The criterion for what makes a film underrated is debatable- bad critical reviews? Viewer reviews? Box Office? A failure to stake a place to be remembered in history? Or just a plain blank look on someone’s face when you mention it.
Here are ten films I really appreciated (‘enjoyed’ isn’t necessarily the best word for some of these.)
This is by no means intended as an ‘obscure’ list; any more than casual fan of the horror genre is probably aware or has seen most if not all of them. It’s also not intended as a deep dive into any of them but rather the briefest summary of their plots.
What do they have in common? Other than the fact that none made more than £20 million US gross on their release (not accounting for inflation), not a whole lot: some may be considered more thriller/ sci-fi/ comedy than straight out horror, but I think they’re all worth a watch if you haven’t seen them, and maybe another look if you have.
The Orphanage (2007):
Directed by J.A Bayona (who went on to direct The Impossible, the also underrated A Monster Calls and most recently the big buck making Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) in 2007, The Orphanage is a Spanish language slow burn tale of a spooky old house, a creepy child and his imaginary five (or is it six, shudder) friends, an ominous old woman, parapsychologists and a great masked character…
The influence of Guillermo Del Toro, who produced the film and has a neat little cameo is unmissable, but Bayona takes del Toro themes and runs with them himself to create something unique, personal and, I would say as good as the best of del Toro himself.
There’s little gore, but a huge number of chills as we watch the main characters’ desperate search for their missing son and a building sense of dread as we’re taken down a path we know isn’t going to end well…
I originally watched The Orphanage as the first movie I put in our new Blu Ray Surround Sound system, and while it is, as stated, a slow burn piece, it does have one of the most effective jump scares I have ever seen: there may still be marks on the ceiling.
The most successful film of the year in Spain, beating out the likes of Shrek and Pirates sequels, The Orphanage took $7 million at the US Box Office, but managed $79 million, so possibly the most financially successful film in the list but still criminally underseen.
1,2,3…Toca la pared…
Angel Heart (1987)
Alan Parker’s 1987 Film Noir Horror was, I seem to recall, the second film I reviewed for my College Magazine. Taking three college buddies along with me (a free ticket is a free ticket…), we ended up decamping to a local pub afterwards and sat around in shock. Of course, there was never too much excuse needed to head to a bar and indulge in a few beers, but even so…
Based on William Hjortsberg’s novel Fallen Angel the film follows Private Investigator Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) as he takes on a case to find missing crooner Johnny Favorite in post-World War 2 America. As he gets deeper into the case, things take darker and darker turns.
Shot around New York and New Orleans, the film does a masterful job in period setting and atmosphere building, through Parker’s direction, Michael Seresin’s cinematography, and with an eerie score from Trevor Jones featuring Courtney Pine , the film also benefits from strong performances from Rourke, Lisa Bonnet, Charlotte Rampling and a sly cameo from Robert De Niro when he was in great form back in the ‘80s. (His two films before this were Brazil and The Mission, the two after were The Untouchables and Midnight Run)
The film underachieved in box office terms, ($17.9 million), and received mixed critical reviews- ranging from Roger Ebert: “It has the unsettled logic of a nightmare, in which nothing fits and everything seems inevitable and there are a lot of arrows in the air and they are all flying straight at you.” Through to Parker’s bête noir Pauline Kael who claimed, “It all looks fussed over. Parker simply doesn’t have the gift of making evil seductive, and he edits like a flasher.” Kael will always remain one of my favourite critics, but her hatred of all things Parker remains…
One of the biggest cruelties critics paid on Angel Heart was to effectively torpedo any chance the movie had of blind siding the viewer with its’ ‘twist’ ending through one sentence: “a (give away word redacted) tale”. I was lucky enough to see it critically blind, hence the general gobsmacked reaction.
When the film came out on video I recommended it to a drinker in a Newcastle pub who later found me and demanded his rental fee back…but I still stand by my view that it is a great film, Kael and Fat Tommy withstanding.
Takashi Miike is prodigious, if an acquired taste…Audition was described by Quentin Tarantino as a “true masterpiece if ever there was one”
In Tokyo, Shigeharu Aoyama is a forty something widower who is persuaded by his film maker friend to take unusual steps to meet a woman through a series of fake auditions.
Audition is truly a film of two halves, and to say much more about it would be to spoil things: other than to say the misogynistic ‘comedy’story takes some unexpected turns.
If familiar with Miike’s work Audition may seem a more sedate piece than his usual outing…at first. While the Extreme Asia edition originally available in UK suffered from white-on-white subtitles in some scenes, improvements have been made in later releases.
Go in with an open mind, and an open sick bag.
4/5 Cube (1997)/ Splice (2009)
Vincenzo Natali made something of a name for himself when he made Cube in 1997- a wildly imaginative use of some 300k Canadian dollars: ingeniously creating a cube construct where a group of strangers find themselves waking up and having to negotiate different rooms to escape their predicament, only to find each room has its’ own deadly traps. The film made virtually nothing at the box office but did find an audience on the festival circuit and then on home viewings. It went on to spawn vastly inferior sequels with no involvement from Natali, and is currently under discussion for a reboot.
Cube belies its’ micro budget and is a role model for no-budget writer/ directors looking to make a sci-fi/ horror piece.
By 2009 and a few projects later, Natali made Splice, with the considerably larger budget of $26 million- still chicken feed for an FX heavy project that was possibly conceived by the studios as a new Alien.
Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) are scientists working at a multinational, and in horror/ sci fi trop style, somewhat shady Pharma company, on a splicing program, having achieved some success with test subjects they find their project pulled, but continue to work in secret.
What follows surprised me in terms of the subject matter and exactly how far Natali was willing (or allowed by the studio) to take his ideas. Almost in a parallel to the rogue out-there ideas Clive and Elsa are working on, the movie goes to some very dark places- with disturbing special effects and even darker themes.
In many ways it is no surprise Splice failed to find a broad audience; pulling in only $16 million at the US box office, and other than Haunter, which came a year later and was shot in less than 30 days in Budapest, he has worked on TV- albeit quality TV including Hannibal, American Gods and Westworld, exclusively since.
Not for everyone, but for a reasonably budgeted and headlined movie, Splice goes somewhere you wouldn’t get to see every day…
Kill List (2011)
As I continue this list I realise there are a number of these films which do actually have some things in common- with a number being low budget and/ or taking the viewer down one path, only to wildly divert. This is certainly the case for Kill List. Directed by Ben Wheatley on a £500,000 budget the film couldn’t be more British- a gritty kitchen drama (literally) for the first part of the movie, as two friends discuss their past we come to find they are hitmen, and, nearly a year after a job that went wrong (another good old trope), need to make amends- to be able to retire for a three hit job which will provide the pay off they need. As they set off on their twisted journey the film too takes us on a wildly different ride than the one we started out on.
The ending, reminiscent of another classic British horror film but which would spoil things to reference, will divide viewers- and to be honest, I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but as a movie watching experience Kill List manages to bundle up a whole lot of homages (to be kind)/ clichés (to be less kind), and turn them into something quite different.
Directed by the Benson and Moorhead team who have recently made the critically acclaimed The Endless, Spring follows Evan, a young American man whose mother has just died, as he travels aimlessly to Italy to get away from everything. There he soon meets Louise; a beautiful, somewhat unusual young woman who has secrets to hide. What starts as a grittily filmed independent looking US based piece, explodes into beauty on the Italian coast of Bari, and at the same time what starts as a potential Before Sunrise rip off, quickly develops into something very, very different. Tagged as comedy/ horror/ sci-fi/ romance on IMDB, Spring is all of those things, but more than the sum of its’ parts. A Cthulhu rom-com may sound like this is a shallow comedy, but it couldn’t be further from the truth- between the breath-taking scenery the movie has a lot to say about relationships, foreigners abroad, history, as well as comments around many of the male-female clichés within horror and more broadly, movies in general.
The marketing campaign and general posters may serve this up as a Species type B-movie style, but for those who like their ‘horror’ somewhat more cerebral, and their movies both US Independent and European slow moving ‘feel’, Spring is a great little find- and the word ‘little’ is not meant to be in any way demeaning here: production budget is difficult to find, but its’ domestic box office, when distributed by Alamo was a paltry $50k, assuming, given the production details surrounding the film, that the budget was minimal, how the makers managed to produce such a beautiful looking piece- especially with the use of drones to capture the beauty of the locale, and with sparse but very well used FX to boot, is truly impressive- and in making a ‘horror’ film that a ‘non-horror film fan’ could watch is some feat.
Funny Games (1997)
IMDB classifies Michael Haneke’s original version of Funny Games (he remade it virtually shot-for-shot in Hollywood remake 10 years later) as a Crime/ Drama/ Thriller. For me it remains one of the most horrific films I have seen- it took a long time to get around to a second viewing of it. Haneke himself is on record as saying he didn’t intend Funny Games to be a horror film, but rather a comment on the media in society: if the film was a success then it was because people hadn’t understood the message he was trying to present- it wasn’t and they didn’t.
The plot is basic- a mother, father and young son (and not forgetting the family dog- always important in a ‘horror’ film) have just arrived for a holiday in their rural cabin. Shortly after arrival, two young men living next door stop by to borrow some eggs…before taking the family hostage.
What follows is a gruelling, torturous (for characters and audience) endurance of the family’s plight.
Timing and circumstance can always have an effect on any film watched- but arguably none more so than with the horror genre. What can seem terrifying when watched late at night alone, can be risible in the bright light of day when watched with a few friends…likewise, one’s own personal circumstances can have a massive effect on the viewer- watching the helplessness of the family in Funny Games as my new born son was sleeping upstairs may well have increased my dislike for the film so much- and it is truly dislikeable: when originally screened in Cannes it caused many viewers and critics to walk out.
Haneke’s critical comment becomes more self-reflexive as the movie progresses, playing with filmic as well as plot devices, which may draw the viewer out of the narrative (and is indeed his intention). Highly divisive Funny Games is one of the most disturbing, and least gory, movies I’ve seen- whether classed as horror or not.
And as things get about as heavy as they could with Funny Games I’ll finish with two lighter movies-
Tucker and Dale Versus Evil (2010)
To take a break from the fairly heavy movies you could do a lot work than Tucker and Dale Versus Evil, which sees the titular good old boy characters (played by Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine) who only want to fix up their dilapidated cabin in the woods but can’t seem to catch a break as the mistrusting partying frat boys and girls seem who are living it up in the area just seem to keep…well, dying.
Good humoured, and ridiculously over the top, T&DVSE also relies on horror tropes, but uses them knowingly and turns pretty much every one of them on their heads. A fun film for all the family…depending on what your family is like.
Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
Directed by Don Coscarelli (Phantasm), based on the novella of the same name by Joe R Lansdale, and starring Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davies, Bubba Ho-Tep is a stereotypical done-a-million-times tale of a still living Elvis Presley and a black Octogenarian with JFK’s brain transplanted into him, living out their days in a retirement home, and finding themselves having to battle against an ancient Egyptian entity who is killing off old folks at their residence.
Shot on a $1 million budget, which occasionally shows in some of the effects and choice shots, the film more than delivers through its’ sheer bizarreness one can expect from the mind of Joe Lansdale, stellar performances from Bruce Campbell as ‘the real Elvis’ who swapped with an impersonator only to fail to make the switch back before the whole toilet incident, and Ossie Davies in one of his final roles as the possible fallen President.
Despite its’ small box office take ($2 million) the film has gained a cult following, and rumours of a prequel- Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires, have circulated for years, but are yet to come to any fruition.
Hopefully there’s something in the above you might want to check out, of if you’ve seen them all may want to revisit.
Agree or disagree on any of the above? Any suggestions you’d make- feel free to comment.