Expert picks: The 25 best underrated horror movies for Halloween

·16 min read

Spooky thrills, gruesome chills, monsters, mayhem and macabre delights — it’s a horror hound’s favorite season. You’ve already revisited the seminal slashers, ghost stories and the usual go-to Halloween classics. But which are the most underappreciated scary movies that keep your favorite horror creators up at night?

We asked 25 horror icons, makers and experts to name the most unsung horror films not to miss, from the forgotten to the obscure to the misunderstood standouts of the genre. Here are their sinister selections, for your viewing terror… (complete with streaming and digital availability information by clicking on each film's title).

Ari Aster, writer-director ('Hereditary,' 'Midsommar')

"Deep Crimson (Profundo Carmesí)" (1996)

A suffocating wallow from one of Mexico's great misanthropes. Arturo Ripstein's soul-sick treatment of the Lonely Hearts Killers' spree is a bilious portrait of the banality of evil and a work of authentic nihilism that is just as ugly as it needs to be, which makes it just about unwatchable. Here is true, humanity-as-cesspool horror, in the grotesque tradition of "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," "Angst" and "Man Bites Dog." It's so profoundly unpleasant that I'm not actually recommending it.

Ernest Dickerson, director ('Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight,' 'Bones')

"Prince of Darkness" (1987)

Cosmic horror is a tough genre to crack. But one little-seen film has been more successful than others in generating that vital frisson of dread, and that is John Carpenter's "Prince of Darkness." This movie's strength is that it resonates emotionally and intellectually. Emotionally, it plays like a nightmare with an isolated group of scientists fighting a horror outside of our world. Intellectually, it questions the nature of reality using influences ranging from Lovecraft, Argento, Jean Cocteau and Nigel Kneale to quantum physics. Plus, it has an eerie score and a finale that will haunt you.

Mike Flanagan, writer-director ('Doctor Sleep,' 'Midnight Mass')

"Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight" (1995)

The inaugural feature from HBO’s classic series was woefully underappreciated upon release. Ernest R. Dickerson’s wonderful film is scary, funny, smart and delightfully gory. The cast is an embarrassment of riches, featuring Dick Miller, Charles Fleischer, Brenda Bakke, Thomas Haden Church, the amazing CCH Pounder, and a fantastic William Sadler. But Jada Pinkett-Smith shines as the reluctant heroine and Billy Zane astounds in a performance for the ages. The final scene is legitimately sublime and teases an epic ripe for further installments … hell, I want to make a sequel to this movie. This film was ahead of its time.

Cassandra Peterson a.k.a. Elvira, actress and author ('Yours Cruelly, Elvira')

"Dracula's Daughter" (1936)

Irving Pichel as Sandor and Gloria Holden as Countess Marya Zaleska in the film "Dracula's Daughter."
Irving Pichel as Sandor and Gloria Holden as Countess Marya Zaleska in the film "Dracula's Daughter" from 1936. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When I was a kid, I loved "Frankenstein," "Dracula," "The Wolf Man" and all the Universal classics. But aside from Frankie’s freaky bride, it was mostly a monster “boys club.” Then I discovered "Dracula's Daughter" (1936) starring a very goth Gloria Holden as a vamp with an appetite for the ladies. She was mysterious and alluring in ways that I did not fully grasp. But then I had a chance to see it again later when it aired on my show "Elvira's Movie Macabre," and whoa! I realized she was the precursor of all us ladies of the night, from Morticia Addams to Maleficent.

Tananarive Due, film historian and writer ('Horror Noire')

"Eve's Bayou" (1997)

"Eve’s Bayou," written and directed by Kasi Lemmons, is a beautiful and emotionally complex debut — and it wields power both as a family drama and as domestic horror. “The summer I killed my father, I was 10 years old,” Eve’s story begins. Set in the Louisiana bayou in a segregated community in 1962 with an all-Black cast, "Eve’s Bayou’s" horror is coming from inside the house. A powerhouse performance from newcomer Jurnee Smollett (then only 10) backed up by Samuel L. Jackson, Debbi Morgan, Lynn Whitfield, Meagan Good, Lisa Nicole Carson and Diahann Carroll, lush cinematography and Lemmons' poetic script deliver a disturbing story you will never forget.

Fede Álvarez, writer-director (2013's 'Evil Dead,' 'Don't Breathe')

"Possession" (1981)

If you are a bit of a jealous person like I am, then get ready for your worst nightmare. "The Exorcist" meets "High Fidelity," "Possession" portrays a husband’s (Sam Neill) descent into madness as he tries to find out why his wife (Isabelle Adjani) suddenly left him. It quickly becomes clear that she’s having a feverish sexual affair with someone … or more precisely: something. Adjani gives one of the most powerful female performances I have ever seen on screen, and has deeply influenced my own horror work forever.

Joe Dante, director ('Gremlins,' 'The Howling') and creator of 'Trailers From Hell'

"The Innocents" (1961)

Deborah Kerr in a scene from the movie "The Innocents"
Deborah Kerr in a scene from the 1961 psychological horror drama "The Innocents," based on Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw." (Getty Images)

I'm not sure this film is underappreciated, because it definitely is not by those who have seen it, but "The Innocents," Jack Clayton's version of Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw," certainly deserves to be better known. It is the most hauntingly and psychologically complex ghost story I've ever seen, presented with an ambiguous gentility that is literally spine-chilling. Deborah Kerr contributes a career-best performance as the sexually troubled Victorian governess whose preteen charges may or may not be possessed by the licentious spirits of the previous servants. The atmosphere is stiflingly suggestive, the filmmaking unforgettable. Gothic angst at its spookiest. It creeps me out just thinking about it.

Barbara Crampton, actor/producer ('Jakob's Wife,' 'Re-Animator')

"Daughters of Darkness" (1971)

Delphine Seyrig in a scene from the film 'Daughters Of Darkness', 1971.
Delphine Seyrig in a scene from the film "Daughters Of Darkness" from 1971. (Showking Films/Getty Images)

Having produced a vampire movie myself while noting the eternal hits of such, there are clear standouts. Schreck, Lugosi, Kinski, Lee and Oldman carry their films into perpetuity with compelling performances. Blood-sucking narratives riffing on Stoker’s original tale, "Near Dark" and "Let the Right One In," illuminate the intricacies of relationships using modern-day constructs. But a film deserving of more love is "Daughters of Darkness." A singular stunning performance from Delphine Seyrig and compelling dual storylines colliding to an explosive finish give this film bite. The film’s visual beauty in frame after frame is matched perfectly by its simmering sexy center. A feeling of danger and desire is palpable throughout with an underlying lesbian vibe, ahead of its time in terms of the gender of its protagonist.

Gigi Saul Guerrero, writer-director ('Culture Shock,' 'Bingo Hell')

"Triangle" (2009)

It still shocks me this movie isn't talked about enough: "Triangle" on the exterior seems like a basic movie about a group of boaters who get caught in bad weather and end up on another ship. But there are so many more layers to this film that one could expect, and one in particular that gives an eerie spin is the deja vu effect. Things begin to repeat and repeat, as this mysterious hooded stranger starts ending the lives of the group one by one. As the cycle goes on you begin to realize that there is no end … or is there? It leaves you open to your own interpretation. And blending the horror/slasher with sci-fi elements makes the movie considerably crafted for an audience that didn’t embrace it. It’s a highly recommended watch, not just once, but a few more times as there are things you may miss.

Kier-La Janisse, author and director ('Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror')

"When a Stranger Calls Back" (1993)

This is a pretty mainstream choice for me, admittedly, but it’s a film I champion whenever I get the opportunity because people tend to be incredulous about how good it is, since it was a made-for-TV sequel to a classic horror film — namely "When a Stranger Calls" from 1979. Nineties horror it-girl Jill Schoelen plays a woman deeply traumatized by an experience as a teen babysitter. She turns to the first film’s survivor, played again by Carol Kane — and I’d argue that Kane gives a much stronger performance here; her delivery throughout is absolutely chilling. As with the original there are parallel storylines that follow both the protagonist and her disturbed tormenter, and there is a meaningful discussion of the kinds of support systems women have to create to combat predatory behavior of all stripes. And so many terrifying moments — it is scary as hell. Writer-director Fred Walton also returns to helm the sequel, and I just think his body of work is underappreciated in general.

Radio Silence (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Chad Villella) filmmakers ('Ready or Not,' 2022's 'Scream')

"Joy Ride" (2001)

This movie is a touchstone for us that belongs right up there with "Halloween," "Elm Street" and "Scream." A tight and engaging thriller about estranged brothers stalked on a cross-country road trip by an unseen killer — a trucker with a haunting voice heard only over CB (played brilliantly by Ted Levine) — "Joy Ride" is packed with thrills, scares, humor and heart. And once this movie gets going, it never stops. Then there’s Steve Zahn. Steve f— Zahn! He’s at his absolute best in this and his throwaway approach to the humor gets better with every watch. In fact, this whole movie gets better with every watch. And spoiler alert, a VHS copy can be seen in the new "Scream" (2022).

Mick Garris, writer-director ('Critters 2,' 'Nightmare Cinema')

"Thirst" (1979)

Shamefully underseen and underacknowledged, the 1979 revisionist vampire thriller "Thirst" dispenses with crucifixes, fangs, wooden stakes and garlic; in fact, with pretty much everything supernatural. Set in contemporary Australia, it posits that a worldwide vampire aristocracy called the Brotherhood remains powerful and fit for ages by supping on the blood gladly offered up by young and beautiful devotees who would do anything to be a part of the lives of their masters. The fast-moving thriller [directed by Rod Hardy, screenplay by John Pinkney] makes canny use of the blind devotion of the opiated masses — in this case, the human cattle who live in the estate’s blood farm — in a witty commentary on power and celebrity that rings even more true today than it did in 1979.

Ashlee Blackwell, writer-producer ('Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror')

"Blood Runs Down" (2018)

Filmmaker Zandashé Brown’s mastery of the Southern gothic horror tradition lends itself to an interior rural setting in three segments that becomes the terrain of a mother (Idella Johnson) and daughter (Farrah Martin), engulfed by a supernatural force where the youngest must do battle on her own. Black women creating fantastical internal and external worlds for Black women in horror films is a criminally rare treat. Brown’s work here is immersive, suspenseful, dreary and provides the emotional gut punch you weren’t quite expecting in such visceral and illuminating ways that could bring any audience to catharsis.

Rob Zombie, writer-director ( 'The Devil's Rejects,' 2007's 'Halloween')

"House of Dark Shadows" (1970)

Jonathan Frid and Kathryn Leigh Scott in "House Of Dark Shadows," from 1970.
Jonathan Frid and Kathryn Leigh Scott in "House Of Dark Shadows," from 1970. (United Archives/Getty Images)

Back in 1970, while the popular gothic soap opera "Dark Shadows" was still a smash on the afternoon airwaves, creator Dan Curtis decided to direct a feature-length film of the supernatural happenings at old Collinwood. This film is a prime example of everything done right when turning a TV show into a movie: Gone are the cheap sets, clunky camera moves and meandering soap storytelling. This is essentially 200 episodes of storyline distilled down to a spectacular 97 minutes of gothic horror. All the original cast in their prime are present: John Karlen, Kathryn Leigh Scott and of course Jonathan Frid as the great Barnabas Collins. It’s like an epic American version of a Hammer film.

Jaco Bouwer, director ('Gaia')

"Relic" (2020)

Such a powerful metaphor for the human condition, of death and decline, but how it chooses to tap into an emotional resonance instead of the logical. Director Natalie Erika James' perfect little gem of a film is packaged perfectly, from the premise to how the story unfolds, the metaphorical/allegorical symbols in losing parts of the self, in-camera effects, mostly single location and then of course the ending, which I don’t want to give away, is just absolutely cathartic and touches on the sublime.

Christian Parkes, co-founder, Beyond Fest

"The Devils" (1971)

The most underappreciated horror film is Ken Russell’s 1971 masterpiece, "The Devils." However, this underappreciation doesn’t lie with audiences but with its distributor, Warner Bros., who has suppressed its release for the past 50 years. A shameful act of self-censorship, Warner Bros. has consistently refused to let "The Devils" screen theatrically and has bluntly prevented from making it accessible on home-entertainment formats — an action that has not gone unnoticed, most notably by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro: “There are powers that be at Warner Bros. that refuse to allow the movie to be seen. It’s not an accident. It’s a true act of censorship.” Ken Russell, his film, filmmakers, and film audiences everywhere deserve much better.

Timo Tjahjanto, writer-director ('May the Devil Take You,' 'V/H/S/94')

"Session 9" (2001)

Brad Anderson’s "Session 9" has slowly gained traction over the years, particularly after the film’s Shout! Factory Blu-ray release. This psychological horror masterpiece sat in the attic of the forgotten for almost two decades before finally being acknowledged as one of the scariest post-millennial horror films.

Meagan Navarro, head critic, Bloody Disgusting

"Wild Zero" (1999)

"Love has no nationality, gender, or borders! Do it!" Punk rock energy and heart pump through the veins of this wild B-movie romp that serves as a showcase for "Jet Rock 'n Roll" legends Guitar Wolf. The garage rock power trio takes on greedy managers, bumbling thieves, a zombie outbreak, and an alien invasion, all while imparting valuable lessons about love and courage to their biggest fan, Ace. What first-time director Tetsuro Takeuchi lacks in technical expertise, he makes up for in DIY humor, gore, and schlock, taking audiences on a punk voyage through face-melting fun for the midnight crowd. [Watch the trailer on YouTube or Facebook]

Don Mancini, creator of the original 'Child's Play' franchise

"The Fury" (1978)

Brian De Palma's adaptation of John Farris' novel wasn’t nearly as popular as the director’s classic "Carrie," probably due its complicated, bipartite story. But it’s a masterfully directed film in its own right. With breathtaking panache, De Palma deploys his battery of trademark visual tricks — stutter cuts, split-field lenses, slow motion, stealthily circling cameras — to evoke the surreal mindscapes of teen telepaths Amy Irving and Andrew Stevens, “psychic twins” exploited for their espionage potential by nefarious G-man John Cassavettes. The kids’ uncontrollable ability to make people bleed simply by touching them gives rise to a series of brilliantly shocking scenes of stylized violence, climaxing with Cassavettes' literally explosive demise. The late, great critic Pauline Kael wrote of "The Fury": “No Hitchcock thriller was ever so intense, went so far, or had so many classic sequences."

Robert Englund, actor ('A Nightmare on Elm Street' franchise)

"Sisters" (1973)

William Finley gives my favorite “mad doctor” performance. Margot Kidder is luminous. Twins freak me out. Best suspenseful split-screen ever. [Available on Criterion Channel]

Fabio Frizzi, composer ('Zombi 2,' 'The Beyond')

"Eaten Alive" (1976)

A film that I saw again recently and that gave me strong emotions is "Eaten Alive," directed by the great Tobe Hooper three years after the release of his masterpiece "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." The first thing that struck me is the sentence pronounced right at the beginning by Buck (Robert Englund): "My name is Buck and I'm here to f—," the same sentence said by the nurse Buck in the film "Kill Bill: Volume 1” by Tarantino, which precedes the hospital room awakening and reaction of Uma Thurman's character, accompanied by our music from Fulci's "Seven Notes in Black." But beyond this quote, I believe that the film contains many elements that have been taken up and developed in the horror genre of the following years. Even the use of music — a very effective mix of country western songs and paroxysmal effects — unequivocally guides the viewer on the path of the protagonist's madness. In short, a beautiful piece of history to be reevaluated.

Phil Nobile Jr., editor-in-chief, Fangoria

"His House" (2020)

Netflix has been a boon to independent filmmakers looking for an audience, as the service snaps up titles and provides a platform undreamed of just a few years ago. But the service is not without its pitfalls; namely, films can sometimes land on Netflix like a drop of water in a vast ocean, often disappearing as the algorithm directs viewer focus elsewhere. One film that shouldn't get lost in that sea of content is "His House," Remi Weekes' haunted house story set in the outskirts of London. Wunmi Mosaku and Sope Dirisu play Sudanese refugees dealing with government bureaucracy, xenophobia and a particularly heinous haunting of their council flat that carries more thematic heft than is usually found in contemporary ghost stories. Mosaku and Dirisu give award-worthy performances, and the story of sacrifice and guilt lingers in the mind long past the film's visceral scares.

Joe Begos, writer-director ('Bliss')

"Pet Sematary Two" (1992)

It’s unfortunate that people write off Mary Lambert’s "Pet Sematary Two" whenever I sing its praises or go into detail on an exciting sequence from the film — that is, until they watch it. Whether it’s the scenery-chewing all-time performance from Clancy Brown, the searing soundtrack packed with pissed off, early ’90s female-led grunge, or the gnarly sequences of splatter, there’s always something that prompts those who wrote it off to reverse their opinions. Despite the lack of Stephen King’s involvement, it’s even better than its well-crafted predecessor. It’s a yearly staple that I revisit every autumn — to be honest, even more often than that — and hopefully it will soon slide into your rotation as well.

Jeff Barnaby, writer-director ('Blood Quantum')

"The Void" (2017)

I didn’t know what I was walking into the first time I watched "The Void." I knew nothing about it outside of its badass name. It turned into one of my favorite movies of the past 10 years. Drawing inspiration from "The Dunwich Horror," John Carpenter, Clive Barker, Canada’s own Cronenberg and a plethora of body horror and splatter films, "The Void" pays homage to classics while being something totally original. It’s what happened when a production designer and special FX artist — Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski — come together and make a cosmic horror movie with no money. A profane little indie Canadian masterpiece.

Sam Wineman, podcaster and director (Shudder's upcoming untitled queer horror documentary)

"Sorority Row" (2009)

Look, I get it. It was 2009 and you were burned out on remakes. One hundred-fiftieth at the box office, why bother? But here’s the thing: You’ve been sleeping on "Sorority Row" for over a decade. This endlessly quotable movie balances the best of aughts-era snark with the narrative complexities of chosen family. Leah Pipes is serving next-level mean girl (yes, even better than that one). So drop the grudge you've been nursing about 2000s horror and lose yourself in those oh-so-aughts set pieces. Trust me — by the time you get to the hot tub kill, you’ll be thanking me.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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