Imagine that the horror movie landscape is a big onion. At the outer layer sit the classic horror films. These ones always end up on “So-and-so’s favorite horror movies of all time” lists; even your Mom and Dad have seen them, or are at least aware of them: Psycho. The Exorcist. The Bride of Frankenstein. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Rosemary’s Baby. Jaws. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. (Well, maybe not that one, but it should be.)
To go a level deeper, talk to a horror fan, and you’ll discover an entirely new strata of greats. These are the movies that might not be as universally well-loved as something like Night of the Living Dead, but are held up as equals by the people who know their stuff. Argento’s Deep Red. Fulci’s The Beyond. Stage fright. Kiyoshi Kurasawa’s Kairo. Lamberto Bava’s Demons. Layer 2 is a massive sea of movies, with your average horror buff willing to pull dozens out for recommendation and approval.
Now drop five layers to the core. Down there are a handful of late night surprises, the ones horror fans trade like baseball cards. They’re probably imperfect and cheaply made, but for the right person, they can be very special experiences. Ask a horror fan about these movies, and they’ll need to think about it for a while. Each one will almost always come up with a unique list. Here are some recent favorites of mine, in no particular order:
1. Noroi: The Curse
Noroi: The Curse has the dubious distinction of technically being both a J-Horror and a Found Footage movie, although it subverts the conventions of both. The usual suspects are all there: the raven-haired girl who may have connections to the beyond, an ancient curse with terrifying implications, and supernatural entities that manifest themselves via electronic devices. If you’re rolling your eyes right now, that’s fine. J-Horror isn’t for everyone. Noroi is more unsettling than almost any J-Horror or Found Footage movie in recent memory, and is worth the gamble.
Instead of relying on the tired premise of a found video cassette, Noroi’s framework weaves together multiple threads as a faux-documentary television show, drawing the viewer in by building tension in unconventional ways. The fauxumentary follows ‘paranormal journalist’ Kobayashi as he investigates a series of strange, seemingly unrelated events in towns across Japan. A woman hears the crying of babies in an unoccupied apartment nearby. Piles of eviscerated birds appear at random. A schoolgirl rumored to have ESP vanishes without a trace. Kobayashi and crew pull the threads together and uncover the truth, but not before the truth has some sinister fun with them. (Heed the film’s ominous tagline: All Have Died.) If this synopsis sounds dull, I don’t blame you; on the surface, Noroi is a stone’s throw from a ‘The Ring meets Blair Witch’ pull quote. Please believe me when I say that Noroi is a scarier movie than either of those. It’s a horror film that affects not only through gore or gimmickry, but through tone and structure.
There are a number of unsettling moments in this film – the ending is too great to spoil – but my favorite sequence is a well-lit, televised ESP test featuring children drawing shapes to prove their paranormal abilities, a-la the opening scene from Ghostbusters. In it, a young girl with a proven psychic talent is asked to draw a specific, hidden shape. Instead of revealing that shape, she lifts her paper to reveal… something else. It’s not clear in the moment why the image is so unsettling, but it is – and it becomes retroactively more so as the meaning of the drawing emerges.
If you only see one move on this list, please make it Noroi.
2. Storm Warning
I have a particular fear of being lost at sea, which is odd considering I grew up in South Florida in and around sailboats for most of my childhood. The ocean may be beautiful from a bayside lounge chair, but it is not your friend. Humans are not built to survive in it for very long.
Storm Warning’s first act is especially harrowing for me, because it’s one of my worst fears come true – a day trip in a dinghy turns into a lost-at-sea nightmare when a married couple can’t find their way back to port during an unexpected storm. Things get worse when they stumble across a pair of deranged, pot-growing hillbillies. It’s a well-made riff on The Hills Have Eyes, and well worth a rental if you like your redneck exploitation on the soggy side.
Absentia’s strength is a clever idea wrapped around a very simple premise: After her husband goes missing for seven years, a grieving wife, with the help of her younger sister, tries to settle her accounts and declare the man ‘Dead In Absentia’. They soon discover that people have been mysteriously disappearing for years in the same neighborhood, all seemingly centered around a tunnel at the end of the street.
It’s a great movie because of, not despite, its sub-$100,000 microbudget. Absentia understands that some things are better left to the imagination, and it uses darkness – complete, ink-black darkness – to shroud its core mystery. It knows that a strange sound in the dark is far more traumatizing than a well lit boogeyman.
Not quite a ghost story, and not quite a ‘tunnel that eats people’ story, Absentia turns into something very surprising in the third act. There are two scenes in particular that left me stunned. Oh, and the amazing Doug Jones shows up, just to make things extra-icky.
4. Lake Mungo
Another faux-documentary, Lake Mungo follows the grieving family of a drowned teenage girl as sightings of her ‘ghost’ appear in and around their home. It’s the most non-traditional horror film on the list, weaving to and from the supernatural to build a portrait of a family coping with loss that’s equal parts moving and disturbing.
It’s one of the several movies on this list to elicit real dread from the blending of the supernatural and technology, which surely isn’t new. Here, though, the distorted image in the background isn’t always something as mundane as a ghost or a demon.
5. The Reef
Remember Open Water, that true-life shark movie from 2003 about the couple who gets stranded in the water during a scuba diving trip? The Reef makes a chump out of it.
Loosely based on the tragic events of a 1983 boat trip near Australia, The Reef – from Director/Writer Andrew Trauki, who also made the very decent Black Water – follows a doomed crew of pleasure boaters after their vessel capsizes in Great White-infested waters. A quartet of them decide to swim the long twelve miles to shore, and are soon joined by a 20-foot companion with rows of serrated teeth. Luckily, one of the swimmers is armed with a mask, so he can give his companions a visual play-by-play on just how incredibly fucked they are.
The Reef is an intense enough movie on its own, but if you’re like me and have a deep fear of floating helplessly in the open ocean, it will absolutely ruin your evening in the best possible way. The underwater shots of the barely perceptible shark, swimming far out in the distance around the swimmers, are among the scariest images I’ve ever seen in a movie.
6. The Rapture
Sharon (Mimi Rogers), a devout member of a sect of fundamentalists who believe that the rapture is imminent, is tired of just waiting around for the apocalypse. What to do? This film follows Sharon as she turns from vice-ridden swinger to a hardcore Christian who’s utterly consumed with the idea of the Rapture.
Of all the ones on the list, it’s The Rapture that stayed with me the longest. Like another one of my favorites, Kairo (Pulse), it’s not so much patently scary as it is deeply disturbing. Where Kairo poses questions about the nature of the afterlife and depression, The Rapture muses on God, faith, and family, to an equally dire conclusion. Most wouldn’t classify this as a horror movie, but the final frames are shatteringly horrific.
7. End of the Line
A doomsday cult is convinced that demons are rising up to reclaim the Earth, and that the only recourse is to MURDER ALL HUMANS before the demons can get to them.
I’m a bit surprised that The End of the Line isn’t already a cult classic. Without spoiling too much, it’s got a killer cult, gooey monsters, a subway tunnel standoff, and an apocalypse scenario. It’s the John Carpenter movie that never was.
Okay, so it doesn’t quite have the budget or pedigree of a Carpenter movie, but if you’re a fan of Prince of Darkness, you’ll want to give this one a try.
8. The Collingswood Story
Told entirely through webcam video chat, The Collingswood Story is what other Found Footage movies should aim to be: creative, scary, and short. Filmed in 2002, its use of now-antiquated tech somehow adds to its creepiness – Oh my god, is that Windows 95? – and its ghost story about a woman investigating a curse with the help of her boyfriend and a medium predates Paranormal Activity by quite a while. It’s more novel than the Activity movies, and elicits a sense of real danger that the nanny cam club can’t touch. In this movie, our hero is always home alone, and is armed only with a webcam.
9. Eden Lake
Like the also great horror movie Ils (Them), Eden Lake knows you’re afraid of getting older, afraid that you’ll be forcibly replaced by something young. It also knows you’re afraid of being trapped and helpless at the mercy of teenagers. It follows a familiar trope: A couple runs afoul of a group of angry children in the woods, and fights for survival to escape. Unlike the Ils killers, the kids in Ede Lake are real characters, rather than monsters. There’s an actual context here for both the hunters and the victims, which makes the last half more than just 20 miles of rough road.
Have you seen any of these? Do chime in below. More importantly, keep your favorite, lesser known movies alive by sharing them with strangers. Write your own list!