A couple weeks back I wrote a list of what I thought were some fairly obscure horror flicks to watch this Halloween as alternatives to the usual standards. However, a few people pointed out to me that they knew of or had seen many of the movies on that list. So, I’m back and I’ve dug up some even lesser known horror flicks for you to take a look at before October 31st. These are the obscure of the obscure; many of them won’t be easy to find but I promise they’re well worth the effort. I’ve also included companion films for each movie because I want to give you as many options as possible. Now, shall we take a look at what I’ve unearthed?
This delightfully cheesy 80’s film owes a lot to Freddy Krueger but is imaginative and spooky in its own right. It stars Jenny Wright as a mousy employee at a book store with a passion for scary stories. One day, she finds an old novel called ‘I, Madman’ sitting all alone on a shelf. She takes it home and immerses herself in the story of a mad scientist obsessed with a beautiful woman. The woman tells the lovesick doctor she hates the sight of his face so he begins slicing off pieces of it with a scalpel and attempts to make himself more handsome by using the skins of a series of victims as replacement tissue. Wright finds herself drawn into the tale and soon events from her own life begin to mirror those of the book. A shadowy man with dark cloak and a scalpel starts following her around and she races to find the mysterious author to figure out what the hell is going on. Book lovers will get a kick out of this movie as it has a lot of fun with the idea of a novel taking over every aspect of a person’s life. It’s a bit cheesy and silly but that’s part of the fun. The finale features some great stop motion animation as a creature from another book by the same author comes to life and faces off against Wright and the Madman. Wright is an especially appealing lead and it’s a shame she hasn’t been in more films. This is also an example of a franchise that could have been: it features a creepy villain people would have enjoyed seeing again and barely scratches the surface of the ideas it brings up about the power of fiction. I would have watched I, Madman 2, 3, and 4 over some of the Friday the 13th or Halloween sequels without thinking twice.
ALSO CHECK OUT: John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness.
Not a perfect movie but another one for book lovers. Sam Neill stars as an insurance investigator hired to track down a missing horror author. Just like in I, Madman, he soon discovers that reality is beginning to resemble the plots of some of the author’s darkest works. The ending doesn’t quite work and some of the acting is questionable but it’s a smart movie with a creepy atmosphere and lots of unsettling scenes. Also if you’re a fan of H.P. Lovecraft, this is the closest anyone has ever come to portraying his work accurately on the screen, despite not being based on anything he wrote specifically.
This Finnish horror film is notable for a few reasons: it takes place in the 1400’s, a rare setting for a genre flick, most of the action is set during the daytime, proving my assertion that the sun can hide just just as many mysteries as the moon, and it functions more as a fascinating morality tale than as a straight up horror film. It’s also terrifying. The plot focuses on two Finnish brothers who are tasked with mapping out the new border between Russia and Finland after a 25 year war. Both brothers are scarred by the horrible things they’ve seen and done for their country but that does not prevent them from committing an awful crime before beginning their work in a small Russian village. Everyone in the village speaks highly of a sauna located in the outlying woods that can ‘wash away your sins without the presence of god’. Tormented by guilt, both brothers enter the sauna and are soon plagued by horrifying visions of their crimes and nightmarish creatures. The imagery is terrific here but it’s the central question of whether or not people can truly atone for their sins that makes the movie so interesting. And are the visions real or are they simply a by-product of a mind unable to cope with the things it has seen and done? Sauna provides no easy answers and this is a rare case where ambiguity is an asset instead of a cop out.
ALSO CHECK OUT: Black Death
Another horror flick that takes place in the dark ages with most of the action set during the daytime. Sean Bean leads a crew of knights and clerics to investigate a mysterious village that is somehow immune to the Black Plague that is ravishing the country. The townsfolk put their faith in a medicine woman (Game of Thrones’ Carice Van Houten) who seems to know a little too much about the disease and how to stop it. Arguments about science vs. religion are the main focus here and the movie uses its setting to create a palpable sense of mistrust and dread. It’s also a a lot of fun to watch Ned Stark do battle with Melisandre.
Warning: Martyrs is the most brutal, intense, disturbing, and fucked up horror movie I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen Cannibal Holocaust. Several of the movie’s posters contain tantalizing lines from critics that say things like, “Makes Saw look like Sesame Street.” I normally hate cheap blurbs like that, but in this case they are 100% correct. Nothing I or anyone else can say will fully prepare you for what an experience Martyrs is. When I first saw it (actually the only time I’ve seen it) it made me redefine what I thought of as entertainment. How could a movie so violent, depraved, and disturbing be considered entertaining? The answer is that it’s not in the traditional sense but if you can stomach it, it will hold you in its thrall and keep you on the edge of your seat for its entire running time. The best thing about the film is that it never gives you time to breath; a horrible thing happens and just as you’re recovering, something even worse happens. It keeps this momentum going right up until the final shot, which is as haunting as it is puzzling. Not much can be said about the plot without giving everything away so I’ll just give you the set up: the movie concerns two young women who grew up in an orphanage, one of whom was held captive and tortured as a child by some kind of cult. She’s been haunted by this her whole life but believes that she has finally found the culprits and drags her only friend along with her to prove that she’s not insane. Martyrs builds and builds from this premise and throws in things like demonic visions, brutal murders, unspeakable images, and the possibility of a vast and ancient conspiracy. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Now listen up people, I don’t want anyone watching this flick and then coming back and screaming at me for recommending something so sickening. Only watch this if you can stomach it. There’s no shame in turning it off if it fucks with you too much (I almost did). Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
ALSO CHECK OUT: High Tension
High Tension is also brutal and disturbing but it’s nothing compared to Martyrs. So if the latter is too intense for you, give this one a shot. It focuses on two women who take a holiday in the French countryside with the parents and brother of one of them. They’re soon stalked by a psychotic killer and one of the women struggles to keep ahead of him so she can rescue her friend. It’s intense as all hell and contains a twist ending that you will either love or despise.
Asian horror films are frequently off their rockers and Re-cycle is no exception. Writer/directors The Pang Brothers throw everything they can dream up at the screen and the result is a trippy, darkly imaginative, and surprisingly emotional film. It’s a movie that cares about its characters as much as the special effects and that’s rare in any film these days. I’ve heard Re-cylce described as ‘Alice in Horrorland’ and that’s not far off. The movie focuses on a struggling novelist who, for the life of her, cannot get her latest story to work. She keeps throwing pages and pages into the trash until she finds herself in an alternate reality where all the discarded things of our world end up. There’s a section of this realm for all sorts of lost things: the forgotten elderly, suicide victims, lost toys, aborted fetuses and, of course, discarded stories. The toyland is the film’s most imaginative and inventive setting and the land of dead children is the most disturbing. Our hero finds many things she left behind and laments how casual people have become in terms of what they think of as trash. A lost child eventually becomes her guide through the bizarre world and the bond they form is particularly affecting and heartbreaking. We come to care so much about these characters and that makes the denouement very moving. Also impressive is how convincing the world looks. The Pang Brothers only had a two million dollar budget and yet the flick looks better than most big budgeted Hollywood efforts.
ALSO CHECK OUT: The Eye
Also from The Pang Brothers, The Eye is a very creepy and effective ghost story. If you saw the awful remake with Jessica Alba, bury it in the back of your mind and seek out the real thing. A young woman receives an eye transplant that allows her to see ghosts and future tragedies that may or may not happen. The ghosts look great and the film’s final twenty minutes are a tour de force of suspense. And like Re-cycle, the movie cares more about its characters than anything else.
The Company of Wolves
All fairy tales contain an undercurrent of darkness in their moral themes and no film understands that better than Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves. It’s structured like one of those Russian nesting dolls, featuring stories within stories and dreams within dreams. It opens in the present day with a young girl named Rosaleen being left alone by her parents for the first time. She falls asleep and dreams she lives in the woods with her parents and grandmother (Angela Lansbury). Grannie begins to tell her stories of wolves, charming strangers, secret villages, and warns her to “never trust a man whose eyebrows meet”. Since most of the movie takes place in the subconscious, the stories serve as allegories about the dangers of growing up. There are wolves everywhere in life, it points out, and many of them wear sheep’s clothing. But The Company of Wolves is a little more complex than that and mainly deals with a young woman’s search for identity in a world controlled by men. As the movie progresses, we come to realize that her dreams are not nearly as frightening as the things she will have to face in the real world. The movie is also gorgeous, utilizing gothic sound stages and great, creepy practical effects. The fact that it is rated PG is once again proof that a horror movie can be scary without using blood and guts.
ALSO CHECK OUT: MirrorMask
It’s not really a horror movie but it explores some of the same themes as The Company of Wolves with some truly spectacular images. A young girl whose parents work in a circus travels to a fantasy world in the hope of finding a cure for her ailing mother. It’s a little too similar to Labyrinth but writer Neil Gaiman and director Dave McKean have enough wit and creative visuals of their own to make up for it.
Italian horror Director Dario Argento has made a lot of shitty movies in recent years but for a period in the late seventies and eighties, he was one of the greats. Phenomena is his finest film. It stars Jennifer Connelly as a young girl at a boarding school who has the ability to communicate with bugs. There’s a serial killer hacking up students and she teams up with an entomologist (Donald Pleasance) to track down the madman. Connelly is terrific in an early role; you can see why she became such a big star years later. Argento is overly fond of grotesque images and gore but he uses them here as a way to tell the story rather than as a cheap shock effect. It’s a clever idea to have your heroes use bugs to track a killer and the central mystery leads to a terrifying conclusion set in an old gothic mansion. There’s also some shades of Carrie as Connelly uses her powers to enact revenge on some of the bullies at her school.
ALSO CHECK OUT: Suspiria
This is probably Argento’s most well know film so if you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth a look. I don’t think it’s quite as good as Phenomena but it’s close. Jessica Harper stars as a new student at a dance academy that is somehow connected to witchcraft and the occult. The movie has some really terrifying scenes (Jesus, that opening), the central mystery is compelling, and the score is just terrific.
Stephen King’s The Night Flier
This little seen Stephen King adaptation has a lot of fun with the vampire genre. Miguel Ferrar stars as a trashy tabloid reporter tasked with writing a story on a man who is using his plane to land at local airports and drain the owners of their blood. Ferrar thinks it’s all a bunch of bullshit but quickly discovers that his target (who calls himself Dwight Renfield) is the real deal. Do yourself a favor and don’t look up what the villain looks like in full vampire make up; it’s one of the flick’s best surprises. In addition to being a fun spin on the Dracula legend, The Night Flier also functions as a dark satire about the media and how it feeds the public’s desire for the most lurid stories possible. Ferrar’s character is a bit of a vampire himself, feeding off stories of murder, dismemberment, and ritual sacrifice. The final confrontation between Ferrar and the real vampire is nightmarish, gory, and ends with a clever twist on how far people are willing to go get a story.
ALSO CHECK OUT: Near Dark
Long before Kathryn Bigelow won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker, she made this dark western vampire comedy hybrid. Featuring some genre greats such as Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, and Jenny Wright, Near Dark is a fairly subversive take on the vampire genre as it paints a roving clan of vampires more like the Manson family than as traditional movie monsters.
I Saw the Devil
Like Martyrs, this North Korean serial killer revenge flick is not for the faint of heart. That being said, it’s still not half as disturbing as Martyrs. The story focuses on a cop who swears revenge on a serial killer after his fiancee is murdered. His method of revenge is so elaborate and deranged that he becomes as frightening as the monster he’s hunting down. The film is filled with wall to wall action scenes that go for broke and utilize practical stunts and well choreographed fight scenes to get your heart pumping. There’s also a nice touch of dark humor throughout as the killer marvels at how far this cop is willing to go. But what elevates the movie above typical genre fair is the way it shows how fruitless revenge is. The scales can never be balanced no matter how hard you try. It illustrates the truth of that famous saying, “Battle not ye with monsters lest ye become a monster. And if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
ALSO CHECK OUT: Big Bad Wolves
This Israeli thriller is more darkly comic than I Saw the Devil but tackles many of the same issues. A rash of child murders brings together a cop and the father of one of the victims to a remote cabin where they tie up the man suspected of being the killer and vow to torture him until he confesses. The movie doesn’t till you whether he did it or not up until the last shot, which makes the moral dilemma all the more interesting. And it’s impressive how much humor the directors are able to get out of this dark subject matter.
Hear me out here: Psycho II is, of course, not even close to as good as the original but it’s a solid movie in its own right. Best viewed more as a different take on the character of Norman Bates than as sequel, the movie opens with Norman being released from a mental asylum and trying to lead a normal life. His dilemma is compelling because Anthony Perkins makes him one of the most sympathetic killers to ever grace the screen. Meg Tilly is solid in the supporting role of the woman who believes Norman can change and Dennis Franz has fun as the asshole you can’t wait for Norman to chop up. The real reason to watch though, is Perkins. Strangely, this is the role he was born to play and he brings a lot of pathos to this character as he struggles to stay sane. And the film’s ending is as hilarious as it is horrifying.
ALSO CHECK OUT: Psycho III
Yep, Psycho III is good too. Perkins actually directed this one and much of the film is a homage to Hitchcock. There’s references to Vertigo, The Birds, Shadow of a Doubt and the original Psycho peppered throughout. This one functions more as a black comedy than the second one and that’s fine. Don’t bother with Psycho IV though, it’s rubbish. But all of the sequels are leagues better than Bates Motel.
Intruders is a masterpiece and it’s dissapointing that it wasn’t embraced by the public when it came out a few years ago. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent, touching horror movie that creates its own unique mythology and deals with important ideas about childhood fears and where they come from. I guess people wanted to sit through Paranormal Activity 7: Because Fuck You That’sWhy instead. Clive Owen stars as a father whose daughter is experiencing night terrors and is terrified of a figure who comes to her bedroom at night that she calls Hollow Face. Meanwhile, a child in Spain is experiencing similar terrors and his mother goes to a priest for help. The two story lines eventually converge and while its not exactly hard to figure out how they’re connected, that’s not a knock against the movie. The movie isn’t concerned with plot twists so much as it’s concerned with where the monsters under our bed come from. It poses the idea that our parents can pass their own childhood fears onto us without us really even knowing it. And it suggests that if you believe in something enough, your mind has the power to make it real. There are many terrifying scenes throughout the film and Hollow Face is the creepiest monster to come along in many a moon. To use the old cliched line: if you see only one movie on this list, make it Intruders.
ALSO CHECK OUT: The Devil’s Backbone
Guillermo Del Toro’s best movie deals with some of the same themes as Intruders and is leagues better than the overrated Pan’s Labyrinth. It takes place at a Spanish Orphanage in 1939 after the Civil War and concerns a young boy who is haunted by a ghostly child that seems to want his help. None of the scares are cheap, childhood fears are explored in an interesting way, the villain is a very human monster, and the conclusion is quite touching.