You’ve seen the horror heavy-hitters, like Halloween, The Shining, and The Exorcist. You’ve also seen the most-beloved cult horror flicks, like Evil Dead 2 and Re-Animator. Now, peel away one more layer and unearth some obscure horror gems that are primed to infect your nightmares with fresh terrors.
1) Q: The Winged Serpent
The bizarre mind of B-movie master Larry Cohen (It’s Alive, God Told Me To, The Stuff) hatched this tale about the bloodthirsty rampage of Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec feathered serpent, after it’s summoned by murderous cultists to roost atop the Chrysler Building in 1982 New York City. Naturally, this perplexes the police (David Carradine and Richard “Shaft” Roundtree, as well as at least one supporting player who goes undercover as a mime), but the best part of Q is Michael Moriarty as a ne’er-do-well jewel thief/wannabe jazz pianist, who stumbles upon the giant creature’s nest and attempts to use that information to his advantage. His bizarrely loosey-goosey performance has no business being in a monster movie, but it fits in perfectly nonetheless, and it’s so much fun to watch that it elevates Q from mere oddity to must-see oddball classic.
2) The Burning
Summer-camp slasher The Burning owes a lot to Friday the 13th, for obvious reasons, though it’s now most-remembered for a cast that includes Holly Hunter, Fisher Stevens, and Jason Alexander, all showbiz noobs back in 1981. (It’s also one of Harvey Weinstein’s first productions, but that’s a whole other kind of horror entirely.) The story borrows from an actual urban legend, naming its killer Cropsey, after the legendary bogeyman, but its structure is pretty standard slasher stuff: A terrible prank gone awry sets the stage for an even more terrible campaign of bloody revenge. (Interestingly, there’s a “final boy” at the end, rather than the traditional “final girl.”) But the killer’s weapon of choice—a pair of oversized garden shears—is actually way creepier than Voorhees’ machete, and lends itself to all manner of gruesome special effects created by Tom Savini, who’d worked on Friday the 13th a year prior and very nearly outdoes himself here.
3) Two Thousand Maniacs!
You have to imagine the title, with its exclamation point of urgency, being shrieked from the mouths of its ill-fated main characters—road-trippers who happen upon a Southern town that magically appears every 100 years to unleash bloodthirsty revenge on any Yankees that dare cross its borders. It’s packed with over-the-top redneck stereotypes, it’s ludicrously gruesome, and it’s got a banjo-twanging theme song that’s way too cheerful to be part of a movie with this level of cartoonish brutality. Writer-director-cinematographer Herschell Gordon Lewis cranked out dozens of movies in the 1960s and early 1970s aimed at grindhouse audiences, including several that poked fun at backwoods-yokel types—but the Godfather of Gore always considered this ultra-dark comedy to be his personal favourite of the bunch.
4) Trick or Treat
Not Trick ‘r Treat. This is the totally ripping 1986 tale of a high-school hesher named Eddie (played by Marc Price, a.k.a. Skippy from Family Ties) who nags a copy of his favourite rocker’s posthumous last album from his friendly local radio DJ (Gene Simmons)—only to realise the record contains a backwards message from beyond the grave. (It is titled Songs in the Key of Death, which is both a Stevie Wonder nod and cheeky foreshadowing in one.) The big finale, which sees Eddie frantically trying to prevent the demonic music from causing mass destruction, takes place at the Halloween dance for added seasonal flavour. And, if all this is starting to sound like a movie insidiously designed to caution kids against headbanging, keep in mind it includes a knowingly campy cameo from Ozzy Osbourne as a slick-haired, tie-wearing TV evangelist delivering a talk-show rant about the evils of heavy metal.
Suspiria gets all the applause, but the second entry in Dario Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy is just as scary—and perhaps even more of a gorgeously surreal (and not-infrequently nonsensical) nightmare. Mark, a music student in Rome, receives a strange missive from his sister, Rose, who’s taken up residence in the spookiest New York City apartment building since the bewitched Bramford in Rosemary’s Baby. After she vanishes, he heads to America and turns detective, uncovering dark secrets that won’t surprise anyone who’s seen Suspiria, but will still probably scare them anyway—the final scene is highly unsettling. In fact, Inferno is filled with scenes that will haunt you: Mark getting a stare-down from a mysterious beautiful woman in one of his classes; Rose diving into an underground pool and encountering a swimming zombie; and one of the freakiest cat-and-rat filled death scenes ever committed to celluloid.
6) Sugar Hill
“Supernatural voodoo woman, do her wrong and you won’t see the liiight,” warns the song that underscores Sugar Hill’s opening and closing credits. Unfortunately for them, the gangsters who beat the title character’s boyfriend to death (in the parking lot of his own nightclub, no less) within the movie’s first five minutes don’t follow the lyrics’ advice. Of course, that allows Diana, nicknamed Sugar (Marki Bey), to open the throttle on her vengeance engine, aided by an undead voodoo king who summons an army of cobweb-covered, shiny-eyed zombies to helpfully escort Sugar’s enemies to their doom. (“I hope they’re into white trash,” Sugar quips after feeding one hapless enemy to a pen full of hungry pigs.) Sugar Hill’s Southern setting and supernatural themes make it somewhat unique among Blaxploitation films, but it also has two of the genre’s most popular elements, done exceptionally well—namely a compelling revenge story and a charismatic, badass female lead.
7) The Pit
Horny tweenage outcast Jamie has no friends except for his oversized teddy bear, who “speaks” to him and agrees with everything he says... while urging him to do very bad things. That would absolutely be enough fodder for a horror movie right there, but The Pit goes one further with its giant, gaping, you-know-what in the ground, which is filled with toothy creatures called “Tra-la-logs” that depend on Jamie to feed their incessant hunger. Of course, he’s all too happy to oblige. The Pit, which proudly calls itself “Canuxploitation,” tics many familiar boxes—the freaky kid, the talking doll, the glowing-eyed monsters, the totally twisted ending—but its genial yet psychotic tone makes it feel like a completely original creation.
8) The Exorcist III
Part one is an absolute classic, part two is crap, but The Exorcist III has its own weird magic. William Peter Blatty, who wrote the original novel, penned the script and directed this 1990 film that brings back the first film’s Father Karras (Jason Miller), but mostly focuses on a Georgetown detective (George C. Scott) who’s investigating a series of occult-themed murders. The crimes resemble those perpetuated by “The Gemini,” a serial killer who was supposedly executed years prior but may have passed his soul into other unwitting corporeal hosts. The TV show version of The Exorcist is supposed to pay homage to this film’s biggest scare this season—a pants-wettingly terrifying scene set in a hospital that will fuck you up even if viewed out of context.
9) Pulse (Kairo)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s phenomenally eerie, visually striking ghost story came out in 2001 at the height of J-horror fever, and while it did get an obligatory American remake, it never seemed to get as much attention as Ju-On or Ringu. That’s probably because it moves at a slower pace, investing in dread rather than jump scares. There are plenty of scenes driven by disturbing, unexplainable things—and so many ghosts that even Kairo’s repeated instances of people staring at computer screens (normally the most boring thing a movie can do) can be downright petrifying. And its frights don’t just come from the beyond; they’re also drawn from the living, as characters face the sheer horror of being human in a world that’s increasingly filled with loneliness, disconnect, and the unshakable sense that doomsday is just around the corner.
10) Cannibal Apocalypse
War is hell, but war also dips into hell’s sub-basement when soldiers become infected with a crazy virus that gives them an insatiable craving for human flesh. Most of the film—directed by the prolific Italian filmmaker Antonio Margheriti, who never met a genre he didn’t like—takes place back in Atlanta, where a Vietnam vet (the reliably great John Saxon) begins to reconnect with his unit and makes a stomach-turning discovery about the strange affliction that’s followed them all home. The blood flows and bites mount up as doctors, cops, and eventually even a biker gang get pulled into the gore-splattered insanity. What more do you want, really? How about one of the greatest titles in cinema history... because it does not get any more evocative than Cannibal-freaking-Apocalypse.