Paranormal Activity has arrived out of the blue to become a massive hit… followed, no doubt, by the inevitable popular backlash, poorly conceived sequels, and direct-to-video knock-offs obscuring its otherwise terrific pedigree. But not every film in the genre has enjoyed its surprise success, despite being first-rate efforts unto themselves. Here are 10 movies from the last 25 years well worth a second look for your Halloween delight.
The notion of combining a haunted house movie with a submarine movie may seem like a gimmick at first, but in the hands of director David Twohy, it becomes a quietly brilliant exercise in paranoia. Both settings feature darkness, spooky noises, and enclosed spaces with no easy way out. And when a group of castaways are rescued by a patrolling sub at the height of World War II, they soon find the similarities closer than they can bear. The boat seems cursed for one thing, with strange accidents a matter of course. Then there's the question of the missing captain, who no one else seems eager to talk about. Look for current comedy It Guy Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover) in an early role.
When Carriers was hustled into theaters last month, it felt like a quickie attempt to cash in on star Chris Pine's newfound success as Captain Kirk. It turns out to be a modestly cool little thriller on its own. As a worldwide epidemic causes the collapse of civilization, four teenagers attempt to flee to safety in their car. When it breaks down in the middle of nowhere, they must fight off not only the infected but their own need to survive at any cost.
8. The Devil's Backbone
Before becoming genre royalty with the likes of Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy, Guillermo Del Toro helmed this 2002 effort about a ghost in a boy's orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. He expertly contrasts the industrial horrors of battle with something much older, making beautiful use of mood and atmosphere in what amounts to a single large set. (Trivia note: Several of the characters here make unnamed appearances in Pan's Labyrinth.)
7. In the Mouth of Madness
John Carpenter's last truly great film made little impact when it was released in 1995. That's a shame, because it remains a gleeful--and gleefully scary--bit of social satire. An author (Jurgen Prochnow) whose books literally drive people mad goes missing, along with his latest text. Sam Neill playing a cynical insurance investigator hired to track him down, only to find the path leading straight into the pages of the author's text. Carpenter pays loving homage to H.P. Lovecraft--with monsters bearing a more-than-passing resemblance to the Old Ones--even as he deftly skewers social censors who believe they can fix everything by banning what they don't like.
Europe has seen an incredible output of top-notch genre films in the last few years, not the least of which is this 2007 French effort about a very pregnant woman (Alysson Paradis) stalked by mysterious figure in her home. The violence is quite intense, but unlike the Sawfilms and their ilk, it has a lot more in its corner than blood and guts.
5. Near Dark
Twilight fans need to be strapped down in the A Clockwork Orange chair and made to watch this 1987 vampire film from director Katherine Bigelow. Masterfully combining the undead with the tenets of a modern Western, she posits a clan of wandering nomads who never age and must drink blood every night to stay alive. They prowl honky-tonk bars and backwoods truck stops, dragging an innocent farmboy (Heroes'Adrian Pasdar) with them almost on a whim. For people whose notion of bloodsuckers starts and ends with Stephanie Meyer, Near Dark is a bracing introduction to what the genre is really all about.
4. Prince of Darkness
Carpenter's other great forgotten movie comes from 1987: The story of an investigative team that discovers a strange cylinder containing the essence of evil in an old church. Though it holds elements of other Satanic stories, it stays away from cheesy pentagrams and Doberman pinschers in favor of a more nuanced philosophy. It's no less frightening for the shift however… especially when Alice Cooper and an army of possessed street people come knocking on the church's door.
3. Session 9
Otherworldly evil never shows its face in Session 9, though it remains a palpable unseen presence. A clean-up company is assigned to clear the asbestos out of an abandoned lunatic asylum. In the process, they uncover a series of tapes--apparently covering a patient's therapy session--which casts a strange spell over the crew's leader. The horrors limit themselves to quiet manifestations… until the last five minutes, which feature sights and sounds that linger in nightmares for weeks.
If horror-comedy is your thing, check out this 2007 British import, about a group of office drones on a corporate-mandated retreat. The catch? They work for a weapons firm, the retreat is in Romania, and thanks to some poor directions, they end up in a patch of woods controlled by sociopathic recipients of their company's hardware. Things quickly deviate from the approved schedule of coworker bonding.
Director Toby Wilkins posits a slick variation on the classic zombie movie with a parasite that causes its victims to sprout alien spines all over their bodies. Several of the uninfected take refuge in a gas station, and their standard-issue fight for survival is augmented by Wilkins' excellent sense of tone. Syfy reruns this one on a regular basis… proving that even they aren't totally devoid of quality movies.