An underrated film is a good one that has gone unnoticed. But strangely, lists of underrated films always seem to be filled with the same old movies that we did notice. With thousands of horror films having been made over the last decades, surely there are more gems out there, aren't there? Some we haven't heard of a million times?
Of course there are! Here are some of the hidden horror treasures I've mined for you that were, for whatever reason, overlooked by the box office. Other films may have been more popular, but these are just as good, and you won't find them on the repetitive lists. These are truly underrated.
Alice, Sweet Alice (originally released as Communion, 1976)
Creepy kids make for some of the best scares in horror, from Patty McCormack's 1954 portrayal of a psychopath in pigtails in The Bad Seed to the later trend of demonic darlings in The Exorcist and The Omen. Despite a spate of poor imitations in the '70s, Alice, Sweet Alice belongs with the better horror films featuring pint-sized leads. Named by Fangoria magazine as one of the "best films you've never seen", the thriller continues to disturb modern viewers who are surprised to learn that its thrills still hold up.
The film begins with two sisters, the younger of whom is about to have her first communion. Twelve-year-old Alice (Paula Sheppard) is jealous of the attention that little sis Karen (nine-year-old Brooke Shields in her first screen role) is receiving. On the day of Karen's communion, she is murdered in the church, strangled by a candle. Karen immediately falls under suspicion, and here the movie becomes a twisted murder movie that could compete with modern slasher flicks for chills. Alice takes to wearing a yellow rain slicker and a transparent plastic mask, items that give me nightmares to this day. The body count increases with the murder of a perverted slob of a landlord who tries to take advantage of Karen.
For a low budget movie of its day, Alice, Sweet Alice looks amazingly good. The scenes are well-executed, and despite having the killer revealed partway through the movie (just as in Hitchcock's Vertigo), the tension just never lets up. The murder scenes are gruesome rather than cheesy, and the ending...well, let's just say that Hitchcock would be proud. Super editing and a notable soundtrack add up to one tense nailbiter that is still watchable today.
Night of the Creeps (1986)
This movie went by without a ripple of interest when it was originally released, but it now has a loyal cult following of horror fans. Night of the Creeps is a comedy horror film that makes use of every opportunity to spoof the entire genre, but unlike modern groaners like Scary Movie, it has an edge to it. The film was clearly made by horror movie lovers, which is probably why fans love it so much. It shows. The characters names are nods to the genre: the main characters are Chris Romero and Cynthia Cronenberg who attend Corman University. Officers who appear later in the film are Detective Landis and Sergeant Raimi. If you're a horror buff, I don't have to explain the significance of those names.
The chaos begins when two campus nerds accidentally unthaw the corpse of a dead jock who has been infected by an alien virus, resulting in zombie havoc. The film manages to cram in every possible movie stereotype, including kids in the woods and lunatics escaped from asylums. While this sounds like a trite B-movie, though, it's a delight. It's handled with care, and manages to be self-deprecating in just the right amount. If all comedy horror movies were like this, we'd have more Shaun of the Deads and less Scary Movies. Oh, don't think it's all laughs, however. While Night of the Creeps has plenty of satire it still manages to deliver, as the title suggests, the creeps.
This is a thinking person's horror film, which sadly there aren't enough of. Hollywood seems to think all viewers are twelve-year-old boys and writes accordingly. Another film you're unlikely to have seen, Nomads was a sleeper hit which has all but been forgotten. The cast features Pierce Brosnan (fresh from his Remington Steele gig), Lesley-Ann Down and Adam Ant (which I don't have to tell you is awesome), with a soundtrack (uncredited) by Ted Nugent. The movie was the directorial debut for John McTiernan who would go on to fame the next year with Predator and then Die Hard.
It's an unusual film that begins with the death of the main character (Brosnan), but his doctor (Down) becomes possessed with his memories, reliving each experience on his last day leading up to his death. As an anthropologist, he had uncovered the remains of an extinct tribe of Inuits who have now tracked him across the planet to exact revenge. We see what happens when they hunt and terrorize him through his doctor's eyes. This is an unforgettable, well-made thriller with a shocking ending. If you enjoy intelligent thrillers and this one flew under your radar, rent it soon.
The Asphyx suffered only from a case of bad timing. If it had been released just a few years previous, it wouldn't have gone so unnoticed. Unfortunately, the movie was released at a time when horror movies were starting to include lots of sex, which this film doesn't have. It was also closely followed by The Exorcist which eclipsed everything in its path. In the context of its era, though, the Asphyx was one of the better horror films made in the early part of the '70s and is worth a re-examination. It's also worth a watch, as its story is genuinely eerie.
Set in Victorian England, the movie stars Robert Stephens (fresh from his turn in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) as a scientist experimenting with early photographic and moving picture equipment. He discovers that he has captured on film the actual soul leaving the body, the asphyx, and realizes that if he could trap it at the moment of his death, he could be immortal. He embarks upon a series of experiments to test this idea, but seeing as this is a horror film, it doesn't go as planned. The Asphyx is dramatic and sophisticated -both unusual traits for a movie of the time. It lacks the campy, trashy factor of the '70s. It is also good and creepy. The Asphyx deserved more credit than it received when it...asphyxiated.
This may be one of the most underrated horror movies of all time. Most people, it seems, haven't even heard of it, but the ones who have always say, "Man, that was creepy!" Paperhouse is more than just creepy; it's fascinating. When the main character, Anna, discovers that the things she draws become real in her dreams, she adds to her drawings in an attempt to help a disabled boy. The results are not necessarily helpful, but dangerous. You'll have to watch to see what happens when Anna erases or marks out her pictures.
This is a rare horror film that requires you to simply suspend your disbelief and go along with some fantasy. What you're seeing doesn't always make sense, but the result is beautiful and frightening. Perhaps some audiences wanted Paperhouse to follow conventions and be something that it's not. That may account for its failure at the box office. If you have a strong attraction to fantasy, though; if, like Fox Mulder, you "want to believe", this is a find.
Don't feel like you have to be stuck in a horror rut. Just because a movie hasn't made the top ten lists of critics and horror snobs doesn't mean it doesn't have anything to offer. These movies are perfect proof of that. Buy or rent one, and see if you're just as confused as to why these films were overlooked and underrated.