It’s easy to write an article about classic horror films, but it’s also kind of boring. Is there anything I can say about Jaws or Poltergeist or The Exorcist (all wonderful horror films that are on my personal list of all-time favourites) that hasn’t already been said in hundreds of other articles? Probably not.
Even a list of “obscure” horror films is going to have some people crying foul because for the hardest of hard-core horror fans, there is no fright flick they haven’t seen.
So today, as we enter the autumnal season, I thought I’d discuss five films that, while not obscure, and maybe not on anyone’s list of all-time favourites, are still notable enough that I feel deserve special attention. Five films that horror fans may have missed that they absolutely must see.
1. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death
Originally conceived as a satirical film about a group of hippies stalked by a creature in a lake, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death was better realized as a slow-burning, psychological horror film that presents a new twist on the vampire myth.
After a stay in a mental institution, Jessica travels with her husband and his hippie friend to a farmhouse they’ve purchased on an island in upstate New York. Jessica’s plan to rest and convalesce is interrupted by the discovery of a young woman named Emily who is found squatting in the house. They invite her to stay with them, which is always a bad move in a horror film.
It isn’t long after the group settles into their new digs that Jessica starts hearing voices and catching glimpses of a ghostly blonde girl around the property. Fearing a relapse of her mental problems, Jessica keeps these things to herself. In an effort to keep herself busy, Jessica tries her hand at selling antiques she finds in the farmhouse. A trip to the nearby town results in an encounter with suspicious locals all bearing bandages from mysterious wounds. Jessica continues to lose control of her life and her grip on reality when she sees both her husband and his friend are attracted to Emily, and suspects them of plotting against her.
Steeped in symbolism and viewed through a dreamlike filter, one could conclude the events of the film are only happening in Jessica’s mind, or that the vampire, and possibly the entire town, are trying to gaslight her into submission. Jessica’s rebellion against these attacks could be viewed as a defense of her own sanity as much as her life.
The film, which was released in 1971, could also be a commentary on the aftermath of the hippie culture of the 1960s. The seasons turn-turn-turning from the Summer of Love to an Autumn of Apathy.
Symbols and themes aside, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is a truly unique horror film, one that combines elements of ghost stories and vampire folklore, and manages to achieve something fresh, original, and truly haunting.
2. The Mothman Prophecies
This one is a bit of a cheat, since it’s a major Hollywood movie, starring an A-list actor, but despite that I feel The Mothman Prophecies has never received its proper due.
Richard Gere plays John Klein, a reporter for the Washington Post, who stumbles upon a series of paranormal occurrences in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Klein teams up with the local sheriff (played by Laura Linney) to investigate, not because he’s a curious reporter with a nose for a good story, but because his wife died a couple of years earlier after an encounter with an entity that bears a striking similarity to the creature being seen around town.
Klein is like a sad and seasoned Fox Mulder, an investigator whose doggedness quickly turns to obsession as the Mothman (as the entity is dubbed) begins to make predictions about global tragedies that get progressively worse. And yet finding out what is happening in Point Pleasant ends up becoming secondary to Klein’s main pursuit, which is to achieve understanding, if not closure, about what happened to his wife. Throughout the film, Klein is seen alone, sitting on a park bench, sitting on the bed in his motel room, staring into the distance, lost in his thoughts, a prisoner of his memories. He’s more than a man trying to solve a mystery. He’s trying to find a reason to go on living.
One scene in particular, in which Klein speaks with the titular entity on the phone, is one of the most chilling I’ve seen in a horror film, and is right up there with the conversation between Bill Pullman and the Mystery Man in David Lynch’s Lost Highway.
Although it has lots of suspense and scares (not to mention a great final action scene/set piece that I won’t spoil for you here), The Mothman Prophecies is a somber reflection on loss and grief. It’s an examination of the way death can break us, and our struggle against personal demons that are much more frightening than any supernatural entity.
It’s also a deep dive into the very essence of Mystery, a film that asks why are we so interested in the unknown? Why are we compelled to shine light into the shadows?
When Klein confronts a former Mothman obsessive who gave up his own pursuit for truth, he asks him desperately, “Didn’t you need to know?”
The answer he is given may be disappointing, but is no less real for its harsh truth.
“We’re not allowed to know.”
In my experience, the best horror films are the ones with the simplest plots.
Here’s the setup for the French film Ils: a woman and her boyfriend living in a remote country house in Romania are attacked in the night by a group of mysterious assailants.
Although North American audiences are probably more familiar with The Strangers — which despite having a virtually identical plot is not a remake — Ils came first, and in my opinion is the better film.
I would even go one further and said that Ils is not just the best home-invasion film ever made, but it’s also one of the scariest horror films I’ve seen in years. Bold words, I know, especially for a horrorphile like myself, but throughout the length of its meager 74-minute runtime, the fear and anxiety I was experiencing over what was going to happen next ramped up and up right until the shocking finale.
To describe the plot in any specific detail would be to ruin the overall effect. This is the sort of film that should be seen with the least amount of knowledge about its plot. I recommend watching it at home, alone, in the dark.
Just remember to lock your doors.
4. Lake Mungo
Lake Mungo is an Australian mockumentary/found-footage film about a family dealing with the aftermath of their daughter’s death and the supernatural phenomena that begins to occur in their home shortly thereafter.
The Palmers are on an outing at a local dam when seventeen-year-old Alice goes missing. After her drowned body is recovered, the family mourns and attempts to move on. Strange sounds around the house prompts Alice’s brother Mathew to set up video cameras, and he ends up capturing spooky images of his dead sister. As each one of the film’s onion-like layers continues to unfold, we find out more and more about Alice’s life… and her death.
Similar in some respects to The Mothman Prophecies, Lake Mungo is a story about loss and grief, although in this case it’s done in a much more realistic way, through personal interviews and home movies. It’s also a film about family, the bonds they share, and the way those bonds are strained by lies and secrecy.
One of the many things I loved about Lake Mungo was the way its low budget and its use of mostly unknown actors added to its overall atmosphere and verisimilitude. It looks and feels like a real documentary, even though it employs such tried (and tired) clichés as the séance scene and the shock ending.
Make sure you stick around through to the end of the credits.
5. The Hallow
In The Hallow, a British conservationist named Adam Hitchens moves with his family to a country house in the Ireland version of the forest primeval that the locals say is inhabited by a group of supernatural creatures.
After discovering a strange fungus in the woods (one that has the ability to infiltrate car engines as well as the human mind), Hitchens begins to realize his neighbours might not be entirely full of crap. He becomes even more certain when the titular creatures lay siege to his home.
Although the setup may seem familiar, The Hallow presents a refreshing new twist on old fairy-tale myths. It could also be viewed as eco-horror film minus the heavy-handed messaging and armchair moralizing about the evils of destroying nature. Although after seeing the mottled, dripping creatures that dwell within these particular woods, my first response was Kill them with fire! Burn it all down!
Director Corin Hardy understands one of the most fundamental things about a horror film of this type, and makes the woods a character unto itself. The cinematography is lush and dark and foreboding. In the daylight, the cabin setting is bucolic, but when the sun goes down, it becomes grim and claustrophobic.
Among its many strong points, The Hallow also has some of the best practical effects and creature designs I’ve seen in a long time, and will surely satisfy fans of both Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.
Hardy reminds us that even though the woods may be lovely, dark and deep, they don’t belong to us, and the creatures that live there will remind of us of this fact every chance they get.
Ian Rogers is the author of the award-winning collection Every House Is Haunted. His novelette, “The House on Ashley Avenue,” was a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award. You can find out more at his once website, ian-rogers.com.