Halloween is a time for horror, and if you’re no stranger to Carpenter, Argento, Lewton, Romero, Hitchcock, the Italian giallo, or Universal Horror, then you may be hankering to unearth a few obscure sleepers made by directors and stars half-forgotten in the sludge of time. This list of 13 weird movies all seem to reflect fear of their own obscurity: aging actresses camping it up before the mirror with highballs and axes; younger actresses having Antonioni-esque meltdowns; and space ships following the Alien slime breadcrumb trail. They throw normal reality to the wind, yet never lapse into whimsy or sentiment. They explore collective human mythos with a stout heart of darkness, and with scant budgetary means. At the very least, they can hold your attention, and deliver decent chills, especially with a nice buzz and low expectations.
Messiah of Evil (1976)
This impressive debut feature from future Lucasfilm writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz stars Mariana Hill as Arletty, the emotionally vacant daughter of a disappeared artist (Royal Dano). There’s a hushed quality to Messiah of Evil, all the better to hear the waves crashing in the distance. Nobody shouts until they’re about to die, usually at the hands of cannibal mobs. A super-chill dandy, Thom (Michael Greer), and his two girlfriends, Laura (Anitra Ford) and Toni (Joy Bang), join Arletty in an attempt to unravel the mysteries afoot in this secluded, unfriendly location, and as Thom busts a move on Arletty, the girlfriends disappear into the ominous blackness. Among the film’s more haunting elements: photorealist faces peering through windows and a wall weirdly painted with a full-size escalator. At any moment, this empty house seems as if it could warp into a nightmarish shopping mall—one of many bizarre evocations of a film that cannily mixes Lovecraftian dread with Antonioni-esque alienation.
The Black Pit of Dr. M (1959)
The Black Pit of Dr. M’s plot unfolds like a whole season of The Twilight Zone collapsed into a single surrealist fever dream. Dr. Mazali (Rafael Bertrand) asks his dying colleague to arrange a means by which he can visit the realm beyond death and then return to tell the tale. A pretty difficult thing to ask, but after his death, his colleague’s spirit appears to assure him an elaborate chain of coincidence is in play that will fulfill the macabre request. A beautiful dancer, an dangerous female lunatic, an acid-scarred orderly all play parts in an experience that will answer all Dr. M’s questions. The bombastic plodding score is like an inexorable countdown to some horrific destiny, and some of the light and shadow patterns recall early Orson Welles. In sum, 71 minutes of unusually mature and poetic Mexican horror cinema, its rich minimalist dream ambience worthy of Edgar G. Ulmer or Val Letwon.
Seven Deaths in a Cat’s Eye (1973)
Jane Birkin—her long straight hair like gossamer gold in the candle light as her character, Corringa, investigates strange goings on in her aunt’s mansion—is just one reason to discover this European mod update to the dark-house horrors of the 1930s. Genre staples abound: secret passages, secret heirs, even a guy in an ape suit. The plot involves the usual ornate mansion full of scheming eccentrics, one of whom killed Corringa’s mother; the doctor says it was natural causes, but he’s sleeping with Corringa’s aunt, who’ll hold onto the mansion at any cost to those around her. At night, Corringa’s mother appears as a vampire, invoking her lineage’s birthright, declaring that Corringa must avenge her death. The killings are strangely observed by a big orange tabby cat, and the suspects include Doris Kunstman as a bisexual, self-diagnosed “slut” and Hiram Keller as a cloistered, Byronic pretty boy. (Birkin’s husband, Serge Gainsbourg, even appears as a drowsy constable.) It’s not particularly scary, but the Ennio Morricone-esque score by Riz Ortolani and the fairy-tale tableaux conveyed by Carlo Carlini’s beautiful cinematography make it ethereal.
The urge to recreate the boffo box office of Alien led to a host of imitations, most of them pretty lame, but some work seeking out, like William Malone’s Creature. Sure, it’s Alien down to its claws, but it also borrows from Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (one of the Ridley Scott film’s own inspirations), as well as The Thing from Another Planet and Forbidden Planet, so you know that Malone loves the classics. Final girl Wendy Schaal’s elfin profile looks great in the fog and blue light; the schizophrenic score throws in a string quartet amid the wondrously tacky synths; and the creature is a hilarious fusion of Giger’s alien and a garden hose. The co-ed crew has a nice feminist air, and Klaus Kinski shows up halfway through as a lecherous survivor from a past expeditions.
The Evil (1978)
This Roger Corman production stars Richard Crenna as a bearded psychiatrist setting up his troubled youth clinic in a big former mental hospital dance studio. Naturally, the “evil” kept trapped in the basement is released, and it locks them all in for a night of malicious echoing laughter, telekinetic death blows, “accidental” electric shock, attack dogs lunging out of a cupboard, and a near ghost-rape. Joanna Pettet—with her two-tone lipstick and flare slacks—plays it rivetingly straight as his psychic girlfriend, Caroline, who can’t convince him that the ghost she sees is real, and that his diary holds the clues. It takes a few minutes for The Evil to get rolling, but once the Evil’s loose, the action never lets up, and the “visual effects” are old-school endearing, from the tiny pin scratches on the celluloid standing in for electric shocks to the actors rolling back and forth on the stairs while the camera shakes to simulate earthquakes. For me, that’s part of what Halloween is about: the sense that the shocks are all for show, a chance to face our childhood demons in effigy, and cathartically laugh them away.
Burnt Offerings (1976)
Something’s very strange about Dan Curtis’s slow-burn and disturbingly ambiguous horror film: Oliver Reed’s Ben Rolf hallucinates a skinny chauffeur attached to some buried childhood trauma, and then almost drowns his son during some pool roughhousing. His wife, Marian (Karen Black), meanwhile becomes morbidly obsessed with the never-seen old lady upstairs, and as the cigarette-smoking aunt just along for the ride, Bette Davis has a rare role as the one bastion of sanity as the family falls into the grip of the story’s bizarre haunted house. There’s no earthly reason why anyone would want to rent this decaying mansion in the middle of nowhere for the summer, and as the first half slogs along, you may wish they chose the beach. But stick with it, because Burnt Offerings is trying to find new sources of fear and anxiety, and does so through brilliant acting, enigmatic dialogue (“Yesterday was so long ago”), sophisticated family dynamics, subtle changes in décor, creepy old people, and evocations of the dangers of isolation and how any family can fall prey to madness without a supportive social structure. And the ending is a stone-cold shocker.
Juli Reding is a ’50s pulp-novel cover come to life as Vi, a jealous jazz pianist’s ex-lover turned ghost, haunting the louche Tom (Richard Carlson) after he lets her fall from the top of a lighthouse so he can marry Meg (Lugene Sanders) and her money. The next morning there’s footprints in the sand following Tom home, and soon Vi’s disembodied head is taunting him and her hand scuttling after his. He has to keep killing to keep his shadiness a secret until after the wedding, and it’s up to Meg’s disillusioned younger sister (Susan Gordon) to convince the adults to call the whole thing off before she’s next on Tom’s kill list. Joe Turkel makes a rare early appearance as a hipster beatnik, dropping crazy slang no real beatnik probably ever said while still maintaining that Satanic stare as he shakes Tom down for a cut of the take. Carlson, the terminally sincere good guy scientist in so many ’50s horror movies, is gamely playing against type too. Bert I. Gordon, the director behind The Amazing Colossal Man, gets a lot of flak for his chintzy special effects (his colossal man was see-through), but he usually brought some bizarre twists and humanity to his films, here the double-exposure effect fits the ghost material, and it works as a masculine character study as well as a streamlined all-American pulp-horror romance.