The 25 best horror movies you’ve never seen
There are a lot of terrible horror movies out there. Possibly more than any other genre, horror seems to appeal to wannabe filmmakers who figure it’s easy and cheap to pull off a scary movie – and thanks to the success of many low budget horror movies, distributors seem to be putting out an awful lot of them. So I’d understand if you didn’t want to trawl through an endless sea of crap to find the few real gems amongst the cinematic slurry.
But I’m an addict, and keep coming back for more punishment. The payoff is that sometimes, very occasionally, you discover something brilliant. Here are 25 great horror movies that you probably haven’t seen, possibly haven’t even heard of (some of them don’t even have UK distribution), but which are well worth your time.
25. Santa’s Slay (2005)
Let’s start with a festive one, seeing as Christmas as just gone. In Santa’s Slay, Santa isn’t a jolly old man; he’s a demon, the son of the Devil who’d prefer to impale you on your Christmas tree than leave presents under it. It turns out he lost a bet a thousand years ago, and was forced into delivering gifts to children every Christmas Eve. But now his sentence is up, he’s ready to return to his wicked ways.
There’s plenty of festive murder, a lovely animated section featuring angels and devils holding a curling match, and a wonderful showdown at an ice rink. It’s basically the perfect Christmas movie, and is destined to change the way you think about old St Nick forever.
24. The Hamiltons (2006)
The less you know about The Hamiltons, the better, really; anything you do know will just spoil the surprise. So let’s just say it’s a horror movie about a family of siblings struggling to get along without their recently deceased parents – and there’s a lot more to it than its Saw-wannabe packaging would suggest.
Written and directed by The Butcher Brothers (aka Mitchell Altieri and Phil Flores, who aren’t actually related), The Hamiltons was part of the After Dark Horrorfest in 2006, and is possibly the only decent film ever to be shown as part of that particular festival.
23. Satan’s Little Helper (2004)
Despite the punny title, this isn’t a Christmas movie; it’s a Halloween movie. Satan’s Little Helper is the title of a videogame in the movie, which the main character, a nine-year-old boy named Dougie, is obsessed with. Unfortunately, in this case, it seems video games are dangerous for kids, because when Dougie encounters a murderer dressed as the devil, he takes it upon himself to become the eponymous Little Helper.
There’s some black humour built into the script, but mostly it’s just really, really creepy. It does tip into absurdity towards the end, and goes on a little too long, but it’s such an original concept it’s just about forgivable.
22. Wasting Away (2007)
Also released under the unpromising title Aaah! Zombies!!, Wasting Away is one of the most creative and interesting zombie movies of the last decade.
The movie is shown mostly from the point of view of the zombies, who see themselves as normal – or perhaps superhuman, since they no longer feel pain. It’s mostly in black and white, switching into colour when we’re seeing the zombies from the perspective of the normal, terrified public. It’s a zombie comedy, and that’s admittedly an incredibly tired genre, but Wasting Away is clever, funny, and well-written enough to get away with it.
21. Dying Breed (2008)Dying Breed is not for the faint-hearted. It’s incredibly gruesome and bleak and doesn’t have a happy ending by anyone’s standards. It’s nasty. But it’s sort of great nonetheless: set in Australia and starring Nathan Phillips (out of Wolf Creek) and Leigh Whannell (out of Saw), it’s your basic kids-go-out-in-the-woods-and-get-slaughtered movie, except with good writing, great characterisation, and some really nasty, really scary ideas.
Some of the special effects are a bit ropey, but that’s a minor gripe, really. It’s another movie that proves even apparently exhausted genres can come good if you actually bother to pay attention to the script.
20. Vampire Girl Vs Frankenstein Girl (2009)Vampire Girl Vs Frankenstein Girl is amazingly weird in the way that only Japanese movies can be. The plot begins as a straightforward high school love triangle, as new girl Monami takes an interest in Mizushima, the boyfriend of Keiko, the meanest girl in school. But since Monami is a vampire and Keiko is the daughter of a mad scientist, things get freaky fast.
The film was written and directed by Toshihiro Nishimura, a special effects artist renowned for his gore effects – and he holds nothing back here. Fans of J-horror will enjoy the cameo by Takashi Shimizu; everyone else can just enjoy the endless creativity of the monster effects.
19. Lie Still (2005)
Ghost stories seem to be coming back into fashion now, so Lie Still might’ve been a bit ahead of its time. It’s a haunted house story, basically, but an incredibly creepy one; it’s an MR James-style slow burner that’ll stay with you. Good luck getting hold of this one, though; there’s been no UK release, so your best bet is to import it from the US, where it was released under the title The Haunting Of 24.
Writer/director Sean Hogan’s latest film, The Devil’s Business, is also worth seeing; it did the festival rounds last summer, and should see a theatrical release later this year, so keep an eye out.
18. Darkness (2002)
Even if you saw this movie when it was released in the UK, you haven’t really seen it; the released version was cut to ribbons, with the swearing replaced and gore removed. If you can get hold of the uncut Spanish release, though, you’ll find a magnificently creepy take on the haunted house story, with a brilliantly bleak finale.
Director Jaume Balagueró went on to write and direct [REC], so you know you’re in safe/terrifying hands. Whoever thought the cut version was a good idea deserves a slap, but Darkness deserves to be watched properly.
17. Sexy Killer (2008)
I know, I know: you hate horror comedies. Everyone hates horror comedies, and post-modern self-aware horror comedies are the worst of the lot, but you need to make an exception for Sexy Killer because it’s brilliant.
Barbara, the titular sexy killer, talks to the camera, indulges in fantasy sequences, and is somehow both hilarious and wonderfully likeable; actress Macarena Gomez’s performance is flawless, and you’ll be rooting for her like you’ve never rooted for a homicidal maniac before. Movies like this don’t come along very often; when you find one, you cherish it, even if it does have a mildly embarrassing title.
16. The Woods (2006)
Private schools are just a bit creepy, aren’t they? The Woods is one of the more effective horror movies set in schools; set in the 60s, it follows rebellious teen Heather as she enrols in a posh boarding school in the middle of the woods, and quickly finds that all is not as it seems. There’s whispering in the trees, and girls are going missing; the teachers are up to something, particularly the headmistress, who takes Heather aside for some unconventional private tuition.
Director Lucky McKee is also responsible for the utterly brilliant May, which you probably have seen (you have, right?). The Woods is fun and creepy and atmospheric; it’s kind of like Suspiria, if Suspiria had a cameo by Bruce Campbell.
15. The Visitor (1979)
God and the Devil fight over one very special child in this bizarre 70s take on the Antichrist. Katy Collins is a terrifying eight-year-old who uses her telekinetic powers solely for evil, despite the best efforts of the forces of good. The film’s studded with stars, including Lance Henriksen, Shelley Winters, and Franco Nero as the weirdest looking Jesus you’ll ever see, but the thing you’ll remember is the scene in which God and the Antichrist settle down for a supercharged game of Pong. This is another one you’ll need to get a US import of; you might also find copies of it under the title Stridulum.
14. The Signal (2007)
Remember a couple of years back when every other horror story was about a mysterious virus that sent everyone mad? The Signal is from that period, but it seems to have been forgotten in the shuffle – which is a shame, because it’s probably the most interesting of the lot. Madness, here, is characterised by thinking that everyone around you has gone insane; paranoia is its own infection.
The film is split into three parts, each by a different director, and each with a distinctly different tone; the absurd comedy of the middle part is jarring if you’re not expecting it, but serves to make the horror and bleakness of the other parts even nastier.
13. The Violent Kind (2010)
Another one by the Butcher Brothers, The Violent Kind is kind of similar to The Hamiltons in many ways, but it’s actually better.
Described on the cover as “Sons Of Anarchy meets The Exorcist”, it’s actually more like Evil Dead (the first one, before the comedy gurning and one-liners took over). A biker gang heads up to an abandoned cabin in the woods for a party and soon finds that, as scary as they are, there’s something much, much scarier lying in wait for them. The practical effects are fantastic; the CGI isn’t, but you’ll forgive it because you’ll be too busy wondering what the hell just happened.
12. Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon (2006)
In a world where all the movie killers are actually real people, serial killers must train and learn their craft before stalking their first virgin babysitter. Leslie Vernon is one such wannabe, and the first two-thirds of Behind The Mask is structured as a mockumentary, as a film crew follow his progress.
Vernon’s funny, charming, and terrifying. This is a horror movie for horror fans who’ll enjoy the nods to the genre; it’s made with real affection for the out-of-fashion slasher, and the final reel, in which everything we’ve learned from the rest of the movie pays off, is lots of fun.
11. Dellamorte Dellamore (1994)
Rupert Everett starts as Francesco Dellamorte, the guardian of a cemetery in Buffalora, Italy, whose duty is to make sure that the dead stay dead. In the course of his work, he meets a beautiful young widow whose deceased husband returns to bite her and turn her into a zombie. Dellamorte is haunted by the young woman, who returns in various forms as the film gets weirder and weirder. It’s sort of beautifully nonsensical; there’s not much else out there like it.
Unfortunately, this is another one you’ll have to import; Dellamorte Dellamore was released as Cemetery Man in the US, but has never been released in the UK at all, so you’ll need to get it from either the US or, probably, Germany.
10. Hausu (1977)Hausu – or just House – is a recently rediscovered classic. A group of schoolgirls head out to the country for their summer holidays only to find that the elderly aunt they were planning to stay with is dead, and her house is definitely haunted. But we’re not talking any old ghost with a sheet over its head; nope, there are ghost cats, pianos, and lampshades.
Brazen use of green screen allows utterly weird things to happen as each of the girls falls prey to her own particular characteristics. It’s nightmarish, in the sense that everything seems to follow a weird kind of dream logic – which might have something to do with the fact that director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s seven-year-old daughter helped write the script. You’ve gotta see this one to believe it.
9. $la$herS (2001)
If you recently watched Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror episode 15 Million Merits, then you need to see $la$her$.
Made in Canada but set in Japan, $la$her$ sees game show contestants entering a maze and battling a team of homicidal maniacs, all with their own specialist skills. It’s kind of silly, but bursting with ideas, and well worth a watch. I initially wondered whether to put this on the list, because I didn’t think it was out on DVD at all, but actually there appear to be a few copies floating around on Amazon Marketplace, so you might be lucky.
8. Live! (2007)
Another dangerous game movie, and another mockumentary, Live! follows Katy, an ambitious TV exec with a killer idea for a new game show: Russian Roulette. And this won’t be a Derren Brown-style fake-out; Katy plans to have one contestant actually kill him or herself live on air. The film introduces us to each of the contestants and lets us get to know them before it’s time for the show, and it’s actually brilliantly tense. If you’re not already a little bit in love with Eva Mendes, you probably will be after you watch this.
7. Dance Of The Dead (2008)Dance Of The Dead is a fairly conventional zombie movie, but it’s head and decaying shoulders above the rest of the crop of recent zombie movies. The basic premise is that it’s prom night, and the dead are rising from their graves. Only the kids not actually at the prom (so, the geeks and other assorted losers) can save the day.
It’s not an immensely clever film and it doesn’t have a point to make, it’s just really, really fun; its main strength is that it’s very well written, with decent characterisation, so you actually care about what’s happening. That’s a rare enough thing that it’s a real pleasure to come across a horror movie that so completely gets it right.
6. The Burrowers (2008)
In the old West, a family of settlers mysteriously disappears. Suspecting that they’ve been murdered by Native Americans, a rescue party heads out, only to discover that there’s something much scarier lurking out there in the wild. You might expect a movie about cowboys, Indians, and monsters to be schlocky, but The Burrowers really isn’t. It’s a slow burner that’s way more intelligent than you’d initially expect; it’s original, atmospheric, political, and has some fantastic characterisation. And the creatures are awesome.
Despite being almost completely buried on its UK DVD release (seriously, check out the terrible UK DVD box art compared with the US one), it’s actually not difficult to come by, so there’s no excuse.
5. Pontypool (2008)Pontypool is kind of an unfortunate title; here, it doesn’t refer to the Welsh town but a similarly small town in Ontario. The film is set inside a local radio station as shock jock Grant Mazzy hosts his usual show – but something weird is going on outside. Callers report riots as people apparently go insane for no apparent reason, fixating on certain words or phrases and repeating them over and over as they attack themselves and each other.
It’s a zombie film unlike any other, with an utterly bizarre source of infection which I’d rather not spoil. Based on a virtually unreadable novel by Tony Burgess, Pontypool is a really clever, strange, and claustrophobic little movie that’s worth seeking out.
4. Babysitter Wanted (2008)
Almost every urban legend ever focuses on a babysitter; some poor hapless girl trying to make a bit of extra money looking after a kid while a lunatic lurks outside. In Babysitter Wanted, the babysitter is certainly vulnerable – she’s a new college student with an overly religious mother, a drug-addled roommate, and very few other friends – but the threat doesn’t quite come from the quarter you’d expect. Yet again, this film’s strength is its writing and characterisation. It’s also well shot and acted; it’s scary, and gory, and surprising, and everything else you could possibly want from a horror movie.
3. Splinter (2008)
The traditional movie monsters – vampires, werewolves, ghosts, zombies – are well worn now, and come packaged with their own set of clichés. So it’s awesome when someone comes up with a new monster, and really makes it work. The creature in Splinter is a kind of inexplicable beast, and on some level it doesn’t really matter what the threat is; the movie is about its characters and how they relate to one another, but it’s still refreshing to see someone trying to come up with something new.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it’s the characters that sell this movie; they’re well drawn, and somehow utterly believable even in the face of complete weirdness. Unfortunately, director Toby Wilkins went on to make the absolutely dreadful third sequel to the Grudge remake, but at least he gave us Splinter first.
2. Julia’s Eyes (2010)
As great as Guillermo del Toro’s movies can be, the films he chooses to “present” tend to be pretty dreadful in my view. But don’t let that put you off this brilliant little Spanish thriller.
The titular Julia is losing her sight due to a mysterious disease that also affected her sister – who, apparently, felt the loss of her sight so keenly that she committed suicide. Julia doesn’t believe her sister really killed herself, though, and sets out to prove that she was murdered. But with her own sight failing, it’s difficult to follow up on any of the clues. All she has to go on are obscure references, by people who knew her sister, to an invisible man; a man without a face, whom no one can quite remember. It’s a wonderfully creepy premise, cleverly shot so that we can’t see much more than Julia most of the time. It feels giallo-influenced, and resolves itself satisfyingly if not happily.
1. Pathology (2008)
Neveldine and Taylor are known for their crazy over-the-top action movies like Crank, but a couple of years ago they wrote a nasty little thriller called Pathology, and it’s bloody brilliant. Set in a medical school, it stars Milo Ventimiglia as a talented student who gets drawn into a horrifying guessing game with his fellow students.
Each of them take it in turns to try to commit the perfect murder; when the corpse arrives at the morgue, the other players try to figure out how they were killed. Cue plenty of incredibly inventive death scenes, plus plenty of sex, drug-taking, and general deviance. It’s a genuinely horrifying horror movie that will make you feel sick more than once, but you won’t be able to tear your eyes away.
It’s gruesome and fascinating and creepy and genuinely affecting, with a kind of physical impact most modern horror movies can’t manage.