Let’s explore the unknown corners of horror cinema.
The best horror movies are often produced outside of the studio system. This isn’t me knocking studio movies by any means, but most connoisseurs of fright fare would agree that a lot of their favorite films are independent ones. That said, some independent movies still receive media attention, promotion, and even the occasional theatrical release on their way towards a home video release of some kind. Independent horror is great, and while there are lots of lists out there dedicated to celebrating overlooked gems this one is dedicated to the movies that bubble under the surface, dwelling in the darker, more obscure corners of spooky cinema. That’s right — we’re going underground here.
Before we start, though, let’s define what underground horror is. To put it simply, underground horror is as independent as independent can be and epitomizes filmmaking at its most DIY. The films are shot on shoestring budgets, they’re mostly self-distributed, and they’re supported by a tight-knit community of fans whose word of mouth is absolutely essential for their survival. Most of these filmmakers still work regular day jobs and fund their movies on their own dime, and any money they make is typically used to fund the next one.
Underground horror is a labor of love for filmmakers, and if they can make a career out of it that’s a bonus.
If you go into underground horror looking for flaws you’ll find plenty. While some films do exceed their budget limitations and turn out to be quite professional and impressive, many of them are clearly constrained by an obvious lack of money. But instead of focusing on what these films lack, it’s better to appreciate what the filmmakers manage to accomplish with so little. A lot of these movies aim big, and the heart and ambition that shines through is what makes them enjoyable. Granted, they’re very much an acquired taste, but if you’re able to see past the visible ‘flaws’ you’ll find yourself discovering some rare treats.
At its very best, underground horror is original and daring. It boasts outlandish and extreme ideas that you just don’t find with more mainstream films. That’s not to say that some of the best underground horror isn’t fairly traditional, but if you’re seeking something off the rails you’ll find an abundance of strange and forbidden fruits to devour.
One quick note. For the purposes of shining a spotlight on movies that have received little recognition, this list won’t include titles that started life as underground ventures only to find a wider audience later. I’m talking about movies like Basket Case, the Guinea Pig series, Bad Taste, The Dead Next Door, The Last Broadcast, The Battery, Manborg and Father’s Day — all of which crossed over to find some overground success. Instead, I’ll be focusing on movies that are still beneath the radar and then some.
The Demon’s Rook (2013)
Plot: A portal to a demonic realm is opened and all manner of hellspawn decide to pay a visit.
A few months ago I shared a short film called Goat Witch, which showcases a demonic ritual taking place courtesy of naked witches. It’s one of the best horror shorts out there, and I highly recommend a watch. It takes place in the same fictional universe as The Demon’s Rook, which is realized by James Sizemore. His brand of horror is all about intricate mythology, creatures, magic, and outstanding practical FX, and it’s a treat. The Demon’s Rook is a crafty monster free-for-all with some cosmic Lovecraftian elements thrown in for good measure.
Buy The Demon’s Rook on DVD from Amazon or watch via Amazon Video.
The Barn (2016)
Plot: On Halloween Night, 1989, a group of friends discover a barn while taking a detour en route to a concert. Little do they know that bad things await them in the form of killer scarecrow creatures.
Justin M. Seaman’s tribute to 80’s horror is bound to become a Halloween staple for the lucky viewers who are familiar with its existence. Not only is it a fitting homage to the monster and slashers films of yesteryear, but it also does an excellent job of capturing the Halloween spirit we crave when the spooky season rolls around. Nostalgia trips have been a dime a dozen in recent years, but this is one of the better ones.
Buy The Barn on Blu-ray from Amazon.
The Puppet Monster Massacre (2010)
Plot: A group of teens spend a night in a mansion full of puppet monsters.
Dustin Mills is a director who’s going to crop up more than once on this list. That’s because he doesn’t stop working and he has a diverse filmography that’s littered with brilliant, original oddities. The Puppet Monster Massacre isn’t my favorite Mills joint, but it’s a damn fine horror comedy featuring foul-mouthed monster puppets.
President Wolfman (2012)
Plot: The President gets bitten by a werewolf ,and things get hairy.
Not only is this movie hilarious, but it’s also a prime example of how lack of resources can inspire outside the box thinking that results in something fresh and exciting. President Wolfman was created out of recycled public domain films and stock footage, only repurposed with fresh dialogue and voice dubbing to tell its own unique story. And unlike the current Commander-in-Chief, President Wolfman is a candidate we can believe in.
Buy President Wolfman on DVD from Amazon.
The Unkindness of Ravens (2016)
Plot: A war veteran is haunted by ancient monsters in the Scottish Highlands.
Lawrie Brewster and Sarah Daly are making a name for themselves in the indie horror scene with their Hex Studios brand. Their work has been hailed by the likes of Roger Corman and Guillermo del Toro, and with each new film their star grows. Some of you might be familiar with their brilliant 2013 film Lord of Tears, which features the Owlman creature who recently became a viral sensation following a series of viral prank videos. However, The Unkindness of Ravens is my personal favorite as it inventively blurs the line between supernatural horror and psychological drama to give us an nuanced examination of PTSD coupled with high concept mythological fantasy.
Watch The Unkindness of Ravens via Amazon Video.
Plot: A young boy discovers that his older brother is a serial killer with a disturbing tape collection.
Scott Schirmer‘s adaptation of Todd Rigney’s novel is a triumph, but it’s a good mood killer. Part coming-of-age story, part exercise in extremity, the film is both a heartbreaking portrait of a bullied youth and an unpleasant shocker that pulls no punches. There are plenty of stomach-churning moments on display here, but more than anything it’s an upsetting character study about a troubled boy destined for a life of misery. The film within the film, Headless, was also made into a feature and is worth hunting down if you think you can handle it.
Buy Found on DVD from Amazon.
Plot: A deranged serial killer is on the loose in a bowling alley.
Ryan Nicholson is a director who makes unapologetic exploitation movies. They’re gross, offensive, nasty, and morally irredeemable. At the same time, they’re also quite silly and boast some outstanding practical FX work. As a throwback to the glory days of slasher movies, Gutterballs knows its audience and ticks all the appropriate boxes. While most will find the content repulsive, it’s still gruesomely entertaining and not to be taken seriously.
Buy Gutterballs on DVD from Amazon.
100 Tears (2007)
Plot: A clown hacks up a lot of people with a big-ass meat cleaver.
Nothing hits the spot like a body count movie when you’re in the mood for some cinematic junk food, and Marcus Koch’s film delivers the goods. This is a chaotic gorefest that boasts some spectacularly brutal kills carried out by one pissed-off circus performer. If you appreciate mindless splatter, please look no further. Those who suffer from coulrophobia, though, should avoid it at all costs.
Buy 100 Tears on DVD from Amazon.
Pieces of Talent (2014)
Plot: A waitress and aspiring actress befriends a filmmaker who also happens to be a serial killer.
Joe Stauffer’s feature-length debut takes established horror narratives — the wannabe actress getting more than she bargained for, a seemingly nice guy who turns out to be a maniac, the delusional artist, etc. — and combines them to create a story about two outsiders that’s pretty disturbing despite being peppered with plenty of dark comedy and occasional moments of sweetness. At times the killer is quite reminiscent of The Dude and seems fun to hang out with… when he isn’t slaughtering innocent people anyway.
Circus of the Dead (2014)
Plot: In a Texan town, a group of psychotic clowns force a man to embark on a crime spree in order to save his family.
In this gleefully twisted pitch-black comedy from director Billy Pon, “We want the clowns” is chanted by a crowd of enthusiastic circus-goers before the painted freaks take to the arena. For one unfortunate family, however, they get more of the clowns than they bargained for after the show is over. You see, this band of rascals like to single out members of the audience then proceed to ruin their lives for the hell of it. What ensues is a night of murder, mayhem, and sinister games which break more than a few moral taboos.
Watch Circus of the Dead via Amazon Video.
Keep reading for 15 more no-budget horror gems…