By Spencer Davis. This is always one of my favorite columns to write every year, because October horror movies are like the gateway to fall for me. It starts getting dark a little earlier each night, and with Halloween around the corner, there’s no more perfect way to enjoy that darkness than with a good scare. And sure, in a year where horror movies like Get Out and It are dominating the box office—and even earning Oscar buzz—there’s no shortage of great options out there. But once you’re done with all of the more obvious choices, take a dive into the deep cuts with these underrated and sometimes forgotten screen terrors.
Diabolique (1955): Is it too artsy-fartsy to kick this off with a B&W movie with French subtitles? If so, then your loss, because Diabolique stands alongside the best suspense thrillers of Hitchcock. In fact, he wanted to be the one to make this film, but lost the rights to director Henri-Georges Clouzot. It’s the story of an abused wife who conspires to murder her husband—but when the body disappears, she begins to question whether he somehow lived or, even worse, is haunting her from beyond the grave. It’s a clever script with moments of agonizing suspense, several ingenious twists, and one great jump scare for the ages. Full of style and wit, it’s an unconventional horror film to be sure, but a true classic.
Carnival Of Souls (1962): There are horror movies that make you jump, and then there are the ones that are just 90 minutes of unceasing, eerie foreboding. Carnival Of Souls is one of the latter. It follows a young woman who walks away from a car crash in which all of her friends die. But as she tries to move on with her life, she grows increasingly disconnected from the people around her—and has visions of a mysterious man following her in the dark. To say more would be to say too much, but the way the movie uses the darkness and vast flat spaces of the American Midwest to evoke nagging dread is something special, as is the famous score, recorded on organ and imitated so many times that it has become a cliche of kitschy old low-budget horror movies. A major influence on horror greats from George Romero to David Lynch, Carnival Of Souls won’t scare you out of your seat—but it will stay with you long after it’s over.
Blood And Black Lace (1964): A lot of casual fans might think of John Carpenter’s Halloween as the first slasher film. But you can trace the roots of the genre back much further to this film from Italian horror legend Mario Bava. The story is simple: a mansion full of fashion models doing a photo shoot is plagued by a masked killer. In making Blood And Black Lace, Bava wanted to de-emphasize the guessing game of traditional murder mysteries and focus instead on two things: the kill sequences and the sex. In doing so, he took horror into the modern age, setting the template for Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Kreuger. To be fair, he also helped kick off a troubling trend in horror of celebrating gratuitous violence against scantily-clad young women—so this one isn’t for everyone. But in doing so, he looked deeper into a long-standing theme that filmmakers had been flirting with for some time: how voyeurism creates uncomfortable ties between sex and violence. In other words, in making a film like this for the purpose of entertaining an audience, there is also a knowing and implicit criticism of the audience for even wanting to watch such things. Shot in brilliant color with a hip, swinging 60s style, Blood And Black Lace may be largely forgotten now, but it’s one of the most important horror movies ever made.
Inferno (1980): Back in 2015, I sold you on quite possibly my favorite horror movie of all time, Dario Argento’s Suspiria. If you loved that particular blend of supernatural horror and vivid Technicolor gore, then Argento’s follow-up, Inferno, is also worth your time. When his sister disappears after buying an old book on witchcraft, a detective encounters a series of grotesque murders in the old Gothic New York apartment building where she lived—and learns that it once housed an alchemist who meddled with some seriously dark forces. Argento, like Mario Bava before him, was one of the foremost filmmakers in the Italian giallo school of horror, and if you’ve ever seen a giallo movie, you know that the plot rarely makes any sense; what you come for is the vibrant, comic book color palette and a series of progressively over-the-top murder scenes that try to outdo one another. These are what you call “good bad movies,” and the wooden acting and poor English overdubbing only add to their sense of nightmarish surrealism—like everything’s just a little bit off. It makes for a nostalgic throwback to the classic years of 70s and 80s horror, when the genre played loosely at the border of scary and fun.
Berberian Sound Studio (2012): A brilliant homage to giallo films like Inferno or Blood And Black Lace, Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio blurs the line between making horror movies and living them. Set in the 1960s, a British sound effects artist (the always unnerving Toby Jones) is recruited to work on a gory slasher film—and as he spends his days in the studio splitting open watermelons like heads and seeing the constant loop of violence on the screen, he slowly loses his mind. It’s not a movie with conventional scares, so it won’t please everyone. What it does so effectively is take you into the mind of the victim, and if it becomes increasingly opaque by the end, that’s because—for its protagonist—so has reality. And of course it also functions as a clever commentary about life imitating art, asking unsettling questions about whether you can really handle all of those horror movies you love to watch without suffering any consequences….
What We Do In The Shadows (2014): If you like your Halloween movies on the lighter side, take a break for a few laughs with this brilliant mockumentary about a group of vampires sharing a house in New Zealand. Starring Jemaine Clement from Flight Of The Conchords and directed by Taika Waititi (whose work on this film landed him the gig for next month’s Thor: Ragnarok), it pokes fun at all the trivial life problems that the eternal undead might have to grapple with in today’s world, from getting into clubs to updating your wardrobe for the 21st century to learning how to use the internet. Like Interview With The Vampire meets Spinal Tap, it’s got a quirky Kiwi sense of humor and some truly laugh-out-loud moments—and just enough old-fashioned gore to make sure it qualifies for a valuable Halloween night time slot.
The Eyes Of My Mother (2016): We return to the more disturbing side of things with The Eyes Of My Mother, a movie that updates Psycho for the modern age. An odd child living in a small farmhouse experiences a horrifying trauma, and after participating in an act of revenge, grows into a woman who can’t shake her bloodlust. Writer/director Nicolas Pesce shoots it in stunning black-and-white cinematography, creating one of the most gorgeous horror movies you will ever see. But all this visual style also has a functional purpose, making the film’s remote rural setting seem all the more alien and ominous. Just be warned: some of the things that happen in this movie are most definitely not for the weak-stomached.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2017): While Get Out may be the popular choice for the year’s best horror movie, I can’t say it was all that scary. The same can’t be said for The Blackcoat’s Daughter. Written and directed by Oz Perkins, son of horror legend Anthony Perkins (Psycho), it certainly has a pedigree worth raising eyebrows. What it also does is raise goosebumps, with a story that hints at demonic possession and the occult but takes them in twisted new directions. Emma Roberts gets top billing as a mysterious hitchhiker, but it’s Mad Men‘s Kiernan Shipka that steals the movie as a boarding school girl who sees a vision of her parents’ death and then, for reasons I won’t spoil, starts creeping the hell out of everyone. It’s an absolutely chilling performance, made all the better by the meta realization that this is probably not far from where her Sally Draper character might have ended up if Mad Men had continued. A lot of horror movies are good at jump scares, or gore, or that kind of slow-burning supernatural terror that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The Blackcoat’s Daughter is the first movie in recent memory that excels at all three.