by Zachary T. Owen
Well, here we are in Halloween season again—a revered time for all us horror nuts. After opting out last year, I've returned with another round of frightful flicks. This is my largest and most ambitious list to date. As I've said before: each person has their own personal taste, so your mileage may vary. Horror can be an upsetting genre, so sensitive viewers may want to use discretion with a few of these entries, but I've included enough variety that I truly believe there is something for every type of horror/cult fan. If you aren't sure about part one, stick around for part two! As always, my original introduction is worth repeating:
Most horror and cult fans have seen just about everything—we tend to exhaust our favorite genre. But there is always something out there we might have missed. The following is a list of movies I believe to be underseen, forgotten, or if nothing else, underrated. If you’ve seen them all, congratulations, you are a raving lunatic who deserves a gold medal. Not all of these are what you’d call masterpieces, but each is unique in its own way. Some of them will appeal to the open-minded movie watcher, while others can only be enjoyed by devoted lovers of schlock and cult cinema. So, this October, when you’re aching for something different, something neglected, or just want a few yuks, consider this list. Without further ado—Horror and Cult Movies for the Seasoned Fan.
Sandi Tan's captivating Netflix documentary is truly something to behold. Shirkers chronicles the making of Tan and company's pet project of the same name, under the guidance of alleged film guru George Cardona. During their teenage years, Singapore wasn't exactly a haven for pop culture, but hints of punk rock and horror flicks still seeped into the environment by way of underground fanzines, which offered Tan and her friends a glimpse into a world they wanted to be a part of—the film world. George seemed to be their only doorway into that universe, but of course things go awry when he attempts to sabotage the film and eventually goes AWOL. Shirkers is a haunting meditation on trying to achieve closure and reconcile the beautiful image we have of people we care about with their often ugly inner selves.
Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (2017)
This Spanish animated feature pumps some life back into the post-apocalyptic genre in a big way. Don't let the plethora of cute animal characters fool you, Birdboy is a bleak examination of grief and fear. It tells its story in a fractured sort of way, vignettes of characters piecing together a larger narrative arc. The titular character, Birdboy, is a target of the authorities, who view him as menace. Sick with disease, he struggles to control his shadow self while attempting to heal his homeland. But like most of the characters in the film, there isn't a lot of hope for him. Still, the film ends with a glimmer of possibility in the face of unrelenting despair.
Cat Sick Blues (2016)
Loner Ted is distraught that his cat, Patrick, is dead and keeps him in a freezer. At night he puts on a cat mask, cat claws, and a cat penis, and slinks around murdering women with the belief that the blood of nine victims will bring Patrick back. Along the way he meets a youtuber whose famous cat has just been killed, and befriends her. Based on that description you might think Cat Sick Blues sounds like a fun, quirky horror flick. You'd be wrong. What we have here is a gross and uncomfortable exploitation film that I would caution more sensitive viewers to stay away from. Cat Sick Blues is really something else, one of those movies that the word “unique” was hand tailored for. It's upsetting but well made. It's grim, yet it's funny. It's delivered with deadpan earnestness and has a rockin' soundtrack. And when it was over, I felt my emotions had been toyed with. Perhaps by a phantom cat.
Motivational Growth (2013)
I went back and forth on whether to include Motivational Growth. The problem? I love the premise of this film and the aesthetic but the tone is all over the place. Growth can't commit to one vision. It could have been a great schlock film about evil talking mold that rules the life of a depressed man looking for purpose. What we got instead is a film that wants to do those things but also waxes philosophical in a desperate attempt to legitimize itself. For a movie with a central character that is mold, it's incredibly pretentious. There are some great scenes that are immediately followed up with scenes saying, “Did that really happen? Is any of this real? Is it a fever dream? Is the main character actually dead?” Whenever that happened, I found it all very tired and trite. But there is a saving grace to the film: Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator, The Frighteners). Combs goes all-in with his performance as the malevolent mold. He delivers every line with incredible vigor. He is venomous, charming, and occasionally frightening. This is one of the best performances of his career. So, with that combined with a pretty good premise, I was able, against my better judgment, to enjoy Motivational Growth in fits and starts.
Yes, that Blackwoods. The one directed by Uwe Boll. I can hear the groans already. I know a few of you are wincing as you read this. But hear me out. This movie is really funny. It has some very poorly edited sequences and a ridiculous plot twist that reminds you of every twist ending you've ever seen that didn't work, except, it kind of does work? Okay, maybe not that well, but upon inspecting Blackwoods closely you'll notice that Boll does cover his tracks. The twist is still really, really stupid, but on a technical level, it functions. That is more than I can say for so many other twisty genre films. And you know what? Any movie with a supporting role from Clint Howard can't be that bad. And trust me, this is one of his better bit parts.
The Convent (2001)
Mike Mendez has made a slew of entertaining B horror movies, including Don't Kill It (with Dolph Lundgren), Gravedancers, and Big Ass Spider. The Convent fits in nicely with those entries and offers up an entertaining slice of fast-moving pulp. The plot is simple and makes no bones about complexity: college students break into a cursed convent and become possessed by evil spirits. The demons have a neat neon/blacklight look and The Convent never takes itself too seriously, offering laughs and visual gags. The real highlight, however, is a turn by Adrienne Barbeau as a badass biker ready to blow away the evil with guns blazing.
Little Otik (2000)
I was first introduced to the work of Jan Svankmajer as a teenager. I had a growing interest in Alice in Wonderland (I was a weird teenager, I know) and found a copy of of Jan's adaptation, Alice, at a local video store. Needless to say, I took it home and watched and was blown away by how unusual it was. Jan was one of the foremost stop motion animators in the world, hailing from the Czech Republic. Little Otik is one of the most bizarre films in his oeuvre. It's essentially the tale of a couple who cannot have children. The husband brings home a stump that resembles a baby and after a pretend pregnancy, the wife gives birth to the stump and imagines he is alive. The husband is disturbed to come home one day to find the stump actually suckling his wife's breast. From there it just gets weirder. The stump must consume flesh to continue growing and so the two must find victims to feed it. But it keeps getting bigger and bigger. Little Otik is one of those startlingly original films that you just need to see. Most deliciously creepy is the fact that the only stop motion in the film is Little Otik himself, making the character all the more odd and malignant set against a world of live action and normalcy.
Office Killer (1997)
Cindy Sherman's pitch black horror opus is one of those films that seems like it was virtually ignored in its day. I've seen it floating around on a few other lists out there and I'm throwing my vote in, too. Office Killer is like Office Space re-imagined as a horror movie. I'm absolutely certain I'm not the first to say that, but if it helps sell the film, it bears repeating. Carol Kane (The Princess Bride, The Addams Family Values) plays a disgruntled office worker (they're always disgruntled, aren't they?) who accidentally kills a co-worker in her hellish, corporate shit hole office and then takes it upon herself to keep on killing. Imagine Milton if he was a woman and bloodthirsty. Molly Ringwald really shines in a role against type for her. I found myself enjoying the general tone and editing of the film, including a very stylish opening credits sequence. There are some naysayers out there, but I recommend going into this one without expectations. If you're anything like me, you'll have a good time with it.
Face of Evil (1996)
Most people know Mary Lambert for Pet Semetary, but she has been quietly continuing directorial work through the years. Face of Evil is a made-for-TV thriller starring Tracey Gold, Perry King, and pre-Saw Shawnee Smith. Gold plays a con artist who rips off her husband-to-be, flies out of town, and then kills a woman and assumes her identity. Her new roommate, played by Smith, eventually becomes suspicious. But not before Gold tries to seduce her father. This is all pretty typical stuff, but Face of Evil is very competently made and full of solid acting for a movie of its budget. Things stay fairly exciting and aside from a somewhat anticlimactic final act, it's an engaging film. Face of Evil is the sort of movie you would have put on in the background during the cable days, but before long find yourself sitting in the recliner having put your chores on hold so you can finish watching it.
The Boneyard (1991)
The Boneyard is a wild witch's brew of intense flavors. At times it's actually sort of creepy, but then something outrageously absurd will pop up, such as a gigantic zombie poodle. This one's got Phyllis Diller (!) playing the hilariously named Miss Poopinplatz–that alone is worth the price of admission, but there is just so much to love about The Boneyard. Shades of Return of the Living Dead don't hurt it a bit and, maybe most memorably, the leading lady isn't a typically traditionally beautiful Hollywood heroine, but a larger woman. I racked my brain to come up with any other horror movie which does the same and came up with zilch. I'm sure that will change in the future, but remember, The Boneyard did it first. A trailblazer? Maybe.
The Haunted (1991)
Another TV outing, The Haunted is one of those infamously not-on-DVD titles that really deserves some kind of special edition treatment. Sure, it kind of apes movies like The Amityville Horror, even claiming to be based on a true story, but it's no cheap knock-off. This is a seriously well made effort which has some really nice atmosphere and a few quality scares. I wasn't sure how exactly to bring this up, but it's also one of the few horror movies I've ever seen where a man is assaulted by a woman (to those who may be sensitive regarding such a scene, don't fret, the TV nature of The Haunted means it's not a very graphic). I couldn't find a trailer, but you can watch the whole damn thing above.
Zachary T. Owen is an arsonist and an author. His books can be found here.