Frozen came out first and it is a very good overlooked gem of a picture. The synopsis is simple, three friends get stranded on a ski lift at night and may end up being stuck up there for five days. The one location setting makes the characters and their relationships even more compelling as they contemplate how to get down without freezing to death. The choices they make provide even more peril and the characters get more desperate to survive. The poster and trailer compare it to Jaws (1975) but I would say Frozen does for skiing what Open Water (2004) did for scuba diving with the similarities with its structure of characters stuck in the same place. Eventually wolves show up but you really should see Frozen knowing as little as possible other than the scenario that gets the action started. When a character urinates in one moment, it provides the most interesting relief and in the total opposite way of the infamous Austin Powers (1997) scene.
6. The Devil’s Backbone (2001) directed by Guillermo del Toro
If you have seen the phenomenal Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and enjoy the films of Guillermo del Toro with their gothic mood, sweeping atmosphere, and haunting dark fantasies tapping into the imaginations of children, then you need to see The Devil’s Backbone. A companion piece to Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro has called it the brother to Pan’s Labyrinth which film acts as Devil’s Backbone‘s sister. A boy arrives at an orphanage near the end of the Spanish Civil War and discovers that the place is haunted by ghosts and dark secrets. These two films are undoubtably the most personal films Guillermo del Toro has directed and they are deep and emotionally layered combining a basic ghost story premise with murder mystery and historical drama. Both of these films illustrate that even though our characters are surrounded by supernatural entities, sometimes the scariest creatures are the human ones. Even though Pan’s Labyrinth would go on to be a huge Oscar winning success, The Devil’s Backbone was a hit in other markets but failed to find an audience in the US, most likely because it was released in September 2001. In the years since it has earned a well deserved spot in the Criterion Collection and slowly found its American audience. Seek out The Devil’s Backbone for an emotional and frightening film.
5. Monkey Shines (1988) directed by George A. Romero
George A. Romero’s filmography is stocked with underrated horror movies that are worth seeing. I could have chosen a number of films for this but I went with his most ambitious and disturbing non-zombie film, 1988’s Monkey Shines. A quadriplegic man gets a trained monkey to help him with his daily routine. Everything seems to be going well until the monkey starts to develop feelings of jealousy and rage toward his new master and people in his master’s life. He causes a lot of chaos and terror and the violence is more disturbing than any of Romero’s zombie films due to the fact that a lot of it involves a monkey. Surely the animal cruelty groups were put to the test and had to be on hand while certain scenes were filmed. George Romero throws everything at the audience and this is a little horror movie with big ideas, some work, some do not, but as a whole Monkey Shines is an effective thriller. Perhaps this was the inspiration for Seth MacFarlane and the evil monkey that lives in Chris Griffin’s closet on Family Guy.
4. Rabid (1977) directed by David Cronenberg
Part infection movie, part zombie movie, part vampire movie, but all thriller, Rabid is David Cronenberg’s first great film. An underrated Canadian horror flick that would immediately lead to him taking on bigger budgets with his follow up The Brood (1979) and Scanners (1981). If you have not seen those two movies you really should, but start with Rabid. The story of a woman who undergoes emergency experimental plastic surgery. It saves her life but she develops a taste for human blood and goes on a killing spree. Her victims turn into rabid creatures that feast on other humans, turning their victims and soon it is a city-wide epidemic that could threaten the rest of the world. The woman is played by adult film star Marilyn Chambers and why she never pursued or was able to cross over into mainstream cinema is beyond me. She is terrific in the lead role here and carries the film with minimal dialogue. Rabid is a grisly, low budget horror film that paved the way for David Cronenberg to being one of the best horror directors of his era.
3. In the Mouth of Madness (1995) directed by John Carpenter
John Carpenter’s last great film. The last time he directed a film that lives up to his moniker The Master of Horror. Shot in 1994 and held back from release until February of 1995, In the Mouth of Madness, the third film of his ‘Apocalypse trilogy’, is a phenomenal horror movie. Call it a buried treasure, underrated, overlooked, this was John Carpenter at his finest with a talented cast, decent but not overbearing practical effects, and a horror film that delivers as much philosophy about the ideas of what makes something true if everyone believes it. The theological discussions after viewing this film are vast. Carpenter also successfully combined the public fanatical adoration for author Stephen King with H.P. Lovecraft-ian ideas and stories and created one of the finest horror movies of the decade. One that questioned reality and truth in a way that few horror films do. Few people saw it during it’s initial run, but once again, like many of Carpenter’s films that underperformed, the internet and time had been very kind to In the Mouth of Madness and it is slowly finding it’s audience. Everything works in this film and it even features one of Carpenter’s very best music scores with synthesizer and a heavy emphasis on electric guitar. It also features a terrific lead performance from Sam Neill and pleasant supporting turns from the late Charlton Heston and Bernie Casey who passed away just a few months ago. It’s smart, it’s thrilling, it’s fun, In the Mouth of Madness is pure John Carpenter.
2. Near Dark (1987) directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Now this movie was the impetus for this article. For years I have been championing Near Dark and always bring it up when discussing great horror movies, yet nobody seems to have seen it or even heard of it. Previously mentioned in my Bill Paxton tribute this movie features one of the late great actors most outlandish and unforgettable performances alongside the great Lance Henrikson and the chameleon-like Jenette Goldstein as part of his motley crew of vampires. Paxton commanded the screen and stole just about every scene he was in. But that is not the only reason why Near Dark is such a cult classic. It is an early film from Academy Award winning director Kathryn Bigelow and here you can see the vigor and gusto she would later display on her Oscar Winning The Hurt Locker (2009). This movie is alive and takes what could have been a mundane vampire romance and turns it into one of the most exciting genre blends of western and horror ever imagined. Yes it is clearly a very 80’s piece of pop culture, but not as much as The Lost Boys, which is also a terrific horror film that was released a few weeks prior to Near Dark. The Lost Boys had a bigger budget, flashier look and household names involved which is probably why it was much more of a hit. Whereas Near Dark was a box office disappointment, then over the years found its audience and achieved cult classic status. Without Near Dark and The Lost Boys there never would have been a Twilight series. Those involved with Twilight could have learned a thing or two from these 80’s horror films. Near Dark is not perfect but the way it melds genres and develops its dysfunctional family of vampires makes up for some of the sappy romantic flaws. This is one of the most underrated movies that I unabashedly love and always have. See Near Dark as soon as you can.
1. Suspiria (1977) directed by Dario Argento
Although Near Dark is definitely more underrated than Suspiria, I am willing to bet you have not seen this Dario Argento classic. If you have, awesome! Go watch Near Dark. If not then you are missing out on one of the scariest, most surreal and iconic Giallo horror movies of all time. Dario Argento is a master of horror and in the 70’s and 80’s there were very few directors that could match his intense visions of terror. Suspiria is Argento’s masterpiece. A horrific film that opens up with the audience having no idea what they are watching and an ending as astounding as everything that came before it. It keeps your attention with its unnerving score, eerie sounds and haunting visuals. Suspiria‘s bright colors contrasted with darkness and the sets that look like German expressionism come to life make it an artistic experience in terror. The story is about a young naive ballerina who joins a prestigious ballet conservatory only to learn that not everything is as it seems and the school harbors some dark and deadly secrets. If this sounds like the plot to Black Swan (2010), well it is. There is no doubt that Suspiria heavily influenced Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar winning thriller, but Suspiria is better, scarier and far more unpredictable. It has a raw quality that a polished, modern American thriller with a decent budget cannot duplicate, thus making Suspiria a product of its environment and era, and infinitely more scary than most modern horror films.