It’s hard to be a horror fan in today’s wintry scary movie climate; I can count the number of great horror movies from the past seven years on one hand, maybe two if we’re being generous. Rob Zombie movies, sequels, and Rob Zombie-directed sequels are some of the only movies being released right now, which is a bummer because horror as a genre has the potential to dig deep and speak to the deepest fears and anxieties of an era. So while we’re waiting for Jordan Peele to make his next movie, check out these ten under-seen and underrated horror movies from decades past.
- PIECES (1982, Juan Piquer Simón)
Slashers get a bad reputation from critics, and there’s certainly some good reason behind that – more often than not, they’re mindless, half-baked, and deeply rooted in violent misogyny. Pieces is all of these things and more, but it’s hard to argue it pretends to be anything loftier; the tagline on the poster, after all, is, “It’s exactly what you think it is.” The appeal of slashers lies in the absurdity of them and the morbid creativity with which characters are killed off, and few are as absurd and creative as this blood-soaked cult classic about a disturbed man who loves jigsaw puzzles enough to make one out of human body parts.
Whether the film is self-aware or not is debatable – most of the dialogue is laughably bad (“The most beautiful thing in the world is smoking pot and fucking on a waterbed at the same time”) and there are too many plot holes to count – but it passes with flying colors in terms of sheer gruesomeness. Much of the blood and gore is authentic, taken from animal carcasses in a Spanish slaughterhouse, and one particularly intense disembowelment scene features a close-up of a dead pig actually being cut open in place of a human.
Is it a clever parody of over-the-top slashers? Is it a so-bad-it’s-good disaster à la Jason X or Nic Cage’s The Wicker Man remake? Literally who cares, it’s about a human jigsaw puzzle, check your brain at the door and get ready for an hour and a half of this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KCCxGQetNrk
- THE EXORCIST III (1990, William Peter Blatty)
Maybe it’s horror fan blasphemy to say this publically, but William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is not a very scary movie when viewed in 2017. When it was released in 1973, people were given barf bags in theaters, some viewers checked themselves into hospitals in fear of being possessed, and priests even claimed the film stock itself was possessed by demons; today, it stands as an incredible film but one that hardly retains its power as the scariest movie of all-time. Shocking as it may be, the scarier film is actually it’s sequel; no, not The Exorcist II: Heretic (do NOT watch The Exorcist II: Heretic) but the other sequel, The Exorcist III, written and directed by William Peter Blatty, the author of the original Exorcist novel himself.
I know what you’re thinking: “Joey, I’ve seen Halloweens 1-7 and Friday the 13th: Chapters I-X and all horror movie sequels are bad!” First of all, don’t you fucking dare talk trash about Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter again, Crispin Glover was a revelation in that movie. Second of all, The Exorcist III is different from any of those films (Halloween III aside) in that it’s more of a spin-off from the original film than a continuation of its narrative. Rather than rehash the girl-meets-demon formula of the original, this one follows police detective Kinderman (played by Lee J. Cobb in the original, replaced here by the equally legendary George C. Scott) tracking a supposedly dead Zodiac-esque serial killer known as the Gemini Killer, just in case you needed another reason to hate/fear geminis. The only lead he has is a freshly-not-catatonic man in a psychiatric ward who looks exactly like the now-deceased Father Karras from the original film and speaks with the voice of Brad Dourif, claiming to be the reincarnation of the serial killer.
Spookiness aside, the original film worked so well because it had such a solid emotional foundation; you sympathized with Regan even when she was mutilating herself with a crucifix or spider-walking down the stairs of her home (Kids Do The Darnedest Things!). The Exorcist III works just as well in that sense because William Peter Blatty cares about his characters enough to make you care too. George C. Scott gives a genuinely incredible performance as the dryly funny and deeply passionate Kinderman, and you want him to come out alright even as his faith is challenged and he starts to lose himself in the investigation.
Spookiness not aside, this is a genuinely scary movie. All the Gemini murders are left to our imaginations, a stylistic decision that makes the film all the scarier when we’re shown blood-drained corpses and told that he put the blood in cups scattered all around the room. I am personally vehemently in opposition of jump scares in horror films because they’re too easy and don’t require any real talent – literally anyone can put a loud noise in a quiet scene and make you jump, where’s the artistry in that? – so it means all the more coming from me when I say that The Exorcist III has the scariest jump scare in any movie I’ve ever seen. The scene, which just follows a nurse doing her rounds, is barely two minutes long, but it lasts just long enough to make you wonder if nothing is going to happen… and then something really fucking terrifying happens. You’ll know it when you see it.
None of this is to say that The Exorcist III is a better movie than the first one; it’s nearly impossible to top William Friedkin’s original film, but the two are different beasts entirely so it almost seems unfair to compare them. That being said, The Exorcist III is one of the few horror movie sequels that manages to be both scary as hell (which is rare) and genuinely affecting (which is much rarer). A previously legendary director’s cut was recently released on Blu-Ray that changed a handful of scenes apparently for the better, and although I haven’t seen it that’s probably the best route to take when watching this for the first time.
P.S. Fabio plays an angel.
- DEAD AND BURIED (1981, Gary Sherman)
Hot take: zombies aren’t scary. I would even go as far to say that they’re a little bit played-out and boring as far as horror movies go. What was once a fresh and potent premise in 1968 has become oversaturated to the point that most zombie movies seem more effective as vehicles for lurid gore and black humor than bona fide scares. The one glaring exception to this is Dead and Buried, a spooky little film that plays with the zombie movie formula just enough to be scary as hell and deeply haunting.
I’ve seen enough horror movies to be moderately to thoroughly desensitized; my psyche is callused and it takes a lot to really give me nightmares at this point. Dead and Buried scared the living (undead?) shit out of me. I give credit to screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, whose greatest hits include the original Alien and the also fantastic punk-horror-comedy The Return of the Living Dead – the latter of which is an entirely different beast from this film, although still very worth checking out.
The eerie moments of calm-before-the-storm stillness and the split-second presence of shadowy figures at the edge of the frame are ripped straight from the Alien and Halloween playbooks respectively, yet the film as a whole feels unique despite its familiar elements. This might be because it exists at a crossroads of horror subgenres: the aforementioned zombie elements are mixed with a classic spooky small town vibe à la The Fog or the original 1975 The Wicker Man and punctuated by moments of slasher movie brutality and Rosemary’s Baby paranoia. The combination is potent and it builds to an unexpected and disturbing climax that features found footage in the spookiest of all film stocks: 8mm.
- SOCIETY (1989, Brian Yuzna)
Even if the only scene of value in Brian Yuzna’s Society was its jaw-dropping finale, this film would be a must-see for fans of body horror. Without spoiling anything about it (trust me, it’s better as a surprise), the scene features special effects so visceral and hilariously twisted that it would make David Cronenberg blush: think Videodrome meets Re-Animator but taken several grotesque steps further, far outside the realm of good taste. The latter film is an apt comparison in that that’s where Yuzna got his start; he produced a number of Stuart Gordon films before venturing off on his own to make this, his directorial debut. The influence of Gordon’s potent blend of comedy and gore is apparent throughout the film, but especially in this spectacular climactic scene.
It’s all the more fortunate that the film surrounding the scene is so consistently fun and creepy. Before it evolves into a nausea-inducing horror freakout towards the end, it plays out as a sort of spooky paranoid thriller – Bill, a Beverly Hills high school student, is suspicious of his wealthy family and peers after hearing a tape where his parents seem to talk about some sort of bizarre cultish gathering. Everyone seems to be in on it except for him and a few friends, and as those friends start to get killed off one by one it becomes increasingly clear that what he’s about to uncover is far more disturbing than anything he – or we – could ever imagine.
The satire is hardly subtle, but it certainly hits hard; Brian Yuzna clearly isn’t a huge fan of rich people or their way of life, and he lets it show. If you can handle some unspeakably fucked-up special effects in the vein of David Cronenberg’s work or Eraserhead, this is a diamond in the rough of late-‘80s horror.
- DON’T LOOK NOW (1973, Nicolas Roeg)
I truly believe that there is nothing in the history of movies as deeply unsettling as the climactic sequence of Don’t Look Now. It’s a bold claim but one that holds up; I have seen hundreds of horror movies, but none have stuck with me and given me such vivid nightmares as Don’t Look Now. The film is an absolute powerhouse of suffocating occult atmosphere, a masterpiece of slow-burn horror that builds and builds until reaching what I think is the most haunting (and psychologically scarring) ending in any horror movie, period.
Much of the credit can be given to director Nicolas Roeg – perhaps more famous for David Bowie’s best film, the sci-fi epic The Man Who Fell to Earth – who, as per usual, makes shockingly unconventional nonlinear editing choices to blur the line between past, present, and future, all three of which tend to overlap and become indistinguishable from one another throughout the film. I’ve written three distinct 10-page papers on the film’s manipulation of time alone, if that gives any indication of how nuts this movie’s nonlinear structure is.
It’s a film of unrelenting dread rather than terror, and maybe that’s why it’s so hard to forget; there are few if any things that jump out and spook you like in most modern horror movies (#BanJamesWanFromMakingMovies), but there is a constant sense that something is deeply wrong or that something bad is on the verge of happening at all times, yet it’s never quite clear what that is until the very end when all the pieces fall into place in one terrifying – there’s where the terror comes in – frame.
Of course, it wouldn’t be nearly as frightening if it wasn’t such a brilliantly insightful drama. To summarize it without giving anything away, it follows a married couple whose 8-year-old daughter dies tragically, leaving them to travel to Venice to try to process their complex emotions while the husband restores a church there. The horror elements – their dead daughter seeming to issue a warning from beyond the grave through a pair of psychics, the husband having mysterious visions, etc. – are all in service of what has been called the most accurate depiction of grief in any film, as well as the toll that this grief takes on the central relationship. It’s an incredibly sensitive and emotional film that speaks wonders about the experience of loss and, as an added bonus, will scare the shit out of you and give you nightmares about red mackintosh coats for weeks (or, if you’re like me, years).
- DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1971, Harry Kümel)
Vampires: are they super gay or super straight? This is a question that has been explored time and time again throughout film history via such timeless characters as Christopher Lee’s seductive hetero Count Dracula in The Horror of Dracula and Tim Kramer’s very not hetero Count Gaylord in the iconic film Gayracula. Directors like Jean Rollin and Jess Franco have built careers off this notion of homoerotic vampirism – specifically lesbian vampires, sometimes handled tastefully but more often played as exploitative and very male-gazey for a straight male audience; their films, while surely well-respected among cult audiences, lean more towards softcore porn than thoughtful art film.
Harry Kümel’s landmark vampire film is the rare vampire lesbian drama that avoids that pitfall of exploitation entirely. Gothic, elegant, and above all drenched in visual poetry, this is a film that exists in dialogue with exploitation cinema but ultimately has much more in common with Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive than it does with Jess Franco’s The Bare-Breasted Countess.
The film is worth the price of admission (or, more likely, online pirating I guess) for its stunning lead performance: Last Year at Marienbad star Delphine Seyrig stars as Elizabeth Bàthory, a name that should be a massive red flag to anyone well-versed in medieval serial killers yet one that means nothing to the newly weds staying in the same Belgian hotel as her. Bàthory inserts herself into their already-tumultuous relationship – the husband refuses to come to terms with the fact that he’s gay and is also just an abusive tool – and begins a process of seducing the wife. Seyrig hardly plays Bàthory as a bloodthirsty monster – instead, she is worldly, elegant, well-spoken, even luxurious: an upper-class women who wears feather boas and extravagant dresses and, ironically, reveals this self-absorbed bourgeois couple to be capable of the same cruelty as her.
The film as a whole practically redefines beauty in horror, filmed with fluid cinematography in painterly shades of red, white, and black – not an accident in that it’s meant to associate Seyrig’s character with the cold efficiency of Nazis – and blurs the visual line between horror and eroticism so well that it can’t easily be classified as either. It’s hardly spooky – even the blood is pretty light for a vampire film – but it’s certainly among the best and most criminally underseen films in homoerotic vampire cinema history.
- THE BEYOND (1981, Lucio Fulci)
There are only two directors honored with the title “The Godfather of Gore”: Herschell Gordon Lewis, who essentially invented the splatter film and raised the standard of bloodshed and nudity in cinema to shocking new heights, is arguably the better known of the two. Lucio Fulci – his Italian counterpart and co-bearer of the title – is just as extraordinary and influential however, matching Lewis but with a larger budget and far more serious intent. Lewis’ films are incompetently made B-movies that border on camp if you’re being generous, but Fulci saw horror as an art form, emphasizing grotesque special effects and as much dramatic weight as one could give to an eye-gouging scene (of which there are many in Fulci’s filmography).
His most famous work internationally is Zombi, an unofficial sequel to Dawn of the Dead that takes place on an island resort infested with zombies and is somehow even more violent than Romero’s film. While that film is absolutely a must-see for fans of gross-out horror, his true masterwork is the film that followed it: The Beyond, a horror film that packs so many ideas into an hour and a half that it achieves a state of glorious incoherence. A portal to hell opens up in the basement of a Louisiana hotel, and that’s really all the plot that you need to grasp to enjoy the chaos that ensues. Italian horror is famous for its focus on mood over plot, but Fulci takes this idea further than any of his contemporaries here. Narrative becomes entirely secondary as the film reaches a nightmarish, often mesmerizingly surreal atmosphere.
Even Fulci’s filmmaking mistakes add to the dream-like atmosphere; the fact that this hotel has a basement to house a hell-portal is already surreal in itself, in that Louisiana is below sea level so you’d be hard-pressed to find a basement anywhere in the state. There’s no point in trying to understand what was going through his mind in this creative decision or any of the other ones; this is a hypnotic, bizarre, and incredibly violent film, defying explanation and acting as an obvious precursor to everything from Event Horizon to the films of David Lynch.
- SYMPTOMS (1974, José Ramon Larraz)
This is a true diamond in the rough; underseen and underrated beyond comprehension, José Ramon Larraz’s subdued and haunting ghost story Symptoms is a puzzle of a film, a sparsely plotted mystery built precariously on tops of layers and layers of gothic atmosphere until it all comes together in its revealing final shot. Slow-burning art-horror was all the rage in European cinema in the ‘70s (see: Don’t Look Now, Daughters of Darkness) but the hushed tone and almost minimalistic plotting about a woman’s slow descent into insanity separate this one from the pack; it’s a sort of Repulsion relocated to the countryside, but with a few supernatural twists up its sleeve.
If there was any justice in the world, Symptoms would be considered a canonical art-horror classic – it stars Donald Pleasance’s daughter and was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, after all – but it wasn’t meant to be, as the film negative was lost shortly after its theatrical release, only to be rediscovered four decades later in 2014. Larraz is thus better known to horror fans for his lesbian vampire film Vampyres – which certainly falls into far more softcore porn-ish territory than Daughters of Darkness – and this mysterious oddity has only just resurfaced. It’s certainly more of a subtle film than that one, less of a visceral thrills-and-chills type deal and more of a mood piece punctuated by eroticism and the occasional outburst of violence.
Angela Pleasance brings an unsettling vulnerability to the role that only deepens the impact of the strange happenings that go down; there’s a consistent feeling that something is always happening beneath the surface but it’s unclear what that is until the very last frame, which gives an unsettling and tragic meaning to everything that came before it.
- INFERNO (1980, Dario Argento)
There’s a case to be made that Dario Argento’s Suspiria is the greatest horror movie ever made. It’s got it all: vivid neon lights! Ballet witches! Gallons of blood! A prog rock soundtrack that can only be described as “fucking bananas”! It’s Dario Argento’s masterpiece and if you haven’t seen it then you should stop reading this article and watch it literally right now.
Argento had a very dramatic and kind of hilarious fall from grace in the late-80s that led to him making a now-infamous 3D adaptation of Dracula featuring a giant preying mantis and a really truly very uncomfortable number of nude scenes for his daughter Asia. However, before he devolved in grasshopper-based horror, he made a number of other brilliant post-Suspiria horror movies that mimicked that film’s approach of extreme style over substance. 1980’s Inferno was perhaps his most cohesive and stylistically bold film; a sort-of-sequel to Suspiria that builds upon the mythology of its predecessor, it takes the style of that film one step further into dream-like territory and relies almost entirely on mood and atmosphere instead of narrative. It’s loosely about three different characters hunting down the second of the “Three Mothers,” a trio of witches who rule the world from different locations. The first witch was in Germany and was featured in Suspiria, and this film features the second, who rules from New York City.
The narrative is very much downplayed in favor of surreal visual mystique and unsettling atmosphere; the film is genuinely hypnotic, even more so than Suspiria, and could easily take the cake for the most gorgeous horror movie of the 1980s. The score by prog rock legend Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake, & Palmer fame) is fittingly grandiose, running the gamut from wild keyboard solos to apocalyptic choral outbursts. It borders on being too over-the-top, but so do the scores of pretty much every Argento movie so that’s hardly a surprise. There’s no question that Argento first-timers should start with Suspiria, the most revolutionary film he made and arguably his best, but Inferno certainly gives it a run for its very dreamy money as the lesser-seen of his two art-horror masterpieces.
- POSSESSION (1981, Andrzej Zulawski)
I’ve written a lot of horror movie articles and I always find a way to include Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession. It’s one of the strangest, scariest, most positively fucked-up scary movies I have ever seen and, love it or hate it, it’s hard to forget. Even after writing about it four or five different times over the last few years, it’s tough to know where to begin when describing it. Is it a psychodrama by way of David Cronenberg? The Thing if it was directed by a deranged philosophy major? Or is it entirely in its own league as the most bonkers art film of the 1980s?
It surely does have a great deal of artistic credibility for a horror movie. The drama between married couple Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani is extreme to say the least but it’s also incredibly compelling; beneath all the implied violence and incredibly disturbing horror elements (I’ll get to that, kind of), this is a movie about a relationship disintegrating in the most horrific way possible. The two lead performances are easily the best by the two respective actors and among the best in the horror canon, particularly Adjani in the now-infamous subway scene in which she has the greatest on-screen freakout of any horror movie I’ve seen. The acting is maybe a little melodramatic – you will understand when you watch it – but that’s intentional and part of the film’s style: absolutely everything is dialed to 11, from the psychotic performances to the restless camera movement and claustrophobic framing.
The conflict between Neill and Adjani’s characters is rooted in Neill’s discovery that his wife has been having an affair while he was on a work trip. Initially it seems to be Heinrich, a hilariously eccentric intellectual/swinger/man-who-still-lives-with-his-mother, but as the truth comes out it becomes increasingly clear that Adjani’s real lover isn’t a “he” but rather an “it.” Carlo Rambaldi, who worked on Alien and E.T., did the special effects on her sexual partner, if that gives any indication of how unspeakably grotesque this gets.
Will Possession leave a lasting scar on your psyche? 100%, yes, without a doubt. Is it still worth seeing? Hell yeah, it’s fucking bananas. The scariest movies are rooted in the unknown – what’s happening, why is it happening, what is going to happen, etc. – and Possession takes this concept to its furthest logical extreme. It’s terrifying, partially because it never gives you a chance to breathe amidst the sweeping camera and constant screaming, but mostly because it’s so hard to write off and explain. I’ve seen it four times and I’m still not entirely sure I can make sense of its surreal, labyrinthine plot, and that’s what lets it get into your head. It’s pure psychological horror, and very smart psychological horror at that, a nightmarish film entirely devoid of scary movie clichés that knows how to worm its way into your head and stay there for a long, long time.