by Brian J. Showers, © October 2003

YOU'VE SEEN ALL the classics at least twice already and are looking for something new this Halloween. Due to the hit and miss nature of horror cinema, the critics often fail to identify and fairly assess a number of very excellent horror films. Consequently, a number of real frighteners, overlooked classics, get lost on the shelves of the local video store. For those of you who seasonally wander out of the comedy and drama sections, I've assembled a list of recommendations to help you feel a little more at home in the section where I spend most of the year. Boo!

1. THE SENTINEL, Directed by Michael Winner, USA, 1977

When a young model (Christina Raines) moves into a central and inexpensive New York apartment, she thinks she's getting a good deal, that is, until she meets the neighbors. Shortly after moving in, she finds herself at a party for one of the stranger tenant's (Burgess Meredith) cat. Later that night, a particularly noisy neighbor in the apartment above drives the young model to complain to the property manager. Imagine her horror when she's told that no one lives in that apartment! In fact, aside from herself and an old reclusive priest on the top floor, no one else lives in the building at all!

This supernatural horror movie is similar in tone and theme to movies like The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby, and, as far as I'm concerned, just as good. The cast includes brief appearances by a young Jeff Goldblum, Beverly D'Angelo and Christopher Walken. Genuinely creepy atmosphere the entire way through. The end is particularly effective, being an updating homage to Tod Browning's 1933 classic Freaks.

2. THE WICKER MAN, Directed by Robin Hardy, UK, 1973

Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), of the Scottish mainland, receives an anonymous letter from the offshore community of Summerisle, asking him to investigate the disappearance of a young girl there. He travels to the remote isle and discovers a secretive, tightly knit neo-pagan society. Being a devout (and rather self-righteous) Christian, he is shocked by the islanders' open sexuality and ritualistic devotion to the "old gods."

This is an intelligent horror-mystery film with a twisted ending that will evoke some serious chills and deserves a couple of viewings to be fully appreciated. The characterization is superb thanks to Edward Woodward's stiff and rigid police sergeant and horror-maestro Christopher Lee's haunting Lord Summerisle. Also lurking in the wings are two Swedish beauties, Ingrid Pitt and Britt Ekland, who are themselves no strangers to horror movies.

3. SESSION 9, Directed by Brad Anderson, USA, 2001

An asbestos abatement team, lead by the superb David Caruso, are hired to clean up an abandoned insane asylum. The institution has a history of medieval treatment of its patients, as one of the crew members uncovers while listening to a set of audio tapes discovered in an old office. Straining to meet their deadline, the crew start to crack as their personal lives gradually splinter and they slowly regress into the dark past of the asylum.

This movie is essentially a haunted house film reset in a gothic, castle-like insane asylum. The film was shot on location at the very real Danvers Mental Institution outside Boston, and the building's dark corners are supposedly as unnerving in real life as they appear on film. While there is some gore, it never takes center stage, as the movie focuses more on the natural haunted atmosphere of the building and the deteriorating mental state of the characters. Some scenes are intensely scary, so if you don't scare easily, try this one on for size.

4. SUSPIRIA, Directed by Dario Argento, Italy, 1977

This is the magnum opus of the master of Italian horror, Dario Argento. An American woman is accepted into a prestigious ballet academy in the Black Forest, Germany. Mysterious murders begin to occur, each one more grusome and elaborate than the last. At the climax, we not only discover who the murderer is, but also find out that the ballet academy isn't a school after all, but a front for a much more sinister organization.

Beautiful murder? Wait until you see Argento wield the camera. Who said horror movies have to be all black and red? Argento is known for extravagent set pieces and isn't afraid to use strong reds, blues, greens and yellows to evoke fear, making him perhaps of the most artistic directors of horror cinema. A true auteur. The beginning of this film is one of the most intense beginnings of any horror film; a terrifying and rain drenched cab ride from the airport, through the black forest, to the academy--all to a score by experimental rock band The Goblins. Sounds silly, but it ain't!

5. DOG SOLDIERS, Directed by Neil Marshall, UK-Luxembourg, 2002

A group of British soldiers are on a training mission in the wilds of Scotland. After they happen upon the torn and scattered remains of the opposing team, they are attacked by large, hominid lupines that rush in from all corners of the dark forest. After a narrow escape, with the assistence of a local woman and her truck, the group find themselves holed up in an isolated cabin. The showdown between the soldiers and werewolves begins!

This action/horror movie is a cross between Alien and Night of the Living Dead with a dash of lycanthropy, and one of the best werewolf movies of recent years (along with Ginger Snaps). The werewolf make-up leaves a bit to be desired, but the plot and characters are strong enough that the make-up is easily overlooked. I remember, when I saw this one in the cinema, I left with the distinct feeling of having been thoroughly entertained.

6. AUDITION (Oodishon), Directed by Takashi Miike, Japan, 2000

Seven years after the death of his wife, company executive Aoyama is invited to sit in on actresses' auditions in hopes of finding the perfect match. Leafing through the resumés in advance, his eye is caught by Yamazaki Asami, a striking young woman with ballet training. She's the last person they see and Aoyama is hooked. He notes her number from her file, calls her and takes her to dinner. He hesitates to call again, worried that he'll seem too eager. When he does, Asami knowingly lets the phone ring for some time before answering. She's alone in her darkened room--alone, that is, apart from the writhing victim she has tied up in a sack on the floor...

Along with Hideo Nakata's Dark Water and Ryuhei Kitamura's Versus, this film is riding the new wave of Japanese horror that's already enormously popular in Europe and is starting to catch on with the American audience via the Hollywood remake factory (though I doubt this one has any chance of even being remade). Only watch this one if you think you can take extreme images of violence and torture. A rewarding movie, and not excessively gory, but...

7. THE HITCHER, Directed by Robert Harmon, USA, 1986

Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) is delivering a car from Chicago to Los Angeles. During a particularly lonesome stretch through the desert he decides to pick up a hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer) to keep him company. Little does he know, the hitcher is a psycho killer who threatens him with a switchblade and forces Halsey to say "I want to die." At the last minute, Halsey pushes the hitcher out the door and seemingly evades the madman's scheme. But that's only the beginning as the hitcher decides to play a suspenseful game of cat and mouse with Halsey, across the desert, tormenting the young man to a brutal climax.

A very simple, yet effective plot with the psyho perfectly played by Rutger Hauer, the true star of the movie. The sense of desperation in this movie is enormous, as the hitcher cuts off the young man's every escape. This film is highly recommended if you're not in the mood for straight-on, full-frontal horror. Keep an eye open for Jennifer Jason Leigh who runs the diner in which the movie's most infamous scene takes place.

8. THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (Quello villa accantoal cimitero),
   Directed by Lucio Fulci, Italy, 1981

A New York family move to an isolated house on the outskirts of Boston. Like a Dario Argento film, lots of inexplicable murders of the ghastliest kind begin to happen, and like Argento, Fulci is known for gore. There's something lurking in the family's dark, dirt floored celler and their young boy is haunted by the ghost of a young girl who's trying to warn them all of an impending danger . . .

Ok, in retrospect, this isn't the best movie and doesn't represent Fulci at the top of his game. The dubbing is awful and the plot, at times, seems silly. However, Fulci does manage some highly interesting scenes and evokes some extremely gloomy and haunting atmospheres. At times, I think this movie would be better off as a haunted house story rather than... well, rent it and have a look! It's definitely worth it.

9. RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, Directed by Dan O'Bannon,
   USA, 1985

Workers at a medical supply warehouse stumble upon old army containers in the warehouse basement. When they accidently open the container, a corpse unexpectedly reanimates and attacks! The two guys hack the corpse apart, but the pieces, not surprisingly, refuse to die. Always thinking, they take the body parts over to the neighboring funeral home and ask the mortician to burn the squirming and wriggling bits. Smoke particles from the fire rises up into the atmosphere, but they didn't expect it to rain--right on the adjacent cemetery. Hilarity and wacky hijinx ensue.

Horror often goes well with comedy, and this zombie film has loads of laughs. Written and directed by Dan O'Bannon, the same guy who wrote one of the best monster movies, Alien, Return of the Living Dead is a very bright and energetic film--a pleasure to watch, even if you're not a zombie buff. And as far as zombie films go, this one has lots of imagination.

10. PUMPKINHEAD, Directed by Stan Winston, USA, 1989

A group of irresponsible city-folk are responsible for the death of a hillbilly (Lance Henrikson) grocer's son. His grief leads to anger and his anger to revenge. Henrickson seeks the help of a witch who lives in an isolated cabin, deep in the woods. She helps the hillbilly invoke Pumkinhead, a demon of local legend, who executes those repsonsible for the death of the boy. But those who ask Pumpkinhead for vengeance usually do so at their own expense, as Henrickson soon learns.

Last, but not least, we've got a film that follows the classic monster movie formula. The beast is disturbed and must be destroyed. What saves this movie from being absolute drivel is its extensive back story, allowing the characters to have real background, and the slick production values that would look at home in any Tim Burton film. This is essentially a simple morality play, and should be simply enjoyed as one.

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