For me, horror is the most underrated genre in the cinematic world. Like any genre film, there is an art form. Dramas are meant to make sure emotional. Comedies are meant to make us laugh. And romances are meant to warm our hearts.
And of course, horror is meant to scare us. Though we normally like to avoid the dark side of life, we can’t deny we’re interested in discovering what lies in the darkness. Even for that, there is an art form to portray it on big screen and getting your viewer terrified. I knew this as far back when Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark. No matter how nightmares, I still wanted to see a scary story. And for many years, I’ve not only seen the greatest and worst horror. And every year, I see new horror, such as on my Netflix account, Hush and The Invitation.
Furthermore, I’ve seen underrated horror. Sometimes, they’re misunderstood and sometimes they’re just not seen by many critics and audiences. But here are a few flicks that I think need more attention…
The Devil’s Rejects (2005) dir. Rob Zombie
Rob Zombie is known for his shock rock music and horror images. And when he decided to direct his own horror films, a lot of heads were turned. Yet, in the following years, he hasn't become one of those directors who is well-liked by critics. Many times, his movies are categorized by their thin scripts, originality, and explicit content that appear graphic for the sake of being graphic. The last time I felt I was going to see a movie by him that would be aesthetically pleasing was The Lords of Salem. Though much more ambitious, it just felt like another cheap thrill inspired by Salem Witch lore, before indulging into torture porn and Jodorowsky-esque images.
However, among this arsenal of hits-and-misses and cult failures, Zombie has one film that deserves more recognition. Following the panned House of 1,000 Corpses, critics have said its sequel, The Devil’s Rejects, is a step-up. In the saga of the Firefly Family, we find the game has changed since House with the serial killing bunch on the run from the law, but still causing evil wherever they go.
Though it appears to carry the same flaws, it carries better writing and exceptional acting by Sherri Moon Zombie, William Forsythe, Ken Foree, and cult horror legends Sid Haig and Bill Moseley. Roger Ebert himself would say that what this movie benefits from is its psychotic antiheroes with “personalities,” even if they appear as pure entities of evil with no direct motives than causing pain and suffering. A simple trip to buy chickens for dinner leads to a conversation on bestiality and near fistfight.
It also feels like a retro-throwback to 70s exploitation films. Think of The Wild Bunch meets Thelma & Louise, and you got another road story of outlaws on the run, but with Zombie’s fixation with torture scenes and Tarantino-like monologue with a lot of f-words. It would be cool to see this at an authentic drive-in theatre during the final years of the Vietnam Year.
Rob Zombie, by his name, makes me think if George Romero took the look of Charles Manson and became a shocker rocker. But we’ve seen other things. We’ve seen sadistic anti-heroes, Michael Myers resurrection, comic book adventures with all the horror pop-culture, evil clowns and entertainment through gory torture. Truly, Rob Zombie is one of a kind. Just for some, he’s not for the faint-hearted. And neither is The Devil’s Rejects.
My Bloody Valentine (1981) dir. George Mihalka
Slashers will always be a classic staple in horror. During the 70s and 80s, people were no longer afraid of monsters or ghosts. They were terrified of fellow humans in masked and wielding sharp objects. Many have credit John Carpenter’s Halloween for creating the slasher, but that is much disputable. What is known, is that following the night Michael Myers came home, there was a trend for masked killers stalking and slaughtering young people. But of course, among this pool of horror, there were many hits and many misses. For the latter, new contemporary critics have given them much overdue praise. One such slasher that deserves to not have its recognition delayed any longer is My Bloody Valentine.
Taking to capitalize on other holiday-themed slashers (Friday the 13th, Black Christmas), Valentine features a cursed community that brings back a tradition that was tainted by a terrible mining accident, and its only survivor going on a killing spree if he ever saw another red heart in his hometown. But of course, there’s a group of young wild ones who don’t want urban legends in miner masks to spoil their fun.
But the fun of this slasher was initially spoiled by censorship the Motion Picture Association of America due to the amount of violence and gore. Producer John Dunning would say the movie was “cut to ribbons.” As restoration efforts brought back the original version, critics and horror fans in general have come to appreciate the Valentine much more. Many have pointed out that the movie neglects common slasher troupes, such as its story taking place in a working-class town, instead of a suburb or school setting, having young adult characters, instead of teenagers, and relying more on dread, instead of gore. Even Quentin Tarantino has called it his favorite slasher of all time.
My Bloody Valentine has received a 3D remake in 2009 when there was a new trend of horror remakes; a small feat that only helps to bring new attention to the cult classic. Perhaps, when movie fans see how underrated this slasher is, a new restoration effort will be made, and a better remake that treated with respect, like it was a baby of John Carpenter.
Last House on the Left (1972) dir. Wes Craven
The subjects of rape and revenge is a combination that would spell controversary and box-office disaster for most horror films. People would argue though, there is an art form to portraying violence on film and making look real; if not just shocking. Yet, if the movie did just that, its achievement would still be overshadowed by the backlash.
Last House was not only a box-office success in the independent exploitation scene, it was slightly acclaimed by some critics. Originally based on The Virgin Spring by Ingmar Bergman, but focusing on raw torture and vengeful parents, Wes Craven’s debut established him as an early Hollywood underdog, while also nearly hindered the horror master’s ambitions.
However, Last House continues to strike a nerve with every viewer with a strong stomach. Many admire the daring premise and content, coming out of a decade where independent filmmakers definitely wanted to test the limits of screen censorship. The cast themselves carry a raw power through scenes of drugs, sex and violence, while an upbeat, comical soundtrack often contrasts the graphic scenes. All of which takes place in an ordinary U.S. suburbia setting, thus spreading fear in new environments beyond gothic castles and colonial farmlands.
Last House even goes as far as to touch upon the social events of its time. One might say that Craven’s thriller, Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is a contemporary on the death of the Peace Era. Watching victims Mari and Phyllis, we can see young America trying to be a teenage in a country that is through a new phase, which is only realized by meaningless violence. Craven would even say how he was motivated by the media misrepresentation of violence during the Vietnam War, and how the vigilante hero was glamorized in westerns.
The Last House on the Left may be remembered as a graphic rape-and-revenge thriller, but you look closely, it not only has art, but intelligence as any movie that is affected by its time period. That is, if you’re able to avoid fainting, while reminding yourself, “It’s only a movie…It’s only a movie…It’s only a movie.”
As Above, So Below (2014) dir. John Erick Dowdle
In 1999, The Blair Witch Project hits theaters and made a crap-load of cash, while also starting a new trend. Through the 2000s and 10s, horror fans enjoyed the stories told through the eye of a camera held by a movie character. The found-footage subgenre was found, and new classic horror films were created, including Paranormal Activity, REC, Cloverfield and Chronicle. Then like any trend, it wears out and fades away as certain failures hinder the movement, such as Devil’s Due and The Gallows.
But among those not considered true successes, there is As Above, So Below. Take place and filmed in the actual Catacombs of Paris, we see a group of explorers on an adventure to discover the philosopher’s stone by Nicolas Flamel (sneeze) (Harry Potter). As these explorers descend deeper into the tunnel, they encounter cultists, lost wanderers or just people who do their own sinful antics below ground (uh-hmm) (Dante’s Inferno). The batteries in their cameras die out, the tunnels lead to nowhere or back where they started, and their speeches becomes disorientated (cough) (Alice in Wonderland). Not to mention, as they descend deeper and deeper into catacombs, they encounter booby traps and puzzles to solve in order to continue and survive further. (sneeze again) (Indiana Jones).
More importantly, these explorers encounter visions and whispers of their sins on the surface. Those who confess, survive and those who don’t, they die (as the story goes). And as they go deeper into the catacombs, and as their group diminishes, there’s one way up: DOWN!
As Above, So Below carries a cliché premise with hot-headed scientists and thrill seekers trekking into uncharted territory and seeking forbidden prizes, until supernatural forces (first deemed rumors or legends) pick them off one by one. However, it is a thrill ride that viewers should buy tickets to. Even the shaky camera work, like in Cloverfield, can make you as nauseous as the explorers, as well as claustrophobic. Though obviously a horror film, this flick sports things you like from your typical adventure movie, along with more serious drama moments involving themes of sin and redemption.
But as with Dante Alighieri, for these modern journeymen, in order to reach heaven, one must first go through. And As Above, So Below has gone through enough hell with mixed reviews that it deserves new attention and praise.
The Strangers (2008) dir. Bryan Bertino
It’s easy to understand violence if you discover the motive behind: profit, revenge or sexual obsession. But if there was killer who did simply for the sake of it, that’s not only most meaningless, but very terrifying.
Here, we see how terrible it is in The Strangers, where there’s a couple doing average as their world is rocked enough when a marriage proposal goes wrong. At their cabin in the woods, while we wait to see if the relationship comes to an end, there’s a knock at the door that would go away.
Normally, in a slasher or home-invasion tale, death is the result of indecent behavior (sex, drugs and rock n’ roll). But here, death is random. This seems unreal, but probably why it makes this film so scary. The three masked killer appear like entities of nihilistic violence. It appears they’ve chosen to horrify and torture this normal couple, seemingly because they were home after randomly picking out a house for a daily killing. The privileged rural setting adds more to the terror for this unexplained violence as no one normally depicts such terrible things to occur in such a peaceful-looking setting.
The Strangers received praise for atmosphere and tension, but criticism for its script and characters. Perhaps for the latter two, this is correct as you watch the two protagonists slowly trying to stay alive as their options fail and as they try cliché actions, such as not sticking together against multiple killer. But I can remember going to theaters and audience members (mostly teenagers) scare after every fast cut and appearance by the faceless killers.
Perhaps after viewing this flick, you’ll have another reason to look over your back when it’s dark outside. Not since George Sluizer’s The Vanishing has there been a movie for me that examines the nihilistic nature of evil and make it so terrifying.
Oculus (2013) dir. Mike Flanagan
In the early 2010s, horror fans were getting tired of flick overly drenched in gore. Eventually, they started becoming interested in old school stuff, like haunted houses. Therefore, movies like The Conjuring were warmly embraced by critics and audiences. Oculus was another welcome and as well as a game changer.
Director Mike Flanagan has gotten much praise for his direction, focus on characters, themes rarely depicted in the horror genre, and lack of reliance on jump scares. He has received praise from horror directors like William Friedkin. It all began with Oculus.
Focusing on a brother and sister trying to destroy a possessed mirror that caused the death of their parents, Oculus immediately divides into unconventional storytelling. Like how Christopher Nolan’s Memento uses a backward nonlinear storyline to put viewers into the position of man who has short-term memory, Flanagan’s supernatural has a similar tactics. We are given two storylines, jumping back and forth from past to present, when the main characters met the mirror as child’s and survive, and as adults and fighting it again. This is put viewers in the same sense of disorientation as the main characters as the mirror causes hallucinations and blurs the line between two time periods and cinematic storytelling in general.
Oculus furthermore takes other liberties that most horror films get bad reputations in not handling. An exclamation for bad cellular communication is given. When the lights go out, the characters bring portable lights. Not to mention, for the present storyline, our protagonists know about the evil forces in advance to fight. I mean how does a horror film like that play out and still be awesome?
Perhaps, because Oculus is so unconventional, it was too sophisticated for the average movie viewer. Being rewarded a “C” on CinemaScore is often actually a clear sign of a great movie that is adored by critics and will be eventually warmed by audiences. Box-office and critical reception often don’t go hand-in-hand. But as often as well, time brings both opinions together, as it should for this thriller.
Shame that Flanagan’s movies aren’t talked about too much. Perhaps we can hope for that to change when Doctor Sleep hits theaters next month. Aside from the fact that he’s proven more than capable of adapting King’s novels (Gerald’s Game), it does look like his biggest movie yet!
Trick r’ Treat (2007) dir. Michael Dougherty
Horror anthology films were a trend back in the 70s to 80s. In recent times for the 2000s and 10s, they’ve seen a new revival. They’re often perfect for people who love scary tales but are impatient for longer ones. Trick r’ Treat would be an excellent choice.
Trick r’ Treat is the baby project of Michael Dougherty, dating back to 1996 as a three-minute cartoon. With time, this flick became live-action and feature-length but suffered a bad start when set straight to DVD. It didn’t help further that movie carried little to no stars in its cast and seemingly old fashion horrors. However, a strong cult following has helped kept it alive.
What we get in this flick is traditional Halloween subjects retold with charm, great suspense, and a Pulp Fiction-esque storyline involving the rules of the scary holiday. These rules include (1) always hand out candy to trick-or-treaters, (2) always wear a costume, (3) never blow out a jack o’ lantern before midnight, (4) always respect the dead, (5) always check your candy, (6) never take down your decorations before November 1st, (7) never hurt the innocent and (8) never smash a jack o lantern.
Encountering those rules is Sam, a hooded trick r’ treater who also doesn’t hesitate to join in the festivities himself. He also likes to observe; such as a school principal making jack o’ lanterns out more than pumpkins, kids visiting crash sites where the dead may rise, a young lady trying to enjoy her “first time” on Halloween and a grumpy old man learning the holiday spirit the hard way.
If It’s A Wonderful Life needs constant viewing during Christmas time, Trick r’ Treat deserves at least constant Halloween screening.
The Monster (2016) dir. Bryan Bertino
Another achievement by Bertino following The Strangers, The Monster remains an underrated horror flick, simply because no one saw it as much.
Sometimes, less is more. The Monster features a minimalist story of an alcoholic mother (Zoe Kazan) and her estranged daughter (14-year-old Ella Ballentine) whose car hits an animal in the middle of the night. But roadkill and car problems are the least of their worries, as something more sinister lurks in the woods.
What carries this flick is its two lead characters trying to patch up and move from a tempestuous relationship. Bertino can take this relationship, throw in a monster that rocks their world and treat it with an art-house style, dream-like pace and melancholy. Not to mention, the story, unlike in most horror movies, is its emotional depth. If your eyes aren’t crying from all the moments the creature pops out and kills, they will be during the live-or-death moments between mother and child.
The last time I saw a movie that used the “monstrosity” of motherhood as an inspiration, there was Friday the 13th. But whereas that mother went on a killing spree for your child, we witness a mother fight against the worst evil imaginable, while learning to sustain the evil within herself.
Wolf Creek (2005) dir. Greg McLean
I can remember in one scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The character Pam is reading the horoscope during a road trip and tells her companions there are moments that we can’t believe are happening to us. We just pinch ourselves and find out it is real. And the victims of Wolf Creek must have had to do that when hell came to them.
When Australian director Greg McLean became a member of the Splat Pack, he came out swinging. But his first success wasn’t well-received. Audience members and critics were vocal about walking out of theaters in disgust for a movie they felt was just gory and even accused it of being misogynistic. Of course, why not? Wolf Creek does contain a story involving female victims being tortured slowly and bleak landscapes that match dread tone of despair. Yet, that’s what makes it a great horror movie.
Not since the 70s, with classics like Henry: Portrait of Serial Killer, was there a movie whose purpose was to show violence simply as it is. Forget the glorification and glamour you’ve seen in westerns or war films, McLean simply wondered what it would be like if tourists were in the most isolated place in the world with the most evil person on earth. Wolf Creek even goes old school by passing it itself off as a true story (a trend by 70s-era horror movies). The message is simple, through its outback scenery, hand-held camera, and grindhouse aesthetics, these are things that can happen to us in real life. Maybe that’s why some people walk out. Not only because the gore was too much, but too real to remind them that terrible things can happen in our lives.
In an unexpected way, any good horror film contains a meaningful message of life. The Exorcist is really about the power of faith. IT is really about growing up and conquering fear. Jaws is really about profit versus morality. And Dracula is really about not forgetting the past as we move forward to the future. I’d say Wolf Creek is a scary tale about life’s unexpected moments. And one moment that sticks out to me now is when the characters’ watches stop.
When we go to movie theaters, we go to escape life. A film is almost like a drug that propels into another world. But even in a movie, the truth of life comes with it. Sometimes, it’s hard to admit that terrible things can happen to us, but they do. And seeing it even in a horror movie like Wolf Creek, portrayed so graphically realistic as it is, can be a bad reminder that makes us want to leave the room. Or it can inspire us to make life count.
In memory of actor Sid Haig (1939-2019)