Too often we're recommended the same hot-topic new horrors and renowned classics. It seems we either gravitate to whatever Rotten Tomatoes has recently deemed "Certified Fresh," or go for the old staples. While classics like The Exorcist, The Shining, Jaws, and Halloween are legendary for a reason, we miss so much great horror in the process of picking out what's widely known. Some of the best horror films in existence are seldom talked about outside of the nerdiest, horror-loving circles.
I'll take the liberty to insert some "I" in here - I've been compiling horror lists for many years now, and most of what I deem the "scariest" or "best"movies are films most major publications won't put on a "best horror" list. As I discuss my favorite horrors I frequently hear "I've never heard of that," and it's subsequently forced me to coerce those I know into watching a great deal of what I love.
As a culture we flock to what's popping, and ignore what's under the radar. In horror, much of the best material out there is flying way under the radar, no matter the decade it's from. My goal in writing this is to put people onto the scariest gems. I'll spare you further repetitive introduction - these films are, in no particular order, the most underrated horror films of all time. Some are already somewhat beloved in horror circles, and I just want them to receive more attention from the general masses. Others, I hope, are obscure even to the average scary movie lover.
Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)
Synopsis: A woman fresh out of an institution moves to a supposedly haunted farmhouse, where she fears she may again be losing her mind.
Let's Scare Jessica to Death is a heavily atmospheric, slow-burning darn-near masterpiece that doesn't even have the cult following it deserves. Much of the film relies on sounds and feel to terrify, but it's not short on haunting visuals, either. This flick has a Rosemary's Baby-like buildup for a frightening finale, though it gets under your skin throughout. It's slow in the right ways, and outright odd in its entirety. Most of the film pre-climax isn't clear on what the horror you're witnessing actually is - is this paranormal or just paranoia? The ambiguity of it is gripping. With a title as good as Let's Scare Jessica to Death, I don't know how so few have seen it.
Messiah of Evil (1974)
Synopsis: A woman searching for her missing artist father ends up in a Californian seaside town that seems to be governed by a cult.
Let it be known - Messiah of Evil is what I believe to be the most underrated horror flick of all time. As bold a statement as that is, I kind of stand by it. More confidently, I can say it's the most overlooked zombie classic ever made. It was done by then fresh out of film school couple and Spielberg collaborators Willard Hyuck and his wife Gloria Katz, and meant to be their artful take on the Italian horrors of Argento and Bava. It's not just holding a candle to 70s Italian horror - it's as beautifully crafted, visually appealing, and creepy as any of Argento's films. Messiah of Evil is a bizarre slow-burner that has at least 2 of the best zombie scenes ever put on film. It's meandering and weird, which is perhaps why I hold it so dearly. Pieces of it almost seem missing, leading Messiah of Evil to seem a little absent of explanation, but that's just fine. The lack of backstory and dryness of the characters makes this strange 70s zombie flick even more capable of being etched into your brain.
The Funhouse (1981)
Synopsis: A group of teens spend the night in a carnival funhouse, where they're stalked by a man in a Frankenstein mask.
The Funhouse is an almost undefinable horror gem from master Tobe Hooper. My guess as to why it never received its due is because it followed Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and no director could follow that film with an equal or better one. It's part-slasher/part-monster movie, and even a little paranormal in ambiance. While it might be a fun early 80s romp, The Funhouse is a pleasingly dark little nightmare, with at least a few scenes so gritty and disturbing they'll sit with you long after viewing. Carnivals are so very ripe for horror, and seemingly underused, and this is the greatest carnival-set horror after Carnival of Souls.
The House By The Cemetery (1981)
Synopsis: Murders take place in a New England home, where something unknown lurks in the basement.
This is the 3rd in Lucio Fulci's Gates of Hell trilogy following The Beyond, and City of the Living Dead, and it's the most overlooked of the bunch. In typical Fulci fashion it's borderline plotless, poorly dubbed, and delightfully gory. If you can get past the terrible voiceover of the young boy, this is a frightening watch from start to finish. Fulci gives us his trademark stylistic shots and upsetting sights, many of which are plain questionably weird, but we'd expect nothing less from the twisted Italian goremaster.
In The Mouth Of Madness (1994)
Synopsis: An insurance investigator realizes the work of a horror novelist is beginning to shift reality.
In The Mouth of Madness is one of John Carpenter's greatest works that hardly receives its shine. It plays out as though Carpenter didn't care anymore and simply wanted to wedge in every possible element of horror. We often overuse the term "Lovecraftian," but In The Mouth of Madness most definitely borrows from the ideas of Lovecraft. This film is the perfect blend of scary madness. From brutal murders, to grotesque monsters, to infuriatingly eerie children, In The Mouth of Madness has it all. It also has, in my opinion, one of the most haunting scenes out there, which is the elderly man/child peddling his bike down an empty rural road late at night. It might not creep out modern horror audiences quite as badly as it does me, but I appreciate the sick horror of it.
Tourist Trap (1979)
Synopsis: A group of teens stranded at a roadside museum are attacked by a masked man who uses his powers to control mannequins.
Tourist Trap begins with the all-too-cliche teens getting stranded plotline, though it's anything but standard. This is a suspenseful, grim, and memorably hair-raising flick. One might say mannequins are underused in horror (the one is me,) but Tourist Trap utilizes killer mannequins perfectly. There's an array of them, and those terrifying bastards will certainly give you the creeps. Tourist Trap seems predictable, and it's one of those movies that you think you have figured out early, but there's some major twists in this one. Not to mention turns! It's yet another film on the list that has an almost unpinpointable genre - It's a slasher in its essence, but more layered and psychologically gripping than your average one of the time.
The Burning (1981)
Synopsis: A former summer camp caretaker, burned in a vicious prank, returns to camp seeking vengeance.
Forget Friday the 13th - The Burning is the very best woodsy summer camp slasher out there. It's beautifully brutal; surprisingly well-made, and it features a very young Jason Alexander, better known as George Costanza. It of course relies on the hackneyed concept of horned up teenagers getting murdered, but that's simply what people wanted to see in the 80s. Some of us weird perverts get a kick out of it to this day. Don't write The Burning off as everyday slasher fare - it's shot smartly enough to be compelling and inventive, and the kills are satisfyingly gorey and inspired.
The Sentinel (1977)
Synopsis: A young woman moves into an apartment where the tenants are bizarre and something evil lingers.
Another one of the greatest sleepers of all time, The Sentinel is a weird, atmospheric treasure. It's Rosemary's Baby meets The Exorcist, but more perverted and strange. Much like the aforementioned Let's Scare Jessica to Death, The Sentinel is a creepily slow burn, packed with some of the most bizarre visuals you'll witness, many of which aren't classically horror moments. You'll hide your face in horror, you'll be continuously guessing what's going on, and you might even get turned on (though you shouldn't be proud of it.) Where else are you going to see Beverly D'Angelo playing with herself in a leotard? Worth noting: Director Michael Winner got in a little hot water for using people with actual deformities in this as opposed to using makeup. Deranged as that face may be, it adds to the already unsettling nature of this spooky ride.
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974)
Synopsis: A cop suspects 2 hippies of Manson family-like murders, not knowing the real culprits are the living dead.
Also known by its alternate title as The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is a visually appealing and highly slept-on Spanish zombie flick. While it moves at a crawling pace, it's the slowness that truly chills here. The zombies, if you were wondering, are subtle and tastefully done, which is effective. Additionally, there's some shockingly decent character development. The attention to story and depth of the leads set Let Sleeping Corpses Lie from the many European films inspired by Night of the Living Dead.
Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things (1972)
Synopsis: A theater group travel to an abandoned island to dig up a corpse for a faux satanic ritual.
Underrated horror legend Bob Clark (and director of A Christmas Story) kicked off his career with this nightmarish slow-burner. Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things is unique in that it's packed with funny lines throughout, yet the feeling of dread is present from beginning to end. The mere concept is disturbing, and subject matter doesn't disappoint. It features some of the spookiest zombies in film history, and some of the most polarizing characters to date. Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things is a skin-crawling must-see for zombie and horror fans alike. Lovers of atmosphere will especially appreciate this hellish theater geek trip gone wrong.
Black Christmas (1974)
Synopsis: During Christmas break, a sorority house is stalked by a stranger.
Some back-to-back Bob Clark for you, Black Christmas is my personal favorite horror of all time. Although Halloween gets credit for being the first slasher flick, Black Christmas did it years prior. One Missed Call is known for the "calls are coming from inside the house" trope, but Black Christmas also did that first. This flick is raw, touching in an unorthodox way, and genuinely funny. It's also one of the most unsettling movies you'll ever watch. I'm not even sure this could be considered "underrated," as the cult fanbase has really grown, but it's the best horror that isn't considered a classic.
City Of The Living Dead (1980)
Synopsis: The suicide of a priest leads to the gates of hell being opened, and it's up to a journalist and a psychic to stop the forces of evil.
We covered the third in Fulci's trilogy, and now it's time for the second (I could be off on the proper order here, but nobody's ever been certain of Fulci's intentions with anything.) City Of The Living Dead is a tad difficult to follow plot-wise, but as with all Fulci movies the plot primarily doesn't matter. He's purely about the grotesque visuals, and there's no shortage of them here. Nowhere else will you see a woman literally vomiting up her intestines; certainly not in such an artful way. Fulci's the master of gore, and City Of The Living Dead is loaded with it.
Burnt Offerings (1976)
Synopsis: A family moves into an old mansion, where an unseen force has a dark effect on their actions.
While it sounds like your average haunted house flick, Burnt Offerings is an eerie standout above the rest of the subgenre. It's as psychological as it is paranormal, and that makes for a thrilling, snaillike, spooky ride. The dream sequence with the infamous limo driver is one of the most fever-dreamish, perturbing visuals out there, and I'd recommend watching solely for those scenes, but as a whole Burnt Offerings is one solid paranormal punch.
Prince of Darkness (1987)
Synopsis: A team of researchers gather at an abandoned church, where a strange cylinder of undefinable liquid could lead to hell on earth.
It's ballsy to call the work of a legend like John Carpenter "underrated," but let's face the facts: Halloween, The Thing, and even The Fog get way more love than Prince of Darkness, and it's just as great as those films. It's scary with a wonderful score, just as any Carpenter film is, but I think it's the most fun of the bunch. The characters are easy to care about, and the dialogue is actually quite funny. Additionally, it does have its many horrifying scenes and memorably gross visuals. Prince of Darkness is a sign of the times - there's no mistaking it's an 80s flick, and I believe the slight camp tricks modern horror lovers into thinking this isn't The Thing level.
Synopsis: A ventriloquist tries rekindling love with his high school sweetheart as he descents into madness at the hands of his dummy.
Magic is definitely more of a thriller than it is a horror, but let's not ignore that ventriloquist dummies notoriously scare the shit of many of us. Anthony Hopkins is brilliant in this psychological nightmare, as he gradually loses his grip on reality and you're forced to deteriorate along with him. It's a drawn-out nervous breakdown with glimpses of true horror. Plus, Burgess Meredith is in it, so you know it's a piece of upsetting 70s greatness. While it doesn't run on an inspired idea, it's crafted to genuinely disturb and the superb cast make this worth repeat viewings.
Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972)
Synopsis: 13th century evil knights commit sacrifices for the human blood they consume for eternal life.
Tombs of The Blind Dead is an early 70s Spanish zombie fright fest with a unique army of the undead. It has its share of flaws - the heavy reliance on atmosphere makes for some painfully slow, overly dramatic moments, but it's visually stunning, excessively violent for the time period, and quite haunting in parts. The Templar zombie knights are impressive and specific to this series, and the chanting sounds create some atmospheric greatness. Zombie fans and lovers of classic Euro-horror need this Spanish take on Night of the Living Dead in their arsenal.
Synopsis: A comet's passing leads to strange occurrences during a dinner party gathering among old friends.
I couldn't allow myself to be the smug dick who only lists old horror. Coherence is an effective low-budget sci-fi thriller in which the dialogue's heavy; it's mostly uneventful, and perfect in its reliance on what you're not seeing. The film focuses on the drama taking place between old friends at a dinner party, and their varying levels of paranoia about the unexplainable, bizarre happenings taking place outside. It's an unforgettable extraterrestrial flick without any schlock, or even much action for that matter. Coherence thrives in its weird build, and the importance it places on instability of the characters. Essentially, it's a very successful experiment in just how disturbing an almost-no budget alien movie can be. The movie only suffers in its conclusion, which is expected and underwhelming, but Coherence will unsettle you far more than you think it would.
Synopsis: Students at a college campus in Boston are stalked and picked off by a mysterious killer who's piecing together a puzzle with their body parts.
Pieces is every slasher fan's dream - an over-the-top brutal flick with shockingly violent kills, asinine dialogue, stupid and unlikeable characters, a parade of tits, and absolutely no explanation for any of it. There's very little emphasis on story here, and no attention to characters or their motivations. Pieces makes this list because it's the most derivative slasher imaginable, but it's perfect in just how far it takes every generic trope.
Psycho II (1983)
Synopsis: After 22 years of psychiatric care, Norman Bates is released and attempting to rebuild a normal life. However, his mother and those who remember his crimes won't make it easy for him.
Psycho II suffers only having lived in the shadow of its predecessor, which is a classic name to live up to. There could of course never be a perfectly fitting sequel to a Hitchcock masterpiece, but Psycho II does come close. Unfortunately, most write it off simply because it has the Psycho name without any Hitchcock ties, though anyone who avoids this strange and chilling part-slasher, part-psychological thriller is doing themselves a great disservice. Anthony Perkins is outstanding playing a tortured, oddly sympathetic Norman. You can't help but root for the former psycho despite every sickening behavior he's known for, and that's a testament to Perkin's performance. Psycho II is compelling, and quite emotionally gripping. It's also the proper amount of early 80s bizarre. There are interesting, bloody kills for the horror geeks, unique shots for the cinema lovers, and enough twists for the casual moviegoer seeking a thrilling experience. It's a shame this isn't more beloved, given it's a distinctive late follow-up to a legendary piece of horror, and remarkable enough to stand on its own.
Synopsis: A tortured teen who believes himself to be a vampire goes to live with his cousin in a small western Pennsylvania town, where he chases his blood-seeking desires.
Another film from a very major, influential director (George Romero) that finds its place in an underrated horror list because of how criminally infrequently it's talked about. Martin is arguably a vampire movie, but more so a stylistic, borderline arthouse look at a very disturbed, monster of a person, that's drenched in social commentary (as any good Romero movie is.) It's gruesome and at times tasteless, but done so intelligently with consistent grit and a desolate feel. The ending is wild and unexpected enough to make Martin a classic.
Synopsis: A rural Wisconsin farmer, whose overbearing mother passes away, turns to murder and graverobbing.
Of the many films based on serial killer Ed Gein, this is probably the most unheard of. You of course have Psycho and Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but Deranged is the closest examination of who Gein really was, loosely based as it may be. It's impressive, solely because you're reeled in and almost sympathetic towards the guy, until sick stuff starts happening and the film begins living up to its name. Robert Blossoms plays an incredibly demented lead in this low-budget, creative exploitation venture. It's a true video nasty, and only for the most dedicated horror fans. Deranged is too ghoulish for the casual filmgoer, which is an accomplishment for a film so cheaply made. It has its pacing issues and moments of unintentional comedy due to age and budget, but when it's dark it's really dark. The documentary-style in which it's shot where the narrator occasionally pops up in scenes doesn't necessarily work, but it makes things interesting. You might not love this movie, but you won't forget it, as it's a fairly brilliant exercise in exploitative, disgustingly chilling filmmaking that Blossoms makes compelling enough to stick with.
Synopsis: Five doctors trek into the Canadian wilderness, only to be stalked by crazed killers.
Hal Hollbrook is at his most engaging in this late 70s, terrorized in the wilderness Canadian horror of the Deliverance variety. Rituals, also known as The Creeper, is similar in setting to Deliverance, but too gritty and unique in story to be considered a knockoff. In fact, Rituals most appropriately fits in the slasher subgenre, so many might actually prefer this. It's tense, brutal, thrilling, and absolutely unrelenting in its pervasively violent tone. The characters are all pretty thought out as well. Rituals is the right blend of scenic setting, bloody kills, and prolonged sense of dread you're looking for (plus a damn good cast.)
Blood on Satan's Claw (1971)
Synopsis: After a ploughboy uncovers a skull in a field, the children of a 17th century English village begin converting to devil worship.
An often overlooked British folk horror gem, Blood on Satan's Claw is an unnerving effort in devil-worshipping weirdness. It's a tad like The Wicker Man, as both are members of the unofficial unholy trinity, though it's bloodier and not so much about building towards a big finish. Dripping with atmosphere and unforgettably creepy, Blood on Satan's Claw is quite simple in plot, but totally shocking in execution.
Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)
Synopsis: A socially-off adolescent girl is suspected of her sister's murder during her First Holy Communion, and the multiple stabbings that take place after.
Alice, Sweet Alice prioritizes suspense and mystery over blood and gore to make it a complex slasher that unsettles more than it shocks. It features the on-screen debut of Brooke Shields, though she appears briefly, and that's unfortunately where most of the recognition for this film comes from. It finds its effective creepiness through touching on the inherent strangeness of religion, while keeping a particularly eerie killer under wraps and squeezing in one monumentally bizarre character. Alice, Sweet Alice is clearly giallo-inspired, and a damn good take on the genre.
Lake Mungo (2009)
Synopsis: After the drowning death of their 16-year old daughter, a grieving family experience strange events and seek the help of a psychic for clues.
Lake Mungo is a slow and sophisticated Australian documentary-style chiller that's profoundly bleak in atmosphere, with some terrifying images thrown in. The horrifying and memorable ending ties up all loose ends in this atmospheric mindbender, which is pleasing for a film that forces you to think throughout. It's sadder than it is scary much of the time, though it's nothing short of insidious when the daunting moments arise. When Lake Mungo reels you in, which it surely will, it becomes the sort of film you need to watch something lighthearted after.
Dead and Buried (1981)
Synopsis: Mobs of townspeople in a little coastal town are murdering tourists, who then come back to life.
If you're a fan of "coastal town where the residents are acting strange" horrors, Dead and Buried is for you. The residents of Potter's Bluff have gathered together to brutally murder any and all visitors in this odd little paranoid ride. The sense of impending doom is palpable, and the atmosphere's thick. There are plenty of eccentric characters in Dead and Buried to keep you engaged, and enough gorey kills to satisfy the sickest of horror lovers. The film does partly suffer from being very early 80s, as some of the effects appear goofy, but it's all part of the fun. Dead and Buried is slightly occult, partially zombie, and even sci-fi. Anyone who doesn't mind a slowburn can find something to love here.
Hell House LLC (2015)
Synopsis: Years following the death of 15 tour-goers on the opening night of a haunted house tour, a documentary crew visits the scene to figure out what went down.
Docu-style can go so very wrong for so many movies, and it usually tends to, but Hell House LLC is a flick that succeeds in genuinely drawing you in and creeping you out with the "caught-on-camera" gimmick. While most of these films go purely for jump scares, Hell House actually builds up to something and maintains a tense feel along the way. Beyond just shocks, there are plenty of eerie occurrences that unsettle rather than shoot for a scream accompanied by heavy synths. Hell House leaves out the shaky cameras and overabundance of noise for an authentic haunted house story that just so happens to be found-footage.
Just Before Dawn (1981)
Synopsis: A group of young adults venture into the backwoods and find themselves stalked by a giant, machete-wielding killer.
Just Before Dawn has your run of the mill slasher setup and less gore than genre fans may crave, but a psychological element and disturbed ambiance more than make up for any pedestrian elements or lack of brutality. The characters are compelling rather than being 80s flick cardboard cut-outs. The scenery is gorgeous, juxtaposed by an atmosphere that's unbearably gritty. Just Before Dawn is deliciously depraved of anything bright or fun with a haunting score to top matters off.
I Drink Your Blood (1970)
Synopsis: Satanic hippies wreak havoc on a small town, met by a young boy seeking vengeance with the help of rabid canine blood-injected meat pies.
This is grindhouse at its most late 60s psychedelic and strange. I Drink Your Blood isn't by any means good, but it gets by solely on craziness. If any film is to be labeled equally silly and unsettling, it's this. I Drink Your Blood is as trashy as grindhouse flicks come, with some low-budget setbacks that give it a particularly raw, "should I even be watching this?" feel. You'll have to take a shower after watching this psychotic, drugged out mess.
Daughters of Darkness (1971)
Synopsis: A newlywed couple stopping in at a vacation resort are greeted by a stunning but all-too mysterious countess and her partner.
A slow, immensely stylish vampire tale, Daughters of Darkness is an elegant, creepy little must-see for lovers of anything arthouse or 70s strange. Delphine Seyrig's performance heightens the moody charm, and sleazy eroticism keeps this slow-burn moving. Daughters of Darkness isn't exactly as terrifying as great horrors of the 70s, but it's sexy and atmospheric enough to warrant the "criminally underrated" label.
Death Dream (1974)
Synopsis: A young soldier killed in Vietnam comes back to visit his family.
Death Dream aka Dead of Night earns Canadian director Bob Clark enough well-deserved spot on the list. This was one of the very first films to confront the negative impact of the Vietnam war on soldiers, and an aptly chilling low-budget venture. Death Dream isn't anything outrageously violent or showy. Rather it's a subtle, genuinely disturbing shocker with superb makeup effects from the great Tom Savini.
The Strangers (2008)
Synopsis: A young couple, facing relationship troubles, are staying in a cabin and terrorized by masked assailants.
It's difficult to say whether or not The Strangers is "underrated." Underappreciated, sure. Many seem to know or vaguely remember it, but I'm including The Strangers because I feel it's one of the finest post-2000s horror offerings in existence. It's ultimately quite pointless, which is why it's so strong as a straight horror film. There's very little fluff or purpose in The Strangers, and certainly no underlying message. The premise is close to home, making the scares so effective. It isn't inventively shot nor impressively atmospheric. It's pure, realistic terror.
The Exorcist III (1990)
Synopsis: A police lieutenant investing a series of murders uncovers more than he imagined, as he's forced to interview the patients of a psychiatric ward.
The Exorcist III was originally titled "Legion," and probably would have fared better had they kept that title. As is, it's the second sequel to the G.O.A.T. horror, following what many would call the most embarrassing, nonsensical sequel of all time. It's also a strong detective thriller with a couple unforgettably scary moments. The cast is outstanding, with George C. Scott leading the way, and it's both visually appealing and ice cold in mood. The Exorcist III has risen to cult status, but due to it being a second, not on par follow up to the greatest horror movie ever made, it will never be anything beyond that.
Scream of Fear (1961)
Synopsis: A wheelchair-bound girl visits her father's estate after 10 years, and believes to be seeing his dead body.
Hammer Horror lovers probably know Scream of Fear well, but amidst the many British classics it's often overlooked by the more popular monster flicks and creature features. Susan Strasberg shines in this grim twisty thriller that's predominantly atmosphere, though it packs a few jump scares and one notably horrifying scene in a pool. Sounds are key in Scream of Fear being as haunting as it is - there's often long silences, met with thumps and crashes. Writer Jimmy Sangster and director Seth Holt perfectly crafted this unpredictable gem, and closed up shop with a worthy payoff.
Night of the Creeps (1986)
Synopsis: Teenagers battle the zombified products of alien brain parasites.
Night of The Creeps is a highly entertaining, tongue-in-cheek blend of horror/sci-fi/and comedy that pays funny, fitting tribute to the wide variety of films it borrows from. It has its cult following, and rightfully so, but something so delightfully shlocky deserves more reach.
Cemetery Man (1994)
Synopsis: A cemetery custodian must kill the dead again.
Cemetery Man is an Italian zombie cult classic in a league of its own. It's thought-provoking, darkly funny, strangely romantic, and ultimately one hell of a gross B movie. There are layers beneath the shlock and a surprising amount of laughs, making Soavi's Cemetery Man an entirely individualistic entry in the undead canon.
- Honorable Mentions:
- Sisters (1972)
- Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
- The Manitou (1976)
- We Are Still Here (2015)
- The Void (2016)
- This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse (1967)
- House of Dark Shadows (1970)