Wait Until Dark: 9 overlooked scary movies to watch this Halloween

Everyone knows The Shining, Rosemary's Baby and the slasher flicks of the 1970s and '80s, but do you know these nine psychologically daunting horror concoctions?

When it’s October, and the nights come quicker and the leaves are crunchier, millennials (and probably older people too, but they’re less seasonally nostalgic) want to watch scary movies.

Our generation is pretty hip to historical landmarks, so we know the classics. There are those brilliant, genre-defying scary movies that get better every time you watch them (The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, Psycho). There are scary movies about teens being brutally butchered while doing and saying unbelievably stupid things (Halloween, Friday the 13th, Scream). And there’s something called “torture porn,” a lovely, gory genre based on pure shock value, whose popularity only seems to grow (Saw, Final Destination, The Human Centipede).

Still, college kids, erudite as they may be, overlook lots of Halloween-appropriate silver screen fright fests.

Some of these forgotten films couldn’t be rightly classified as “horror,” but they are so damn scary it doesn’t matter. After all, fear creeps up unexpectedly. Grades can be scary. The looming threat of winter in Syracuse is scary.

Here are nine scary films that are either woefully underrated, or that you probably haven’t seen — but should.

1. Suspiria, directed by Dario Argento (1977)

Watching this Italian film is the equivalent of doing a whole bunch of acid (I’m assuming). It’s about a young American ballerina (Jessica Harper) who goes to Germany to study at a prestigious dance academy. She discovers the academy is controlled by a coven of witches, and things go downhill from there. You should see this one for the beautiful, vivid colors and ornately stylized production design — nightmarish sequences of people dying never looked this good. In the film’s first 15 minutes, a girl falls through an enormous stained glass window that shatters around her; her bloody, beating heart is also exposed and penetrated by a knife. Even the blood is improbably bright and gorgeous.

2. Cube, directed by Vincenzo Natali (1997)

This Canadian classic is what you might call “psychological horror.” It’s a sort of precursor to the Saw franchise, wherein six strangers wake up trapped in a windowless, seemingly endless maze, with no memory of how they got there. This maze is in the shape of a giant cube, and inside each room lie deadly traps. The cube’s inhabitants must work together to find a way out, moving through doors from room to room — though this proves tougher than it looks. One chamber has sharpened wires that zoom across and slice your body into neat chunks as soon as you step inside. Another shoots acid in your face. Another releases poisonous gas. The scariest thing about Cube is the lack of explanation; there is no Jigsaw, no master puppeteer pulling the strings. We never find out why these people are there. We don’t know where it is or how big it is or who selected these six suckers to go inside. This one is a slow burner, as the mind-numbing claustrophobia builds, and the prisoners begin to go mad.

3. Frozen (not the Disney film), directed by Adam Green (2010)

Not many people saw this movie, and I think that’s a shame. It’s low budget, incredibly minimalist and works because it’s one of those it-could-absolutely-happen scenarios. Three kids (two guys and a girl) at a wintry New England ski resort beg the lift operator to let them take one last run before the place shuts down for the night. When the lift operator has to leave, he tells his replacement to watch for one more group of three — but the replacement doesn’t. He leaves too, the chair lift is shut down, the lights all go off and the skiers are trapped; even better, it’s Sunday, and the resort is closed until the following weekend. The threat of frostbite, hypothermia and isolation coincide with repressed emotional conflicts (the girl and one of the guys are dating, his best friend is third wheel and the third wheel feels his buddy has been blowing him off since he fell in love). Where do everyone’s loyalties lie? Frozen is effective because of the natural, realistic performances by the young actors — it’s just three people and one tiny set, and the whole thing is very well-executed. A little reminiscent of Sartre’s No Exit.

4. The Host, directed by Joon-ho Bong (2006)

This South Korean creature feature is a delightful blend of panic and hilarity. In a throwback to '50s sci-fi wherein radiation or radioactive chemicals bred giant monsters (like the ants in Them!), Seoul’s Han River is polluted with some toxic chemicals. This somehow breeds a monstrous amphibian in the river’s depths, one who can both swim and trot along the shore with powerful strides. The Host is centered around the Parks, a loving and dysfunctional family; when the youngest girl is scooped up by the monster, her father goes on a quest to get her back. There’s a wonderful shot of the monster’s first on-shore appearance, when he casually lopes up behind some people, and it takes several moments before anyone thinks to run. The monster is scary (and expertly designed), but he’s also kind of clumsy. In a satirical political twist, the real enemy of the characters turns out to be the government, who get involved and naturally make everything worse, quarantining people (they fear the monster carries a deadly virus) and causing general mayhem. Sound familiar?

5. Martyrs, directed by Pascal Laugier (2008)

I’m putting this New Wave French Horror film on the list because it’s not wildly well known in America, but I wouldn’t recommend watching it — because it is disgusting and depressing. On the plus side, it will satiate all desire you have for gore and horror. (God, I hope. If you aren’t satiated by this, I’m not sure what to tell you.) Martyrs was never released in United States theaters, and though it was bought by the Weinstein Company, allegedly Bob Weinstein himself couldn’t make it to the end of the film. Basically, there’s a cult of people led by an older woman called “Mademoiselle,” who are in the business of capturing and torturing young women. By pushing these victims to the brink of death, the cult hopes such suffering will also bring them to a plane of higher existence and possibly lead to enlightenment they could share. The tortured women become “martyrs,” and we follow one girl as she goes through the journey, which includes being flayed (skinned alive). Martyrs is boundary-pushing and extremely uncomfortable to watch. Proceed with caution.

6. Wait Until Dark, directed by Terence Young (1967)

This suspense-thriller stars Audrey Hepburn in a role she’s never played before: a blind person. Of course, being blind in and of itself is pretty terrifying — how can you tell whether someone is threatening, or know if you are being followed? Audrey lives alone in her basement apartment, and a trio of thugs (one being a villainous Alan Arkin) try to find out whether she has a doll stuffed with heroin. Audrey won’t cooperate with the criminals. She is so sweet-looking and universally adored as an actress, we cannot help but feel empathy for her character, especially as she is stalked and terrorized. This is an understated film without any blood, wherein tension builds slowly to a boiling point. I won’t spoil anything, but there is a marvelous jump scare toward the end that’s so much better than all the hammy made-you-look jump cuts of most contemporary horror films.

7. Caché, directed by Michael Haneke (2005)

Austrian filmmaker Haneke has a reputation for making deeply unsettling, restrained films, and Caché (which means “hidden” in English) is no exception. The life of a Parisian family (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche play husband and wife to a 12-year-old son) is disrupted when they begin receiving surveillance tapes of the exterior of their home. They don’t know who is sending the tapes and they don’t know why they are being sent. The tapes contain hours and hours of seemingly meaningless footage — but they reveal that someone is watching them and their house. Caché brilliantly details the slow unraveling of a family, helped along by increasing paranoia, suspicions and guilt that lies dormant. When rudimentary drawings start accompanying the tapes, it seems the man of the house may be hiding something, and his past is called into question. But who the tapes are being sent by, and why, remains a quietly chilling mystery; even when you think you know, you might be wrong.

8. Buried, directed by Rodrigo Cortés (2010)

This film prays on one of the nastiest, basest human fears: being buried alive. Ryan Reynolds stars (actually, he’s the only person we ever see on-screen) as an Iraq-based American civilian truck driver. After his truck is ambushed by terrorists, he wakes up to find himself buried alive in a wooden coffin. He’s been given a flashlight and a mobile phone with a dying battery. His kidnapper calls the phone, and explains that he’s being ransomed for $5 million; if he can’t get his family or the government to pay up, he will be left there to die. Reynolds carries the film admirably, especially given the tiny circumference he’s given to work with. It’s the heart-breaking, desperate phone calls he both makes and receives — with his kidnappers, the government’s Hostage Working Group, his mom and his wife — that comprise the drama of the film. Buried is a lot less flashy than 127 Hours, but it conveys the intensity of lonely entrapment with a much more clever intimacy. If you’re not writhing around while watching this one, you have a lot more composure than I do.

9. The Descent, directed by Neil Marshall (2005)

This British cult favorite is, quite simply, one of the best horror movies in recent memory. It’s so smart and unexpected, and there is a great deal of shrewd homage paid to horror classics of past decades. Six female friends go spelunking (cave-diving) in the Appalachian Mountains; there’s a melancholy tone to their mission, as one of the group recently lost her husband and child in a car accident. Her friends are trying to get her back on her feet, doing something she used to love. The female characters are silly, crude, loving, callous — and their friendships are genuine and complex. But these friendships are tested when exploring deep underground, some rocks cave in, and their way out is blocked. The girls are left to navigate a pitch-dark, nightmarish Hell-scape, pinching their way through tight tunnels and rappelling over gaping chasms. But wait — do they hear something? Of course they do. Something other than stalagmites lives in the bowels of the earth. The group is pushed to their limits, both physically and psychologically, as their beliefs about who they are and what they mean to each other are tested in the most brutal fashion. If you’ve never seen this, I’m jealous of you for getting to watch it for the first time. Go do it.

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