It’s time for the final installment of our Halloween Horror Nights and we’re focusing on the best / least well-known horror films we want others to know.
Let’s bitch it out…
Everyone knows The Exorcist. And The Shining. And The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And Halloween. In fact, when Hitflix recently released their list of the 100 greatest horror movies of all time, the most notable thing about the list was how familiar the top films were (certainly the top 10). These are all great horror films, but there’s something special about discovering a brand new horror film – one that will make your blood run cold because you don’t know its ins and outs. While I can’t guarantee that the films on this list are new to you, here’s a list of horror films that rarely come up in conversation with friends when they’re looking for a good scare.
As always, let’s start with the Honourable Mentions:
- Black Christmas (1974): All praise the original slasher (’cause it ain’t Halloween, folks). This Canadian gem is responsible for establishing all kinds of tropes: the killer point of view, the calls from inside the house, and the Final Girl, Jess (Olivia Hussey). Plus it is remarkably forward in social values: a B-plot is all about how Jess wants an abortion despite her tortured pianist boyfriend’s wishes. Come for the many, many scenes of poor Clare rocking in the attic with a bag over her head and stay for the feminism!
- Don’t Look Now (1973): I stumbled on this classic a few years ago while researching puzzle films and was stunned at director Nicholas Roeg’s style and vision. The film – a relatively simple tale of a grieving father who begins to wonder if his dead daughter might still be alive – is steeped in iconography and atmosphere, particularly the symbolic use of the colour red. The majority of the credit belongs to Roeg, whose style is legendary (the sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie is notorious – so much so that the film is often remembered best for it, as opposed to its twisty/turny narrative and shocking climax).
- Haute Tension / High Tension (2003): Part of the New French Extreme (see below), Haute Tension is a great tension-building French slasher set over the course of a single night. A serial killer murders everyone at Alex’s (Maïwenn) remote home and abducts her, leaving her best friend Marie (Cécile De France) to follow and rescue her. The film lives up to its title – it is incredibly tense and well-executed, though the last act twist is so widely divisive it ends up being a love it or hate it viewing experience. Still, this is the film that put French director Alexandre Aja on the map and at least three quarters is worthy watching.
- It Follows (2015): It’s a pretty big deal for a film that’s been out less than 12 months to claim a spot on this list, but It Follows is the kind of instant-classic that makes horror enthusiasts salivate. The tale of a death-like apparition that is passed along sexually doesn’t work for everyone, but for those who like their horror methodical, tense and exceptionally well-directed, this is a gem. In fact, the real question is whether it truly is unappreciated!
- Near Dark (1987): As an ardent hater of Westerns, I wanted to dislike Kathyrn Bigelow’s horror/Western hybrid when I first screened it. But I can’t. This masterpiece liberally borrows from then-husband James Cameron’s Aliens cast (they were shooting at the same time), so Near Dark has a stellar genre cast that includes Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen and Jenette Goldstein, as well as a young Adrian Pasdar as the vulnerable hero. This tale of a meek wannabe who is recruited into a family of roaming vampires is a gorgeously broody, rockerish film. Shockingly (and sadly) it is also one of the few well-known horror films directed by a woman.
- Tenebre (1982): What horror list would be complete without a giallo entry? This film from Italian director Dario Argento isn’t his best known (that would be Suspira or possibly Deep Red), though it does adhere to all of the tropes of Italian slashers, including Freudian flashbacks, an unnerving focus on eyeballs, black gloved killers, and close up, point of view shots. Tenebre isn’t the best of Argento’s late 70s/early 80s oeuvre, but it scores points for a truly ludicrous third act twist that reshapes this tale about a successfully novelist who is targeted for death by a homicidal fan. My favourite scene is the fantastic tracking/crane shot over the roof of a house as two murders are committed.
- Other notables you might have missed (from previous lists): The Descent, Black Sheep, Slither, Braindead, and Hellraiser 1 & 2.
5) Candyman (1992): It is quite possible that the film adaptations of Clive Barker are seminal horror experiences for me because I watched them (and was terrorized by them) as a child. Blame my sister, who had no mercy in what she was willing to expose me to. We’ve already discussed my fondness for the Hellraiser films in the first Halloween Horror Nights post, so it falls on today’s post to acknowledge Candyman.
This is one of the more overt socio-political commentary horror films of the 90s, which is kind of remarkable considering there’s a general consensus that this isn’t a particularly well regarded decade for the genre. Barker’s story has been relocated to the projects – Chicago’s Cabrini Green, to be specific – where the titular urban legend dictates daily life of the low-income black residents. Enter Helen (Virginia Madsen, my childhood crush), an idealistic white doctoral student who investigates a story she doesn’t understand – socioeconomically or mythically. On top of its pointed critique of race relations and the power of stories, the film is (surprise) also a great gothic love story. Finally, one of Candyman‘s enduring legacies is as one of the few films to acknowledge the presence and charisma of Tony Todd, who has been wasted in nearly every horror project since. Shame.
4) Grace (2009): This is a film that I never see on other people’s lists, but it’s one that I quite enjoy and it’s definitely under the radar. Grace tells the story of Madeline (Jordan Ladd) whose husband and pregnancy are both lost in the opening car accident. Madeline opts to carry the baby to term and deliver it stillborn, despite concern from all of her friends and family. On the day of the birth, however, the baby survives and for a short while Madeline pulls back from her depression…until the baby becomes sick and requires “special feedings.” The trailer above is too spoilery for my liking, but it’s not hard to figure out where Grace is heading; it trades in a lot of the familiar genre tropes about hiding a hideous secret rather than admit the truth about your loss. With that said, however, Ladd delivers a really tricky performance as a woman willing to do anything for her newborn and the film’s mise-en-scene – carefully colour coded by room & season – is really well constructed. It’s a solid little creepy film that more people should watch…unless you’re expecting, of course.
3) Trick’r’Treat (2007): This “anthology before anthologies were cool again” indie film sat on the shelves for ages (it was produced in 2007 and collected dust until it was unceremoniously dumped on DVD in 2009). Its skittish release is a huge shame because not only does the film feature a bevy of viable stars that would have helped sell it, but also because this is actually a massively entertaining film.
A lot of anthologies feature a series of short films that are held together by a broad theme or linked by recurring actors, but the connections are typically a bit slight. Trick’r’Treat is the creation of a single writer/director, Michael Dougherty, who constructs the film as a series of interconnected puzzle pieces. Sure, there are the usual framing devices and individual stories play out in large, self-contained blocks, but the film really works best as a single product, not just a series of loosely connected tales that vary in quality (see: the recent TIFF film Southbound). What’s best though, is that Trick’r’Treat is both smart, funny and scary, with enough gore to satisfy without alienating audiences who prefer their horror to be a little more accessible.
Due to its unconventional release, Trick’r’Treat never really had an opportunity to pick up more than a cult audience on video and that’s a real shame. It’s also something that deserves to change.
2) A L’interieur/Inside (2007): This film falls into a movement of films affectionately referred to as New French Extremity by horror critics and enthusiasts. Dominated predominantly by French films (Ils, Frontieres, Calvaire, Martyrs and Haute Tension – mentioned above), A L’interieur is a favourite because it is a tight, taunt, gruesome little movie.
In the prologue pregnant heroine Sarah (Alysson Paradis) loses her husband in a car accident (that’s two on this one list if you’re keeping track!). After the accident we jump ahead to the night before her due date. Sarah opts for a quite night in, but the psychotic nameless woman, La Femme (Béatrice Dalle) who arrives at her doorstep claiming the baby is hers has other plans. What follows is a visceral tour de force extremely bloody and graphic cat and mouse closed quarter war between the women. A l’interieur is definitely not be for the faint of heart (if you handle a shot of scissors perforating Sarah’s abdomen from the baby’s point of view then you can handle it), but it is easily one of the most terrifying, gripping horror films of the last two decades.
1) Let The Right One In (2008): This is the little Swedish film that could. A festival darling, this adaptation of the book of the same name took the art house and horror crowd by storm in 2008 with its depiction of a pre-teen female vampire Eli (Lina Leandersson) and the little boy, Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) who falls in love with her. They’re both outcasts, living in a frigid winter world in fear of being discovered (he’s bullied, she’s a monster) and together they find a kind of solace in each other. To say much more about the narrative, which takes a number of disturbing – and gory – twists and turns would affect the viewing experience of the uninitiated so I’ll just go with exclamation marks: The hospital fire! The pool scene! The implications of the final scene on the train!
Ultimately this moody, beautiful and heart-breaking film is masterfully paced and produced. It’s not just a great entry in the horror canon, it’s a great f*cking film.
- Sidebar: Unlike last week’s comparison of The Thing (1982) and its ruined-by-shitty-CGI prequel, the US remake, Let Me In (2010), with Chloë Grace Moretz and Kodi Smit-McPhee is also quite good (though the CGI when it does pop up is terrible).
Bonus addition: The best underrated horror TV is Penny Dreadful, which really picked up its game in S2 to build on its gorgeous visuals to become an absorbing character drama (bow down to Billie Piper!). Don’t even talk to me about American Horror Story.
And that is it for our Halloween Horror Nights. Be sure to check back Sunday for our debut review of STARZ’s Ash vs Evil Dead.
Black Christmas (1974)
Under The Skin (2014)
Ginger Snaps (2000)