It’s time to give some love to the underrated and underseen terrifying movies of the world. There’s something special about uncovering one of these hidden gems at the bottom of the bargain barrel or stuck on the shelf in the corner of the flea market. If it was tops at the box office, spawned a sequel or remake, it didn’t make this list.
This is a deep dive, so I also avoided contemporary mainstream horror filmmakers such as James Wan (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring) or Mike Flanagan (Oculus, The Haunting of Hill House, Hush) whose films were difficult to avoid. There are so many to choose from, as an avid fan of the horror genre, but my intention was to avoid any movies that might already be included in top horror film lists.
The idea is that hopefully some of these are foreign to you, a few are even foreign language. Without further ado, check out the scariest movies you’ve probably never seen (but really should!)
1. Bone Tomahawk
I was originally turned on to this movie because I’m a fan of Kurt Russell and was scrolling through his filmography to see something new. Bone Tomahawk seemed to be a great one to watch with the parents since we all enjoy westerns. However, my mom left within the first minute of the first scene. My dad stuck it out but at one point he turned to me and said, “I really shouldn’t be watching this.” It’s a really twisted flick.
Sporting an impressive cast with Russell, Patrick Wilson, Lili Simmons, Matthew Fox (surprisingly good in this) and Richard Jenkins this 2015 S. Craig Zahler (Brawl in Cell Block 99) horror western strikes no false notes, but plenty of odd ones.
The story centers on a small group of townsfolk led by their sheriff (Russell) on a mission to rescue their neighbors/family members from inbred cannibalistic Native American troglodytes (Those are a lot of descriptors!) Mixed in with the peculiar, and at times, funny dialogue is a genuine and gruesome terror. Not for the faint of heart, check out Bone Tomahawk if you enjoy genre blending and edge of your seat scares.
I felt obligated to include a J-Horror (Japanese horror) movie and what better auteur to select from than Takashi Miike? With over 100 director credits to his name, there were so many good ones to choose from such as Audition or Ichi the Killer, but those have been talked about more than Gozu has in horror film circles. Maybe it’s because the title doesn’t easily translate to English – Gozu meaning Cow Head – is the reason it’s often overlooked.
Often citing David Lynch as an influence, Miike has never made it more apparent than here in Gozu. The story centers on Minami (Yuta Sone) who takes his crazed colleague (Show Aikawa) on a trip where he is ordered to assassinate him. However, the bat shit crazy friend disappears before the bullet meets his brain and incredibly bizarre circumstances follow. This is not for the squeamish or for those looking simply for jump scares. The ending alone will have you shaken for days.
I almost didn’t want to include this since Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier has a rather strong cult following and Antichrist is the film of his people seem to discuss most. But many may never give it a chance given von Trier’s reputation and that would be a mistake for horror lovers. The Dane made this movie as the first of his Depression Trilogy along with Melancholia and Nymphomaniac. These movies don’t share characters or plots, but they were a form of self-therapy for von Trier as he was working through his own depression. Weird, I know.
Another reason I felt compelled to include Antichrist is that I couldn’t bring myself to make this list without Willem Dafoe. The veteran actor is so good at being scary, but here he is closer to being a victim. He plays the husband and psychiatrist of a woman (Charlotte Gainsburg) mourning the loss of their young son. The boy dies in a tragic accident during a stunningly shot opening scene (Prepare yourself to see A LOT of Dafoe in this…if you know what I mean). The couple retreats to a cabin in the middle of nowhere for intense therapy and things only get worse from there. It’s similar to Gozu in that it truly feels like you’re stuck in a nightmare as you’re watching. The artistry is undeniable, but again, there are scenes that may cause some to exit the room.
William Friedkin’s Bug (2006) will have audiences divided. Many won’t even consider it a horror film, but it’s often the movies branded as “thrillers” that end up being the scariest. The director who brought us the not-so-hidden gem The Exorcist brings to the screen a Tracy Letts play that is perhaps equally as frightening. It’s kind of like if The Thing took place in a cheap motel and we never saw an alien.
The setting is about as seedy as it gets with Ashley Judd’s waitress character living out of a run-down motel. Haunted by the disappearance of her son and the phone calls of her abusive ex-hubby (Harry Connick Jr.), she engages in heavy drinking and drug use. Through a friend, she meets Peter (Michael Shannon) who reveals he’s recently out of the military and the two immediately become romantically involved.
Soon his paranoia becomes painfully evident as he claims that the government experimented testing on him and both the motel room and his body are infested with bugs they implanted. But, as the old adage goes, it’s not paranoia if they’re actually watching you. At times, difficult to watch and certainly not for the squeamish, give Bug a shot if you enjoy your mind getting messed with.
5. The Last Circus
The Last Circus is a black comedy so utterly black that I’m also classifying it as a horror movie. The clown aspect alone is enough to merit its inclusion in the genre. Or maybe it’s that this 2010 film out of Spain is just scarier culturally to American audiences. Whatever the case, prepare yourselves for an outrageous ride.
Taking place in 1970s Spain, Javier (Carlos Areces) joins a circus as its sad clown and he falls in love with Natalia the trapeze artist (Carolina Bang). Natalia’s boyfriend is Sergio the happy clown (Antonio de la Torre). However, Sergio is much more of a violent clown than happy and he beats Natalia regularly. This odd love triangle leads to revenge, self-mutilation and ultimately tragedy. You can say it’s not a horror movie if you want, but the clown images are the things of nightmares.
(Spoiler Alert: The trailer gives a lot away in my opinion)
“If you can’t find a friend, make one.” That doesn’t sound like the advice to give anyone let alone a social outcast like May. May seems like a girl everyone probably could recount from their own high school experiences, awkward and a loner. Maybe that was even you back in school. But May is different and so is this movie. I had heard about the 2002 Lucy McKee written and directed picture long before, but didn’t sit down and watch it until I was assigned to do so for a college English class about Frankenstein themed movies. It was one of the ones that really stayed with me.
It sounds funny to say but May is a quirky little horror movie. Our main character played by Angela Bettis is a 28-year-old woman working at a veterinary hospital, she has no friends to call her own except for a doll called Suzie. May begins separate relationships and friendships with people (played by Anna Faris and Jeremy Sisto) always seemingly infatuated with a single body part of theirs (no, not sexual). May is a very enticing and watchable movie. Maybe not scary in the sense of jump scares, but more so in how disturbing and fathomable it can be. And the ending is a 10 out of 10.
I was really impressed with this little man vs beast movie. In this case, it’s a young couple fighting for their lives against a man-eating bear in the Canadian wilderness. It may not sound so special or original but Backcountry is really well done and indeed hair-raising. The 2014 Canadian movie is written and directed by Adam MacDonald and stars Missy Peregrym, Jeff Roop and Eric Balfour.
Alex (Roop) is determined to show his girlfriend Jenn (Peregrym) a great time deep in the woods and takes measures that soon prove to be asinine. He wants to show her a place he remembers growing up and everything has to be just perfect. But they are not alone in the wilderness…and this bear is terrifying. Given the budget of the movie, I was expecting something fake and cheesy but I was rewarded with quite the opposite. Backcountry is incredibly tense, and it beautifully depicts a troubled relationship, threatened masculinity, sacrifice and survival. If this movie is on your favorite streaming service, do not scroll past.
8. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
The title is misleading, sounding like a straight to DVD second rate movie, but Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is anything but. The 1986 movie directed by John McNaughton centers on real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas (Michael Rooker) as he plans and carries out a number of his gruesome murders. Henry was and is such a controversial picture that it took a while for it to be released and it earned a rare NC-17 rating.
The titular character is a drifter, going from town to town savagely stalking and murdering his prey. He ends up sharing an apartment with his prison friend, Otis, and Otis’s sister Becky. Otis and Henry are partners in crime for many of these murders which they strategize in their seedy apartment. Safe to say these are evil people committing heinous crimes. There are no heroes and there is no optimism. Watch Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer if you’re in the mood for something exceptionally dark and gritty devoid of all hope.
9. The House of the Devil
Loved, loved, loved this 2009 low budget horror flick from writer/director/editor Ti West. It doesn’t try to do anything very different and instead pays homage to horror movies of the 80s. Every shot is dripping with nostalgia in this film that also takes place in the 80s. The cast includes Jocelin Donahue, Greta Gerwig, Mary Woronov and a perfectly creepy Tom Noonan.
Without giving too much away, a young college co-ed strapped for cash takes a job babysitting and nothing goes as she expected. Horror fans are likely able to figure out what happens next more or less but that doesn’t make The House of the Devil any less scary or any less awesome. I am a fan of most of Ti West’s filmography (The Sacrament could have also made the list), but this is arguably his most flawless feature.
Almost made the list
The Eyes of My Mother – The uniqueness, artwork and horror of this film are undeniable. I just thought it was one thing that horror movies should never be – boring. But hey, maybe you think otherwise.
The Ritual – Very cool setup and monster design, but I’ve seen too much written up about it already. The first two acts of the movie were much scarier to me than the finale.
Eyes Without a Face – Not on the list because it’s too much of classic, but you may have missed it since it’s French. You will be able to see how it’s influenced so many of your favorite horror movies.
We Are Still Here – I was tempted to include this haunted house movie but it really doesn’t offer anything different from what’s already on my list. Still, you should see this.
The Visit – M. Night Shyamalan’s career has seemed to go through weird phases. Slightly below The Sixth Sense, this picture about scary grandparents will keep your knuckles white if you can overlook the plot holes. It’s a fun ride.
A Tale of Two Sisters – I didn’t want to break my rule of listing movies that were remade, but please go see this Korean original if you haven’t already done so.
There are tons of more movies I could have put on this list, and more still that I have yet to see. Please let me know what I should add! What criminally underrated and underseen movies should I check out for my next Friday night in?