Chances are, you’re probably bored with the same ol’ selections on the tube. (That is, if you can find any worth watching that haven’t been played to death, or if any cable channels are actually showing horror flicks during the Halloween season.) Sure, I love Freddy, Pinhead, the (original) Wolfman and all those other homicidal old friends as much as the next nut case, but sometimes, you gotta switch up the menu. With a few weeks left until Halloween, there’s still plenty of time to scout out some unexpected treats to gobble up on DVD – or VHS… for the really obscure films – to host a horrorfest of your own. After all, you can only sit through Friday the 13th so many times.
While there were a few movies I would have loved to plunk in here, they were either too commonly shown on the television during Halloween (i.e. Psycho, Bram Stoker’s Dracula), too ecclectic and expensive to track down (Clive Barker’s Rawhead Rex… The cheapest which it can be purchased for is $76 on VHS! Hello, economically feasible DVD re-release already?!) or they weren’t straight-up horror, but more along the lines of film noir (Sunset Blvd. and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane). Regardless, I attempted to pull from a wide variety of horror subgenres when compiling this list, so hopefully, there’s something for everyone’s tastes!
That said, here are some of my recommendations for horror films you may not have seen that are worth digging around for (in descending order with the most recent films listed first). Happy Halloween!
1. The Devil’s Rejects (2005)
The Devil’s Rejects is one of those rare films that’s better than its predecessor, in this case, Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses. It continues the saga of the demented Firefly family, focusing on its patriarch, clown makeup-sporting Capt. Spaulding; his psychotic, thrill-killing daughter, Baby; and his adopted son, Otis P. Driftwood, an eloquent, yet utterly batshit maniac who may enjoy killing even more than Baby. The Firefly family is oddly likeable, in spite of the fact that they kill for no real reason other than for kicks. Then again, it’s hard not to like a bunch of lunatics who converse about “Tutti-fuckin’-Fruity” ice cream, lament being labeled as a fornicator of poultry, and stress the importance of “Top Secret Clown Business.” The Devil’s Rejects is easily one of the best films of any genre – not just horror – in terms of character development, writing, story, and direction. If you haven’t seen it, it should definitely make its way into your Netflix queue.
2. Strangeland (1998)
Released in 1998, Strangeland made a great social commentary early into the internet age. Snider’s script was oddly prophetic, forseeing not only the To Catch a Predator-esque pitfalls of what was once dubbed the “Information Superhighway”, but the emergence of extreme body modification breaking the mainstream surface.
Additionally, at a time when the genre was dominated by “teen horror” flicks, the film’s anti-hero Captain Howdy (played to the hilt by Snider himself) – a tattooed, pierced, and technology-savvy mad man with a shamanistic streak — was a throwback to the days of wisecracking horror movie icons with a personality à la Freddy Krueger.
3. Nudist Colony of the Dead (1991)
What’s not to love about a low-budget zombie film that’s also a musical!? Made on a shoestring budget, there is very little actual nudity in Nudist Colony of the Dead, unless you count the awful polyester zombie “birthday suits” worn by the singing, dancing, decomposing zombies.
The premise of this fantastically bad film revolves around the undead former residents of Sunny Buttocks Nudist Camp who turn on the gang of religious zealots that condemned their peaceful colony. Having decided it’s better to be expired than fully attired, the nudists indulged in a suicide pact and return from the dead. Having been buried right at the site of their beloved Sunny Buttocks, the undead nudists wreak havoc on the hapless bunch of Christian day campers – the children of those who condemned them. Even better, they sing, dance, and even rap for these repressed teens before devouring them!
Although Nudist Colony of the Dead has the feel of a Lloyd Kaufman/Troma film, it was actually made by writer/director Mark Pirro who brought the world such gems as the Polish Vampire series and Queerwolf in addition to roving the country giving college seminars on low budget filmmaking.
4. Exorcist III (1990)
Everyone heralds The Exorcist as one of the greatest horror films of all time. Not taking anything away from its revolutionary-for-its-time status, but Exorcist III is sorely underrated as a sequel and a horror film. It picks up with the rather unique torment of Father Damian Karras’ body and soul as laid out by the demon he had exorcized. Additionally, the script for Exorcist III was based on Legion, William Peter Blatty’s sequel to his novel The Exorcist.
Jason Miller reprises his role as Father Karras and George C. Scott gives a tremendous performance as Detective Kinderman, a man of conviction set upon the task of finding out the identity of the serial murderer known as “The Gemini Killer” (yet another casting coup with Brad Douriff!) – and his potentially otherworldly origins.
There are very few gruesome scenes in the film, but when they crop up, are highly effective. Overall, the film carries a very disturbing, supernatural atmosphere and doesn’t really need blood or gore. Beyond that, George C. Scott’s performance really makes the film. Scott’s portrayal of a very human, very emotional man underscores the theme of Good vs. Evil and the shards of each that exist within each person, waiting to be brought to the surface. While elements of the original Exorcist can be laughed at, there’s very little (unintentional) humor to be found in Exorcist III.
5. Misery (1990)
Chances are, you’ve probably seen this adaptation of the Stephen King novel. If you haven’t, you’re missing out. In a rare Academy Award acquisition for a horror flick, Kathy Bates deservedly earned a Best Actress Oscar for her role as the romance novel-obsessed Annie Wilkes.
In Misery, Wilkes happens upon a car wreck containing her favorite author, Paul Sheldon (James Caan) and takes him into her home. What is initially perceived as a kind gesture soon becomes a nightmare for the author.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more cringe-worthy movie moment that doesn’t involve blood than when Annie Wilkes “hobbles” Paul Sheldon. Moreover, Misery manages to be both brutal and funny at the same time. Caan’s low-key reactions help to further sell Bates’ contrasting, manic portrayal of Annie Wilkes. In turn, Bates get to drop such verbal gems as “You’re a dirty birdie” and “He didn’t get out of the cock-a-doodie car!” She’s so socially awkward, you’d almost feel sorry for her… If she wasn’t such a fruitcake.
6. Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986)
Poltergeist II is far creepier than its predecessor. Some of the film’s most disturbing moments can be attributed to the skeletal Julian Beck’s portrayal of the demonic Reverend Kane. (Incidentally, Beck was a rather remarkable avant garde actor, having created The Living Theatre which still carries on to this day under the direction of his widow, Judith Molina. On a related note, Molina played Grandmama Addams in the first Addams Family movie before Carol Kane stepped into the role in Addams Family Values.) The fabled “Poltergiest Curse” also adds to the willie-inducing aura of this film with many of its cast members having died shortly after the film was made.
In Poltergeist II, once again, the Freeling family finds themselves haunted by unwelcome spirits that are drawn to their highly clairvoyant little girl, Carol Anne. This time, the family gets help from a mystical Native American, played by Will Sampson (“Chief Broom” from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). Back for a second appearance in the franchise is the teenie-weenie medium, Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubenstein). Horror hijinx ensue. The scene to watch for is the utterly creepy instance where Kane wails “you’re all gonna die!” through the Freeling’s porch screen door.
7. Nocturna (1979)
There isn’t really anything terrifying about Nocturna except that it revolves around disco and vampires: two things that suck. Released under the title Disco Dracula in its South American release, Nocturna was the vanity project of exotic belly dancer, Nai Bonet, and an attempt for her to branch into film.
This midnight movie masterpiece features Bonet as the disco-dancing granddaughter of Dracula (John Carradine) who falls in love with a mortal. With stereotypical ’70s NYC “street” characters thrown in amongst vampires, Nocturna also boasts a triad of horror movie icons who lend the film a tad more legitimacy. John Carradine portrays Dracula… with dentures! In the latter part of his career, Carradine suffered from crippling arthritis. If you watch closely on this low-budget bonanza, the cameraman didn’t have the foresight to pan the camera away from Carradine’s badly gnarled hands. Yvonne DeCarlo (AKA – Lily Munster) stars as Jugula, Dracula’s former paramour who takes Nocturna under her (bat) wing. And finally, Brother Theodore (perhaps best known for his David Letterman appearances and his work in The ‘Burbs) plays Dracula’s lecherous werewolf henchman who has the hots for Nocturna. (You haven’t truly known shame until you’ve seen a 50-something German man question himself as to “When will she be… my little yum-yum?”)
It’s a hard one to track down, but for the humor, camp, and rarity factor, Nocturna is one horror film worth searching for. Try digging up this one on bootleg horror sites, as it was never sold on DVD or VHS except as a rental-only release.
8. The Sentinel (1977)
The Sentinal is perhaps the scariest film I have ever seen. Ever. (And no, I’m not referring to the action/”adventure” piece of dreck released a few years ago). It’s hard to pinpoint just what is so utterly terrifying about The Sentinel, but it is. Maybe it’s the religion-tinged occult themes. Or the fact that the ending sequence of the film features a coterie of actually deformed people recruited for the film, unaltered or unenhanced by any theatrical makeup? Who knows. All you need to know is that it’s creepy.
The Sentinel centers around a young model who had previously attempted suicide. Rehabilitated and on the right track, she moves into an unbelievable — and rent controlled! — NYC apartment building. Unbeknownst to her, the building is actually the gateway to hell. Additionally, the film features some well-known stars in minor roles. Christopher Walken has a bit part in one of his earliest film appearances. Chris Sarandon has a feature role, as does Burgess Meredith as the cutest little ol’ man Satan you’ve ever seen! Also making appearances are Beverly D’Angelo and John Carradine as a blind, elderly priest – the Sentinel himself.
If The Sentinel doesn’t scare the shit out of you, you’re hopelessly constipated.
9. The Wicker Man (1973)
We’re talking about the original Wicker Man here, not the abomination of a remake starring Nicholas Cage that was made a fewyears ago. The only remotely horrifying thing in that remake was Cage screaming “My eyes! My eyesssss!!!” and emoting with the all depth of a brick of Velveeta.
This — the original and far superior — version stars Edward Woodward (The Equalizer) as an uber-religious (possibly Catholic) cop who is called to a small island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. His narrow minded, religious sensibilities are offended when he discovers that the island has stayed true to their British Pagan roots, employing a number of old traditions. This tucked-away Pagan society is headed up by Christopher Lee as the dashing Lord Summerisle. The practices of the islanders don’t go over too big with the detective, who soon discovers that the community’s inhabitants have plans for him other than tracking down the missing girl. As it turns out, some of the locals’ quaint Pagan traditions aren’t quite so quaint.
Wicker Man is truly disturbing, right up until the very end. If the plot and suspense of the film alone doesn’t make you want to check it out, then just watch it for a glimpse of Christopher Lee merrily prancing about in drag.
10. Masque of the Red Death (1964)
Roger Corman helmed this adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, one of his many Poe-inspired films that he directed and/or produced that starred Vincent Price. Set in the Dark Ages, Price stars Prince Prospero, a devil worshiping regent who barricades himself and his court against a plague ravaging the countryside. The devil worshiping Prospero takes in a young, virtuous woman to his castle under the premise of helping her and her family escape the plague. His true intention is to corrupt her by introducing her to the debauchery commonplace amongst his royal followers.
Masque of the Red Death is surprisingly complex thanks to Price’s performance as Prospero. It’s obvious he enjoys camping it up, almost twirling a Snidely Whiplash ‘stache at various intervals throughout the film. However, there is an almost tragic anti-hero aspect to Price’s characterization. Evil isn’t shown merely as a one-note entity that wants to corrupt Good. Rather, Evil is attracted to Good because it possesses traits that Evil can never have. That difference makes it all the more intriguing of a subject to corrupt.