The 10 Best Horror Movies You've Never Seen
Because how many times can you watch The Exorcist anyway?
Of all the fundamental genres in film, it’s horror that might inspire the most obsessive behavior among fans. While fare like The Bicycle Thief or Duck Soup may languish in their Netflix queues neglected for yet another night they may prefer instead to take in a viewing of The Human Centipede: First Sequence. Why? Because they’ve already seen Rosemary’s Baby, Nosferatu, Hellraiser and any number of other classic horror greats offered by the streaming service more times than they can recall. Besides, the “serious” fare will be there in the morning while the tug of the horror fix is undeniable. In a nutshell, horror fans have their priorities straight, but what’s one to do when the content begins to dry up? Sure, they’d wait for the release of the next Let the Right One In or The Cabin in the Woods, but what to do with the space in between when seemingly all that’s left to be seen is direct-to-DVD hogwash? Hopefully these films can provide some relief.
10. The Loved Ones
This Australian gore-fest is at first glance easy to write off (or praise, depending on your perspective) as mere torture porn, but The Loved Ones aims to overturn the conventions of the genre. Writer-director Sean Byrne cleverly and repeatedly finds a way to subvert any expectations via an innate skill to recognize where a more typical splatter film would go in any given circumstance. A mash-up of Pretty in Pink and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the story concerns a suicidal teen who changes his tune when death comes looking for him on prom night - in the form of a doting psychopath he previously rejected and her equally deranged father. Kidnapped and spirited to their secluded digs, he is forced to endure a nightmarish alternate prom of their own making. Described by its creator as “basically Hell under a disco ball“, it is free of seemingly intelligent characters taking bewilderingly stupid actions that ultimately lead to their demise, contains a few legitimate surprises, and Byrne takes great care to flesh out his central characters before offering them to the chopping block, then whisking them away again. Or not.
9. Kill List
Kill List does not immediately reveal itself as a horror film. In its opening act a straightforward crime picture about two British contract killers who share a long-standing history, the film gradually lets on that its concerns are somewhat more sinister than simple murder-for-hire. In fact the only initial horrors to be found are of the domestic variety - hit man Jay spends his days at home psychologically immobilized by an undisclosed past trauma, endlessly complaining to his wife about his questionable back pain while she complains in turn about their lack of income, their shared misery soon spilling out uncomfortably at an awkward dinner party. So Jay reluctantly returns to work to ease tensions at home. Soon mysterious pagan symbols are cropping up amidst the dysfunction, Jay’s buried stress is manifesting itself increasingly violently, and the ominously grave clients are speaking in riddles. From there it’s a short jump to the ritual human sacrifice.
While the film succeeds on every level its brilliance is most evident in the plotting, where nothing is given away too soon. Viewers are playing catch-up until after the credits roll, when a few minutes’ retrospect will produce the “aha” moment which brings the rest of the twisted story into relief, with more clues oozing out of the woodwork on repeated go-rounds.
Guillermo Del Toro’s directorial debut is akin to those of Tarantino, Lynch, or Jeunet in that it aggressively establishes that director’s particular style. A dark fairytale played out against a modern backdrop in the vein of some of his better-known works (The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth), Cronos presents a parable of vampirism-as-drug-addiction steeped in Del Toro’s signature atmosphere and innovative storytelling. These traits he would later cultivate, but here they show uncommonly strong promise for a first feature, pumping fresh blood into the same old vampire story.
What’s that you say? You’d prefer a film which includes a flame throwing penis, competitive speed-eating, self-mutilation, and a dash of taxidermy fetish? An all-too common request, but fortunately here is the picture for you. Is it extremely off-putting? Only at first, as the masterful Taxidermia soon settles into the most grotesquely inspired allegory this side of von Trier’s Antichrist. A pleasurable gross-out novelty yet at the same time a deathly-serious indictment of Hungarian politics, and one step further of global capitalism at large, Taxidermia rests at the center of the intersection of serious art and gore-hound sensibilities. There’s also a pigman.
Revered filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer’s first talkie, this 1932 effort is still near enough to horror’s silent era to retain much of its dreamy surrealism - fittingly enough, since the film’s full German title translates to “Vampire: The Dream of Allan Grey”. Vampyr tells the rather murky story of the titular Grey, his arrival in a strange town, and his involvement with a family besieged by an ancient monster’s curse. The film was unconventional in its time, employing innovative camera tricks to render its spooks and executed with an open-ended plot structure. This ambiguity was likely why Vampyr wasn’t as immediately well-received as Dreyer‘s previous effort, silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc. History has been kinder, with the film garnering much acclaim over the passage of years. Still, closing in on a century later, rumors of missing expository footage persist. If such footage exists or existed the film works just fine without it. Vampyr doesn’t need a very linear narrative - it’s like a bad dream committed to celluloid. It’s right there in the (German) title.
Based on bizarre happenings at the turn of the century in Fort Worth, Texas, this semi-factual film relates the tale of a young woman who, after a celebratory night of drugging and drinking, strikes a homeless man with her car, leaving him impaled and critically wounded on the remains of her windshield (hence the snappy title). Fearing reprisal by the law, she heads not for the hospital but to her own garage, where she apologetically leaves him to bleed to death, then goes about her business as if the car were in the shop. Extreme gore ensues.
It quickly becomes obvious, however, that there’s a higher purpose to the proceedings. A professional caregiver by day, she indifferently perpetrates slow murder by night. Recently laid off and as a result evicted, he’s only technically homeless - it’s been less than a day. By the time she starts to delude herself into believing that she’s the victim, here, the biting satire is all too clear. This unruly 2007 outing comes courtesy of Stuart Gordon, a career-long peddler of high-brow camp who peaked early with 1985’s landmark film Re-Animator. Stuck, then, saw a return to form for Gordon, who really hadn’t been firing on this many cylinders since.
Not to be confused with the more widely seen but far less inspired 1986 horror with Norm from Cheers and Bull from Night Court, this earlier film from Japan shares the title and haunted house setting, but little else. It bears even less resemblance to Jaws, a film whose rampant success led to House being commissioned in the hopes of a Japanese equivalent. In that respect it was a failure, but it’s the only failure of this demented ADHD masterpiece.
That’s not to say its pleasures are easily earned. Most viewers are likely to question what they’ve gotten themselves into during the opening scenes, which assault with exaggerated snatches of nickelodeon humor and plumb the outer reaches of camp into something beyond, even as they impress with remarkable visual innovation. But when the film takes its u-turn and the house in question begins eating its guests, the astonishing energy of all that silliness is transformed into something much more disturbing without losing a step. It’s an absurd dichotomy which has no right to succeed but does in spades, a kaleidoscopic experience which defies description, and a truly unique cinematic freak-out not to be missed.
There’s no doubt horror maestro George A. Romero will be best remembered for his Dead series, having kicked it off with two of the most iconic and important entries in cinema history. Night of the Living Dead invented the popular conception of the zombie and paved the way for countless knockoffs and homages, while Dawn of the Dead is so lionized by aficionados it may well be the Citizen Kane of midnight movies. And both, while inherently scary stories at their most basic, are also cleverly disguised reflections on the societal structures of their times. Between the two, and in their combined shadow, Romero made Martin.
A cauldron of swirling themes, it’s the most pragmatic of vampire movies, where the real villain is less a creature of the night than the slow decay of modern civilization. Sure, there’s the requisite bloodsucker, but sunlight only causes him to blink. His implements of death are not fangs and mind-control; they’re straight razors and sedatives. And there’s the wizened vampire hunter, but are we so sure he’s not just an unhinged, abusive old coot? Shot against an economically devastated suburb of Pittsburgh and rife with emotionally devastated characters, Martin frames its monster as simply a product of its environment.
2. Red, White & Blue
Red, White & Blue gets under the skin long before its characters start losing theirs. Emotional wreck Erica trolls the clubs of Austin, Texas, immersing herself nightly in booze-fueled sex romps, taking on any comers. She meets punk musician Franki, and in no time he’s having a go at her, although so is the rest of his band - the girl can’t say no. Except to Nate, an Iraq War veteran she obviously has a deeper chemistry with, who’s shunted aside to observe her promiscuous behavior from afar. All of this psychosexuality unfolds with a greasy air that recalls the exploitation films of the 70’s, and the audience is duly disturbed. All before they even realize they’re watching a horror flick.
As its characters’ motives become clear, so too do Red, White & Blue’s true colors, but as the subject matter begins to sync up with the atmosphere, the film’s agenda becomes clouded. Is this torture porn after all? And if so, why have we been spending so much time with these peoples’ latent emotions? The ingenious answer is there if the viewer feels like digging, but if not they can always sit back and enjoy the carnage.
1. Spider Baby
A strikingly obvious forefather to Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses, Spider Baby pushed the envelope in its day more than Zombie’s divisive backwoods nightmare ever could. In place of the murderous Firefly clan, we have the murderous Merrye clan, who suffer from an unprecedented genetic defect causing severe mental regression, the result of untold generations of inbreeding. In place of the thrill-seeking twenty-somethings who bite off more than they can chew, we have distant relatives and their lawyer, come to reclaim the Merrye estate. In both films, we have grind house icon Sid Haig.
Directed by cult luminary Jack Hill and anchored by a late-career performance from horror legend Lon Chaney, Jr., Spider Baby is alternately zany and unsettling, serving up rape, incest, and cannibalism, all without losing its sense of humor. It’s not really so much to cause today’s desensitized generation to bat an eye, but this was produced in 1964, when the Beatles’ haircuts were enough to cause controversy. An exemplar of the drive-in pulp era, it informs not just Zombie’s work, but deranged classics such as The Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, and is criminally less remembered.