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Top 10 Great Lesser Known Horrors

Elizabeth Kelly

When lists of the best horror films are made, the same movies always float to the top. Everybody knows Psycho. Everybody’s seen The Silence of the Lambs. And, despite the mixed opinions, Jaws is generally recognized as an important film in the genre. With thousands of horror films having been made over the last (believe it or not) hundred years, surely there are more gems out there, aren’t there?  Of course there are! Here are some of the treasures that have been overlooked by the box office and the repetitive lists. [Some text is courtesy of IMDB]

10

Dead End
2003

For the past 20 years, Frank Harrington has grudgingly driven his family to celebrate Christmas with his mother-in-law. This year, he takes a shortcut. It’s the biggest mistake of his life: The nightmare begins. A mysterious woman in white wanders through the forest, leaving death in her wake. A terrifying black car – its driver invisible – carries the victims into the heart of the night. Every road sign points to a destination they never reach. The survivors succumb to panic, to madness; deeply buried secrets burst to the surface, and Christmas turns into a living hell. This is an excellent low budget film with very few actors. Despite that, it manages to keep your attention. Well worth a look.

9

Tenebrae
1986

WARNING: trailer contains brief nudity. 1986 was a good year for horror (as you will see as you read further down this list). With Argento’s trademark visual style, linked with one of his more coherent plots, Tenebrae follows a writer who arrives to Rome, only to find somebody is using his novels as the inspiration (and, occasionally, the means) of committing murder. As the death toll mounts the police are ever baffled, and the writer becomes more closely linked to the case than is comfortable.

Luciano Tovoli’s camera-work/cinematography is brilliant, especially the luma crane shot (which goes up one side of a building, over the roof and down the other side in one unbroken taken). There’s also an extremely well-photographed and directed sequence featuring a girl being pursued by a rabid Doberman. Now they would do those two scenes with computers, and I think that obliterates the charm of the hands-on film-making process.

This film puts Hollywood thrillers like “Copycat” “The Bone Collector,” and “Se7en” to shame, and it’s apparent all three films stole ideas from this one (and from other films in Argento’s oeuvre).

8

Black Christmas
1974

This 98-minute film is a stark and stylish horror/thriller that turns everyone’s favorite time of the year inside out. Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder star among an ill-fated houseful of sorority sisters celebrating the holiday season. Festivities turn fatal when obscene phone calls break the serenity and it becomes clear that a psychopath is stalking the house. This is clearly the inspiration for many horrors that followed.

One reviewer put it most aptly: It’s not often that you find a film in the thriller/horror genre that has something “new” to say, so it’s even more exciting to find that one of the original films in the “slasher” genre is actually still one of the freshest, most unique and utterly entertaining of them all. This is the kind of movie you can’t wait to tell your friends about, knowing full well they’ve probably never seen it, but they’ve heard of it.

7

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
1970

Another Italian film, the Bird with the Crystal Plumage, was Dario Argento’s first film and it made him a hot property. The synopsis: Sam, an American writer in Rome, witnesses a murder attempt on the wife of the owner of an art gallery by a sinister man in a raincoat and black leather gloves. However, Sam is powerless to do anything, as he gets trapped between a double set of glass doors in going to her aid. The woman survives, and the police say that she is the first surviving victim of a notorious serial killer. But when they fail to make any progress with the case, Sam decides to investigate on his own, turning up several clues that point in the direction of just one possible suspect – assuming that he really knows who he’s looking for.

There is something about these dark old Italian films that really adds to the horror they portray.

6

Jacob’s Ladder
1990

In this film, a traumatized Vietnam war veteran finds out that his post-war life isn’t what he believes it to be, when he’s attacked by horned creatures in the subway and his dead son comes to visit him. It stars Tim Robbins, of whom I am not a fan, but it is nevertheless a very good film. I am surprised it isn’t more widely known, as those who see it typically rank it as a brilliant film.

5

Alice, Sweet Alice
1976

Creepy kids make for some of the best scares in horror, from Patty McCormack’s 1954 portrayal of a psychopath in pigtails in The Bad Seed, to the later trend of demonic darlings in The Exorcist and The Omen. Despite a spate of poor imitations in the ’70s, Alice, Sweet Alice belongs with the better horror films featuring pint-sized leads. Named by Fangoria magazine as one of the “best films you’ve never seen,” the thriller continues to disturb modern viewers, who are surprised to learn that its thrills still hold up.

The film begins with two sisters, the younger of whom is about to have her first communion. Twelve-year-old Alice (Paula Sheppard) is jealous of the attention that little sis Karen (nine-year-old Brooke Shields in her first screen role) is receiving. On the day of Karen’s communion, she is murdered in the church, strangled by a candle.

Alice immediately falls under suspicion, and here the movie becomes a twisted murder movie that could compete with modern slasher flicks for chills. Alice takes to wearing a yellow rain slicker and a transparent plastic mask, pre-cursors to the masks and costumes of more modern movie slashers. The body count increases with the murder of a perverted slob of a landlord who tries to take advantage of Karen.

For a low budget movie of its day, Alice, Sweet Alice looks amazingly good. The scenes are well-executed, and despite having the killer revealed partway through the movie (just as in Hitchcock’s Vertigo), the tension just never lets up. The murder scenes are gruesome rather than cheesy, and the ending…well, let’s just say that Hitchcock would be proud. Super editing and a notable soundtrack add up to one tense nailbiter that is still watchable today.

4

Night of the Creeps
1986

This movie went by without a ripple of interest when it was originally released, but it now has a loyal cult following of horror fans. Night of the Creeps is a comedy horror film that makes use of every opportunity to spoof the entire genre. However, unlike modern groaners like Scary Movie, it has an edge to it. The film was clearly made by horror movie lovers, which is probably why fans love it so much. It shows.

The characters names are nods to the genre; the main characters are Chris Romero and Cynthia Cronenberg who attend Corman University. Officers who appear later in the film are Detective Landis and Sergeant Raimi. If you’re a horror buff, you’ll recognize the significance of those names. The chaos begins when two campus nerds accidentally defrost the corpse of a dead jock, who has been infected by an alien virus, resulting in zombie havoc.

The film manages to cram in every possible movie stereotype, including kids in the woods and lunatics escaped from asylums. While this sounds like a trite B movie, it’s handled with care and manages to be self-deprecating in just the right amount. If all comedy horror movies were like this, we’d have more Shaun of the Deads and less Scary Movies. With all the humor, though, the movie still manages to deliver (as the title suggests) the creeps.

3

Nomads
1986

This is a thinking person’s horror film, which sadly there aren’t enough of. Hollywood seems to think all viewers are twelve-year-old boys, and writes accordingly. Another film you’re unlikely to have seen, Nomads was a sleeper hit which has all but been forgotten. The cast features Pierce Brosnan (fresh from his Remington Steele gig), Lesley-Ann Down and  post-punker Adam Ant , with a soundtrack (uncredited) by Ted Nugent. The movie was the directorial debut for John McTiernan, who would go on to fame the next year with Predator and then Die Hard.

It’s an unusual film that begins with the death of the main character (Brosnan), but his doctor (Down) becomes possessed with his memories, reliving each experience on his last day leading up to his death. As an anthropologist, he had uncovered the remains of an extinct tribe of Inuits who have now tracked him across the planet to exact revenge. We see what happens when they hunt and terrorize him through his doctor’s eyes. This is an unforgettable, well-made thriller with a shocking ending. If you enjoy intelligent thrillers and this one flew under your radar, rent it soon.

2

The Asphyx
1973

The Asphyx suffered only from a case of bad timing. If it had been released just a few years previously, it wouldn’t have gone so unnoticed. Unfortunately, the movie was released at a time when horror movies were starting to include lots of sex, which this film doesn’t have. It was also closely followed by The Exorcist, which eclipsed everything in its path. In the context of its era, though, the Asphyx was one of the better horror films made in the early part of the ’70s and is worth a re-examination.

Set in Victorian England, the movie stars Robert Stephens (who had recently starred in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) as a scientist experimenting with early photographic and moving picture equipment. He discovers that he has captured on film the actual soul leaving the body, the asphyx, and realizes that if he could trap it at the moment of his death, he could be immortal.

He embarks upon a series of experiments to test this idea, but seeing as this is a horror film, it doesn’t go as planned. The Asphyx is dramatic and sophisticated –both unusual traits for a movie of the time. It lacks the campy, trashy factor of the ’70s. It is also genuinely eerie at times. The Asphyx deserved more credit than it received when it…asphyxiated.

1

Paperhouse
1988

This may be one of the most underrated horror movies of all time. Most people, it seems, haven’t even heard of it, but the ones who have always say, “Man, that was creepy!”. Paperhouse is more than just creepy; it’s fascinating. When the main character, Anna, discovers that the things she draws become real in her dreams, she adds to her drawings in an attempt to help a disabled boy. The results are not necessarily helpful, but dangerous. You’ll have to watch to see what happens when Anna erases or marks out her pictures.

This is a rare horror film that requires you to simply suspend your disbelief and go along with some fantasy. What you’re seeing doesn’t always make sense, but the result is beautiful and frightening. Perhaps some audiences wanted Paperhouse to follow conventions and be something that it’s not. That may account for its failure at the box office. If you have a strong attraction to fantasy, though; if, like Fox Mulder, you “want to believe,” this is a find.

Don’t feel like you have to be stuck in a horror rut. Just because a movie hasn’t made the top ten lists of critics and horror snobs doesn’t mean it doesn’t have anything to offer. These movies are perfect proof of that. Buy or rent one, and see if you’re just as confused as to why these films were overlooked and underrated.