People are preparing for one of the best times of the year – what I like to call Spooky Season. Spooky Season is that short period of time that occurs between the official end of Summer and Halloween. For many people, Halloween is just as much of a season as it is a holiday, and spooky nerds like myself like to joke that Halloween starts right after Labor Day. However, I think most folks would agree that once the air begins to chill, and the leaves on the trees begin to change, that we are officially in Spooky Season.
What makes Spooky Season so special is that it’s the perfect time for horror fanatics to revisit some of their favorite films. I don’t consider myself a film buff, or even a horror buff – but I like movies and I really like horror movies, which means I’ve developed opinions about them. I’ve been a fan of horror films for most of my life, having watched movies like Tremors as a child. I’ve watched nearly all of the Friday, the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street films before I was ten-years-old. I’m old enough to remember how amazing it was to go to your local video rental store and rent a couple of movies for the week. My local video rental store had this awesome deal where you could rent five movies, for five days, for five dollars – as long as they were older titles that were labeled as such. This is how I was introduced to film franchises such as Child’s Play and Puppet Master. Since I could rent up to 5 movies at a time, I liked to find entire franchises to watch, and this is how I’ve grown to love the genre.
This isn’t about me though – but I can almost guarantee that my story sounds familiar to some. More than likely, it reminds you of yourself. This is how some of the most obscure movies in cinema history have been able to garner cult followings. Weird kids and teenagers like myself would go to the video store and take chances on goofy horror films, simply because the box art looked wicked sweet. Apparently, there were enough of us out there who loved these movies that there is entire community built around it. Over time, I’ve watched some horror films that most of the people in my everyday life have never heard about.
Of course, if everything that I’ve said up until this point doesn’t apply to you, then this list of recommendations is for you. If you like horror movies, but never really went past some of the classic, I would like to give you my list of what I consider to be underappreciated films. The criteria for this list is largely arbitrary. These are movies that I have personally seen, and I admit there are a lot of great hidden gems that I’ve never gotten to. Additionally, these movies will range wildly in terms of themes and quality. Before composing this list, I researched each movie’s score on Rotten Tomatoes, and only one of them scored above a 70% with critics. With that in mind, some of these recommendations will actually NOT be for you. I am aware that you might not find anything in here to enjoy. I will do my best to explain why this film works for me. However, I will be proceeding from this point forward assuming that you have at least a mild interested in Horror films. There is a reason why these films are not considered all-time classics. I just want to shine a light on these films that make me happy. Grab some popcorn, a soft blanket and turn off the lights, because it’s Spooky Season!
5. Demonic Toys (1992)
I really wanted to start this list of with this movie for a few very important reasons. First and foremost, I love this movie way more than it actually deserves, and I’m not entirely sure why. Secondly, this movie has the lowest audience score of all the movies on this list which makes it a great starting point. It only goes up from here, baby!
Demonic Toys starts us off with a couple of undercover cops who botch an arms deal bust, leading to one of the officer’s deaths. It is revealed that the two officers are a romantic couple, and the female cop, Judith, is carrying their child. Judith chases the dealer into a toy warehouse, where the injured criminal bleeds onto the floor, accidentally resurrecting a sixty-six-year-old demon. In order for the demon to be reborn into the living world, he seeks to take over the body of Judith’s unborn child. The demon animates some of the toys in the warehouse to help carry out his dastardly plans, by trying to subdue Judith and kill anyone else who gets in the way. We’re introduced to the “main” toys of the film, a smart-mouthed baby doll, a vicious Jack-in-the-box, a deadly toy robot and very hungry teddy bear. Judith, along with a hapless delivery boy, fight for survival and for the soul of the Judith’s unborn child.
Now of course if you ask me if Demonic Toys is a “good movie” in a traditional sense – like how Shawshank Redemption is a good movie…. Then the answer is absolutely not. It is a terrible movie. However, this movie just oozes with just enough schlock that it’s just so dang charming. Demonic Toys actually takes itself pretty seriously, which actually works in the movie’s favor. Each of the toys have their own personality too. Baby Oopsy Daisy is the only toy to have a voice actor, and she swears up a storm through the whole movie. Oopsy acts as a comic relief too, as she mercilessly taunts her victims before killing them, complete with the catchphrase “Play Time!”. Jack Attack is a vicious Jack-in-the-Box that is able to leave his box entirely, and crawl around like a snake. Mr. Static is a toy robot that can shoot deadly lasers at his targets. Grizzly Teddy is final demonic toy of the bunch, and is shown to have razor sharp fangs. He is typically shown biting and eating his victims. In the climax of the film, Grizzly Teddy is the final toy standing and grows into a human-sized killing machine.
This movie is fun, plain and simple. The movie itself doesn’t have a lot to say, but everything in it is just wonderful. It’s definitely not one of those movies where it’s “so bad, it’s good.” It genuinely tries to tell a pretty solid story, and it gets about halfway there. The conflict between the demon and Judith’s unborn child is actually very well done. We actually get some beautiful scenes showing the spiritual fight between the two entities. Plus, out of all the “killer toy” movies out there, I genuinely think this is one of the better ones. This is why Demonic Toys gets my Underappreciated Horror film stamp of approval.
4. House (1985)
I fully admit that I have not watched House since my teenage years, which means many of the details are fuzzy on me. However, what I do remember about this film is that it’s actually pretty awesome, it can be pretty funny, and it’s definitely underappreciated. Honestly, many fans of the horror genre are familiar with House, since its VHS box art is so iconic. This was a video store staple, and people would recognize the look of it without even watching it.
Our main character is Roger Cobb, who is a horror novelist, suffering from writer’s block. He can’t seem to continue with his latest book, a recollection of his time spent in Vietnam. The fans are eager but they want horror, not some war story. On top of all this, he is also dealing with a divorce and coping with the mysterious disappearance of his son. Depressed, he moves to his aunt’s house, from where his son vanished and in which the old lady hung herself. Roger runs into a flurry of distractions in his new adopted home. The first of which is a pesky neighbor, name Herold, who can’t seem to stay out of Roger’s business. Then there are the more malicious distractions – monsters, ghosts and ghouls who all appear at night. Eventually Cobb discovers an entry into a sinister other-world through the bathroom medicine cabinet and is pulled into the darkness, where he fortuitously locates his lost son. Cobb manages to escape with Jimmy but is soon confronted by an undead Big Ben who wants revenge on him. Ben was taken prisoner and tortured before dying in Vietnam, and he blames Cobb for failing to save him. Cobb confronts Ben, no longer afraid of his fears, and destroys him with a grenade as he and his son escape the burning house.
What makes House such a wonderful film is that it can be enjoyed by nearly everyone. The movie actually acts just as much as a comedy as it does a horror, similar to movies like Tremors (1990). However, those horror elements are still there, and we get great scenes with horribly disfigured monsters. The movie doesn’t overdo itself though, and can be enjoyed by nearly everyone. There isn’t much in the way gore which is a small subversion of classic 80’s gorefests. However, we do get a lot wonderful monster designs using some great practical effects. The monsters that appear in this film are so incredibly recognizable, that even though I’ve watched this as a child, I still remember them today.
Many folks who have watched this film revere it as one of the best B-movies of its time. It is often lumped in with other cheesy cult classics such as Evil Dead. However, so few people I’ve talked to have every given it the chance that it desperately deserves. I would describe House as a “family” horror movie. Which means that there is at least a little bit of something to like for a lot of people. The difference in quality from Demonic Toys is certainly noticeable. So, if you’re taking my recommendations at face-value, you can easily hate the other movies on the list, but might enjoy this one. I didn’t want to put this one higher on the list simply because I didn’t start writing this with a fresh sense for the movie.
3. Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
I don’t think it’s hyperbolic of me to say that Bubba Ho-Tep has one of the cheesiest premises for a movie of all time. I say this knowing that a movie called Sharknado became a cultural phenomenon. However, whereas movies like Sharknado are incredibly aware of how dumb they are, Bubba Ho-Tep will actually keep you wondering whether or not you should be taking it seriously. This movie functions primarily as a comedy, but there are certainly some really creepy and disturbing elements in there for horror fans to enjoy. I was made aware of this movie when director Don Coscarelli announced it as his next project. Coscarelli also directed another movie that will appear later in this list which I absolutely adore, so I was eager to eat just about anything he could cook up.
Bubba Ho-Tep tells the “true” story of what really became of Elvis Presley. In this movie, Elvis is played by Bruce Campbell, and is now old and wasting away in a retirement home in Texas. Our “real” Elvis switched places with an impersonator after growing tired of the fame and glory, wanting to slow down and live a normal life. Before he could switch places again and resume his role, the impersonator died, leaving our “real” Elvis to continue living out his years in obscurity. One rainy night just outside of town, a cargo van carrying an ancient Egyptian casket drives off the road and into a river. The river carries the casket down stream just outside of the retirement home, and it is here where the mummy inside is revived. Being in the casket for thousands of years, the mummy is weak and needs to feed on the souls of humans to regain strength. The folks at the retirement home are the perfect prey, as they are too old and weak to stop the mummy from extracting their souls. However, since each soul doesn’t have much life left in them, the mummy must return frequently to feed. Elvis’ best friend in the home is an elderly black gentleman, who consistently insists that he is John F. Kennedy in disguise. Elivs and his buddy “JFK” are the only two residents who see what is really going on, and they devise a plan to take down the mummy in an epic encounter involving a walker and a riding scooter.
I told you this movie sounds absolutely insane. Don Coscarelli does an absolutely outstanding job at making this silly premise not only fun to watch, but honestly kind of believable (except for the mummy part). The audience is really lead to believe that this is the real Elvis, but we are kept from being certain since we never really trust that his friend is the real JFK. To the nurses, they’re just a couple of crazy old men who don’t even know who they are anymore. This create a bit of tension, since neither of them can ask for help in fighting the mummy since they’ll just get laughed at. Elvis is such a wonderfully sympathetic character, who starts out as pathetic but gradually becomes the hero of the film.
Given the absurdity of it all, Bubba Ho-Tep is actually played pretty straight. The comedy comes directly from the characters, and not from the situation. The film is shot in a way that makes us want to believe that this isn’t as dumb as it sounds. Since most of movie takes place at this one location, we also get a ton of wonderful character moments. We grow to love these characters, which helps set the stage for a genuinely emotional climax. There aren’t any massive explosions or bit set pieces. In many ways, this movie is anti-Hollywood. Small and intimate, with just the perfect amount of cheese.
2. Critters (1986)
The last two films in this list are both really close to being considered “mainstream” according to most horror fans. However, both Critters and the next film have just enough of a cult following to be well-known, but never had their day to shine with the likes of Halloween or Gremlins. In fact, most casual moviegoers believe that Critters is a cash-grab on Gremlins. They both feature somewhat adorable fuzzy creatures that cause destruction and mayhem in a small town. Critters released after Gremlins, but what most people don’t know is that the script for Critters existed long before Gremlins. Critters sat on the shelf for a few years in development purgatory, and because of that it is an oft forgotten film. Now, I’m willing to admit that most people have at least heard of Critters. However, I maintain that it is still an under-appreciated classic that needs just a little bit more praise.
Critters is movie about a group of small extraterrestrial murder monsters that escape imprisonment, hijack a spaceship and crash land on earth. The creatures emerge hungry and ready to feed. The little guys are referred to as Crites, and they terrorize a small rural family who tries to defend their home from the furry monsters. Two shape-shifting bounty hunters from outer space are hired to hunt down and eliminate the Crites. The hunters travel across different points of the terrorized town, haplessly destroying anything that stands in the way of their mission. In the movie’s finale, one of the Crites grows to an abnormal size and kidnaps one of our protagonists. Before the ship can take off, a Molotov cocktail is thrown inside which detonates some explosives, causing the ship to crash.
Critters was recently popularized 2018 when YouTube channel Red Letter Media talked about it in a review-style episode. Red Letter Media is a successful channel with over 1.2million subscribers. They praised the film, saying that they grew up watching it and the sequels. I have no doubt that this episode created a ton of new viewers of the film – and yet Critters remains a seldom-talked-about classic.
Critters is a type of movie you can tell that the people making it really loved what they were doing. It’s a film with a lot of heart. It has some humor in it, but the horror aspects are played fairly straight. The Crites are quippy and nasty – and will often go out of their way to spite our protagonists. The entire bounty hunter subplot is what makes this movie better than it normally would be. It gives the scenario ton of depth, which helps it stand out to other small creature films like Ghoulies or Gremlins. The special effects are modest but effective, and it helps create one of the most charming cinematic experiences. Please make time to check out Critters!
- Phantasm (1979)
Saving the best for last, Phantasm is one of my all-time favorite horror movies. It is even considered one of the best horror movies by fans of the genre. This movie is so unbelievably close to being main-stream, but only misses the mark by an inch. Most fans of horror have at least heard of Phantasm, but its market-wide appeal was very limited. Many of the concepts in the film are very dream-like, and the film can be very hard to follow, which might turn off the causal movie-goer from watching it. Despite that, this film has carried its weight and garnered a bit of a cult following. Phantasm is directed by Don Coscarelli, the same director as Bubba Hotep which appears lower on this list. This was Don’s first film, and many consider his magnum opus. The film was locally sourced and filmed by a group of amateurs in a small town. Yet, the film gained so much popularity that many who were involved went on to enjoy modest careers in film. With all that said, why haven’t you watch Phantasm yet?
Phantasm is a film about a teenage boy, named Mike, who is horribly conflicted after the death of his parents. Mike is only has his older brother Jody, and he is terrified that Jody will leave him too. After the mysterious death of one of Jody’s friends, Mike decides to follow Jody around and spy on the funeral. That’s when Mike see the film’s antagonist, The Tall Man, pick up the casket with his bare hands and take it away. This starts a series of investigations that leads Mike and Jody directly into the path of the Tall Man. When Mike sneaks into the mausoleum, he is attached by the Tall Man’s henchmen, some small hooded creatures and a flyer silver sphere. The Tall Man chases Mike, which results in Mike cutting off the Tall Man’s finger. The amputated finger convinces Jody and their friend Reggie, an ice cream man, that the Tall Man must be stopped. The trio meet at the mausoleum to fight the tall man head on, and discover a portal to another world. Reggie closes the portal as Mike and Jody escape. Later, Mike and Jody devise a plan to lure the Tall Man into an old mine shaft, and trap him by causing a rockslide. The climax concludes after the Tall Man is trapped and Mike wakes up from a dream. Reggie comforts Mike telling him it was all a dream and that Jody had died in a car crash. We are left wondering if it really was just all a dream.
Phantasm is the type of movie that leaves everything about it up to interpretation. Almost nothing about the movie is made clear… This movie excels for this reason. It’s original and imaginative. It invokes some of the strangest feelings inside of you. When you watch this movie, it will be impossible to guess what will happen next. With all of that said, this is part of why Phantasm is so hard to recommend. Phantasm is a subversion of everything you think you know about horror movies, and is confusing even on multiple watches. It isn’t much of a casual film, and demands that you leave your mind open. It won’t hold your hand and doesn’t apologize for being what it is.
Phantasm is a surprisingly well-done film, given the low budget and amateurs that made it. Film is considered one of the best films that horror has to offer, and yet it is awkward and strange enough to keep itself in obscurity. However, I do solemnly promise that if you even like horror movies a little, you will find something to like about Phantasm. If you’ve heard about it, but never gave it a fair sake, now is your chance.
Thank you for reading through my picks of 5 under-appreciated horror films. I know that my recommendations all vary wildly from each other, but if you want to watch them, I promise you’ll find something you like. If nothing else, I do recommend Phantasm as the best movie on the list. However, if you want to make a game out of it, try picking a film at random, and go from there. Honestly, I would be flattered if even just one person watched just one of these movies.
From the deepest darkest parts of my heart, I wish you a happy Spooky Season!