After something a bit less mainstream to watch this Halloween? We have a perfectly curated list of spooky gems just for you…
Looking forward to Halloween? Of course, you are—after the year we've had so far, pretend horror will be a nice change of pace. The real thing gets a bit wearing after a while.
Anyway, all that means it's the ideal time to slap on a horror movie. Trouble is, there are so many to choose from and all that choice can be paralysing; the temptation is just to stick with the familiar and the famous.
But that means missing out on some of the real treasures that are out there, films that could easily become favourites if only they were given a chance. With that in mind, we've put together a carefully curated selection of lesser known ghoulish greats ranging from the creepy to the gory with much strangeness in between.
So grab your glow-in-the-dark vampire fangs, spark up the candle in your pumpkin and we shall begin.
La maschera del demonio (Aka Black Sunday)
Where better to start with a copper-bottomed classic. Made in Italy, this was the first film by one of the great genre filmmakers, a chap called Mario Bava. It's notionally adapted from a story by Nikolai Gogol but the main influence is Britain's Hammer films—this is a swooning gothic, with ruined chapels, secret passages and a resurrected witch who's intent on making things difficult for everyone else. And it looks AMAZING, with some of the best black and white photography you ever did see.
Bava didn't always get the respect he was due, and even this—his best known and most accessible work—has never quite made it out of cult film circles into the mainstream proper. But if you want something spooky and stylish, you can do no better.
A more recent film, this. It's a variant on the old ghost ship stories—a group of people on a boating trip come across an ocean liner drifting in the middle of the sea, and discover there's no one on board. But this is more than just a maritime haunted house movie; director Christopher Smith is obviously very fond of The Shining and, as there, there are layers beyond the shocks, of guilt, grief and trauma. One of the best horrors of the century so far, and one that does not suffer in comparison with its influences.
Juan of the Dead
...and sticking with contemporary films, this Cuban comedy-horror is well worth your time. As the title suggests, it's much influenced by our own Shaun of the Dead, in which a genial slacker batters zombies. That's the basic plot here too, with zombie-battering duties falling to Juan, possibly the laziest man in Havana. But this is no mere rip-off: there's some pointed commentary about the state of Cuba. And, even more importantly, it's also very funny.
There were a lot of great US horror movies in the 1970s; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead and Halloween... So many, in fact, that a lot of really good films have been overlooked. JD's Revenge is one such. It starts in the 1940s with the murder of a petty New Orleans criminal called JD Walker. Flash forward 30 years and circumstances allow his spirit to possess the body of a young fella called Ike, and using this new vessel to—yes, you've guessed it!—seek revenge on those who done him wrong. With great performances from Glynn Turman and Louis Gossett Jr, this is an under-recognised classic of African-American film.
Slasher movies get a bad rap, for understandable reasons. While Halloween—in which a masked killer picks off a sequence of teenagers—is a masterful film, the endless rip-offs are usually dull and inept, with incredibly irritating teenage victims. Terror Train is one of the few exceptions. For reasons that need not concern us now, a group of college students are having a party on a (moving) train. Only there's a psycho on board. Drat.
As directed by Roger Spotiswood, Terror Train is far more carefully crafted than most slasher films, building up to a proper you-have-got-to-be-flippin'-kidding twist (no, you won't guess who the killer is). Even the irritating teenage victims aren't that irritating.
Just Before Dawn
The countryside is a scary place, as well we know from The Wicker Man and The Blood on Satan's Claw. And it's as true in the US as here—maybe more so, in fact, since the distances are so much greater: get lost out there and you might not come back...
Like Deliverance, like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Just Before Dawn is about a trip to the country that goes very wrong, with locals who are less than friendly. And it's damn near as good as those more famous films too, masterfully directed on a low-budget by a fellow called Jeff Lieberman; had things worked out differently, he'd be as well-known as John “Halloween” Carpenter but we have to settle for what we have. Luckily, that's terrific.
The White Reindeer
Let's go back to Europe, for a film that offers a different kind of chill, set as it is in the frozen north. The White Reindeer was made in Finland, derived from a folktale; a young woman marries a reindeer herder but his work takes him away for long stretches. Lonely and frustrated, she visits a shaman but the spell he casts doesn't work as she'd hoped: it makes her transform—werewolf like—into a white reindeer, with quite a taste for blood.
Far more atmospheric than many of the films on our list, The White Reindeer might be compared to something like Cat People or I Walked With A Zombie (classics them both). In truth, though, it is wonderfully unique.
The Queen of Spades
Britain should take more pride in its horror films, since it's one of the genres we do best. This is a fine early example of the form, a gloriously extravagant version of a story by Alexander Pushkin; Anton Walbrook—better known for things like The Red Shoes—plays Suvorin, an impoverished soldier. When he learns of an old woman who became a crack gambler after selling his soul, he seizes her assistance in doing likewise. Only...
If it's any further incentive, Martin Scorsese is a big fan. Follow his example! Man knows his stuff!
Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly
An odd title for an odd film, but one that's well worth seeking out. The titular foursome live in a big rambling house: Mumsy is the matriarch, Nanny is—well—the nanny to Sonny (who's not quite the child his name suggests) and Girly, who's well on her way to womanhood. From time to time they “invite” (lure) “new friends” (dupes) to “play” (be toyed with and killed). But the latest “new friend” is smarter than he looks, exploiting internal tensions to topple the family structure from within.
It's a black comedy, a psychological thriller and much more besides (not least, a masterpiece). Don't let that title put you off.
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