10 Overlooked Recent Horror Movie Gems

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 29, 2014 6:20PM

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"I Sell the Dead" (Glass Eye Pix)

When it comes to my Halloween season viewing, I often fall back on the vintage stuff: Hammer favorites, Universal monster classics, the Val Lewton cycle, or any previously unseen golden oldies that catch my eye.

But despite the plague of "found footage" cheapies and an endless streak of inferior remakes and sequels, there have been some very good recent horror movies. It's just that many of the best have gone virtually unnoticed except by the most insatiable horror fanatics. And I know for that diehard crowd, much of this list might not seem so overlooked. So, while I certainly do want to hear about that grainy $5,000 stalker film from Uruguay you found in a black market video shop, understand my definition of "overlooked" isn't quite that obscure.

The list was restricted to films released over the last five years or so, just to have some sort of cutoff. There are other movies from the same period (like Trick 'r Treat, House of the Devil and Splice) that also should have received a wider release or more media attention, but those films have found a very devoted cult following. The films below have some fans, but continue to fly way too far under the radar for my liking.

Five of the ten films are debut features, so maybe there's something to be said for new chefs contributing to the horror stew. The rankings are a bit meaningless considering how different the films are, but the hierarchy is simply those I felt were the most essential viewing.

Oh ... and Happy Halloween!

I Sell the Dead (2009): A fantastic debut feature, Glenn McQuaid's joyful throwback to genre traditions is horror-comedy of the highest order. Getting convincing period detail on a very low budget, McQuaid also brings filmmaking verve to every scene. And it's a darn funny film too, with great hammy performances by Larry Fessenden and Ron Perlman and a reactive comic role to treasure from Dominic Monaghan in the lead. If you grew up with Hammer horror films on TV and grisly EC Comics reprints, I Sell the Dead will seem letter-perfect. It never played in a Chicago theater, which is a goddamned shame, as this was made to see with an audience.

YellowBrickRoad (2010): A plot synopsis (a group of researchers investigating an historical legend gets lost in the wilderness and put in supernatural peril) reduces this to a Blair Witch Project rip-off. But this beautifully desolate offering of existential angst is a completely different kind of horror film: carefully composed visually, fully scripted and—with no disrespect to Blair Witch—just a heck of a lot deeper. The film's suggestion of life as not merely meaningless, but a harrowing sort of cruel joke, is more terrifying than any monster or serial killer. The movie has its moments of shock and suspense, but its brilliance is in how it makes utter despair truly bone chilling. Some criticized the film for not solving its mystery, when anyone watching closely would realize that's exactly the point. An impressive and criminally underappreciated first feature by writer-directors Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton.

The Road (2011): This spooky, strange, upsetting and ultimately quite moving Filipino movie shows writer-director-cinematographer Yam Laranas is a talent to keep an eye on. A blend of ghost story and detective story, The Road veers a bit into "torture porn" grimness, but plays out as a tragic examination of the root causes of sadistic violence and not merely an indulgence in depicting it. Deliberately paced, this might lose viewers expecting the early jumps to escalate, but those who stick with it will be rewarded as the enigmatic time frame falls together and culminates in an image of tremendous sadness and beauty.

Kill List (2011): Bloodshed abounds in British writer-director Ben Wheatley's hybrid that begins as a seemingly realistic portrait of the life of a hit-man before revealing itself as a horror film of stunning bleakness. I can't reveal the movie the ending of Kill List recalls without giving it away, but I will say it's one of the most effective gut punches the genre has delivered since the closing moments of The Mist.

Citadel (2012): While it owes a lot to David Cronenberg's The Brood in its central plot device (murderous child-like beings stemming from their damaged environment), this excellent Irish film uses that set-up to explore different issues. Where Cronenberg's picture saw monsters rising from divorce and therapy gone wrong, Ciaran Foy's effective first feature sees them rising from poverty and fear. Tense, creepy and well crafted, with a fantastic lead performance by Aneurin Barnard.

Antiviral (2012): Speaking of "Cronenberg-esque," Brandon Cronenberg mines the modern body horror sub-genre his father practically invented very effectively in his debut. In this trenchant commentary on celebrity worship, people pay for the privilege of being infected with the diseases of famous people. The movie has a cold, antiseptic look that contrasts sharply with the grisly details of "virus harvesting." Featuring a nervy performance from the always-interesting Caleb Landry Jones.

The Hole (2009): Made just as the resurgence of 3-D was hitting high gear, Joe Dante's entertaining, "family friendly" horror film languished in limbo for nearly three years after the success of Avatar spurred studios into damaging 3-D overkill. This delivers the old school spookiness it promises, with plenty of Dante's visual wit on display. Its lone theatrical screening in Chicago was not in 3-D, but the film is still a crowd-pleaser without the effect. The ending is a little shaky, but as a throwback to '80s-styled PG-13 genre fare, this is far superior to the noisy, bloated Super 8, which was as overhyped as this was underexposed. The jester doll is a creepy delight.

Eddie (2012): Subtitled The Sleepwalking Cannibal for its American release, this Canadian horror-comedy satirizes the hypocrisy sometimes hiding beneath the surface of so-called high art. The film makes the relationship between a snobbish artist and innocent "monster" Eddie (who is indeed a sleepwalking cannibal) seem real and warm, even amid escalating bloodshed and betrayals.

The Broken (2009): Another variation on the body snatchers theme and a pretty damn good one. This British chiller benefits from some genuinely unsettling atmospherics and a strong lead performance by Lena Headey.

Dread (2009): Grim and grimy to be sure, this first feature from Anthony DiBlasi is too thoughtful and empathetic to be lumped in with the "torture porn" wave. Until an unforgivably glib final moment, this is a movie—like The Road—that actually has something to say about sadistic, exploitative behavior. Based on a Clive Barker story, Dread follows two student filmmakers who collaborate on a project in which they try to get interview subjects to face their deepest fears.