The top 10 most underrated horror films

From "Trick r' Treat" to "Jason Goes To Hell," here are 10 underrated horror films that should get their due

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published October 16, 2017 6:45PM (EDT)

 (Warner Bros. Pictures/IFC Midnight/IFC Films/Lions Gate Entertainment)
(Warner Bros. Pictures/IFC Midnight/IFC Films/Lions Gate Entertainment)

This list of underrated horror films is not necessarily determined by Rotten Tomatoes. Some of these films performed well on the critical aggregator and others did not, but the reality is that Rotten Tomatoes isn't the end-all of what determines whether a certain movie is highly regarded.

In short, while many of the films listed below are there because they were critically panned, others appear on the list because they were praised but have not been popularly regarded as "classics," even though they deserve that distinction. Either way, if you're a fan of horror movies, you should check them out!

1. 1408: In light of how the "It" remake was a box office smash and received glowing critical reviews (in my opinion deservedly so), it's appropriate to reevaluate "1408." Although the movie also did well among critics and audiences, it has faded into obscurity in the decade since its theatrical release. This is one of those films in which, while no one single element stands out as superb, all of the parts come together in such a satisfying way that the movie leaves a strong emotional impression on the audience, particularly with John Cusack in the lead role as (what else?) a writer.

2. The Blob (1988 remake): If you're a fan of Frank Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption," "The Mist," "The Walking Dead"), then you should see this movie. In one of the few remakes that completely surpasses the original in every way, "The Blob" was co-penned by Darabont (along with director Chuck Russell, who horror fans may know from the beloved "A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors") and contains all of his hallmarks: A small town of realistic characters, subplots involving character redemption, a '50s B-movie vibe. Add state-of-the-art special effects that still hold up today and a breathless atmosphere that makes the film zip right by.

3. Dagon: It's pretty amazing that more H. P. Lovecraft stories haven't been adapted into feature films, considering that his stories seem tailor-made for cinema. The gothic visual style, the dread-laden atmosphere, the philosophical determinism and nihilism, the rich mythology filled with grotesque characters and malevolent ancient religions — all of the qualities that make Lovecraft's stories endure after nearly a century are present in this Stuart Gordon film, one of four Lovecraft adaptations that he has made (including "Re-Animator," "From Beyond" and a TV episode of "Masters of Horror" called "Dreams in the Witch-House"). It also has the single most graphic and psychologically disturbing death scene I've ever witnessed in a horror film, so consider yourself warned.

4. The Final: If you've ever been bullied, particularly as a teenager, you'll strongly empathize with the perspective of the villains in this film. This isn't to say I condone their actions — quite to the contrary, the movie works precisely because of how we initially sympathize with people who we soon deplore as irredeemable, sadistic monsters — but this is one of the better horror movies with a coherent and meaningful social message. What makes it fall short of greatness, alas, is that the scares themselves seem to be ripped out of Eli Roth's "Hostel" films instead of being legitimately inspired on their own, although they do contain one clever twist. In the end, though, that doesn't stop the movie itself from packing quite an emotional wallop.

5. Halloween III: Season of the Witch: There is a bit of a backstory to this movie's infamous reputation. After the success of the first two "Halloween" films — both of which told the story of fictional serial killer Michael Myers — writers John Carpenter and Debra Hill wanted their third film to be a completely different story, with the goal of turning the "Halloween" franchise into an anthology series. The tale that they came up with was actually pretty interesting, involving an ancient pagan cult, a murder mystery, some child deaths (sorry softies, but I'm tired of kids always getting a pass in horror movies) and clever social commentary about the dangers of consumerism and our culture's obsequious attitude toward corporations. There are also plot holes galore, so I'm not saying the movie is perfect, but I suspect it was rejected by audiences more because it didn't contain Michael Myers than because of its own flaws.

6. Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday: This is the second "Friday the 13th" film to be self-labeled as the "final" one in the franchise, and like the first "final" movie (part four in the series), it did not conclude the Jason Voorhees story. That said, its unpopularity seems mostly driven by the fact that it discards the mythology established about Jason in the previous films — deformed child drowns at summer camp because of the counselors' incompetence, then comes back as a slasher killer to avenge his mother (for more on her death, see the first movie) — and instead turns him into a demonic hell-worm who possesses bodies. Yeah, that's a completely unnecessary twist, but that doesn't mean the movie doesn't work well on its own terms. Like "Halloween III: Season of the Witch," this movie seems to have a bad reputation less because of its failures as a horror film and more because it deviated from a trusted formula. Analyzed on its own merits, the movie is still scary, contains likable characters and has some impressive gore effects.

7. Planet Terror: I still remember seeing this Robert Rodriguez gem during its first theatrical release in 2007, back when it was part of a "Grindhouse" double-feature with Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof." While the Tarantino movie was a tribute to slasher and muscle car movies of the 1970s, "Planet Terror" was an uber-graphic zombie flick that paid homage to the gory exploitation fare from the 1970s and 1980s. It also contains a series of memorable performances from an all-star cast including Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Michael Biehn, Josh Brolin and Bruce Willis, as well as creative gore effects and Rodriguez's characteristically sharp dialogue. Watch while gnoshing on a pile of barbecue ribs if you can.

8. Stung: You could almost mistake "Stung" for a Sam Raimi or Robert Rodriguez film, assuming they decided to apply their over-the-top gore aesthetic to a story about killer mutant wasps. How can a gorehound not enjoy a movie in which giant wasps literally burst from the bodies of their hosts, sometimes still dripping half-skull here or there afterward? It also manages to avoid one of the most common pitfalls that often befalls creature features — namely, being chock-full of annoying and/or forgettable characters — and even has some slower moments that work quite well on a dramatic level.

9. Trick r' Treat: This should be for Halloween what a film like "1776" is for the 4th of July. A series of stories told in a non-linear format reminiscent of "Pulp Fiction," "Trick r' Treat" is all about the spirit of Halloween. Even the main villain, Sam, is motivated by a desire to make sure that all of the inhabitants of a random American town abide by the rules of Halloween tradition. It's pretty difficult to go into any further detail about the plot of "Trick r' Treat" without spoiling major reveals, so suffice to say that if you see one movie on this list, it should be that one.

10. Would You Rather?: This isn't just a horror movie with social commentary; the primary villain of the film — more so than the sadistic family that forces people to compete in a life-or-death game of Would You Rather? — is the system of income inequality that allows them to indulge in their cruel tradition. "Would You Rather?" also deserves points for being able to keep audiences wincing and on the edge of their seats despite showing very little blood or gore. The horror is instead derived from the psychological tension that comes from imagining one's self being forced to make the same ethical and existential choices forced on the characters. In that way, "Would You Rather?" feels like a throwback to "The Twilight Zone" or "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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