Amp up your Halloween movie marathon with five lesser-known Halloween-themed horror films that ooze the mood and atmosphere of the season.
Halloween, the year’s most anticipated climax of all things creepy and macabre, punctuated by the time-honored traditions of trick-or-treating, festive costume parties, carving pumpkins, and of course, indulging in horror movie marathons. Sure, screening some of the best horror films ever made for the 31 days of horror in October ritual is great fun, but how about that extraordinary experience of watching horror movies that take place in around or on Halloween, on Halloween?
Mega horror franchises like Halloween and Night of the Demons dutifully honor the holiday, as does Michael Dougherty’s contemporary classic Trick r’ Treat (2007). In more recent years, indie Halloween-themed horror films like Hellions (2015), The Barn (2016), Hell Fest (2018), Candy Corn (2019), and Haunt (2019) — along with scores of others — have clogged Redbox kiosks and streaming services alike with promises of seasonal scares and gore.
In honor of this year’s Halloween, we’ve curated a list of five underrated and lesser-known horror films that take place around or on Halloween, all of which are readily available to stream. If you’re looking to add a few lesser-known titles to your annual Halloween horror movie marathon, then look no further.
Our list is dedicated to throwback Halloween horror movies from the 80s that have long suffered bad wraps or fell into obscurity over the years, most of which lack (but deserve) wider Blu-ray and DVD releases. Our curated list is comprised of midnight-movie picks that take place on Halloween, crammed with plenty of ghouls and monsters, satanic serial killers, incestuous hillbillies, fog-smothered cemeteries, and flesh-eating troglodytes.
1. THE PIT (1981)
The Pit (1981) is a Canuxsploitation creature feature often overlooked and derided for its low budget quality and occasional over-the-top acting, but that’s not to imply the film has nothing to offer.
An awkward (if not troubled) tween named Jamie (Sammy Snyders) is routinely bullied by his classmates and neighborhood playmates. Local grandmothers even ridicule and torment Jamie. As an outcast with potentially perverted intentions, Jamie confides in his only friends: a creepy-ass Teddy bear that talks to him, his pet reptiles, and of course, a pit full of mysterious flesh-eating beasts (troglodytes) he calls the “Trogs” or “tra-la-logs.”
Jamie’s parents, unsure how to handle their strange son, solicit help from a young and beautiful psychology student named Sandy (Jeannie Elias) to babysit Jamie when they leave town on business. Jamie develops an unhealthy obsession with Sandy and lusts after her, but his advances are quashed and Jamie broods over his inability to form reciprocating relationships.
Jamie spends more time tending to his “friends,” and feels obliged to feed the Trogs bundles of pricey raw meat until he raises suspicions from the local butcher and is caught stealing money out of Sandy’s purse to pay for the meat.
As an alternative, Teddy advises Jamie to consider feeding the Trogs human meat. Jamie obeys, luring a variety of victims – namely his tormentors and bullies – to the pit and feeds them to the Trogs, who groan in delight as they feast in a grisly, gut-munching fashion.
Jamie convinces a skeptical Sandy to visit the pit in an effort to prove he’s not lying about the Trogs, but once Sandy accidentally slips into the pit and is devoured, a devastated and angry Jamie frees the Trogs from the pit (via a rope ladder of sorts) and encourages the beasts to fend for themselves.
Of course, the monsters begin attacking and eating any nearby human and are eventually put down by an armed posse led by the local Sherriff. Jamie seemingly escapes justice, until the film’s final moments, when in an unexpected twist, Jamie suffers his comeuppance from an unlikely source.
The Pit marks the sole directorial credit by American-born actor Lew Lehman, who also wrote the shooting script based on a much darker original script by Ian Stuart. The story takes place during the week of Halloween and the opening scene, a flash-forward segment, occurs on Halloween night, with gaggles of trick-or-treaters frolicking about including Jamie, who’s dressed as a ghost.
The film’s visual aesthetic lies somewhere between a demented after-school special and a typical low-budget creature feature (i.e., The Boogens). The Trogs resemble werewolf-like-hedgehogs (draped in dreadlocks) with glowing eyes and sharp fangs; perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of the film, but it’s a pity that the Trogs weren’t afforded more screen time.
THE PIT is an unusual, but highly entertaining Canuxploitation horror film with obvious Halloween themes throughout, and is worthy addition to your lineup despite its uneven tone and occasional ham-fisted performances.
THE PIT is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime Video, Shudder, and Sling TV.
2. HELL NIGHT (1981)
Following the mega-success of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), the film’s producer Irwin Yablans followed up by producing Hell Night (1981), a conventional American slasher film directed by UCLA-alum Tom DeSimone (Chatterbox, 1977) and starring horror icon Linda Blair (The Exorcist) in her first adult role.
It’s co-ed pandemonium during a fraternity pledge night – dubbed Hell Night — that coincides with a rollicking Halloween costume party.
Four pledges, including Martha “Marti” Gaines (Linda Blair), are locked in a spooky abandoned mansion (Garth Manor) overnight as part of the hazing ritual but end up being stalked and slashed by deformed offspring of the manor’s former psychopathic owner.
DeSimone blends traditional gothic haunting house tropes with a modern slasher aesthetic, with each of the main pledges dressed in period costumes and the abandoned manor taking on a distinct haunted castle vibe.
Though Hell Night is a fairly subdued slasher, the stunning cinematography courtesy of Mac Ahlberg (Trancers, Re-Animator) perfectly captures the film’s gothic undertones through brushstroke lighting and inky shadows.
Critics infamously lampooned the film upon its release in August 1981, with Robert Ebert (no fan of the horror genre) giving the film a scathing one-star review and lamenting its unoriginality and unexciting kills.
Naturally, Ebert and others missed the point, and HELL NIGHT stands the test of time as one of the quintessential early American slashers, with Blair pulling off her role as the likable buxom Final Girl.
Bruce Cohn Curtis, one of Hell Night’s original producers, has pursued remaking the film frequently over the years, an effort that was still underway as late as 2016.
Hell Night is currently available to stream on a variety of platforms, including Tubi for free (with ads) Amazon Prime Video, Shudder, and is available to rent at Vudu, Apple TV, and Sling TV.
3. THE MIDNIGHT HOUR (1985)
Iconic American director John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) teamed up with the “King of Pop” Michael Jackson to create the now legendary 14-minute mini-movie music video for “Thriller” in 1983. The video’s production, costing $500,000 and thus making it the most expensive music video ever made at that time, forged the fervor around practical makeup effects and zombies with pop culture.
The result helped anchor zombies into the mainstream consciousness for decades to come, but also inspire the lighthearted made-for-television comedy horror film The Midnight Hour (1985).
Directed by the renowned TV director Jack Bender, who had cut his teeth on the popular teen-dance series Fame (1982-1987), The Midnight Hour is steeped in Halloween tropes and iconography.
Five high school friends celebrate Halloween in the small New England town of Pitchford Cove by stealing historical relics and outfits from a local museum and accidentally unleashing a forgotten curse after reading from a scroll while playing around in a foggy cemetery.
As the group departs the cemetery and heads home to prepare for the night’s epic costume party, the recited spell causes the dead to rise, including a vampiric witch named Lucinda (Jonelle Allen), who burned at the stake 300 years earlier, and dozens of her minions.
The undead and partygoers mingle with typical comedic moments as each of the friends is turned into vampires through Lucinda’s bite leaving it up to Phil (Lee Montgomery) and his undead friend Sandy (Jonna Lee) to break the curse and save the town. Order is restored and Sandy disappears after Phil reseals the stolen scroll with the bone ash of his great-great-great-great-grandfather, the witch-hunter Nathaniel Grenville.
THE MIDNIGHT HOUR enjoys compelling sets, Halloween-heavy visuals, and competent direction (probably at the expense of plot), but it’s the diverse cast of TV veterans, among them LeVar Burton (ROOTS) and Peter DeLuise (21 JUMP STREET), and a memorable soundtrack that galvanizes the film as a must-see on Halloween.
Keen eyes will spot a pre-Home Alone (1990) Macaulay Culkin in his first screen role as an uncredited “Halloween kid” around the 28:00 mark.
The Midnight Hour’s long out of print VHS and DVD copies are few and far between, making its availability on YouTube one of the only current options to stream the movie.
4. NEON MANIACS (1986)
Neon Maniacs (1986) is an overlooked and underrated supernatural creature feature from the early 80s that features a horde of monster-warriors who live under San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and quench their thirst for blood by rampaging through the night and killing whomever they encounter.
Natalie (Leilani Sarelle) survives an encounter with the maniacs while partying with her friends in Griffith Park, but fails to convince the police or her classmates that a legion of undead warriors slaughtered her friends. Natalie and love interest Steven (Alan Hayes) team up with a horror aficionado “Monster kid” named Paula (Donna Locke) to finish off the “neon maniacs” during a bloody battle at their school’s annual battle of the bands Halloween costume party.
The film ends ambiguously, setting the stage for a potential sequel that unfortunately never materialized.
Neon Maniacs was a passion project initiated by screenwriter Mark Patrick Carducci (Pumpkinhead), who first penned iterations of the script including its catchy title when he was only a child. After several failed starts in selling his script in the late 70s, Carducci eventually optioned the script to Steven Macklet (Alligator), taking nearly five years before locking in the funding and beginning principal photography in 1984.
Further production woes resulted in various shutdowns of the set and losing both crew (including the film’s director) and actors before the troubled film finally enjoyed a short theatrical release in 1986 followed by a run on the video market in 1987.
As for the odd title, Carducci explained that Neon Maniacs meant many different things during an interview with Fangoria magazine (#47), noting the term neon is a slang term for “new,” as in a hip new type of monster, and went on to say “there’s also a sort of electric, almost punk energy to them.”
Despite the behind-the-scenes drama, director of photography Joseph Mangine, who eventually doubled as the film’s director, incorporates an edgy film noir aesthetic that enhances the otherwise meager production value to create a rather compelling cult classic.
The maniacs, 12 creatures in all, were ultimately inspired by Carducci’s love for E.C. Comics and classic monster films, but also drew from popular films at the time, including The Warriors (1979) and Mad Max 2: Road Warrior (1981).
NEON MANIACS makes for a near-perfect midnight movie, its cool tones and vivid portrayals of interdimensional monsters wreaking havoc in the still of the night are what nightmares are made of and why we endorse this film for consideration in your annual Halloween horror lineup.
Neon Maniacs is available to stream for free (with ads) on Tubi.
5. HACK-O-LANTERN (1988)
The late 80s is often dismissed as the downfall of the American slasher cycle, and by default, the beginning of the end for the horror renaissance enjoyed throughout the 70s and early 80s. Indeed, the low-rent direct-to-video market became the grease drain for exploitation and horror films otherwise destined for the drive-in theaters of yesteryear.
A short-lived horror subgenre emerged around this time, the so-called Heavy Metal Horror subgenre, which typically featured some form of heavy metal rock-n-rollers as lead characters, an absurd tale of terror, and naturally, a heavy metal soundtrack or faux music video compilation scenes(s). Italian spaghetti horror auteur Claudio Fragasso’s Monster Dog (1984) starring Alice Cooper, Rocktober Blood(1984), Trick or Treat (1986), and Black Roses (1998), are among the subgenre’s pedigree.
The media’s “Satanic Panic” obsession and questionable linkage of the trend to heavy metal music at the time only encouraged such films to be made.
So, what happens when you offer an Indian-born director the opportunity to shoot a low-rent backwoods Heavy Metal Horror film? Enter Jag Mundhra’s Hack-O-Lantern (1988), a long-forgotten and often confusing cinematic mashup of slasher, supernatural, and Heavy Metal Horror sentiments featuring a clan of incestuous Satan-worshiping hillbillies planning to perform a human sacrifice on Halloween night.
The film opens on a rural pumpkin farm as a Devil worshipping grandpa (Hy Pyke) swings by his adult daughter Amanda’s (Katina Garner) house to drop off a pumpkin and gift his favorite grandson Tommy (Bryson Gerard) a satanic medallion.
See, Tommy’s mother and father don’t approve of ol’ grandpa trying to indoctrinate young Tommy into his satanic cult. Amanda’s husband Bill (Michael Potts) pays grandpa a visit on Halloween night and orders him to stay away from Tommy, but is killed by grandpa’s cult for interpreting their satanic ritual.
The film flashes forwards and Tommy (Gregory Scott Cummins) is now a young adult, likes to dress in black, sports long hair, wears grandpa’s satanic medallion, and keeps a shrine honoring Lucifer in his bedroom closet.
After some Heavy Metal dream sequences that play more like a music video, we learn that Tommy’s brother Roger (Jeff Brown), a local sheriff’s deputy, and younger sister Vera (Carla Baron), actually care about Tommy, despite his allegiance to Satan and grandpa.
The bulk of the film takes place on Halloween night at a wild Halloween costume party, that includes a fully nude female stripper, a bizarre stand-up comic act, and plenty of grandpa’s pumpkins. Through the fog of it all, we learn that Tommy is actually grandpa’s son – he had impregnated Amanda on her wedding day years earlier and is the heir apparent to grandpa’s murderous cult.
There’s enough stalk n’ slash gore and supernatural satanic absurdity to keep Hack-O-Lantern interesting, even if Mundhra’s take on the cultural material is confusing and clumsy at times.
Yes, HACK-O-LANTERN is pretty close to gonzo-style filmmaking, slathered in cheap effects, dubious performances, replete with quasi-experimental sequences, but at the same time, that’s what makes it such a damn enjoyable watch.
Hack-O-Lantern is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video or free (with ads) on Tubi.