Isle of the Dead (1945): Horror films are intended to scare. So, it’s unusual when some filmmakers, on purpose or by accident, get the formula backward, going light on scares but big on the aspects most of the genre’s perpetrators don’t care about: acting, character development, strong themes, etc. In the case of producer Val Lewton, it was a necessity. RKO Pictures wanted to compete with Universal’s acclaimed horror products (Dracula, Frankenstein, et al.). Trouble is, they didn’t have the money. Starting with Cat People, and continuing with the veiled Jane Eyre adaptation I Walked With a Zombie, Lewton’s films eschewed the horror almost completely, using mood and suggestion to convey what his pictures couldn’t afford. Indeed, it’s almost always downtime in this spooky portrait of people (led by Boris Karloff) dying one-by-one of a plague they think, mistakenly, was caused by a lady vampire.
Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979): Just as his Bad Lieutenant semi-remake isn’t much of a thriller, Werner Herzog’s remake, of sorts, of the F.W. Murnau classic isn’t much of a horror. Instead it subsists entirely on mood, its dreamlike European setting and the sight of Klaus Kinski as a misshapen, pathetic Count Dracula.
The Changeling (1980): The ghost story at the heart of Peter Medak’s film is no great shakes, but it’s elevated immeasurably by the presence of George C. Scott, playing a man grieving the deaths of his wife and daughter. But then, Scott’s presence seemed to dramatically alter any horror, as witnessed in The Exorcist III—a sequel heavy on procedure and light on pea-soup vomit.
Wendigo (2001): Larry Fessenden has spent a career in lo-fi horror, with films that tackle animal testing (No Telling), addiction (Habit) and the environment (The Last Winter). Here, his regurgitation of a Native-American legend doesn’t exactly frighten. But it doesn’t have to: it’s got Patricia Clarkson and Jake Weber.
Signs (2002): M. Night’s closest-to-good film is actually pretty compelling before the dumbest ending ever.
The Innkeepers (2011): From Trigger Man to The House of the Devil to this haunted hotel chiller that’s secretly a great hang-out movie, Ti West has cornered the market on horror films that falter only when trying to be scary.