Every October, I try to find minor classics or B-movies with A-grade terrifying moments. This year I’m sharing a handful of discoveries: five underappreciated horror movies to thrill and disturb you this Halloween season.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death
Atmospheric and quietly tense, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) lulls you, and eventually owns you, with clichés made fresh under the masterful direction of John D. Hancock, and with flashes of brilliance you simply don’t expect from a cheap ’70s flick with a goofy title.
Jessica, a young woman newly recovered from a mental hospital, moves with her husband and his friend to an isolated house on a Connecticut island. They’re hippies at the end of the hippie era. They drive a used hearse with “Love” painted on the door—the revolution’s dead, man—and when they meet a female drifter who’s been squatting in the house, the foursome’s attempt at commune-style living is immediately dreary and riddled with anxiety.
The adorably awkward Jessica keeps seeing mysterious women. The haunting voices she hears (or imagines?) are superfluous—the movie would have been stronger without them—but the visions and strangeness she encounters are potent. Is something supernatural truly afoot, or is Jessica relapsing into mental illness?
Familiar scenes are warped just enough to keep you off-balance. Take the ferry ride to the island. The kindly ferryman asks the trio where they’re going and Jessica’s husband answers, “The old Bishop place.” It’s a classic “you’re all doomed” situation, but the ferryman’s unspoken alarm and the husband’s curious reaction are subtle, and we worry more because it isn’t heavy-handed.
I knew it was coming, but the scene is so silent and expertly shot that I actually swore and felt my heartbeat skip.
I can’t tell you the last time I jumped at a boo! moment, but this movie got me bad in the opening 15 minutes. It’s not a spoiler to say that someone’s in the house, Jessica is slowly exploring a darkened hallway, and the hidden someone abruptly appears. I knew it was coming, but the scene is so silent and expertly shot that I actually swore and felt my heartbeat skip. And that put me on edge for the rest of the movie, because I knew what the director was capable of.
It’s not super well acted, but the performances’ amateurishness is weirdly riveting. Zohra Lampert, playing Jessica, slowly won me over with her childish optimism, and she’s especially good when her desperate smile collapses into panic and despair as life at the house gets worse and worse. It’s an uncomfortable performance, infectious in its nervousness.
The movie works because of details, a dreadful mood, and a number of truly disturbing scenes. There’s a recurring body in the water with marvelous swirling hair, grumpy old locals that are a little too believable in their menace, and a nasty incident with a pet mole. There’s a scene at the beach between the two lead women that’s so natural and unnatural, so quotidian and eerie, that it just feels wrong in a way you can’t quite put your finger on.
You never know exactly where you stand and so you can’t defend yourself. Deep into the story, I still couldn’t determine what was going on, and even now I’m not entirely sure what forces were at work on poor Jessica. It’s not a perfect movie and that’s one of its strengths. Perfection would have consoled, but here it’s the perfect moments, emerging from the low-budget atmosphere, that jar you when you really don’t expect it.
Six daredevil friends gear up and explore an unmapped cave system. I might as well tell you that a well-made spelunking movie would have been enough to freak me out, and that The Descent (2005), in this regard, is extremely well made. But it’s far more punishing than people lost in a cave.
The opening sequence features a shocking accident that leaves the protagonist, a mother named Sarah, emotionally vulnerable. A year later, she reunites with a group of friends for an adventurous outing, hoping to rediscover some of the life she lost in her personal tragedy. The refreshingly all-female leads are strong and smart without it being corny or forced. They’re believably close and not merely a gaggle of victims heading into trouble.
Director Neil Marshall develops a solid buildup, letting us know the women enough to care before they enter the cave, and playing with various horror tropes until ordinary things like looking out the window and driving down the road can’t be trusted. I didn’t know the full premise of the movie when I saw it, and there aren’t many clues of what’s eventually to come. Another accident? Underground hallucinations from Sarah? Something real?
The women find the cave mouth and lower themselves into a beautiful open cavern before proceeding into the first “pipe,” a long narrow tunnel that made me think, “Yeah, no. I’ll stay up top with the sandwiches.” The close-ups during this and subsequent passages create a nerve-wracking feeling of constriction.
Superbly awful as this scene is, everything gets worse. A lot worse.
I’m not claustrophobic in small rooms or elevators, but getting stuck in a skinny tunnel of rock, hundreds of meters underground where nobody can reach me, is high on my list of worst-case scenarios. There’s just such a scene fairly early into the expedition and the movie makes you feel it: the solitude, the pressure, the panic attack that grows until it’s feeding on itself.
Superbly awful as this scene is, everything gets worse. A lot worse. Sarah hears unusual sounds that may or may not be echoes and drips. There’s a collapse, a unknown course they’re forced to follow, an outrageous compound fracture, and then...
Well then The Descent is, in fact, more than a cave survival movie. This is a monster movie and a damn good one, and while I won’t describe what the women discover down there—it’s better to experience it yourself, glimpse by glimpse—the creatures are impressively nasty. The story packs a number of bravura scares and shocks, and it eventually sheds its quiet menace and becomes spectacularly gory and savage.
The tonal shift between the halves is so profound, the result is virtually two separate movies: one a slow, patient suffocator with real-world peril, the second a ferocious bloodbath. Each half works in its own way, but the most arresting scene arrives dead center where the two halves meet for the first pair of deaths. What follows is a long stretch of violent cat-and-mouse, and the ending, especially the final shot, is as pitiless as what preceded it.
The Descent was critically praised and made decent money for a horror movie with no marquee actors, but I don’t know anyone who’s seen it. A casual browse around the web leads me to believe it’s admired among horror aficionados, and now you, occasional horror viewer, need to admire it too.
What a marvelously twisted little movie. Often described as the lesser-known brother of Psycho thanks to its charming killer, erotic voyeurism, and parenting issues, Peeping Tom (1960) not only preceded Hitchcock’s classic by three months, but stands tall on the strength of its own mannered suspense and derangement.
The story begins from the point of view of Mark Lewis—through his portable motion-picture camera—filming the solicitation and murder of a prostitute, who dies, like the victims to come, in a way we don’t fully understand. During the credits that follow the opening attack, we watch Mark replay the murder at home, and quick as that something special is happening: We the viewers become the voyeurs of the killer, as the killer watches himself secretly filming the hooker.
Here Peeping Tom gives us quintuple voyeurism: We the audience watching Mark, watching Helen, watching Mark’s father watch Mark watch the couple.
Karlheinz Böhm is wonderful in the lead. He’s lonely and likeably shy, much like Anthony Perkins in Psycho, and we can’t resist caring about and even sympathizing with Mark as he goes about his business of assaulting young women with his camera. When a pretty downstairs neighbor named Helen brings him a piece of her own birthday cake, he agrees to show some of his work as a birthday present. But instead of showing her one of those movies, he shows her something more personal: disturbing home movies of his childhood, in which his father, a man with his own camera, filmed young Mark in moments of fear and discomfort. One scene is of a lizard being placed upon the sleeping boy’s blanket; he wakes up alarmed while his father keeps filming. Another is of Mark standing at his mother’s deathbed. Still another shows the boy spying on a pair of strangers kissing on a park bench, and here Peeping Tom gives us quintuple voyeurism: We the audience watching Mark, watching Helen, watching Mark’s father watch Mark watch the couple. What a scene this is, tense on multiple levels and ingeniously conceived.
Helen is understandably troubled, but she cares about Mark and the two flirt with romance as he continues his secret life of filming and murdering women. Helen’s blind mother, who lives with her daughter downstairs, is an auditory voyeur who listens to Mark’s comings and goings and says, referring to the upstairs apartment, “I don’t trust a man who walks quietly.” Mark is paranoid when he meets her, a woman who lacks his one major power—vision—and therefore threatens him with her heightened non-visual perception.
Mark and Helen are naturally doomed as a couple. After a sweet, happy date, she kisses him gently at the door. Mark doesn’t return the kiss but stands there, timid and silent, until she enters her apartment. Once alone, he gently kisses his camera lens, his one true lover, with creepy, wholehearted affection. The climactic scene with Mark and Helen in his darkroom is gripping: confessions, revelations, a wicked twist about the deaths that make them more horrible than ordinary deaths, and finally, with time running out, a fitting resolution to everything we’ve witnessed.
Don’t Look Now
This one’s known for a scary red dwarf and an infamous sex scene with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. It’s really about dread. You should know going in that Don’t Look Now (1973) isn’t a traditional horror movie, nor are the supernatural forces readily apparent. The story is one of constant anxiety, a cumulative holding of breath that makes your brain more susceptible to hidden meaning, hallucination, and psychological discomfort.
John (Sutherland) and Laura (Christie), happily married, lose their young daughter in a drowning accident at home. Moments before it happens, John notices a red-cloaked figure in the photographic slide of a church he’s studying. When he senses his daughter’s in danger outside, he accidentally cuts his finger and the blood, dripping and baking on the illuminated slide, conceals the cloaked figure. He forgets it, for a while, in the wake of the daughter’s death.
The humdrum footage intercut with all that nudity portrays a real couple—a true marriage, believably displayed, that will strain as the lingering grief leads to anger and division.
A year later, the couple is living in Venice as John directs the restoration of the church he was studying. They seem healthy and happy, all things considered, until Laura encounters a blind psychic, who says she has seen the dead daughter at her parents’ side and that the little girl is happy. Laura is convinced, but John is skeptical and grows concerned when Laura falls under the influence of the psychic, who eventually says that John has remarkable powers, too, even if he doesn’t realize it.
The sex scene caused a stir in 1973. Not especially shocking for modern audiences, it’s nevertheless six-and-a-half minutes long and cross-edited with scenes of John and Laura getting dressed after they’ve made love. The humdrum footage intercut with all that nudity portrays a real couple, intimate in both passionate and ordinary ways—a true marriage, believably displayed, that will strain as the lingering grief leads to anger and division.
John’s death is foretold by the psychic, who later seems to abduct a brainwashed Laura, and the couple is separated in a somber, labyrinthine Venice, where the victims of an apparent serial killer keep turning up in the waterways. This sounds more exciting than it is; the movie works on such a subconscious level, with its recurring instances of broken glass, watery deaths, and dangerous falls, that it’s dread more than fright tightening your nerves. You begin to suspect everything is significant and threatening. You just don’t know how or why.
One of the best ghost movies I know, The Innocents (1961) is based on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and works exactly as you hope a great ghost movie will.
A governess named Miss Giddens is hired to care for two parentless siblings, Flora and Miles, at a country estate where their previous governess died. Giddens arrives and meets lovely little Flora, and they are soon joined by Miles, a charming boy who’s just been expelled from his boarding school for being “an injury” to the other children. Secrets unfold: The previous governess and another employee, Mr. Quint, both died after a troubled love affair in which the children’s innocence was threatened or compromised. Giddens sees and hears enough to believe their ghosts are still about, and that the ghosts are continuing to exert their evil influence over Flora and Miles.
The Innocents does show its ghosts, and what’s extraordinary is how scary they are in calm, lingering shots.
The movie begins with a black screen and a child’s beautiful lament, followed by birdsong of striking clarity and the shuddery noise of a woman trembling with worry. Scenes are directed with remarkable sounds and ambiance, subtle shifts of light and barely noticed detail. A fine sunny day becomes oddly muted when Miss Giddens first reaches the house; it is unremarked upon. Statues frequently loom in the background, creating a sense that there is always someone else listening and watching. Giddens grows concerned by a sound in the night, like a wounded animal, but Flora says, “Pretend you didn’t hear it. Then you won’t imagine things,” and it’s this kind of head-screw logic—pretending not to hear something real, so as not to imagine…what?—that governs the children’s lives and prevents Giddens from clarifying her suspicions.
There’s the school of thought—generally correct—that less is more when it comes to ghost stories, as it’s the unseen threats that trouble a viewer most. The Innocents does show its ghosts, and what’s extraordinary is how scary they are in calm, lingering shots. The best, and one of the eeriest scenes you’ll ever see, happens during a game of hide and seek. Giddens is standing behind a curtain while the children try to find her, when a figure emerges from the shadow of an outdoor statue. He approaches the window silently and slowly, his eyes chillingly cold, until he’s right up close behind the glass. It’s the steady approach and proximity—the fact that it isn’t a quick surprise—that makes his appearance and disappearance so unsettling. I rewound it and thought it was even creepier the second time around.
The other appearances are all this quiet and affecting. Gidden describes the events as “secretive, and whispery, and indecent.” Far worse than witnesses spirits is the psychological burden: the mysterious past, gradually learned, of the ghosts and their relationship to the children. If you know the novella, you know how sinister the secrets really are, and The Innocents reveals them with terrible patience. A deeply haunted movie start to finish, this is one you don’t want to miss.