At the beginning of every year when we start anticipating a new crop of horror films, I despair at the lack of original offerings. Sequels. Reboots. Copycats. I will always look forward to the unique stories, the movies that take narrative or stylistic big swings. I want something fresh. Something new. Whether it is the big budget studio effort of the smallest B-movie budget, as long as the film visit something previously unexplored, you’ll get my attention. So, Behold the movies that are hard to describe! The weirdly wonderful ones. The goofy ones. The gonzo ones.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate a well-executed zombie film, a visceral slasher film, or a moody haunted house, but give me twists. Surprise me. Be daring! Make it batshit crazy, I’ll give it a watch.
This is an expansion of a list I created three years ago, and I have remained obsessed with unique oddball horror films. I realized that there are way more than just ten curiosities that fans should be aware of. I bumped up the list to fifty so I have broken it into two groups of 25 films, chronologically. 1920-1989 and 1990-2022. Some of these films are stone-cold classics, and others are schlock that still merits a mention due to their willingness to do something really strange.
If this theme interests you, make sure you check out our Episode 56 One-Off Oddball Horror where Mike and Eric talk about these films. OK… let’s get weird. To the LIST!
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Perhaps the original oddball horror film. Few films take on the look of a cubist painting and this film is a brazen art piece. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a one-of-one film. At the dawn of psychology, hypnotism was an alluring and somewhat frightening concept, the trade of huxters and sideshow hustlers. Dr. Caligari featured a hypnotist as a madman, murderer, and witch doctor.
“Dr. Caligari and his mysterious slave – the black and white phantom who lives in a cabinet and goes forth in his sleep to do his master’s bidding. the weirdest characters ever seen on the screen and the most daringly different picture ever seen.”
The Island of Lost Souls (1932)
The H.G. Wells classic could be considered the most underseen great Golden Age Horror film. Charles Laughton chews up all the scenery as the God-Complex addled Doctor Moreau. Moody and starkly beautiful, and at its core, savage. Plus any movie that features Lota the Panther Woman is too enticing to miss!
One of the most controversial movies ever made. While considered shocking back in 1932, it remains a movie of some debate as to whether the depiction of the titular “freaks” was exploitation or empowerment. It killed director Tom Browning’s career and considering he was the man who delivered Dracula to the masses, that’s remarkable. It remains a fantastic story and a beautifully crafted movie, but your reaction will depend on the level of sympathy you have toward the circus performers.
“Weird! Grotesque! Incredible – but REAL! No false makeup! No trick photography!”
Attack of the 50-Foot Woman (1958)
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned… particularly Nancy Archer, a woman irradiated to enormous size by an alien encounter, who is hell-bent on revenge against her no-good cheating husband. Without a doubt, you spend the movie rooting for Nancy. It’s a B-Movie so iconic that it inspires memes to this day. The Attach of the 50-foot woman certainly was envisioned to be sexy and somewhat scandalous, but in the end, became a monument to female empowerment.
“See a female colossus… her mountainous torso, skyscraper limbs, giant desires!”
Fiend Without a Face (1958)
Invisible beings generated from a mad scientist’s telekinetic experiments have been sucking the brains and spinal cords out of local residents near a Canadian air force base (And nuclear plant!) When the radiation gets turned up, the invisible thought monsters are revealed to be the missing brains and spines of the victims, now mutated with eye stalks and tentacles. At the time, this was the height of blood and gore for the Atomic Age horror movies.
Day of the Triffids (1963)
A passing asteroid disseminates an aggressive vegetable alien invasion in a movie that isn’t given enough credit for what a huge influence it would become. Night of the Comet, 28 Days Later, Night of the Living Dead, and Slither all owe a bit of story debt to this apocalyptic British tale. The bleakness and seriousness that the story took toward its subject material belie the silliness of the concept. The desolate set pieces elevate this film above much of the Atomic Age fare that preceded it in the 1950s.
“The triffids are coming! The triffids are growing! The triffids are killing!”
The War of the Gargantuas (1966)
Let’s see if this gets you excited: A giant octopus attacks a cargo ship. A green furry giant attacks the octopus and then attacks the ship, eating the crew. The Japanese army attacks the green giant, only to have a furry brown giant come and rescue the green giant. Turns out the green giant is bad news, through and through, and we get a mano-e-mano rock ’em sock ’em Gargantua throwdown! An unheralded and out-of-nowhere kaiju classic!
Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told (1967)
A dilapidated mansion houses a family of degenerates. Ralph, Virginia, and Elizabeth are emotionally and mentally regressing as they age and are becoming savages. They are visited upon by some greedy distant relatives who have arrived to take custody of the mansion from the now murderous adult children in the house. Full of real laughs and shocking violence, this is a forgotten wacky classic, featuring a delightful Lon Chaney and a very young Sid Haig.
“So shocking, it will… sliver your liver!”
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
Vincent Price goes psychedelic with this colorful revenge tale. Dr. Phibes is a Renaissance man of many talents, and he uses these skills for some very creative kills as he targets the doctors he believed allowed his wife to die on the surgical table. He sets a series of elaborate traps based upon the ten Biblical plagues of Egypt: bats, frogs, blood, rats, livestock, hail, boils, locusts, death of the firstborn, and darkness. There is a good bit of macabre humor in this as well, and it is another showcase for the inimitable Mr. Price.
Shriek of the Mutilated (1972)
There is low budget, and then there is Shriek of the Mutilated low budget. We’re talking home video budget. The production values and acting are AWFUL. And yet, it remains one of those weird one-off films that has stood the test of time. A professor takes his students to upstate New York to investigate a Yeti sighting. Honest! It turns out that the Yeti, surprise, surprise, is not what it seems. There is also an evil death cult involved. Totally strange, and worth watching if you can find it. Look for the severed leg prop that shows up multiple times!
“A frenzied hunt for a hideous beast uncovers an evil cannibal cult and death is the devil’s blessing!”
The Baby (1973)
Ann (Anjanette Comer), a social worker who has been nursing her husband who is recovering from a horrible car accident, has taken up a case where an adult man-baby (David Manzy) has been kept captive by his abusive and incestuous mother and sisters. Baby has been mentally and emotionally capped at a toddler’s development. But physically, he’s a thirty-year-old.
A series of horribly inappropriate and cringe-inducing moments heighten the freaky uneasiness, in a film that pushes social norm boundaries to really uncomfortable limits. Hard to believe this was a PG Movie.
The Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
Brian DePalma adapted the Phantom of the Opera story into a groovy glam-rock horror musical. In order to continue his Satanic agreement, Swan (Paul Williams) betrays an aspiring and talented composer, Winslow Leach (William Finley), stealing his work for a Rock Opera ritual and framing him for a crime he did not commit. Leach is disfigured, and is bent on revenge, returning to Swan’s theater, The Paradise, to destroy the man who betrayed him.
This early DePalma film shows off his expert shot-making and editing skills. PSYCHEDELIC!
Toho Studios, the company that brought the world Godzilla, released this wonderfully wacky ghost tale, a psychedelic twister of a film that tried and succeeded to be stranger than anything you may have seen. Flying butt-biting vampire heads! A carnivorous piano! A refrigerator with a portal gate! It is a parade of playful ideas and joyful madness. Bonus points for having characters named: Gorgeous, Mac, Melody, Prof, Sweet, Fantasy… and Kung Fu. Pure awesomeness.
“House is Calling to You Come Back Home and Marry Me”
Few films capture the sensation of a nightmare quite like Eraserhead. David Lynch’s introduction to the cinema captures a dystopian noir that threatens to suck all the light and temperature from the room. To call this movie depressing is to undersell the bleakness and strangeness of the happenings in this film. The story defies logic. The swollen-cheeked fairy dancing in a rain of fetuses alone would elevate this film to the top landing of the weirdness scale. Eraserhead’s languid shadowy aesthetic would come to be known as “Lynchian”.
The Manitou (1978)
It is a shame that William Girdler died so young. His previous films, Three on a Meathook, Abby, Asylum of Satan, and Grizzly seemed like warmup films for him, but they got progressively better, and he was beginning to get into an artistic groove with The Manitou, in which a tumor in the back of a woman turns out to be a Manitou, an ancient evil native spirit, which emerges out of her back and creates Astral havoc. It defies explanation, really. Girdler sadly died in a site scouting trip in the Phillippines shortly after filming this, snuffing out a director full of promise.
Writer/Director Dan Coscarelli threw the kitchen sink at the plot of Phantasm. Is it a zombie movie? Sort of. Is it an alien invasion movie? That too. Does it have a serial-killer vibe to it? Yep. Throw in a flying killer silver sphere, and you have a movie that is a bit of an aggregation of more tropes than a horror movie should have, but Coscarelli pulled it off. In what would be a common trend in the next decade, it features a teenage boy, being taken care of by his older brother, who together team up to defeat a secret evil in town with their loser best buddy. It shouldn’t work but it does so magnificently.
If you’re looking for horror that’s got balls…IT’S FOUND YOU.
The Visitor (1979)
The Visitor at its core uses the familiar trope of an evil cult trying to birth a child vessel for Zateen, an evil cosmic power. (Satan, but not Satan) That’s where the familiarity ends. Mix in the NBA, telekinetic children, a Jesus analog and his shaven head minions, alien desert worlds, and a telepathic bird attack, and this movie is the furthest thing from the norm. How this movie hasn’t been embraced fully by the Atlanta Hawks basketball franchise is a missed opportunity. Though it features big-time actors and stunning visuals, how anybody thought this movie was going to be successful is beyond explanation. Too weird to succeed, indeed.
Galaxy of Terror (1981)
Roger Corman’s Galaxy of Terror is 100% an Alien Knockoff, featuring a bunch of space explorers who respond to a distress call only to fall prey to terrors that are manifestations of the crew’s worst nightmares. Corman hired a young prop master named James Cameron to come up with the physical effects and art direction. Ever heard of him? To be sure, this movie is pure schlock. The plot makes little to no sense. But it punched above its weight class. The performances of the recognizable B-movie stalwarts (Including Robert Englund, Sid Haig, Erin Moran, and Ray Walston) are as wooden as Ikea furniture, but you can’t help but appreciate the nutty antics. Dumb, but entertaining for sure.
Basket Case (1982)
Twins are special! Conjoined twins are… problematic. Mutant conjoined twins where the mutant tumor of a sibling is homicidally crazy is, well, INSANE. Basket Case stood alone for many years (Until Malignant) when utilizing mutant conjoined evil twins as a trope. And, after you see Belial, it’s clear that perhaps that’s a good thing. Though sometimes very puppet-ish, Belial is an awful sight to behold. Once you see this film you will never forget it. One of the most original horror films of the 1980s.
“The tenant in room 7 is very small, very twisted and very mad.”
You might be able to fill a full roster of Bizarre Horror Films only using the works of David Cronenberg. Videodrome is the body horror master working at his most poetic and most surreal. The intermingling of machines, flesh, sex, propaganda, and mass media was a stew so strange, many critics panned it outright. It is not an easy movie to grasp, but if you let it consume you this is one of the most philosophically intriguing horror films you could possibly encounter. James Woods is perfectly cast, and Debbie Harry steps away from her Blondie duties (at the height of her popularity) to float in and out of this nightmare scenario.
“Long live the new flesh!”
The Company of Wolves (1984)
If you are a frequent listener of our podcast, you may have heard us describe fairy tales as the origin of folk horror. Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves takes on the story of Little Red Riding Hood, in the form of a werewolf movie. It is perhaps the most unusual werewolf movie ever produced, a lavish art-house production with sumptuous and fantastical sets, costumes, and perhaps the second-greatest werewolf transformation ever. (Nods to An American Werewolf in London, and apologies to The Wolf Man).
The Stuff (1985)
The late, great Robert Cohen had a penchant for the unconventional, both in his filmmaking techniques (Let’s wing it!) and in his stories (Nothing is too weird!). The titular Stuff is a marshmallow-like substance that is found oozing out of a great fissure in the mountains. It tastes great! And, it’s sentient. Hmmm. It will control and consume those who ingest it. Maybe best not to eat that stuff. Unscrupulous corporate greed mongers decide to package The Stuff and market it as the next great food craze. Blissfully goofy and cynical, the Stuff is a B-Movie Classic.
“Are you eating it? Or is it Eating You?”
From Beyond (1986)
Stuart Gordon was able to take short stories from the Cosmic Horror of H.P. Lovecraft and spin them into VHS body horror classics. From Beyond is a cautionary tale about the problems of messing with a portal to another dimension by tapping into the brain’s pineal gland. Horrible cancerous transformations and murderous plots occur. If that doesn’t get you excited, the movie throws in Barbara Crampton in bondage gear. That part was not really part of the Lovecraft story, but it makes for good viewing.
It may be hard to consider now, but Hellraiser was a watershed horror film, an entirely new and unique vision of the genre. This leather-wrapped tale of sado-masochism pushed forward the psycho-sexual themes of Clive Barker. With Barker in the director’s chair, he was able to convey his theses with hooks, chains, and lots of torn flesh. A new icon was released to the public. Demons we have seen before, but the Cenobites were elegant in their own way, but also embodied pain and suffering just looking at them.
Pinhead never really got his hands dirty, if you saw him or his fellow cenobites, your time on Earth was going to be very brief and very painful. Given how successful this film was, the Hellraiser franchise is its own branch of the horror genre. Gates to hell have been done before, but the goth-metal aesthetic has yet to be matched.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
This movie should not have worked. As if clowns weren’t uncomfortably weird to begin with, these alien clowns are mutated just enough to be kooky and scary at the same time. When I first saw this film, I had ZERO expectations, but came away thrilled and surprised at how much delirious fun I had watching it. The acting is appropriately VHS-ready (pretty wooden) but it is entirely forgivable given the strong theming. The jokes and the kills all are expertly pulled off. One of the great cult horror comedies of the era. There have been plenty of cheap clown horror franchises since, but none can match the charms and thrills of Killer Klowns.
Santa Sangre (1989)
Alejandro Jodorowsky is a film auteur of the first rank. As such, his works are highly original, and often inscrutable. Santa Sangre is singular in a category of one. A young man, Fenix, escapes from an insane asylum to return to the circus where his murder cult-leading mother awaits. She is a religious fanatic, made more extreme by having been literally disarmed by her husband in a murder/suicide ritual. Fenix has been drawn back into the cult to literally become “her arms” in murderous revenge exploits. Strange does not begin to explain this freaky Mexican nightmare fantasy.