Underappreciated horror movies you can only find on VHS

Way back at the dawn of time that was the 1970s and '80s, your grandpa and his friends didn't have streaming media like us future people. They had to rely on VHS tapes, great big honkers the size of shoe boxes that displayed crappy video, and did it poorly. The thing is, some pretty cool movies were released to home video during that time, and a lot of them never made the jump to other formats as technology progressed. If you ask the internet nicely enough, you can still find those old tapes floating around, and if you happen to be a horror fan, there's some real gold to mine.

These obscure and underappreciated horror films of yore are films you'll only be able to watch if you catch some weirdo selling off his old VHS copies on eBay — and if you and four friends are able to haul that old 60-pound VCR out of Grandpa's storage unit.

Note: Many of these films can be found on bootleg DVDs. Nobody should ever buy bootleg DVDs. Their quality is crap, and they're made by sketchy and bad people. A couple of these films can be found as foreign releases, but none have had a domestic DVD release.

Blood Beach (1981)

If the title Blood Beach alone doesn't perk up your ears, perhaps a little context. In 1975, a very young Steven Spielberg screwed Hollywood forever by inventing the summer blockbuster with Jaws. During the next several years, there were about 16,984 ripoffs of that film, most of which were in no way subtle. By 1980, audiences had been subjected to so many iterations on the same theme that filmmakers were starting to run out of ways to get people into the mouths of sharks. That's when one desperate screenwriter had a brilliant idea: what if the beach itself was eating people?

That is the supremely insane premise of Blood Beach, which begins with a woman out walking her dog getting sucked under the sand by some unseen beast. Because this is an '80s horror movie, several more sand-suckings must happen before anyone notices, no one is smart enough to simply stay away from the beach, and the film ends with a ridiculous-looking monster getting blown to bits (and an obligatory sequel setup). In short, it's brilliant. Sadly, the potential sequel (Bloodier Beach? Son of the Beach?) never materialized, and the film never received a DVD or Blu-Ray release because its distributor went broke. If you happen to secure a copy on eBay, be prepared for a jolt when it arrives — as any '80s kid will tell you, the VHS cover art is freaking terrifying.

Killers (1996)

Director and editor Mike Mendez is the kind of guy who makes movies with names like Big Ass Spider! and Bimbo Movie Bash. His 1996 debut feature Killers is about as obscure as it gets, but if you're able to hunt down a copy, you won't be disappointed. Because of its title and year of release, it's been assumed by some to be a Natural Born Killers ripoff — but it might even out-crazy that super-crazy film.

The movie opens with two brothers shotgunning their parents in a manner very similar to the famous Menendez brothers case (the basis for the current season of Law & Order: True Crime). They're sentenced to death but escape from prison, in scenes spliced with an introduction to a suburban family that you just know are getting a visit from the Shotgun Brothers. This happens as expected, but then things get weird: The family seems to have been expecting them. In fact, they seem downright psyched, and ready for a little murderin' competition. Before long, the tables have turned completely, as the family members start offing police who show up to help, and the brothers find themselves in an actual basement dungeon with a mutant sex gimp and a bunch of deformed zombies. And then … it goes off the rails in ways we can't really describe here. You'll just have to track down a VHS copy, you freak.

Mr. Frost (1990)

Okay, first off: Jeff Goldblum as the Devil. That's an iron-clad elevator pitch for eight different awesome movies. But the only one that ever got made was 1990's Mr. Frost, an excellent slow-burn psychological thriller that, it should be reiterated, features Jeff Goldblum as the Devil.

As the film opens, the mysteriously rich Mr. Frost is arrested for having tons of dead bodies buried all around the grounds of his huge mansion, which authorities tend to frown upon. Unable to establish his real name, they throw him into an asylum, where he starts messing with the head of a young doctor (Kathy Baker, Picket Fences), insisting that he's the actual Devil and seemingly proving it by doing weird, devil-y tricks. The film builds to a bizarre and inevitable conclusion, wherein it becomes pretty obvious that Mr. Frost is telling the truth. As the great Roger Ebert noted in his review of the film, there's a time-honored tradition of big-name actors playing Old Scratch onscreen, but he called Goldblum's performance "easily the least likable — which is praise, I guess."

The Keep (1983)

Michael Mann is a pretty respected filmmaker, so it seems a little strange for any of his films to have never gotten the DVD or Blu-Ray treatment. But then, 1983's The Keep is nothing like the rest of Mann's movies. It's a Gothic-tinged horror film set during World War II, which is about as far from slick city streets and brooding, handsome cops as you can get. For only his second feature (after the James Caan crime drama Thief), Mann got it into his head to adapt a horror novel that he didn't really care for into an expressionist, nightmarish art film — with predictably weird results.

It's the story of a Nazi platoon that encounters an ancient monster in an abandoned fortress, told through blue filters and with a Tangerine Dream soundtrack, because Michael Mann. While the film was never shaping up to be narratively coherent, studio meddling made the problem worse — or better, if you ask some fans. The extremely disjointed editing serves to amplify the dreamlike feel that was Mann's intent in the first place, and his signature visual style is as sharp as ever. It's not exactly a lost classic, and Mann himself tends to act like the film doesn't exist — but yes, Michael Mann, you did make a movie about Nazis getting eaten by monsters and it was pretty cool.

Blue Monkey (1987)

First things first: There are no monkeys, blue or otherwise, in this film. A little boy makes a comment about a scary dream he had about a blue monkey, and that somehow became the movie's title. The film is about a giant bug monster, and the filmmakers did consider other titles both super on-the-nose (Insect) and crazily over-the-top (Invasion of the Body Suckers) before settling on nonsensical, so at least they considered all their options. But titling issues aside, Blue Monkey is pretty much a mashup of Aliens and The Thing, and is almost as awesome as that sounds.

A man is pricked by a weird, exotic plant and falls ill. He's taken to the hospital, where he promptly vomits up a giant white larva that starts growing way faster than the normal, small white larva that people vomit up all the time. The hospital is quickly quarantined, making those trapped inside easy pickings for the slimy, gross, car-sized bug-creature that the larva grows into before anyone has time to say "Xenomorph." It's an extravaganza of low-budget '80s creature effects, and the fact that it borrows liberally from some much better movies is really part of its charm. That no character ever says, "There's a really bad bug going around this hospital" is the only disappointment here.

Massacre at Central High (1976)

If you've seen the 1987 classic Heathers, then you're roughly familiar with the plot of Massacre at Central High. Released in 1976, the film tells a Lord of the Flies-flavored tale of bullying and the revenge exacted on said bullies, only without the dark humor of the later film (which it directly inspired). No, the revenge here is played quite straight — the humor comes from the film's jarringly silly score and theme song.

While not terribly gory, Massacre is part of a proud tradition of '70s revenge films with grimy, grindhouse aesthetics and cheap special effects. A new kid at school is relentlessly bullied until one attack cripples him, whereupon he decides it's revengin' time. The killing spree takes a while to kick in, although it's pretty satisfying when it does — but that score. It's the epitome of the maudlin schmaltz typical of the decade, and so hilariously inappropriate to the subject matter that it elevates this low-budget little revenge thriller to the realm of high camp. Director Rene Daalder was so pissed about it that he reportedly refused to watch the film for three decades. It's like if The Hills Have Eyes had been given a disco soundtrack … which actually might have been an improvement.

Grim Prairie Tales (1990)

Wayne Coe was an illustrator for Universal in the '80s, and he made "obscene amounts of money" for coming up with the posters for little films like Out of Africa and Back to the Future. All the while, he was dreaming of his passion project, which he hoped would one day be his debut as a Hollywood director: a horror-Western anthology film, for some reason.

Originally intending to shoot one segment every year for five years using his own money, he was eventually able to secure a producer, a small budget, and — in a pretty major coup — the services of James Earl Jones and Brad Dourif to star in the wraparound segment, which featured a couple of Old West travelers trading ghost stories over the campfire. Shot through with a strong streak of social conscience (Coe says Dourif told him they were making a "feminist Western" because racist and sexist men keep getting their asses handed to them throughout the film), Grim Prairie Tales turned out to be quirky, creepy, and effective — which apparently nobody was ready for in 1990. Practically no one saw the film, and Coe retreated into music video and sketch comedy work before becoming a painter. But he got to make a pretty sweet horror flick with James Earl Jones, and he almost certainly has the VHS tape that proves it on hand at all times.

Dream Demon (1988)

If Dream Demon sounds like it could have been a less-inspired alternate title for the popular '80s horror franchise Nightmare on Elm Street, well, you're not too far off the mark. Released in 1988, the film was the brainchild of British filmmaker Harley Cokeliss, who already had some pretty interesting credits on his resume. He'd worked as a second-unit director on The Empire Strikes Back and directed a Tommy Lee Jones action flick (Black Moon Rising) from a script by John Carpenter, but what he really wanted was to screw with people's heads.

In Dream Demon, a young woman anxious about her impending marriage starts having spooky nightmares, which turn into spooky visions, which turn into terrifying reality warps that her unfortunate friend also experiences somehow. The two women try to figure out what the hell is going on while it becomes harder and harder to tell what's real and what's not. It's a well-crafted headscrew of a film that doesn't borrow as much from A Nightmare on Elm Street as you might think — there's no actual demon, burnt up like a weenie or otherwise — but it ports that film's often hallucinatory tone onto an even weirder story.

Island of Blood (1982)

Agatha Christie's …And Then There Were None, despite going through multiple titles to arrive at one that we can print, is one of the celebrated mystery author's most beloved works. It tells the story of ten guests summoned to a mysterious island who are picked off one by one by an unknown killer, leaving the reader guessing whodunit — until everyone is dead, leading to an explanation of what the hell happened (in the form of a letter penned by one of the guests) that had mystery fans stuffing their brains back into their ears. The 1982 exploitation horror flick Island of Blood pretty much tells the exact same story, but with a lot more gore and a killer who inexplicably chooses a jaunty, uptempo punk song called "Face to Face" for a calling card. 

With lyrics like "spear me, spear me," and "boil me, boil me," the tune seems to be there just to make sure the killer doesn't run out of ideas. There are some pretty excellent death scenes, and the kind of gloriously goofy acting you'd expect from a low-budget film of this vintage, with the whole thing building to a twist that keeps the spirit of Christie's original one while being a damn sight more demented. It's the kind of gonzo, weirdass flick that begs to be discovered in the VHS bin at a garage sale or flea market — or you can buy beat-up copies online from $50 to $100. Just don't start up your own murder spree when you get that stupid song stuck in your head.