As Halloween approaches, you’ll be inundated with more spooky stories and fiendish films than you can possibly consume before October 31. However, if you’re looking for a creepy movie to curl up with that doesn’t star a madman named Freddy, Jason, or Michael, we have a solution. These underrated, under-seen, and unusual horror films offer something scary that strays from the norm. You’ll still find supernatural terror, psychopathic killers, and ghastly creatures in our slate of 15, but these original, beautifully photographed stories are refreshingly different from the usual Halloween fare.
This indie effort from Brad Anderson, who went on to direct episodes for Boardwalk Empire and The Killing, is one of the more underappreciated horror films of the past few decades. Oozing atmosphere, the film is utterly chilling, thanks in no small part to the setting — an abandoned mental institution where an asbestos cleaning crew uncovers the dark secrets of the building’s past. Session 9 doesn’t rely on the usual horror film scares and immerses audiences in its quiet terror and intense performances — including (surprisingly) David Caruso.
The Call of Cthulhu was distributed by the H.P. Lovecraft Society — a group of superfans who want to bring the author’s works to a wider audience. The idea of making a silent film in the modern era may sound a little strange, at least it did before The Artist swept the Oscars, but the lo-fi approach works well with the atmospheric story. This is one of Lovecraft’s most enduring tales, faithfully recreated for the big screen, with style to spare.
Everyone knows George Romero is the king of zombie films, but the director tackled a different classic monster in this 1976 vampire flick. A mysterious man stalks the streets of Pittsburgh for his prey. Martin isn’t a vampire in the traditional sense, and the film is more of a character study than an outright horror film, but it has its share of disturbing moments — including a memorable home invasion scene. Certainly one of Romero’s most underappreciated films, Martin demonstrated that the filmmaker could frighten us with more than ambling, undead flesh-eaters.
One of the best entries in the recent spate of extreme French horror cinema, Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s brutal and shocking film Inside is not for the squeamish. A young pregnant woman spends Christmas alone after the death of her husband and is attacked by a strange, unhinged woman (Béatrice Dalle) who will stop at nothing to take her unborn child. There are three ways you can upset an audience in a horror film without fail: kill an animal, put a child in danger, or place a pregnant woman in harm’s way. Bustillo and Maury succeed brilliantly by doing the latter. This is an intense and upsetting film that showcases everything that’s right with French new wave horror cinema.
Michele Soavi’s meditation on love and death, Cemetery Man, was one of the last Italian horror films to emerge from the country’s second golden age, proving that sometimes the best is saved for last. Rupert Everett shines as Francesco Dellamorte, the put-upon groundskeeper at the Buffalora Cemetery. Francesco and his partner Gnaghi go to great lengths to hide the fact that the dead are rising from their graves in order to keep their jobs and maintain the peace. Darkly funny, gory, and stylishly shot, the film heralded the arrival of a major talent in Soavi — who unfortunately hasn’t made another horror film, but we haven’t given up hope.
The great George C. Scott stars as Detective Kinderman in the third entry of the Exorcist series, written by Exorcist novelist William Peter Blatty. Kinderman investigates a new supernatural crime that finds Father Damien Karras back from the dead. The film is better than the second Exorcist entry, but is overshadowed by the original. Scott’s performance is mesmerizing, and his scenes with Brad Dourif (who plays the “Gemini Killer”) are surprisingly well performed for a genre effort. Exorcist III contains one of the greatest jump scares in horror movie history and standout cinematography from Gerry Fisher.
There were many zombie films that arrived in the wake of George Romero’s 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead. Sadly, many of them were terrible. However, Jorge Grau’s 1974 effort Let Sleeping Corpses Lie was nearly as good as the film that inspired it. Like Romero’s work, Grau’s movie featured young heroes facing a zombie outbreak, with a social commentary slant. Ray Lovelock and Cristina Galbó star as the young couple who must face the zombie apocalypse head-on when authorities refuse to believe their story about the dead coming back to life. Grau was once hailed as part of the grand renaissance of Spanish cinema in the 1960s, but his work on this film tarnished his reputation unfairly.
This 1963 film was the debut of José Mojica Marins’ infamous Coffin Joe character. At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is beautifully shot with multiple nods to German Expressionist cinema. The film was considered incredibly shocking in its day, because Coffin Joe was an atheist living in Catholic Brazil. (He eats meat on Lent in public and other “scandalous” things, which outraged local authorities.) Marins’ film was considered one of the first gore movies, alongside Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast, although At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is not nearly as gruesome as HGL’s work. Marins would reprise the character Coffin Joe in a number of other films over the years that are also worth seeking out.
May united frequent collaborators, underrated director Lucky McKee and star Angela Bettis, for an oddly beautiful tale that blends psychological horror, dark comedy, and an endearing (albeit creepy) love story about a lonely outcast and her desperate attempts to connect with the people around her.
John Erick Dowdle’s Poughkeepsie Tapes, written with brother Drew Dowdle, still hasn’t had an official Blu-ray or DVD release, but this disturbing found footage story about investigators hunting for a serial killer is one of the better films to employ the technique and is worth the wait.
Beautifully understated and featuring an evocative performance from Zohra Lampert, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is a haunting and heartbreaking story of a troubled woman’s strange encounter with a mysterious stranger at a country estate. The eerie setting mirrors Jessica’s emotional breakdown.
Precocious teens Anne and Lore attend a convent school for girls, but worship Satan in secret. It’s all fun and games for the young women — who seduce strange men, read dirty stories, and refuse to eat their communion wafers (gasp) — until their summer vacation ends and things take a darker turn. Don’t Deliver Us from Evil (a fantastic title) is the Frenchiest film ever made about worshiping the devil.
Cult Canadian film Pin is utterly strange and wonderful. A schizophrenic man, Leon, grows attached to a life-sized medical dummy that his physician father used to teach the children of the family about the birds and the bees (apparently dad’s assistant nurse learned something, too, since she uses the model as a sex toy). Those scenes are bizarre enough, but things get weirder when it appears that the dummy is instructing Leon to commit murder.
Part social realist character study, part horror film, Gerard Johnson’s Tony is a haunting look at the mundane, but fascinating world of a repressed, psychopathic man who exists in limbo between London’s underbelly and the tedious every day. The The’s Matt Johnson contributes the perfect score for the director’s gritty photography.
Gothic is a surreal, strange, and perverse dramatization of the night Mary Shelley wrote her classic horror novel Frankenstein, filmed in a way that only Ken Russell could summon up. Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, and Natasha Richardson feel as though they were born to play Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe, and Shelley.