Not all horror movies are created equal. While horror remains a niche genre, it has always remained popular. Whether you’re wading through Netflix or scouring a video store, sometimes it is very difficult to find a horror movie a true horror fan hasn’t seen. Even tougher: finding a good horror movie they haven’t seen.
It feels like for every 200 horror movies out there, only one is worth the time to sit down to watch. Nothing can ruin a day (or night) quite like a disappointing flick. When you’ve gone through your Poltergeist, your Exorcist, your The Shining, and your The Conjuring, you might not know where to turn. Luckily for you, we’ve done your homework for you.
Below are 20 underrated horror movies that should be on the radar of every fan out there. Some are on the funny side, some are bizarre, but most are just plain old good. Chances are that you’ve heard of at least a couple on here: it is not our goal to prove we know more than you do. We are simply looking to highlight some great movies for this Halloween season (or whenever you need a good fright!). Here are 20 Underrated Horror Movies Every Horror Fan Need To See.
20. Jacob’s Ladder
One of the smartest horror movies out there, Jacob’s Ladder is fraught with disturbing imagery, tense thriller-like suspense, plot curveballs, and emotion. Directed by Adrian Lyne (of Fatal Attraction and Flashdance fame) and written by the man who wrote Ghost and The Time Traveler’s Wife, it is plain to see how this wouldn’t be just a run-of-the-mill horror film. The film revolves around Jacob Singer (played by Tim Robbins), a Vietnam vet and postal worker attempting to cope with flashbacks to both Nam and his dead son. To make matters worse, he is beginning to see horrors the likes of which couldn’t exist in real life, and is being pursued by a number of people… or is he? The movie also features a veritable “who’s who” of actors you’ll recognize (Ving Rhames, Eriq La Salle, Danny Aiello, Jason Alexander, and Elizabeth Peña). And Jacob’s son is played by a child actor that you’ll need to see to believe.
Frequently a resident of bargain bins, this movie is not one to overlook. If you haven’t seen it, watch it, but be prepared to be stunned into silence afterward. As of the writing of this article, a remake of Jacob’s Ladder (starring Jesse Williams) is on track to be released in 2017.
This is another movie that you’ve likely come across at one time in your life or another. A somewhat tumultuous relationship between the film and its distributor cut Pumpkinhead‘s ability to perform well at the box office. Even with that, it spawned 3 sequels, and is also approaching a remake next year. The movie is the first, and one of only two, feature films directed by special effects legend Stan Winston (the other is called A Gnome Named Norm and stars Anthony Michael Hall).
The movie upends the traditional teens-in-the-woods motif by having a farmer, played by Lance Henriksen (Bishop in Aliens), work as both the sympathetic character of the film and the antagonist. The creature is haunting looking, and the movie (not without its warts) is moody and atmospheric. If you are looking for something to get you into the spooky spirit of the season, you could do far worse than Pumpkinhead.
18. From Dusk Till Dawn
It may be hard to swallow that a movie written by Quentin Tarantino, directed by Robert Rodriguez (Machete, Desperado), and starring George Clooney could be considered underrated, but that is the truth. The movie spawned two direct-to-video sequels and a cable television show which is currently in its 3rd season, but none of it has so far lived up to the genius and the lunacy of the original.
Clooney and Tarantino himself play the Gecko Brothers; two bankrobbers on the run and wanted for murder after Richie (Quentin) busted Seth (George) out of police custody. The plan is to head down to Mexico and buy their way into a criminal safehaven. The movie plays like a typical Tarantino-esque crime movie until the Geckos and their hostages (who include Harvey Keitel and Juliette Lewis) wander into the wrong bar (scratch that, the really wrong bar) after crossing the border. A gob-smacking blend of inventive violence, truly shocking scares, and trademark Tarantino dialogue, the only thing that stops it from topping the list is its relative popularity and endurance as a cult favorite. No amount of hyperbole is too much for this movie, and no true horror fan should wait any longer than they have to to see it.
Phantasm is another better-known movie (noticing a trend here?) that just simply hasn’t gotten enough recognition from the broader horror community. Written and directed by Don Coscarelli (Bubba Ho-Tep, John Dies At The End), Phantasm features a pretty absurd plot even by horror standards. The local mortician, played iconically by Angus Scrimm, is suspected of being responsible for a series of mysterious deaths. Young Mike, his older brother Jody, and their friend Reggie investigate, only to find out that “The Tall Man” is not just killing people, but also turning them into shrunken zombie slaves (who look awfully similar to the jawas in Star Wars). The Tall Man uses several mysterious floating silver balls (with blades projecting from them) as his murder weapons. Silly, right? Well somehow in the able hands of Coscarelli, things don’t seem quite so outlandish.
Phantasm has maintained a sizable cult-within-a-cult audience. It managed 3 sequels (including 2016’s Phantasm: Ravager), and Scrimm was a beloved fixture of the horror convention circuit right up until his death at the beginning of this year.
Candyman seems to have a tenuous hold on its horror icon status, and we included it in this list just to give it a little bit of a nudge. Based on a story written by horror-meister Clive Barker, the titular Candyman is a hook-handed murderous spirit that is summoned into the world by saying his name five times in the mirror (think Bloody Mary). Tony Todd earned status in the pantheon of great slashers for his effort in this series (spawning two sequels), and forever giving him a home in the hearts of horror fans everywhere. The character himself earned the nickname by being smeared in honey and stung to death by bees by a lynch mob (Candyman was the son of a slave).
The movie has aged rather well considering its early-90s pedigree. If you are looking for a slasher but have had your fill of Freddy, Jason, Michael Meyers, and Leatherface, then maybe it’s time to say “Candyman” five times in the mirror.
15. Fade To Black
Fade To Black is probably the first esoteric selection on the list, but that certainly doesn’t make it any less worthy of being included. The movie (which is currently out of print) was awfully ahead of its time when it came out in 1980. The slasher genre was still fresh, having been shaped into the form we know it by today via Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But Fade To Black put a very human face on insanity and murder, turning it in on the audience itself.
The main character is also the serial killer, Eric. He is a bullied loner who is obsessed with old films (and we are treated time and again to stock footage of old movies and Eric quoting scenes instead of interacting with people on a human level). When he is stood up on a date with a Marilyn Monroe-lookalike, he snaps, and begins to kill people while portraying characters from other movies. That Eric is consistently switching up his M.O. is a breath of fresh air. While it definitely didn’t make sense to do a sequel (watch the movie to understand why), it is a shame that there could not have been more movies that used this same gimmick. Considering horror fans are among the most rabid and involved movie fans around, Fade To Black remains a clever satire of both its genre and its audience.
14. Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things
Another self-aware title, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things is more comedic than the previous entry. Directed in 1974 by Bob Clark (A Christmas Story, Porky’s, Black Christmas), the movie focuses on a film crew working on a movie. For filming purposes, the cast and crew travel to an island that houses a cemetery for criminals. The director proceeds to dig up the corpse of a man named Orville Dunworth, and ropes the rest of the film crew into a magic ritual in order to resurrect Orville. When the ritual doesn’t appear to work, the director uses the corpse in order to play pranks on the rest of the crew. Unbeknownst to everyone, the ritual did work, re-animating the rest of the criminals on the island.
Obviously done on a shoestring budget, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things carries an amateurish charm not often seen in movies as imaginative and well-made as this one. The multiple layers to the story may confuse the viewer on occasion, but it is a feeling that won’t last long, and will often be followed up by a gasp or a chuckle. Done early in Clark’s career, the film portended the great things to have come from the unfortunately departed director.
13. Cannibal Apocalypse
Smack dab in the middle of the cannibal craze of 1970s/early ’80s Italian splatter films comes this bizarre little nugget of a film. Many of the Italian cannibal movies focused on tribes in remote parts of the world, using xenophobia as a device to enhance fear. With Cannibal Apocalypse it is returned Vietnam vets who have a taste for human flesh. John Saxon (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Enter the Dragon) is the protagonist of the film and, himself, a veteran. A phone call by a fellow vet (bizarrely named Charlie Bukowski, after the poet) that had bitten him in Nam triggers Saxon’s latent cannibalistic trauma, causing flashbacks and a flesh craving.
The cannibalism turns out to be viral (and so the argument can be made that this is a zombie movie, only with living zombies like 28 Days Later), and spreads rather quickly. The movie is bleak and the pacing is a bit uneven, but it is just out there enough and well-done to hold itself as both a bastion and an outlier of the Italian splatter scene. Bonus points for the Vietnam scenes and the gratuitous use of a flamethrower.
12. Tales From The Hood
An anthology horror film from the 90s (and boy howdy does it reek of the 90s!), the wrap-around story focuses on three gang members who travel to an inner-city mortuary to acquire a load of drugs in possession of the mortician. While there, the mortician weaves tales based on the corpses and bric-a-brac inside the mortuary. As with many relics of the 90s, the stories (while horrific) tend to be heavy-handed in lessons of social justice: racism, police corruption, domestic abuse, recidivism, and more.
There are a number of scares that make up for the more drawn out stories. By far the most traditional (and scary) of tales finds Corbin Bernsen as a racist politician in the deep South who resides in a former plantation house. Punchy and disturbing, the story introduced us to some of the most underrated dolls in all of horror (just ask anyone unfortunate enough to have watched the movie as a kid).
11. The Abominable Dr. Phibes
Have you ever seen a psychedelic art-house 1970s interpretation of art deco? What if we told you that it was also a light-hearted and gruesome little jaunt that featured one of horror legend Vincent Price‘s signature performances and also starred Joseph Cotton (Citizen Kane)? How about they throw in a creepy, wind-up, full-sized robotic band and some epic organ music? Interested yet?
You will never see another movie quite like The Abominable Dr. Phibes, even the very solid sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again. We would say the movie captured an age and place better than any other movie, but we still can’t figure out what that age and place is. Visually, the movie is stunning, and prone to sequences and shots only to highlight the sets and props and visual symmetry (think Wes Anderson doing a horror movie). The tone of the film is very British; a dry sense of gallows humor and moderate buffoonery that allows a very large metaphorical playground for Price to romp in.
10. The Serpent and the Rainbow
A criminally overlooked film in the late Wes Craven‘s oeuvre, The Serpent And The Rainbow takes the concept of zombies right back to its roots in Haitian voodoo. The movie is a heavily fictionalized adaptation of the thoroughly gripping non-fiction book, Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie, by Wade Davis (really, we can’t recommend this book enough).
Bill Pullman plays a Wade Davis-esque character: a scientist drawn to Haiti when he hears of a drug that the houngans and bokors (‘witch doctors’) are using to zombify people. The movie is wrought with morbid hallucinations and terrifying scenarios, as Pullman’s character is put through the ringer, only to come out the other side (or does he?). The imagery is haunting and the set pieces and scenarios are frightening in ways that most horror movies only ever dream of. The film lacks the schlocky elements of Craven’s other material from around this period (Shocker, The People Under The Stairs, etc.) and it is an absolute treat to see what Craven is able to produce when he removes the humor from his horror.
9. Tales of Terror
Another anthology film, the story follows loose adaptations (and mash-ups) of the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. Directed by Roger Corman and released in 1962, each of the three stories star Vincent Price in wildly different roles, showcasing Price’s versatility and ability to do both drama and comedy. The film might have been shocking and horrific back in the day, but as with all the other Corman/Price/Poe movies (there are a lot of them), it now holds a sort of quaint charm not unlike the concept of Disney attempting to do horror in the Mary Poppins era.
The movie also stars acting heavyweights Basil Rathbone and Peter Lorre. It is Lorre’s story that is the real standout of the film; a hybrid of The Black Cat and The Cask of Amontillado. Lorre plays a belligerent drunk named Montresor who, in any other movie, would have stolen the show. He crashes a wine tasting event and matches wits with the foppish dandy Fortunato Luchresi (played with a comic fury by Price). Fortunato helps Montresor home and immediately develops designs on Montresor’s wife. What happens next is sheer gothic horror gold.
This delicious piece of schlock and gore is often mistakenly attributed to Wes Craven. While he didn’t direct it, he did work on it as the executive producer. Many are apt to dismiss the film as a near-shameless clone of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, and they would be partially right. The villain, an unearthed djinn (evil genie), contains nearly unlimited power and carries a warped and ironic sense of sadism in the ways that he deigns to kill people. The film is ably directed by legendary special effects man (and writer of the original story that Tarantino adopted for From Dusk Till Dawn), Robert Kurtzman. Kurtzman only has 5 directorial credits to his name, and this is the only one with any sort of legacy.
The movie’s strong suit is the gory and imaginative ways in which people meet their death. We would list them off, but most of them are so shocking we wouldn’t want to spoil anything. If you are looking for a brutal supernatural horror movie with a Freddy Krueger-ish monster that doesn’t require a whole lot of thought and emotional investment, we recommend The Wishmaster. The movie did go on to spawn a few sequels that all have bright spots, but are okay to ignore.
7. Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight
Demon Knight was likely both a beneficiary and victim of its namesake. The film was released near the tail end of HBO’s iconic Tales From The Crypt series. While the movie does begin with a great intro featuring the puppet Cryptkeeper, the remainder of the film would have ably stood on its own as a legendary horror flick. What the branding did do, however, was allow the casting to focus on great actors rather than big name draws (although you’ve most assuredly seen many of the actors in other films and shows).
The movie focuses on William Sadler’s Brayker, a mysterious drifter that finds himself out in the middle of nowhere in the desert at an isolated motel. He is pursued by “The Collector”, a demon portrayed amazingly by Billy Zane (whose performance brings to mind and rivals Michael Keaton’s in Beetlejuice). “The Collector” attempts to retrieve something from Brayker by means of demonically recruiting the guests and staff of the motel, leading them to become demons themselves. The gore and comedy are in line with the very best episodes of the television series, and the scares are effective and come often. Don’t let the name put you off, this movie is anything but a shameless cash grab.
6. Cemetery Man (Dellamorte Dellamore)
This bizarre film manages to both be extremely art-house and a highly effective horror comedy. Directed by horror auteur and Dario Argento disciple, Michele Soavi (The Church, Stagefright). In the film, Rupert Everett plays the caretaker of a small cemetery in northern Italy that has the unfortunate (and never explained) problem of the dead coming back to life. Part of his caretaker duties involve shooting the zombies and keeping the cemetery’s secret under wraps. At a funeral, Everett’s character falls in love with the widow of the recently deceased. Tragedy strikes, and Dellamorte (Everett) must cope with the fact that his love is now one of the undead.
As the film goes on, it becomes more and more bizarre. Dellamorte’s partner in the cemetery only eats spaghetti, only says “gna”, and begins to court a decapitated head. At one point, Dellamorte is confronted by death itself. And really, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you want something off the beaten path and something that will appeal to more than just horror junkies, Cemetery Man fits the bill just fine.
5. H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon: Book of the Dead
Try saying that name 5 times fast! This movie is the rare entry on the list that was released direct-to-video (proving that they’re not all just junk). The wraparound story stars horror legend Jeffrey Combs as a fictionalized version of staple horror writer, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, in an Indiana Jones-esque adventure to confiscate the titular book. The stories, which all are based on or rooted in the Lovecraft mythos, seem to come from the book itself.
Each of the stories is directed by a notable director: Christophe Gans (Silent Hill, Brotherhood of the Wolf), Shusuke Kaneko (the Death Note movies, and a couple Godzilla and Gamera movies), and Brian Yuzna (Society, Bride of Re-Animator). There are disturbing effects galore in the film, as people in the film seem to be more likely to be some sort of goopy monster than an actual person. Cheesy at times (unintentionally), the film does deliver legitimate scares. While this may be a nostalgia pick, it is validated by having won a Saturn Award for Best Home Video Release.
Stuart Gordon is a name most horror fans associate with the all-time classic, Re-Animator. But Gordon is far, far more than just his runaway cult favorite. Gordon has amassed a litany of off-kilter and under-the-radar movies in his time working in the industry (not to mention having written Honey, I Shrunk the Kids). For some reason, Dagon is a late-period Gordon movie that has never really gotten its due as a horror icon.
The film stars a Jeffrey Combs look-a-like, Ezra Godden, who experiences a boating accident in the waters off the coast of Spain. He and his girlfriend go ashore to a little fishing village to get help, only to find that the village harbors a dark secret and some of the weirdest looking people you’re ever likely to see. The film ably adapts Lovecraft’s source material, but plays a little closer to The Shadow Over Innsmouth than Dagon itself. The suspense is non-stop, the performances are great, the monster effects are grotesque, and the gore and violence is brutal.
3. The Orphanage
The Orphanage was the breakout debut feature film for Spanish director J.A. Bayona (director of the upcoming and already highly-acclaimed A Monster Calls and a future installment of the Jurassic World franchise). The film is gothic horror in the truest sense, and is both insanely beautiful and haunting and highly emotional. Of course, what else could you expect from a movie that features a family living in a former orphanage for handicapped children?
Laura, herself a former resident of the orphanage, dismisses her son’s musings about imaginary friends, only later to find out the friends aren’t all so imaginary. Her son, Simon, disappears and the haunts increase, as Laura looks high and low for her son. To do any more describing of the movie’s goings-ons would be a disservice to the movie, and to you, the potential viewer. What we’re trying to say is, really, just watch the film; you won’t regret it (but you might need to sleep with the lights on). The mask of ghostly orphan Tomas (as seen above) is perhaps the most frightening mask in all of horror-dom.
2. Tombs of the Blind Dead
Not many horror films escaped Spain in the 70s to wash ashore in the States for horror fans to gorge on. Unlucky for us all, Spanish horror of the era (though very good in its own right) doesn’t have quite the cultural cache of the Italian scene. Tombs of the Blind Dead is a terrifying and gorgeous example of supernatural horror done right. The story takes place in Portugal (where the movie was filmed) where a dark secret is accidentally unearthed by the sultry Virginia (Maria Elena Arpon).
A nearby castle is home to a sect of Templars who arrived back from The Crusades as evil devil worshipers that practiced human sacrifice in an effort to obtain immortality. The folk surrounding the castle revolt and hang the Templars until birds have pecked out their eyes. Unfortunately for the modern day residents, the black magic practiced by the Templars worked, and they have come back to terrorize the land and feast on human blood. The great plot device that makes the Templars stand out from the pack of monsters in horror is that, because they are blind, they must work off of sound in order to hunt their human prey. Far from a perfect movie, Tombs is well worth an investment of your time. You are more than welcome, though, to ignore the subpar (but excellently-titled) sequels!
1. In the Mouth of Madness
It may well be sacrilege to say, but In the Mouth of Madness likely shares the title of being the true masterpiece of John Carpenter‘s career alongside The Thing. The film is the most expert, to-date, portrayal of the type of cosmic dread horror perfected in H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. The movie focuses on Sam Neill’s John Trent, an insurance investigator sent to look into the disappearance of missing horror author, Sutter Cane. Cane is the golden goose of a publishing house (think Stephen King on steroids, but with the story themes of Lovecraft).
The investigation takes Trent on a road trip to New England, to a little town that isn’t on the map, but is mentioned and alluded to in Cane’s stories. Reality quickly disintegrates and it becomes difficult to tell what’s real and what’s Cane. Trent, a steel trap-minded skeptic, unravels as he is confronted by unspeakable horrors. The frights and scenarios in the movie are sick and brilliantly original, and come at you at such a pace that it will be impossible to tell which is your favorite. A post-modern epic for the ages, it is only a matter of time before the world comes around to In the Mouth of Madness.
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