This Halloween, Watch These Alternative Horror Picks
Like a lot of people, when October rolls around I’m always looking for new-to-me movies to watch – hell, once September is here I’m pretty much in full-on Halloween pre-game mode when it comes to my movie watching habits. So, its in the spirit of the season that I thought it’d be appropriate to whip up some recommendations for alternative horror picks that you may wish to slide into your rotation with the regular year-after-year classics we all know and love.
Some of these certainly couldn’t be described as obscure, but they’re all underestimated in some way – or maybe just not on the tips of everyone’s tongues these days. Hopefully you are willing to check some out and maybe, just maybe, you’ll find a new favourite!
The Rage: Carrie 2 (1999)
When Katt Shea’s The Rage: Carrie 2 was released, it seemed to fit snugly within the late-’90s glut of post-scream slashers almost too well. With its hip and stylish trailer, the reviews that followed-suit dismissed the picture as just another in a long line of dead-teenager movies–even worse that it had the gall to hitch its name to a bonafide genre classic. It’s unfortunate that they couldn’t see The Rage: Carrie 2 for what it actually was upon release: a whip-smart follow-up that utilizes enough of the original Carrie’s structure to ground the movie in familiar territory, all the while flipping key elements of the plot for a decidedly timely (still!) take.
Where the original film focused quite a bit on how crushingly mean the female characters could be to one-another, the threat here in the ‘90s version of the story is explicitly male. And not only that, but The Rage: Carrie 2 takes things further by expanding its scope to encompass just what these disgusting men will do to get out of trouble–especially when it looks like they’re going to be taken to task for their actions. This includes an almost shadowy group of privileged parents stepping in to ensure their teenager’s promising future doesn’t get derailed. The film is scary in a very real way.
To think a movie like this was dealing so bluntly, so obviously and explicitly in these themes and yet reviewers (mostly men, I have to assume) at the time seemed almost entirely blind to it… well, I guess not that much has changed after all.
Do you know where your Grandmother is tonight?
In this darkly comedic film, a group of elderly fight back against the forces trying to drive them out of their housing complex. When a new development in the neighborhood means they’ll soon be evicted, this rag-tag bunch of old folks decide that their only way out of this conundrum is to start murdering anybody that threatens their way of life. At first, the movie has a black-comedy tone, but as things get more and more bleak for our main characters, it becomes effectively disturbing. Paula Trueman shines as “Mattie,” among other solid performances.
The Unborn (1991)
The Unborn is so solid and convincingly anchored in themes of female anxiety that I had to double-check to be sure it had actually been written by men. This Corman-produced film by Rodman Flender takes the titular concept–a couple struggling with conceiving visit a miracle-working doctor, but their new baby may not be all that it seems–and exploits it in ways that are really effective. It can be easy for writers and directors to lean on easy tropes in Pregnancy horror, and while monstrous babies aren’t exactly the most original angle to take, director Rodman Flender and writers John Brancato & Michael Ferris ground the film by resfreshingly presenting everything from Virginia’s (Brooke Adams) perspective.
Plus, it directly calls out how women with a history of mental health struggles are cast aside when attempting to whistleblow on suspicious situations. There's a few other things that are subtly surprising in the edges of this very B-movie, exploitation-take on the subject matter that I won’t spoil here. But I will say: come for the murder-monster-baby movie and stay for the surprising amount of depth.
Tower of Evil (1972)
Tower of Evil (1972) has been one of my go-to recommendations for years when people ask me for Halloween viewing suggestions; it takes a classically gothic set-up, and layers on oodles of thick, hazy fog to make sure the movie is completely dripping with atmosphere.
After a father and son team of fishermen (George Coulouris and Jack Watson) dock on Snape Island, they stumble upon a series of gruesomely murdered corpses. They split up, of course, and the father is murdered by a screaming, naked woman (Candace Glendenning as Penelope). She’s taken to a hospital in a state of frozen shock, and undergoes an experimental procedure involving a bunch of flashing disco lights to then awaken her. When she does, she begins to have flashbacks involving her trip to Snape Island with the aforementioned corpses, who were actually her friends – Mae (Seretta Wilson), Des (Robin Askwith) and Gary (John Hamill). Could she really have murdered all her friends for no reason, or is something else lurking on the island?
First off, this movie is fantastically shot. It has a similar vibe that The Legend of Hell House has, in some regards. Not surprisingly, when you check the credits and see that cinematographer Desmond Dickinson was attached to some legit films like Hamlet (1948) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1952). Secondly, Tower of Evil is just a thoroughly sleazy good time–piling on the nudity and bloody kills at a manageable running time. There’s also a fairly solid twist that brings things through nicely to the climax – nothing that will shock and astound you, but might have you nod your head in appreciation (Hell Night, anyone?).
The House That Cried Murder (1973)
The Bride aka The House That Cried Murder is a sharply written, well-executed and often darkly-comedic picture that is positively dripping with ‘70s atmosphere. The film follows Barbara (Robin Strasser) as she discovers her husband-to-be David fooling around with his ex-girlfriend… on their wedding day! Naturally, she stabs him and takes off immediately. Or does she? David starts getting weird phone calls, and that’s only the beginning. Despite the PG rating, this one builds to a nicely twisted finale, and wraps its narrative in a nicely tense-n-twisty package that wouldn't be unexpected on an anthology television series like Tales from the Darkside or Crypt.
This one is really begging for rediscovery–the performances all work well, it has a great soundtrack, and a few creepy moments that help maintain the pace throughout its fairly short running time. What more could you want?
I’m a big fan of that “Dark age of Disney” era, generally thought of to have occurred between 1970 and 1989, when the company tackled some darker, more adult-types of films. Hell, sometimes they just decided to throw those themes directly into their films for younger viewers. But still, because of this era we ended up with fascinating (and sometimes baffling) movies like The Watcher in the Woods, Black Hole, The Black Cauldron, Never Cry Wolf, Condorman, One Magic Christmas, Dragonslayer and more.
Something Wicked This Way Comes fits right into this era, and is an utterly perfect pick for the spooky time of the year. The plot, as adapted from Ray Bradbury’s book, sees Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival moving into a sleepy Midwestern town. Two local boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, are enamored and excited about the carnival, but could Mr. Dark be harboring a sinister goal?
Ray Bradbury’s novel essentially translates to art-house horror for the Disney set, and uh, hello… a decapitation in a Disney movie? Yup. It’s surreal, there’s tons of cool effects, and I can’t really say enough good about it. There’s also a great Autumnal vibe to the movie, as chilly breezes and changing leaves sweep through town. An essential for October, says I!
Sorority House Massacre (1986)
I put off watching Sorority House Massacre for years, because it always had a reputation for being boring, drab, and completely forgettable. Well, I'd like to throw my hat into the ring and let everyone know they're totally wrong about this movie. While it feels like a shot-on-video slasher with higher production values, Sorority House Massacre smoothly flies from dream sequences to reality and back again so well, it's actually kind of impressive. The visual flair at play here is way, way ahead of other movies of this ilk and era.
I loved the synth score, loved the dreamy movement and pacing of the movie, and I loved that it directly seems to be referencing tropes of the genre back in '86. They spell out a lot of the gender elements and themes, but I actually think there's more evidence of feminist text in Sorority House Massacre than the infamously feminist slasher Slumber Party Massacre! Bold words, but I’m sayin’ them!
That, and though the murders aren't gore-fests, they're unbelievably blunt and realistically forceful. When the murderer–seen plain as day, no obfuscation needed–breaks out and goes to a hunting store for a weapon, there's no artificial build up to the murder. Someone gets in his way and he just buries a knife in the guy’s stomach and runs away. It's more effective and shocking than I had expected from a movie like this.
William Castle's head-chopper melodrama is over-the-top fun through and through, and the second movie on this list to focus on scorned wives discovering their partners cheating on them and taking murderous revenge. In the opening of Strait-Jacket, Joan Crawford as Lucy Harbin gives her husband a little too much off the top and as such is sent to a psychiatric hospital for twenty years. When she’s released, a series of grisly axe-murders begin all over again–is Lucy to blame?
Strait-Jacket is well directed by Castle (gimmick free!) and despite it’s head-popping axe-murders rubbing shoulders with hilarious hysterics and fairly obvious whodunnit plotting, it is effectively engrossing. It’ll make a great black-and-white addition to any horror-movie marathon in October.
April Fools Day (1986)
Yes, so I’m highlighting a movie from another holiday for this Halloween list, but hear me out. April Fool's Day has a great cast and a clever, well-written script that plays upon slasher conventions–twisting them into the mold of a whodunnit style goof with satirical bite.
All my life I've heard nothing but horror fans bemoan the lack of death, gore and blood here, which always felt so completely besides the point. Even critics dismissed it when the film came out as just another Friday the 13th, another bargain-bin Paramount Pictures slasher. That’s not what April Fool’s Day is going for, nor should it be judged by its perceived failings within the slasher genre’s expectations. This movie is a comedy and an Agatha Christie-esque riff.
Watched based on its actual aspirations, it's completely a success to me. The movie is hilarious, has a good group of characters who may not be sketched with depth but are at least entertaining, and there’s more style in April Fool’s Day than a handful of Friday the 13th sequels put together.
It’ll always be a gem in my eyes.
Tales From the Hood (1995)
This movie is genre-cinema at its finest; not only is it an anthology movie–which are notoriously hard to nail since you have multiple opportunities to completely flub tones or twists or pacing–but Tales From the Hood is also searingly angry, staunchly political, and it’s funny too! What a hugely hard balancing act to walk, and yet it nails it.
After the expected wrap-around set-up, the film features four distinct segments - "Rogue Cop Revelation” about radicalized police brutality, "Boys Do Get Bruised" tells a monstrous story of abuse, "KKK Comeuppance" sees a racist senator getting his comeuppance at the hands of a doll, and "Hard-Core Convert" confronts a violent gang member with the souls of his victims.
In Tales from the Hood, the horror is grounded in stark realities, and it’s rendered through such clever concepts and set-ups that it is mind-boggling how this isn’t more widely accepted as an absolute masterpiece.