Autumn leading up to Halloween is the best time of year to watch flicks that fall (pun intended) into the horror genre; there are Jack-O-Lanterns on front porches, a wicked chill to the air, and all the plants are dying.
But every year when I’m in the mood for a fright night, I scour the internet only to find lists featuring the same five movies we’ve all seen a thousand times.
“The Shining is good. You should watch the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Alien is scary—but in space. “
And I swear to god if one more list tells me to watch Halloween or Scream…I mean it’s called Halloween. Has anyone ever mistaken it for a Christmas movie?
So here are some hidden gems to broaden your spectrum of scary movies. Some of them are forgotten classics, some are recent Netflix finds, but all of them are satisfyingly scary and not what you’d expect from an exhausted genre.
THE INNOCENTS (1961)
Following a governess and maid taking watch of two children who become the target of restless spirits. Eerily atmospheric, stylishly crafted, and altogether chilling, this movie set precedent for just about every horror movie that features a strong female lead, creepy children, and an atmospheric haunted mansion (like The Others and Skeleton Key).
While it started many classic horror themes that have been mimicked throughout history, it’s what it does differently than modern horror that makes it truly incredible. Filmed at a real mansion in England combined with no special effects or music add to the eerie feelings of isolation and leave the viewer with an unsettling feeling. Even if you don’t think black and white are your style, give this a chance.
THE HAUNTING (1963)
If you’ve seen the remake of this movie, you know it’s generally everything that has made modern horror movies suck. Disastrously overblown CGI effects, overcomplicated plot dotted with holes, and Owen Wilson (ok, he doesn’t make it suck, but he’s in it), all leading to a climax where they basically talk the ghost back to death.
The original manages to miss all those pitfalls and instead creates a general feeling of dread using traditional methods. Much like The Innocents; real locations instead of sets, real effects as opposed to CGI, and an original (gasp) storyline, this is a staple of haunted house movies.
It set a lot of firsts in the genre as well, most notably the feeling of paranoia on whether to fear the supernatural or the fragile minds of the characters.
Also, one of the main characters is a lesbian; oh-so scandalous for 1963.
THE CHANGELING (1980)
And no, I don’t mean the Angelina Jolie one.
Speaking of supreme isolation and unsettling movies, moving into an old mansion alone complete with a notorious history while mourning the deaths of your entire family is a really uplifting start to a story, I know – but trust me, it gets even darker.
Without giving too much away, the story focuses around the haunting of the house by the ghost of a young child who gets increasingly angry at his current situation. And if you’ve ever seen a child screaming for ice cream in a Chili’s, you can imagine how terrifying that would be if the child were undead.
The strengths of this movie are both the intricate story and underlying mystery which ties everything together and its ability to make the viewer fear even the most innocent of objects. Its subtlety is its strength; amazing how a puddle of water and a light in the attic can scare you to your core.
THE THING (1982)
Paranoia. Isolation. Distrust. Flamethrowers. Kurt Russell. Wilford Brimley.
These are the necessary components of one of the greatest alien horror films ever made.
Well maybe not the last two, but they can’t exactly hurt.
And while it’s not exactly a hidden gem, it’s often overlooked and forgotten. The feelings of paranoia through flamethrowers are reminiscent of another sci-fi great, Ridley Scott’s Alien, which took the horror genre out of haunted houses and into the icy silence of outer space.
While The Thing doesn’t take place in outer space, it does feature an extra-terrestrial killing machine and ice-cold isolation in Antarctica.
This was the first movie that truly terrified me. I distinctly recall trying to make sense of what I saw this creature do, changing as fast as you could process what you saw, aided by prosthetics (no CGI) and sound mixing that makes your skin crawl.
John Carpenter (yes, the same gore master who did Halloween) continually lulls the viewer into a false sense of security before reminding you that nothing is safe or certain. The unknown is both infuriating and engaging, keeping you in a persistent state of distrust and anxiety. Not for the weak of heart.
ANGEL HEART (1987)
The tagline “It will scare you to your very soul” is both a clever piece of writing and a nice homage to the plot.
Mickey Rourke plays Harry Angel – a scrappy New York private investigator hired by the enigmatic Louis Cyphre (say the name slowly) to find an amnesiac ex-client of his who has failed to fulfill his “contract.”
Seeing a theme so far?
To make things better, Cyphre is played by Robert DeNiro, complete with sharpened fingernails and yellow eyes. If you thought he was terrifying in Meet the Parents, imagine the kind of presence he can convey when he’s seated on a throne in Harlem wearing a pentagram ring.
Angel’s investigation takes him throughout New York state and down through the Louisiana bayous, a trail of bodies drifting in his wake. The more you learn the more terrifying things become as you follow Angel deeper into darkness.
The blend of Film Noir mystery, southern voodoo, and psychological drama make this a gem. But don’t let the gentle title fool you; it’s dark, shocking, and will scare you to your very soul.
You know those nightmares that defy definition? The kind that leave you chilled to the bone even if you can’t remember the details?
This movie is just like that, except you’re wide awake, you will remember all of it, and it still defies explanation.
I know this isn’t much of a review, but like I said, it defies explanation. So just watch it, and be afraid.
THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988)
It wouldn’t be a horror list without a zombie movie, but in the interest of sticking to hidden gems, I’m not going to give you the expected gut-munching Walking Dead kind of zombie.
I’m talking Zombiis – The Haitian voodoo kind.
A pharmaceutical company gets wind of a powerful drug concoction used in Haitian religious practices that can put the living in a state of near-death which they seek to use as a new anesthesia. But voodoo is more than just a blend of ingredients; it’s a blend of Christianity, African folklore, and powers of the occult, and the Haitians don’t exactly relish the idea of their secrets being turned for profit. The flick does a good job of walking the line between life, death, and spaces in-between, thanks to the direction of horror godfather Wes Craven (Nightmare on Elm Street).
It may not be the most frightening on this list, and yeah it’s got some corny 80s special effects in it, it’s still a pretty chilling tale and a different take on zombie genre (Zom-re?).
EVENT HORIZON (1997)
Let’s head back into outer space for a little bit. Let’s also talk about Morpheus from the Matrix aka Laurence Fishburne cause he’s in this too.
The initial setup of the movie is not so unique; a futuristic starship responds to a distress beacon sent out by an eerily radio-silent ship. But what makes Event Horizon really interesting is it’s hypothetical implications of a popular space travel theory.
Many physicists theorize that if you a ship were able to open a bridge between two points of space-time you could travel great distances in a short amount of time. (In non-science terms, drive through a black hole.)
But where exactly do you go while you’re traveling over this bridge? You have to exist somewhere, and could that somewhere possibly be Hell? And if it were, what would you bring back with you? What would be the cost?
If you dig sci-fi horror and the freakiness of being stuck in a giant metal tube in outer space, check this one out.
THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (2001)
If you’ve followed me so far, you know that I wouldn’t lead you astray. That being said, I’m going to ask you take a step away from the English language and watch a Spanish flick. I know, I’m a terrible man for making you read subtitles while you sit on your ass, but trust me it’s worth it.
Guillermo Del Toro (Pacific Rim, Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) takes you on a journey of swirling plotlines and riveting atmosphere. Set in the final years of the Spanish Civil war at an orphanage (who became so due to that war) it’s a story that’s just as human as it is supernatural.
It’s a gut-wrenching story of childhood innocence lost in times of war and a whirlwind of conflicted feelings of terror for the living and sympathy for the dead.
THE ORPHANAGE (2007)
While your potential willingness to try a foreign language film, here’s another Spanish one. What can I say, the Spaniards know how to get spooky. Or at least Guillermo Del Toro does.
You can probably guess why this movie’s scary. Not only is it directed by one of the modern masters of horror, but it’s called The Orphanage (El Orfanito in Spanish, which is somehow even creepier) meaning it involves children. Creepy, terrifying, parentless children.
The story circulates around a haunted orphanage by the sea, and perfectly ties together the atmosphere of the house, the blue grey tones of the seaside, and the classic feeling of unease haunted house movies provide, and spins it into a complex and mysterious plot.
Like all of Del Toro’s films, it’s as human as it is atmospheric, and will definitely be pulling on your heartstrings. But mostly on the heartstring that controls fear, because one of the ghosts is named Tomás and he wears a filthy sack over his face and he and his bag will haunt your dreams. So watch this movie.
THE AWAKENING (2011)
Another great horror period piece at a Netflix near you.
Think of this movie in the same vein as The Conjuring but set in post WW1 England. Our main character, like the husband and wife in The Conjuring, is a paranormal investigator, although more in the business of busting frauds than expelling spirits.
Before the end of the movie trailer, you know that the house is haunted or someone gets possessed. But it’s finding out the mystery behind a lost soul that really pulls a ghost story together; something The Awakening does very well.
Leveraging everything from the technology of the time, haunting natural scenery, empty stillness, and even contorting seemingly innocent images, this film will take you on a trip and pull you down the rabbit hole.
More of a TV kind of person? Into that found-footage kind of feel? Have Netflix ADD?
V/H/S is an anthology of sorts, stringing together a couple of literal found footage stories inside of another narrative.
Think of it along the lines of Arabian Nights, but with horror. When petty thieves try to retrieve a VHS tape from a house, one by one they pop them in to see if it’s the tape they’re looking for…and one-by one they disappear.
Meanwhile you get to see what’s on the tapes, each one more disturbing than the rest.
THE PACT (2012)
If you can’t decide between slasher movie, haunted house, or mystery/thriller, here’s an option that combines a little bit of each.
What starts as yet another haunted house movie (Mom dies, daughter moves in to sort things out, weird things happen) quickly turns into a pulse-pounding mystery that will have you peeling back your wallpaper to make sure you’re not being watched.
The Pact does a great job of using contemporary technology and logic in the film. With just the right amount of supernatural and a whole lot of scary, this flick delivers fear on several different levels.
Don’t be home alone for this one.