As soon as I was too old to go trick or treating at Halloween, I decided to turn All Hallows Eve into a week-long horror movie gore-a-thon. So, for the last 20 or so years, I’ve watched hundreds of scary movies during the last week of October. Some of them are modern classics; some are unbearably awful and unwatchable. Of course, we’ve all seen the standards; The Exorcist, Scream, Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, and Poltergeist to name a few, so I’ve decided to compile a list of some of the lesser known horror films that I consider true classics of the genre.
1. The Changeling
A dark and creepy ghost story set in a crumbling Victorian mansion in upstate New York. George C. Scott stars in this 1980 chiller as a composer who heads for the solace of the country to mourn the loss of his wife and daughter who died in a car crash. He becomes obsessed with the history of the mansion, particularly an unsolved crime which involves a murdered child. That murdered child may or may not be haunting the old mansion and slamming doors and whispering ominously and pushing freaky old wheelchairs around. The Changeling is wonderfully atmospheric and has some well-time frights to keep you glued to your screen.
A carload of strangers are stranded in a storm. Fortunately they come across an evil looking house which turns out to be the home of two seemingly sweet old people who make dolls for a living. What could go wrong!? How about a house full of the creepiest dolls you’ve ever seen, who come alive and go on a bloody terror spree throughout the house. There are plenty of laugh out loud thrills and enough cartoonish gore to keep you engaged in this 1987 cult classic.
3. The Exorcist III
Everyone has seen the William Peter Blatty’s genre-defining classic, The Exorcist, and has a story to tell about the first time they saw it. It’s one of the most revered of the horror genre. But when the first sequel was released, The Exorcist Part II: The Heretic, Blatty wanted nothing to do with the film and the reins were handed over to director John Boorman. The franchise lost credibility because the film was a critical and box office failure. It would be over 13 years before another Exorcist film was attempted, and this time, William Peter Blatty was back at the helm. George C. Scott plays a policeman investigating a murder, and the plot brilliantly ties itself to the original Exorcist film. There are scenes in this film that are as, if not more, terrifying than the most horrific scenes from The Exorcist.
4. Ginger Snaps
This Canadian horror slash comedy film stars Katharine Isabelle and Emily Perkins as gothic sisters who are infatuated with death. Their town has been plagued by something that has been killing people’s pet dogs. Out late one night to pull a prank, the sisters are attacked by this lycanthropic creature, and it mauls the eldest sister, Ginger, before running off into the road and being struck by a truck. Ginger survives her wounds, only to discover that she is slowly turning into a werewolf. This blood-soaked cult favorite is an obvious metaphor for puberty, written so cleverly and performed so well by its lead actors, that it deserves a place in your Halloween line-up.
5. The Devil’s Backbone
Before becoming famous for Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo Del Toro made a film called The Devil’s Backbone, a beautiful and haunting ghost story set in 1930’s Spain. The film takes place in an orphanage and involves children both innocent and cruel. Horror experts at Bloody Disgusting ranked this film at number 18 in a list of the 20 Best Horror Films of the Decade.
Another Canadian creep-fest, Pin is the strange tale of a strange doctor who has two strange teenaged kids and an even stranger life-sized anatomical medical dummy who he has named Pin. The teenaged boy, Leon, is actually schizophrenic, and develops an alarming infatuation with Pin, who eventually starts telling Leon what to do. Leon and Pin get up to some crazy hijinks together, and people get hurt/killed. The movie might have been silly had it not been for the truly eerie presence of Pin – the skinless plastic man doll.
A little girl suffering from a fever draws a house, and when she falls asleep, she sees the house in her dreams, as a real place, with a real disabled child living inside it. The lines between reality and fantasy are blurred in this moody and atmospheric British film, originally released in 1988. Film Critic Roger Ebert said of the film that “every image has been distilled to the point of almost frightening simplicity, and this is not a movie to be measured and weighed and plumbed, but to be surrendered to.”
8. Session 9
Directed by Brad Anderson, Session 9 takes place in one of the scariest real-life locations in the United States – the decrepit and abandoned Danvers state Mental Hospital in Danvers, Massachusetts. An asbestos cleaning crew is sent in to remove hazardous material. Upon discovering a stash of taped sessions with a former patient who was suffering from multiple personality disorder, the tension between the crew members intensifies as each one of them are faced with demons both real and imagined.
Excellent performances and an effectively chilling atmosphere save this 2001 horror film from descending into a cheesy, run-of-the-mill horror flick. A wendigo is a mythic creature that can either possess a person or shapeshift into one, as long as they’ve eaten human flesh. A wendigo (or maybe just a sadistic local hunter) terrorizes a family in the snowy forests of upstate New York.
10. Santa Sangre
Directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky, this Mexican-Italian film is set in Mexico, and tells the tale of a Fenix, a young man in a mental hospital, whose story is revealed through a series of bizarre and oftentimes terrifying flashbacks. Many consider Santa Sangre to be Jodorowsky’s best film, and it’s trippy filming style and twisted imagery will leave you shocked and unsettled.
11. The Keep
One of director Michael Mann’s lesser known films, The Keep stupefied 1983 audiences with its incomprehensible plot about an entity named Radu who haunts a German-occupied Romanian citadel during World War II. Nevertheless, the film has become somewhat of a cult classic, and with a cast that includes Scott Glenn, Ian McKellen, Gabriel Byrne and Jurgen Prochnow, and boasts an incredibly moody score by Tangerine Dream, it still deserves it’s place in a must-see horror film list.
12. The Orphanage
What is it about orphanages that scare us so much?! Maybe it’s because (according to all orphanage-themed movies) they are all haunted by creepy little dead kids who quietly wander the halls at night. In this well-paced chiller from Spain, the filmmaker relies more on building tension and fear, rather than relying on tried and true jump scare tactics.
13. The Pact
One of the more recently made films on the list, The Pact doesn’t break any new ground for the genre, but the 2012 film delivers some authentic scares and some solid performances. After the death of her mother, Annie finds herself on a mission to locate her missing cousin and sister, who have disappeared somewhere inside their dead mother’s house. The Pact has the perfect Halloween dose of scary hidden rooms, skeptical policemen, Ouija board shenanigans and a couple gory killings to top it off.
This 2008 horror film is not for the faint of heart. This gut-wrenching story is about young girls who are imprisoned and tortured, for reasons that you only discover towards the end of the film. Horror film writer called Martyrs “the new yard stick against which all forms of extreme genre films should be measured against.” Martyrs is a film that I am glad I saw, but one that I will never watch again.
Directed by horror master, George A. Romero, Martin is the twisted tale of a teenaged boy who believes he is a vampire. He’s not. In fact, he’s just a twisted killer who hates and fears women, so deals with them the only way he knows how – with brutality and murder. Romero considers Martin to be his best work, and it was also the first time that the director worked with special effects genius, Tom Savini.
16. In the Mouth of Madness
Directed by John Carpenter as the third installment in what Carpenter called his Apocalypse Trilogy (The Thing and Prince of Darkness being the first and second installments.) In the Mouth of Madness stars Sam Neill as an insurance investigator who is sent to discover the whereabouts of a missing horror novelist, and who finds himself experiencing bizarre phenomena as he tracks the elusive author to a mysterious town that may or may not be a figment of his imagination. John Carpenter is a master of the genre, and this is one of his less well-known features, but is one worth seeing.
17. Let’s Scare Jessica To Death
A classic early 70’s genre film, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is a low-budget cult film that every horror film aficionado must see. Sparing no cliché, the film follows a mentally unstable woman as she moves into a horrible country farmhouse that is, of course, haunted. There might even be a vampire thrown into the mix, just for variety. This is a fun, stupid and trashy horror film to watch with a group of friends on Halloween night.