Hidden horrors: our writers on the scariest movies you (probably) haven't seen

From left to right: Ganja and Hess, The Ruins, Lake Mungo and Daughters of Darkness
From left to right: Ganja and Hess, The Ruins, Lake Mungo and Daughters of Darkness. Composite: Alamy/Rex
From left to right: Ganja and Hess, The Ruins, Lake Mungo and Daughters of Darkness. Composite: Alamy/Rex

In time for Halloween, Guardian writers have picked out their favourite underseen scary movies, from Brazil’s first horror film to a found footage gem

Last modified on Fri 30 Oct 2020 20.20 GMT

Ghost Stories

The black horror comedy Ghost Stories is anthology of supernatural tales in the tradition of Ealing’s Dead Of Night – adapted by its directors Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson from their hit London stage show. Nyman himself plays a celebrity and paranormal debunker whose mission is to expose hoaxes and frauds; he was inspired as a child by a TV personality who was a campaigner in much the same way but vanished at the height of his 70s fame. Now this very man reappears, confessing to Nyman he is haunted by three insoluble ghostly cases which caused him to doubt his rationalist “faith”.

It’s a barnstorming, creepy and bizarre collection of stories, made individually stranger and more potent by the way the film allows you to notice weird connections between them. The point is to laugh, of course, but there is something genuinely unsettling in the creepy, zero-oxygen interiors with putrefying light that Nyman and Dyson conjure up – the desolate old empty pub, the deserted caravan park, the blank modern church. There’s a tremendous atmosphere, a dream-like oddness and offness to everything. It’s the kind of strange old scary movie that you might accidentally encounter on late-night TV and then stay with it, enthralled and creeped out to the very end. Peter Bradshaw

  • Ghost Stories is available on Hulu or to rent in the US and to rent in the UK

He’s Out There

I’m not much into horror films, opting instead for the unintended comedy of Lifetime thrillers, where the fright lies in the woodenness of the actors as opposed to the woods. So in the name of transparency, I feel it’s imperative I point out that it might be my predilection for plot holes and cliches that gripped me in the indie horror film He’s Out There.

It stars The Handmaid’s Tale’s Yvonne Strahovski as a mother vacationing with her two daughters, as they try to outwit an axe-wielding psychopath terrorising their remote lake house. If you are looking for a groundbreaking, genre-defining slasher, this is not it. This type of film has been done to grisly death hundreds of times and arguably better, but stay with me: not every film needs to be game-changing in order to be worth pressing play. And it is, once you get over the distinct feeling of deja vu. It more than does the job: suspense, merciless kills and child actors that, yes, may be frustrating, but hold their own.

It probably isn’t one for the connoisseurs of the home invasion subgenre. It’s been largely panned, with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of just 43%. But with Netflix’s queasy comedy series Emily in Paris currently at 69%, it’s worth recalling the takeaway of many horror films: most strangers can’t be trusted. Yomi Adegoke

  • He’s Out There is available on Amazon Prime in the US and Netflix in the UK

Lake Mungo

Lake Mungo was there at the wake of the found footage wave. Joel Anderson’s 2008 Aussie festival film has all the visceral thrills of contemporaries like Paranormal Activity and REC but also an emotional depth few horror films so skilfully grasp.

Anderson apes the format of the Ghost Hunters doc series to tell the story of the Palmer family. Teen daughter Alice drowned. But her parents and brother tell off-camera interviewers that Alice is not gone, scouring photos and camcorder footage for proof of her presence. Like the photographer in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, the family searches the grain for shapes, shadows and any indication of ghosts. In these scenes, Anderson makes expert use of static, white noise, vibrations and even the thick sound of air, all for unsettling effect.

Lake Mungo succeeds where the recent trend in “elevated horror” so often does not, marrying the jump scares to genuine emotion and revelatory insight. What makes Lake Mungo so painful and harrowing is that the Palmer family eagerly want to be haunted. They rummage through the past, searching the caverns of a fraught relationship, to keep Alice present. It’s a chilling movie about yearning for someone’s warmth. Radheyan Simonpillai

  • Lake Mungo is available on Amazon Prime in the US and to rent in the UK

At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul

As these words go to print, Brazil’s far-right strongman president Jair Bolsonaro is hard at work dismantling the Cinemateca Brasileira, a vital collection which exceeds 250,000 rolls of film and contains the soul of the country’s moving picture heritage. An antagonism to the free expression of the arts has been a key plank of authoritarianism wherever it has arisen, as it did in Brazil back in 1964, when a military coup installed a repressive dictatorship that would reign for two decades. The “Cinema Novo” movement of social realism commented and pushed back against this political shift, but in that same year, a singular iconoclast mounted a grimier, bloodier form of rebellion newly relevant to our present.

Brazil’s first horror film, At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, introduces the satanic undertaker Zé do Caixão (known to English-speakers as Coffin Joe), a top-hatted ghoul intent on attaining eternal life by siring a son and drinking his blood. Star-writer-director José Mojica Marins revived the character for a long series of films due to his enduring popularity – the factor that allowed him to get away with as much gleeful sacrilege as the heavily censored era would allow. Though future works were re-edited by governmental bureaus or banned outright, Mojica still smuggled shocking murders, spider attacks and other offenses against decency to an eager public. In beautifully degraded black and white, he sounded a feral howl of dissent against the Christian church and the establishment it represented. Charles Bramesco

  • At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is available on YouTube

Under the Shadow

Growing up, one of my favourite things to do was wait until my parents had gone to bed, surreptitiously turn on the TV in my room, and stay up for hours watching whatever horror films I could find on the late-night channels. I still like to watch horror films alone, ideally in the dark: eerie psychological thrillers, deliciously creepy Victorian ghost stories, schlocky slashers, I’ve seen them all. But the most harrowing – the one that had me cowering in my cinema seat in a ball, peering through my fingers – was Babak Anvari’s feature debut.

Set in 1980s Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war, it was inspired by the British-Iranian director’s conversations with his family who lived through the conflict. The very real terror of war seeps into the fabric of the film: when a missile crashes into protagonist Shideh’s home, her daughter becomes convinced that a djinn has come with it too, an implacable evil spirit that will stop at nothing until it gets what it wants. Suddenly, everything feels malleable and uncertain; the building’s walls and staircases seem to shift. There is, of course, a creepy doll.

What elevates the film from merely scary to genuinely terrifying is the fact that it draws on the psychological effects of living in a war zone: fractured thought processes, PTSD, intergenerational trauma. But, while you’re watching it, you won’t be worrying about the subtext or sociopolitical commentary. You’ll be too busy being scared out of your wits. Kathryn Bromwich

  • Under the Shadow is available on Netflix in the US and UK

The Collector

For the sake of transparency, I’ll admit that I’m a chicken with scary movies. A good 75% of this dread can be attributed to 2009’s The Collector. The movie, from the creators of Saw, was sold to me, as a 15-year-old at a sleepover, as “scary fun”. It’s actually home invasion torture horror: a guy (Josh Stewart) tries to rob his employer but has the extremely inauspicious timing of interrupting The Collector, who rigs the entire house with lethal booby traps in a leather mask. These details are coming from Wikipedia, as I have retained almost zero knowledge of the plot. What I do remember, branded on my brain with the hottest iron, is a single horrific scene: the house cat squealing in a puddle of boiling acid, one of the Collector’s traps. I think about this image not infrequently, usually as a question: Why? Why be this extra? (The internet has reminded me that the cat also gets chopped in half by a falling blade, in case the acid wasn’t visceral enough.) Take the human characters, fine, but the cat? No!

In the years since, I’ve asked many, many people, especially cat owners, if they’ve seen The Collector; they almost always say no, which opens the door for a good story on my one horror touchstone. So credit where credit is due. I can’t in good conscience recommend The Collector as a commendable scary movie but I can vouch for its searing brand of gore, one that still spills out in my memory after all this time – high praise, perhaps, for a horror film. Adrian Horton

  • The Collector is available on Amazon Prime in the US and UK

Daughters of Darkness

If watching exquisitely dressed female vampires whisper into the ears of slack-jawed fellows sounds at all appealing, look no further than one of the earliest entries in the sexy vampire canon, Daughters of Darkness. Featuring the French film icon Delphine Seyrig as the eerily enigmatic villainess Countess Bathory, Harry Kümel’s sumptuous tale of bloodthirsty beauties offers something for the European art-house crowd, as well as exploitation fiends lusting for bloody murder. Hapless newlyweds with copious personal issues simmering beneath the veneer of puppy love, Stefan and Valerie are spellbound by the Countess and her doleful assistant while honeymooning at a decadent seaside resort in the off-season.

As blood-drained corpses crop up around the city, Bathory and her stooge wriggle their way into the couple’s lives with sex and mind control. Soon enough, Stefan’s violent side emerges, and Valerie starts taking pointers from the twinkle-eyed Countess herself. Kümel balances menacing austerity with graphic, finger-licking eroticism that rattles the senses and builds towards an explosive payoff with a feminist touch. And beyond the risque intrigue, it’s a dazzling visual feast: art direction by Françoise Hardy imbues the opulent, desolate setting with aristocratic malaise, while the clothes – fur coats, vinyl capes, a silver lamé gown – ah! The clothes are to die for. Beatrice Loayza

  • Daughters of Darkness is available on the Criterion Channel or to rent in the US and to rent in the UK

Ganja and Hess

This cult 1973 black vampire oddity feels like it was made by someone who had never seen a horror movie, but what a delectably singular movie it is – not just in terms of black representation but also in its trancelike avant-garde execution. It was made in the heyday of blaxploitation, but writer/director/actor Bill Gunn’s sensibility was more arthouse than grindhouse. His hero, Dr Hess Green (Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones), is one cool cat: a wealthy, cultured, well-groomed anthropology professor, who travels in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce and lives in an imposing mansion. One night, his assistant (played by Gunn himself) stabs him with a cursed African dagger, then commits suicide. Hess wakes up very much alive, albeit with a thirst for human blood.

He meets his match in every sense when Ganja (Marlene Clark), the assistant’s beautiful, self-possessed wife, arrives looking for her missing husband. Clearly made on a low budget, Ganja & Hess is not all that scary. There are a few shocks, and lashings of bright red blood (which looks suspiciously like tomato juice), but it’s more the disorienting, hallucinatory sensuality that’s so beguiling. It’s like a spiked bloody mary. The story deals obliquely with matters of spirituality, addiction, power and desire but they’re folded into a surreal swirl of dreamy visions, cryptic dialogue, classical references and collage-like editing, all backed by an effects-laden soundtrack of soul-gospel and African chants. It casts a strange spell. Steve Rose

  • Ganja and Hess is available on the Criterion Channel and Shudder in the US and Shudder in the UK

Gerald’s Game

Mike Flanagan’s skill at transforming seemingly unadaptable novels into vibrantly melancholy, undeniably spooky TV series and films is unparalleled. His understanding of the ways that trauma, grief, and self-loathing work together to torture us has made for complex adaptations of horror classics, in particular the work of the genre icon Stephen King. Flanagan’s adaptation of King’s Gerald’s Game is an unrelentingly tense portrait of a woman preyed upon by men her entire life; it might make a misandrist out of you. Carla Gugino plays Jessie, a woman who goes on a trip with her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) to an isolated cabin as a way of livening up their marriage. When Jessie ends up handcuffed to their bed, alone, she is forced to face villains both real and abstract: repressed memories of her childhood and the Moonlight Man, a ghostly figure who collects jewelry and bones from his victims.

Is the Moonlight Man, with his glowing blue eyes, real? Are any of the figures who visit Jessie that night? Gugino does stellar work in a film that questions the relationship between the horrors we’ve experienced and the ones we’ve imagined, and Gerald’s Game builds an atmosphere so jittery that you couldn’t be blamed for checking under your bed after watching it. Roxana Hadadi

  • Gerald’s Game is available on Netflix in the US and UK

The Ruins

The overstuffed subgenre of films where American tourists encounter some form of evil overseas is often tainted by a rather noxious xenophobia, a reminder for many to stay home and stay safe away from all those barbaric foreigners and their outdated ways (an idea that seems more ridiculous than ever given the current state of the US). But the best examples often subvert that idea, redefining the Americans as invaders rather than mere victims, their wanderlust taking on a more obnoxious, imperialist edge. In the 2008 adaptation of Scott Smith’s unforgiving horror novel The Ruins, there’s both a stupidity and an arrogance that takes a group of white visitors to Mexico all the way from swigging margaritas by the pool to trampling down a secluded entrance to a hidden Mayan temple, a decision that would be thoughtlessly stupid regardless of what comes next.

What does come next is an audaciously gruesome and nasty little film where a ridiculous B-movie conceit is taken with total, straight-faced seriousness, a tough sell for audiences at the time who instantly rejected it, unsure whether to laugh or to wince. It’s a story of an evil, flesh-eating plant that locals have learned to avoid but after our protagonists unwittingly stumble upon it, the villagers quarantine them to avoid risk of infecting others, painting them as smart rather than savage (for this prescient reason alone, The Ruins might not be a top Halloween choice for many). There’s a staggering hopelessness to it all that I found grimly effective at the time, comic relief and romance stripped away, leaving a doomed body horror filled with enough cutting and pulling and crawling to make anyone squirm. The specific weirdness of the plant’s design; its slow, torturous attacks, its ability to emulate sounds (making death that much more horrifying as your screams are echoed by your killer) burrowed the film that much deeper into my memory. I can’t say you’ll have much fun watching, but you certainly won’t forget it. Benjamin Lee

  • The Ruins is available on HBO or to rent in the US and to rent in the UK

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