13 overlooked horror films to check out before Halloween

  • Juan Antonio Bayona's "The Orphanage" offers plenty of supernatural suspense.

    Juan Antonio Bayona's "The Orphanage" offers plenty of supernatural suspense.

  • Teenager Jay (Maika Monroe) enjoys a brief moment of bliss before horror hits in "It Follows."

    Teenager Jay (Maika Monroe) enjoys a brief moment of bliss before horror hits in "It Follows."

 
 
Posted9/21/2020 6:00 AM

Every year around this time, the nation's top film critics should gather together for a giant Zoom meeting to hash out a list of the 13 most overlooked scary movies for Halloween viewings.

They don't.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But they should.

That way we could skip over all the usual suspects that pop up on critics' lists for the most well-known and popular cinematic horror tales.

These would include "Psycho," "The Blair Witch Project," "The Haunting," "The Exorcist," the complete works of Dario Argento, the Chicago-made "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," "Halloween" and its sequels, the "Elm Street" franchise -- and more.

Submitted for your approval: 13 off-the-beaten-bloody-path chillers not necessarily on everyone's movie radar.

Some you've seen. Some you've heard of. This list of provocative horror tales has three rules:

1. No lame, formula mad slasher/maniac/dead teenager movies

2. No torture porn

3. The films must be released more than five years ago to provide a test of time certification.

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You can find out where to stream them at reelgood.com.

Ready or not, here they come.

1. "The Orphanage"

Juan Antonio Bayona's 2007 supernatural suspense mystery (produced by Oscar-winning Guillermo del Toro) tells the tale of an adult orphan (Belen Rueda) who buys the rickety old seaside house where she grew up and transforms it into a school for disabled children.

Then her 7-year-old son begins talking to children nobody else can see. Add to that a missing child and Geraldine Chaplin's skeletal paranormal investigator and you've got the creepiest movie ever made that constantly references "Peter Pan."

St. Charles' police chief (Oscar nominee Bruce Davison) and his deputy (Randall Batinkoff) investigate the possible return of an escaped serial killer in "Munger Road."
St. Charles' police chief (Oscar nominee Bruce Davison) and his deputy (Randall Batinkoff) investigate the possible return of an escaped serial killer in "Munger Road." -
2. "The Babadook"

A supremely original concept that works like something created by Dr. Seuss' version of Mr. Hyde. A top-hatted entity comes out of a child's book to menace a single mom and her little boy, and preys on the possibility that Mom can't really love the little guy because she blames him for the death of her husband, killed in a car on the way to his baby's birth. Aussie director Jennifer Kent will not do a sequel. Because she knows better.

A creature menaces a single mom (Essie Davis) and her son (Noah Wiseman) in "The Babadook."
A creature menaces a single mom (Essie Davis) and her son (Noah Wiseman) in "The Babadook." - Courtesy of IFC Midnight
3. "It Follows"

David Robert Mitchell's 2014 sexual terror tale projects the ultimate teenage motto felt around the world: "I gotta have sex or I'll just die!" A teen woman makes love with her boyfriend, who then warns her that she must stay away from "It" because "It" will kill her, then come after him, and track down and kill his previous sex partners, in order. (How does "It" know that?)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The only way she can save herself is to have sex with someone and pass on the curse like a really nasty STD. By the way, "It" can assume any identity it wants and is only visible to its intended victims. Cue the paranoia-vibe electronic score by Disasterpeace.

4. "Frailty"

Actor Bill Paxton's assured 2001 directorial debut feels like you're sitting around a campfire in the deep woods, listening to a master raconteur spin an urban legend that slaps your psyche around.

In a small Texas community, a man (Matthew McConaughey) tells the cops he knows the identity of the elusive serial killer known as "God's Hand." Then flashbacks show us how the man grew up with a father (Paxton) who's visited by a holy angel, and instructed to destroy all the demons in town who look like normal people. Dad carries his job out with righteous dedication, But are they all really demons?

5. "Oculus"

Not the virtual reality headset hyped by Mark Zuckerberg. It's Mike Flanagan's risky, twisty 2013 tale of two siblings struggling to destroy an evil entity that's been killing people for centuries while hiding in a large mirror.

Flanagan based his feature on his own short film shown at 2007's Microcinema Fest in Palatine, where it deservedly won the Best of the Fest award. The big unsettling question the movie poses: How do you fight something with the power to control what you see?

Starring "Doctor Who" actress Karen Gillan before she nailed roles in "Guardians of the Galaxy" and two "Avengers" movies.

Two sisters (Ambyr Childers, right, and Julie Garner) make a terrible discovery in "We Are What We Are."
Two sisters (Ambyr Childers, right, and Julie Garner) make a terrible discovery in "We Are What We Are." -
6. "Munger Road"

Produced and shot in St. Charles by local resident and Columbia College grad Nick Smith, who directs and writes an impressive first feature combining an escaped serial killer, two high school couples in a car stuck over some haunted railroad tracks, and a very worried police chief (Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Bruce Davison). An unusually confident first effort with some scary flair and slow-fuse suspense.

7. "Pontypool"

A claustrophobic, mostly single-set study in burgeoning paranoia awaits a radio talk show host (Stephen McHattie) whose evening drive time becomes flooded with reports of people succumbing to an ominous form of homicidal dementia.

The idea of spoken words containing communicable viruses is diabolically clever (and astonishingly prescient) in Tony Burgess' eerie 2008 story, which Chicago's own Straw Dog Theatre adapted into a riveting stage show several years ago.

8. "Magic"

Long before he gave the world Hannibal Lecter, Anthony Hopkins played a failing ventriloquist whose career receives an adrenaline shot from a new, nasty dummy named Fats.

Yes, Michael Redgrave already did the evil ventriloquist's dummy routine in "Dead of Night" (and Cliff Robertson did the honors for "The Twilight Zone" TV series), but Hopkins' tortured 1978 performance is a worthy match for William Goldman's polished screenplay and Richard Attenborough's taut direction.

9. "The Lady in White"

This atmospheric little 1988 gem comes from filmmaker Frank LaLoggia, who wrote and directed this tale, plus composed the nerve-jangling score for this look at a Norman Rockwellian small town menaced by a serial killer of children. When a boy (Lukas Haas) locked in the old school house witnesses a ghostly re-enactment of a murder, he's plunged into a dangerous mystery finessed with style and intensity. The ending has always been problematic, but getting there is worth the effort.

10. "Let's Scare Jessica to Death"

This harrowing early cheapie effort from first-time director John D. Hancock ("Bang the Drum Slowly") makes no attempt to explain anything, and that's its power. Steeped in hilarious 1971 period trappings (Hey, cool peace sign on your car door, man!), the story concerns a recently discharged mental patient (Zohra Lampert) who moves to a farm with her hubby. Then haunting voices begin taunting her, and the townspeople become a little strange.

11. "May"

Angela Bettis' underrated performance as a shy, introverted high school student highlights Lucky McKee's disturbing 2003 gothic drama about a lonely girl's unorthodox efforts to create the perfect friend. Anna Faris and Jeremy Sisto help her out, not always willingly.

12. "The Girl Next Door"

If you see this movie once, you will never want to see it again. Reminiscent of "The River's Edge," this 2007 conscience-blanching drama tells a shocking story about a girl trapped and tortured in a basement while neighborhood kids hang around and watch -- but never think to tell anyone about it. Gregory Wilson's humanity-scorching movie, based on Jack Ketchum's novel, exploits the horror of children and adults devoid of empathy chips.

13. "We Are What We Are"

Jim Mickle's slow-fused chiller is one of those "what's wrong with this family?" dramas climaxed by a horror-ific scene nobody sees coming. Two sisters (Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner) keep saying they want to lead normal lives after the death of their mother, and the rest of the movie shows us why they can't, especially with their strange dad (Bill Sage) in charge.

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