This is my favorite quote about what it means to be a horror fan:
"The relationship is not entirely masochistic ... A film like Alien or Jaws is, for either the true fan or simply the ordinary moviegoer who has a sometime interest in the macabre, like a wide, deep vein of gold that doesn’t even have to be mined; it can simply be dug out of the hillside. But that isn’t mining, remember; it’s just digging. The true horror film aficionado is more like a prospector with his panning equipment or his wash-wheel, spending long periods going patiently through common dirt, looking for the bright blink of gold dust or possibly even a small nugget or two. Such a working miner is not looking for the big strike, which may come tomorrow or the day after or never; he has put those illusions behind him. He’s only looking for a livin’ wage, something to keep him going yet awhile longer."
— Stephen King. Danse Macabre (p. 222). Pocket Books. Kindle Edition.
In honor of Halloween, I wanted to highlight a few horror films that, it seems to me, have been overlooked or under-appreciated over the years. These aren't necessarily masterpieces (although I'd mount an argument for my top four picks), and they don't really fall into the so-bad-they're-good category either. They're not really cult films. Some of them are, frankly, not very good. A few of them are pretty close to great. But they're just sort of cruising under the radar, not much discussed or recalled with any particular fondness.
But they're each in some way — even if it's just a quick scene here or an unsettling image there — better than you probably remember.
20. The Guardian (1990)
I can't mount much of a defense of The Guardian — William Friedkin's 1990 film about a homicidal Druidic tree nanny — because, frankly, I barely remember it. It's widely considered to be a disaster, and it's often cited as Friedkin's worst movie (which is saying a lot). But it had significant impact on me when it came out, which was right around when I started getting serious about horror. My memory, such as it is, is that the movie is batshit crazy. It features all sorts of really weird imagery involving having sex with trees and being eaten by or otherwise murdered by trees that, for whatever reason, 12-year-old me found profoundly disturbing. The above clip looks pretty goofy now out of context, but it's one of those sequences that lodged itself in my consciousness at an impressionable age and sunk some pretty deep roots (pun intended).
19. Stephen King's Cat's Eye (1985)
The 80s was a real heyday for anthology-based horror movies (Tales From the Darkside, Twilight Zone: The Movie, etc.) , and Stephen King was the creative force behind what was probably the best of them with Creepshow, his gleefully corny 1982 paean to classic EC Comics (directed with a sly nudge and a wink by George A. Romero).
1985's Cat's Eye (directed by Lewis Teague) was an attempt to follow up on that film's success. It's based on two short stories from King's 1978 collection Night Shift, along with an original tale starring Drew Barrymore and a heroic cat. My memory is that the original entry, "The General," was kind of lame. But the adaptations of "Quitters Inc." (starring James Woods and Alan King) and "The Ledge" (starring Robert Hays and Kenneth McMillan) are surprisingly dark given the format, and pretty effective. They both have an oddball noir tone that is completely at odds with the almost fairy-tale framing story involving the cat. This film definitely has its fans, but it seems mostly forgotten today.
18. The Johnsons (1992)
Much like The Guardian, this is a movie I don't remember very well and suspect isn't very good. But certain images stick in my head (particularly the bald kids, which seem to be a riff on the murderous tots in David Cronenberg's The Brood), and — in its own raw, Id-based way — it gets at something weird and queasy about the sexualization of teenage girls that I remember finding pretty distressing at the time. It's one I'd like to go back and rewatch with a more mature sensibility. It got a bit of buzz in the horror press in its day, then basically disappeared without a trace.
17. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)
This will be a controversial pick, but hear me out. The film utterly failed when it was released and was deeply reviled by both audiences and critics, but I think that's mostly because it just didn't deliver what people expected. When acclaimed documentarian Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost, Some Kind of Monster) signed on to direct this movie, people thought he would expand on the found-footage format established by the original film. Instead, he made a strange little Polanski-inspired chamber piece that tried to be a postmodern meditation on the whole "Blair Witch" zeitgeist.
The movie is deeply flawed, in no small part because Artisan Entertainment took Berlinger's unique take on the subject and hacked it all up in an attempt to turn it into a standard blockbuster and shameless cash grab. But there's a glimmer of a real artistic vision that shines through the mess, and Berlinger had some interesting things to say about the nature of belief, urban legends, and insanity.
For all its problems, it's certainly a more interesting movie than last year's already forgotten sequel.
16. The Seventh Sign (1988)
I'm probably way out on my own on this one.
The Seventh Sign is an odd little film. It's slow, talky, and so frankly religious in its outlook that it could fit in nicely with more standard faith-based fair like the Left Behind movies. But it's also pretty smart in its examination of apocalyptic theology, well acted by Demi Moore, Jurgen Prochnow, and Michael Biehn, and ably directed by Hungarian filmmaker Carl Schultz. Audiences and critics HATED this thing when it came out, but it's long been a secret favorite of mine — which to this day kind of surprises me, considering its unapologetically Christian perspective. It's got more stylistic polish than you would expect, and there's a subtle feeling of impending doom hanging over the entire movie that gets under your skin if you let it. I watched it again earlier this year for the first time in a couple decades, and I was surprised at how well I thought it held up.
15. Lake Placid (1999)
I would guess that between this and Book of Shadows a lot of you are ready to revoke my horror-fan credentials. To that I say pull the stick out of your ass and stop taking yourself so seriously. This movie is just a lot of stupid fun, and the David E. Kelly-penned dialogue cracks me up every time I watch it, which is maybe once every five years or so. It's almost like a monster movie written by a slightly stoned Aaron Sorkin, and Oliver Platt's scenery chewing performance alone makes it worth the price of admission.
I was also pretty wasted the first time I saw it, so the moment where the crocodile suddenly eats the bear pretty much made my brain explode.
14. Altitude (2010)
This isn't a great film, but I found it to be an oddly affecting and strangely personal movie by Canadian comic-book artist Kaare Andrews. It's got shades of Lovecraftian cosmic horror splattered all over it, but in the end it manages to be a fairly well-considered and mind-bendy examination of wish fulfillment and the dangerous power of imagination. And the ending packed an emotional punch that I did not expect, considering its direct-to-video origins.
13. Flatliners (1990)
I sort of put Flatliners in the same category as The Seventh Sign: a moderately stylish Hollywood horror film from the same time period, featuring major stars and dealing with overtly religious themes. Flatliners was nowhere near as reviled as the aforementioned movie — and it can hardly be said to be forgotten, considering it was remade just this year — but its reception was pretty mixed and it never quite achieved cult status. I've always had a soft spot for this film, though, even though it was directed by Joel Schumacher, one of my least favorite Hollywood filmmakers. It has a sleek coolness to it that I found really intriguing at the time. The movie's depiction of the porous border between life and the afterlife is both matter-of-fact and deeply trippy, and serves as a nice companion to Adrian Lyne's much more effective Jacob's Ladder from that same year.
12. Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
I suppose 1983's Twilight Zone: The Movie isn't exactly forgotten, and it probably does qualify as a cult film at the very least. But I'm going to include it here because it seems like whenever anyone talks about it these days, they talk less about the movie itself and more about the notorious onset accident that killed star Vic Morrow and two children and very nearly derailed director John Landis's career.
This is the most prestigious of the 80s anthology-horror boom (its infamy notwithstanding), considering that the individual segments were directed by some of the most acclaimed filmmakers of the era. Ironically, the entries by the two biggest directors of the time (Landis and Steven Spielberg) are the two most forgettable. Landis's "Time Out" is preachy and nearly incomprehensible (understandable, perhaps, considering the production was cut short by the fatal helicopter crash), and Spielberg's "Kick the Can" is nothing but treacly fluff. The true standouts reimagine episodes of the original series, both of which are based on beloved short stories by sci-fi/horror luminaries. My favorite is Joe Dante's truly bananas "It's a Good Life," based on the 1953 story by Jerome Bixby. But the one everyone remembers most is probably George Miller's "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," based on Richard Matheson's 1961 classic.
One gets the feeling that Spielberg felt like he was slumming, and Landis was just trying to show off. But Dante and Miller clearly understood the appeal of the original material, and they manage to bring a real modern (for the time) edge and energy to their installments. This is only half of a great anthology film, but the half that's great is legitimately great.
11. Christine (1983)
I almost went with John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness here, but that's a film that — while nowhere near as beloved by genre fans as Halloween, The Thing, Escape From New York, or The Fog — definitely has some cult-classic legitimacy. Christine, however, was a director-for-hire job and an adaptation of one of the more unloved Stephen King novels of the era. Carpenter himself has roundly dismissed the movie over the years.
I think it deserves another look. It's a brooding love ballad to cars, greasers, and 1950s rock and roll, and an unconventional examination of teenage rage and lust. Keith Gordon's sneering take on bullied loner Arnie Cunningham is genuinely unnerving, and his slow descent into madness as he falls under the malign influence of the titular demonic 1957 Plymouth Fury is deeply convincing. The filmmaking is solid, even if the movie is oddly paced — somehow managing to be both rushed and a little too staid for its own good. It's not a perfect film by any means, but this image of a burning Christine roaring down the highway (to a Carpenter-penned synth soundtrack) after bully Buddy Repperton (William Ostrander) has haunted my dreams for nearly three decades.
10. Lord of Illusions (1995)
Novelist/artist/filmmaker Clive Barker possesses maybe the most singular voice in the horror genre since H.P. Lovecraft. And, like Lovecraft, his ideas don't always translate to the screen. His achievements as a novelist and a visual artist are nearly unparalleled, but he's only directed three feature films. His first two directorial efforts — Hellraiser (based on the novella "The Hellbound Heart") and Nightbreed (based on the novel Cabal) — are solidly canonized by horror aficionados. But his third (and last) film Lord of Illusions (based on the short story "The Last Illusion") somehow never really caught fire with the fans.
While Hellraiser is the undisputed masterpiece I'd actually argue that Lord of Illusions is a stronger film than Nightbreed (which I like a lot), thematically richer and more in control of its tone. It's an odd mashup of hardboiled Hollywood noir, cosmic cult paranoia, and theatrical fantasy, all filtered through Barker's warped and transgressive sensibilities.
Barker has been beset by serious health problems in recent years, so I think it's unlikely we'll see him return to the director's chair. It's been a long while since I've seen Lord of Illusions, but just thinking about it now makes me want to go back and give it a rewatch.
9. Land of the Dead (2005)
George A. Romero invented the modern zombie movie with his original trilogy, Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Day of the Dead (1985). Everything that has come after — from Lucio Fulci's Zombie (1979) to AMC's The Walking Dead -- has its roots in Romero's original vision.
Land of the Dead was originally supposed to come in the 1990s, long before the modern zombie resurgence. But Romero was plagued by development and financing problems, so by the time it finally arrived in 2005 — a year after Zach Snyder's remake of Dawn — it had the creaky feel of anticlimax. To be sure, it's probably the weakest of his original zombie cycle and is clearly an abridgment of Romero's original epic vision for the film. But it's a better movie than it's usually given credit for. Like its predecessors it holds up an interesting mirror to its time, coming just a few years after 9/11 and falling right in the middle of George W. Bush's presidency. Dennis Hopper's memorable villain tells us everything we need to know about what Romero thought of the politics of that era, and seems disturbingly predictive of the rise of Trumpism more than a decade later.
8. Dagon (2001)
Director Stuart Gordon is mostly known for his bonkers 1985 adaptation of Lovecraft's "Herbert West: Re-Animator" — a film remembered primarily for the scene in which a severed head performs cunnilingus on a screaming woman. He's returned to the Lovecraft well a few times throughout his career, most notably in this loose 2001 adaptation of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth."
Re-Animator definitely has its campy charms, but I much prefer the more serious-minded Dagon. For one, the source material is stronger; "Herbert West: Re-Animator" is one of Lovecraft's weaker stories, whereas "Shadow" might be his best. Transplanting the narrative from coastal New England to a Spanish fishing village was an inspired choice, not-so-subtly alluding to the bizarre (and cheerfully offensive) Basque/Reptilian hypothesis popular amongst some conspiracy theorists. No matter what you think of that bit of insanity, Gordon's film manages to be legitimately spooky throughout the bulk of its runtime, only going somewhat off the rails in the final act.
Lovecraft is notoriously hard to adapt, but Dagon is definitely one of the better attempts. Until we finally get the movie version of At the Mountains of Madness that has been breaking our collective hearts for decades now, this will have to stand as my favorite official Lovecraft movie (John Carpenter's The Thing and Ridley Scott's Alien are generally cited as the two best non-Lovecraft Lovecraft films ever made).
NOTE: I was lucky enough to catch a retrospective screening of Dagon at the 2013 H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival/CthulhuCon in San Pedro (as Innsmouth-like a city as you'll find in SoCal). Gordon was in attendance for a Q&A, and hung out with the fans afterwards. He's seriously one of the nicest people I've ever met.
7. The Others (2001)
This movie by Chilean director Alejandro Amenábar (Open Your Eyes) was pretty well received at the time, but it doesn't seem to have had much staying power. Like Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense, it might have been too dependent on the third-act twist for its impact, and doesn't necessarily reward a second viewing. But it's as solid a ghost story as mainstream Hollywood has made in the last two decades, and I found Nicole Kidman's performance extremely affecting. But Fionnula Flanagan's creeptastic housekeeper is the character that still sticks with me to this day.
6. Triangle (2009)
This British film by director Christopher Smith is a headfuck and a half, and I suspect it's the type of movie a lot of more traditional horror fans will find frustrating. It's hard to pull off an intellectual puzzle film that also manages to be viscerally terrifying on a gut level. But Smith succeeds admirably. Like Jacob's Ladder, he wisely anchors the film with a solid central performance (by Melissa George here) that brings genuine emotion into a movie that could have been overly cold and schematic in its intricate plotting. The violence and gore is shocking without ever feeling gratuitous, and Smith uses it to put the audience into a grimy and suffocating headspace that clings to you like cobwebs. It's a bit of a hard movie to take, but it's worth a watch if you've got the stomach for this sort of thing.
5. Honeymoon (2014)
I've mentioned this movie by Leigh Janiak before as an example of the rise of an exciting new wave of female horror directors, which includes The Babadook's Jennifer Kent, The Bad Batch's Ana Lily Amirpour, and The Invitation's Karyn Kusama. Janiak's film has been warmly received overall, but it hasn't had near the exposure that some of its contemporaries have. It's a quiet, precise little movie that slips a scalpel almost unnoticed between your ribs and then cuts deep when you least expect it to. The final ten minutes is among the most haunting sequences I've seen in cinema in a very long time.
4. Martin (1978)
This is another one that probably does qualify as a cult classic, but it's far less renowned than it deserves to be. George A. Romero released two movies in 1978, but this strange and profoundly upsetting little flick has long been overshadowed by the towering masterpiece that is Dawn of the Dead.
For my money, Martin might be my favorite vampire movie of all time. Romero very purposefully eschews the standard tropes of the genre and instead approaches the film with an understated kitchen-sink realism that feels more Ken Loach than Hammer Horror. It's ambiguous and character based, quiet until it explodes into unexpected sequences of brutal violence. John Amplas' sensitive portrayal of the titular character is all the more disturbing because of the sympathy it invokes in the viewer. We're rooting for Martin in spite of ourselves... until quite suddenly we're not.
3. The Signal (2007)
I really don't know why this movie isn't more beloved than it is. An ultra low-budget indie out of Atlanta, it took everything that was happening in the mid-aughts zombie renaissance and turned it all completely on its head. It's a powerfully gritty view of the apocalypse and a startling peek into the weird logic of insanity. It's full of energy, alternately terrifying and surprisingly funny. Written and directed by three filmmakers (David Bruckner, Dan Bush, and Jacob Gentry), it works both as an anthology film and as a cohesive whole. It's one of the most startling and original horror movies of the century, and it needs to be seen by more people. This is independent horror at its absolute best.
2. Exorcist III (1990)
All horror fans have that one forgotten movie they constantly evangelize for, and for me that movie is William Peter Blatty's 1990 adaptation of his novel Legion, which — while technically a sequel to his classic The Exorcist — works quite brilliantly as a standalone work of horror fiction.
Likewise, Exorcist III can be watched without any knowledge of the first film (although familiarity with the original is definitely helpful). Personally, I find it much more frightening than the William Friedkin classic. Novelists don't always make good directors, but Blatty has the instincts of a real filmmaker and he crafts some sequences of genuine terror and intensity. It's got maybe the spookiest long-take in the history film, capped by the single best jump scare I've ever seen.
The dueling yin-yang of George C. Scott's grounded portrayal as Kinderman and Brad Dourif's batshit, scene-stealing performance as the Gemini Killer is the real heart of the movie. It's not easy to make extended dialogue scenes scary, but Blatty presents several. If you've dismissed this film as nothing but an unnecessary sequel, think again. But feel free to skip 1977's Exorcist II: The Heretic. Nobody will blame you.
1. Candyman (1992)
British director Bernard Rose's loose adaptation of Clive Barker's short story "The Forbidden" was successful enough to launch a mediocre franchise, and it certainly has its fans. But Candyman is one of those films that, whenever I bring it up, seems to be greeted with an ambivalent shrug. I can't tell you how often I hear "oh yeah, I never saw that," or "it was okay, I guess," or "I think maybe I saw the second one." I don't know why people dismiss it so readily. I love everything about this movie, from the smarter-than-it-deserves-to-be screenplay to the performances to the atmosphere to the Phillip Glass score.
I think the timing of the film's release might account for some of the collective apathy that seems to cling to it. It came at the tail-end of the 80s slasher boom, but before the subgenre's post-Scream resurgence in the late 1990s. To a lot of people, Tony Todd's Candyman might seem like just another Freddy Krueger or Jason Vorhees knockoff. I assure you, he's not.
This is a rich, rewarding horror movie that has a surprising level of intellectual rigor, examining issues of belief and modern folklore as well as presenting a truly searing indictment of race and class in America. It's also really fucking scary, and it holds up remarkably well. If you've never given this movie a fair shake, now's the time. Do yourself a favor and watch it. But do so with the lights off... and then I dare you to look into a mirror afterwards and say his name five times. I promise you won't be able to do it.