The 13th Floor

10 Fantastic, Underrated Horror Films

The following is a guest post from friend of Blumhouse.com, Brian Saur. He is an expert on lesser known horror film classics, so we asked him to name 10 under-seen horror gems. And he picked some great ones!

Brian Saur:

I run a film blog called Rupert Pupkin Speakswherein I try to highlight older films that are often overlooked through frequent list series and Blu-ray reviews. Though many of the recommendations that come out of the site are not horror-related, I am a gigantic fan of horror in general and always on the lookout for movies that have flown under the radar of the horror-viewing populace at large.

The following list contains several examples of my unsung favorites. Many may be familiar with some of these, but I feel that they all could use a little more attention. Many of them are lesser-known due to a lack of availability, so you might have to dig them up on VHS, YouTube or Import DVDs to check them out. Enjoy!

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WITCHTRAP (1989)

This movie from director Kevin Tenney (WITCHBOARD, NIGHT OF THE DEMONS) had some unfortunate sound issues and had to be entirely re-dubbed after filming. This kind of dubbing can give a film this quasi-other universe feeling that can sometimes play to its benefit.

It’s basically the story of a team of paranormal investigators who go into a supposedly-haunted house to try to figure out the deal there. Shit goes crazy, basically, and it’s a hoot of a good time to watch. This film has screened once in Los Angeles to my knowledge — which would have been amazing, as it has some outstanding, crowd-pleasing moments and dialogue. It contains lines like, “Who the hell are you kidding? You’re going up there to take on Casper the fucking ghost. You don’t need a detective… you need Bill Murray, for Christ’s sake!”

Now I know that reading that bit, you might not think it’s that funny, but it’s much better viewed in context. There are a bunch more quotable things in here, and some memorable deaths to boot. It’s one of those flicks that mixes lots of humorously campy moments with crazy gore and weirdness… and I love it.

Most people who know this one were able to see WITCHTRAP on VHS, as it never had a DVD release (though there’s a German Media Book Blu-ray out there now). Seek this one out. Great party movie.

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THE VAGRANT (1992)

Bill Paxton plays an anal-retentive analyst who buys his first home across the street from a rubbish-strewn vacant lot. As he’s moving in, he notices that a disgusting, deformed vagrant is in his home and using his sink (via the back door). What follows is a progressive descent into paranoid madness as Paxton does everything he can to keep the vagrant out.

This would make an interesting (if more darkly comic) double feature with OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN, in that both films deal with men trying to protect the sanctity of their homes. It also feels a bit like a companion piece to something like THE DARK BACKWARD. The movie’s score by Christopher Young is unusual and unsettling, working well to up the movie’s anxiety quotient. Cast includes Marc McClure as Paxton’s best buddy, Stuart Pankin as his boss and Michael Ironside as a homicide detective.

Mel Brooks was an executive producer on this, which is fascinating, as it’s probably the darkest film he’s ever been attached to. It’s kind of like SAW meets NEIGHBORS (and if you haven’t seen NEIGHBORS — I’m talking about the John Belushi/Dan Aykroyd movie, not the Seth Rogen thingy — you should really watch that too).

THE VAGRANT is part of Scream Factory’s first “All Night Horror Marathon” 4-Movie DVD set.

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THE MAD MAGICIAN (1954)

If you don’t adore Vincent Price, then I really just don’t know what to tell you. I used to not totally understand Tim Burton’s fascination with him, but as I’ve seen more and more of his work over the years, I’ve come to truly cherish Price all around. When you see it, you’ll notice that this movie has a kinship with the original HOUSE OF WAX (which was released the year prior). There are similarities along plotlines, and both films were exhibited in 3D (apparently THE MAD MAGICIAN was the first movie to be broadcast on Television in 3D).

Why this film isn’t better known is a little baffling to me; the only DVD release it’s ever gotten is a Sony MOD. It deserves more. There’s some truly vintage Vincent Price here; also, I wonder if Chris Nolan watched this before working on THE PRESTIGE… not that the stories are all that similar, except for the idea of magicians competing and stealing tricks from each other. This flick would also make an interesting double feature with another Price oddity, CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER.

While we’re on the subject of underrated Vincent Price movies, I have to recommend THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS as well; it’s probably my 2nd favorite Invisible Man film after the definitive original with Claude Rains. It’s quite solid, and folks don’t talk about it nearly enough. It’s available as a burn-on-demand DVD.

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THE INCUBUS (1982)

From John Hough, director of THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (and also WATCHER IN THE WOODS and DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY) comes this very unsettling and disturbing film about a demon creature that rapes women in a small town. John Cassavetes, who plays the town’s doctor, may be familiar to you from ROSEMARY’S BABY; imagine a more peculiar and serious gent as your family physician and your starting to get an idea of the world this movie inhabits.

All the performances — Cassavetes included — have this sort of “dead inside”quality that gives the whole thing a generally eerie feeling of underlying fear and dread… almost like the characters are from a slightly alternate dimension or something. The violence of the attacks is quite raw and disconcerting, and it makes for some very effective horror. Some truly freaky stuff with a very sinister demonic presence. Available on DVD.

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A COLD NIGHT’S DEATH (1973)

Fans of John Carpenter’s THE THING take note: this atmospheric little TV movie may be right up your alley. It stars Eli Wallach and Robert Culp as a pair of scientists who have come to a remote mountain research station after the guy they are replacing failed to report in for several days. When they arrive, the station is in shambles, and there’s no sign of the other scientist… things only get stranger from there.

This movie has a lovely sense of unease about it that I think is very much in line with Carpenter’s THE THING (and this could have been an influence on that horror classic as well). Both have snowbound and isolated locations, and I personally think that’s one of the great setups for horror in general. 

A COLD NIGHT’S DEATH was produced as a Tuesday Movie of the Week (remember those?) for ABC, but has never seen a proper DVD release. It can be hunted down on YouTube though, for those who are curious.

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THE NIGHT BRINGS CHARLIE (1990)

Welcome to the little town of Pakoe: population 1,251 and dropping. Pakoe is in the grip of a killer who decapitates his victims with a large, serrated tree-trimming blade.

This movie even opens with a shot of various sharp garden tools being put away in a shed… and that sets the vibe pretty well. It’s got all of the slasher tropes, and the killer, himself, is reminiscent of Jason Voorhees from FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 or the hooded killer from THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN. This guy wears goggles though, which will either be creepier for you, or perhaps sillier, depending on how unnerved you are by that kind of thing.

As for myself, anything a killer does to isolate or change the appearance of their eyes has a tendency to be compellingly disconcerting; he kinda looks like one of the characters from that animated movie 9, if one of them was the head of a person.

Slasher fans will enjoy this gem. It can be found on VHS (and YouTube).

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OGROFF, a.k.a. MAD MUTILATOR (1983)

One of the most hypnotic, mesmerizing pieces of horror what-the-fuckery I’ve seen in a long time. Sick, trashy killer-on-the-loose stuff.

The title character brandishes both a hatchet and a chainsaw as his instruments of choice. He also covers his face with what appears to be a hockey mask (but only about half of it) that has decayed to a brownish hue.

The sound here is one of the elements that makes it memorable: it’s a mix of odd noises (often screechy in nature), imperfect foley effects and spacey electronic music. Also memorable are the film’s makeup effects, which often consist of do-it-yourself insert shots of blood and carnage.

To reductively label OGROFF a “poorly made horror film” does an injustice to not only the film, but to you as the potential viewer. It’s one of those movies that absolutely makes you question not only the filmmaking style and methods of the film’s director, but also what films he might have seen that would make him think a feature should look like this. While not as experimental as something like SCIENCE CRAZED (try to watch this one if you dare), it’s still pretty trippy and bizarre, and would make a delightful and brain-melting double feature with THINGS (see below).

[Be sure to check out our in-depth Slashback! feature on OGROFF here!]

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THINGS (1989)

Truly in a class by itself, as are most of the movies that Intervision has seen fit to release on DVD (see SLEDGEHAMMER and THE BURNING MOON for further examples), THINGS contains a disjointed, dreamlike (i.e. inexplicable) narrative… but otherworldly audio dubbing really brings it to a special place.

I have trouble trying to describe it — the closest I could come up with was “if David Lynch and James Nguyen collaborated on a lower-budget remake of THE DEADLY SPAWN and shot it on video,” but that doesn’t quite cover it, so I just recommend you check it out for some thoroughly satisfying off-the-wall horror viewing.

THINGS really does do what many “better” movies can’t, in that it pulls off a more accurate distillation of what it feels like to be inside a nightmare while it’s happening. There are just certain movies you come across that you can honestly say are not like anything else you have seen before… THINGS is that kind of cinema.

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CHANNEL 13 (1986)

The Polonia Brothers are incredibly prolific in terms of the amount of shot-on-video movies they have made, and this was one of their earliest features. Quite a few horror fans will know them from their remarkable gorefest SPLATTER FARM, but I’ve almost never heard this one mentioned. That may be due to the fact it was unavailable and unseen until last year, as Mark Polonia only recently completed it, despite his brother John having passed away in 2008.

The Polonias really helped define and launch the “backyard horror” genre in the ’80s, and this is an entertaining example of what they did. It’s a Halloween-themed anthology, and one that is very much imbued with the spirit of the Holiday.

SOV horror is not everyone’s cup of tea, but those of us that like it have definitely found a dynamism in the “uncooked” look and feel of these features. They are an acquired taste for sure, but a taste worth acquiring if you are looking to sizzle your grey matter from time to time.

As far as I know, CHANNEL 13 is being exclusively distributed on Blu-ray (BD-R) via SRS Cinema, although there may be a few on Ebay too.

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MIDNIGHT OFFERINGS (1981)

One of the better witch-related TV movies I’ve ever seen. Melissa Sue Anderson (of Little House on the Prairie) is a malevolent popular girl in this one (and a dangerous witch on top of that). I was so used to her role on Little House that this caught me off guard. She’s really great, and her portrayal comes off even more evil, based on her prior work: it’s like she’s one of the title clique from the cult favorite HEATHERS, but meaner, and plenty willing to take down anyone that stands in her way. 

There are some of shades of CARRIE here, but Melissa Sue is much more driven to use her powers for bad right from the beginning. The movie has some surprises and twists that were much appreciated; also appreciated is Gordon Jump (WKRP IN CINCINNATI) in a small role as Melissa’s father.

I was turned onto this one by Jeff Nelson over at Scream Factory. I hadn’t heard of it before, and I’m hoping SF will put it out on DVD at some point. For the time being, it’s out there on YouTube.

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