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Now that it's finally Halloween, it’s possible you might have already blown through all of your favorite horror movies while raiding the Internet for decoration ideas or while painstakingly stitching together your costumes. You might want something a little different from the stalk-and-slash antics of Jason Voorhies and Michael Meyers, or the endless line of zombie and vampire movies out there, and that’s what we’re trying to give you. This is by no means a comprehensive list of underrated horrors, but a gathering of films from the past few years that we suspect might not all be on your radar. And feel free to jump in the comments to talk about all the other lesser-known would-be classics lurking around horror’s fringe.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) This slasher mockumentary from director Scott Glosserman takes an incredibly simple premise – a documentary team talks local killer Leslie Vernon into giving them a behind-the-scenes look at his annual movie-modeled murder fest – and turns it into both an insanely hilarious and clever flick. (Well, the first half, at least.) It’s cemented by a genius performance from Nathan Baesel as Vernon, who imbues this nonchalantly sadistic character with all the nuance and awkward comedic timing of Will Farrell or Steve Carrell. This is a world where Freddy and Jason exist, and Vernon has dedicated his life to honoring their work with similarly horrifying scenarios. The second trope-filled half of the film does take a small nosedive when Vernon takes on the killer persona and mostly fades to the background, but even the stereotypical fare is better than most. Plus, there are cameos from genre stars Robert Englund, Kane Hodder, Zelda Rubinstein and Scott Wilson.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is available for streaming on Hulu and for rent on YouTube; more info here.
Frailty (2001) Matthew McConaughey. Child actors. Religion. These are a few of my non-favorite things. I remember going to the theater to watch Frailty, the directorial debut of co-star Bill Paxton, thinking that it would be a decent way to spend an evening, but never could have expected it to be one of my favorite horrors of all time. This Southern gothic tale follows Paxton’s nameless dad and his gee-golly sons (played by Matt O’Leary and Jeremy Sumpter) into the dark following an angel’s appearance and subsequent demands that the dad kill off evil demons walking the Earth as regular people. Is the dad crazy or sincere, and regardless, how can two boys be safe in the care of a murderer? It’s all wrapped up in the outer story of the stone-eyed McConaughey as the grown up son who confesses his family’s history to a federal agent played by Powers Boothe. From its idyllic beginning to its powerful ending, Frailty drips with atmospheric dread that never lets up. I get so angry whenever I mention this movie and people have no idea what I’m talking about.
Frailty is available for rent on Amazon, Apple, YouTube and other services; more info here
Grave Encounters (2011) Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A paranormal reality TV show crew heads to an abandoned psychiatric hospital for an episode, and the only thing that remained was the footage found on their cameras. Not exactly original, but writers/directors The Vicious Brothers know exactly how to milk this premise for almost non-stop scares. For one, the team is comprised of cynical non-believers, led by host Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson), and the cast is genuinely enjoyable to watch. Second, this isn’t a "let’s wait until the last five minutes to bring out the scares" kind of a movie, and once the ghastly weirdness begins, it rarely stops. It helps that the more common scares, like moving doors and windows, are balanced by oddball frights such as giant black hands extending from the ceiling and other beings that pop out of nowhere. Claustrophobic, tense and wallowing in dark humor, Grave Encounters stands high above the plethora of awful similar efforts giving the genre a bad name. (Incidentally, the Vicious Brothers-penned sequel Grave Encounters 2, directed by John Poliquin, is one of those awful efforts, so stick with the first one.)
Grave Encounters is available to stream on Netflix and Amazon, and for rental elsewhere; more info here.
Kill List (2011) Sure, a lot of genre films work best if you go into them without much prior knowledge, but Ben Wheatley’s astoundingly dark Kill List is the most exemplary case. Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley are two hit men who follow one botched job with another more dangerous one. By definition, it isn’t a horror movie at all, but there is a good chance it will jar your bones and brain far more than anything else on this list. Or anything else you’ll ever experience in life. Just pay attention.
Kill List is streaming on Netflix and Amazon, and available for rental elsewhere; more info here.
Lake Mungo (2008) Still the only film out there from writer-director Joel Anderson, the faux documentary Lake Mungo takes its time in creeping audiences out of their skin, first introducing the Palmer family, who are grieving over the recent drowning death of 15-year-old Alice (Talia Zucker). Like Kill List, the less known going into this one the better, as it doesn’t take long for the narrative spins to begin. There are definite shock moments to be had, but the overall draw of Lake Mungo is how well it handles the subject of grief and a family’s hope for some kind of an afterlife.
Lake Mungo is available to rent on Vudu, Google Play and YouTube; more info here.
The Loved Ones (2009) It took years for Australian director Sean Byrne’s feature debut The Loved Ones to get an American release, but it hit audiences with a hammer when it did, centering on the anti-romance between the mourning, pot-addled Brent (Xavier Samuel) and his obsessive would-be suitor "Princess" Lola (Robin McLeavy). Instead of a normal prom night, this is one that Brent spends tied to a chair at Lola’s haunt-filled dinner table, complete with prom dress, invalid mother and vaguely incestuous father. This is definitely a gruesome step beyond most teen-centered horrors – especially the disappointing holdout All the Boys Love Mandy Lane – and McLeavy turns Lola into one of the greatest female villains the genre has given us in years.
The Loved Ones can be purchased from Google Play, and is sadly not rentable or streamable anywhere online; more info here.
My Little Eye (2002) The years following the release of The Blair Witch Project brought a glut immediately forgettable shaky-cam flicks that had little to say beyond "Boo!" Director Mark Evans’ My Little Eye was one of the first to transport the "all eyes on me" aesthetic of found footage and reality shows like Big Brother to the horror genre. Five people agree to live in a house together for six months with a $1 million prize that is rewarded only if none of the five leave the house; as you can imagine, there are an ample number of incidents that occur that threaten to ruin their chances. The movie remains memorable as strengthened by a "WTF is really happening" story and conspiratorial non-generic performances from actors such as Kris Lemche, Sean C.W. Johnson and Laura Regan. (Bradley Cooper also shows up as a strange and possibly menacing passerby.) I wish this stuff actually happened on Big Brother at some point.
My Little Eye is streaming on Netflix; more info here.
[REC] (2007) While most people will probably remember the American remake Quarantine, Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s ridiculously intense found footage flick [REC] is vastly superior in every single way. I first watched it alone and slightly intoxicated in the middle of the night, and it was probably the most frightening cinema experience I’ve had as an adult. A go-getter TV reporter (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman are interviewing emergency workers when there is a strange disturbance inside an apartment building. While she thinks she’s just getting a good story, she’s actually inserting herself into a multi-level house of horrors, where attics retain their place as the scariest room in a building, though hallways take a close second. While a lot of the more prominent scares here are admittedly of the "gotcha" variety, these are examples of how well those can be worked, and they’re peppered throughout a constantly moving story where fearful anxiety is both palpable and leaking out of the screen. And unlike Quarantine, the exposition is kept to a bare minimum, keeping the mystery whole and wholly disturbing.
[REC] is available for purchase on iTunes; more info here.
Session 9 (2001) Director Brad Anderson’s career is filled with thrillers of all sub-genres, but he has never produced anything more effective than this paranormal bone chiller, which stars David Caruso just before he landed his long-term CSI gig. Gordon (Peter Mullan) runs a crew hired to clean up and renovate Danvers State Hospital, an old abandoned mental institution that hasn’t quite rid itself of some of its past patients. Anderson shot part of the film inside the actual location using almost all natural light, giving the film an increasingly creepy visual aesthetic, but for me the real genius of the film is its sound design. The titular ninth session involves a series of psychiatry recordings with a multiple personality disorder patient named Mary, and hearing those tapes and their echoed sentiments throughout the film is constantly unnerving. In fact, the phrase "Do it, Gordon," may very well be the most unsettling thing I’ve ever heard in a film. I’m getting the jitters just thinking about it.
Session 9 is streaming on Netflix; more info here.
The Signal (2007) By all means, a three-part horror film written and directed by three different filmmakers (David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry and Dan Bush) shouldn’t work that well. While even I can’t deny the unevenness between the sections, each one is memorable in its own right, and each delivers some maddeningly awesome moments of violence and pitch black humor. The basic premise involves a signal that turns whoever hears it into a thoughtless killer, and the more involved story follows Mya (Anessa Ramsey), who is cheating on Lewis (A.J. Bowen) with Ben (Justin Wellborn). While the first section gets this exposition out of the way, turning Lewis into a murderous monster, and the third does an ample job of pitting good guys and bad guys against each other in traditionally bloody ways, it’s the riotous middle of The Signal, which includes a disrupted New Year’s party and two blissfully unassuming partygoers, that makes it a must-watch anytime I see it on TV, or when I remember it’s on my wall of DVDs.
The Signal is streaming on Netflix and Amazon and available for rent elsewhere; more info here.
The Skin I Live In (2011) With The Skin I Live In, Academy Award winner Pedro Almodóvar (Talk to Her) created perhaps the only film on this list that could be called an actual masterpiece. Refusing to be tethered to one genre, the film follows brilliant surgeon Robert Ledgard, played by Antonio Banderas in a career-best performance, who has created actual artificial skin, but his research is terminated due to his illegal use of humans in his experiments. His home life consists of keeping a woman named Vera (Elena Anaya) captive, but in a way that initially resembles master and pet rather than something more nefarious. The film reflects themes of sexuality, depression, loneliness, and heartbreak, and is another example of how well a movie can work when the audience knows very little going in.
The Skin I Live In can be purchased on iTunes and Google Play; more info here.
Splinter (2008) Something horror fans may have noticed over the last decade or so is that monster movies aren’t getting nearly the amount of play they used to, having been co-opted and turned into animal mash-ups by Syfy and its ilk. Toby Wilkin’s debut Splinter brings the sub-genre back to horror in a small but surprisingly effective way. Rather than stretching its budget thin with a widespread use of locations, Splinter takes place almost entirely within a podunk convenience store, as a happy young couple (Paulo Costanzo and Jill Wagner) are forced to fight for their survival with an escaped convict (Shea Whigham) and his druggie girlfriend (Rachel Kerbs), as a weird, unpredictable and rarely seen porcupine creature makes leaving the store impossible. A tight script and multi-note characters make this film an awesome indie blast, constantly providing moments where you ask yourself how you would handle being in that situation.
Splinter is available to rent on iTunes and Amazon; more info here.
Triangle (2009) Severance director Christopher Smith went from workplace slasher to time-looped oddities with Triangle, which stars Melissa George as troubled mother Jess, who takes a yacht trip with a friend (Michael Dorman) and his friends (including Liam Hemsworth). After receiving a mysterious distress call over the radio, the boat is capsized by a huge storm. Luckily, or perhaps not, the group comes across a seemingly stranded ocean liner, and then the weird shit really begins to happen, as Jess becomes increasingly certain she is experiencing something beyond just normal déjà vu. Enter one masked killer with a rifle, and you’ve got a pretty original indie that features some truly batty shocks, regardless of the possible plot holes that plague all time-related thrillers.
Triangle is streaming on Hulu Plus and available to rent elsewhere; more info here.