I am an author and paranormal enthusiast who has published numerous books and articles on the subject of true unexplained phenomena.
1. Motel Hell
If you're looking for a campy offering that has all the earmarks of a bad horror movie, you will find it in 1980's Motel Hell. Boasting a plethora of cheesy dialogue, questionable acting, a plot filled with more holes than Swiss cheese and the shoestring budget of a child's piggy bank, it can't be beat.
This little gorefest stars B-movie mainstays Rory Calhoun and Nancy Parsons as siblings, although I initially thought they were a married couple, who own and operate a seedy motel. As a side business, they also peddle their special homemade sausage to travelers and local connoisseurs who possess a taste for something different. Without giving too much away, let's just say that you won't find the secret ingredient that sets their product apart from the rest at the local butcher shop.
When their brother, who happens to be the town sheriff, gets wind that something isn't kosher at the motel, he begins to snoop around for clues. In the process, he falls for a young female guest who has fallen under the spell of Calhoun's character, Farmer Vincent.
Suffice it to say that this bit of cinema is as silly and gruesome as one would imagine. With that said, it is also a hoot if you don't take it, or yourself, too seriously.
2. Horror High/Twisted Brain
Back in the day, slasher films that were set in high school were a dime a dozen. This one, however, stands head and shoulders above the rest. Released in 1974 and starring the dreamy, if somewhat nerdish, Pat Cardi as the film's protagonist Vernon Potts, Horror High is a perfect blend of teenage angst and monster unleashed.
A bespectacled bookworm and science geek, young Vernon is bullied by nearly everyone, including his fellow students, teachers, and even the school's custodian. His only allies, as you will find out early on, are a beautiful classmate and the lab's resident guinea pig, Mr. Mumps.
As the title suggests, things turn ugly after an experiment Vernon is conducting goes horribly wrong. Exposed to his own concoction, the meek ne'er do well is transformed into a monster who then exacts vengeance upon those who made his life a living hell.
It may not sound like much on paper, but Horror High is better than you'd think. The acting isn't too terrible, Cardi is a charismatic lead, and the scares are pretty effective. All in all, the film is a hidden gem in the era's sea of otherwise bland high school horror fare.
Long before making a name for himself in Battlestar Gallactica, television heartthrob Dirk Benedict costarred in a thrilling piece of work called Sssssss. A low-budget classic, this 1973 film also features Strother Martin as sketchy herpetologist Dr. Stoner and Heather Menzies as his blissfully unaware daughter, Kristina.
The movie begins with Stoner selling a specimen, whose identity is kept hidden from the audience, to a carnival barker. Although no backstory is given at the time, the horrific details behind the clandestine transaction are revealed later on in an aha moment that most will see coming a mile away.
As the story unfolds, we see the not-so-good doctor scouting the local university for prospective assistants. When questioned by professor and fellow scientist Dr. Daniels, portrayed by Richard B. Shull, as to the whereabouts of his last helper, Stoner tells him that the young student was called away on a family emergency, leaving him in the lurch.
Enter David, played endearingly by Benedict, whose interest in reptiles makes him the ideal candidate for the position. After the briefest interview in history, he is offered the job, which he readily accepts.
Not long after arriving at the remote research facility, the new hire is injected with the first of several doses of a substance he is led to believe is antivenin. Although he initially protests, after learning that the procedure is mandatory for those wishing to interact with the deadly snakes housed on the property, David agrees to endure the painful jabs.
As the young assistant settles in, he forms a bond with Stoner, a man he both respects and admires. He also develops romantic feelings for Kristina who returns them in kind. Everything is hunky-dory for a while, that is, until his body begins to change and not for the better.
Without giving too much away, an evening at the carnival opens the door to what might lie in store for our boy David. If you don't mind seeing a variety of snakes in action, none of which were defanged or otherwise altered, watching Sssssss is a terrific way to spend a Saturday night. Just don't get your hopes up that everyone will live happily ever after.
4. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
If creepy little goblins are right up your alley, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark has them in spades. This 1973 made-for-television motion picture was a must-see back in the days when creature features were all the rage.
The story revolves around a young couple named Alex and Sally Farnham, played to the hilt by Jim Hutton and Kim Darby, who move into an old fixer-upper that she inherited from her grandmother.
Strangely, the house comes complete with an elderly carpenter, Mr. Harris, portrayed by My Three Sons alumnus William Demarest, who clearly knows more about the dilapidated estate that he lets on.
As she acquaints herself with the dwelling, Sally quickly becomes obsessed with a walled up fireplace located in the basement. When she asks Harris to open the structure, he refuses. Some things, it seems, are off-limits for a reason.
Her own worst enemy, Sally breaks the locks meant to keep the fireplace safe from prying eyes. Before she has a chance to explore further, her covert operation is interrupted by her husband who, like the handyman, feels that some things are better left alone.
Not long after her bit of mischief, she begins to hear something whispering in the shadows. In the days to come, she finds herself at the mercy of grabby little creatures that seem hellbent on taking her someplace she doesn't want to go.
When she tells her husband that she is being harassed by otherworldly beings, he scoffs at the notion. This comes as no surprise since his disbelieving, somewhat hostile, reaction has been done to death in just about every movie where only one person is targeted.
There's not much else that can be said without spoiling the finale, since this feature is shorter than most with a running time of only 75 minutes. Let's just say that Sally should have listened to her grumpy husband and the wise old carpenter.
While the story itself isn't bad, the acting is a bit sketchy at times, as are the special effects. If you can get past the goblins, which are kind of scary up close, but laughable from a distance, you won't regret it. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, while imperfect, is a decent little horror flick for its time.
1972's Frogs is a cautionary tale that gives viewers a glimpse of what would happen if swamp denizens, fueled by chemicals, decided to turn the tables on humankind. While not exactly taxing on the brain, it is fun to watch, if only for how seriously the cast take their roles. Bless their thespian hearts, they did the best they could with what they had to work with.
Starring Sam Elliot as a trespassing wildlife photographer and Ray Milland as Jason Crockett, a Florida business tycoon who made his fortune marketing toxic pesticides, Frogs has the makings of a good horror film. Although it doesn't exactly deliver in that arena, it is entertaining in its own right.
After stumbling upon the remains of the groundskeeper tasked with drenching the swamplands surrounding Crockett's estate with a potent chemical cocktail, Elliot, playing the environmentally conscious Pickett Smith, voices his concerns that something is amiss. Of course, no one takes him seriously since there is still over an hour of screen time to fill.
Even though the movie is called Frogs, and a giant specimen with a hand dangling from its mouth was featured on the movie poster, these amphibious malcontents spend more time supervising than actually participating in the carnage. As it turns out, a mixed bag of creepy crawlers including snakes, turtles, spiders, lizards, and alligators do most of the dirty work.
Since no one likes a spoiler, the long list of deaths and all around nastiness that occur as the saga unfolds will remain under wraps for now. While it may not be anyone's idea of great cinema, Frogs is a nifty bit of escapism for those who want to give their thinking machines a rest for a couple of hours. Before diving in, keep in mind that if you don't expect too much, you won't be disappointed.
6. Dark Night of the Scarecrow
Last, but certainly not least, we have my personal favorite: 1981's Dark Night of the Scarecrow. Another small screen feature, it packs a punch, and how.
Starring the ever-reliable Charles Durning as a sinister postman and L.A. Law's Larry Drake as the mentally challenged man he helps to murder in cold blood, this movie is the poster child for moral justice.
It isn't giving too much away to say that, while Bubba is a sweet, likable character, you probably shouldn't get too attached to him. Shortly after the opening credits, we learn that the gentle bear of a man and his best friend, a little girl named Marylee, are two peas in a pod. Sadly, their innocent interactions are misunderstood by most of the folks in town; none more so than Durning and his trio of like-minded henchmen.
Things turn ugly one day when Marylee is mauled by a vicious dog after ignoring her friend's warning to stay out of a restricted area. Fortunately, Bubba comes to her rescue, but not before she has sustained serious injuries. When he is seen carrying the unconscious girl in his arms and pleading for help, locals jump to the wrong conclusion and appoint themselves his judge and jury.
While the youngster is receiving medical care, a group of vigilantes, led by Durning, head to the house that Bubba shares with his doting mother. Rather than allowing them access to her only child, she orders the men off of her property. Paying her no mind, they begin snooping around with the aid of a pair of search dogs.
The hounds lead the men to a lone scarecrow suspended in the middle of a clearing. When Durning approaches the figure to get a closer look, he sees Bubba's terrified eyes staring out from behind the burlap sack that acts as his disguise.
What follows is a hail of gunfire directed at the helpless man-child. Moments later, his executioners learn that Marylee is alive and well. What's more, she has informed law enforcement that it was a dog that attacked her, not Bubba. In reality, rather than doing her harm, her friend had saved her life.
Upon hearing this, instead of owning up to their wrongdoing, the band of killers stage the scene and concoct a story in which Bubba was the aggressor. The case eventually goes to trial and they are, unsurprisingly, acquitted. Keep in mind that all of this takes place in the first few minutes of the film.
As the title suggests, the aforementioned scarecrow figures heavily as events begin to unfold that lead the men responsible for Bubba's murder to believe that he has returned to exact his revenge. Numerous grisly mishaps later, the truth is revealed.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a winner all the way around. While frowned upon by some horror film snobs, I've seen it numerous times and it never fails to deliver. Yes, some of the acting is a bit over-the-top and a few of the death scenes are implausible, but it's still one of the best spooky scarecrow movies ever made. Not to mention that Charles Durning can stare daggers like nobody's business.