Halloween is upon us and brings the holy trilogy of: trick or treaters, costumes and candy. And, of course, inevitable lists of horror films you should watch for your Halloween scares.
Now, I love said lists but the problem with them is that you tend to see the usual suspects. Take your pick of a franchise film - Nightmare on Elm Street, Child’s Play, Paranormal Activity, Scream, Friday the 13th, Saw, Halloween, Hellraiser, [Insert Random Name] of the Dead, etc., etc. Throw in obligatory mention of The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Shining, add another Stephen King adaption for good measure, class it up with a vintage black and white or three like: Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dracula, Frankenstein and toss in whatever is currently hip and popular with the cool kids, such as -- It Follows and Babadook.
Viola! Instant “Best Halloween Movies to Watch This Year” list!
Fair enough. But -- also -- Oh. So. Boring.
Let’s use some imagination here. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of movies in the aforementioned list that I adore. But there are a lot of great horror movies that have slipped under the radar. If you are a true horror film aficionado there probably won't be anything here you've not heard of. But for most movie folk this should be a nice list of under appreciated horror films you may dig. Also, I'm not really a fan of horror comedy so none of them made my list.
The trailers were meticulously screened to avoid spoilers. No, seriously. I watched multiple trailers for all of these movies and selected ones that were cool but vague and non spoilerific!
Some of my favorite underappreciated or forgotten horror films -- presented alphabetically:
Coherence (2013): More of a dark psychological sci-fi thriller than traditional horror film. Coherence naturally evolves from a dinner party set piece into a mind twisting nightmare. Director James Ward Byrkit shot the extremely low budget movie without a script. Instead he worked from a detailed 12 page plot synopsis and each day passed notecards to the eight actors, outlining goals they had to accomplish with all improvised dialog. It’s one known star, Nicholas Brendon (Xander of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame) had this to say, “...every day we had five different things we had to convey … since there was no script, I had no idea how it ended … to be quite honest, I never really knew what was going on fully until I saw the movie done. When I saw the movie, I’m like, ‘Oh, Shit, this is awesome!’” Coherence official trailer.
A Horrible Way to Die (2010): An indie darling the toured the festival circuit but never really got a wide release. A Horrible Way to Die follows lead Sarah, played to perfection in a truly mesmerizing performance by Amy Seimetz. Sarah is in full recovery mode from … something. Something recent and very traumatic. The story shifts back and forth from her past to her present as we slowly begin to understand her horrific history. And then a friend of Sarah’s goes missing, in the present, and she realizes her past may have caught up with her. A Horrible Way to Die official trailer.
House of the Devil (2009): Writer / Director Ti West’s loving recreation of 80’s horror films. Shot on 16mm film to preserve the retro look of 80’s horror and even co-starring horror film legend Dee Wallace and eighties great "go to" character actor, Tom Noonan. The story follows college student Samantha Hughes as she desperately searches for a way to make some extra dough to pay the deposit on a brand new kick ass apartment. Sam decides to answer a babysitting ad. A very strange, babysitting ad. House of the Devil official trailer.
The Loved Ones (2009): Robin McLeavy plays Princess Lola -- the greatest psycho woman to grace the silver screen since Angela Bettis was May Dove Canady in Lucky McKee’s May (later on the list). The Loved Ones finds surprising laughs and disturbing shocks in equal measure. Traditional “torture porn” movies offer visceral but generally artless visuals of cold blooded torture, usually in the form of misogynistic violence against women. Writer / Director Sean Byrne knows the worn tropes well, avoids the usual pratfalls and delivers a gender reversed twisted masterpiece. The Loved Ones official trailer.
Kill List (2011): Another movie on the list that is more dark psychological thriller than traditional horror. Two former British soldiers become hitmen. Gal is laid back and uncynical, Jay is still traumatized from an unspecified mission disaster during his soldiering days. Their newest contract spins their lives wildly out of control and leads to some very unexpected, very disturbing places. Kill List is a slow burn of a film and requires viewing patience, not least because the thick accents are, for a time, difficult to understand. Kill List official trailer.
Martyrs (2008): Oh, dear God. This movie is not for the faint of heart. You have been warned. Martyrs is the story of Lucie Jurin. As a young girl Lucie escapes from a slaughterhouse where she has been imprisoned and tortured for years. The perpetrators go uncaught and their motives remain a mystery. Lucie spends more than a decade in an orphanage and, while she has recovered physically, she is still plagued by nightmares and suffers debilitating visions of a ghoulish emaciated woman hunting her. Lucie leaves the orphanage and tracks down the family that captured & tortured her and begins to extract unbelievably violent, bloody revenge. But -- she might be in the wrong house. The family Lucie is brutalizing might be completely innocent. Martyrs, along with High Tension, Frontiers and Inside are widely regarded as the godfathers of the New French Extremity film movement. A movement that refers thematically and stylistically to a wide range of French filmmakers that tackle taboo subjects and was once described by film writer Matt Smith as, “[a] crossover between sexual decadence, bestial violence and troubling psychosis." As you can imagine, most of the films within the New French Extremity movement are -- well, not worth viewing. But Martyrs is. It is the only great “torture porn” movie I would ever recommend -- with reservations that it will still not be for most folks. I believe I’ve given you enough information to know if this film is for your particular taste, or not. (Make sure to watch the original 2008 French w/ English Subtitles version and NOT the American Remake). Martyrs official trailer.
May (2002): Delightfully awkward, devilishly lonely May Dove Canady suffered from a rough childhood due to endless bullying because of her lazy eye. Her only friend -- a glass-encased doll named Suzie. But then May meets a boy. A real boy. Angela Bettis knocks it out of the park with her quirky awkward performance. May is Lucky McKee’s only good film. Seriously. If you see the name Lucky McKee attached to any other film not called May, immediately throw it in the garbage. May official trailer.
Pontypool (2008): The greatest zombie apocalypse film (that might not actually be a zombie apocalypse film) you have never seen. Shock jock Grant Mazzy and his producer Sydney Briar are front and center in their small town radio room when the world outside goes --- crazy. Both Stephen McHattie (Grant) and Lisa Houle (Sydney) are superb in the lead roles. Based on the Tony Burgess novel Pontypool Changes Everything and inspired by Orson Welles' infamous radio broadcast of The War of the World's. Pontypool official trailer.
[REC] (2007): Probably the best known film on the list. [REC] is a found footage-esq masterpiece about a TV reporter and her cameraman following emergency workers into an apartment building and are quickly locked inside with -- something. Cleverly hiring real life TV personality Manuela Velasco to portray a fictional version of herself and using only cameras that would be available to a TV news show to shoot the movie create a uniquely realistic atmosphere. [REC] spawns a few unsatisfying sequels and there is even a decent American remake called Quarantine but the original version in Spanish is really the big boy on the block. [REC] official trailer.
Triangle (2009): What begins as a very seemingly well acted but mundane ghost ship story quickly evolves into a mind bending, bloody journey of loss, regret and choices. Triangle is a movie that gets better and better with repeat viewings. This film, The Loved Ones and Pontypool are my three go to films when I am asked for a horror film recommendation. I was unable to find a trailer that didn’t spoil some of the film’s surprises so I didn’t attach one. Look it up if you want but Triangle is best viewed with a clean slate.
Who Can Kill a Child? (1976): Tom and Evelyn, two English tourists, arrive on a city island during the last leg of their vacation before Evelyn gives birth to their third child. But -- they can’t seem to find any adults. And the silent grim faced children that run in packs all over the town cast suspicious glances their direction but refuse to speak with them. A Children of the Corn esq narrative that actually came out years before King’s story (which first appeared in print form in Penthouse in the late 70’s). Based on the Juan Jose Plans novel The children’s game, who adapted the screenplay under a pen name. This movie was widely unavailable for decades but finally came out on DVD in 2007. There is no Blu Ray edition. Who Can Kill a Child? official trailer.
Back when I sat on the edge of my theater seat with clenched fists for almost two hours during Life, I tweeted immediately after that the film was the Alien of a new generation. I Tweeted that because like the original Alien film, the beauty of Life is that you don’t see much of the alien. It’s thrilling because the alien is growing quickly, and you don’t know what to expect the next time you see it. Neither do the characters, which better allows their fear to infect you.
GCN’s resident movie critic, Charles Karel Bouley, called Life an Alien “ripoff,” and I agree wholeheartedly. But I appreciate that the makers of Life utilized the successes of Alien and those suspenseful thrillers before it. But what I appreciate most about Life is that it’s at least a partially original story, with motivated plot and character arcs and an original, twisted ending that utilizes parallel editing pretty well. Life is an Alien movie with a new alien, just as Alien was Jaws with a new shark, and Jaws the Psycho with a new psycho.
It’s just too bad Alien: Covenant did its best to ruin Life’s opening weekend and gross earnings. Life has made just under $80 million worldwide, while Covenant moved up its release date, forcing Life into a crowded month and weekend. Logan and Get Out were both R-rated films still pulling strong numbers, and that’s two too many. Covenant did $4.2 million in Thursday night preview screenings at about 3,000 locations. As of this writing, Life is currently rated five points lower than Covenant on the Tomatometer and audience score.
So there’s another Alien movie. That’s six if you don’t count Alien vs. Predator. But you can tell Covenant is not a true Alien movie by simply comparing the trailers. Remember the Alien trailer? Well, I guess I don’t either. It was before my time, but I do remember watching effective trailers in film school, including that of Alien. It’s an effective trailer because the alien is never revealed. They start with the suspense right out of the gate and leave you wanting -- no -- needing to go to the theater to see that damn alien!
Covenant attempts to build suspense with its trailer but throws it all down the drain with the last shot. Sure they wait until the very end of the trailer to reveal the alien, but I’d argue they never needed that final shot of the alien. Almost everyone knows what the alien looks like by now, but the revelation used to be reserved for those who paid for a movie ticket. Now Hollywood just puts the revelation on the poster like a brand, but the art of making a great trailer has gone by the wayside as well.
Karel said Covenant doesn’t offer us anything new regarding suspense, “but it goes back to the same cinematography, the same type score, the same lighting that the original did oh so many years ago. BUT that had things we had not seen before.”
So Life can’t be an Alien ripoff with a mostly original story, villain and ending, and things we haven’t seen, but we can remake the same damn movie over and over as long as it shares part of the name of the original film? I might be in the minority, but I’d rather see someone attempt a film that’s even partially original than see the same film with the same shots and same music I saw 20 years ago with better computer graphics. Speaking of exactly the same...
The trailer for Life is almost an exact replica of the Alien trailer and is equally suspenseful. You never see the alien in its grown form -- only the faces of its victims -- which is plenty. The trailer doesn’t give too much away, and neither does the poster. The last time I was that excited to see a film (besides 2017’s Get Out for obvious reasons) was Dark Knight Rises five years earlier (and that’s because I’m a Batman freak). I just had to see that alien! And I am in no way comparing Life to either Get Out or Dark Knight Rises. I’m merely commenting that the feeling of excitement I had going into the film was piqued thanks to the trailer and movie poster. I was sold, and the people responsible for creating those marketing materials should get mad props.
As a fan of film and not necessarily of the Alien franchise, I appreciated what Ridley Scott did with the Alien prequel, Prometheus. He made it like the first Alien movie. The Xenomorph in Alien had just four minutes of screen time and didn’t appear until an hour into the film. That’s how you build suspense. The only horror or thriller villain to win an Academy Award spent 20 minutes onscreen. That’s all the role required thanks to Anthony Hopkins.
The Prometheus trailer never reveals the alien and neither does the poster. If you had never seen an Alien film you could have gone to the theater not even realizing you were going to see an Alien film. Then, after the most gruesome, on-screen c-section ever, that newborn alien just sits in that locked room. You almost forget about it while waiting for the big payoff -- the fight with the “engineer.” And when those doors open, the alien does not disappoint. It’s suspenseful more than it’s scary, and suspense is better.
But moviegoers have made things easier on filmmakers these days by turning out in droves for horror flicks and action movies that aren’t nearly as dedicated to cinematic and thematic quality as thrillers and dramas. I mean, a handheld-shot, horror movie made nearly $250 million. And while Covenant looks to be on its way to good payday, it’s also surrounded with the likes of a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, a third animated movie about talking Cars, a sequel to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and a remake of The Mummy with Tom Cruise (which I find to be incredibly disturbing).
My point is the standards of moviegoers have fallen tremendously, likely due to the lack of originality and variety available at movie theaters these days. Hollywood is getting away with it and will continue to do so until people stop paying exorbitant amounts of money to see bad films.
“Ridley knows how to terrorize us...but when Scott discovers that we can be terrorized again with less, instead of more, and when the writers can innovate instead of capitalize, the next great horror film will be made,” Karel said.
I would venture to say horror isn’t a genre that lends itself to originality, and if writers want to innovate, they wouldn’t write horror or action. They’d write suspenseful thrillers, which require new monsters and new stories like Life has given us. I so hope there's a sequel called After Life and a sequel to the sequel called Life After Life. Given the ending of Life, I'd say the future of the franchise is brighter than the box office numbers indicate.
I have no problem with the Alien franchise continuing. It’s a fantastic story and now a fantastic pre-story. But if you’re going to make an Alien movie, make an Alien movie -- trailer, poster and all. Leave some wiggle room for the imagination to fantasize prior to throwing the alien in our face. That’s what made Alien so great, and while Life and Prometheus are contrived by design, at least they stayed true to the inspiration. If Alien: Covenant stays true to its inspiration, it’ll be contrived from the sci-fi, action movie Aliens, which, by design, means it can’t be as cinematically or thematically entertaining as Life or any of its predecessors.
Editor’s Note: An update will follow with my review of Alien: Covenant.
Editor's Note: I finally watched Alien: Covenant, and since it's been almost four months since this was originally published, you are right to assume that I didn't see it in a theater. I'm glad I didn't, because the latest Alien movie isn't even worth renting. While I'll appreciate the franchise continuing tradition and making a woman the film's strongest character, that's about the only thing I like about it besides Daniel McBride's performance. Michael Fassbender returns as David and also plays Walter -- an updated version of David. But Walter is duller, too, and for good reason. The humans don't want him to create anything for fear of what he's capable. This doesn't allow Fassbender to carry the screen like he did with David in Prometheus, but the film does do a good job illustrating the potential hazards of artificial intelligence, leaving you wondering for how long you'll be atop the food chain -- and not because of the aliens.
The plot is oh so predictable from beginning to end. Upon introductions of the Covenant crew, I knew exactly who would live and who would die. But even their deaths weren't especially entertaining or creative, with one crew member slipping on blood and injuring her leg to make things easy for the newborn alien. The biggest problem I had with the film was how almost everyone panics (and unrealistically at that) the moment something goes wrong. It might be just a colonizing mission, but they're in outer freaking space. If this crew had any training whatsoever, most didn't show it. And whether or not you're aware aliens exist, you must assume aliens exist, and have a plan in case you make contact. Apparently, NASA doesn't have a protocol for dealing with aliens, either, but that's because they're not even close to getting far enough from Earth to find any. Covenant, however, is en route to a planet that could sustain human life, and therefore other life, and the crew awakes seven years from their destination. I'm sorry, but anyone who boards a spaceship and falls asleep for a decade while roaming outer space and awakes with the assumption they're still the only intelligent life in the vicinity is either incredibly vain or incredibly stupid, or both. Alien: Covenant is equally as stupid. The entire film exists because Prometheus was so good and revived the franchise. They certainly didn't need Ridley Scott to make and sell this garbage. Prometheus did that. Life, however, is a fresh take on the alien story and far more entertaining than Covenant. It might not be as introspective and thought-provoking, but Life is more suspenseful, offers believable performances, and has a much better ending because I didn't see it coming when the movie started. The only thing I was wrong about is Covenant wasn't as scary as Life.