There are plenty of well-known horror movies available to stream, but what do you do if you’ve already seen them all and don’t want to waste your time sorting through the bottom of the barrel? As streaming services become a more confusing labyrinth of quality, the need arises for some dedicated hero to watch as many lesser known horror movies as possible, and find those that are actually worth watching. I strive to be that hero, and the list that follows is the result of rigorous culling.
In the hopes of maximizing the scares-to-snores ratio during spooky season, we present TIME’s 2020 list of the best hidden horror gems to stream this October, or really any time the hankering hits—and where to find them.
For more than a decade, Netflix has been a haven for horror fans. And it still has plenty of diamonds to be found in the horrific rough. But as Netflix has continued to shift its focus from licensing deals to original content, that bountiful cornucopia of indie frights has largely dried up. An industrious person can still find fantastic films amid the ruins of the once great empire, but it’s getting increasingly difficult. Here are the handful that stand out.
2001’s Session 9 is a great example of why this exercise is worth doing every year. It follows a team of asbestos removal contractors, led by NYPD Blue‘s David Caruso, working to clean up an abandoned mental hospital. Things grow increasingly terrifying as the building seems to contain far more harmful material than the asbestos. So much about this tight, mysterious indie seems not to bode well for its quality, from its generic poster to its D-list cast. Don’t let any of that dissuade you; this is a masterfully constructed movie with a well-modulated tone and sense of increasing dread. Like a frog in a pot, Session 9’s characters don’t know their situation is a dangerous one until it’s far too late.
This dystopian Spanish film, released earlier this year, takes some of the class warfare ideas explored in 2019’s brilliant Parasite, covers them with broken glass and lights them on fire. The Platform (or El Hoya as it is titled in Spain) is set within a very tall and very mysterious building, where strangers are held captive for a variety of reasons on each of the many floors. Twice a day, on the very top floor, a bountiful meal is prepared on a large stone platform. Then, floor by floor, it’s lowered down as people eat their fill, leaving scraps or even less for the people at the bottom. The Platform, directed by Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia in his first feature, wastes no time in exploring the depths of human desperation and greed, even as it strives to highlight efforts at bravery. It’s easy, and accurate, to compare The Platform to 2013’s Snowpiercer, which Bong Joon-ho made before Parasite. But Snowpiercer has a sardonic wit and a fashionably curated aesthetic that does not seem to interest the minds behind The Platform. This dark tale wants to shove you in the shadows. The result is both an excellent and a troubling watch.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter
Because I’m trying to live responsibly during a global pandemic, I’ve watched over 150 movies this year. The Blackcoat’s Daughter is in the top 15. This taut, hushed 2015 film about two girls left behind at their Catholic boarding school during winter break has an extremely small scale, a mystifying story and a deep undercurrent of Satanism. It is further elevated by three fantastic leads: a wicked Emma Roberts, a disquieted Lucy Boynton and the always stellar Kiernan Shipka of Mad Men fame. It was written and directed by Oz Perkins, who went on to make 2016’s I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (which I featured on a previous hidden gems list for its quiet haunted house story). But between the two movies, The Blackcoat’s Daughter is the superior one. Told in three acts that dance around each other, it settles on you like a dense fog, leaving you enthralled by what might be hidden and anxious about what might be found.
The Girl on the Third Floor
While I will never call 2019’s The Girl on the Third Floor a great watch, this haunted house movie, written and directed by Travis Stevens, contains a level of creepiness and surprise that you wouldn’t expect from its nondescript name. Don Koch has taken it upon himself to renovate his new suburban house so he and his pregnant wife can start a new life away from their troubled past. As mysterious neighbors stop by to greet the new homeowners and marbles start dropping from the walls, it doesn’t take long before Don’s old habits, and the odd house, squander any hope for a happy ending. What follows may not terrify viewers, but it still sufficiently entertains. Pro wrestling fans might recognize former wrestler Phil “CM Punk” Books as the bedeviled lead.
Don’t underestimate 2019’s Eli. In this film from Irish director Ciarán Foy, the eponymous child suffers from a rare, unspecified condition, leaving him hermetically sealed away from his fretting parents. Their desperation drives them to seek treatment at a mysterious, isolated clinic that touts some specialization in whatever ails Eli. The hope of health buoys the boy, until strange new situations raise new concerns. You may think you know where Eli is going, but it has several tricks up its sleeves. Its scares can be obvious, and it definitely takes its time to offer anything unique, but once it finally reveals its spark of inspiration, the movie lights up like a bonfire. I didn’t leave Eli feeling haunted or unsettled, but as the credits rolled, I definitely had a huge smile on my face.
2018’s Cam is one of those surreal movies that take one specific, unsettling idea and base an entire story around it. This devious movie follows the fascinating world of camgirls, women who create adult internet content via web cams, and the obsession with influencer fame. Alice Ackerman, hell-bent on ranking first on her site, performs under the stage name Lola_Lola, in shows that contain seduction and mock violence. She has a solid following and even a few specific fans who shower her with gifts. Alice’s life is cast into existential havoc when she gets locked out of her account, only to find that another woman who looks and acts exactly like her has started streaming under her name. Things unravel as Alice fights to understand what exactly is happening and how she can stop it. Co-written and directed by Isa Mazzei, Cam is partly based off of Mazzei’s experiences during her time as an actual camgirl. Those personal details, anxieties and bottomless questions around identity turn this compelling story into a truly gripping movie.
As the creepy content crown slips from Netflix’s brow, Hulu has quickly snapped it up. Over the past few years, the streaming service has begun investing heavily in horror, and it shows. Not only has it struck licensing deals to carry some genuinely great films, but it has also worked to establish a rolling tide of original movies through both its anthology series Into the Dark and separately acquired features. If you don’t have Hulu and want access to some great horror movies, pay the $6 monthly fee and set yourself a reminder to cancel it come Nov. 1. It’s extremely worth it.
The Clovehitch Killer
2018’s fantastic The Clovehitch Killer is not your typical serial killer story. Starring an almost unrecognizable Dylan McDermott, who puts his whole heart into playing a goofy, devout dad, the movie is set 10 years after a rash of similarly styled murders hit a small Kentucky town. McDermott’s on-screen teenage son Tyler is a boy scout, both in character and in the story, who just wants to make his dad proud and lead a pious, purposeful life. That plan is shaken one night when he sneaks out with his dad’s truck and a high school crush, who finds a disturbing BDSM polaroid crumpled between the seats. Cold, severe and distressing, The Clovehitch Killer works so well because it is so patient. Just as 10 years have passed between the peak of its past killing spree, so does the evil take its time in showing up onscreen. And when the evil does show, it’s not as a jump scare or a special effect—it’s as obvious and stark as it is disturbing.
Hulu subscribers get access to one of the best indie horror movies released this year. Much like our current, quarantined life and its many awkward encounters, The Lodge centers around people who don’t want to be trapped together. Shortly after the death of their mother (played memorably by Alicia Silverstone), two children accompany their father and their new, peculiar stepmom to a remote cabin for Christmas. The father means it as a trip to bond this new family together, but nature and nurture conspire against that intention as an aggressive snowstorm stands in the way, locking the children and stepmom together. Discomfort turns to panic, which turns to desperation, which turns to madness. The cacophony of those emotions is as muffled as the constantly falling snow, but just as visible. In the end it rapturously blurs the real and imagined, casting doubt on what is happening, but never completely hiding the grim reality. The Lodge may help us work through or deeply worsen our pervasive cabin fever, but either way, it’s a darn good horror movie.
Horror anthologies are always more of a treat than a trick. But Southbound, which tells several interlinking stories set in the foreboding Southwestern desert, isn’t just a decent hidden-gem horror anthology. It’s one of the very best out there. As with any collection of scary stories, the quality ebbs and flows, but Southbound, directed by Radio Silence, Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner and Patrick Horvath, has a confidence and creativity that continually demands the watcher’s attention. From a robbery gone wrong, to a bar filled with damned souls, this relentless movie challenges you to look away. And when one character is struck by a car miles away from a hospital, it’s damn near impossible.
Wounds! An Amie Hammer and Dakota Johnson-led horror movie might not seem like an instant winner, but beyond being my personal favorite of this year’s hidden horror gems, it’s also one of the best new movies I’ve seen in 2020. Hammer plays Will, a charming, confident bartender who still doesn’t know what he wants out of life, but it may involve a chummy barfly named Alicia, played by the always tremendous Zazie Beetz (Atlanta). Johnson plays Will’s live-in girlfriend, Carrie, barely putting up with a rocky relationship while she finishes her grad school thesis. During a particularly bloody bar fight, a group of fleeing college students leave behind a phone. Will’s attempts to contact them on the phone only receives worrisome replies and even more concerning pictures. Though most veteran horror fans could guess where the story goes, it takes a different path. What follows is an increasingly jarring, unnerving tale as decomposition reigns, both figuratively and literally, and we’re left with a truly horrific last image.
Wounds has a clattering, itchy vibe. Like the legion of roaches crawling under Will’s bar, Wounds throws a sense of persistent chaos at the viewer, though it’s always just out of sight. And the second you spot a hint of the source, away it scurries back into a dark corner, daring you to follow. Wounds was written and directed by Iranian filmmaker Babak Anvari in his first American outing, after the very good, though more traditional Under the Shadow (which featured on a previous list). With Wounds, Anvari wants to hammer on different, deeper fears, while being far less specific about the details. That hazy intent definitely won’t hit everyone as squarely (it only carries a 51% on Rotten Tomatoes), but for those who find it as arresting as I did, Wounds is a true horror gift that will stick in your head for a long time.
I watched Greener Grass earlier this summer, expecting a decent alt-comedy. And why wouldn’t I? The razor sharp satire was written by and stars great comedians like Jocelyn DeBoer, D’Arcy Carden and Mary Holland. But apparently it doesn’t take much for aping suburban homogeneity to give way to an alarming deconstruction of the barriers of social norms.
The neighbors of Greener Grass, all of whom sport adult braces, take the obsession of social politeness to troubling extremes. When one woman compliments another on her new baby, the mother feels obligated to offer the baby to the other woman. This leads to another friend feeling slighted that she wasn’t offered the newborn. This is one of the opening scenes, and, impressively, the plot devolves from there. It’s part Stepford Wives, part absurdist romp, with a dash of Pleasantville to add some conflict. Not quite a horror comedy, it maneuvers deftly between solid humor and genuinely inspiring discomfort with its characters’ mere decisions and strange leaps of logic.
Midnight Kiss is a competent, if slightly generic slasher picture about an old group of friends celebrating their New Years Eve together in a remote Southern California house. It’s part of Hulu’s Into the Dark series, which can be spotty and a bit cheap at best. But this 2019 installment, directed by Carter Smith, is valuable on its own as an overtly proud queer movie. Horror films have long been queer, though they’ve often hidden it in coded terms, or later been adopted by the LGBTQ community (hello, you beautiful Babadook!). And there are several pointed, dramatic queer horror films like The Perfection or High Tension. It’s the rare horror film that simply exists as queer cinema, and with Midnight Kiss, it was extremely refreshing to see a film that felt no need to hide, code, defend or justify its queerness. Though Midnight Kiss’ plot and story itself were somewhat mediocre, if generally engaging, the overall experience is a positive one. (If you’re looking for more, I’d recommend the Icelandic thriller Rift and the understated What Keeps You Alive, which is also streaming on Netflix.)
Rob Zombie has yet to firmly define his place in horror movie history. Though his House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects fit in with the torture-porn-craven aughts, the times have changed and he has been left to experiment. He directed an utterly boring remake of Halloween. He also wrote and directed Lords of Salem, one of my all-time favorite witch films. And 2016’s 31 somehow straddles the whole of his career. A wayward bunch of carnival workers find themselves held captive in a haunted house full of sadistic villains and limited means of escape. It’s a more visually striking Saw movie, while also a real return to Zombie’s 1,000 Corpses roots. 31 doesn’t offer anything super unique or evolve any particular subgenre, but sometimes a movie like this is just what the mad scientist ordered. While far from great, 31 is enthusiastically not bad.
I’d normally shy away from adding two movies from the same filmmakers on one list, but Goodnight Mommy, made by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, the writer/director team who made The Lodge, is worthy of more attention than it’s received. The Austrian movie didn’t receive a wide U.S. release when it unsettled audiences in 2015, but horror fans deserve to see this soft tale of two young brothers and their mother set on a remote farm. As the mother returns from the hospital with bandages on her head, paranoia begins to grow between the brothers that she might be plotting against them. The film, naturally, escalates from there. While the story follows a somewhat predictable path, Fiala and Fanz’s transfixing, alarming execution will plant this movie in your brain.
The cult appreciation that has grown around 2013’s Oculus almost removes it from hidden gem consideration, but for those who have never seen this fantastic film, it is maybe the most universally beloved entry on the whole list. Oculus stars the wonderful Karen Gillan (Dr. Who’s Amy Pond) as Kaylie, who launches a mission to prove that her whole family’s demise was caused by an antique mirror. In a house full of cameras and timers, the desperate woman and her brother spend one last night documenting what she’s sure to be true. What follows is one of the best psychological thrillers of the decade. Not only does reality bend and warp, but time folds in on itself, revealing more about the family Kaylie hopes to heal and the evil at the heart of the story. Oculus was co-written and directed by Mike Flanagan, who would go on to make critically- acclaimed horror like Hush, Doctor Sleep and Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House. This is the best of the bunch. It’s a movie that constantly surprises, in a way that most horror films only hope to achieve.
The Other Lamb
Cult movies are great. Contemplative, pensive cult movies are the absolute best. Though only released a few months ago, The Other Lamb is now streaming on Hulu. Born and raised in a pastoral commune, Selah has begun to attract the attention of the group’s leader, whom they call Shepherd. As puberty begins to disrupt her place in the severe, yet peaceful, group, she also starts to ask questions about the possibilities of outside life. This comes at a pivotal time for the squatting commune, as it is evicted from the land and has to search for a new home. Breathtakingly shot by Polish director Małgorzata Szumowska, The Other Lamb is both beautifully realized and extremely tense. As unease grows against Shepherd (played by a typecast Michiel Huisman), so does his tight grip on the group. The Other Lamb might end a bit too abruptly, but that feeling is largely tied to the great enjoyment of watching it.
As the new kid on the block, HBO Max has a long way to go to shore up its horror bonafides. Most of its offerings this year are either run-of-the-mill mainstream flicks like Annabelle Comes Home and Jeepers Creepers or rando vintage shockers from cinema’s golden age. Still, you can find a few lesser-known gems in the bunch. And it provides some sure bets like Us and 2020’s Invisible Man.
While I hemmed and hawed around Greener Grass’ subgenre, Snatchers is truly a horror comedy. Its primary interest is to have a bloody good time and, lucky for us, it completely succeeds. The 2019 film follows high schooler Sara, who’s in the middle of shifting social groups when she loses her virginity to her boyfriend Skyler. The next day she wakes up a little too pregnant, and things go down a very weird, very visceral path from there. While the script is solid, the movie is made significantly better by the lead performance of Mary Nepi. No part of Snatchers takes itself seriously and the joy that went into making it is obvious on screen. And that joy, just like whatever is wrong with Sara, is very infectious.
If you’re looking for something from further back in horror history to scare you, you can do far worse than the 1955 French film Diabolique. Not only does this early psychological thriller successfully create a stirring, bewildering atmosphere, but in it you can see the seeds of so many movies that came after it. Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, Diabolique follows a boarding school teacher played by Simone Signoret, who nervously plots to kill her abusive husband. As carefully as she plans, nothing can prepare her for the baffling aftermath. Truly, this Hitchockian tale is well worth your time.
The 1977 Japanese movie House is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It is a psychedelic cult classic that simply vibrates on another ethereal level, and we are lucky to catch this brief glimpse at its insanity. Seven high school girls venture into a mysterious house and become its victims, one by one. The girls have names like Prof, who is studious, and Kung Fu, who is good at kung fu. It’s evident that director Nobuhiko Obayashi is not out to make a self-serious movie to haunt viewers. Rather, House is a hallucinogenic fever dream, determined to creatively explore and disassemble horror, all while showcasing the unexpected (like, say, someone getting eaten by a piano). Now, over 40 years after its release, House is as relevant and entertaining as ever.
It’s unfortunate that 2018’s Hair Wolf, in which the Black staff at a hair salon fight off the cultural appropriation of white people, is a short film. Written and directed by Mariama Diallo, this horror comedy is enormously fun to watch and over far too soon. It’s possible that Hair Wolf’s main idea would be difficult to stretch into a full-length feature, but the deeper issues that it explores deserve as much time as possible. Thankfully, Diallo has a new movie, titled Master, in the works. I, for one, can’t wait to see whatever she wants to create.
Ready or Not
Ready or Not slipped into theaters (remember those?) last year. Its initial trailer, showing Samara Weaving’s Grace forced into a deadly game of hide and seek with her brand new in-laws, felt somewhat trite and uninteresting— another basic horror movie released into the world. But when whispers rose that it was more than what its trailer suggested, I took the plunge. Ready or Not is not just good. It is great.
With the help of a wonderful script, perfect pacing and impressive tonal shifts, this movie takes viewers on a fantastic ride. And at its core is Weaving, who is nothing short of a revelation. Don’t expect Ready or Not to scare you, but don’t expect it to let you off the hook, either. It has plenty of laughs, plenty of reasons to squirm and plenty of surprises. If you’ve never heard of it, or were unimpressed by its trailer, do yourself a favor and let this movie improve your spooky season.
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