Jason, Freddy, Leatherface, Michael Myers and that Scream guy are most assuredly as rotten as any homicidal maniac gets. However, if you are looking for a little something off the beaten path (which, of course, is the only proper route to take in a horror film), we suggest you visit, or re-visit, some of these forgotten classics that are too frequently overlooked.
“Gooble-gobble! Gooble-gobble! We accept you! We accept you! One of us! One of us!”
Fright helmsman, Tod Browning followed up the immortal Dracula with this twisted tale of love, betrayal and revenge in the world of circus sideshow freaks. Hans, a midget, falls in love with Cleopatra, a sexy trapeze artist, who plans to off Hans, collect her inheritance, and flee into the night with goon strongman, Hercules. By defying the circus freak code of honor, Cleopatra and Hercules invite a horrific demise at the vengeful hands of the gruesome performers. Freaks repulsed and horrified theatergoers in its initial release, mainly because Browning cast actual sideshow attractions in the title roles. MGM attempted to bury the film for years, and while Freaks is often referenced , few have actually seen the movie.
Mad Love (1935)
One of the earliest cinematic adaptations of Renard’s The Hands of Orlac, famed cameraman, Karl W. Freund’s version introduced Peter Lorre to American audiences as the obsessive and chrome-domed, Dr. Gogol. Gogol pines for the beautiful actress Yvonne, who, in turn, is hopelessly devoted to her pianist husband, Stephen Orlac. When Stephen’s hands are severed in a horrible accident, Yvonne pleads with the mad doctor to save him. Gogol attaches the hands of an executed killer to Stephen’s stump. While Stephen no longer has the ability to play piano, he has developed an amazing propensity for throwing knives and other murderous things. Although you’ve seen this premise done poorly a million times since, this stunning film gets it right.
The Pit & The Pendulum (1961)
In the early Sixties, Roger Corman and American International Pictures made a name for themselves adapting the works of Edgar Allen Poe to the Big Screen and resurrecting the sagging careers of classic horror actors to star in them. It should also be noted that these lavish period productions were shot on miniscule B-movie budgets and tight-ass schedules. While Vincent Price wasn’t necessarily sagging at this juncture, the creepster was committed to Corman to follow up 1960’s House of Usher. Price portrays Medina, the son of a Spanish Inquisition torturer, whose beautiful wife Elizabeth has mysteriously died. Convinced that Elizabeth was buried alive, Medina hears her calling out to him, eventually driving him batty.
Carnival of Souls (1962)
“Thank you for the coffee. It was unsanitary but delicious.”
Herk Harvey’s only feature film is this surprisingly creepy and stylish little low-budget shocker about a girl, a car accident, a church organ, a weird seduction and a carnival peopled by the wraiths of the town’s dead. With few special effects, the film manages to be scary through an eerie, atmospheric mood set by Harvey’s comfortable pacing and the naturalistic approach of the actors. Although it was a cult classic almost immediately (and gave actress Candace Hilligoss cult status as well), the film is rarely shown on television. To be avoided at all costs: the 1998 remake Wes Craven Presents Carnival Of Souls and the 1997 Restored Version in Super Psychorama, which is kind of super cheese-o-rama and destroys the spooky mood of the film.
Black Christmas (1973)
Also known as Silent Night, Evil Night (not to be confused with Silent Night, Deadly Night), director Bob Clark’s taut, assertive horror flick is one of the granddaddies of slasher films, released several years before Halloween and even Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Sorority sisters, Barb (Margot Kidder), Jess (Olivia Hussey), and Phyl (SCTV’s Andrea Martin) have decided to remain in their sorority house over Christmas Break. Bad call. Hiding out in the attic is a psychopathic, multi-personalitied sexual deviant named Peter (Keir Dullea), who taunts and torments the nubile young girls with murderous intent--and some rather inventive and highly Freudian methods for achieving his goals. Throw in an overbearing alcoholic housemother (Marion Waldman) and an ineffectual cop (John Saxon) and you have the ingredients of every slasher film that followed.
“He tells me that even old flesh is erotic flesh, that disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other, that even dying is an act of eroticism.”
For some reason, David Cronenberg seems to make his way into almost everything I write, which makes me think that the genre-bender’s obsession with psycho-sexual dysfunction, transformation through derangement and symbiotic co-dependency really appeals to me. Now that’s really scary. In Shivers, one of Cronenberg’s earliest, an apartment building is infested by parasitic creepy-crawlies that burrow themselves underneath the flesh of their hosts and transform the unwitting into murderous sex maniacs. Unfortunately, their orgiastic fury can only end in the death of the host--a “little death”, indeed. Gruesome and nightmarish, Shivers will give you just that.
“Bad luck isn't brought by broken mirrors, but by broken minds.”
Another incredibly creepy director, Italian Dario Argento is mythological in the genre for allegedly insisting his own knife-wielding hand commit the murders in camera’s-eye POV shots. Whatever. Argento’s highly imaginative effects and unique visual style elevate all of his films from horror flicks to surreal celebrations of the macabre. In Suspiria, a coven of witches uses a German dance academy as a front for their evil sorcery ways. Suzy Bannion, the brand new ballet pupil, stumbles upon their secret and upon the spirit of the sinister dead witch, The Black Widow. All this matters for naught. The real star of this film is Argento, who bathes the movie in hallucinatory shades of red, blue and yellow, elaborate sequences of barbed wire, still mesh, razor blades and raining maggots, and a Hi-NRG film score recorded by Argento familiars, The Goblins.
The Wicker Man (1977)
“You'll simply never understand the true nature of sacrifice.”
Edward “The Equalizer” Woodward plays Sergeant Howie, a constable anonymously summonsed to the Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a little girl. What he discovers is a bold-faced denial of the girl’s very existence and, upon further probing, a society of pagan cultists who worship nature (and God knows what else), prance about naked and follow with blind allegiance Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), a charming English noble. The practice of animal sacrifice suggests, gulp, human sacrifice and the strait-laced Howie is appropriately flummoxed. A tense, terror-filled film that continues to surprise with subtle twists, The Wicker Man may well represent both Woodward and horror veteran Lee’s finest performances.
Night Of The Living Dead’s George Romero proved that he indeed had the chops to be a prominent horror filmmaker after a sophomore slump that lasted into his junior year. Romero returned triumphant with this re-examination of the vampire mythos set in a blue-collar Pittsburgh suburb. Martin is a second-generation Eastern European convinced of a family curse that has made him a vampire. While Martin doesn’t possess powers of invisibility, shape-shifting, flight or superhuman strength, nor is he allergic to garlic, sunlight, crucifixes or Holy Water, he does like to drug girls, slash them and drink their blood. Romero’s introspective script investigates culture clashes between Old World customs and New World mores as well as the intoxicating effects of obsession and celebrity.
From Beyond (1986)
Re-Animator creators Stuart Gordon, Dennis Paoli and Brian Yuzna deliver yet another HP Lovecraft-inspired film in this rare gem of over-the-top surrealism, astounding special effects and sicko sexuality. Dr. Pretorious’ Resonator™ stimulates the vestigial sensory apparatus of the pineal gland, allowing the stimulated to see the icky monsters that live in a parallel dimension. Unfortunately, these beasts can look right back at them. One such dangerous creature devours Pretorious and sets about wreaking havoc on the world, but for the courage of assistant Crawford Tillinghast, who destroys the Resonator™ and winds up in jail for murder. When the cops return to the lab to investigate, Tillinghast reactivates the Resonator™, resonates the Pretorious monster, and gets sucked, along with the cops, into the nasty realm of the other dimension, while hyper-exciting everyone’s sexual drives and unleashing their most twisted sexual fantasies. Yummy fun!
Lair Of The White Worm (1988)
Controversial director Ken Russell blasphemes yet again with tongue firmly planted in cheek in this adaptation of Bram Stoker’s last novel. Archeology student Angus Flint discovers a bizarre skull on the grounds to the ancestral home of the Sisters Trent. Local nobleman, Lord James (Hugh Grant) and young Angus put two and two together and figure out that the skull belongs to a Wyrm, a kind of Celtic dragon. Following the trail from ancient legend to modern day cult, the two discover a sect of venom-spitting vampires that worship a ravenous, underground, albino worm. Lady Silvia Marsh, queen snake lady, uses her womanly wiles to lure victims to the White Worm, and, wouldn’t you know it, Angus and James are on the list. Campy Lair Of The White Worm manages to stay this side of Kolchak, The Nightstalker with its stylish, sexy flair.
Lady In White (1988)
A horror film that girls love, this spine-tingling ghost story is as much a gothic mystery as it is a fright fest. Lukas Haas plays Frankie Scarlatti a pre-teen boy, visited/haunted by the specters of ten children who were molested and brutally murdered in the recent past. The wraithlike image of the murderer is also revealed to Frankie, but alas, the likeness is too indistinct to make a positive idea. The ghostly apparition of the mysterious Lady In White guides Frankie to clues that when pieced together reveal that the killer is still alive, living amongst them, and more than prone to resume his homicidal activities. Beautifully told, director Frank LaLoggia delivers a bonechilling tale of revenge, murder and spooks.
The Resurrected (1991)
Dan O’Bannon, the screenwriter of Alien, one of the finest examples of gothic haunted house storytelling, directs this outstanding adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward, his second feature (Return Of The Living Dead being his first). Charles Dexter Ward discovers that his ancestor Ezra Ward possessed the key to resurrection and immortality. Sucked into a cycle of tempting death, Charles obsession can only lead to tragedy. Like all those whom have taunted death and sought immortality, the Ward legacy ends in suffering and pain. The Resurrected is truly a frightening film, gory at times, but definitely “boo” scary.
If these thirteen tales of terror are not enough to sate your taste for blood, then you should have a wooden stake driven through your blackened heart so the world may be rid of your Satanic evil.