It’s here, ladies and gentlemen: The Halloween season is upon us! The spookiest season of all, a time where you’re pretty much contractually obligated to watch as many horror movies as you reasonably can. And, since horror is pretty much my bread-and-butter at this point, there is no time of year where I feel more in my natural habitat. Sure, everyone watches the staples, myself included: The Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice, Halloween, you all know the drill by now. Those are all absolutely fantastic choices, of course. They’re classics for a reason. But what about some lesser-known films? Equally great as all of those Halloween mainstays, just maybe a bit less mainstream? As a horror fanatic and borderline obsessive, I thought I’d recommend some fantastic, perhaps less popular modern films that are perfect additions to your seasonal watchlists this year. So in no particular order, here’s ten of my favorites:
Trick ‘r Treat
I am a HUGE sucker for anthology films, especially when it comes to horror. I find that with horror in particular, stories tend to pack way more entertainment value in smaller doses, where they aren’t bogged down by all the trappings of a feature-length narrative. Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat is my absolute favorite Halloween film of all time for this exact reason. The movie tells several self-contained, but interwoven stories set on Halloween night, celebrating the spirit of the holiday itself. Each vignette is super charming and atmospheric, with equal parts humor and macabre, and all interplay and cross paths with one another in just about the most organic way I’ve ever seen in an anthology. And, like all good horror shorts, they all have unpredictable and deliciously satisfying twists that make them all seem incredibly fresh, despite their initial, clichéd appearances. The highlight is the film’s mascot of sorts, Sam, who’s an adorably creepy manifestation of Halloween’s original, more pagan origins, and pops up from time to time whenever someone gets their comeuppance. I promise you, it’s a fantastic little film, one that is certain to get you in the mood for pumpkins and costumes more than any other on this list.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
The Slasher is probably the most tired and over-milked subgenre in horror. Pretty much every possible variation and permutation of its relatively basic premise has been done to death by now. Which is why, as Behind the Mask demonstrates, it’s the perfect candidate for satire and metatextual deconstruction. The film follows a documentary film crew as they explore the life of Leslie Vernon, a man who has ambitions of being the world’s next iconic serial killer, in the vein of such legends as Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger (who are real people in this universe). Vernon attempts to explain to the crew, in an incredibly charismatic and charming manner, how these famous killers operate, and all of the trade tricks and secrets that go into cultivating the identity of an urban legend. Think one part Man Bites Dog, with undertones of Cabin in the Woods’s self-awareness and snark. I think the thing that I like the most about this fil is that it manages to play with the tropes of the genre, in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion, without obliquely mocking them. It proves that you can poke fun at a subject while still honoring and respecting it on the whole. Behind the Mask is probably the smartest Slasher since Wes Craven’s original Scream, and frankly, deserves just as much attention.
V/H/S & V/H/S 2
Once again, I have a huge weakness for anthologies. Whereas Trick ‘r Treat focuses on a central theme, that being the spirit of Halloween itself, the first two V/H/S films are instead meant to showcase a wide range of subjects and styles, all while being very loosely connected by a spinal, relatively inconsequential frame narrative. Each film is composed of four or five individual found-footage-style horror shorts, all done by different creative teams, which are meant to all exist in the same shared universe through a series of mysterious VHS tapes found by each film’s respective frame narrative characters. The quality of the shorts vary, but they all represent drastically unique tones and approaches to some classic and some very unique genre subject matter. The experience is disjointed and inconsistent at times, but they each have some solid scares, and are worth it simply for the way that they exhibit so many different talents in the industry, some of whom (like Adam Wingard) have become major players in subsequent years. Just, whatever you do, avoid the third film, Viral. It’s a major drop in quality, and I found virtually nothing to like about any of the individual stories inside.
I know a lot of people are tired of the whole “found footage” gimmick in horror movies nowadays, which is a totally understandable sentiment. Ever since The Blair Witch Project popularized the approach, every two-bit indie horror director has decided to take a crack at it, to varying degrees of success. But I promise you, REC is, hands-down, the most effective user of this particular shooting style in recent years. A Spanish-language film, REC follows a news crew as they’re stationed overnight doing a puff-piece on a local fire station. What starts off as a relatively uneventful night is immediately thrown into chaos when the crew tags along on a visit to an apartment complex where strange, violent occurrences are reported to be happening in the upper levels. What follows is a harrowing, claustrophobic thrill-ride inside the multi-story building, as the firefighters and the news crew find themselves quarantined inside, trapped with whatever horrific affliction has begun to affect the complex’s residents. The third act of this movie is one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had with a film, keeping my heart pounding and my hands poised to cover my eyes for the entire duration. If you’re looking for genuine scares, this is the film for you. Stay away, though, from Quarantine, the American remake. It’s basically the same film, just heavily watered-down, and not nearly as visceral.
I absolutely adore horror films that implore some sort of sensory gimmick to their premise. Whether it’s Stephen Lang’s creepy blind villain in Don’t Breath or the sound-hunting aliens from A Quiet Place, I find it incredibly compelling when characters are forced to either stifle or solely rely on one of their senses to survive. Mike Flanagan’s fantastic Hush takes this concept to a new, yet incredibly intuitive place with its plot, following a deaf author as she attempts to survive the night while being assailed by a relentless and sadistic masked intruder. The film makes excellent use of its auditory premise, creatively implementing its character’s disability as a tool to build suspense for both her and the audience. It’s a highly intelligent script, not simply satisfied with banking on its gimmick alone. Rather, it implores a determined, resourceful protagonist in a journey that’s equally compelling as a bizarre sort of underdog story as it a horror movie. Of all the film’s on this list, this is the one that will most have you rooting for its victim until the very end.
Most horror is primarily focused on dishing out pain to its characters. Very rarely does it give the chance for them to really dole out some of their own. Adam Wingard, making his second appearance on this list, does just that in his ultra-cathartic and violently-satisfying You’re Next. The film follows a young women attending an anniversary getaway with her in-laws as she unexpectedly finds herself and her family under assault by masked maniacs operating with tactical precision. While the premise may at first seem familiar, it’s quickly turned on its head when it’s revealed that our protagonist is not quite as helpless as she appears. This is a home invasion film in reverse, where, rather than following a victim as they’re hunted by dangerous intruders, we instead see said intruders being hunted by their supposed-victim instead. Where Hush has you on the edge of your seat, holding your breath to see if its hero makes it out alive, You’re Next instead has the energy of a Rambo film, making you almost fear more for the assailants instead. All of this ultimately culminates into a smart, unpredictable finale that gives this film plenty of substance to back up its spectacle.
Less of a straight horror movie and more of a psychological thriller, The Invitation is not only a fascinating study of trauma and grief, it’s also one of the most unpredictable and tense film’s on this list. The film sees a deeply troubled man, haunted by his past, attend a get-together at his ex-wife’s home, along with his new girlfriend. There, he reunites with his old friends, as well as confronts the tragic relationship which he fled sometime prior. Over the course of the evening, he begins to suspect his ex may have had ulterior motives in inviting him to their old home, and his fragile psyche begins to unravel bit by bit. The driving force of suspense in The Invitation hinges on the audience’s uncertainty about its protagonist’s mental state, as his own distrust of himself. Is he being paranoid? Or is something sinister really happening? I won’t spoil the answer to that question, but I assure you, it will grip you and keep you guessing until the credits roll.
Probably the most grounded film on this list, The Sacrament is also one of the most unnerving and hard to watch. Not because it’s particularly scary or violent, but because of how familiar and realistic the premise is. Presented under the guise of a Vice documentary, the film follows a documentary crew as they investigate a growing cult-like commune, which has set itself up as a haven for the lost and the broken, under the leadership of a charismatic and seemingly well-meaning religious zealot. The film takes obvious inspiration from the notorious Jonestown Massacre of the late 1970s, showing in sickeningly-authentic detail what would happen in a similar event in the modern day. Again, the scariest thing about this film is the fact that none of its villains are overtly mythical. They are all modeled after very real flesh-and-blood human beings, not exaggerated archetypes. People, groups like this exist in the real world, and have very much the same influence as those depicted in the film, which make this likely the most gut-wrenching and poignant installment on this list.
While Trick r’ Treat has some great comedic moments, Housebound is the only film on this list that I would consider to actually be a comedy. Hailing from New Zealand, which has seen a rise in main stream quirky comedies thanks to the likes of Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, Housebound takes the very basic concept of a girl stuck in a house where supernatural occurrences may be happening, and adds its own peculiar, often hilarious twists. It’s less straight-forward a comedy as something like What We Do in the Shadows, instead finding its humor more in the increasingly ridiculous escalation of the supposedly occult events happening in this particular home. On top of its delightful tone is a surprisingly complex plot, which doesn’t quite reveal all of its secrets until the very end, and at times makes some fairly out-of-left-field turns. Make no mistake, Housebound is not nearly as simple as it appears to be, and it’s all the better for it.
Hell House, LLC
Another found-footage flick, Hell House LLC really doesn’t have anything super original or inventive up its sleeve. But honestly, that’s okay. It’s a classic haunted-house movie, filtered through the lens of an amateur documentary film crew as they attempt to convert an old, allegedly cursed home into a Halloween attraction. It’s about as by-the-numbers as it gets, but there’s just something oddly charming and sincere about the whole thing that just brings a fresh layer of realism to the whole affair. The characters seem genuine and authentic, and the scares are well-paced and effective. By the end, I found myself oddly gripped by the experience, and almost began to buy into the notion that perhaps what I was watching was, in fact, a true story. Again, the handheld camera gimmick may bother some, but I think it really works hear, bringing an air of intimacy and strange voyeurism to the account of these strangers’ ultimately fateful venture. It’s a solid, no-nonsense, old-school story about some dumb teenagers and a house full of demons. You get what you pay for here, and it delivers exactly that.