10 Criminally Underrated Horror Movies To Watch On Halloween
This is the time of year for horror movie recommendations, and people making those tend to stick to the classics -- Halloween, The Exorcist, the Spooky Scary Skeletons YouTube video, etc. But if you decide to dive into your streaming services for something new, and don't want to spend an entire week flipping through some of the worst user interfaces ever designed, here are some picks to help you along.
VHS/VHS 2 (Netflix) Are A Bunch Of Gritty Shorts From Some Big-Name Directors
VHS and VHS 2 kind of feel like modern horror director DLC -- little bits of content to tide you over until the next full release comes along. This pair of found footage anthologies includes some major directors cleverly making the best of a low budget. Adam Wingard is currently directing the literal biggest movie ever, King Kong vs. Godzilla, Ti West did In A Valley Of Violence (starring America's Cool Uncle Ethan Hawke AND America's Drunk Uncle John Travolta), and Gareth Evans is responsible for The Raid series, two of the best pure action movies ever made.
VHS and VHS 2 feature shorts from all of them and more, with each director bringing their identifiable style to each. Don't think Evans can handle a horror film about cults after making movies about the various ways an elbow can destroy a face? Check out his short "Safe Haven," about an Indonesian cult that is preparing for the birth of a horned goat demon. Wondering what Eduardo Sanchez, the director of the original Blair Witch Project, has been up to? Check out "A Ride In The Park," a short that is the equivalent of an espresso shot for the zombie genre. Hey, speaking of which ...
Train To Busan (Netflix) Will Make You Love Zombie Films Again
The zombie genre is so worn out that even the most popular zombie thing this decade, The Walking Dead, has just repeated some form of "The people are the REAL monsters" since shortly after the opening scene of the pilot. But don't let that get in the way of you watching Train To Busan, one of the most relentless, claustrophobic, and downright badass zombie films I've ever seen. This one comes from South Korea, and it helped one of its actors, Ma Dong-seok, become a star over there. And when you watch Train To Busan -- which, by the way, is about fast zombies crowded onto a speeding train -- it's easy to see why.
Ma is a gruff, beefy blue-collar worker who just wants to protect his pregnant wife from zombies. And he does so by punching, kicking, and body-slamming them through multiple train cars. It's like everyone else thought they were in a zombie movie, and Ma was told that it was his superhero origin story. He's incredible, and we should all play a drinking game in which we take a shot every time he's awesome. Of course, we'd die, but WE'D DIE HAPPY.
Creep/Creep 2 (Netflix) Is Found Footage Done Right
Creep and Creep 2 are some of the only found footage films out there that really deserve to be found footage films. Most of these excursions would work better if the creators just dropped the gimmick entirely. But Creep and Creep 2, which deal with documentarians slowly learning that their subject is insane and likely a serial killer, absolutely need the close discomfort that comes with found footage when it's done well.
This isn't the first time that it's been done. 1992's Man Bites Dog was a found footage serial killer flick from Belgium. However, considering that so much of this genre is a trudge through a swamp of lame movies about people installing cameras in their spooky bedrooms, Creep and Creep 2 feel downright trailblazing. Also, it's evidence that you don't need special effects when you have Mark Duplass, who somehow can make your skin crawl just by standing in a doorway.
I Saw The Devil (Hulu) Is An Action-Packed Serial Killer Epic
Fans of foreign horror films probably remember the incredible 2003 South Korean movie Oldboy. It's been one of my "BRO, YOU GOTTA WATCH THIS" movies for a while, and I Saw The Devil is a nice companion piece to it. The "hero" of Oldboy (in quotations because trust me, no one really ends up feeling like a hero by the end of Oldboy) is the definite villain of I Saw The Devil, a grimy movie that does not make the serial killer look like anything but a piece of human garbage. And that's super rare.
Yeah, a dude like Hannibal Lecter obviously sucks, but he sucks in the coolest way possible. You always end up in awe of his cleverness, ruthlessness, and extensive catalog of recipes. It's fun to watch him toss out puns as he thwarts every authority figure. I Saw The Devil, on the other hand, makes no such effort to turn its villain into a kind of antihero. It's a mad roller coaster of a movie that makes it hard to sympathize with anyone. Good horror should make you feel worse about the world.
Backcountry (Netflix) Is A Very Human Story About A Killer Bear
Every animal attack movie gets compared to Jaws, and even though those comparisons are usually like comparing filet mignon to a dead rat that you found in your pocket, we can't help it because Jaws is about the only cultural touchstone that we have in that particular genre. And it'll stay that way until 1980's Alligator gets the reappraisal that it so richly deserves. That said, 2014's Backcountry does deserve the comparison, if only because the creators of Backcountry and the team behind Jaws knew one very important thing: In the end, it's not really about the animal.
Backcountry is about a couple that's on its last legs going on a camping trip. They are four seconds away from a breakup at all times, and so the movie becomes excruciating even before the bear starts munching on them. In the same way that you're shouting "JUST LISTEN TO THE POLICE CHIEF, MAYOR VAUGHN, YOU FOURTH-OF-JULY-LOVING BASTARD" at Jaws, Backcountry has you pleading that the couple gets their shit together. When it's done right, horror can be a very simple formula: Get us invested in the human drama, then hit us with a bear rampage.
Emelie (Netflix) Digs Into Your Worst Childhood Fears
When you're creating a horror film about children, it's really easy to just apply adult fears to them. Big knives! People stalking you! Figuring out how to label your business during tax season! But it's harder, and vastly more interesting, to look at the things that children fear, especially children on the cusp of becoming older, weirder children through puberty. That intense discomfort, need to fit in, and the overwhelming feeling that you should know how to handle stuff, but oh boy do you not. Emelie plays with all of these.
Emelie is about a nefarious babysitter and the three siblings she preys upon. The oldest kid is 11, and spends the entire film trying to impress the sitter, then feeling strange around her, and finally trying to rescue his younger brother and sister from her. And despite the fact that the antagonist looks like a high school girl, the tension is relentless. As a former middle school boy, I can tell you that a high school girl can be fucking terrifying.
Hush (Netflix) Is A Clever Twist On A Classic Formula
The most common and obnoxious trope in horror is the loud jump scare. The howling cat comes bursting out of a cupboard and the character is horrified, not only because of the sudden gift of cat, but also because horror movie cats are ten times louder than regular cats. It's a cheap way to use sound to startle the audience rather than actually scare them. Hush, however, upends this convention. The main character is deaf, and Oculus director Mike Flanagan tailors the sound design accordingly (things go silent when switching to the protagonist's point of view). What could be a cheap gimmick winds up being amazingly effective at tying your gut in knots.
Flanagan (who also directed Gerald's Game and the acclaimed Haunting Of Hill House series on Netflix) is so adept at structuring a cat and mouse horror film that he should teach classes on it. It's a short (less than 90 minutes), simple, lean thriller that's everything the genre should be. Why in the hell did this not get a theatrical release?
Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer (Amazon Prime) Feels Horribly Realistic
Remember Yondu from the Guardians Of The Galaxy films? The alien mercenary leader with a Southern accent, a sweet whistle arrow thing, and a heart of gold? Well, he was played by Michael Rooker, and before he starred in those films and as the knife-handed redneck Merle in The Walking Dead, he was Henry in Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer. It was his breakout role, despite the fact that the movie somehow makes you want to get a retraining order against all of cinema.
Henry is loosely based on the real crimes of Henry Lee Lucas, and at no point does it feel like the movie is taking steps to glamorize anything or Hollywood it up. The director made this movie in less than a month for $110,000, and the cheapness of the production only adds to the uneasy feeling that you really shouldn't be watching it. The performances are naturalistic, the death scenes are brutal, and the lead character is equal parts enrapturing and terrifying. Basically, it's a good Halloween movie if you're trying to feel disgusted and awful for the rest of the night.
The Collector (Hulu) / The Collection (Netflix) Revitalizes Another Tired Genre
The 2000s gave us a wave of torture-based films (called "torture porn" by critics), and while the best of these was probably Hostel, they quickly grew tiresome, mainly because they didn't really go anywhere. People just moved from small room to small room, slowly losing body parts until a twist ending revealed something ironic and no one went home happy. So what if you could capture the visceral feeling of "Oh god, the human body is not supposed to be stabbed like that" with a plot that's actually thrilling? Well, you'd get the Collector films.
They're a pair of films based around a leather-masked serial killer called "The Collector," who, as you can guess, tends to put people in boxes. The setup is much more fun than you'd expect. The first film is about a man who breaks into a house to find that the Collector is already there first and is waaaaay more prepared, and the second is about that same man being hired to infiltrate the Collector's headquarters. These films basically looted the corpse of the Saw series, picked out the best parts, and reassembled them into a plot that isn't a confusing, tangled mess.
The Host (Hulu) Combines Rad Monster Action And Touching Family Drama
The Host is a monster movie without a lot of burning buildings or wide shots of rubble. And while this may lead you to believe that I'm gonna follow this up with something insufferable like "It's TRULY a THINKING MAN'S monster movie," it actually means that The Host is gives you plenty of monster action on a smaller scale. Not only is the creature only about 50 feet long (which is plenty long enough to wreak some havoc), but the focus is also put on a single dysfunctional family.
The most badass person in it isn't a typical "I was in the Navy once so I suddenly know how to deal with Godzillas" monster movie bro. It's a woman who has won a ton of archery competitions. The lead protagonist is more Chris Pratt in Parks And Rec Season 2 than Chris Pratt in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. And how they come together to rescue a child is not only engaging, but sort of heartwarming.
The Host is not so much about how the family overcomes a monster as it is about how a family overcomes their own worst tendencies (in order to stop a monster). Watch it, and you'll realize that another $100 million in CGI city destruction sequences wouldn't have enhanced the entertainment value one bit.
Daniel Dockery has a spooky, scary Twitter, full of ghouls and goblins and halfhearted rants about Spider-Man 2.
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