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10 underrated horror movies to watch this season

From cult films to overlooked indies, a little of everything for this Halloween

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return of the living dead 3 Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Some horror movies have a hard-earned place within the genre canon, to the point that their reputation stretches beyond genre fans and into the general consciousness. People who have never seen A Nightmare on Elm Street know Freddy Krueger. Other movies are fan-favorite classics, like the works of George A. Romero, whose Dawn of the Dead created an enduring legacy for fans of the underground end of horror. Halloween is still captivating audiences 40 years later, clearly.

This Halloween, viewers looking for a scare will likely gravitate towards the more conventional genre choices and the modern films that have defined our current horror renaissance. But for those looking to take a leap on films less associated with the canon, we’ve got you covered.

Some films on the list are well regarded by genre purists, while some others may cause them to call me a crank. Some of these films were mainstream flops, while others were available only on back country drive-ins and dusty video stores. If you want a season full of scares, this list will do well to nourish your hunger for the macabre.

carnival of souls 1962 Criterion Collection

Carnival of Souls (1962)

Carnival of Souls has a sterling reputation among those who have seen it, but this highly influential classic of the genre was, for a long time, relegated to cheap public domain DVD releases. This is why the Criterion Collection exists.

Shot in Lawrence, Kansas by film outsider Herk Harvey (this was his only feature-length film), Carnival of Souls brought an adult edge to a genre that was then largely monster kiddie fair. The movie involves a reclusive woman who is hurt in a car accident and finds herself firmly in-between the land of the living and the land of the dead. After the accident, she sees otherwise-invisible undead figments ... and they seem to be coming for her.

The film is atmospheric and creepy, setting a precedent for the kind of 1960s underground horror that would eventually culminate in Night of the Living Dead, which itself heralded the 1970s golden age of horror that created the book by which most modern horror still plays.

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the last man on earth Shout Factory

The Last Man on Earth (1964)

To some genre buffs, The Last Man on Earth is a forgettable — and indeed forgotten — Vincent Price movie based on I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, a novel officially and unofficially adapted multiple times over. Indeed, by modern standards, the plot is fairly straightforward: the last man alive finds that other humans have become violent monsters.

But the film succeeds in creating an atmosphere of boredom, dread, and horror fitting what would happen if you were seemingly the last survivor, counting down the days to lord-knows-what, guarding your shelter out of habit more than zeal or passion, as if fighting zombie-like creatures were simply another part of life. That is, of course, until Price’s Dr. Robert Morgan finds another survivor, seemingly.

The film has an undeservedly shaky reputation, but employs the sort of world-building that took the zombie genre from voodoo tales to a sort of violent ghoul that portends the end of existence.

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the beyond 1981 Grindhouse Releasing

The Beyond (1981)

Dario Argento’s name frequently comes up with regard to high quality Italian horror, but where as the giallo auteur’s output involves supernatural horror with colorful touches, sometimes-collaborator Lucio Fulci’s output is of comparable quality but grislier violence, more hard-edged moralism, and a seeming worldview that there is nothing but wickedness surrounding us — and it’s just a matter of when it escapes.

Make no mistake: Fulci, a devout Catholic, had a grisly worldview that at times seems downright conservative (though in some ways, horror is a fundamentally conservative genre, the outcome of what happens when you stray off the path of “righteousness”). In Fulci’s films, demonic evil is there to find you. Through this lens, Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy makes for some of the most shocking on-screen examples of this violent morality fable.

And none is as horrific as The Beyond, the second film in the trilogy. The film begins when a literal gate to hell is opened in a New Orleans basement, and continues as the world around decays through these spirits unleashed. What follows are a series of gory deaths and violent imagery that approximates the kind of Biblical Hell that Christian children have been taught to fear, lest they burn forever. Monsters, zombies, and demons are unleashed with only harm in mind. It borders on hallucinatory at times, in a way befitting the unimaginable horrors awaiting sinners in horror. It’s a true classic, perhaps overshadowed by the unreliability of Fulci’s overall output. Supernatural horror rarely feels this tangible, grisly, and unrelenting.

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april fool’s day 1986 Paramount Pictures

April Fool’s Day (1986)

The 1980s were an ugly time in horror. The spread of home video saturated the market with cheap, unremarkable slasher films, ones that, time after time, failed to make an impression in the genre but succeeded at making a quick buck. The ideas behind them were usually predicated on not-so-subtle sex-shaming while also striving for some titillation. A mildly successful movie could easily become a franchise that slips deeper and deeper into cynical money-making terrain.

April Fool’s Day looks like one of these conventional slasher horror movies. A visit to a rich friend’s island mansion turns deadly for a group of teens, who are seemingly picked off one-by-one in increasingly violent pranks over … well, you can guess the weekend from the title. Throughout, there’s a winking, knowing, loving nod to the contrived genre which April Fool’s Day also subverts. The mayhem twists into an ending that, just as much, poses a clever play on the genre and in some ways asks the audience what it is they want to see in such movies.

This is an overly heady description for a fun, seemingly formulaic entry into the genre that has more ambition than the typical psycho killer gorefest. The film was directed by Fred Walton, who also directed the superb When a Stranger Calls before settling into a career of made-for-TV suspense films.

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near dark 1987 Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Near Dark (1987)

Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), in only her second time behind the director’s chair, presents us with one of the most stylish vampire movies of all-time — which is saying something considering the enduring aesthetic of The Lost Boys, Joel Schumacher’s campy vamp movie, which was released the same year.

There are superficial similarities, including a “family” unit of vampires decked out in Judas Priest levels of leather, but Near Dark is gritty, violent, and a hard-R movie. A group of vampires — including the late Bill Paxton in an unhinged, sociopathic role — descend on a small town. A young man, played by Adrian Pasdar, falls in with a female vampire, and finds himself slowly pulled into the group. Of course, when you fall in with evil vampires, things can go south quickly …

The film is equal parts violent horror movie and modern day Western, with a perfect group of villains that would have inspired quite a bit of fandom had Tumblr been a thing in 1987. The film is loud, stylish, and fun, and while it failed to find an audience in 1987, its reputation has only improved in the intervening years.

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A priest hangs on a cross over an open portal with demon hands coming out in the exorcist 3 Image: Shout Factory

The Exorcist III (1990)

Released 12 years after the original, a sequel to The Exorcist without Linda Blair doesn’t seem overly promising, but instead of continuing with the story of what happened with Regan, it instead follows the fate of the priest’s from the original — at least in a roundabout way.

William F. Kinderman — a minor character in the original film — returns, this time played by George C. Scott. He’s investigating a rash of recent deaths that have all the markings of a serial murderer called the Gemini Killer. The only problem is that the Gemini Killer has been dead for several years. What follows is an intense, creepy movie that widens the mythos of the original in a way that Exorcist II: The Heretic was incapable of doing. (Not that Exorcist II, a notoriously bad flop, was capable of much. That Exorcist III even got made after the failure of II is a small wonder.)

The film is capably handled, with some truly shocking scenes that, at times, can rival the original. Brad Dourif of Child’s Play fame is able to ham it up in the way only he can, and the sequel overall shows a consistent quality that it hadn’t necessarily earned but delivered on well.

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the reflecting skin Soda Pictures

The Reflecting Skin (1990)

In a time of peak David Lynch, The Reflecting Skin was an oddity, tied to the surrealism presented in Lynch films but with a real world grounding that made viewers question what they were seeing on screen. It’s the first of three films by Philip Ridley, better known for his work on the stage. Each succeeding Ridley film is bleak and dark, but The Reflecting Skin has an eerie quality that makes it unforgettable. The film seems largely forgotten — the first time I saw it was on an a rip from an out-of-print VHS that I was forced to download off Kazaa (a sentence that will not make sense to younger readers). When I finally saw a modern video release, it was in one of those mega-store-ready four-packs of cheap horror movies — an unfair place for a deliberately paced art-horror film.

The world of The Reflecting Skin is bleak. The film is seen through the eyes of a young boy Seth in 1950s rural Idaho. Religious zealotry and small town paranoia permeate the atmosphere of the town, creating an atmosphere in which bad things seem to have an inevitability. Seth is left to his own devices, largely, finding entertainment in small town Idaho. Despite his childlike innocence, there’s the sort of violent undercurrent to his actions familiar to those from rural, small town life — especially when the film begins with the violent demise of a frog. He refers to it as a “wonderful frog,” when such statements surely bely another violent incident waiting in the wings.

But things ratchet up in the small town when local children begin disappearing. Seth’s father, a closeted gay man trying to keep a quiet rural existence, comes to fall under suspicion. But Seth and his friends suspect an older widow who has a house full of creepy whaling gear, interpreting her to be an ancient vampire. His brother, played by Viggo Mortensen, begins a relationship with the widow as he’s in the throes of an illness, which doesn’t help the case.

Filtered through Seth’s mind, where monsters exist and are real, the stark reality of rural Idaho takes on a grim, foreboding air. The movie is able to pull off an all consuming dread that escalates throughout — perhaps because there are real monsters afoot. But this childish imagination gives it a supernatural edge that makes for a complex and undeservedly ignored movie that may not be “horror” in a literal sense but is so informed by the genre as to make the lines blurry.

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return of the living dead 3 Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993)

Return of the Living Dead is a stone cold classic, a punk-imbued semi-sequel to Night of the Living Dead. For those saying “wait a minute, the sequel to Night was Dawn of the Dead,” yes, but there was a split between the creators of that movie, George A. Romero and John Russol leading to two separate sequels. For Romero, that was Dawn, Day, Land, Diary, and Survival of the Dead, respectively. (The quality diminishes over time, but Dawn is a full-on classic and all are worth a watch save perhaps Survival.) For Russo, that was a novel, Return of the Living Dead, which the movie is loosely based on.

In extending the franchise in his own direction, Russo has had more mixed success, including the truly dreadful Children of the Living Dead and a misfired Night of the Living Dead anniversary addition with new (and remarkably bad) footage. But Return became a classic of comedic splatter horror thanks to the capable hands of director Dan O’Bannon, who wrote Alien and Lifeforce.

Return of the Living Dead Part II was criminally boring, the punk rock nihilism of the original replaced with a by-the-numbers mini-Apocalypse movie with desperate attempts at humor. Perhaps it’s understandable, then, that Return of the Living Dead 3 would be ignored, but its connections to the original are loose — essentially, all films in the franchise are connected by the same military chemical that allegedly kicked off the events Night of the Living Dead — while the violence is visceral and real. The reason is Brian Yuzna, a workman’s horror director, churning out capable sequels, often in close proximity to friend and collaborator Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator). If the first Return was the ultimate punk movie, 3 is a metal movie—unrelenting, less imbued with bratty humor, reflecting a different kind of nihilism.

Essentially, it’s a love story. Teenager Curt’s father works for the military on the mysterious Trioxin chemical. Curt notes that it has the ability to reanimate the dead. But Curt’s father is part of an experiment to harness and control the zombies. When a motorcycle accident kills his girlfriend, Julie, Curt puts two-and-two together and attempts to resurrect her with the Trioxin chemical. He hopes to stave off her zombie nature long enough to resume a normal life. But there’s an inevitability to her new existence that makes it seem hopeless.

While it’s not groundbreaking, the film is a justifiable sequel, one that should please horror fans and has a unique voice in the zombie sub-genre of horror.

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A woman with blood on her face holds her bloody hand up, out of focus, with a smile on her face in Ginger Snaps Image: Shout! Factory

Ginger Snaps (2000)

Ginger Snaps has a small, loyal audience — enough that the movie inspired two sequels. But the film deserves a much wider one, as it’s both a sensitive exploration of the changes puberty brings to young women and a gory werewolf story.

The film involves two close sisters. On the way toward a violent revenge prank against a school bully, one of the sisters experiences her first period, which attracts the attention of a werewolf, who bites her. From then on, the younger sister watches the transformation of her sibling into an unrecognizable form in both attitude and physical form.

Plenty of horror movies revolve around transformation and the way that growing into adolescence distorts our bodies into unfamiliar forms. But Ginger Snaps is both brutal, sensitive and well balanced, with dashes of humor sprinkled in amongst the gruesome action. It’s an amazing low-budget body horror film, and a fantastic entry in the werewolf canon.

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the endless 2017 Well Go USA

The Endless (2018)

Horror is experiencing a resurgence, with films like The Witch and Hereditary attempting to bring a new weight to genre works that don’t skimp on the guts or scares while still displaying an underlying intelligence not always present in a genre of fly-by-night productions. But while critical eyes are appraising many of these horror efforts, the works of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are flying under the radar … at least for now.

The Endless is the second film in a cinematic universe slowly unfolding between the co-directors, one which started with Resolution, a grisly story of an amateurish attempt at rehabilitating an addict friend that turns into a monster movie. Endless isn’t a direct sequel, but instead one that creates a little Venn diagram with its predecessor. Two brothers have managed to escape a UFO cult with more than a few passing similarities to Heaven’s Gate. But life on the other end isn’t treating them well — they’re dead broke, working as cleaners, nearing homelessness.

That’s when Aaron proposes, based on a video tape he receives, that they return to the cult compound to check on their previous “family” … and things get really weird when a malevolent presence slowly makes itself known.

The execution of the film isn’t perfect, but the way the film builds its internal mythology is wicked, enthralling and epic in size — the evils seemingly beyond human reckoning or logic, manipulating the course of events towards its own end — which should please fans of H.P. Lovecraft’s works.

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John Wenz is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wisconsin. You can follow him on Twitter at @johnwenz.

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