When we think of horror movies set in the past, too often we think of gothic tales of vampires and ghosts. But there is so much more out there than creepy costume dramas. Consider the upcoming Overlord, an action-packed and wonderfully bonkers bit of zombie-riddled terror that follows American soldiers on a special mission into Nazi-occupied France during World War II.
To celebrate the release of the genre-bending and horror-filled bit of historical fiction, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best horror period pieces ever made. Whatever kind of horror subgenre you favor, we’ve got a little something for everyone, from menacing musicals to blood-splattered Westerns, vicious vampires, memorable monsters, creepy cults, witchy remakes and frightfully good sequels.
1. ‘Little Shop Of Horrors’ (1986)
The freaky movie musical began as a low-budget creature feature in Roger Corman’s 1960 offering of the same name. From there, it grew into a wild off-Broadway musical, which Frank Oz adapted in 1986, bringing the play’s ’60s-style rock and dark humor to theaters around the country. Its spooky story centers on Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis), a meek florist whose hunger for love and fortune leads him to murder and mayhem as he feeds a giant, bloodthirsty Venus flytrap named Audrey II. Few horror films manage to be as funny or as toe-tapping as this one, which features appearances from comedy legends Steve Martin, Ellen Greene, Jim Belushi, John Candy, Christopher Guest and Bill Murray.
2. ‘Hounds Of Love’ (2017)
The true crime and horror genres blend beautifully to create a unique rush of terror in this Australian offering from 2017. Set in the suburbs of Perth in the mid-1980s, Hounds Of Love follows a killer couple. Together, John and Elevlyn White (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth) cruise the quiet streets looking for a lone girl that they can abduct, torture, rape, then murder without a trace. He drives the hunt, while she eases the suspicions of pretty prey like hitchhiking teen Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings). By the time the girl senses something strange, she’s already been snared. But writer/director Ben Young’s brutal thriller is about much more than the ghoulish hunt. It’s all that comes after that will pull you to the edge of your seat and make your heart pound hard in panic.
3. ‘The Awakening’ (2011)
This lesser known horror gem is set in 1921 England, where the shadow of World War I still hangs heavy. Grief-stricken survivors seek their dead loved ones at séances, but skeptic and professional debunker Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) seeks only the truth. So, when a handsome teacher (Dominic West) insists the boarding school where he works is haunted by a real and malevolent spirit, she sets forth to employ science to conquer fear. But amid these sprawling halls, creepy crawl spaces and conveniently-placed peepholes, Florence is forced to question everything she thought she knew about the afterlife…and herself. Director Nick Murphy creates an eerie atmosphere that lures you into a curious mystery with a satisfying finale that really works.
4. ‘Frankenstein’ (1931)
With her 1818 novel, Mary Shelley unknowingly gave birth to one of the greatest movie monsters of all time. The story of this Hollywood classic focuses on the egomaniacal Dr. Frankenstein, who harnessed electricity to give life to a construct made of cobbled-together corpse parts. But the soul of the story is The Monster, who is woefully lonely and plagued by a world quick to judge and destroy him. In 1931, director James Whale turned this modern Prometheus into a contemporary fable set in a dark age of superstition. Boris Karloff took on the role that would define his career, bringing electrifying life to this iconic movie monster. Eighty-seven years later, no one has topped this take on Shelley’s poignant tale of horror and isolation.
5. ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ (1992)
The villainous vampire from Stoker’s 1897 novel has taken to the big screen in a number of iterations. But none have been so decadent as Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation. Gary Oldman stars as a sinister yet sexy version of Vlad Dracula, a man driven so mad by mourning that he gave his soul to darkness and became a creature of the night. When his long-dead love is reborn in the body of a wide-eyed Englishwoman (Winona Ryder), Dracula crosses oceans, spills blood, and pursues any paths that lead him back into her arms. Coppola captures the allure of this classic monster with a swooning score, luscious wardrobes, theatrical performances and an unapologetically bold sensuality.
6. ‘Satan’s Slaves’ (2017)
In 1982, future filmmaker Joko Anwar was so terrified by Sisworo Gautama Putra’s Satan’s Slaves that he aspired to make a movie as satisfyingly scary when he grew up. In 2017, he did just that with this chilling remake of Putra’s film that went on to become Indonesia’s highest-grossing domestic film of the year. Set in 1981 in the outskirts of Jakarta, this devilish tale centers on a family that experiences increasingly menacing paranormal activity following the death of their mother. To stop it, they dig desperately through their mother’s past, uncovering hellish secrets and a Satanic sect. No terror is lost in translation in this deeply unnerving foreign film.
7. ‘Ouija: Origin Of Evil’ (2016)
I know what you’re thinking: How very DARE she put a movie that’s inspired by a board game on a list about the best of horror? But after 2014’s truly terrible Ouija, Mike Flanagan’s clever prequel brought fresh blood and new scares to the floundering franchise. Set in 1967 Los Angeles, this horror-thriller embeds us within the Zander clan, a widowed mother (Elizabeth Reaser) and her two daughters (Annalise Basso and Lulu Wilson), who perform séances to make ends meet. And when I say “perform” I mean it’s all a hoax–that is until Doris begins to play with an old Ouija board. Then the bumps in the night become all too real. The movie takes a Victorian party trick turned kids toy that’s already steeped in creepiness and manages to make it even more sinister, all set in the midst of the upheaval of the Vietnam era.
8. ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ (2006)
Guillermo del Toro set his first Oscar-winning fairytale against the backdrop of Francoist Spain, when a fascist dictator ruled with an iron fist. But the tyrant of import in this fabulous film is the merciless stepfather of its young heroine Ofelia (Ivana Baquero). To escape her bleak reality, she embraces her imagination, chasing fairies and fauns, sneaking into secret passages and confronting hideous and unforgettable monsters. With a dark but beautiful production design that has become del Toro’s brand, Pan’s Labyrinth blended horror and fantasy to make a film that was in turns pulse-pounding, mind-bending and heartbreaking.
9. ‘Ravenous’ (1999)
Westerns, horror and dark comedy collide in Antonia Bird’s juicy cannibal tale set during the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). Guy Pierce stars as Capt. John Boyd, an American soldier haunted by what he’s seen and done to survive the bloody battles of his past. But the fighting and bloodshed prove to be far from over when the coveted quiet of his remote military posting is shattered by reports that a maniacal Wendigo is on the prowl. Things go from grim to gruesome and even goofy, thanks to deliciously campy performances from Robert Carlyle, Neal McDonough, Jeremy Davies and David Arquette who round out the denizens of the fort.
10. ‘Suspiria’ (2018)
Inspired by Dario Argento’s giallo horror classic, Luca Guadagnino Suspiria is set against the backdrop of the German Autumn events of 1977. Dakota Johnson stars as Susie Bannion, an ambitious American dancer who is elated to join the ranks of Berlin’s acclaimed Markos Dance Academy. But something insidious brews within the inner sanctums of this all-female company. Guadagnino takes gore and horror to twisted ends. Bodies bend and crack beyond dance and into mutilation under the vicious spell of a powerful coven of witches in this artful remake that’s set to churn stomachs and mess with minds.
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