I love October. Not because of the candy or costumes (you dress up as Dora the Explorer one time and nobody lets you forget it!) but because it’s THE month to watch scary movies. There are a few classics I revisit every couple of years, but sometimes I’ll get lucky and find something I’ve never even heard of – or was told wasn’t worth watching – that scares me silly. Because of my fondness for this time of year, I decided to compile a list of these underrated or under-seen gems so I could share them with my fellow horror fans. These are some of my favorite, lesser-known horror films that you may have missed:
Color Out of Space
Just as it does with the land and lives of the Gardner family, the cosmic terror in Color Out of Space takes its time creeping into full view for the audience. Then, when it’s primed and ready, the movie transforms into an neon-tinted nightmare that’s backed by some of the most horrifying, haunting, tragic visuals I’ve seen in film along with a trio of strong performances from Nic Cage, Madeleine Arthur, and Elliot Knight. You see just enough to vaguely understand what’s happening to these poor people, but it’s the unknown, unanswered elements of this H.P. Lovecraft adaptation take that make it truly scary and kept it in the back of my mind for quite a while.
I’ll admit there’s no way I could argue against the complaint that Underwater is a rip-off of Alien, but you know what? It’s a damn good rip-off of Alien. Most of the cast is great – particularly Kristen Stewart, who’s unsurprisingly fantastic – the deep sea lab setting creates a palpable, claustrophobic feeling, and the inhuman threat features a fairly unique design that’s obscured for most of the movie, which makes it more mysterious and unsettling. Even though Underwater may wear its influences on its sleeve, it’s still an atmospheric, entertaining, and frightening feature.
Southbound doesn’t feature the outright scariest anthology horror segments out there, but it’s certainly one of the most unique and entertaining as a whole. It seamlessly transitions from each tale to the next, and manages to weave multiple different yarns that, while varied in style and storytelling, are all satisfactorily creepy and focus on the same themes. Southbound never holds your hand and explains exactly what’s going on either, but leaves clues throughout each segment and trusts the viewer to figure most of it out on their own.
Livescream sits in its own little sub-genre of found footage films, combining it with the often-mishandled death (video) game concept. Despite the fact that you see almost none of the cast aside from the main character – played by Gunner Willis, who does an amazing job – Livescream still manages to deliver meaningful stakes and had my pulse racing plenty of times throughout while paying homage to a litany of spooky video games. It probably won’t do much for you if you don’t play video games or watch streamers play them, but it’s a must-see if you do.
This Thai horror may feature a seemingly familiar premise, but it makes enough twists and turns to keep you unsettled through most of its run. Shutter builds tremendous amounts of tension through an incredibly well-balanced mix of solid psychological horror and unusually strong – and never cheap – jump scares. The main cast is also better than what you’d normally see in your average horror fare, which makes the film’s final act that much more impactful, disturbing, and haunting.
Guillermo del Toro’s giant bug film has three of the hallmarks that his fans know and love him for: a dark, moody atmosphere, unique, creepy monsters, and actor Doug Jones portraying one of those monsters. I’ve never seen a bad GdT movie (although I think The Shape of Water is ludicrously overrated) and I find it quite strange that Mimic is rarely brought up when discussing the extremely talented director or his filmography. It’s a very good, almost-great creature feature with a bizarre and memorable creature design.
Perfect Blue follows ex J-pop star Mima Kirigoe as she begins a new career as an actress, and as she endures a whole bunch of intense psychological terror. The demands of her grittier, dramatic TV role, an unnerving fansite, and more starts to affect Mima, causing her to go through one Hell of an identity crisis. Mima’s breakdown is expertly presented through studio Madhouse’s animation, and the soundtrack enhances the sense of disorientation and discomfort even more. It should hit all the right notes for anyone who enjoys the likes of Black Swan, and even though Darren Aronofsky has said that Perfect Blue didn’t inspire his 2010 critical darling, I believe the similarities that they share are far too numerous to be ignored.
Splinter manages to overcome its small budget with sheer creativity and a solid group of acting talent lead by Shea Whigham. The movie follows two couples, one duo holding the other pair hostage, as they struggle to survive and escape a fast-acting parasite that infects and controls the corpses of its victims in spectacularly gruesome fashion. The visual effects – a lot of which are practical – are frightening and grotesque, and the original “creature” design, along with the ingenuity of the survivors, ensures that Splinter is an entertaining flick even after multiple re-watches.
I haven’t seen many great werewolf movies aside from the 1981 classic An American Werewolf in London and 2013’s Wer, and in my opinion, the latter is just as good as the former. Wer might not have as memorable a transformation sequence, but it’s still an incredibly dark and well-crafted reimagining of the iconic werewolf mythos. It also manages to throw in a criminal conspiracy and a bit of a love story too, all the while dealing out a respectable amount of beastly carnage. Also, Wer has one of my favorite horror movie endings in the past ten years.
Unfriended is presented almost entirely through the screen of a single computer, which allows it to capture the same uneasiness as found footage horror flicks without feeling stale. As the number of people chatting and breathing starts to dwindle, the distrust and animosity between the remaining characters – and the audience’s anxiety – rises equally. It’s not perfect, but Unfriended is unique and terrifying enough to make me wonder why it didn’t spawn a slew of sequels like Paranormal Activity did.
Update: Unfriended has received a sequel since I posted this writeup, so I guess it wasn’t quite as unpopular as I had thought.
There are few action horror movies that I’ve enjoyed (or have rewatched) as much as Van Helsing. This iteration of the vampire hunter – played by Hugh Jackman, who fully leans into the campy role – feels like a blend of Indiana Jones and old-school James Bond, and the movie pits him against multiple classic monsters in a wide range of environments and setpieces that are all kinds of schlocky fun. It’s an awesome action adventure that’s full of big thrills, slight chills, and should be seen by all fans of action horror or Hugh Jackman.
The directorial debut of special effects artist Stan Winston has gained a significant cult following since its wide release in 1989, but never earned itself a spot among the wider horror circles that I think it should have. Most of the cast is passable-yet-forgettable, but iconic horror actor Lance Henriksen does enough heavy lifting to keep almost every scene he’s in either entertaining or intense. And just in case Henriksen doesn’t entice you, the creature design, costume, and effects that bring the eponymous demon of vengeance to life are fantastic (for an 80’s flick) making the movie worthwhile all on their own.
Anaconda, Lake Placid, & Deep Blue Sea
I grouped these three animal attack flicks together because they were early staples of my love for the horror genre, and all for the same reasons. The entries in what I call “the holy trinity of guilty pleasure creature features” have big-name actors (Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube, and John Voight in Anaconda, Bill Pullman, Brendan Gleeson, and Betty White in Lake Placid, and Samuel L. Jackson, LL Cool J, and Stellan Skarsgård in Deep Blue Sea) hamming it up in dumb-fun schlockbusters about big-ass predators chomping their way through everything in their paths. They certainly aren’t masterpieces, but are extremely entertaining every step of the way.
Tigers Are Not Afraid
Tigers Are Not Afraid combines dark fantasy with some of the most tragic horrors found in reality, and feels like a combination of Pan’s Labyrinth and Sicario. It’s a bleak fairytale that follows a group of children struggling to survive in a crumbling city that’s caught in the middle of the Mexican Drug War, and also given rise to some supernatural happenings. The child actors are stellar, and the writing makes them instantly likable, which gives every fleeting moment of happiness that much more meaning, their losses more heartache, and their terror more resonance. There’s an undercurrent of hope in Tigers Are Not Afraid as well, and although it can be easy to miss at times due to the overwhelming bleakness that’s seen the film’s world-building, it’s just enough to keep you thinking that maybe, just maybe, some of these kids will eventually find peace.
The Head Hunter
The Head Hunter is a slow-burn fantasy horror that uses the less-is-more approach with its creatures, and builds a twisted, macabre world, one similar to medieval-set video games with dark mythology behind them like the Soulsborne and God of War series. It’s a messed up place, but one that I’d certainly love to see more of in a sequel or spin-off. And considering that this film was made with a budget of just $30,000 – which admittedly shows at times – The Head Hunter is unquestionably a triumph for director Jordan Downey. I can’t wait to see what he’ll do when/if he’s given a bigger budget for his next feature.
Host is basically Unfriended 2.0. The entire movie was shot in just a few weeks, through Zoom from inside the cast member’s homes during the 2020 Covid quarantine, and despite its incredibly short runtime, it’s easily one of the scariest films on this list. Watching Host evoked the same kind of fear from me that I felt when watching the original Paranormal Activity for the first time; that kind that makes your heart beat out of your chest every time there’s a noise, and makes you so uncomfortable that you’re watching everything through your fingers, quietly freaking out in anticipation of whatever is going to happen next.
And it’s even scarier if you watch it on your laptop with headphones.
Hell House LLC
As far as found footage films go, Hell House LLC is one of the most generic I’ve seen to date. I mean, the entire story is just “a small group of filmmakers are making a documentary in a supposedly haunted building around a tragedy’s anniversary” and it puts in practically zero effort to hide its unoriginality, man, it still scared the bejeezus out of me. The tension, set design, background scares, and cinematography of Hell House LLC are among the best I’ve seen in the sub-genre. This is a film that I had super low expectations for, but ended up sinking further and further into my blanket (I was cold, shut up) due to the well-crafted scares it contains.
Under the Skin
Under the Skin is a visually and aurally captivating sci-fi horror with a wholly unique premise: it’s viewed from the perspective of the monster, an extraterrestrial creature played by Scarlett Johansson – who gives one Hell of an unnerving, inhuman performance – that lures its unsuspecting victims to their horrific deaths by seducing them. It might not be up everyone’s alley, but I’d certainly recommend Under the Skin to those who enjoy an art house horror every once in a while.
You can listen to Zac and I discuss Under the Skin on a bonus podcast episode (with spoilers) here.
The tale of a small group of teens from different cliques banding together to stop an alien invasion of their high school probably doesn’t scream originality like it used too, but The Faculty rises above its now-cliché storytelling thanks to its willingness to have fun, get crazy, and make the most out of its effortlessly enjoyable cast. Josh Hartnett, Elijah Wood, Famke Janssen, and Robert Patrick are just a few of the familiar faces you’ll recognize, and their added charm make this Robert Rodriguez sci-fi horror one that I wholeheartedly recommend.
Yes, it’s mostly a retread of the first movie, but I’d argue that Blair Witch is superior to the original thanks to the benefit of learning from the countless other found footage movies that were released in between them. There’s no denying that the 1999 film essentially created the subgenre, but the 2016 sequel smoothed out the rougher edges; the shaky-cam sequences are far less disorienting, the bigger cast allows for more horrified or confused reactions, and while one could complain that it shows too much, I’d say that we don’t actually know WHAT it shows, which allows fans to expand up the lore with new theories and ideas about what’s out there in those woods.
Summer of 84
Summer of 84 clearly aimed to ride the nostalgia wave that Strangers Things created a few years before it, and the film mostly succeeds while weaving a tale of paranoia and possibly making you wary of your neighbors. The plot follows a group of kids who start to suspect that their police officer neighbor may be a serial killer and try to catch him. The mind games between the killer and the kids are sufficiently creepy and intense, but it’s when Summer of 84 goes all out in a wonderfully unpredictable final act that it rises above most of the many other recent movies that try to remind you of 80’s horror classics.
In the Mouth of Madness
In the Mouth of Madness is one of the best examples of Lovecraftian horror I’ve seen in film. Hidden, mind-bending otherworldly terrors creeping into our own realm, deteriorating sanity of the protagonists, and grotesque monsters are hallmarks of the often mishandled sub-genre, and they all fit quite nicely in Carpenter’s wheelhouse as well, so it’s no wonder his turn with it is a match made in… Well, definitely not Heaven, but you get the idea.
Initially an engrossing and psychedelic 80’s-inspired romance/character study, Mandy eventually takes a sharp, horrific turn into revenge-thriller territory, and it’s all bolstered by tons of genuinely unsettling imagery, an eerie, badass soundtrack, fast, brutal action, and a stellar performance from Nic Cage. Mandy is easily one of the best movies on this list, my favorite film of 2018, and is worth a watch for any horror fan looking for something unlike anything they’ve seen before.
You can listen to Zac and I discuss Mandy on a bonus podcast episode (with spoilers) here.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
Behind The Mask: Rise of Leslie Vernon is a mockumentary set in a world where supernatural serial killers like Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees are real, and keeps its tongue planted firmly in cheek throughout most of its runtime. Being viewed from the perspective of a film crew following an aspiring slasher allows for some interesting and often comical looks at classic horror tropes. Behind the Mask isn’t as revolutionary as the films it riffs on, but it’s still a great movie that’s deserves far more love than its been given so far.
Lake Mungo is one of the most unique and unpredictable horror films I’ve ever seen. It’s also a fake documentary, but it’s presented in a completely different style and tone than Behind The Mask. It’s also a film that’s best seen with as little background information as possible, so I’ll stop with this: make sure to sit through the credits.
Curse of Chucky & Cult of Chucky
After the original three movies, fans of the Child’s Play franchise were forced to endure two of the most awful sequels ever regurgitated by Hollywood (I still can’t forget about Seed of Chucky despite years of trying to block it out). Luckily, Curse of Chucky managed to bring the series back around, and Cult of Chucky was an equally fun follow-up. The soft reboot and its successor balance fear, camp, and self-awareness almost as well as the original, and are a VERY welcome return to form for the murderous Good Guy doll.
Last Shift has been available on Netflix for an extremely long time, and it’s one of my better finds from late night binges. It’s an interesting twist on the classic haunted house tale, following a rookie cop as she guards an empty police station before its closure and witnesses some very strange, and even more terrifying things that are sure to freak you out. If you have Netflix, I urge you to add Last Shift to your watchlist.
The Final Girls
This wonderfully self-aware horror comedy revolves around a group of teens that get sucked into a campy, Friday The 13th-like horror film, and oh man does it make the most out of that awesome setup. The Final Girls doesn’t have a whole lot of scares, but it makes up for that by jumping back and forth between hitting your funny bone and tugging your heartstrings with brilliant dialogue – I laughed out loud at almost every line from Adam DeVine on my first viewing – and a hilarious cast. Although it’s unlikely to happen, my fingers are still crossed for a sequel.
The titular sickness might be deduced fairly quickly by horror veterans – or anyone with the most basic knowledge of fictional monsters – but watching the strain on the friendship between the two protagonists as one of them slowly changes into… Something else is still a tragic, anxiety-inducing treat to experience. I was getting pretty/very/extremely tired of found footage films when I learned of Affliction – while googling something along the lines of “lesser-known horror films” – and it rekindled my love for the sub-genre.
Alex Garland started strong with his masterful directorial film debut Ex Machina, and recently dropped the entrancing techno thriller series, Devs. While both of those picked up fans, his second writer/director outing, Annihilation was a box-office bomb despite receiving heaps of critical praise. It has an enigmatic story that’s backed by stunning visuals, an ensemble cast, and a phenomenal soundtrack. It’s also unbelievably scary when it wants to be. There’s even one scene that easily ranks among the scariest movie moments of the past decade, and I guarantee that anyone who’s already seen Annihilation knows exactly which one I’m talking about.
This creepy and quirky South Korean film about a family fighting to save its youngest member from a bizarre beast mixes scares with laughs and family drama into something unlike anything else in horror today. The humorous and emotional beats are as effective as the fear-inducing moments thanks to the terrific cast, and the feature’s creature is one of the coolest movie monsters I’ve seen in recent years.
New Nightmare is the most inventive Krueger flick since the original, and I think it’s even scarier. Actress Heather Langenkamp, who played the series’ premiere heroine, portrays herself as she’s stalked by a new, darker Freddy in the “real” world. This mega meta version of the dream demon trades in the campy charm and one-liners that made him less intimidating over the previous few films for a trench coat and refreshingly sinister demeanor, one that makes him more terrifying than ever before or since.
Home invasion flicks are inherently frightening, but Hush is scarier than most. It doesn’t reinvent the sub-genre, but it sets itself apart from the others by following a protagonist who is mute and deaf, which allows for some seriously next level “LOOK BEHIND YOU MOMENTS.” That might initially seem like a simple one-trick pony, but I assure you that this movie and it’s heorine are more than clever enough to keep you on your toes through its runtime.
A Dark Song
This is another one of those films you should go into like Jon Snow (knowing nothing). With that in mind, all I’ll mention in regards to a A Dark Song is that it’s about a grieving mother who seeks supernatural aid, and the movie aims to keep you constantly confused and uncomfortable. It slowly and carefully builds up to a finale that is equal parts poignant and harrowing.
Netflix’s 2017 horror comedy isn’t particularly scary, but it knows exactly what it wants to be, and it should hit all the right notes for those who enjoy the occasional horror film with a little extra cheese. The witty writing, pitch-perfect cast, and total self-awareness make The Babysitter a bizarre, hilarious, and bloody good time. Every person that has watched this movie on my recommendation has been pleased with it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you are too, dear reader.
1408 & The Mist
I paired these Stephen King adaptations together because they both received fairly positive reviews and financial success upon their releases (they’re probably the most popular films on this list), but have been mostly forgotten since. Neither of them are quite as great as Misery or 2017’s IT remake, but 1408 and The Mist are still two of the best Stephen King stories brought to the silver screen so far. And it’s worth mentioning that they have two of the most memorable endings in horror history. In fact, 1408 has multiple alternate endings, and they’re all great.
And speaking of Stephen King…
Storm of the Century
Okay, I might be cheating with this one a little bit. It’s a (fairly short) miniseries and not a film, but I just can’t leave Storm of the Century out because it’s so damn good and so damn underrated. This Stephen King story – which he wrote as a screenplay and not as a novel – is a chilling tale about a small town in right off the coast of Maine (because Stephen King) that’s visited by an ominous drifter – played to spine-tingling perfection by Colm Feore – during the titular tempest. And just like 1408 and The Mist, Storm of the Century’s ending will stick with you long after it’s over.
A24 has given us some of the greatest horror films in the past few years, and almost none of them have received the widespread recognition they deserve. For example: Green Room is one of the studio’s best, but I only know one other person aside from me who saw it in theaters. The story centers around the members of a punk rock band who witness a heinous crime at a neo-Nazi rally, and are forced to defend themselves. Leading the band is the late Anton Yelchin in one of his final roles, and the skinheads’ boss is played by Patrick Stewart, who gives a performance that might change the way you look at Captain Picard and Professor X for quite some time.
Before working on Godzilla: King of The Monsters, Michael Dougherty wrote and directed this hilarious and heart-stopping holiday-themed horror comedy. The strong cast of both comedic and dramatic actors like Adam Scott and Toni Collette, a literal sack-full of memorable monsters, and a better balance of laughs and scares than any other horror comedy I’ve seen (sorry, Shaun of the Dead), make Krampus a horror for the holidays that’s all too easy to recommend.
Trick ‘r Treat
Trick ‘r Treat is hands down the best horror anthology film I’ve seen, and I’ve watched so many others because of it. Unfortunately, very few have come anywhere close to matching the overall greatness of this direct-to-DVD treasure. With four main stories featuring a mix of supernatural suspense, horrific monsters, and plain old evil people, Trick ‘r Treat has something for everyone. And now that he’s finished with Godzilla: King of The Monsters, maybe director Michael Dougherty will finally give his fans the sequel we’ve been waiting for since 2009.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter
Another of A24’s most underseen movies ( I’m the only person I know who has seen it as of 2019) is this terrifying gem. The premise, two teenage girls find themselves alone and in danger at their Catholic boarding school, is nothing too original, but there are more than a few twists that were able to catch me completely off guard. Elevating The Blackcoat’s Daughter even further is an extremely sinister atmosphere that creeps into almost every scene, fantastic performances from its leading ladies, and an absolutely devastating gut-punch of an ending that left me with my jaw on the floor.
Bone Tomahawk is a brilliant, bloody, and brutal mash-up of the horror and western genres. Stars Kurt Russell and Patrick Wilson may be known for playing tough-guy characters, but that doesn’t make their encounters with a horrifyingly vicious and dangerous clan of Native Americans any less intense. Bone Tomahawk is probably too violent for some, but it’s still far, FAR less sadistic/disgusting than anything that the dozens of Saw-inspired gore-fests have subjected their unlucky audiences to, so I urge you to sit through it if you can.
The House of the Devil
Like A Dark Song and Lake Mungo, the less you know about the babysitting nightmare of The House of the Devil before seeing it, the better. I will warn you though: It starts slow, taking its time, waiting for the perfect moment, which it finds and then grips you with pure, relentless terror until the credits roll.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose
Almost all possession and exorcism movies are overlooked because of the high bar set by The Exorcist, but I’d argue that The Exorcism of Emily Rose is just as great. It pushes the “based on true story” tag to its breaking point, but that doesn’t make the film any less frightening. The Exorcism of Emily Rose made my blood run cold the first time I saw it, and it’s one of the only three or four horror flicks I’ve seen that robbed me of a restful night’s sleep… So maybe watch it during the day.
The final A24 movie on my list is The Witch, my favorite horror film ever and what all slow burn horrors should aspire to be. The Witch has a similar atmosphere to The Blackcoat’s Daughter and A Dark Song, but it’s far more powerful. Virtually every moment is laced with menace, dread, paranoia, or worse. Even in its slower scenes I was practically squirming in my chair with overwhelming unease from almost every single sight and sound, all masterfully presented with the intention to never let the audience get any semblance of comfort. Eventually, The Witch uses all that tension and build-up to unleash Hell and leaves its viewers with an utterly haunting finale.
I will champion The Strangers every chance I can until it’s widely regarded as the masterpiece it is. No other film before or since has created the same level of pure, unadulterated horror I felt while watching this home invasion piece. I was even terrified to be in my own home after seeing it for the first time, and I rarely rewatch it because of how uneasy it still makes me. The Strangers is incredibly, insanely, unbelievably underrated. In fact, it’s probably the most underrated horror movie I’ve know of.
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