We all know about mega-hit horror movies that have spawned whole franchises, such as “Halloween”, “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “The Conjuring”. But what about the more obscure horror movies? Those which are critical successes but commercial failures, or films that were just plain overlooked? Here is my list of some of the best underrated horror movies.
10. They (2002)
Director Robert Harmon is best known for the seminal Rutger Hauer movie “The Hitcher”. However, this suspenseful supernatural thriller was released with just a whisper. The plot revolves around a woman who remembers that as a child she was afraid of monsters in the dark.. now the monsters are back! The film has some standout moments, including the opening and a very scary swimming pool scene that owes a debt to the Jacques Tournier classic “Cat People”.
9. Mean Creek (2004)
This could have been marketed as “Deliverance for kids”. Some bullied children decide to befriend their tormentor and, along with a much older sibling, take him into the woods where they plan to humiliate him. Things do not go as planned. Some terrific performances from the kids and some wonderful plot twists make this a classic. Yet somehow it failed to ignite moviegoers. Surely it deserves a second life on DVD.
8. Wolfen (1981)
Based on a Whitley Strieber novel, featuring an Oscar-winning cast that includes the likes of Albert Finney and Gregory Hines, and directed by none other than the director of “Woodstock”, this not-a-werewolf story is an eerie, atmospheric creature-feature. The distinctive night-vision “monster’s- eye point of view” shot would prefigure the Schawzenegger hit “Predator” years later. A must-see for horror lovers.
7. Fright Night II (1988)
The original was a hugely enjoyable breakout hit and the first of the 1980s vampire classics. Yet while it continues to delight audiences, the sequel proves much harder to get hold of. Which is a shame, because it’s a great film. There are some terrific vamps here, including one very ugly werewolf! Roddy McDowell once again is superlative as Peter Vincent, making this a great sequel. Sadly neglected.
6. Island of Lost Souls (1932)
Everyone knows the Universal Monster movies such as James Whale’s “Frankenstein” and Todd Browning’s “Dracula”. But this eerie adaptation of H.G. Wells’ tale “The Island of Dr. Moreau” gets less respect than it deserves. Charles Laughton gives a bravura performance as the mad doctor who turns animals into men. Nowadays the film might be a little creaky in parts, and you have to wonder why they didn’t use a thrilling soundtrack in places. But the beast-men are fantastic, and the whole mood is one of dreamlike terror. Well worth tracking down.
5. From Beyond (1986)
Fresh from the success of “Re-Animator”, director Stuart Gordon (who would later go on to direct “Honey I Shrunk the Kids”!) employed some of the same cast in this very loose adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s extremely short story. Sadly, it isn’t as well known as it deserves to be. Dr. Tillinghast invents a mahcine that allows you to see into another dimension. Unfortunately, its inhabitants also see into ours! Cue two hours of great pre-CGI SFX, and a plot that just keeps on getting darker. The movie is true to the spirit of the original story, but with added Barbara Crampton (for those who like that sort of thing)! The movie and the effects were much more “out there” in the mid-80s. But the acting and sardonic wit are enough to keep modern audiences interested as well.
Dario Argento is a name horror fans will be familiar with, mainly for the classic “Suspiria”. However, in my opinion “Tenebrae” is actually the superior film. The plot is simple and echoes other Argento films: an American horror novelist travels to Italy where he finds someone is offing people in the manner of his own books. But this audacious horror/thriller contains some masterful set pieces, such as the single take shot of a murder on a multi-storey building, and the final twist is awesome. Add to that the music of Goblin, and this is a masterpiece of horror cinema that should be rediscovered!
3. Hellraiser II
“Hellraiser” was the film that launched Clive Barker’s career. Yet the second film is in many ways a better movie. The story takes off where the first film ended, with a power-crazed psychiatrist bringing back from the dead the first film’s memorable femme fatale, played by Claire Higgins. This time she’s more fatal than femme, lacking skin for most of the movie. Character actor Kenneth Cranham steals the show, however. We also get to see where the Cenobites come from, which is cool. Everything is bigger in this sequel, including the imagination, yet most people only remember the lamentable, straight-to-video sequels.
2. Prince of Darkness (1987)
John Carpenter made horror history with “Halloween” in 1978, and directed such cult hits as “The Thing”, “Starman” and “Big Trouble in Little China”. “Prince of Darkness” has all the hallmarks of a great Carpenter movie: it’s a siege in a building, there are great special effects, the cast is solid, especially Donald Pleasance as the priest, and it also features Alice Cooper! Yet for some reason it remains one of Carpenter’s more obscure movies. Perhaps a scathing review by UK film critic Barry Norman at the time did its box office chances some damage. Which just goes to show critics don’t know anything, because this film is one of Carpenter’s scariest, with a shock ending that will play on your mind for some time to come. You’ll never look at your reflection quite the same way again!
1. Martin (1978)
My final film on this list of underappreciated horror movies is by the King of the Zombies himself, George A Romero. George passed away recently, and with him passed a great horror director. Most people know him for his hugely influential “Dead” trilogy of zombie films, which virtually created the shambling, flesh-eating ghoul as a modern myth in popular culture. However, my favourite Romero film is actually the much quieter “Martin”. Played by a young John Amplas, Martin is a character study of a modern vampire… or is it? Amplas is superb as the cold, alienated killer who may or may not be one of the undead. The film itself is shot in documentary style. It has this wonderfully earnest quality to it, and will leave you guessing for a long time to come. If you haven’t seen “Martin” I recommend it. It’s an uncompromising movie, even in the rather uncomfortable opening scene. But it’s also one of the very best vampire movies ever made.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this selection of obscure classics. All of these movies deserve much more love, so go out and rent or buy them. Just don’t watch them alone in the house at night, and especially not in the dark!