Good horror movies are such a rarity these days, they’re almost like a mythical creature—a cinematic unicorn, if you will. Aged fans speak of them as if through a great and terrible fog: “Remember, long ago, when horror movies used to be awesome?” Bad horror movies, on the other hand, are a dime a dozen, stomping recklessly on our horror movie-loving hearts with little to no sympathy.
Indeed, the past ten years have been plagued by PG-13 slasher flicks, torture porn, and most heinous of all, remakes. Every horror movie you’ve ever loved has likely been neutered or worse by filmmakers too unimaginative to come up with their own material. Psycho, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Omen, A Nightmare Before Elm Street – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg, people.
In a few years’ time, they’re bound to remake The Evil Dead Trilogy (hell, they’re already in the process of remaking the first one). In five years, they’ll remake The Lost Boys. In ten years, they’ll remake Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and The Blair Witch Project as a single stupid movie. And then, fifteen years from now, they’ll finally start remaking the remakes, and that’s when the universe as we know it will implode and disappear forever. Good riddance?
Thankfully, there are some classic horror movies so obscure, so bizarre, and so incredibly amazing that, with any luck, they’ll never be remade. It’s called “safety in obscurity” – which is why we’ve carefully crafted the following top ten list detailing the best horror movies you’ve (probably) never seen. Each entry should be a refreshing horror movie experience for you, the quintessential horror movie fan, in this, the era of horrible horror movie remakes, torture porn, and decaffeinated slasher flicks for the overly-caffeinated tweenager.
There are many so-called “masters of horror” (they even made a television series by that name employing said masters to direct episodes), but on almost everybody’s list, you’re bound to find Dario Argento. Phenomena isn’t his best movie – that honor goes to another entry on this list – but it’s easily my second favorite. This also happens to be Jennifer Connelly’s second movie ever – the first being Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time In America, where she played the young Deborah Gelley. It was in that movie that Leone’s friend, Argento, became aware of her presence and decided to cast her in this little ditty. (Because when I see Jennifer Connelly, I, too, think of legions of insects adorning her body.)
The gist of the movie is: Jennifer Corvino (played by Connelly) is being forced to attend a boarding school for girls where the students are being killed off one by one. (Typical boarding school business. No big deal.) Eventually, a forensic entomologist named John McGregor (played by Donald Pleasence) who’s on the case, teams up with Corvino, who just so happens to have the uncanny ability to communicate telepathically with – and on occasion control – insects. McGregor and Corvino utilize this semi-super-power to find the murderer, who happens to be—well, let’s just say that fans of man-murdering troll-babies should be especially pleased. I know I was!
Some of you might describe Audition as torture porn. And, as I plainly stated in my opening paragraphs, I’m no fan of the sub-genre. But while Audition does share some cinematic traits with torture porn – namely, scenes depicting ample amounts of brutal torture – it also has complexity, emotional depth, and an unrepentant sadness at its core.
In movies like, for example, Hostel, I felt as though I was simply watching director Eli Roth kill a bunch of people in various ways for the hell of it and nothing more. The characters, the story, and the filmmaking were all beside the point. Indeed, they seemed only to get in the way of the torture itself, which was, I guess, supposed to be…enjoyable? Or something?
Audition, on the other hand, is really just the sad, sad story of a girl who was terribly abused as a child and thusly turned into a monster. It’s also the sad, sad story of a widower who wants to fall in love again, who wants to move beyond the death of his beloved wife, seven years on. Unfortunately, the girl he chooses to move on with is that monster, and that monster doesn’t like the idea of her beloved loving anyone but herself. Say goodbye to your feet, buddy.
Director Takashi Miike creates some gruesome, hard-to-watch scenes, but he does it, as always, with style. What makes this so much more horrifying to watch than some of his other works – Dead or Alive, Ichi the Killer, et cetera – is how subtle it is with regard to the horrors it presents to us. With Itchi, everything is over-the-top and hard to take too seriously. With Audition, everything feels so real that it’s impossible not to take seriously. I dare you to try.
John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness owes a hell of a lot to H.P. Lovecraft, though it doesn’t explicitly reference any single work of his. (That said, the title certainly brings to mind Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, which was going to be adapted into a feature film by director Guillermo del Toro.)
In the movie, the popular horror novelist Sutter Cane – sort of an amalgamation of H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King – has gone missing, and P.I. John Trent, played by Sam Neill, has been hired to find him (or, at the very least, find his most recent manuscript so his employers can publish it). The search brings Trent to Hobb’s End, a fictional setting used in many of Cane’s works, where he encounters people, places, and real-life nightmares lifted directly from Cane’s books. Eventually, it becomes apparent that John Trent isn’t merely searching for the manuscript known as In the Mouth of Madness – he’s also living it.
In the Mouth of Madness is one of John Carpenter’s lesser-known horror movies after Halloween, The Thing, Christine, and The Fog, but it’s also one of his best – which is strange, considering it was made the same year as one of his worst, the dreadfully boring remake of The Village of the Damned starring Superman (Christopher Reeve).
In Mouth of Madness, from the first reel to the last, there’s this constant sense of something being wrong beneath the surface of what’s going on. As viewers, we only see glimpses of that wrongness, that underlying abomination, but that’s what makes this movie so damn good. Whereas famed filmmaker Stuart Gordon made some fantastic movies based on Lovecraft’s library -films you’ll find on this list – those movies weren’t exactly accurate adaptations. After all, in addition to being incredible horror movies, they were also hilarious half-comedies.
My point is, despite not being a direct adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s work, John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness is the best, most accurate cinematic representation of it as a whole. Time will tell if another filmmaker can usurp John Carpenter – maybe it’ll be del Toro’s At the Mountains of Madness, if it ever gets off the ground again – but for now, Carpenter reigns supreme.
Before Peter Jackson made his zillions upon zillions of dollars with The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, he was known primarily for his quirky horror films – particularly Braindead/Dead Alive. (FYI: In Australia and New Zealand, the film is known as Braindead, whereas stateside it’s known as Dead Alive. I prefer the former.)
Braindead is a horror-comedy about zombies in the vein of Re-Animator (which is also on this list) and Evil Dead 2. In fact, much like Evil Dead 2, the once-pathetic hero of the film utilizes a power tool of sorts – in this case, a lawnmower instead of a chainsaw – to lay waste to the zombie hordes. This movie has every kind of zombie you can think of: regular zombies, old lady zombies, ninja priest zombies, and, of course, the oft-popular baby zombie. Only, unlike most baby zombies, this one wasn’t ever a living baby – rather, it was created because two adult zombies loved each other very much.
Yeah, this movie is strange, no doubt about it, but it’s also incredibly fun. The effects have a particularly nauseating quality, especially when the protagonist’s (viciously mean) mother’s face starts falling off and into her soup, ear first. For fans of Peter Jackson who’ve been disappointed with his work since he left Middlearth – King Kong and The Lovely Bones were not my favorite film experiences – this was back when Jackson was doing naught but extremely original material; when his creativity was obvious in every single frame. Maybe he can do that once more with The Hobbit Parts I and II, but, then again, those are adaptations, too.
Re-Animator, based on H.P. Lovecraft’s short story of the same name, is the tale of Herbert West, an ambitious – if insane – medical student who creates a glow-in-the-dark green formula to revive the dead. West, played by esteemed horror actor, Jeffrey Combs (The Frighteners), is awesome in his inability to see the immoral nature of his scientific breakthroughs. Who cares if you’re turning the dead into monsters when, in point of fact, you’re bringing them back from the dead?
The movie is a zombie film of the highest order, but one where the zombies rarely, if ever, feed on the living. Rather, they turn into mindless, violent beasts that wreak havoc on anyone they come into contact with. They’re not slow, lumbering, and cannibalistic, they’re just dumb and extremely freaking angry. What made Re-Animator so unique at the time of its release was its wicked sense of humor, which no doubt many moviegoers neglected to notice. On top of that, the gore is constant and top-notch, the effects are fantastic for the time, and the movie itself entertaining as all get out.
Everyone loves Evil Dead 2. Heck, I love Evil Dead 2 – it’s probably in my top thirty favorite films. But anyone who has ever seen Re-Animator knows the influence it had on Sam Raimi’s sequel. Watch the scene where they reanimate the cat and just try not to be reminded of Ash’s demon-possessed hand chasing him around the cabin trying to kill him. (To be fair, Re-Animator was, by director Stuart Gordon’s own admission, influenced by the first Evil Dead.)
The one bad thing about Psycho was that it was so good it overshadowed Peeping Tom – that other 1960 horror movie about a serial killer voyeur with psychologically abusive parents who murders the women he’s attracted to. Cinema Studies classes all over the planet are screening this film because it deals, in large part, with the voyeuristic nature of the cinema. One of the film’s biggest proponents, Martin Scorcese, has said that it contains just about all a director needs to know on the subject of filmmaking. Fledgling directors, take note.
Peeping Tom, directed by Michael Powell, follows Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), a man who, in his childhood, was subjected to psychological tests by his father on the subject of fear, which his father also filmed. Now an adult, Mark connects sex, life, fear, and death with the camera apparatus itself, and he kills women he’s attracted to with the knife-edged tripod attached to his camera as he films them. Oh, he also attaches a mirror to his camera so the women he’s killing – with, again, the bladed tripod attached to his camera – can see the fear on their own faces as they die. This guy has thought of everything.
To some, the movie might seem tame by today’s standards, but at the time it was practically banned from theaters and pretty much ruined Powell’s career as a film director. It’s a shame, too. Who knows what the man could’ve done had he been rewarded in the same way Alfred Hitchcock was for Psycho?
House – not to be confused with the less awesome American House (1986) or the House TV show (which I hear is good) – is easily one of the trippiest horror movies of all time. Before its limited release in American theaters last year, the movie, also known as Hausu, had never been released stateside. In fact, it was only released on DVD and Blu-ray as of October 26th, 2010, via the Criterion Collection. The best summation of the film that I’ve read called it “An episode of Scooby-Doo as directed by Dario Argento.” Yeah, that about sums it up.
The plot is fairly simple – a Japanese schoolgirl named Oshare and her six classmates take a trip to her mysterious aunt’s country home to get away from the city. This turns out to be a massive mistake, as the aunt is, in actuality, a kind of evil vampire witch who wants to steal her niece’s delicious youth. One by one, Oshare’s classmates are picked off in the most peculiar ways, most of them eaten by various pieces of household furniture (couches, a mirror, a lamp, a piano, and so on). Plus, there’s a demonic cat and a flying, severed head intent on biting young girls square in the ass – all of which is presented using traditional animation, matte paintings, and collage imagery.
I can’t help but imagine what this movie would’ve looked like were it filmed today. It no doubt would’ve been doused in too much CGI and would therefore be completely uninteresting, or at the very least…not nearly as interesting. Thankfully, it was made 33 years ago in the safety of the 1970s.
Director Nobuhiko Obayashi based the story and its out-of-this-world imagery on the random musings of his eleven-year-old daughter, which brings to mind the epic webcomic known as Axe-Cop. Perhaps if Hollywood and company are all out of ideas, they should start letting the children of the world come up with some new ones.
According to Quentin Tarantino, this is the Psycho sequel that’s better than Psycho. Now, I don’t quite agree with that sentiment, but I am of the opinion that Psycho II is one of the best horror movies -if not the best horror movie sequel – ever made. (Not that there’s a whole lot of competition in this category.Halloween: H20 is okay, I guess. A Nightmare On Elm Street III: Dream Warriors is solid. Evil Dead 2 is awesome, of course, and Phantasm 2 ain’t so bad, either. Am I missing anything?)
Set twenty-two years after the first film, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) has just been released from the mental institution and appears to be, for all intents and purposes, reasonably mentally healthy. Enter the sister and niece of the dearly departed Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh in the first film, who absolutely won’t believe that Norman has been rehabilitated and are hellbent on proving it.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock enthusiast Richard Franklin, who previously made the best Rear Window/Hitchcock-homage ever, Road Games, Psycho II is original, creative, thrilling, terrifying, well-written, well-acted, and most of all, shocking to the extreme. I’m not going to give away the ending, but rest assured, it took me by total surprise when I saw it about ten years ago. It’s one of the most bittersweet, but awesome, film endings I’ve ever seen. Nobody messes with the granddaddy of slasher horror, Norman Bates.
Suspiria is possibly the most beautiful horror move you’ll ever watch in terms of cinematography. Employing Technicolor immediately prior to its discontinuation, every scene is bathed in the most beautiful and vivid primary colors as if reflected through ancient stain glass windows. When blood appears – and oh, boy, does it ever – it pops right out of the screen and practically splatters you in the face, it’s so red and gorgeous.
Indeed, Dario Argento is at the top of his game here, crafting a horror movie mystery the likes of which you’ve never seen before, with a constant sense of dread, suspense, and, most importantly—what the hell is going on? Additionally, it cannot be stressed enough how awesome the music is, composed by frequent Argento collaborators, Goblin. This might seem a trivial point to make, but trust me, it’s not. The music enriches the cinematic experience so much, it has to be heard to be believed.
Frankly, I wrestled with whether or not to include Suspiria on this list, because any true horror movie aficionado knows about Dario Argento and Suspiria in particular, but I came to the conclusion that mainstream fans are probably much less likely to be aware of the movie. Thus, there’s no better place for the movie to be than #2 on this list. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a huge favor and watch it as soon as physically possible.
As for the plot? Three words should sum it up rather nicely: “Ballerina versus witches.”
From Beyond, directed by Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator), is loosely based upon the short story of the same name by H.P. Lovecraft, though it has little to nothing to do with his famed Cthulhu Mythos.
Doctors Edward Pretorius and Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) have built a massive, mad-scientist-looking machine in their country mansion called The Resonator. The Resonator, when turned on, stimulates the pineal glands of those persons within the electromagnetic field surrounding the machine, thereby granting them the ability to perceive a plane of existence that overlaps with our own and the many strange and ghastly creatures within. As awesome as that sounds, trust me when I say, it is not.The catch is, when a person’s pineal gland is stimulated, those aforementioned creatures gain the ability to perceive their presence as well, and they don’t take too kindly to human beings.
From Beyond is hands down the craziest, most creatively messed up horror movie I’ve ever witnessed. From beginning to end, Stuart Gordon and company continually outdo themselves with flying fish monsters, sadomasochistic melting men, swollen pineal glands that pop out of your skull and have a mind of their own, brain eating, and on, and on, and on. Seriously, by the end of this movie, you’ll be both exhausted and exhilarated by every horrifying and, yes, hilarious scene.
The creature effects are incredible—reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing, only slimier and more over-the-top (as impossible as that sounds). The cinematography is beautiful with its abundance of bright pinks, reds, and greens. And don’t forget this incredible line of dialogue: “It—bit—off—his—head…like a GINGERBREAD MAN!”
Trust me when I say, From Beyond is a movie that, once you’ve seen it, you’ll never be able to forget it. And that’s a good thing. Unless you hate awesome horror movies, in which case…I guess it’s a bad thing?
So, how’d we do, folks? Do you agree with our list of the ten best obscure horror movies? Or maybe we weren’t obscure enough? Make your own list and let us know where we got it wrong and where we got it right – if we did at all.
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