Anyone serious about horror movies doesn’t need Halloween as an excuse to keep tabs on the genre. Still, it’s a great time of the year to look at the state of scary movies beyond the constraints of Hollywood. While “The Conjuring 2” managed both to satisfy critics and generate box office heat, it’s hardly the standard-bearer for spooky storytelling. Anyone paying attention to the wide variety of options outside of the studio arena knows that the rabbit hole goes very deep, dark and downright terrifying the more you crawl around. Every year, we’ve offered the following survey of the best recent independent horror movies. Our criteria is flexible, but we don’t include anything older than two years and never repeat titles (sorry, “It Follows,” but you’re last year’s news). This time around, we’ve cast a wide net, with more flavors than your average Halloween candy grab bag. Our list highlights a range of options that include an anthology series, two Asian phenomenons, a pair of taut home invasion thriller, an animated miniseries and one disgusting documentary. Some of them are perfect for viewing at home or in theaters for this spooky holiday, while others lurk just around the corner on the release calendar.
There’s something for everyone in the mood to get creeped out, but no list is ever complete — so let us know what we’re missing by tweeting us @IndieWire.
“Twilight Zone” for more deranged sensibilities, this anthology series takes place in an eerie purgatorial desert in which various characters wind up trapped and face bizarre supernatural threats. The narrative bookending the film finds a pair of men chased by menacing creatures who chase them through a landscape that keeps repeating itself as tension rises. Each macabre installment expertly segues into the next one: “Siren,” Roxanne Benjamin’s portrait of a touring band whose car breaks down, finds the group seeking refuge with an eerie couple in the wasteland, one of whom winds up at the center of David Bruckner’s brilliantly wacky “The Accident,” in which an emergency phone call following an accident on the road turns out to be a devious prank. Unlike other horror anthologies, “Southbound” creates a consistent world defined by sheer dread and unpredictability. —EK
Availability: On iTunes and other digital platforms.
It should've been clear from the moment Morgan Spurlock puked after eating the super-size combo in "Super Size Me" that the documentarian is keen on unsettling his audience, but even so, "Rats" comes as a surprise from the filmmaker: Usually a character in his films, this time he steps behind the camera to focus on a disgusting subject — rat infestations. An adaptation of Robert Sullivan's non-fiction best-seller, Spurlock traces the durability of the slippery species from dank New York sewers to the slums of India, where club-wielding exterminators make the American alternatives look like wusses. Laced with a jittery soundtrack on par with horror's best, Spurlock expertly dips into the grotesque nature of the material by tapping into the visceral fear of disease-riddled rodents lurking behind every wall, quietly scratching their way in. —EK
Availability: Now airing on the Discovery Channel (check listings). Animal Planet will broadcast it as a special presentation on October 30 at 9 p.m.
In the pantheon of home invasion horror movies, “Hush” offers one unique hook: the woman struggling to survive the night is deaf. It's only a slight conceptual twist on “Wait Until Dark,” the 1967 thriller with Aubrey Hepburn as a blind women facing similar circumstances. “Hush” doesn't resemble that movie much aside from its main fear factor. Writer-director Mike Flanagan's creepy follow-up to 2013's first-rate “Oculus” gives the killer a built-in advantage over his prey, while she spends the movie figuring out how to perceive his attacks. Whereas “Oculus” featured a haunted mirror that messed with its victims' perception of the world, “Hush” offers two opposing ways of experiencing it at once. Flanagan has graduated to the studio arena with "Ouija: Origin of Evil," but "Hush" proves he's just as effective at generating dread on a smaller plane. —EK
Karyn Kusama's best movie since "Girlfight" is another taut drama, but this one dips into horror territory: a handful of estranged friends gather in the Hollywood Hills for a dinner party reunion that takes a series of grim turns, with the hosts of the evening having a few cultish surprises in store. Set almost entirely within the confines of the home, "The Invitation” careens through strange conversations that shift from harmless party talk to darker possibilities. The full nature of the threat is unclear until the gory confrontations in the final minutes; as a result, much of the movie's dread comes from a sense of unknown threats — and the menacing final shot suggests they extend far beyond one troubled house. —EK
Availability: iTunes and other digital platforms.
Certainly the most bonkers horror film of the year, Na Hong-jin’s demented follow-up to “The Yellow Sea” begins with a rash of deaths in a rural Korean village (don’t worry, it’s probably just some bad mushrooms!) and ends with a descent into darkness so vivid and complete that you’ll be begging for mercy. Following a bumbling cop (Kwak Do-won) and a flamboyant shaman (Hwang Jung-min) as the two men investigate a quiet Japanese immigrant who they suspect might actually be the antichrist (Jun Kunimura), this 156-minute epic is a wild ride that spirals into recesses of the human soul that most horror movies are too afraid to explore for themselves. — DE
Availability: iTunes, DVD and other digital platforms.
A surprise box office hit that basically came out of nowhere when it premiered earlier this year, Fede Alvarez's home invasion thriller follows up his deranged 2013 "Evil Dead" remake to prove he's the real deal. The film finds a trio of reckless teens attempting to rob a blind man (Stephen Lang, terrifying) as they wind up trapped in his lair for the night. Equal parts "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "High Tension," this elegant and surprisingly fast-paced blend of horror and suspense overcomes some of its more ridiculous ingredients thanks to endless invention. Running and fighting a buff man and his growling dog, the survivors face the ultimate grotesque showdown in his gnarly basement. And just when you think they're in the clear…"Don't Breathe" will leave you gasping for air. —EK
Availability: iTunes, DVD and other digital platforms.
What's that? A Cartoon Network miniseries as one of the best recent horror films? Trust us on this one: Animator Patrick McHale's gothic adventure is ideal Halloween viewing, delivered in 10-minute segments that collectively amount to a brilliantly atmospheric feature-length experience. Elijah Wood voices the dunce-capped Wirt, an alienated teen who joins his goofy younger brother Greg (Collin Dean) as they get increasingly lost in a strange wonderland called the Unknown. Their bizarre travels find them encountering a series of inventive creations. Filled with mythical creatures, dancing pumpkin skeletons, lonely ghosts and a shadowy terror known only as the Beast, the Unknown provides an ideal setting for exploring the darker side of childhood imagination. It's a beautifully haunting mood piece like nothing else. —EK
Availability: Streaming on Hulu.
The French-Belgian debut from Julia Ducournau is a surreal, deliriously twisted coming-of-age story that suggests “Heathers” by way of “Dogtooth.” The plot only skirts the surface of its strange narrative: A young woman joins her sister at a massive veterinarian school campus, where she’s subjected to a series of humiliating hazing rituals and discovers her taste for human flesh.
Wait a minute. Veterinarian schools have campuses with hazing rituals? And…cannibalism? Writer-director Ducournau’s memorable first feature takes its off-kilter logic at face value, developing a mesmerizing look at the experience of a young woman waking up to her desires in a world of peculiarities. Alternately beautiful and grotesque, it’s bound to please horror fans and cineastes alike. —EK
Availability: Focus World will release “Raw” theatrically in 2017.
Six years after “The Loved Ones,” Sean Byrne’s gripping tale of a murderous prom queen, the Australian director finally returns with an equally ominous tale of a home invasion in rural Texas. On paper, “The Devil’s Candy” may sound fairly routine — nice family moves into isolated home and deals with the fallout of murderous events from its past — but Byrne’s artful use of image and sound takes the narrative to a whole new level. Heavy metal music dominates the soundtrack, as well as the characters’ lives, providing an ideal conduit for the demonic forces lurking beneath the story’s surface. After the mentally disturbed Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince) kills his parents and leaves his house, it’s quickly inhabited by long-haired painter Jesse (Ethan Embry), his wife (Shiri Appleby) and their young daughter (Kiara Glasco).
In short order, Ray shows up at the doorstep, mumbling about voices in his head and murder on his mind. Meanwhile, Jesse copes with beastly forces crowding his own subconscious, and pours the madness into his paintings. The film erupts into a series of ominous showdowns, with Byrne’s images turning the usual psychotic killer routine into a gorgeous rumination on the thin line between passion and madness. —EK
Availability: IFC Midnight will release “The Devil’s Candy” in 2017.
Iranian director Babak Anvari's slow-burn drama suggests "The Babadook" by way of the Iranian New Wave. Set during the 1988 Iran-Iraq war, the movie finds a young mother guarding her daughter's life as Iraqi bombs rain down on unsuspecting buildings at night. But that turns out to be the least of their problems when their apartment winds up haunted by a demonic presence that puts the daughter in its crosshairs. Solid jump scares are given fresh definition thanks to Anvari's clever use of the minimalist setting, and the developing sense that the real terror lurks outside, where an oppressive government offers little in the way of respite. The scariest thing about "Under the Shadow" is that fleeing one monster doesn't guarantee safety from a much larger one in the form of the authorities. —EK
An unholy (but explosively entertaining) cross between "Snowpiercer" and "World War Z," Yeon Sang-ho's surprise summer sensation packs an entire zombie apocalypse into the narrow confines of a commuter train. The action in "Train to Busan" is every bit as intense and claustrophobic as its premise might suggest, but the movie is at its best when it derails into the stations and suburbs at full speed, Yeon's breakout hit embracing a blockbuster scale worthy of its status as one of the highest-grossing Korean films ever made. — DE
Availability: Now in select theaters.
“The Eyes of My Mother”
There was no greater discovery at this year’s Sundance Film Festival than Nicolas Pesce’s black-and-white horror film, which conveys a nightmarish world that’s equal parts David Lynch and Tobe Hooper. Peace’s studied compositions and eerie atmosphere convey a surprisingly intimate perspective on the life of a disturbed young woman raised in the countryside, where she forged a peculiar bond with the murderous lunatic locked in her barn. Oddly touching and terrifying in equal measures, “The Eyes of My Mother” conveys a sharp directorial vision that nods to the past while building an entirely fresh experience. Like last year’s “The Witch,” Pesce’s bracing debut has the makings of a cult phenomenon bound to leave an impression on audiences even if it traumatizes them. —EK