In the past decade alone, horror films have earned $18 billion at the box office–a number that showcases a real thirst for the genre. As expected, most are released during the month of October. That makes sense since it has become the season of Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Ghostface. It’s the time for rivers of blood, iconic body horror, and nightmare-inducing exorcism scenes. But the nature of horror is more complex than just fake blood and jump scares. It’s a rich genre that touches the deepest parts of human nature, so we’re going to dive into a few different subgenres of horror and recommend five gems that don’t always make the spooky season cut.
NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1957) — Spiritual Horror
Jacques Tourneur’s late foray into genre filmmaking tells the story of an American professor (played brilliantly by Dana Andrews) who arrives in London for a conference on parapsychology. Shortly after his arrival, the professor discovers that the colleague he was supposed to meet was killed in a freak accident. An investigation into his death ensues, leading the professor to the world of the devil-worshiping Karswell and down a terrifying supernatural path.
The Night of the Demon (aka The Curse of the Demon) pitted Tourneur against his own production company over the usage of the demon’s imagery. The director—known for films like Out of the Past and Cat People—thought it’d be more powerful and scarier to only suggest the presence of the monster, but the production company disagreed and added the footage without his consent. Despite the dated special effects, the film still works supremely well. It’s a fascinating, deeply atmospheric, and heady look at satanism and occult practices and features striking imagery that services Tourneur’s fascinating deconstruction of real vs. spiritual.
Furthermore, the storytelling is always economic, moving at a brisk pace and with a strong sense of entertainment value, while sprinkling thought-provoking ideas throughout. All those interested in the occult will recognize and appreciate most of the elements used in the storytelling and their value to the bigger picture. It’s also a county-hopping film that makes extraordinary use of its English locations. Truly, an undiscovered gem.
Spooky behind-the-scenes: The scene in which a little boy dressed as a skeleton appears behind a tree and spooks Dana Andrews and Athene Seyler is considered, by today’s standards, a “jump scare.” The jump scare first appeared in Cat People (1942), another Tourneur film, and was inspired by Val Lewton, the legendary film producer who hired the best untapped talent in Hollywood to direct low-budget horror films.
Where to watch: Available to rent on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon
COMA (1978) — Paranoia Horror
In Michael Crichton’s Coma, a young female doctor (played with gusto by Genevieve Bujold) discovers that healthy patients are ending up in comatose states after simple procedures and subsequently being sent to a mysterious facility. What follows is a riff on the paranoia thrillers of the ‘70s but through a horror/sci-fi lens. About the film, writer and director Crichton said, “This is a story that contains many elements of reality: the fear people have of surgery, the fear of dying at the hands of your doctor, [and] phobias about hospitals.”
Said and done. Crichton keeps the action and the paranoia grounded, making it up with striking and memorable imagery. Coma moves at a steady, engaging pace that culminates in a memorable climax reminiscent of The Parallax View. It’s a fun slow burn, one that sees Crichton borrowing from one of his idols, Alfred Hitchcock, to build a frightening tale of medicine gone wrong. As an added plus, be on the lookout for an early Michael Douglas role, as well as a wonderfully dark Ed Harris cameo.
Spooky behind-the-scenes: The coma patients suspended by wires in the mysterious facility were played by background artists. Because they had to endure great physical strain, they could only be filmed in six-minute bursts and were paid extra for their troubles.
Where to watch: HBO Max (free)
THE BLOB (1988) — Campy Horror
Chuck Russell’s The Blob is a film that gains a fascinating new perspective within the context of the Covid-19 scare. It’s a film about a living organism that feeds on human beings and grows over time, wreaking havoc and mass hysteria, while the government maintains an illusion of control. Political landscape aside, The Blob is an effectively smart satire of the American way, with plenty of criticism going around to various regulatory bodies. There are potshots taken at the health care system, suburban living, and even the film rating commission. It’s not a mere coincidence that our hero is an outsider, the stereotypical bad boy who rides a cheap bike and wears a leather jacket. He’s usually the first to die in this type of film, but Russell and Frank Darabont—who co-wrote the script—give him depth and a sense of purpose. Similarly, the second fiddle is the quote, “dumb blonde cheerleader.” Except she’s not dumb at all. She’s empathetic and proactive. In that regard, The Blob becomes an ode to those who are outcasts and misunderstood. For the most part, the practical effects are incredible and provide some truly memorable and gruesome moments. They make the film feel visceral, even in its copious amount of schlock.
Spooky behind-the-scenes: The gag involving a partially-dissolved-but-still-alive soldier was made possible by stuntman Noble Craig, a triple-amputee who lost both legs, an arm, and an eye while serving in the Vietnam War.
Where to watch: Available to rent on iTunes and YouTube
JENNIFER’S BODY (2009) — Satirical Horror
“Dirk, do you wanna work at Moose Hoof Coffee forever? Do you want to be a big loser? Or do you want to be rich and awesome like that guy from Maroon 5?”
That’s an actual line of dialogue from the Diablo Cody-written, Karyn Kusama-directed masterwork of horror-satire, Jennifer’s Body. The film was mishandled by the studio’s marketing department at the time of its release, which led to poor box-office receipts. But it has since gained a cult following and is now recognized as one of the few true feminist horror films, and a terrific work of pop culture pastiche. And it could’ve never been anything else. Amanda Seyfried leads as our bashful lead Needy, The OC’s Adam Brody is the villainous student of the occult à la 1970s prog-rock band, and Megan Fox is quite literally a man-eater. The satire is right there for the taking and works in spades–most due to Cody’s excellent writing. Through sharp dialogue, unexpected narrative twists and turns, and a consistently unique point of view, she offers a modern iteration of toxic relationships. Plus, Kusama adds to the cool factor by giving the film a fantastic soundtrack.
Spooky behind-the-scenes: The demon that possesses Megan Fox’s Jennifer closely resembles a succubus, which stems from Jewish, Christian, and Sumerian mythology. It is said that a succubus will have sex with men until they are completely “drained” of their life force.
Where to watch: The Criterion Channel (free); iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon (for rent)
FRIGHT NIGHT (2011) — Comedy Horror
Craig Gillespie is perhaps best known for his work in the indie scene, with films like Lars and the Real Girl and I, Tonya. But in 2011, Gillespie was audacious enough to remake Tom Holland’s beloved classic, Fright Night, and usher this successful franchise to a new generation. He cast Anton Yelchin and Colin Farrell in the lead roles and put Imogen Poots, David Tenant, Dave Franco, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse around them. The result is a terrific and bloody horror-comedy that hits the right beats at the right time. The film smacks the ground running and never stops, going from the creepy to the humorous to the macabre with a great sense of timing, sprinkling some twisted fun along the way. Gillespie is very skilled behind the camera, and Yelchin even better in front of it, grounding a fantastical narrative with his naturalist charisma. The film also had a little help from someone with the touch of Midas. According to Gizmodo, Steven Spielberg provided a great deal of input in the making of the film, namely by influencing storyboards and assisting with the editing. Fright Night is the type of film that if it came out on Netflix (or another streamer) this Halloween season, it’d certainly be a huge hit.
Spooky behind-the-scenes: Colin Farrell asked to be given a Latin monologue, claiming it would add an element of menace to his character. For that purpose, he hired a Latin tutor and studied the language on set. The monologue never made it to the final version, but the tutor was so fascinated with the experience that she wrote a scholarly article detailing her time on set. The article is called “I Was Colin Farrell’s Latin Teacher,” and you can read it here.
Where to watch: Available to rent on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon