A Halloween spent in lockdown is the perfect time to feast upon the quintessential horror classics that we all love to fear. Whether it’s the head spinning experience of re-watching The Exorcist or binge watching the good, the bad, and the very ugliest of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, we all know how to tell a safe bet from a dodgy Netflix choice just as well as we can tell a good piece of chocolate from an unwanted apple in a trick or treat bag.
But what about the films that have slipped through the cracks? There are many reasons why certain horror films haven’t received the attention they deserve. A lack of advertising, coming out at the wrong time of the year, or maybe because for lots of cinema goers one or two scary films a year is more than enough. For the films on this list however, the reason why you’ve probably never seen them has nothing to do with their quality. These are some of the lesser known but better placed fright fests to satiate your Halloween sweet tooth on this spooky stay at home weekend. This list is not to be confused with an “underrated horror films” selection. That’s an interesting but separate discussion. The films on this list were generally well received critically, but they unfortunately just never seemed to get the reach that they deserved. So sit back, relax, and prepare to be bombarded with a universe of existential horror you probably haven’t yet heard about.
1) The Wailing (2016)
Na Hong-Jin’s creepy success story of 2016 is deeply unsettling from the get go. A policeman investigates mysterious deaths and an apparent disease outbreak in a rural village, with suspicious events linking into his daughter’s increasingly disturbing behaviour. It’s gritty, supernatural, and compelling viewing. If jump scares are your thing, The Wailing probably isn’t. It’s a slow burner that really takes its time through a mammoth 156 minute run, but it killed it at Cannes and will have you wailing with fear too.
2) VHS (2012)
If there’s a self-indulgent choice on this list, VHS is it. I can’t run away from my inexplicable affection for found footage horror, and can personally never get past how some people don’t get the brilliant simplicity of its notable success stories like The Blair Witch Project. In an era when found footage horror has been quite literally done to death, VHS tries to stand out by bringing a little more originality into this saturated sub-genre. It’s an anthology of short films brought together by a plot device where a group of carefree criminals are filming their break ins, and are paid to extract a set of video tapes from a mysterious house. They put in the tapes, we see the footage. It’s not for everyone, and it’s spawned some awful sequels. But from where I’m sitting at least, the first film works.
3) Exorcist 3 (1990)
This is probably a generationally inspired pick. I just don’t think that many people born in the 90s know that there are good sequels to the Exorcist. If they know about Exorcist 2: The Heretic, then may god help them (pun intended). William Friedkin, director of the first iconic Exorcist film, has told a hilarious story about the preview screening of the ill-fated sequel, including how an audience member literally stood up, turned around to point to the back of the screen where the producers were sat, and shouted “the people that made this piece of shit, are in this room!” Exorcist 3 is a different story altogether. It has some creepy and deeply unsettling original scares, rightly pretending as if the events in Exorcist 2 had never happened while including some smart continuity from the original entry. It’s a devilish blast.
4) The Descent (2005)
An all-female cast here, including Galway’s own Nora-Jane Noone. Recovering from a devastating personal loss, protagonist Sarah joins her friends for a weekend of daring cave exploration in the Appalachian mountains. Still suffering from deep psychological scars and carrying raw wounds, Sarah and her friends literally descend into a nightmare when they enter the claustrophobic and pitch black belly of the caves. It’s unrelenting, and you need to be in a certain mental place to be able to get through it. So if you’re up for it, sit down and descend into the nightmare that Neil Marshall’s survival screamer conjures up.
5) Under the Shadow (2016)
The second non-English language entry easily earns its place. Set in the politically tumultuous environment of 1980s Tehran, a mother and her quiet young daughter are engulfed by a mysterious and evil presence. All of this is set up with a background whereby main character Shideh is banned from resuming her studies in medical school on account of her connection with Leftist groups. Remaining in the city which is constantly simmering with the legacy of an explosive war between Iran and Iraq, the eerie surroundings and growing malevolent presence in the house feed off of each other in a way that is sure to please even the most reluctant viewers of subtitled films.
6) Creep (2014)
The second found footage selection on this list, Creep is an exploration of how easy it can be for people in desperate circumstances to put themselves in dangerous environments in hope of getting back on the right professional track. It’s also just a bit of fun, and wisely chooses to take itself with a grain of salt when needed. Aaron is a videographer who finds it hard to come across work, but finally gets an invitation to travel to a new client’s cabin. Josef, this unsettling new client, tells Aaron that he is terminally ill and wants to record a diary for his unborn child. It gets messed up from there, and Mark Duplass seems to be having a lot of fun in what must have been a fun role to be immersed in.
7) Goodnight Mommy (2014)
Goodnight Mommy is the kind of film that everyone sees the trailer to and is intrigued by, but only a fraction of those actually seek out the final product. Set in an Austrian lakeside house, two young twin boys await the arrival of their mother back home. We don’t get to see the mother’s face, as she is covered in bandages after a rough set of cosmetic surgeries. What we do get to see is the increasingly disturbing behaviour she exhibits, and the creepy interplay fuelled by a growing mutual suspicion between the boys and their mother. Something’s not right, and you being to wonder if it’s the mother, the twin boys, or even you yourself that isn’t seeing things quite as they are.
8) The Borderlands (2013)
Another found footage piece that went under the radar but is available on Amazon Prime, The Borderlands documents three religious men who have been sent by the Vatican to look into suspected supernatural (or miracle) activity in a 13th century church in rural Devon. Meeting a welcoming but clearly disturbed and paranoid priest who firmly believes in the miracle having taken place, the three men all express varying degrees of scepticism. As the evidence of strange occurrences becomes insurmountable, the events are set up to deliver one of the most disturbing finales that found footage horror has ever captured.
9) Backcountry (2014)
While Backcountry is possibly the most liberal use of “horror” that animates this list, it has a scene wherein the scale of shock and horror easily beats anything else that other entries offer up. This scene is why it makes the list, as well as its much needed comic relief in the form of a bizarre and inexplicable attempt of a Tipperary accent from a supporting actor. Partially inspired by true events, a 30 year old couple go for a weekend of hiking in the mountains in Canada. After meeting a park ranger who advises them to take a map, the arrogant and naïve boyfriend refuses, claiming he knows the woods like the back of his hands. He laughs at his girlfriend’s decision to bring bear spray, telling her the biggest thing they could hope to see is a squirrel. He’s wrong.
10) Raw (2016)
It got a limited release in art house cinemas including the Light House in Dublin at the time, but Julia Ducournau’s Raw truly never got the attention that its majestic and harrowing execution deserved. A French-Belgian co-production, we follow a freshman vegetarian Justine who joins her older sister in college to study Veterinary medicine. As part of a blood soaked hazing ritual, Justine is pressured into eating a raw rabbit kidney. Initially suffering a convincingly painful rash as a reaction to this, the innocent student ultimately begins to develop a taste for meat. Justine quickly graduates from stealing a burger patty to eating raw chicken straight out of the fridge. If only her lust for meat ended there. If only. As her insatiable desire for flesh grows, we begin to see why her mother had always been so supportive of Justine’s vegetarian lifestyle, and the consequences of deviating from it. Raw is a perfect example Cronenberg flavoured body horror done well, but it’s much more than that. The cinematography, the brilliant use of foreshadowing, and the film’s ability to not always take itself too seriously makes this arguably the strongest entry on this list. You can rent it for under four quid on YouTube, and if there’s only one of these that you choose from this menu, eat it Raw.