October is a month meant for binge-watching horror movies, and no sub-genre has proved as enduring and resonant as the slasher film. Inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween is the film most responsible for popularizing the filmmaking trend.
Carpenter’s use of killer’s POV camerawork, minimalist synth score and promiscuous teens getting slaughtered by a masked knife-wielding maniac would inspire a slew of sequels as well as influence other iconic films, including Friday The 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Child’s Play, Candyman, Scream, and countless other knockoffs.
The slasher film market has become so over-saturated over the years that many of the more creative, bizarre and unique titles never achieved the heights they deserved, as they were drowned out by lesser copycat titles that did little to advance the medium. With that in mind, here are 15 underrated slasher horror movies you should check out this month for your Halloween festivities.
15. Maniac (2012)
Although this remake of William Lustig’s 1980 horror film lacks the scuzzy, low-rent seediness that made the Joe Spinell-starring original so repugnantly effective, it’s certainly an inspired re-interpretation.
Elijah Wood plays Frank Zito, a disturbed loner who takes a downward spiral after the death of his prostitute mother. Unable to cope with the memories that robbed his innocence and made him incapable of trusting the opposite sex, he goes on a depraved killing spree which always ends in scalping his female victims. But things become complicated when he develops feelings for Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a beautiful photographer who forces him to confront his psychopathic urges.
What makes Maniac so ambitious is its narrative device: nearly all the film is shot from Zito’s point-of-view, which is both a technical challenge as well as a tall task from our leading man. But Wood and director Franck Khalfoun both rise to the occasion, along with Arnezeder, who is a more nuanced and emotionally resonant than your average scream queen.
14. Student Bodies (1981)
An odd mix of slasher film and satire, Student Bodies is the tale of The Breather, a mysterious serial killer who kills teenagers engaged in sexual activity. Not content to use the standard slasher weapon, the murderer uses methods as random as paper clips, a chalkboard eraser, bookends, or whatever else is handy at Lamab High School. The education facility goes on a witch hunt to locate the Breather’s identity, focusing on faculty and student alike, and the results are gloriously random.
Student Bodies is the first film to satirize the slasher film, in particular referencing films including Halloween, When A Stranger Calls and Friday the 13th (as well as other horror fare like Carrie and The Shining), goofing on genre elements like the link between promiscuity and body counts. While some jokes and scares are hit and miss, it has instant cult appeal, and it deserves credit for its novel take on the genre.
13. Someone’s Watching Me (1978)
While John Carpenter’s Halloween is considered the cinematic building block of the slasher genre, he also directed Someone’s Watching Me, a television movie that also shares creative DNA with the sub-genre. Essentially Carpenter’s lost film (it was actually made just before he began production on Halloween), it stars Lauren Hutton as Leigh Michaels, a recent L.A. transplant who begins receiving ominous phone calls and strange gifts from a stalker.
When she discovers the fate of the previous tenant in her new apartment, she realizes that her life is in danger, and must take drastic action to survive.
Someone’s Watching Me is another example of John Carpenter making the most out of a small budget, while also being restrained in terms of content given its made-for-television format and censorship limitations. But he still knows how to build atmosphere and suspense, and the combination of his directorial gifts with Hutton’s strong performance anchor a creepy suspense thriller with an unhinged killer.
12. Visiting Hours (1982)
When William Shatner stars in a horror film, you know you’re in for something special. And the hospital-based slasher film Visiting Hours is an entry weird and tawdry enough to be graced by the overdramatic thespian’s presence.
Shatner plays Gary Baylor, the boss of Deborah Ballin (Lee Grant), an outspoken feminist journalist who is nearly killed by Colt Hawker, a misogynist vicious psychopath (played by the ever-creepy Michael Ironside). While Ballin recuperates in the hospital, Hawker is still on the loose, determined to finish the job, while also stalking Sheila Munroe, Ballin’s attractive young nurse (Linda Purl).
But neither Munroe or Baylor believe Ballin’s suspicions that Hawker is intent on having his revenge, leaving everyone in danger. While Visiting Hours is a tad on the campy side, Ironside gives it a vicious edge that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It also makes for a perfect double feature with 1981’s Halloween II, another underrated hospital-based slasher film.
11. Office (2015)
A South Korean film that works as both a vicious horror flick and a bleak satire of corporate culture, Office (not the television series, obviously) spins a lot of plates very effectively, offering a multi-layered narrative that keeps the viewer on edge until the final frame.
After affable corporate employee Kim Byeong-Gook (Bae Sung-Woo) kills his family with a hammer, Detective Jong-Hoon (Park Sung-Woong) tries to piece together a motive by interviewing his co-workers, including the dutiful and ambitious Lee Mi-Rye (Ko Ah-Sung), who was mentored by her rogue associate.
But the investigation grows even more complicated…and dire: Byeong-Gook is still on the loose. When his fellow employees begin to go missing, Jong-Hoon realizes that the pressure from his murder suspect’s profession may have driven him to snap. Can the detective stop him before he kills again? Packed with some intense jump scares and multiple plot twists, Office is a slasher film that deserves more worldwide exposure.
10. Tourist Trap (1979)
Everything about Tourist Trap is designed to make you feel a bit queasy. When the film involves a weird wax museum with killer dummies, you know it’s gonna be creepy. Tourist Trap combines the slasher genre with the stranded-in-the-woods genre, when a group of teens’ (played by Jocelyn Jones, Jon Van Ness, Robin Sherwood, and Tanya Robert) car breaks down while traveling through the desert.
Their relief at finding a gas station gives way to fear, when it seems that the owner (played by Chuck Connors) doesn’t take kindly to newcomers, even though he operates a roadside attraction featuring a collection of automated mannequins and other strange dolls. When the group begins splitting up and dropping dead, the tension ramps up. Throw in a masked killer, a weird country-themed score and unsettling visuals, and you have a cult oddity that author Stephen King declared “wields an eerie spooky power, as wax figures begin to move and come to life in a ruined, out-of-the-way tourist resort.”
9. Alice Sweet Alice (1976)
Pre-dating the slasher craze by a few years, Alice, Sweet Alice is the first of three entries on this list that are actually proto-slasher films, setting many of the stylistic templates that would go on to define the genre. The film, directed by Alfred Sole, concerns Karen and Alice Spages (played by Brooke Shields and Paula Sheppard), young sisters attending a Catholic Girls School. When Karen is murdered by a masked attacker, suspicion is immediately leveled at her jealous sister, who often tormented her sister while wearing a similar mask.
Sent to a criminal psychiatrist, Alice claims she’s innocent, and that the killer is still out there. When her grief-stricken father (Niles McMaster) ventures out to investigate, he unravels a bizarre and twisted mystery. While made in America, Alice, Sweet Alice is a slasher film imbued with religious imagery and Giallo influences, while also drawing inspiration from Nicolas Roeg’s Venice-set murder-mystery, Don’t Look Now. This gives it a distinct visual and thematic tone that makes it stand out from all other films of its type.
8. When A Stranger Calls Back (1992)
While the original 1979 thriller When A Stranger Calls has one of the most chilling opening scenes in movie history (“Have you checked the children?“), the rest of the film leaves much to be desired. It seems the filmmakers of the made-for-cable follow-up When A Stranger Calls Back realized this as well, because the sequel manages to sustain the tension throughout the entire film.
The plot centers on Julia (Jill Schoelen), a co-ed babysitter traumatized after narrowly surviving an attack by a deranged killer. When she begins to suspect he’s stalking her again after several years of inactivity, she turns to a college counselor for help. Luckily for her, the counselor is none other than Jill Johnson (Carol Kane), the surviving heroine of the original When A Stranger Calls, who knows a thing or two about stopping psychopaths dead in their tracks.
7. Alone in the Dark (1982)
What do you get when you cast esteemed actors like Martin Landau, Jack Palance and Donald Pleasance in a horror movie? The answer is Alone in the Dark, a shockingly little-known slasher gem that has flown under-the-radar for far too long.
The trio play a group of escaped mental patients who go on a killing spree full of hormonal teenagers, home invasions, punk rockers, crossbows, pyromania, hatchets and more (giving ample room for special effects makeup maven Tom Savini to show off his grisly skills). There’s also an effective layer of gallows humor, with each actor hamming up their roles with devilish glee.
But there’s a method to director Jack Sholder’s portrayal of madness. Landau, Palance and Pleasance offer more psychological complexity than your average slasher villain, making their fully realized portrayals of mentally ill sociopaths all the more unsettling.
6. Fright (1971)
Our lone British entry on the list is a truly underrated gem. Babysitter Amanda (Susan George), thinks she’s got an easy gig: take care of a young child while the parents are at dinner. What starts off as as simple babysitting assignment grows terrifying when the child’s biological father (Ian Bannen) shows up after escaping from a mental institution. With the baby’s parents unable to be reached, and a boyfriend woefully unprepared to defend her, Amanda must rely on her wits to survive the evening.
Fright hits so many familiar slasher tropes that one could find it derivative of more popular films, but it’s just the opposite: it arrived before the slasher trend had truly begun, and should instead be lauded for being a progenitor of the genre. George makes for a terrific scream queen, and Bannen is downright terrifying as a deranged killer with no reservation about harming a young woman and child. It’s gore-free, relying only on expertly paced tension.
5. April Fool’s Day (1986)
When Muffy St. John (Deborah Foreman) hosts a group of college friends at her island estate over Spring Break, traditional debauchery ensues, but with a twist: Muffy has rigged an elaborate series of practical jokes to keep everyone on their toes during an otherwise relaxed stay. But soon, her brand of humor turns off-putting, going from mundane gags like whoopee cushions to more disturbing and unsettling set pieces. Things really go off the rails when people go missing, only to turn up dead later. Is Muffy to blame, or is there a true murderer in their midst?
April Fools Day is a combination of slasher film, black comedy and whodunit that confused many viewers expecting a more straightforward horror exercise, and were put off by a plot twist requiring some generous suspension-of-disbelief. Despite its mixed critical response, the film has grown a cult following over the years, with some overdue accolades. Whatever you do, avoid the straight-to-video remake and stick with the original.
4. Bloody Birthday (1981)
Bloody Birthday is one film that would be nearly impossible to make today. The plot involves three young children (played by Elizabeth Hoy, Billy Jayne, and K.C. Martel), all born prematurely during a solar eclipse. For some strange reason, this shared event robs them of empathy, and the trio become violent children leaving a trail of mayhem in their sleepy Southern California suburb.
The image of three smiling innocent looking young kids picking off teenagers and adults with knives, arrows and guns is unnerving enough, but the movie (directed by Ed Hunt) plays like a whacky ’80s after-school special, with adults who are clearly outmatched by young killers with no moral compass. A black comedy with plenty of gore, sex, and other questionable material (and featuring an appearance by Earth Girls Are Easy‘s Julie Brown), Bloody Birthday is a truly unhinged, unpredictable and unforgettable slasher film that must be seen to be believed.
3. The Burning (1981)
Based on an urban legend, The Burning takes place at Camp Blackfoot, a summer camp rocked to its core after Cropsy the caretaker is nearly burned to death after a teenage prank goes horribly wrong. While he survives, his anger and pain turn him into a vengeful murderer who sets his violent sites (and trusty set of gardening shears) on another summer camp.
The Burning is notable not just for its tense tone and jump scares, but from the sheer wealth of talent involved in the film, including composer Rick Wakeman, future stars like Holly Hunter and Jason Alexander, and producers the Weinstein Brothers, who would go on to start Miramax Films and Dimension Pictures.
This collision of talent makes The Burning more than your average slasher, with effectively gruesome effects and chilling tension. While it may not be the most famous film of the genre, it is one of the best reviewed, boasting a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
2. Pieces (1982)
Pieces is the weirdest and most unintentionally funny slasher film ever made. But the film’s inherent flaws and narrative issues only add to its charm. After young Timmy is shamed by his mother for playing with a nude jigsaw puzzle, he murders her, but convinces the police that it was a violent intruder that killed her instead.
40 years later, an unseen attacker with a picture of Timmy’s mother (and jigsaw puzzle in tow), begins murdering women at a nearby college. The authorities begin rounding up a group of suspects, including a seedy groundskeeper (Paul Smith) and a smarmy professor (Jack Taylor). Could either of them be Timmy all grown up? It’s up to a group of police detectives and a group of gangly, awkward college student to find out.
What elevates Pieces above your average slasher is its bizarre randomness, featuring characters like a Kung-Fu professor, poor dubbing (the film was shot in Spain), and a truly insane finale, which defies any sense of logic or narrative payoff. Pieces may not scare you too much, but that’s mainly because you’ll be laughing too hard. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a train wreck. You just can’t look away.
1. Black Christmas (1974)
While Halloween is known as the film that started the holiday themed slasher craze with a vaguely supernatural killer, Black Christmas did it first four years prior. Set in a sorority house over winter break, it concerns a group of students (Margot Kidder, Olivia Hussey, Andrea Martin) who begin getting spooked after receiving a slew of menacing phone calls.
After Kidder’s character grows agitated and eggs the caller on, one sorority sister goes missing, and they soon realize the caller is an actual threat… and in much closer proximity then ever imagined. A meditation on mood, pacing and tension, Black Christmas has had less of an impact on audiences than filmmakers, who have hailed it for its pioneer status in horror. It also shows director Bob Clark as one of the most versatile filmmakers in cinema, as he went on to make a sex comedy (Porky’s) and a much more wholesome Yuletide tale (A Christmas Story).
Well that wraps up our list of underrated slasher movies you should check out this month! Which titles would you add to the list? Be sure to tell us in the comment section.
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