A list by Matthew Ahlborn
When it comes to horror movies, there are many that are immediately recognizable: Alien, Friday the 13th, Halloween, Night of the Living Dead, Paranormal Activity, Rosemary’s Baby, Silence of the Lambs, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Shining, the list goes on. And while all these titles span multiple genres – monster movies, psychological thrillers, slasher flicks, supernatural mysteries – they all have one thing in common: they all scared the hell out of the people watching them.
There are also plenty of scary movies out there that don’t have the Q rating of the big boys. Some didn’t have the biggest advertising budget, so no one ever heard of them. Some had the misfortune of opening against whichever McFranchise blockbuster was on the slate. Some simply didn’t have the star power behind them to raise a lot of awareness. I’m here to address that injustice and run down my Top 10 Underrated Horror flicks, that others might join in my appreciation for them.
My rationale is simple: if it’s scary, it qualifies. They might be considered sci-fi, mystery or something else, but as I mentioned, the defining feature for this list is the element of fright. Let’s get to it.
10. House (1986, directed by Steve Miner, starring William Katt and Kay Lenz)
House one was a lot of fun! Equal parts horror, camp and drama, it’s the story of a writer who inherits a house that turns out to be haunted. Just the right amount of over-the-top gore adds to a strong story about family and regret.
9. Nightbreed (1990, directed by Clive Barker, starring Craig Sheffer and David Cronenberg)
One of Clive Barker’s lesser-known works, Nightbreed tells the story of a troubled young man who believes he might be a serial killer. On the run from the police, he finds himself involved with a tribe of monsters who might be much more than they seem. As much a psychological thriller as monster movie, it touches on themes of discrimination and “human” nature.
8. Slither (2006, directed by James Gunn, starring Nathan Fillion and Elizabeth Banks)
Before James Gunn joined the MCU he brought the world a gory, raucous rollercoaster ride called Slither. A meteor crashes near a small town, an alien parasite is unleashed upon the locals, and hilarity and gore – lots of gore – ensue. Tongue-in-cheek throughout, you will laugh as much as you cringe.
7. The Frighteners (1996, directed by Peter Jackson, starring Michael J. Fox and Trini Alvarado)
Peter Jackson hit on all cylinders with The Frighteners. For all its dated mid-‘90s CGI, the story is rock-solid and the performances are on point. While Michael J. Fox’s psychic con man (who actually is psychic) and Jeffrey Combs’ off-the-deep-end FBI occult expert bring a touch of humor, make no mistake, this is a horror movie and there is some terrifying stuff going on, namely Jake Busey as a spree killer with goal to reach.
6. Devil (2010, directed by John Erick Dowdle, starring Chris Messina and Logan Marshall-Green)
Quite possibly the most compact, taut horror film ever produced. Written by none other than M. Night Shyamalan, Devil is the tale of 5 people trapped in a stuck elevator, one of whom is the devil incarnate. A deep, rich story that is equal parts horror, mystery, thriller and drama, it is brought to life by spectacular performances and incredible direction and editing. The ending is not so much a twist as a genuine surprise: the legitimate uncovering of long-held secrets.
5. Phantasm (1979), directed by Don Coscarelli, starring Michael Baldwin and Angus Scrimm)
Sure, everyone has heard about Phantasm (and its many direct-to-video sequels), but if you can get past the late-‘70s schlocky visuals and lukewarm story, there is a lot going on in the way of concept. Part of what made Phantasm so scary was its originality. No one really knew what to make of a story about a kid who finds out the local undertaker is a supernatural alien turning the deceased into zombified slave dwarves, who uses levitating bladed chrome spheres as weapons. I’ll tell you, for all its low-budget limitations, it is absolutely terrifying.
4. Mimic (1997, directed by Guillermo del Toro, starring Jeremy Northam and Mira Sorvino)
A good, old-fashioned monster movie! Imagine, if you will, genetically modified insects designed to eradicate disease-carrying cockroaches. Then imagine if those insects evolved into creatures that grow to the size of humans with the ability to appear like – mimic – their prey. That prey, of course, is humans, and it’s up to the scientists who created them to stop them. With suspense ratcheted up to fever pitch levels and no shyness about which characters meet their demise, Mimic is one of del Toro’s best works.
3. Fade to Black (1980, directed by Vernon Zimmerman, starring Dennis Christopher and Tim Thomerson)
One of my all-time favorites, Fade to Black is the story of Eric Binford, a put-upon movie fanatic who dreams of being more than just a delivery guy for a film warehouse. He is an aspiring screenwriter who is bullied, harassed and dismissed by everyone in his life, and when he finally reaches his breaking point he adopts the personae of his favorite classic movie characters to carry out his revenge. Featuring early appearances by future stars Mickey Rourke and Peter Horton, Eric’s story is as tragic as it is terrifying.
2. Jeepers Creepers (2001, directed by Victor Salva, starring Justin Long and Gina Phillips)
Another good, old-fashioned monster movie, but this time the monster is really something else. A brother and sister are driving cross-country on back roads when they cross paths with a creepy truck driven by someone with serious road rage issues. Shortly thereafter, they find themselves stalked by someone or something that can’t be stopped. Urban legends, creepy phone calls, sewer field trips and crazy cat ladies all add to the tension and fear generated by one of the most original movie monsters of all time.
1. Frailty (2011, directed by Bill Paxton, starring Matthew McConaughey and Bill Paxton)
Hands down, the single greatest directorial debut ever filmed. Bill Paxton started out with his magnum opus with this tale of an FBI agent taking a statement from a man who claims to be the brother of a notorious serial killer. As the two men drive through the night to where the man claims his brother can be found, the man tells the tale of how his brother inherited the mantle from their father, who was a serial killer before him. Told via flashbacks through the eyes of a boy who witnessed unspeakable horrors at the hands of his loving father, the story unfolds like a flower coming to full, terrifying bloom. The story coming full-circle is a gut-punch, the culmination of expert foreshadowing and misdirection.