By Steve Newton
When horror fans are asked to cite the movie that first got them hooked on the genre, they often offer up titles like Frankenstein, The Exorcist, or maybe The Shining.
The film that turned me into a devotee of scary flicks was a little-known (yet influential) gem from 1958 called It! The Terror From Beyond Space, about a creature from Mars that stows away on a spaceship and starts offing the crew.
I’ll never forget the feeling of dread that overtook me when the lifeless body of one man was found stuffed in an air duct. There was no blood or signs of violence, just darkish circles around the poor dude’s eyes—circles that became serious nightmare makers for me.
When I tell people about that film’s terrifying effect on me, their blank stares reveal that they’ve never even heard of It! (even though it was the template for Alien). A lot of my other fave fright flicks garner similar responses, actually; most movies dear to me seem to inhabit a space just beyond the radar of your average horror fan.
So, in the spirit of enlightenment, here’s a list of 10 underrated items worthy of your Halloween streaming bucks.
First off is Stuck, which—although it didn’t even make it into theatres here in Vancouver—was arguably the best horror movie of 2008. It stars American Beauty’s Mena Suvari as a freakishly self-centred nursing-home worker who, fearful of endangering a job promotion, refuses to help the pedestrian (The Crying Game’s Stephen Rea) she ran down and who is embedded in her car windshield. There’s serious suspense and multiple squirm-inducing scenes, but the freakiest thing about Stuck is the fact that it’s based on a true story.
Another overlooked (yet remade) shocker involving vehicular violence is 1986’s The Hitcher, which features Rutger Hauer as a spectrelike drifter playing a wicked game of cat-and-mouse with innocent driver C. Thomas Howell.
In 1987, director Joseph Ruben took the psycho off the deserted highway and plunked him right at the altar in The Stepfather. Before guesting on The X-Files, Terry O’Quinn delivered a career-making performance as a family-values stepdad bent on living the American dream, and Lord help those who might interfere—especially if there’s a two-by-four handy.
Escaped lunatics are common fodder for horror, but rarely are they used as effectively as in 1982’s Alone in the Dark. Directed by Jack Sholder, who also helmed the spiffy science-fiction actioner The Hidden, it boasts Hollywood heavyweights Jack Palance and Martin Landau—not to mention 6-6 back-breaker Erland van Lidth—as mental patients seeking vengeance with a late-night house call to their doctor.
All the violence perpetrated by Alone in the Dark’s cast of killers pales in comparison to that wrought by a single human in High Tension, a 2003 French shocker helmed by then–25-year-old wunderkind Alexandre Aja, who would later wow horror fans with his 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes before spurning them with the 2008 dud Mirrors. High Tension sees a brave young woman (Maíwenn Le Besco) desperately chasing the brutal murderer of an entire family, with some truly disturbing sequences along the way.
Another gruesome flick in which fearless females get covered head-to-toe in the blood of others is 2006’s claustrophobic The Descent. It’s about a group of gals who, while exploring underground caves, discover a particularly nasty batch of cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers (or CHUDs).
For those who crave sidesplitting laughs with their skull-splitting gore, 1992’s Dead Alive is just the ticket. Before he hit the jackpot with his Lord of the Rings trilogy, New Zealand director Peter Jackson got his twisted jollies with this giddy, over-the-top zombie splatterfest.
Who says lawn mowers are only good for cutting grass?
For something equally funny but the polar opposite in tone, try 2002’s Bubba Ho-Tep, a low-key horror hybrid that melds the mythology of Elvis Presley, John F. Kennedy, and the ancient Egyptian mummy. Directed by Phantasm’s Don Coscarelli and based on a 1994 novella by hard-boiled Texas author Joe R. Lansdale, it stars Bruce Campbell of the first three Evil Dead films in a role he was born to play: a crotchety Elvis in an old folks’ home.
After Bubba’s mummy madness, why not continue in the classic-monster vein with a trusty vampire flick? It’s not as widely known as Bram Stoker’s Dracula—or even Tony Scott’s The Hunger—but Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark is a wildly entertaining Western-gothic horror from ’87 that sports perfect performances by Aliens castmates Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, and Jenette Goldstein as members of a bloodsucker clan leery of the young cowboy drawn into their circle.
Top off your Halloween horror marathon with a ghost story to die for: 2007’s The Orphanage. Juan Antonio Bayona’s Spanish chiller is a thoroughly engrossing portrait of a devoted mother (the spellbinding Belén Rueda) dealing with the nightmare of her missing child. The heart-wrenching finale will have you doling out extra handfuls of goodies when the tiniest trick-or-treaters come to call.
To read more than 350 of my reviews of horror movies released theatrically in North America between 1988 and 2018, go here.