By Spencer Davis. Every year, I give you a new batch of overlooked Halloween movies to get you through the night—or if I’ve done my job properly, keep you awake through it—and this year, we go in some new directions. Some might say the world we live in right now is scary enough! And yet it’s perhaps no coincidence that the past two years have brought horror into a new era of acclaim, with hits like Get Out and A Quiet Place being named as serious awards contenders. Even the remake business is being taken a lot more seriously, with bold new visions of Halloween and Suspiria taking over the theaters and proving themselves to be more than cheap cash grabs. But if, like me, you think the best place to seek out your scares is in the darkness of your own living room, then enjoy these under-the-radar film frights.
Cat People (1942): By horror movie standards, Cat People doesn’t offer modern audiences much at all in the way of scares. But it may just be the perfect Halloween movie for the height of the #MeToo era. It’s about an Eastern European woman in New York who must reveal to her new husband a terrible secret: that she’s descended from a cult of witches and satanists who are cursed to turn into murderous cats whenever they are sexually aroused. Sure, the premise is absurd, but in the 1940s, a Hollywood movie that so openly tackled the topic of repressed female sexuality was revolutionary. The monsters are both physical and psychological, internal and societal, and the film operates now as no subtle criticism of the roles that were once foisted upon women both in and out of marriage. While that social critique is certainly scary in its own way, Cat People is easily the least conventionally scary movie on this list—but the shadowy black-and-white cinematography makes it just atmospheric enough to scratch your Halloween itch.
Black Sabbath (1963): The movie that inspired the birth of heavy metal (and one of its greatest bands), Mario Bava’s classic compendium of terror, Black Sabbath, is like a private tour of the horror genre. Boris Karloff (Frankenstein, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas) narrates these three short stories of ghosts, stalkers, and vampires, and while it’s light on gore, the movie’s retro technicolor vibe is a vital part of its appeal. I particularly love the first two segments: one about a woman who robs a corpse and suffers the consequences, and the other a tale of how a simple telephone can be a tool of terror. And as a note of trivia, the three-story structure would later influence Quentin Tarantino when he was devising a little film called Pulp Fiction.
The Fog (1980): With John Carpenter’s Halloween enjoying a resurgence, this might be a perfect year to look at one of his under-celebrated classics. The Fog doesn’t have the genre-defining pedigree of that film, nor the splattery gore of his take on The Thing, but what it does better than either film is turn pervasive dread into a tangible force of nature. A seaside California town is the setting, where a mysterious glowing fog comes off the bay at night that sends people to their doom. Much in the same way that a horde of oncoming, slow-moving zombies can be scarier than something faster and more aggressive, it’s the fog’s relentlessness that makes it so creepy. You can’t run and hide forever, and it just … keeps … coming. With an 80s charm and an eerie soundtrack to fit the mood, The Fog may seem like a stupid choice for a villain, but sometimes, those are the most interesting ones.
The Invitation (2015): I, myself, can think of nothing more terrifying than a dinner party—but The Invitation takes that fear to a whole new level. In the wake of a personal tragedy, a group of yuppie friends are invited to a reunion dinner in the Hollywood hills—where things get weird fast. I won’t tell you too much more about the plot, but the draw of the film is in how it plays tricks with your mind as you—alongside the guests—question whether there’s a sinister ulterior motive to this party, or whether that’s just paranoia. The Invitation may build slowly, but for those who stick around to the end of this party, there’s an intriguing payoff.
Hush (2016): It’s hard by now to find an interesting new twist on the slasher genre, but Hush manages. It’s a premise so simple you can’t believe nobody thought of it before: what do you do when you’re trapped in your home by a killer … and you’re deaf? Star/co-writer Kate Siegel (currently on Netflix’s The Haunting Of Hill House) gives a brilliant performance as the victim who refuses to be one, giving her tormentor a run for his money that he never saw coming. With a hyper-intelligent script and enough suspense to choke you, Hush finds horror in the things that most of us take for granted.
A Dark Song (2016): Slasher movies are fun and all, but are they really that scary? As so many of the greatest horror classics show us—The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, The Blair Witch Project—for true terror, there’s nothing more unsettling than the occult. Joining their ranks is this evil little Irish film about a woman grieving the death of her son who turns to some very black magic. Along with a mentor steeped in the ways of witchcraft, she engages in a months-long rite to enlist the help of angels and demons, and naturally, things do not go as planned. What makes A Dark Song so terrifying is how believable it feels, using the sheer grueling repetition of the rituals (and the conflict and frustration that ensues) to ground this magic firmly in the real world. Movies usually skip over all that, but by showing step-by-step just how twisted these rituals become, it slowly but surely ratchets up your dread. And while it’s trite to talk about twist endings in a horror movie, this one genuinely does take a different turn than any other horror movie I can recall.
Ash vs Evil Dead (2015-2018): If you’re more into binge-watching than movies, there are a lot of horror TV options out there beyond just American Horror Story. Allow me to nominate the short-lived but brilliant Starz series, Ash vs Evil Dead. Following on the iconic Evil Dead movies from the 80s, it’s got everything you want for a fun time on Halloween: demons, gratuitous gore … chainsaw hands. Bruce Campbell is back as foul-mouthed demon hunter Ash Williams, facing an onslaught of supernatural zombies unleashed by the Book of the Dead—and his own stupidity. Far from a tired retread, the series actually manages to improve upon the signature blend of gore and comedy from Sam Raimi’s original movies, impressing time and again with its ability to keep coming up week after week with inventive new terrors and horrific death scenes without ever becoming stale. Just when you think it all can’t get any more hilariously absurd … well, if you make it to Season 2, Episode 2, then you’ll know what I mean.
Hereditary (2018): John Krasinkski’s A Quiet Place staked its claim early this year for the Oscar-worthy horror film of 2018, but don’t overlook Hereditary. Helmed by first-time filmmaker Ari Aster, it’s a shocking effort that blends together several different threads of horror into a truly disturbing tapestry. The less you know about the plot, the better, but it checks all the boxes you want. A creepy kid? Fuck, yeah. Jump scares? You better believe it. Gore? God, yes. Ghosts, witches, demons, and possessions. Check, check, check, and check. But there’s also something smarter going on here, as the film delves cleverly into mental illness and the burdens of family (it’s called Hereditary for a reason) in ways that constantly keep you guessing. It may not be typical Oscar fare, but don’t be surprised if Toni Collette picks up a rogue nomination in the acting categories; after all, she’s already done it once before in a horror film (The Sixth Sense), and there’s zero doubt she tops herself here as a mom coming unraveled with grief and paranoia. Creepy as all hell, there’s nothing quiet about Hereditary—and you just might need a white noise machine to help you get to sleep.
For more great Halloween movie picks, check out our earlier editions of Horror Flicks That Don’t Suck:
Horror Flicks That Don’t Suck (2015): It Follows, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, The House Of The Devil, The Amityville Horror, Suspiria, Repulsion, The Haunting, The Night Of The Hunter, Freaks
More Horror Flicks That Don’t Suck (2016): The Witch, Lake Mungo, Let The Right One In, The Mothman Prophecies, The Evil Dead, Night Of The Living Dead, The Invisible Man, The Phantom Carriage
Even More Horror Flicks That Don’t Suck (2017): The Blackcoat’s Daughter, The Eyes Of My Mother, What We Do In The Shadows, Berberian Sound Studio, Inferno, Blood And Black Lace, Carnival Of Souls, Diabolique