There really is no excuse for horror fans looking for new cinematic experiences to go wanting when they have Rupert Pupkin to turn to. Rupert (or at least an incarnation of him who is much more gregarious and pleasant than the one seen in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy) has rounded up an epic cast and asked them to contribute a list of their most underrated horror films, and Rupert’s pals have come through in a big way that will make hunting and gathering for chills on your Netflix queue this weekend a much more enjoyable experience. Contributors to this gargantuan project include Rupert himself (List One and List Two), plus:
the Alamo Drafthouse’s Zack Carlson
The Lightning Bug’s Lair
Cinema du Meep
Cathie Horlick (aka the Cat)
Evan Husney (Severin Films)
Marc Edward Heuck
The Back of Forest Whitaker’s Neck
and a fella by the name of Joe Dante.
Rupert was kind enough to ask me to contribute too. My list is available at his website, but I’ve also reposted it here (with a new set of nifty screengrabs and posters). I urge to you to visit Rupert’s site, check out all the fantastic suggestions and get in one the discussions. Rupert’s first list alone includes many great choices-- The Body Snatcher, The Car, A Cold Night’s Death, The Island, The Island of Lost Souls, Raising Cain, Shriek of the Mutilated, The Uninvited and Alfredo XZacarias lunatic knock-off of The Swarm entitled—yes, it is!-- The Bees, a movie that sent me and my best friend into such thunderous spasms of laughter we pissed off every around us, who were apparently taking the whole thing far more seriously than we were! I can’t wait to get into the comments thread at Rupert’s place. Thanks to Rupert for making this horror holiday an extra-special treasure trove of terrific terror titles. (I must now lay claim to the prize for All-around Auspicious Achievement in Alliteration). Happy Halloween!
A list of 13 underrated horror films. That was the simple task put before me. It was a tantalizing one. Oh, good, no need to trot out all the usual names that get polished to nice, brassy sheen this time every year on every “Best Horror Films of All Time” list, the proliferation of which in the advent of the blogosphere is a truly mixed blessing. Here was a request for a list of gems that don’t have the reputation they deserve, or are perhaps not as recognized within the fan base of their own genre as they should be. So, “underrated”— a word already pockmarked with qualifications, like parasites on a shark—turns out to be not such a clear-cut concept, and that’s fine. I will simply clarify the qualifications in order to help explain why I chose the films I chose. First, as I said, the films chosen needed to be, in the classic sense of “underrated,” besmirched by a mediocre (or even bad) reputation or otherwise deemed not worthy of a whole lot of discussion in the years following their release. They needn’t have disappeared (few movies, for good or bad, do in these digital days); just a little public indifference will do. But as I was considering titles several popped up which are certainly well-regarded films, but perhaps less celebrated for what they mean to the genre, or the movies they directly influenced, than their more geeked-upon descendants. These I also included, though there will be some readers, even after presumably having gulped down this paragraph on their way to the list itself, who will be inspired to cry, “Yeah, but…!” (Or maybe even "Enough already!") Finally, the only real restriction I put upon myself was that the movies I chose had to come from my own collection, straight off my shelves. No cutting and pasting from wide-ranging and all-inclusive studies of the dankest corners of the horror genre, no sampling from the Netflix Instant Queue in order to make myself seem more acquainted with Brazilian occult slasher films or J-horror or Nunsploitation than I am (which is not very). If I am going to count something underrated, it has to come from a collection of movies that I believe in enough to actually own, movies that are worth risking one’s own gossamer-thin reputation in order to admit loving them. These, then, are 13 underrated horror movies that I would argue for on any holiday, Halloween or Hanukkah or even (shiver) Arbor Day.
CAPTAIN KRONOS, VAMPIRE HUNTER (1974; Brian Clemens)
Frisky, bloody fun, this is the Hammer franchise that was not to be. In the minus column, a hero whose just a bit too bland. On the plus side, rivers of grue, lots of pulchritude, and a major bonus: Caroline Munro in the nude… a lot!
FINAL DESTINATION 2 (2003; David R. Ellis)
Brilliantly clever Rube Goldberg horror contraption starts with a bravura action sequence and never lets up, right up to its gotcha finish. Full of ingenious CGI-enhanced gore, it’s a vast improvement on the pretty good first installment and certainly the peak of the series.
FRAILTY (2001; Bill Paxton)
Here’s a downbeat examination of religious mania that turns the tables on its audience with maximum effectiveness, recasting Old Testament vengeance with frightening and unexpected angles. Directed by and starring Bill Paxton.
IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958; Edward L. Cahn)
If you look beyond the barrel-bottom budget, you’ll see the template for Alien peering out through all the shadows and fog of this top-notch chiller.
THE OMEN (2006; John Moore)
The script is so close to the 1976 version that original scribe David Seltzer retained sole screenwriting credit for this remake, but John Moore’s visual sensibility conjures fresh gooseflesh, enough to give the movie a fearsome personality all its own. Mia Farrow, coming at Mrs. Blalock from a completely different angle, proves just as frightening as Billie Whitelaw’s original incarnation.
OPERA (1987; Dario Argento)
Many had given up on Argento by this point, but for me this may be his most potent, visually arresting, and flat-out terrifying film. It also features what might be the single greatest collection of nerve-shattering close-ups in the history of the movies
ORPHAN (2009; Jaume Collett-Serra)
Dismissed by many as trash bordering on child abuse, this is actually one of the most psychologically acute horror films of the decade, and certainly one of the scariest. Featuring an iconic performance by young actress Isabelle Fuhrman as the manipulative and homicidal nine-year-old Esther—she’s not just a bad seed, she’s the very worst.
THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1966; John Gilling)
Hammer Films’ finest hour in terms of social allegory is this chiller about a mysterious uprising of the walking dead enslaved by a murderous cult leader. One wonders how much of an acknowledged influence this one was on a certain Mr. Romero.
RAW MEAT (1972; Gary Sherman)
What’s going on down in an abandoned Underground tunnel underneath London’s busy streets? Those who find out don’t live to tell. Gary Sherman’s unexpectedly emotional horror film is a near-masterpiece from a director who never came close to its impact again. Mind the doors!
SEED OF CHUCKY (2004; Don Mancini)
Don Mancini’s fifth chapter in the Chucky series casts an eye on Chucky and his dysfunctional family through a prism of social satire. It’s a subversive horror comedy of much crass energy and creative nerve, and it features a brilliant feat of self-deconstruction from fearless star Jennifer Tilly, who plays a funhouse version of herself.
STRANGE BEHAVIOR (1981; Michael Laughlin)
Speaking of deconstruction, Michael Laughlin’s downright weird take on the slasher/mad scientist genres moves to an internal beat unlike any other movie of its kind. It’s so strange, some missed just how smart and funny it is as well. All that, and it’ll inspire you to put Lou Christie’s “Lightnin’ Strikes” on your iPod posthaste too. (Don't worry about that Rex Reed endorsement.)
TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE (1971; Mario Bava)
Mario Bava’s stylish blood-and-guts murder mystery, also known as A Bay of Blood, provides the template for the Friday the 13th series. It’s not unknown or underrated by Bava fans, but it remains outside the experience of many folks who grew up on the Jason Voorhies saga and therefore qualifies as underrated in my book.
THE WOLFMAN (2010; Joe Johnston)
The casting of the atavistic Benicio del Toro as Larry Talbot might seem redundant to some, but he acquits himself well, especially in the unrated director’s version of this overlooked mood piece, which makes more narrative sense and moves at a more satisfying pace, despite being slightly longer than the theatrical version. The movie luxuriates in Hammer-esque atmosphere and up-to-the-minute shocks courtesy Rick Baker and underrated action director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, October Sky, Hidalgo).
UPDATE: Long-time blogging friend and cinephile Peter Nellhaus has some excellent choices from Asia that are well off the beaten Hollywood path. You (and I) would be wise to check them out as well. You'll find his extensive list of recommendations and analysis at Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee. Thanks, Peter! The choices just keep on getting better!