You may be looking for a few forgotten gems from directors and actors who have faded into obscurity over the years if you’re a fan of Halloween horror films like John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Val Lewton, George A. Romero, Alfred Hitchcock, or Italian Giallo. In this list of 13 strange movies, the fear of their own obscurity is evident: 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, among other things. Despite the fact that they swerve away from reality, they never succumb to sentimentality or whimsy. They delve into the collective mythos of humanity with a dark heart and limited resources. With a good buzz and modest expectations, they can at the very least keep your attention and deliver some decent goosebumps.
1. The Black Pit of Dr. M (1959)
As if a season of The Twilight Zone had been compressed into a single surrealist fever dream, Dr. M’s plot unfolds in the Black Pit of his story. If possible, Dr. Mazali requests his dying coworker to help him travel beyond this world and return with a tale of his own. His colleague’s soul appears and promises him that an elaborate chain of coincidences will accomplish the macabre desire after his death. All of Dr. M’s questions will be answered by a dancer, a crazed female lunatic, and an acid-scarred orderly. There is an inexorable countdown to some terrible fate, and some of the light and shadow patterns evoke early Orson Welles work. In the end, 71 minutes of extraordinarily mature and beautiful Mexican horror cinema, with its rich minimalist dream atmosphere reminiscent of Edgar G. Ulmer or Val Letwon.
2. Tormented (1960)
After Tom (Richard Carlson) lets Vi (Juli Reding) fall to her death from the top of a lighthouse in order to marry Meg (Lugene Sanders) and her money, she returns to torment him as a ’50s pulp-novel cover. It is the next morning that Tom returns to the beach, and Vi’s disembodied head taunts him as her hand chases after his footsteps. It is up to Meg’s younger sister (Susan Gordon) to urge the adults to call off the wedding before she becomes the next victim of Tom’s shady activities. When Joe Turkel makes a rare early cameo as a hipster beatnik, it is with a Satanic look and a wild slang no real beatnik would ever say while still shaking Tom down for a share of the take. (Carlson, the terminally honest good-guy scientist in so many ’50s horror films, also bravely goes against type.)” Double-exposure works nicely with the ghost material, which is both an all-American pulp-horror romance and a character study of a macho guy.
3. Vampire and the Ballerina (1960)
A busload of dancing girls stranded in the middle of an old castle ruins is nothing new, but Tina Gloriani, who plays the beautiful heroine in this atmospheric Italian horror film, looks a lot like Eva Marie Saint, and the black and white images of the crumbling castle ruins are so atmospheric that it feels new. Improvisatory Vampire Dance Routines by Gloriani and her roommate, Luisa (Hélène Rémy), bring to mind Stage Door and Persona, as do Gloriani and Rémy’s friendship. After drinking blood, the male vampire transforms into an attractive, normal-looking man by wearing a goofy mask with ping-pong eyeballs. This clever touch taps into the vanity at the dark heart of Italian masculinity, which manifests itself in the staking of his lovely young victims and the shouting “I’m master of my domain!” as the coffins are kicked shut. The best way to experience the film’s arty, strangely neorealist vibe is to see it in Italian with English subtitles.
4. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death features a unique 1970s approach to horror, one derived from encounter groups, Valium, women’s lib, LSD, and suburban swinging, with its kid nursery rhyme-style title, naturalistic acting, spooky ambiguity, and complicated depiction of mental illness. When Zohra Lampert stars as Jessica, a woman who moves to an island apple orchard to recover from a nervous breakdown, she soon learns that just because you’re delusional doesn’t mean the constant whispering you hear is an auditory hallucination or that a hippie chick (Gretchen Corbett) squatter you let stay over isn’t a vampire, or that she’s just trying to seduce you rather than drown you. This is possibly the creepiest illustration of the ’70s horror films’ debilitating self-doubt, which permeated the genre at the time.
5. Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye (1973)
There is no shortage of eye candy in the form of Jane Birkin, who plays Corringa, a young woman whose aunt’s estate seems to be haunted by the ghosts of its former residents. Secret passages, secret heirs, and even a guy in an ape suit are all common tropes in the genre. While the doctor claims the death of Corringa’s mother was due to natural reasons, he is sleeping with Corringa’s aunt, who intends to keep the mansion at any cost to the people around her. A vampire mother emerges at night and calls on Corringa to avenge herself, claiming that her lineage’s birthright demands it. Doris Kunstman and Hiram Keller, a cloistered, Byronic “beautiful boy,” are both suspects in the deaths, which have been watched by a large orange tabby cat. Even Serge Gainsbourg, the husband of Birkin’s character, Serge Gainsbourg, makes an appearance as a weary cop. However, the haunting Ennio Morricone-inspired score by Riz Ortolani and the magical tableaus captured by Carlo Carlini’s stunning photography elevate this film above the ordinary.
6. Messiah of Evil (1976)
Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz’s first feature, Arletty, stars Mariana Hill as Arletty, the emotionally void daughter of a mysteriously vanished artist, in this dazzling debut (Royal Dano). In Messiah of Evil, the waves crashing in the distance can be heard clearly. People don’t yell until they’re about to be eaten by cannibal hordes, which is the most common scenario. A super-chill dandy and his two girlfriends, Laura (Anitra Ford) and Toni (Joy Bang) join Arletty in an attempt to uncover the mysteries afoot in this lonely, inhospitable environment, and when Thom busts a move on Arletty, the ladies vanish into the foreboding blackness. In addition to the disturbing features of the video, there are photorealistic faces looking out of windows and an escalator painted on a wall. One of many weird evocations of a film that skillfully blends Lovecraftian dread with Antonioni-esque alienation, this deserted mansion appears as though it could warp into a nightmarish retail mall at any minute.