It seems as if good horror films have become more rare than sorority sisters who survive a crazed killer in a bad horror film. What constitutes a good horror movie? Obviously, scares are important, but so are the other dramatic elements so important in a quality movie in any genre. There should be a good plot, sensible dialogue and dramatic tension. In short, you need more than a villain/creature slashing unsuspecting victims in one gory jump-scare scene after another. Here are a few vastly underrated horror films from years past that you may have missed the first time around.
5. The Forest (2016)
The film’s setting and story promise so much; a woman goes looking for her twin sister, who disappeared in Japan’s Aokigahara Forest. That’s a real — and supposedly haunted — forest where people go to commit suicide. As the woman ventures into the eerie landscape with a newfound acquaintance and a guide, the tension is palpable. Unfortunately, the movie never delivers on this early promise. The pacing is slow at times, and there are too many cheap jump scares. Bottom line: We’re not going to pretend The Forest is a great horror film. But it is very watchable, and certainly a better movie than the 10 percent rating it got from critics on Rotten Tomatoes.
4. The Serpent and the Rainbow (1987)
Starring Bill Pullman in one of his first roles, this film is loosely based on a non-fiction book about a supposed real-life zombie in Haiti. Legendary horror director Wes Craven has plenty of tools to work with here — witch doctors, voodoo, weird drugs and people being buried alive — and he doesn’t disappoint. The movie’s setting against the backdrop of dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s reign of terror in Haiti adds another horror element to the film. Even if you don’t believe in zombies and such, it’s easy to understand the looming horror Pullman’s character faces in being detained and possibly imprisoned by Haiti’s vicious secret police.
3. Frailty (2002)
The late, great actor Bill Paxton plays a father who teaches his two young sons how to be serial killers … because God sent him a message. That horrifying premise alone should be enough to hook you on the film. Creepy settings (a dark highway, unmarked graves, a homemade dungeon) and the disturbing subject give this a dark feel. The multi-layered plot features one unexpected twist after another in the closing minutes. In addition to Paxton, Matthew McConaughey also turns in a fine performance.
2. Vampires (1998)
James Woods and Daniel Baldwin head a crew of vampire hunters in the American Southwest. This so-called “horror western” gives a new wrinkle to the vampire genre. As Woods’ character explains to another character before a hunt, “Have you ever seen a vampire? Forget whatever you’ve seen in the movies, it’s not like they’re seducing everyone in sight with a cheesy, Euro-trash accent. They don’t turn into bats. Wooden crosses won’t work. You want to kill one, you drive a wooden stake right through its heart.” After clearing out a vampire nest, Woods’ crew encounters the “master vampire” who starts hunting back. There are cool special effects, intense action sequences, a great soundtrack … oh, and cult horror favorite John Carpenter directed it. How does this only rate a 37 on the Rotten Tomatoes critics rating?
1. The Mist (2007)
Adapted from a 1985 Stephen King short story, this film does so many things right. Citizens and tourists in a Maine town become trapped when a strange mist surrounds a grocery store. Without giving too much away — you know there will be terrifying monsters, right? — the scariest creature in the movie might be the Bible-toting woman who sees the disaster as a sign of God’s punishment. If you’re into more traditional horror movie gore, this movie delivers, with graphic eviscerations and gruesome deaths. Director Frank Darabont went on to helm the first two seasons of The Walking Dead, and you’ll see three characters from that series here. The Mist drew generally favorable reviews from critics and audiences, but it should be regarded as a classic. Perhaps the horrifying — many would say nihilistic — ending drags this down a notch in hindsight; we much preferred the ambiguous finale in King’s short story.