Back when I manned the horror section of the video store I worked at, anytime I’d find a customer skimming through all the “S” titles with mild frustration, 99 percent of the time, I knew exactly what it was they were looking for. And when I would finally ask, my suspicions were confirmed. “Do you have ‘The Silence Of The Lamb’”? To which I’d always reply, “Ah, the Hannibal Lector movies are all in the ‘mystery/thriller’ section.” And usually this would spur a conversation with that customer that would begin with, “Really? I always thought the Hannibal Lector movies were horror!” And it got me thinking about a handful of other titles that horror fans might not even think to hunt for in the “mystery/thriller” section. There are the obvious choices like Se7en or Misery. Then, there’s also stuff like The Sixth Sense, which yes, I’d consider a horror film. But for this article, I wanted to recommend a few titles you might not even be familiar with. So the next time you’re at the video store or browsing titles on Netflix or Amazon and looking for a cool new horror discovery, think about checking out one these following nine thrillers.
Mute Witness – It’s still relatively unknown and criminally underseen, so any attention I can bring to one of director Anthony Waller’s first films is worthwhile. In Mute Witness, director Andy Clarke (Evan Richards) finally gets his big break in the film business by shooting his debut “slasher” film. The only downside is he has to shoot it in Russia with a mostly Russian crew. His girlfriend’s sister Billy Hughes (Marina Sudina) is the FX artist on the shoot who is physically incapable of speaking. Late one night after they’ve wrapped filming for the night, Billy stumbles upon a secret shoot for what at first appears to be a porno film. In actuality, she inadvertently sees the making of a snuff film and witnesses an actual murder. Despite informing the police, the snuff filmmakers manage to throw the authorities off their scent by providing proof that they were merely shooting a low-budget horror film. But with Billy as the sole witness to the crime, she’s now in danger of exposing an underground snuff ring and hence becomes their primary target! What I love about this film is that despite its dark underlining subject matter, the movie manages to be both a taunt thriller and a fun ride, especially Evan Richards character, playing the American director very neurotically and with much skepticism to what Billy has seen. One of my favorite scenes in this movie is actually the opening which is part of Andy Clarke’s “slasher” movie and it’s just so darned well executed that it makes me wish I could see the movie within the movie! For several years, Hollywood has been trying to remake this film for a wider more commercial audience, but I say why bother? The original is great as it is.
Don’t Look Now – Often times I wonder if I’ll ever see a movie that will scare me in the same way that a lot of horror films I grew up with did. I also wonder if some of those older movies that had such an indelible effect on me are genuinely scary films, or if they were just impactful because of the impressionable age I was when I first experienced them. Exorcist III: Legion, for example has one scary moment in it (you know the one) that I recently showed to a group of friends and it proved to me that it still works! Although made in 1973 before I was even born, Nicolas Roeg’s movie Don’t Look Now (which I only first saw a few short years ago) has a moment in its conclusion that scared the absolute bejesus out of me. So yes, sometimes those magical cinematic scares that are captured will forever evoke fear in the viewer. For that alone, Don’t Look Now is a film you need to see asap. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are a couple who’ve recently lost their little girl to a horrible drowning accident. In an attempt to take a mental break, they retreat to Venice and instead are plagued by memories of their daughter. Could she be sending a message from the afterlife? A psychic seems to think so and hence the grieving father is chasing after a little girl in red he’s convinced is his daughter. Although Nicolas Roeg is a British camera operator, his direction style is very reminiscent of Italian style horror films, ala Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci. Just look at the stylistic blood drip across the lens in the trailer to see what I mean. That’s just a glimpse of the horrors that await you in Don’t Look Now.
Jacob’s Ladder – Man, I remember seeing the trailer for this at an old Fangoria Weekend of Horrors convention and also during the Horror Hall of Fame TV special and feeling completely uneasy by the flashing imagery and presence of demons. Jacob’s Ladder was director Adrian Lyne’s follow-up to his smash hit Fatal Attraction which stars Tim Robbins as Jacob Singer, a former Vietnam veteran who now lives a fairly ordinary life as a mailman. Still in mourning from the death of his little boy and suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, he begins having strange nightmarish visions and hallucinations. What’s the meaning of these (literal) demons he’s facing? A few things stood out for me watching this movie at a far too young age. The ice tub sequence where Jacob is thrown into a tub full of ice to try to break his fever and the bizarre, disturbing ending, which I didn’t “get” upon initial viewing but came to appreciate when I revisited the film as an adult. And seriously, what a great trailer, no?
Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer – I discovered the original book Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer from an unlikely source; the band Nirvana. Kurt Cobain had cited Patrick Suskind’s novel about a lonely orphan named Jean-Baptiste Grenouille who embarks on a quest to capture the perfect scent and make a perfume out of it as one of his favorite books. So much so that it was the inspiration behind the song “Scentless Apprentice” from Nirvana’s In Utero album. I also recall thinking while initially reading the book that making a film adaptation of it would be next to impossible to translate properly. Thankfully, Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer proved me wrong and found a way to adapt the film version perfectly. It’s a beautiful tale of someone born into a life of alienation and loneliness, yet who also possesses such a tremendously incredible gift that drives him obsessively to murder. The trailer below shows a bit too much from the movie in my opinion, but it’s fairly epic in scope so there’s plenty more to discover from watching the actual movie. If you want a taste, I’d actually recommend this creepy teaser trailer instead. And just for the fun of it, how ‘bout we check out a live version of Nirvana’s “Scentless Apprentice” now that you know what inspired that song?
Alone With Her – This is a fairly obscure indie flick that definitely deserves some attention. It’s one of the very select few true found footage films that successfully (for better or for worse) puts us the viewer directly into the mindset and point of view of the movie’s voyeur Doug, played to creepy perfection by Colin Hanks. Doug falls in love with the sweet Amy (Ana Claudia Talancon) almost immediately and sets about infiltrating her life by any means necessary. He goes as far as to set up mini cameras all over her apartment and stalk her every move. He’s able to manipulate her relationships with his knowledge of what he sees until her best friend Jen (Jordano Spiro) starts to suspect there’s something off and potentially dangerous about this guy. And that’s when things start to get scary. By forcing the audience to partake and become a witness to all of Doug’s actions, director Eric Nicholas manages to instill a very deep, subtle fear. Don’t judge this movie by its box art cover (which makes it looks like a knock off of ‘When A Stranger Calls’), Alone With Her is probably one of the most chilling and realistic stalker horror movie ever made.
Bad Ronald – I’m fairly certain I must have heard about this obscure made-for-TV movie years ago, but it was really Judah Friedlander who was telling myself and the Icons Of Fright crew about Bad Ronald. The plot initially sounded like what we thought the Black Christmas remake was going to be about, but by the time that film came out, the similarities turned out to be minimal. Ronald (Scott Jacoby) is an awkwardly shy young high school student that after being fed up by the taunts of his classmates ends up accidently killing one of them on the way home from school. Terrified of what the authorities will do to him, Ronald’s mother hides him in a secret room hidden within the walls of their house. Then she unexpectedly dies and a new family moves in! They think they hear noises; they feel as if they’re being watched and their suspicions are correct. Ronald is still living within the walls of the house, unaware of his mother’s death or what to do. It’s definitely a creepy and weird little movie and has been the subject of a remake for years now. Dabney Coleman plays the father of the new family that moves into the house, and lead actor Scott Jacoby later went on to star with Jodie Foster in The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane. It’s a shock to me that no one ever thought to cast Jacoby and Matthew Modine as bothers in something. (It’s never too late!)
Relentless – While Relentless may look like a crime serial killer drama on the surface, did you know that it was helmed by the same director who gave us Maniac, Maniac Cop and Vigilante?! That’s right. Back in 1989, Bill Lustig delivered this bizarre little flick about psychopath Arthur “Buck” Taylor (Judd Nelson), the son of a police captain who is unable to join the force himself due to him consistently failing the psychological test, and instead begins stalking victims he randomly selects from the phone book. He also assists his victims in killing themselves, adding to the overall unpleasant nature of his crimes. Hot on his trail are detectives Bill Malloy (Robert Loggia) and Sam Deitz (Halloween II’s Leo Rossi!), whose wife in the film is played by another genre favorite Meg Foster. (They Live, Stepfather 2) Lustig’s direction is definitely what sets this apart from the hundreds of other serial killer thrillers out there, in particular the long and drawn out way he depicts the murders. It almost matches the sleaze factor of Maniac. It also (for better or worse) paints the police force to be completely inept from helping victims that report the harassing phone calls prior to their murders to an almost infuriating degree. Also of note is the music by frequent Lustig composer Jay Chattway. Relentless eventually went on to spawn 3 sequels (!) all fronted by Leo Rossi who also served as co-producer on the follow-ups. He goes up against a Russian hitman (I think?) and William Forsythe in the later movies, but the first Relentless is definitely the most memorable of the bunch.
The First Power – A serial killer who wears an unsettling mask of a face, weird Satanic connections, creepy nuns, supernatural elements, the electrocution of a murderer and Lou Diamond Phillips in the middle of it all? The First Power is one of the most bizarre selections of the movies listed here! It’s not necessarily a good flick, but I applaud it for all of its bat-shit crazy plot points. And despite having Detective Russell Logan (Lou Diamond Phillips) surprisingly capture serial killer Patrick Channing “The Pentagram Killer” (Jeff Kober) fairly early on in the movie, logic seems to go out the window at the 15 minute mark. Still it’s a weird ass film and with its religious themes paired up with an invincible serial killer storyline, it’s definitely a horror movie rather than your average thriller.
10 To Midnight – What if Charles Bronson stumbled right into a “slasher” flick like Maniac or The Prowler or Friday The 13th? Well then you’d have the awesome has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed movie 10 To Midnight. There’s a killer on the loose and LAPD Detective Leo Kessler is determined to bring him in! But the killer, Warren Stacy (Gene Davis) manages to avoid capture because every time he commits one of his murders, he does it completely stark naked, hence he doesn’t leave any physical evidence behind. (This is before the days of DNA evidence.) The movie borrows elements from both the horrific real life Richard Speck and Ted Bundy cases, so if real life inspired violence or seeing a dude that spends 90 percent of the movie naked while murdering innocent women skeeves you out, then you’ll want to see him get his comeuppance at the hands of Charles Bronson. And that’s not a spoiler; all of Bronson’s action movies pretty much follow this formula. Doesn’t make them any less fun to watch! This is the rare Bronson movie for the horror crowd.
Other notable mentions: The Vanishing (both versions), Stir Of Echoes, Copycat, Shallow Grave.