It’s a phenomenon that’s all too common; you’re scrolling through your preferred streaming service or strolling down the aisles of your local movie spot when a title catches your eye. Perhaps you recognize a face or two, and you think to yourself, “why have I not heard of this before?” And you so click it/rent it and sure enough, the world has done you wrong for allowing such a gem to go under your radar for so long. But – it’s a bittersweet injustice. Because, much like discovering an episode of a beloved sitcom that you somehow hadn’t seen before, you get the unique pleasure of discovering a “new” old favorite. An underrated diamond in the rough.
There are many reasons certain movies get swept under the rug. Quality is of course a big one, but sometimes good movies are unfairly dismissed upon arrival. Overshadowed by bigger, flashier flicks. I’m here to give credit where I believe it’s due; to ten movies that truly took me by surprise. Entertained me. Showed me something a little different from the competition. Movies that had me “shook,” as they say on the internet. Most are probably ones you’ve heard about, and a few you likely didn’t realize would count as “genre.” So join me as I sing the praises of the unsung underdogs of the last ten years.
10. In Their Skin (2012)
Plot: “The Hughes’ cottage vacation is violently interrupted by a family on a murderous and identity stealing journey, in search of the “perfect” life.”
It’s curious to me that this one was largely dismissed. Granted, it’s a somewhat familiar scenario, but it has enough of its own flair to catch your attention. The moment the sinister family shows up, you’re aware something is a little off with them. Jane (Rachel Miner), Bobby (James D’Arcy), and son Jared (Alex Ferris) are just a little too nosey. But it’s a quality easily shaken off by Mary (Selma Blair), Mark (Joshua Close, who also wrote the film) and their son Brendon (Quinn Lord) as simple social awkwardness. And by the time they suspect otherwise, it’s already much too late.
One of the fun parts of watching this movie (and it’s not always an easy watch), is catching little visual cues of the family’s true intentions. From the beginning the families immediately bear a resemblance, but keep your eye on the dinner scene in particular. The mimicry of the blocking is executed so casually you might not even notice at first.
Miner and Blair are the standouts here, with Miner bringing a surprising dimension to her difficult character. And Blair perfectly portrays the malaise of a woman having to endure yet another trauma (she and Mark are grieving the recent loss of their daughter).
The clever direction and affecting performances make this one worth look. And how’s this for a fun fact: the young actor playing Brendon was none other than Sam in Trick ‘r Treat!
Recommended if you like: The Strangers (2008)
9. The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)
Plot: “A father and son, both coroners, are pulled into a complex mystery while attempting to identify the body of a young woman, who was apparently harboring dark secrets.”
Certainly one of the better-known subjects on this list, but no less an underdog. TAoJD reminds you how nice it can be to have a horror movie set on a “dark and stormy night.” It’s known as a cliché now of course, and the setting of a morgue is perhaps even more of an obvious choice. But what’s nice about this one is the talent involved. In front of the camera you have the talented Emile Hirsch (also appearing in another entry on this list) and of course the great Brian Cox. And behind it, the tight direction of André Øvredal (the upcoming Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark adaptation).
The film resists the confines of the (mostly) singular setting by pacing out the surprising secrets that Jane Doe is hiding. And the crisp cinematography of Roman Osin successfully makes a menacing presence out of a lifeless body with just an angling of the camera. You may think you know where it’s going, but TAoJD gives you something a little bit different to chew on.
Recommended if you like: Patrick (2013)
8. Lake Mungo (2008)
Plot: “Alice drowns while swimming and her family begins experiencing inexplicable events in their home. The family hires a parapsychologist whose investigation unveils Alice’s secret double life and leads them all to Lake Mungo.”
Despite what the DVD’s cover art would suggest, Lake Mungo is a quiet little mockumentary mystery. It was released on DVD as one of After Dark Horrorfest’s ‘8 Films to Die For’ and its lack of more obvious jump scares left many cold. Lake Mungo is hard to explain. It’s equal parts mockumentary, found-footage, mystery, and family drama. None of the actors are recognizable faces, and their natural performances might even fool you into thinking this is a real documentary.
Truthfully there aren’t a lot of “scares” per se, but I must’ve entered into it with the right mindset because bits of it had me suitably freaked out. There are plenty of instances of something in the frame that’s not readily apparent at first. And though there are no jump scares to be found, there’s the unique thrill you feel when you see what’s hiding in plain sight. I’m personally a sucker for stuff like that, so I found it engaging. But I strongly urge you to enter this one neutrally. If you feel the urge to throw this on at a party, don’t. Watch it alone, with the lights off, and it might affect you in ways you don’t expect.
Recommended if you like: Noroi: The Curse (2005)
7. Jennifer’s Body (2009)
Plot: “A newly possessed high school cheerleader turns into a succubus who specializes in killing her male classmates. Can her best friend put an end to the horror?”
Megan Fox has been a point of contention for folks from the get-go. She looks like a former member of The Plastics, and her acting skills… leave something to be desired. Perhaps the controversy surrounding her inhibited this film’s success, or maybe it was the unusual tone that left people scratching their heads. Either way, it was clear this wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. And it still isn’t. But if you ignored it initially, I would urge you to give it another chance.
A demon-posessed cheerleader preying on horny teenage boys? It’s a film that never had a shot at box-office gold, and was only ever destined for cult status. But aided by the signature wit of Diablo Cody’s dialogue, it’s an incredibly funny romp. And under the direction of the great Karyn Kusama, it’s also a surprisingly feminist one at that. At its heart it’s a tale of the layered bond between two high school girls. And though a boy is involved, Jennifer and Needy‘s (Amanda Seyfried) connection is the focus here. Add in some amusing appearances from J.K. Simmons as an emotional teacher and Amy Sedaris as Needy‘s mom and you have yourself a good time. For extra fun, see if you can spot the split-second Diablo Cody cameo.
Recommended if you like: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997)
6. Housebound (2014)
Plot: “A young woman is forced to return to her childhood home after being placed under house arrest, where she suspects that something evil may be lurking.”
For my money, Housebound is one of the finest examples of how to mix comedy and horror. It’s a difficult line to toe. Stray too far in one direction and it’s too broad, and the opposite is just horror with mild comic relief. The secret to this film’s tone-balancing success is, well, pretty much everyone involved. The actors are all adept at playing to the comedy of the situation, while never losing sight of what makes their characters tick when things get creepy.
Much of the time in horror comedies, the actors seem like they’re in a totally different movie when the tone switches. But here the tone is blended so well there’s no identity crises to be found. Housebound is a remarkably self-assured, fun ride.
Recommended if you like: Fright Night (2011), Disturbia (2007)
5. They Look Like People (2015)
Plot: “Suspecting that people around him are turning into evil creatures, a troubled man questions whether to protect his only friend from an impending war, or from himself.”
Making a character’s mental health the source of horror is a tricky thing to do right. You run the risk of demonizing the sufferer, and trivializing an illness. Recent hits The Babadook and Hereditary are notable examples of how to do avoid those traps. But one ultra-low budget indie was quietly released among them, and overcomes the same challenge. Our protagonist Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) suffers from what is presumed to be schizophrenia. He receives phone calls in the middle of the night with ominous words of warning. “They” are coming, and he needs to stop them.
Wyatt is staying with his old friend Christian (Evan Dumouchel), after a vague break-up with his fiancé. As the story progresses the threat of “them” becomes more and more plausible to Wyatt, and to us. While we are aware he’s unwell, the tension is raised so effectively we can’t help but wonder. The two actors have a natural likability and a great rapport, making their relationship (and Wyatt‘s health) that much more important to us. Wyatt‘s downward spiral is terrifying and tragic to watch, and you’ll be biting your nails with anxiety by the end of it.
Recommended if you like: Take Shelter (2011)
4. Funny Games (2008)
Plot: “Two psychopathic young men take a family hostage in their cabin.”
[Note: IMDb lists the release year as 2007, but it wasn’t officially released theatrically until 2008 so I’m counting it]
Michael Haneke released the original Austrian Funny Games in 1997. The film acts as a blunt commentary on our obsession with consuming violent media. Going so far as to infamously have one of the characters break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience, it’s predictably polarizing. Perhaps even more polarizing is his decision to remake his own film shot-for-shot in English, with American actors a decade later.
His decision was fueled by his opinion that the film’s message was more relevant to American audiences. So why not make it more accessible to them, with recognizable faces (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth) and no subtitles? I understand both sides of the argument, but for some reason this one really works for me. I’m not even sure why, to be honest. It’s viscerally dark, and completely hopeless. So why do I like this?
Maybe it’s the stylistic flair of Haneke’s brand of satire (the fourth-wall breaking helps). Or the pitch-black humor that’s sprinkled throughout (the family’s “rich yuppie” status is repeatedly mocked). Both things take you out of the misery of the situation, making it a little easier to swallow. Even a long take later in the movie that lasts nine entire minutes, focusing on the quiet aftermath of a particularly upsetting occurrence.
I think what makes this film (and scenes like that) watchable to me is the performances. Naomi Watts in particular is incredibly engaging when she’s emotionally distressed (see: nearly half her filmography). And Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet are great as the two polite young psychopaths. This film is not for everyone, but it has some things to say beyond the initial message. And if you haven’t already seen the original, why not check this one out? That’s what Haneke made it for, after all.
Recommended if you like: Caché (2005)
3. Julia’s Eyes (Los Ojos de Julia) (2010)
Plot: “The story of a woman who is slowly losing her sight whilst trying to investigate the mysterious death of her twin sister.”
This Spanish chiller comes to us with Guillermo del Toro’s stamp of approval (it’s “presented by” him), so you know you’re in good hands. Writer/director Guillem Morales has constructed a mystery with no shortage of intrigue, aided by a unique obstacle we don’t see that often. The titular character has a degenerative eye disease, which is causing her to go increasingly blind as the story progresses. Belén Rueda makes us feel the desperation of her situation with her pained performance.
This is the kind of film you would think was based on a novel, considering how dense it is with material. This is no one-stop-shop, here you’re taken on a true journey. At the risk of being reductive, I’d liken it to another Spanish horror/mystery (also starring Rueda), The Orphanage. Both films have so many layers to the mystery at hand, and so much for the protagonist to uncover. It’s this type of complex storytelling you don’t really see much in genre films, especially American ones. The care with which it’s been crafted lends to it a prestige quality that one could imagine the Academy recognizing. If they didn’t turn a blind eye to the genre, anyway.
Recommended if you like: The Orphanage (2007), The Ring (2002)
2. Killer Joe (2011)
Plot: “When a debt puts a young man’s life in danger, he turns to putting a hit out on his evil mother in order to collect the insurance.”
You’d be forgiven for mistaking this as a typical crime movie. Or even some sort of modern Western, given the imagery of Matthew McConaughey in a cowboy hat that adorns the cover of the film. But what if I told you that Killer Joe (based on a stage play by the great Tracy Letts) is one of the sickest, nastiest, darkest flicks of the last decade? While it doesn’t boast a “horror” label, I’m willing to bet at least one scene will leave you horrified. And wouldn’t ya know it, The Exorcist director William Friedkin is at the helm. Letts adapted his own play, and thankfully spares none of the darkness he’s known for.
What that plot description doesn’t say (don’t worry it’s not a spoiler) is that the ‘young man’ in question (Emile Hirsch) offers up his own sister Dottie (Juno Temple) to McConaughey’s hitman Joe as collateral. Yep, this is a Southern-fried carnival of horrible people making even worse choices, and somehow you can’t look away. The stakes are slowly increased. Motives are questioned. Plots are twisted. And it all culminates in an incredibly taut climax that only gets crazier before the gut-punch of a final line brings it to a crescendo of lunacy. I feel confident in calling it one of my favorite endings of all time, and I can’t recommend this one enough to genre fans.
Recommended if you like: Bug (2006), Bound (1996)
1. Queen of Earth (2015)
Plot: “Two women who grew up together discover they have drifted apart when they retreat to a lake house together.”
Don’t be fooled by the synopsis; this is a psychological thriller through-and-through. The opening close-up of Elisabeth Moss’ crying face is a good harbinger of the emotional carnage to follow. She and Katherine Waterston are the definition of ‘frenemies,’ only staying in each other’s lives because of the convenience. The co-dependency of their relationship made all the more tragic by how much they’ve grown to resent each other. Moss’ Catherine has just been dumped, and her father just killed himself. This lake house retreat is offered by Virginia (Waterston) as an opportunity to heal her emotional wounds. It only exposes other ones, however, as the toxicity of their relationship eats away at Catherine‘s mental health.
Shot on grainy Super 16 film, title cards announcing each passing day bring with them a growing dread. Those expecting a bloody ‘payoff’ of some sort will be disappointed, as the only violence to be found here is verbal. The brilliant script by director Alex Ross Perry overflows with layered resentment between the two. And the eerie score that underlies some of their exchanges highlights the horrors of toxic friendship.
The action is intercut with flashbacks to a similar getaway the two took a year ago, when Virginia was the one in distress. And we can only watch in awe as we bear witness to the rapid simultaneous decline of their relationship and Catherine‘s sanity. Keep an ear out for Moss’ monologue late in the movie, directed at Virginia‘s asshole boyfriend (Patrick Fugit), but perhaps meant for both of them. The words themselves are savage, but Moss delivers them with such pure contempt you’ll be glad looks can’t kill.
Recommended if you like: Always Shine (2006), Repulsion (1965)
And there you have it, some potentially undiscovered gems to charm your next movie night! Which ones caught your interest, if any? And what are some recent films that you would’ve included on this list? Sound off in the comments!