When we assembled our list of the 30 Best American Independent Horror films, we had to make some hard choices, cutting personal favorites and oddball outsider choices to get to the core countdown. But we still want to rescue some of those films from the cutting-room floor—especially with so many of them so easily accessible via streaming services, and conveniently positioned for the Halloween weekend. Here are 10 films that nearly made the list, and that are ready and waiting to make it to your TV to fit a variety of Halloween moods:
For a weekend with loved ones at that cabin in the woods
It’s unfair to call Sam Raimi’s 1981 feature debut The Evil Dead overlooked or underrated. It was the breakthrough that put him and star Bruce Campbell on the map, and it remains widely watched and enjoyed. But its first sequel, 1987’s Evil Dead II, gets a lot more love (including from us) for doing everything the original did, only with more flair and a lot more comedy. And 1992’s series-capping Army Of Darkness gets a lot of love for shifting gears and mostly discarding horror in favor of a goofy, monster-filled medieval action movie. (There’s a 2013 remake, too. It’s okay.) What tends to get overlooked: The inventive, rough-around-the-edges original is really scary. Raimi was already a supremely gifted technical filmmaker, which is evident in every scene, despite some pretty obvious budgetary limitations. But those same limitations help create a sense of claustrophobia as Ash (Campbell) watches evil forces take over the bodies of friends and family members, and Raimi builds suspense beautifully, mixing discipline with an anything-goes approach to style. Case in point: A scene in which Ash, having locked his possessed sister in the cellar, slowly approaches the cellar door when he hears his sister’s voice reassuring him everything’s okay. The scene unfolds slowly as Ash creeps to the entrance. Then all hell breaks loose, and keeps breaking loose.
Streaming availability: Free via Hulu Plus, digital rental via Amazon, iTunes, and others.
For a weekend where you can be really grateful you aren’t at a cabin in the woods
Last year we strongly recommended Resolution, and for those who haven’t yet resolved to see it, we’re bringing it up again. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s micro-indie is an impressive series of surprises, one that knowingly plays with horror-movie experts who think they know what to expect when a camera moves in a certain way, or leaves a certain space at the edge of the frame, or lingers knowingly over a creepy minor character. The lack of expected payoffs—startling but cathartic jump-scares, easy explanations—is one of Resolution’s biggest surprises. It makes a point of confounding audience expectations, while constantly building tension. Peter Cilella stars as Michael, a settled family man making one last effort on behalf of his meth-addicted old friend Chris (Vinny Curran) by following Chris to a decrepit cabin, chaining him to a wall, and waiting for him to detox. Curran’s intense energy and easy affability as an actor help make the film, but Benson’s script, which keeps piling on the horror-movie conventions and details to creepy but unconventional effect, is the real winner. It might be a good film to watch in a dark cabin in the woods, except for the heart-attack potential.
Streaming availability: Free via Netflix Instant and Amazon Prime, digital rental via iTunes, Sony, YouTube, etc.
For the wage-slave stuck working on Halloween
While shooting The House Of The Devil, a brilliant reworking of 1980s clamshell-box horror, director Ti West and his collaborators stayed in a creepy old north-Connecticut hotel called the Yankee Pedlar Inn. The strangeness of the place sparked West’s imagination and inspired The Innkeepers, a follow-up that extends the previous film’s patient, atmospheric, gratifyingly old-fashioned haunted-house aesthetic. It’s also much funnier, thanks to the chemistry between Pat Healy and Sara Paxton as Luke and Claire, a couple of apathetic wage-slavers who are working the front desk at the Yankee Pedlar during its final nights of operation. The hotel is underpopulated, to say the least; the only guest of note is a former actress (Kelly McGillis) in town for a psychics’ convention, which isn’t the sort of activity that keeps the spirits at bay. Luke runs a website documenting the Yankee Pedlar’s paranormal past and present, but it’s kept mostly as a joke; he and Claire are more content to while away the hours by goofing off. But soon enough, the legend of Madeline O’Malley, a bride who hung herself in the hotel in the 1800s, becomes more than just legend, and West slowly ratchets up the tension. The result, much like The House Of The Devil, is an exceedingly clever, skillful act of horror pastiche, updating the mysterious thumps, creaky floors, and wispy apparitions of classic haunted-house movies to the present day.
Streaming availability: Free via Netflix Instant, digital rental via iTunes, Google Play, and others.
For the literal man-child, hanging out in his crib
A candidate for anyone’s shortlist for the weirdest/creepiest movies of the 1970s, The Baby isn’t about some possessed devil child, it’s about a fully grown man who crawls on all fours, spends most of his days in a giant playpen, and wears a billowy cloth diaper. Let that image settle in for moment. (Warning: It will never settle in.) The question remains: What kind of living conditions could create a man-child so grossly underdeveloped? Who would even want him to be that helpless and regressive? The answers are suitably disturbing. An L.A. County social worker (Anjanette Comer) is assigned to look after “Baby” (David Manzy), but her attempts to lobby for his development are rebuffed by his keepers—a matriarch (Ruth Roman) whose entire identity is stuck in the past, and her two wicked sexpot daughters (Marianna Hill and Suzanne Zenor), whose interactions with him are unsavory to say the least. (Yet the film is rated PG!) Though The Baby owes a clear debt to the heightened psychodrama of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, it takes its demented premise to startling extremes, from abuse (Baby is kept in line with a cattle prod) to deep sexual confusion. (Baby is a young man, don’t forget.) Let it stand as a lesson to future parents: Children grow up eventually. Don’t try to impede their progress.
Streaming availability: Free via Netflix Instant, digital rental via Amazon.
For those who crave more space aliens in their zombie movies, and vice versa
Fred Dekker’s 1986 directorial debut Night Of The Creeps has a little something for everyone, assuming “everyone” includes fans of zombies, aliens, old B-movies, in-jokes, mustachioed character actor Tom Atkins, and 1980s campus comedies. The plot concerns some brain-invading space slugs that turn innocent victims into flesh-hungry zombies who rampage across Corman University. Standing in their way: undergrads with the last names of Romero, Cronenberg, and Hooper, plus Detective Ray Cameron (Atkins). That isn’t the only tip-off that Night Of The Creeps doesn’t take itself too seriously, but Dekker isn’t afraid to mix real scares with the gags and references. The slugs are nasty, the zombies are as relentless as the ones in any of George Romero’s movies, and as the action ramps up, Dekker isn’t afraid to let the gore fly. Audiences crept past this one in theaters, but it picked up a following thanks to VHS and cable, and its cult deserves to continue in the streaming era. You’re only a click away from watching a man fight monsters using a cigarette and a can of hairspray to make an improvised flamethrower.
Streaming availability: Free via Netflix Instant and Crackle, digital rental via iTunes, Google Play, and others.
For those who like their horror films with an unmistakable sociological bent
Bernard Rose’s 1992 sleeper hit Candyman begins with a sweeping overhead shot of Chicago set against Philip Glass’ haunting score, an early indication that the film has more on its mind than simple scares. The film is deeply rooted in its chilly Chicago setting, from the rundown projects of Cabrini-Green, where much of it takes place, to the halls of academia and luxury apartments. Adapted from the Clive Barker short story “The Forbidden,” Candyman casts Virginia Madsen as a graduate student whose exploration into an urban folk legend known as “Candyman” leads her into a shadowy underworld. The sinister title character is a towering son of a slave who was brutally tortured and murdered by a lynch mob for impregnating a white woman, and who lives on as an undead, hook-handed killer who is summoned by reciting his name multiple times. In a star-making performance, the great Tony Todd plays Candyman as an incongruously romantic figure, a sadist whose repeated “Be my victim” call to Madsen’s character has a strangely seductive, sadomasochistic air. Madsen’s increasingly traumatized character ends up getting framed for Candyman’s brutal killings, yet there’s nevertheless the sense that Candyman sees their relationship as a curious form of courtship, and the narrative’s intriguing racial and class elements are never far from the surface. Candyman is more interested in mood and texture than conventional horror, and despite its two sequels, it remains a singular achievement.
Streaming availability: Free via Netflix Instant, Hulu Plus, and Crackle.
For those who prefer their horror-comedies heavy on the comedy
The Canadian sleeper Tucker And Dale Versus Evil has an ingenious gimmick that seems like it would barely support a 20-minute short film, yet somehow, it sustains an entire feature. A group of attractive, dumbass kids, the sort who generally get slaughtered en masse in horror films, go camping in the woods, where they encounter the title characters, Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine), a pair of lovable hillbillies fixing up their dream shack. Unfortunately, Tucker and Dale look like deranged, murderous hillbillies from movies like Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The adorably lovestruck Dale just wants to ask one of the campers out on a date, but in their haste to escape what they imagine are murderous lunatics, the stupid kids end up accidentally killing themselves in a series of colorful ways. The comical misunderstandings should wear thin after a while, but Tucker And Dale Versus Evil does more with its goofy, inspired premise than seems possible, thanks to the charming lead performances and the way co-writer/director Eli Craig simultaneously honors and subverts horror-movie conventions. As deconstructionist horror movies go, it isn’t quite on par with Scream or The Cabin In The Woods, but its scruffy modesty and small scope are nevertheless a big part of its winning charm.
Streaming availability: Free via Netflix Instant and Hulu Plus, digital rental via iTunes, YouTube, and others.
For body-horror fans who would regret not spending Halloween nauseated
Writing-directing partners Jen and Sylvia Soska—a.k.a. “The Twisted Twins”—made a small splash with their 2009 debut feature Dead Hooker In A Trunk, and then a much bigger one with 2012’s American Mary, which stars Ginger Snaps scream queen Katharine Isabelle as a med-school dropout who discovers she can make money doing off-the-books surgery. She starts out working for the mob, then sets up her own lucrative underground practice doing extreme body-mods: a labial stitch-up for a woman who wants to look like a plastic doll; an arm-switch for a set of identical twins; and so on. When she’s off the clock, Mary’s favorite pastime is torturing one of her former teachers, performing gruesome experiments to exact revenge on him for her sexually assaulting her. The Canadian-born Soskas follow in the footsteps of their countryman David Cronenberg, crafting bizarre, grotesque images of transformed human bodies, all carved and rearranged. They’ve made a piece of outsider art about an outsider artist, and dressed it up with a strong element of gender critique, championing women who go to extraordinary lengths to control their own physical forms.
Streaming availability: Free via Netflix Instant, digital rental via iTunes, YouTube, and others.
For those in the mood for a different kind of found-footage movie
For fledgling filmmakers, the appeal of the found-footage genre is that it’s cheap, and the “this is just what was on the tapes” concept provides a convenient excuse for any slack filler between scares. But with The Bay, veteran director Barry Levinson shows how to use the basic horror-found-footage form to make a full-fledged eco-disaster film—like a Jaws, Outbreak, or Earthquake, but pieced together from security cameras and cell phones. Levinson and co-writer Michael Wallach follow a large cast of characters over the course of one small town’s July 4th celebration, telling a satisfying story in carefully edited snippets. There’s a frighteningly realistic quality to The Bay, too, since its depiction of the rapid spread of a mysterious flesh-eating disease feels like something that could actually happen now—especially given that the movie’s real villain is the failure of under-funded regulatory agencies and emergency responders to prevent or contain a crisis.
Streaming availability: Free via Netflix Instant and Amazon Prime, digital rental via iTunes.
For cinema buffs who don’t like horror at all, but do like history
E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow Of The Vampire isn’t particularly scary, or particularly bloody. It’s more eerie, and in its way, terribly sad. (Also just a little funny.) But for movie buffs, it’s a particularly enjoyable take on the vampire story, because it circles through so many levels of pretense and pretend while finding its way to a central message. The story follows the making of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 feature Nosferatu, and suggests an answer to one of its central mysteries—the uncanny performance by Max Schreck, the little-known German actor who played the film’s Dracula equivalent. Shadow Of The Vampire takes up the urban legend that Schreck actually was a vampire, and follows through on the consequences: To make the most unnerving, realistic unlicensed adaptation of Dracula imaginable, Murnau (John Malkovich) makes a Faustian bargain with Schreck (Willem Dafoe), and in the process dooms his cast and crew to the predations of an ancient, blood-sucking, inhuman fiend. Like so many found-footage-film characters that followed, Murnau deals with the ensuing mayhem by hiding behind his lens, reveling in the fact that at least he’s getting fantastic footage. It’s a tragic film about hubris, fame, and making sacrifices for art—often not in the giving-up-something-personal sense, but on a laying-a-frightened-and-unwilling-victim-on-the-altar sense.
Streaming availability: Free via Netflix Instant and Amazon Prime.
And for those in an ambitious, completist mood…
All that said, there are plenty of options from our actual top 30 American-indies horror list available via streaming services—most of them can be rented for $3 or less from all the usual suspects, like Amazon, iTunes, Sony Entertainment Network, Vudu, YouTube, etc. Others (like three of our top five—The Blair Witch Project, Evil Dead II, and Night Of The Living Dead) are on Netflix streaming, Epix, or both. If it feels like a particularly cold or haunted Halloween, we recommend curling up with an Internet connection and getting caught up on as much of the list as one weekend allows.