by Laurent Kelly
The classics are revered, treasured and talked about with high regard every time the Halloween season rolls around. There are however a ton of unheraled horror gems which have either slipped under the radar, been disregarded within a patch of bad sequels, overly criticised for daring to remake a classic or simply given an unnecesarrily harsh treatment from mainstream reviews. The following list covers all these scenarios as we take a look at what I feel are the ten most underrated horror films.
10.) WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968)
Young wannabe actors up and down the country could do a lot worse than to sit down and study Vincent Price’s performance in Witchfinder General. It is perhaps the definiton of underracting – extracting so much terror through minor details such as the cold menacing shifts of his eyes and his calm, unnerving movements. He manges to embody such an intense element of horror through such little effort and it is really a thing of beauty to behold.
The film itself concerns the heinous actions of a 17th century witchunter named Matthew Hopkins who was responsbible for roughly 500 executions within a two year time span. The lack of justice at the heart of the film really gets under the skin with death sequences that are cold, authentic and brutal. The cinematography which takes in the gorgeous English countryside also brilliantly juxtaposes the savage actions of the people who inhibiit the land showing that the beautiful exterior of nature is always hiding the harsh interiror of bloodthirsty animals and man.
Witchfinder General has a pretty strong following but I feel that it is underrated because it is a film which deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as some of the more well known classics. For my money it is one of the most visually impressive and atmospheric horror films ever made.
9.) HOUSE OF WAX (2005)
Whilst critics rightfully lambasted the poor characterisation and convoluted storytelling of yet another horror remake, little praise was in store for the superb visual effects which helped to create a scary and atmospheric arena and the creative and highly tense set-pieces which maintained the film’s consistently entertaining tone.
House of Wax is not a perfect film and you’ll have a hard time warming to any of its overbearingly cliché characters but then this problem persists in any number of teenage horror films. What is refreshing about this film however is that it constantly thinks up original and imaginative ways to provide scares and in places is genuinely quite chilling.
8.) RED EYE (2005)
Perhaps not so much an underrated film as a brilliant concept with real wasted potential. As soon as the twist is revealed the film descends into a pantomine of hokey and distinctly untense set-pieces which revolve around an uninteresting and forced poltical storyline. The initial transition from light hearted romantic drama to psychological horror is brilliantly done but I feel that the twist should have been the centerpiece of the film and not the inciting incident for a series of generic and unengaging action sequences.
Picture for example the film performing a complete 180 towards the conclusion. You advertise Red Eye as a sickly romantic comedy. The movie spends ninety nine percent of its running time with Rachael Mcadams and Cillian Murphy forming a bond together in a pattern that we’ve seen in countless romantic comedies.
Then however you turn this element of familiarity on its head with a capivating twist ending…..
In the final scene the two characters step off the plane and agree to go and get a coffee. In a private moment Mcadams talks to or texts a friend about how she thinks she has met the perfect guy. Then Cillian Murphy has a serious conversation in his own private moment in which he gives details about the girl who he has been assigned to kill. He feels for a gun in his pocket, smiles and walks over to embrace his victim. The film ends with a crucial dramatic reveal that would leave the target audience speechless.
This is the problem with Red Eye in that it is was too afraid to go all out and subvert the expectations of a genre. The film wasn’t even advertised as a romantic drama even though this could have caused great publicity and proved to be a enriching marketing exercise given the response from what would have been a heavily manipulated audience. I still have to applaud the well executed twist, I just feel that they could have done so much more with it.
7.) HALLOWEEN: H20 (1998)
I honestly have no idea why people lump this film together with the rest of the garbage Halloween sequels. H20 represented a return to the Carpenter formula of well structured chase sequences which relied on tension, interigue and unpredictability as opposed to the instant gratification technique of frequent blood and guts.
Some of the standout moments are the most minimal such as when apparitions of Michael Myers appear only to fade at the last moment and the cleverly incoporated use of dramatic irony when the audience become aware of a crucial detail of which the characters are oblivious.The ending is also supberb making great use of the film’s arena to provide a frenzied, highly charged chase sequence which culminates in a dramatically rewarding conclusion (atleast until another bloody sequel had to he made.)
I’m not going to outlandishly claim that the film is a patch on the treasured original but I was thoroughly entertained throughout the refreshingly short running time and that’s even in spite of my hatred for the annoying and unlikeable lead of Josh Harnett.
5.) SORRY, WRONG NUMBER (1948)
This neglected black and white classic is set largely in just one location and relies on superb plotting and excellent performances to build towards one of the most effective and scary endings of all time.The screenwriting is an exercise in perfection as the dramatic stakes gradually increase moment by moment with the protagonist not only overhearing a murder attempt but then discovering that she is the intended victim.
The film also deserves full credit for providing such an abrupt, bleak ending at a time when audiences were so used to being sent home happy. There is no seen violence or blood here, just a gradual unravelling of terror which is excellently staged and acted.
3.) THE SKELETON KEY (2005)
“The film’s lush atmosphere is a thin smokescreen to hide the fact that its formulaic underpinnings prevent it from approaching anything that is truly scary or unsettling”
These were the two general viewpoints which divided critics thoughts about this film and I have to say that I am more inclined to agree with the latter opinion. Skeleton Key is a genuinely chilling horror gem with deft plotting, a well executed twist and horror that is created through subtle, unsettling moments as opposed to overblown cliché devices. The film creates an atmosphere that absorbs the audience into the eerie, voodoo world and maintains a gripping edge throughout the length of its running time.
Most intriguing of all however is that the film is carried by an emphatic and engaging lead performance from Kate Hudson who unfortunately reminds us that she is actually a talented actress who just generally accepts such tripe roles.
2.) PSYCHO II (1983)
A sequel was never going to live up to the expectations of the original but nonetheless Psycho II is a psychologically sound, subtely chilling drama with some very strong initial twists and turns. The character study of Norman Bates as he returns to society is really well developed and quite clever in its ability to constantly keep us guessing about the film’s protagonist. This is helped by a superb performance from Anthony Perkins who gives a diverse, emphatic turn with exceptional attention to detail. He truly makes every moment count in a role which unfortunately came to define his entire career.
Psycho II is definitely not without its flaws and unfortunately some of the character motivations are a little illogical and the whole thing becomes a bit too melodramatic and anti-climatic in the final third but other than that this is a sequel which manages to be consistently frightening through clever staging and dramatic techniques. The cleverest thing about the film though is that it actually makes you feel some element of sympathy for Bates until you gradually realise that the psychopath still runs strong inside of him.
1.) WOLF CREEK (2005)
Wolf Creek has a disturbingly low rating on Rotten Tomatoes despite being perhaps the most grittily authentic and terrifying horror film since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
What is really impressive about Greg Mclean’s movie is that it uses its location of the Australian outbacks to suit the purpose of two different genres. To start with the isolated, peaceful land creates an energetic sense of freedom that we have come to associate with the road movie but once the characters find themselves in trouble this same feeling of isolation suddenly presents rather terrifying and claustrophobic implications. It is here that we realise that what freedom means for a few adventurous, young backpackers has very different connotations for a charming and calculating killer who is able to use his remote surroundings to let loose his inner monster and pursue a string of unsuspecting victims.
The horror itself is unforgettable with strikingly violent and blunt death sequences that truly send shivers down the spine and a number of suspenseful chase sequences which are performed with nailbiting execution. The terror once it emerges is sustained throughout and frequently catches you by surprise as characters meet a sudden and grissly demise.
The acting seems genuine, the writing is concise and well paced and the direction is assured and confident in what it is for my money the most impressive horror film of the last decade.
Well that concludes the list of my top ten underrated horror films. Now it’s your turn to have your say in the comments box below. Don’t be shy and thanks for reading.