If it's left up to you to rent the horror flicks for this year's Halloween party, and you find yourself in the video aisle agonizing between the virtues of Halloween III: Season of the Witch and Yog, Monster from Space, then you might be in need of a little bit of assistance.
Why waste your time giggling at Freddy, Jason and Chucky's nutty misadventures when you could be watching something that will make you afraid ever to sleep again? Here's a list of 10 great horror films you probably haven't seen, but should. Make this Halloween the year that you didn't drop the ball.
Bloodsucking Freaks (1978)
Admittedly, "great" is not a word I would apply to this juicily titled monstrosity. Neither is "scary" or even "tasteful". This low-budget shocker about an S&M stage-show found cult fame by simply being the most repugnant thing ever put to celluloid. Although shamefully misogynistic (it was picketed by Women Against Pornography), its appeal lies in how creative it is with its torture and disembowelment--rear ends used as dart boards, brains sucked through straws and so forth. No, it's not On Golden Pond, but there's something tongue-in-cheek and darkly inspired about it all. Plus, any movie where a black midget named Ralphus receives fellatio from a severed head has a place on my shelf.
Buried Alive (1990)
Believe it or not, this was a USA Movie. Yes, the same cable yahoos who brought you the shows Silk Stockings and Pacific Blue also created this made-for-television thriller. The inventive, economical script was directed by Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), and features only four characters. The first half culminates in amiable carpenter-for-hire Tim Matheson being, well, buried alive. The second half, however, is the real kicker--Matheson has escaped and uses his carpentry skills to trap his tormentors in a homemade maze of horrors. A dark, surprising, claustrophobic gem.
Combat Shock (1987)
The video box may make it look like a cheap Deer Hunter knock-off, but this no-budget underground film is actually a convincing, highly disquieting tale of a jobless junkie dealing with Vietnam flashbacks and his grim, hopeless life. Rarely has a sense of filth-ridden sleaze been so palpably put to film; this movie makes you feel like you've been sleeping in a dumpster for four days. Features such pleasant sequences as an addict shooting up with a bent coat-hanger, a vigilante massacre finale and the greatest mewling mutant-baby since David Lynch's Eraserhead.
Real-life psycho killer Ed Gein has been the inspiration for a handful of awesome films--Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence of the Lambs. But Gein's tale was most faithfully told in this vivid, ballsy fictionalization. Robert Blossom's portrayal of the corpse-loving, human-skin-wearing "Ezra Cobb" is at once tender and chilling, and the movie manages to maintain a razor-balance of understated, intellectual dread and startling Tom Savini gore. Unabashedly independent-minded and very artistically successful, Deranged has been unfairly overshadowed by its taller, more esteemed cousins. Somewhat hobbled by a "How could have we known what was going on in Ezra's head?"-style narrator.
Sante Sangre (1989)
Easily one of the most audacious movies of the last two decades. It begins in a traveling carnival, where the burly knife-thrower carries on a lustful affair with the sensual tattooed lady before he is castrated with acid, whereupon he retaliates by hacking off the tattooed lady's arms. (Not bad so far, huh?) This colorful, savagely stylish shocker by director Alexandro Jodorowsky is like Tim Burton circa Beetlejuice meets Alfred Hitchcock circa Psycho by way of Tod Browning's Freaks. The transition from a visual, almost silent movie to a disconcerting study on Oedipal obsession is flawless. Becomes more fascinating by the minute and by the viewing.
Shivers aka They Came From Within (1975)
David Cronenberg's first film. (Enough said.) An apartment high-rise is the microcosmic setting for this icky little picture about tiny killer slugs that look like penises and that turn their victims into nymphomaniac zombies. The sex-crazed monsters then pass on the little buggers to their sexual victims, and so forth. Somehow forecasting the AIDS epidemic, Cronenberg's apocalyptic cautionary tale is dripping with tainted sex and almost carnally tantalizing blood; by the orgy ending, you almost feel like one of the diseased--doomed, horny and hungry for more.
The Tingler (1959)
Although a fine film in its own right, this William Castle production is more famous for its original marketing gimmick, "Percepto," in which certain movie theater seats were electrically wired so that audience members would think that they were being attacked by the tingler. The tingler, by the way, is a worm that lives on your spine (uh, yuck) that grows larger when it's fed by your fear, accounting for that "tingling" feeling. Vincent Price is the surgeon who isolates the beast by scaring a deaf woman to death (she's unable to scream, natch) and removing the crawly creature from her corpse. Unfortunately--gasp!--the tingler escapes to wreak general havoc. Also notable for the first-ever LSD hallucinatory sequence, which includes red blood pouring out of a sink. (The rest of the movie is black-and-white.)
Tourist Trap (1979)
One of Stephen King's favorite horror films, this is hard to find, but well worth the hunt. Chuck Connors plays a backwoods psycho who operates, oddly enough, a wax museum in the middle of nowhere. He lures in teen campers, then uses his telekinesis to animate the dummies into giggling, grinning murderers. Sound confusing? Well, in fact, it makes no sense whatsoever, but it's nevertheless incredibly effective. The sequences when the mannequins come to life, laughing lightly and reaching slowly out to their prey, are enough to make you mess your pants.
The Wicker Man (1973)
Christopher Lee steals the show as the charming leader of a bizarre island town under investigation for a missing child. The police officer on the case becomes increasingly sure that the girl is in fact still alive and will be sacrificed at the island's annual May Day celebration. Viciously intelligent and filled with so many convincing details about the island folk--their superstitions, rituals, clothing and songs--that it feels like some sort of heinous documentary. It builds slowly and effectively towards a big, spectacular surprise ending. Only flaw (and man, it's a doozy) is a bizarre, nude dance sequence that is so insanely out of place that it provides unintentional comic relief.
X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963)
A dark, sober film from--believe it or not--schlockmeister Roger Corman. Ray Milland plays a surgeon who develops special eye-drops that help his vision. The effect continues to increase, however, until Milland can see through playing cards, clothes, walls ... and ore. Plays out its premise with a logical, almost mournful inevitability, as if Milland was doomed the minute he put the eye drops in. The unsettling final sequence attempts to answer the question "If you see through everything, what's left to see?" And, hey--Don Rickles is in it, so it must be good.