There are a lot of horror movies, which sadly also means there are a lot of bad horror movies. And it’s often difficult to know which ones, apart from the well known and well loved classics, are worth watching. So in the spirit of spooky season, great movies, and discovering underloved gems, here’s a list of 15 underrated horror movies.
It’s wide ranging in a number of ways so that you can find something everyone will love, except maybe people who don’t like horror movies, but hopefully you aren’t planning on spending too much time with them during the next month anyway. The earliest movie is from 1943 and the most recent just came out this year. There are movies from at least 8 different counties (things get a bit confusing with co-productions especially for older films). There are ghost stories, slashers, and at least two movies unlike anything else.
Underrated Horror Movies
1. The Leopard Man (1943)
Director: Jacques Tourneur
After the success of Cat People in 1942, Jacques Tourneur made two movies for producer Val Lewton in 1943, I Walked With A Zombie and The Leopard Man. I Walked With A Zombie isn’t quite the major classic that Cat People is, but it’s directly referenced in Pretty Little Liars so it’s also not exactly underrated either. The Leopard Man, on the other hand, doesn’t get nearly enough attention as arguably the first slasher ever made, and one of the the first films to deal with a serial killer, decades before that term was coined in the latter half of the 20th century
The film begins when a show leopard escapes in a small New Mexico town and mauls a young woman to death, but soon another young woman’s death follows and suspicions arise. The Leopard Man’s horror sequences are painfully tense, with brilliant use of the dark empty spaces of the town along with a number of recurring sound effects that emanate from that darkness. Adding to the general unease of the film is the mystery of the murderer, with suspicions cast on a number of characters, including one who begins to suspect himself.
The Leopard Man is a great choice for any fans of classic Hollywood horror with a surprising edge, or fans of gialli and slashers interested in those genres’ roots.
2. Isle of the Dead (1945)
Director: Mark Robson
Isle of the Dead is another Val Lewton produced film, directed by Mark Robson who also directed The Seventh Victim, that deserves more attention. It may be a bit difficult to watch as the plot focuses on a group of people who are quarantined on, well, an isle, but the film has a wonderful atmosphere and one of the most haunting scares in a horror movie I’ve ever seen.
The plot follows an outbreak of a plague that kills people in a day among a small group on an actual isle of the dead that serves as the burial place of a lead character’s wife. And as if the threat of a fast acting fatal disease isn’t enough, one of the characters believes that another is a vorvolaka, a malevolent creature in human form.
This element adds not just the possibility of another threat, but an interesting thematic point: it leads to a sort of ideological battle between the rational science minded characters and the more mystical minded characters in the film. The possibility of one of the characters being a mythical hostile force adds an atmosphere of supernatural mystery to the film that makes it feel somewhat otherworldly. The film also stars Boris Karloff, adding a star power element to the movie that most of the Val Lewton RKO horror films don’t have.
It’s a beautiful and melancholy film that also just so happens to be one of the scariest movies to come out in the first half of the 20th century.
3. The Last Man on Earth (1964)
Director: Ubaldo Ragona & Sidney Salkow
The Last Man on Earth is the first of three (so far) adaptations of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, the other two being the Charlton Heston starring The Omega Man, and, you guessed it, the Will Smith starring I Am Legend. For reasons that are hard to understand, The Last Man on Earth is the most underrated of the bunch.
Like the other two adaptations, it has a great star carrying the film in Vincent Price. Its black and white photography is beautiful and well suited to emphasizing the desolateness of the world that Price’s Dr. Robert Morgan navigates. The Last Man on Earth is the most faithful adaptation of the book that’s been brought to the screen, which also makes it the best because it offers a number of flashback sequences to Morgan’s life as the world begins to crumble around him. It’s undeniably difficult to watch as Morgan even says “I just can’t accept the idea of universal disease” while he attempts to fight the growing inevitability of just that.
The film certainly has its thrills, but it’s much more effective on an emotional than a visceral level, as we watch Morgan’s life and everyone he loves slowly slip away from him to leave him behind in an empty wasteland that was once a bustling city. Watch this if you want a horror movie that will make you more sad than scared.
4. Mark of the Devil (1970)
Director: Michael Armstrong
Mark of the Devil was one of a number of films made in the wake of Witchfinder General to cash in on that film’s success.
Michael Armstrong’s film focuses on a young nobleman and witch hunter’s apprentice Christian von Meruh (a startlingly good looking young Udo Kier) who begins to recognize that the witch hunts are not in fact the holy endeavor he initially believed. He discovers that the witch hunts and the attendant trials are simply excuses for witch hunters to indulge their greed and misogyny with impunity, or rather (much more frighteningly), with the sanctions of the state and the church.
Mark of the Devil is a near perfect exploitation film for the way that it’s able to mix an intelligent critique of power structures with some of the most brutal acts of torture set to screen at the time of its release, and yes there’s also a good amount of nudity. The sequences of torture to force confessions out of innocent people are stomach churning to this day, as the practical effects are surprisingly realistic for 1970, and even when they aren’t entirely believable, the simple thought of what’s happening on screen is enough to make you squirm.
Mark of the Devil isn’t for the faint of heart, but if you like ideas in your torture films or torture in historical PSAs on the evils of superstition and centralized systems of power, then it’s definitely for you.
5. Sugar Hill (1974)
Director: Paul Maslansky
Sugar Hill, not to be confused with the 1993 crime drama of the same name, is one of a number of films that mix blaxploitation and horror. The film follows Diana “Sugar” Hill (Marki Bey) as she turns to voodoo queen Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully) for help avenging her boyfriend who has been killed for refusing to sell his nightclub to the local crime lord. It’s a wonderfully simple plot and Bey is fantastically charismatic in the titular role, which makes for a fast moving and fun revenge story.
But what makes Sugar Hill special is how genuinely scary it is. Mama Maitresse summons Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), a voodoo lord of the dead, who offers Sugar the help of his army of zombies. The zombies are some of the most strikingly designed and made-up in any movie from the era or since. They have entirely blank silvery eyes that drive home, more than any amount of gory make-up could, how truly inhuman they are.
The film has its issues, not all of the acting is exactly Oscar worthy and it’s easy to see that the film was made on a budget, but it manages to deliver a unique horror twist on a standard revenge story, and gets extra points for placing a woman at the center of that story as well.
6. The Killer of Dolls (aka Killing of the Dolls) (1975)
Director: Miguel Madrid (as Michael Skaife)
The Killer of Dolls isn’t about killer dolls, nor is it about someone who kills sentient dolls. This criminally underrated Spanish proto-slasher focuses on young Paul (David Rocha) who struggles with telling the difference between mannequins (“dolls” if you will) and human beings. Paul has a compulsion to violently attack the mannequins that he believes he sees, which of course leads to a few dead humans along the way.
The film is delightfully odd as it tosses ridiculous ideas about psychology, fantastic slasher sequences, the aggressive horniness of many European exploitation films of the 1970s, and a full two to three minute music video into a blender and delivers one of the strangest but most delightful horror movies ever made. While its basic understanding of human psychology may be off (at the very least), the film is full of interesting ideas about perception, sexuality, gender, and of course the sometimes uncomfortably fine line between humans and mannequins.
The Killer of Dolls is sure to delight fans of gialli and later American slashers as well as anyone who likes their horror movies with a healthy dose of silliness.
7. Society (1989)
Director: Brian Yuzna
Society director Brian Yuzna is likely best known for his collaborations with director Stuart Gordon like Re-Animator and From Beyond, but Yuzna is an accomplished director on his own and his greatest directorial achievement is his debut: the wonderfully wild Society.
Society focuses on high school student Bill (Billy Warlock), who begins to suspect that he may be adopted and that he isn’t like his wealthy family. Bill begins to investigate, that’s right, society; but not the “we live in a society” version, no, he starts to dig into the mysteries of what makes “high society” different.
The film, like Yuzna’s work with Gordon, has a light campy tone that makes the bravura body horror in the film (which I won’t spoil) just as funny as it is squirm inducing. The film is also quintessentially ’80s, from the costumes to the genuine concern that the wealthy may be a different species.
Society is a must watch for any body horror fans who haven’t ventured beyond Cronenberg or The Thing and a fun horror comedy for anyone who likes to laugh while they’re scared and/or, as is more likely here, disgusted.
8. Def by Temptation (1990)
Director: James Bond III
Def by Temptation is another blaxploitation inspired horror movie, but unlike Sugar Hill, it didn’t arrive in the subgenre’s 1970s heyday but instead at the start of the 1990s. This means instead of big afros and a funky soundtrack, the film has a streetwear and hip-hop inflected aesthetic in the costuming and the music.
The film focuses on Joel (writer/director James Bond III), a young and inexperienced minister from a line of country ministers (his father is played by Samuel L. Jackson in brief flashbacks), as he visits his childhood friend K (Kadeem Hardison) in New York City. There’s a tension in the film between K’s city living (and not exactly hard-partying, but certainly somewhat hedonistic) lifestyle and Joel’s more conservative form of Christianity that undergirds the film’s thematic interest in sexuality. Pushing that interest in sexuality further, and adding the horror element, the film also follows a gorgeous woman who happens to be a succubus, and the supernatural detective on her trail.
Def by Temptation manages to touch on a number of interesting ideas around black Christianity, sexual conservatism and freedom, and male friendship, all while remaining firmly a genre film. It’s also a highly stylized movie, especially in the beautifully aestheticized succubus murder sequences, with creative lighting and gorgeous blood spray. But the heart of it is the very real friendship between Joel and K that makes it function not just as an intellectually interesting horror film for its themes, but also one of the most emotionally affecting movies on this list.
Def by Temptation is a great choice for anyone who wants their horror movies to be more colorful, both cast wise and lighting wise, and is interested in a horror movie that centers on a friendship between black men.
9. Dark Waters (1993)
Director: Mariano Baino
No, not the Oscar-bait, based on a true story, Mark Ruffalo-starring, Todd Haynes-directed movie. Dark Waters (1993) is (as of yet) the only feature film from writer/multimedia artist/director Mariano Baino.
The film is one of the best instances of Lovecraftian horror on film that’s not directly based on one of the author’s tales. The film follows Elizabeth (Louise Salter) who returns to the convent island of her birth after the death of her father to decide whether she will continue his donations to the convent. When she arrives, she is not met by the friend she expects and is told that her friend has gone missing. Thus begins the film’s initial mystery, but the mysteries only multiply, growing more difficult to comprehend and more otherworldly as Elizabeth investigates, literally diving into the depths of the convent.
The film is gorgeously shot and beautifully mixes the colors that Italian horror became famous for in the 1970s and ’80s with an all encompassing atmosphere of horror that grows not just out of the mysteries of the story, but also the music and the set design of the island.
Dark Waters is a perfect choice for when you’re less interested in following a mystery for answers and more interested in getting lost in a mysterious feeling.
10. Gozu (2003)
Director: Takashi Miike
While Miike’s Audition usually gets all the love, Gozu may be his horror masterpiece. At the start, Gozu seems to be a Yakuza crime drama with some absurdist moments tossed in for comedy, but as the film goes on, things begin to get more and more ominously strange.
The film follows Minami (Yûta Sone), a lower level Yakuza, as he attempts to find the body of a target. That’s right, the target is already dead, but Minami has misplaced the body.
That misplacement of a body is just the beginning of the surreal journey that Gozu takes the audience on. A journey that involves everything from body swapping to visions of a man with a cow’s head. The movie isn’t so much scary, as it is aggressively unnerving; it feels like Miike’s take on David Lynch if Lynch’s aims were purely to induce discomfort, and it makes for one of the most simultaneously off-putting and fascinating films ever made.
It’s certainly not for everyone, but if you want your jaw to be on the floor at the end of any of these movies, Gozu fits the bill.
11. Them (2006)
Director: Xavier Palud, David Moreau
Yet another movie that shouldn’t be confused with a film of the same name, this is not the Them that’s about giant ants, but instead a small scale French-Romanian home invasion film. It’s often discussed as part of the New French Extremity but it doesn’t at all reach the gory heights of films like Martyrs or Inside. Instead, Them is a brutally tense film that draws its horror almost entirely from the fear that you cannot be safe even in your own home.
It’s a film that is powerful because of how minimal it is. There are really only two characters in the central couple of Clémentine (Olivia Bonamy) and Lucas (Michaël Cohen) as the assailants move through the house without showing their faces, or even being seen at all, for much of the film, which makes them all the more terrifying.
The movie loses a bit of its magic once the villains are revealed, and it could use a bit more extremity in its violence just for punch, but Them is one of the most nerve shredding horror films ever made.
12. All The Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006)
Director: Jonathan Levine
All The Boys Love Mandy Lane had a long road to finally seeing wide release in the US in 2013 after its initial premiere in 2006, and we should all be grateful that this modern slasher didn’t stay on the shelf.
The set up is as simple as it is classic, a group of teens go to spend the weekend at a remote home, this time on a cattle ranch, and they soon begin to be picked off by a mysterious killer.
But what makes Mandy Lane special is that, along with its Texas Chainsaw Massacre inspired visuals and surprisingly extreme violence, it’s actually smart. The film interrogates both the tropes of the slasher genre, especially in relation to gender, and the misogyny of 2000s teen culture before ending in a brilliant subversion that I won’t spoil.
If you like slashers, All The Boys Love Mandy Lane is a must watch, not just for the kills, but also for the ideas hiding under the veneer of just another movie about a group of teens being violently dispatched.
13. Under the Shadow (2016)
Director: Babak Anvari
Under the Shadow feels undeniably similar to Jennifer Kent’s much celebrated The Babadook, as both films focus on a mother and child being terrorized by a supernatural creature that’s an obvious allegorical tool in the story. And just like The Babadook, the fact that the evil, a djinn here, is symbolic of a more human and social evil doesn’t make the movie any less scary, and in fact might just make it even more effective.
The film focuses on mother Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) living in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war and Shideh’s refusal to leave their home in the city despite the imminent danger of the war.
The horror of the film moves deftly between classic spectral horror, difficulty discerning reality from hallucinations, and the all too real horror of living in a warzone to create a feeling of inescapable dread. It’s also wonderfully acted by the lead pair which makes it an emotionally, as well as viscerally, impactful film.
14. Luz (2018)
Director: Tilman Singer
Luz is one of those movies that is truly unlike any other. That’s likely at least in part because it’s literally a student film that’s overflowing with ambition. It was originally made as writer/director Tilman Singer’s thesis film, but became a festival phenomenon, and with good reason. It’s a fascinatingly staged possession horror movie that plays a Brechtian game with its setting and storytelling.
Most of the film takes place in a police station in Germany where young cab driver Luz (Luana Velis) is being hypnotized by a doctor (Jan Bluthardt) after she’s involved in an accident. It’s a simple enough premise, but the film’s soundscape places us in hypnosis with Luz, and sometimes we’re fully transported to her point of view. It’s also unclear for much of the film what is happening with the demonic force that is present, particularly who it’s inhabiting and what its goals are. The score contributes to the discomfort and uncertainty of the film through some of the most unique, off-kilter, and genre defying compositions to ever accompany a movie.
Luz is a hard film to understand, but it’s an easy film to fall in love with if you’re interested in simply getting lost in a strange and enveloping atmosphere.
15. Kandisha (2020)
Director: Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury
Kandisha, the recently released Shudder exclusive from the team behind Inside, is the true heir to the Candyman legacy and isn’t getting the attention it deserves, hence its place on an underrated horror movies list the year it came out. Kandisha feels like a mix of the original Candyman and La Haine, as it focuses on a group of three friends (one white, one black, one Arab) living in a lower class neighborhood in France who must face off against a violent folkloric entity.
That entity is the titular Kandisha, an avenger of mistreated women in Moroccan legend, whom one of the girls summons after she is attacked by her ex. But once summoned, Kandisha has plans of her own and begins taking the lives of the men in the friend group, as well as some of the girls’ family members, no matter how they’ve behaved or what their relationships are to the girls.
The film manages to combine some fantastically spooky sequences with the more brutal and extreme gore that the directors are known for, all while touching on themes of colonialization, appropriation, and class. If you were left wanting by the 2021 Candyman remake, you owe it to yourself to check out Kandisha.
Some of the coverage you find on Cultured Vultures contains affiliate links, which provide us with small commissions based on purchases made from visiting our site. We cover gaming news, movie reviews, wrestling and much more.
Gamezeen is a Zeen theme demo site. Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.