The Exorcist, Psycho, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Evil Dead … the official list of must-see scary films is imprinted in every horror buff’s brain. But what about the smaller films: the obscure, made-for-TV, or just plain unpopular ones? Glance away from the A-list of horror and you’ll find a treasure trove of underrated classics guaranteed to make your skin crawl.
10. Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968)
How would you describe a 42-minute black and white British TV film with almost no dialogue, one character, and no special effects? Boring? Well, you’d be wrong: Whistle and I’ll Come to You is just about one of the creepiest damn stories ever put to screen.
It starts with an odd, lonely man finding an old whistle on a beach. When he blows it, strange things start happening. Storms blow up from nowhere. Weird noises keep him awake at night. Distant figures watch him, and something starts to follow him.
What’s great about this lurid little tale is how basic everything is. The BBC budget stretches to cover a couple of extras, and that’s about it. The director has to make do with shadows and noises to terrify, meaning all the horror exists solely in your head. And that only makes it even more terrifying.
9. Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)
We all know kids can be pretty damn creepy. You’ve only got to watch The Omen to know that. But even when they’re at their Damien-inspired worst, there’s still something vulnerable about them. Something that makes you want to protect them instead of blast them with your boomstick. Spanish shocker Who Can Kill a Child takes this weird ambivalence and turns it into a terrifying “what if”.
Off the coast of Europe, a tiny island has a problem: all the children have banded together and murdered the adults. When our heroes turn up the place is empty, except for some distant strains of super-creepy childish laughter. Pretty soon the violence starts and the adults are left with a terrible choice: to hide and maybe die, or to cold-bloodedly murder these angelic-looking children. Sure, the acting and effects are pretty dire even by B-movie standards, but the idea and execution are haunting and uncomfortable in the extreme.
8. Begotten (1991)
Begotten starts with an old man disemboweling himself, an act which leads to the birth of a woman and child. This woman and child wander around for a bit before being gruesomely tortured and killed … and that’s about it. At least, so far as plot is concerned. On an intellectual level, the movie is a complex web of mythological and religious references. But it’s on a technical level where this weird art-house/horror mix really shines.
During production, director E. Elias Merhige came up with a unique filming method that involved photographing onto black and white and then re-photographing onto negative, giving every shot a weird, unsettling, grainy look. The whole thing looks like a snuff film made by professors of comparative mythology. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to you to decide – but once you’ve seen Begotten, you’re unlikely to ever forget it.
7. Messiah of Evil (1973)
If you were to try and name the cinematic team least likely to make an ultra-low-budget horror film, who would you choose? Well, how about Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz; the people behind ’80s mega-flop Howard the Duck? Over a decade before that abomination, they worked together to create a little film about cannibalism, black magic, and death known as Messiah of Evil. And it’s utterly brilliant.
The story takes place in a small town populated by the sort of weirdo locals who’d freak out the guys from Deliverance. People are disappearing, bad stuff is happening, and freaky rituals are being enacted by some Lovecraftian cult. Sound like something you’ve seen a thousand times before? Well, Messiah turns all that on its head. It looks and feels like almost no other “creepy small town” film, and the standard buckets of blood approach is replaced with a twisted atmosphere that’ll have you squirming with terror even when nothing’s happening. It’s a real slow burner, but one that’ll keep you gripped, right till the freaky end.
6. A Warning to the Curious (1972)
In the 1970’s, the British BBC used to broadcast an annual ghost story late on Christmas Eve. A Warning to the Curious is the second of these 50-minute films. Set along the flat and desolate coastline of Norfolk, it revolves around an amateur archaeologist hunting for the buried crown of an ancient king. Sadly for him – but luckily for the viewer – it happens to be cursed, and finding it opens the door to all sorts of nightmare apparitions.
Although it starts slow, Warning soon becomes about the tensest BBC production you’ll ever witness. The strange figure haunting our lonely hero and the empty English coast, with its dismal views into the grey Atlantic, all combines to create a horribly unnerving atmosphere. Anything can happen here (within BBC budgetary constraints) and it usually does. Adapted from a story by horror writer M.R. James, Warning shows how a disturbing English ghost story should be done.
5. Waxworks (1924)
At a creepy German carnival, a young poet has been hired to write a history of three of the wax museum’s historical villains. As he gets to work, he finds himself drifting off into different dream worlds – ancient Baghdad, the Russia of Ivan the Terrible – leading to a terrifying final encounter with a homicidal Jack the Ripper.
Like Begotten above, Waxworks is more art-house than shocker. But it’s one of the key silent horror films, made extra spooky by the strange, contorted set design and weird colors of each scene. And that’s before we get onto the plot, which twists and dovetails through all sorts of bizarre digressions before heading straight for a demented conclusion. It may not be for everyone, but fans of silent films will find plenty to love in this unique, unsettling tale.
4. The Woman in Black (1989)
What do you get when you take one of the scariest stories ever written, get the writer of 50’s sci-fi shocker Quatermass to adapt it for TV, and screen the results on Christmas Eve to the whole of Britain? Answer: a generation of traumatized children and a masterpiece of TV horror.
If you’ve seen the new Daniel Radcliffe version of Woman in Black, you already know the plot: a young solicitor finds himself alone in a strange house haunted by a spooky woman (in black). But where the Radcliffe version had a huge budget to play with, the TV original gets by on nothing more than some expertly-timed scares and a feeling of dread that gets heavier and heavier as the story skitters on. By the time the original broadcast reached its climax, most viewers had already bolted their doors and ran upstairs to hide under the bed with their eyes closed and fingers in their ears. And you know what? Watched alone on a winter’s night today, it still has that same effect.
3. Countdown to Zero (2010)
Can a serious documentary legitimately be called a horror film? If so, then Countdown to Zero has to be one of the scariest shockers ever made. A film about the prevalence of easily-accessible nuclear weapons in the modern world, this harrowing hour and a half will convince you that atomic destruction is even more likely now than during the Cold War.
One by one, director Lucy Walker ticks off the ways we could face annihilation: from an unstable Pakistan finally unleashing atomic hellfire on India, to terrorists successfully assembling a basic nuclear device and detonating it in a city. To back her up, she interviews people as respected as Jimmy Carter, Tony Blair, and Mikhail Gorbachev, whose testimony makes it even more terrifying. The scariest bit of all? The moment when it’s revealed Russian generals came within a second of launching a nuclear assault on America after a civilian plane was mistaken for an incoming bomber. The only thing that stopped them: Boris Yeltsin’s drunken insistence that the Americans wouldn’t dare attack the mighty USSR.
2. The Golem, How He Came Into This World (1920)
Golem is notable for being one of the earliest surviving films dedicated to outright horror. Set in in Prague in the 16th century, the story shows the Emperor deciding to evict all the Jews from the city. A local Rabbi summons a dark monster to protect them. Made from clay and known as the Golem, it stalks and terrorizes the Emperor into submission, only for things to go badly wrong. The Golem goes insane and decides to murder the very people it was created to protect.
Like most silent films, Golem is slower-paced and very different from modern horror. But it retains a dark, creepy factor that can still unnerve even in 2014. It’s also one of the earliest horror films to play with the Frankenstein myth. Rumor has it that Universal’s 1931 version of Mary Shelly’s novel was directly inspired by this German treat.
1. Robin Redbreast (1970)
In the 1970’s, British horror went through a phase of stories set in rural communities, with weird locals and pagan rituals and elements of human sacrifice. The best known of all these is The Wicker Man. The one that started it all though, is a low-budget TV movie known as Robin Redbreast.
When a London script editor breaks up with her partner of eight years, she retreats to their old home in the countryside. There she encounters strange and sinister locals, unnerving ancient customs, and long-dead pagan beliefs. But it’s when she falls pregnant to a handsome but dim local that things really take a turn for the creepy. Suddenly, it seems no-one wants her to leave her new home… and they’ll do anything to keep her there.
Made as an afternoon play for the BBC on a tiny budget, Robin Redbreast is a film where very little happens, but everything that does manages to be almost unbearably tense. The motives of the creepy locals are never made totally clear, and trying to guess what they have in store for our heroine and her unborn child makes for a nerve-shredding second half. Originally shot in color, but now only available in black and white, Robin Redbreast is nonetheless just about the creepiest thing we’ve ever seen.