As Halloween approaches, forget Michael, Freddy and Jason. Check out these thirteen obscure and underrated horror movies…
Halloween approaches and the horror genre is stuffed to the gills with an array of popular and iconic films. There are plenty of overlooked and undervalued films, some of which might have been overshadowed by bigger box office successes, or some which have been seen as lesser films in the careers of horror specialists.
If you’re burning through a Horror themed watchlist across October, then consider these 13 (it had to be 13) eclectic, carefully curated horror selections from yours truly. All with some standout qualities and which never quite grabbed the limelight they deserved. Here are 13 obscure horror movies well worth your time…
Clean up in aisle 12! Take a supermarket as your setting. Have a selection of workers bringing the shop to a close at night time and throw in a serial killer to pick them off one by one. Coming in 1989, this feels decidedly like an early 80’s video nasty slasher somewhat late to the party, but there’s just a little bit of additional pizzazz.
For starters, Scott Spiegel provides some effective horror direction in a film with some nice cinematography and a few imaginative death scenes. The setting proves effective too, but the film is bolstered by the inclusions of Ted and Sam Raimi in the cast (along with Evil Dead 2 alumni Bruce Campbell and Dan Hicks). Yes, Spiegel was part of that clique. Elsewhere Basil Poledouris provides music and the rest of the cast are pretty decent for this kind of film. That it keeps tongue firmly in cheek is also to the film’s credit. Given so many Evil Dead folk involved in production on this one, it’s a surprise that Intruder isn’t more widely known.
This creepy and engaging horror plays with your expectations. Will the film stay a grounded psychological study or delve into something more supernatural? A young man who had a strict upbringing has an imaginary friend called Pin, an anatomy doll in his father’s (Terry O’Quinn) office. Having talked to the doll as a child (though his father was voicing Pin), he comes to adulthood still talking to Pin. As people begin to threaten Leon (David Hewlett) and Pin, bodies turn up. Is it Pin or is it David committing the murders?
Pin is an enjoyable film only slightly hamstrung by a baggier than necessary runtime, but O’Quinn is really underrated royalty within the horror genre (see also The Stepfather) and Hewlett has also dipped his toes a few times (more notably in Cube). A great concept, with an almost (Stephen) King-esque storyline and some memorable set pieces. Why do people not know about Pin?
Atmospheric, beautifully shot and great use of some eerie and threatening locations. Mute Witness is a Euro-shot film with some British and Euro-cinema stalwarts which include Fay Ripley (Cold Feet), Alec Guinness (in one of his final roles, ironically shot years before the rest of the film and spliced in), Oleg Yankovsky (Nostalghia) and a great central turn from Marina Zudina as the titular mute witness.
The set-up is simple, as the film expertly blends Hitchcockian tropes with immediate threat and horror as Billy (Zudina) hopes to survive. The film opens with Billy as part of a film production, working on the visual and makeup effects. She’s responsible for the blood. It’s in the studio she witnesses a very real murder, but be sure, those movie magic skills will likely come to good use later in the film. This one is really, criminally neglected in the physical media department and long overdue a pristine release (step up Arrow, Criterion or Eureka please).
The Midnight Meat Train
Based on a Clive Barker short story, this enjoyable and suitably atmospheric horror film features Bradley Cooper just prior to his big Hangover break, and an almost career-best turn from Vinnie Jones. Japanese director, Ryuhei Kitamura (Versus) brings plenty of J-horror aesthetic to proceedings and where the effects are practically done, they’re grizzly and effective (the CGI, not so much). The subway settings make for a great backdrop as Cooper’s listless photographer begins to follow a strange man (Jones), uncovering something more gruesome than he could possibly imagine.
The Midnight Meat Train fizzled out quickly at the box office and really deserved to find a wider audience. The Clive Barker DNA is certainly evident, and even if the finale goes wilder than it may have needed, this ramps up the psychological horror as it progresses. Cold steely photography, largely shot in subways and/or night time really gives this a perpetual sense of unease which is more effective than the bloodletting to follow.
A gruesome murder sees a young disturbed boy put under psychiatric care, leaving his more ‘sane’ twin behind (both played by Mark Soper). Years later the killer escapes, seemingly intent on reuniting with his brother and family (including his mother played by Louise Lasser). Inevitably people immediately connected with the family begin disappearing or turning up brutally murdered.
Despite some questionable acting and a production that is definitely rough around the edges, Blood Rage’s concept and sincerity really pull it through. Soper isn’t honed by any stretch but really has an engaging quality here. It’s suitably gruesome when required, and even if a few twists could be seen more visibly from space than the Great Wall of China, the payoffs are still enjoyable. Fans of mid 80s video horror should lap this one up.
The idea of a lift breaking down is pretty terrifying to anyone with even the slightest tendency toward claustrophobia. You throw in a lift which is seemingly possessed by an unseen entity and you’ve got yourself a hell of a horror concept.
Dutch schlock specialist Dick Maas created some great stuff throughout the 80s in particular (not least Amsterdamned) and The Lift remains one of his finest works. He liked it so much that he remade it himself in 2001 (with Naomi Watts and Ron Perlman), though it was not nearly as effective as the original. Like much of Maas’s work, The Lift is brilliantly shot with a colourful palette. The lift sequences are daft but entertaining and it’s a perfectly lithe 99 minutes. Maas stalwart, Huub Stapel is a charismatic leading man.
David Cronenberg had already been making a name for himself with Shivers and the controversial Rabid. He would find plenty of willing audiences for his blend of psychological body horror and visually striking cinema. A little lesser remembered in his early career is The Brood. It’s unfairly overlooked for sure and it may not hit the heights of Videodrome, Dead Ringers or The Fly, but it’s filled to the brim with striking and unforgettable imagery.
Oliver Reed’s deranged experiments fail to facilitate his disturbed (and pregnant) wife’s mental recovery but things go awry when her deepest insecurities and inner rage take very real and threatening forms. The somewhat problematic casting of the ‘brood’ is definitely something that wouldn’t fly today, but despite that, this is chilling and filled to the brim with Cronenberg’s trademark atmosphere.
A serial killer known as the Sandman is executed but resurrected by a voodoo priest and given a body made of sand. He returns to hunt down the last remaining member of a family he’d slaughtered before capture.
This straight-to-video special which I once procured in a one pound bargain bin on DVD, is an enjoyable slasher. Michael Harris as the villain is suitably menacing, even if the makeup effects are occasionally subpar. The CGI is definitely subpar, but that aside it’s well-paced and entertaining. The film was enjoyable enough and Harris engaging enough that the lack of any sequels and potential DTV franchise, feels surprising.
Tobe Hooper will certainly always be synonymous with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Poltergeist (if not for the constant questions surrounding whether or not Steven Spielberg hijacked the director’s chair or not). One film that deserves more attention but hasn’t quite had it, is Funhouse.
Not to be confused with UK kids gameshow from the early 90s (with the mulleted Pat Sharp), Hooper’s Funhouse is a carnival-set horror film which sees a group of teens being picked off within a funhouse by a mask-wearing villain. We’ve got the masked killer, a mutant creature and plenty of slayings which all feel at home in the hands of Hooper. Elizabeth Berridge is a likeable and angelic leading lady. It’s fun, it’s silly, it’s over the top, but the setting is great. In this era of horror schlock on video, it’s surprising The Funhouse wasn’t regarded in a higher echelon of 80s horror until recently.
Wes Craven’s overlooked and underrated horror film feels like the work of a director trying to find his feet. If the schlocky mutant horror of The Hills Have Eyes had given him a reputation for silliness and The Last House on the Left had proved controversial for him, Deadly Blessing feels oddly old-fashioned. A quaint backdrop of a deeply religious and shut-off community with cinematography and aesthetics that feel like they’ve come from the 50s technicolour era.
Deadly Blessing didn’t suggest a film as groundbreaking and dark as A Nightmare on Elm Street was around the corner, but still, the murder mystery aspect here keeps the film interesting, and Sharon Stone, in one of her first films, definitely carries star power. This is very technically polished, feeling more lavishly budgeted than Craven’s rough and ready 70’s cinema. He’s done better, he’s done more iconic, but this has plenty within it to entertain.
In truth, these kinds of gore and nudity-heavy slashers were a dime a dozen in the early days of the video nasty. Pieces is effectively a Spanish-made Giallo that follows a few of the tropes of Italian-made horror of the time, not least by bringing in a few American actors, including Italian horror favourite, Christopher George.
Pieces features a killer dismembering young women in order to piece their body parts back together as a kind of human jigsaw (for a very particular reason). With some ropey dubbing, rough production and lapses in logic, this brings everything you’d expect from second-tier Italian horrors. Still, Pieces has enough memorable moments and enough in its concept to keep genre fans entertained.
Images tends to get overlooked in Robert Altman’s oeuvre for some of his more star-studded and larger productions. You don’t tend to associate Altman with horror, but he trod the waters particularly effectively in his earlier career, not least with Images, a dark, complex and gripping psychological horror. If you enjoy Polankski’s Repulsion, this certainly carries some similar threads as a woman’s battle with her own crumbling sanity begins to affect her perception of reality.
Repulsion certainly carries a longer, more iconic legacy, but Images is right up there, and most key to its success, aside from the strength of Altman’s visual style, is the central performance by Susannah York which is stunning. The film carries so much memorable imagery and moments that will haunt you. It’s also got one of John Williams’ most off-kilter and memorable scores. A world away from the grandiose bombast of Star Wars, Superman or Indiana Jones.
City of the Living Dead
A typically gruesome and icky Italian horror, filled with imaginative and hands-on gore effects. Lucio Fulci had a fascination with the undead, perhaps more than repeating Giallo tropes, and it’s definitely evident here. The aforementioned Christopher George is also in this and the film has plenty of unforgettable and wince-inducing practical gore effects.
This one is part of the Gates of Hell trilogy, and if The Beyond is the most iconic of the three, and probably the strongest, City of the Living Dead is probably the middle road addition. That’s not to disservice a film with more than enough great moments to be a horror classic, and yet it still deserves more fans.
What is your favourite obscure or underrated horror movie? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth….
Tom Jolliffe is an award-winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2022/2023, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.