The horror film was the terrain of easy Hollywood money and indie breakthroughs long before the days of Michael and Jason. The success of Dracula and Frankenstein saved Universal Studios from oblivion in the early years of the Great Depression while New Line Cinema may have never brought the likes of The Lord of the Rings to the screen without its early days as the “House that Freddy Krueger built.”
Though the genre has become a trendy focus for academics and hipster online essayists over the past thirty years, it has been unable to fully rise from the pop-culture dregs in the minds of the moviegoing public. Yet, the genre has always proven a fertile ground for reflecting the anxieties and repressed fears of a nation during its most tumultuous moments.
When AMC’s FearFest and Freeform’s umpteenth runs of Hocus Pocus and Beetlejuice go stale, here are ten of the best under-the-radar American horror films from the past fifty years to inject some new blood into seasonal viewing.
1) Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)
Ready to move on from Michael Myers after just one sequel, director John Carpenter planned to shift the franchise that made his name into an annual anthology event akin to American Horror Story. When 1982’s audience went in expecting the iconic slasher’s latest killing spree and instead got an unrelated tale about a Lothario doctor pitted against a crazed Irish toy mogul with a dubious connection to Stonehenge who reigns over a Stepford company town, the film died an embarrassing death at the box office. The series promptly reinstated Myers for the next entry, but this unfortunate history has obscured Halloween III’s success as an unhinged and grotesque indictment of corporate and media influence over American life so tightly plotted and bleak that it ranks as the best horror film of the 1980s. Come for the highly original mashup of procedural and sci-fi; stay for the sticky commercial jingle that makes one think supply chain snafus may not be such a bad thing after all.
On newly restored 4K special-edition disc and streaming on AMC+.
2) Andy Warhol’s Blood for Dracula (1974)
A devoted Catholic who adhered to right-wing politics may seem a strange collaborator for Andy Warhol, but Paul Morrissey proved a cinematic force during his tenure with the pop art kingmaker. The pinnacle of their stint together, Blood for Dracula finds the famous Count (Udo Kier in unparalleled camp form) fending off his impending death due to a dearth of the virgin blood he requires for sustenance. A fresh spin on the oft-adapted Stoker classic, the film remains one of the most cogent statements about moral relativism and cultural decay in the aftermath of Free Love. Plus, Warhol mainstay Joe Dallesandro’s turn as cinema’s most empty-headed Marxist proves even more relevant in the age of AOC.
Streaming on Prime and VUDU.
3) Jennifer’s Body (2009)
After two Transformers movies that gleefully spat in the face of Laura Mulvey and her male gaze, audiences were about as ready to see Megan Fox play a flesh-eating demon preying on nubile young men as they were to admit the reigning It Girl could really act. The result was a disastrous box-office run for Jennifer’s Body in 2009. Yet, over the past decade, Karyn Kusama’s foray into comedy-horror has proven itself a formidable candidate for most nuanced feminist statement of the contemporary cinema thanks in part to Fox’s commanding work and Amanda Seyfried’s brilliant turn as Jennifer’s aptly nicknamed best friend Needy. Screenwriter Diablo Cody could have followed up her Oscar win for Juno with another awards-pandering indie. Instead, she took a risk by crafting a multifaceted genre movie that has more to say about adolescent girls and post-9/11 small-town America than anything coming out of Sundance in the past decade.
Read our essay on the film here.
4) Land of the Dead (2005)
Every armchair film expert knows that 1968’s Night of the Living Dead was the first movie to feature a lead who happened to be African-American and, thus, has gone down in cinema history as a seminal statement on Civil Rights. What gets lost in Night’s legacy and the cult adoration of its 1978 follow-up Dawn of the Dead, is that director George A. Romero’s knack for social critique only intensified as he shifted to the third act of his career. At a time when a series of polemical and pedestrian films that wore their opposition to the Iraq War on their sleeve (coughFahrenheit9/11coughIntheValleyofElah) cluttered the box office, Romero quietly released his fourth entry in the Dead franchise to indifferent critics and modest grosses in the summer of 2005. Despite its minimal impact at the time, Land of the Dead harnesses the allegorical power of zombies to probe Americans’ willingness to sacrifice civil liberties for the illusion of safety while they line the pockets of expert elites. As the infallible authority of the zombie-proof high-rise Fiddler’s Green, former counterculture icon Dennis Hopper shows that naked power was always the endgame of the Flower Generation. The perfect zombie movie for the COVID Gutter.
5) The Howling (1981)
With its groundbreaking visual effects, An American Werewolf in London may have dominated cinema’s lycan renaissance of 1981, but Joe Dante’s The Howling deserves equal attention as a result of its impressive juggling of horror and satire. Featuring Dee Wallace (Elliott’s mom from E.T.) as a TV–news journalist sent to a New–Age colony to cope with her PTSD after surviving a serial killer’s assault, the film ruthlessly lampoons self-help culture in between gut-punching scenes of animalistic violence. Yet, its nihilistic meditations on voyeurism’s role in media consumption also position it as one of the smartest social commentaries of the 1980s, rivaled only by Dante’s follow-up: Gremlins.
Streaming on YouTube.
6) Cat People (1982)
Paul Schrader began his film career as a critic before writing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and establishing himself as the eclectic director of a host of films from American Gigolo and First Reformed to this year’s The Card Counter. But his loose remake of the 1940s Val Lewton horror classic Cat People remains his strangest project. A tale of two estranged siblings with feline instincts reuniting as adults in New Orleans, the movie is an arthouse horror show with studio funding that tackles gender dynamics, American class, and national myth by way of merging the horrific and hypersexual. Aided by gloriously melodramatic performances from Nastassja Kinski and Malcolm McDowell, Schrader lays bare the subtext bubbling underneath the surface of his Golden Age of Hollywood predecessors as only a true cineaste could.
Available for digital rental on all streaming platforms.
7) Tales from the Crypt Presents: Bordello of Blood (1996)
For those who always thought SNL alum and conservative comedian Dennis Miller missed his chance at being a leading man, the second big-screen installment bearing the name of HBO’s pioneering adaptation of the E.C. Comics series provides a glimpse into what could have been. As private dick Rafe Guttman, Miller inserts his snarky sensibilities into a hybrid of neo-noir and vampire flick that lambasts megachurch evangelical culture and Hollywood’s hard-bodied hunks with equal fervor—pairing its schlubby lead with then-Stallone-girlfriend Angie Everhart creates the perfect level of cognitive dissonance. Playing dumb but fully understanding its genre (both The Lost Boys’s Corey Feldman and Fright Night’s Chris Sarandon play characters diametrically opposed to their roles in more famous bloodsucker films), the movie was upstaged by the Tarantino-penned From Dusk Till Dawn eight months before its release despite boasting a refreshing lack of self-seriousness and a much more badass vampire assault by Super Soakers.
Streaming on Peacock.
8) Night of the Creeps (1986)
Part alien invasion film and part zombie movie with a little slasher peppered on top of a college sex-comedy coating, Fred Dekker’s directorial debut that led to his breakout cult classic The Monster Squad is easily the most original horror film of the decade. When a Hell Week prank goes awry, a plague of extraterrestrial maggots descends on a college town, reanimating the corpse of an axe-wielding serial killer buried underneath a sorority house and exposing a horde of frat bros for the braindead zombie louts they always were. Obliterating horror conventions and featuring the supporting performance that cemented Halloween III star Tom Atkins as a middle-aged sex symbol, Night of the Creeps also probes the fissures in the veneer of 50s nostalgia that obsessed the nation in the waning days of the Cold War.
Available on collector’s edition BluRay and as a digital rental on all streaming platforms.
9) The People Under the Stairs (1991)
In between unleashing Freddy Krueger on the world with A Nightmare on Elm Street and reinventing the horror genre with Scream, Wes Craven took a midcareer detour that remains not only one of his best films but also one of the most brutal satires of the 90s. When a slumlord couple living in a decaying mansion threatens to evict a young boy and his family from their apartment, he and a band of thieves attempt a Robin Hood scheme as revenge. But the routine break-in exposes a world of kidnapping, cannibalism, incest, and murder. Craven intends to take direct aim at Ronald and Nancy Reagan but ultimately explodes the world of Los Angeles’s insulated privilege.
Now streaming on Peacock and AMC+.
10) Society (1989/1992)
Brian Yuzna’s grotesque depiction of America’s elite remains one of the most disturbing and disgusting horror films of all time, which may explain its U.S. release’s three-year delay. An adopted teenage boy can’t quite explain the alienation he feels from his family and peers at school until the disappearance of his sister’s boyfriend initiates a journey of self-discovery that doubles as a political awakening. Regardless of its often on-the-nose approach, the film is one of the few to approximate the self-perception and inner workings of a ruling class built on the backs of deplorables in a way that remains seared into one’s memory years after its first viewing.
Streaming on Prime.