I wanted to write something about horror movies for the Halloween season, but I didn't know where to start. I could list my favorites or the critically acclaimed classics or the fan-favorites. But that would be too easy. I've watched too many horror films to write about John Carpenter's Halloween or Night of the Living Dead. Who hasn't seen those? So here are 20 horror films that I often find praising when I'm talking to other horror fanatics.
Basket Case (1982)
One of the films that kicked off the video store craze for gory low-budget comedies, Frank Hennenlotter's "Basket Case" is way more gritty and violent than any of its imitators. Its the story of a young man who is hunting down the surgeons who removed his deformed Siamese twin as a child. The twist is that he carries his monstrous other half around in a basket to rip apart the people on their list... and anyone who stands in the way of their bloody vengeance. Its creepy, funny yet tragic storytelling that you can only find in the horror genre.
A film about a paranoid teenager in Beverly Hills, Society is a slow burning descent into weirdness that will leave you disgusted and disturbed. Like Rosemary in Rosemary's Baby, our likable hero feels there's something off about everything around him but can't tell if its the world or his mind that is turning against him.
Like other films from producer/director Brian Yuzna, this is full of good looking young actors and actresses, grotesque but clever special effects and a story about monsters that looks just like you and me. And it all breaks down into a nightmare out of Hell. Fondly remembered and a collector's item to horror fans, watch it if you can find it.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)
The Halloween series killed off Michael Myers (good riddance) and gave us a story that went deeper into the mythos of the holiday itself and the evil it inspires. I can't give it away, but things become way more occultish and the fate of the world is at stake in this film. Thus, the terrors that befall our characters are way worse than a guy in a Captain Kirk mask holding a butcher knife. And children actually get killed this time. But essentially its the same ingredients that made the first film a classic: creepy Halloween masks, kids in danger, a weird soundtrack driving you crazy and a shocking ending that will leave you depressed.
Fans in 1982 weren't fond of the film, but its since become a cult classic. I think its the best sequel after the original Halloween II. The rest of the series featured Michael returning endlessly, but borrowed liberally from the cult plot of Season of the Witch while never matching its originality. "Halloween Returns" is in the works and features the continuity of the original three films, which is a shocking surprise that makes SOTW even more important than already it is.
Director Stuart Gordon and producer Brian Yuzna have given us plenty of great films together and apart, but this collaboration flies under the radar. 2001 was a slump for the horror film biz, but our filmmakers pumped out a love letter to the influential horror writer H.P. Lovecraft like no other. Based on a few Lovecraft tales, this is a modernized story of evil cults, dark destiny, twisted love, mutant sex and underwater demigods who hate humans. Whats incredible is how effectively all of this is executed without much of a budget. Its as graceful, creepy and slimy as you could want in a Lovecraft film, any movie really. One of the most overlooked and underrated films from the early '00s for sure.
Blood Diner (1987)
The "splatter film" genre was created by director Herschell Gordon Lewis and producer David F. Friedman with their 1963 drive-in classic Blood Feast. Two decades later, Asian-American director Jackie Kong made her own tribute to "The Godfather of Gore". Blood Diner salutes the wooden acting, inappropriate sexiness and cartoon violence of the original, while making fun of the culture of the 1980s and the generation of kids who owned it. We get talking brains in jars, Egyptian spells, cannibal love goddesses, Nazi pro wrestlers, a horny ventriloquist dummy, vegetarian cheerleaders aerobicizing and lots and lots of death all being laughed at. Good morbid times.
The Beyond (1981)
Lucio Fulci and his films are revered worldwide by horror fans and he's compared to all the great American horror directors. Why? Because his films are the most spooky, twisted, nasty movies you will find. Always bleak, slow-churning, death-obsessed, violent, shocking, disgusting and unrelenting in horrors, Fulci films are true Horror Shows. Watching a Fulci film is the equivalent to going to an old-school haunted house on Halloween, full of parlor tricks that jump out and go "Boo!". You will either be unnerved out of your skin or delighted by all of the terrible pranks and the prankster himself. Hopefully, a little of both.
Dario Argento's Suspiria is one of the most famous and effective horror films, period. But Phenomena is his most accessible. And essentially its the same tale: an American young girl (a teenage Jennifer Connelly) is stuck at a European school where murders are being committed and she must use her wits to escape or be fed to whatever evil lurks behind the walls. While Suspiria is steeped in occult mysticism and gorgeous psychedelic visuals, Phenomena (also known as Creepers) is just a fantastic plot that somehow combines adorable little Jennifer Connelly, telepathy, insects, a scalpel-wielding chimpanzee, Halloween's Donald Pleasance and a surprise serial killer. And the whole thing comes off as beautiful as it does batshit crazy. Only Argento weaves together fantastic surreal films like this and here he is at his peak of wowing audiences without effort. I didn't even give away the twist ending.
The Living Dead Girl (1982)
Here is a tragic love story between a zombie girl and her living lesbian lover. Director Jean Rollin is more famous for his vampire films and TLDG has all of the touches of one. Our zombie heroine is very cognitive and beautiful, even if she needs to feast on flesh and hates the living. I think Rollin found a little more in this zombie character than he did with his vampire girls. Like a vampire, The Living Dead Girl asks herself deep questions about the very nature of being undead and doesn't like the answers she finds. But she is dead all the same. Its very philosophical and emotional for a movie about zombies. Jean Rollin is known for his one of a kind poetic sense of directing film and this is one of his finest moments. Also, its bloody and sexy throughout. So there's that.
Directed by "Freddy Krueger" himself Robert Englund, 976-Evil is everything great about 80s horror movies in one neat package. Its about a bullied nerd (Fright Night's Stephen Geoffreys) and his cooler-than-cool cousin and how they become victims of a demonic phone hotline that predicts horrible things for whoever calls. Its a story of possession and corruption. Close to previous horror movies like Christine, Carrie and Evilspeak, we watch likable but tortured characters descend into evil to become powermad monsters. This film is a little hipper than most 80s horror films though, from the punk bands to the clothes to the underlying sexual and religious issues playing out. Its a very unique and entertaining movie that shows Robert Englund was more than just a great horror actor. He's a damn good little director too.
From sleaze producer Dick Randall comes arguably the meanest, most sexist, dumbest and most violent slasher of the 1980s. Its just gore, girls and giggles throughout. You just have to watch it and, love it or hate it, be floored by the audacity the filmmakers had in making it. Its a thinly plotted giallo about a chainsaw-loving college campus killer and the detectives hot on his trail. Thankfully it is light, goofy and incompetent enough to be enjoyed by those with a sense of humor. But be warned. You will need an iron stomach as well.
Night of the Demons (1988)
This movie is pure badass horror. It plays like a dumber, more fun version of The Evil Dead: kids party at an evil house and get possessed by demons. That's enough, right? Lots of cute chicks, goofy guys, nasty special effects and a hot possessed Goth girl grinding in a thong to Bauhaus' "Stigmata Martyr". Classic stuff. And it takes place on Halloween, so its great viewing come October 31st.
Shock Waves (1977)
Between "Night of the Living Dead" and "Dawn of the Dead", there was a zombie masterpiece that most people slept on. The first film in the Nazi zombies subgenre, its also the greatest, dead serious, beautifully shot and unrelenting in chills. Somehow the director (Ken Wiederhorn) went on to direct the campy and dull Return of the Living Dead 2, but this is the other side of the spectrum entirely.
Beyond the Door (1974)
Known as the greatest Exorcist ripoff of all time, it is. But besides the possession (this time of an unborn child) and some vomiting, its pretty much its own entity. And its a batshit crazy movie. I can't describe how warped and strange it is. All I will say is that this may be the craziest Italian horror film ever. And that genre is full of bizarro masterpieces. Beyond the Door was a worldwide smash success also. Warner Bros unsuccessfully sued the filmmakers to ban it because they bought the film rights to The Exorcist. U.S. home video release of this film has been next to impossible to find for whatever reason, but its so so worth it.
Body Snatchers (1993)
This is the least popular of the 4 films in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers franchise, but that doesn't make this the least of the series. Renowned director Abel Ferrera decided to work for Hollywood out of the blue and chose a sleepy horror film that had been done to death even then, but he makes it a totally unique experience.
We believe in these characters and their world. And the invasion by aliens is handled with complete seriousness. This film shies away from special effects and builds up tension and madness in its characters as we wait for the aliens to reveal themselves. The grim tone and anxiety of the world is so perfectly captured that Body Snatchers elevates itself above the average horror fare and warrants a 2nd, 3rd and 4th viewing. Plus, its so fun to mouth the famous line reading posted above.
Let's Scare Jessica To Death (1971)
Is Jessica crazy? Yes. But does that mean all the spooks exist solely in her head?
Rarely does a piece of grindhouse cinema have a plot that deep. Sure its probably copying Rosemary's Baby, but this is more grassroots storytelling. This was obviously made by jaded hippies about the failed "Love movement" and the after effects of all the drug/sex experimentation. It owes as much to Easy Rider as it does Polanski's horror masterpiece. Viewers will be impressed with the subtly of the scares and the 100% convincing performance of lead Zohra Lampert as the tragic "Jessica".
Slumber Party Massacre 2 (1987)
Here's a female view of the slasher genre from director Deborah Brock. The first SPM was fairly realistic and very serious slasher material. Part 2 is campy, gory and full of the feminine touch. It follows a band of teenage girl rockers isolated in an unfinished suburban neighborhood with the ghost of a rockabilly psycho with a not-so-subtly phallic powerdrill. While the original ripped off Halloween, the sequel riffs off of the Elm Street series. We get lots of surreal nightmare sequences, gross out gags and obviously prosthetic makeup. Oh, and some truly craptastic fashion. Its wonderful fun and experimental stuff that you don't often see in slasher films.
Brutal, brutal horror film from French directing duo Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo. This is a hard-sought-after DVD in America for many good reasons. Its more than a bloody psychological slasher. It transcends into cinematic poetry, a real work of horror art. An incredible debut for the pair of directors who helm next year's Leatherface. I expect them to become important to the next generation of horror fans. But even if the directors never made another film, they cemented their names with Inside.
Puppet Master (1989)
Its incredible that this famous little movie was direct-to-video. Goes to show the power of 1980s video stores and producer Charles Band's Full Moon Pictures. This is their flagship film that has spawned 11 sequels, comic books and (shock) a toyline. The Puppet Master franchise is synonymous with cheesy horror film goodness.
So its extra crazy that the original film is so good. It looks fabulous. Its directed and written well. The acting is mostly good. And the plot is magically original. Puppet Master is about a former team of psychics reunited to investigate the death of a fellow psychic who discovered the secret of giving life to inanimate objects. There are also lesbians, Nazis, a zombie dog and of course killer puppets. And its all done with a sensual coolness that is foreign to modern horror films. As wild as all of that is, it has a kind of maturity and self-respect.
This is a treasure and time capsule to a great moment in horror movies and being a horror fan. So many horror fans got their start with this film, so tomorrow's fans can start here as well.
The Return of the Living Dead III (1993)
The 3rd Brian Yuzna film on this list, his 2nd as director. ROTLD3 abandons the satirical nature of the previous installments and presents a Romeo & Juliet story with a zombie Juliet. The original Return featured a sexy redhead punk rock zombie chick as the highlight of the whole movie. We get that throughout Part 3, which is cool. But she's also a fascinating character. She's disgusted with what shes turning into and her boyfriend finds it impossible to destroy her. Maybe ROTLD3 is inspired by The Living Dead Girl. This is a bigger and cheesier affair though, with much higher goals which it mostly nails. Did you ever have a romantic Goth teen angst phase where no one understood you and you hated the world but admired your own tragedy? If so, this movie will help you relive that over and over again. Break out the TOOL and NIN.
The Prowler (1981)
AKA "Rosemary's Killer", The Prowler is a shameless copy of Friday the 13th, scene by scene. But director Joseph Zito brings a more grim and grotesque air of realism to this story. The Prowler is more than loaded with shocks and memorable visuals. Zito also brings Friday's special effects wizard Tom Savini for outstanding gore effects. Prowler earned Zito and Savini the chance to make Friday the 13th Part 4, the best sequel to the original. So its fun watching them cut their teeth here.
I could list 100 films, but lets save the rest for next Halloween. Most of these films are easy to find online, so watch them sometime. A few come in beautiful special editions from Arrow Video and Scream Factory. And even if you don't like them, many horror fans do and some of those fans become filmmakers, so you will see the influence of these obscure horror films in the most unexpected places. The horror genre is full of gems like these. And often times these forgotten films are better than the newest Hollywood distraction playing at your multiplex. That's why I find myself returning to the horror genre when there's nothing else to watch.