1. Innocent Blood (1992)
A great genre mash-up by the (almost) always enjoyable John Landis. New York City mobsters get bitten by voluptuous vampiress Marie (the lovely Anne Parillaud) and soon the city is infested with immortal, superhuman wiseguys, led by the fantastic Robert Loggia who does some of his best work in this film. Anthony Lapaglia, Chazz Palminteri, Don Rickles and the awesome Luiz Guzman give great supporting performances. A great little treat of a film with a wonderful visual style, groovy sense of humor and some genuinely inspired horror movie moments.
2. Cronos (1993)
An early effort by the very talented Guillermo del Toro which puts an inventive and interesting spin on the tired vampire tale while still remaining impressively faithful to the original mythos. The fleshing out of the connection between Christian sacraments and vampirism gives the film its thematic weight. An older antique dealer named Jesus Gris finds a device created by a medieval magician/scientist which grants the wearer everlasting life. As we all know, the resurrection can only be bought with the price of blood. Things get especially interesting when the demented Dieter de la Guardia and his nephew Angel (played by very game del Toro regular Ron Pearlman) get wind of the device. Del Toro creates great atmosphere with subtle use of music and visuals that owes as much to Polanski as it does to classic horror. The blood is thick and red and the tone weird and quirky. Much recommended.
3. Diabolique (1955)
It's silly to include this film in a list of underrated films since it is generally considered to be one of the greatest horror films ever made. Yet the sad fact is that many people have not heard about this masterpiece by Henri-Georges Clouzot, let alone seen it. I saw this film in a theater about seven or eight years ago and the experience is burned into my brain in ways both delectable and dreadful. It's the kind of viewing where you forget that you are breathing and cinema become a psychosomatic experience where the spirit is elevated, the blood pumps faster, the sweat crawls down the back. The plot is beyond simple: The wife of a sadistic schoolmaster and his mistress team up to do away with the bastard. After the deed is done the fun begins with the tension mounting continuously for an hour and a half, reaching a final pitch of such intensity that a post-cinematic smoke becomes a necessity rather than a luxury. A great film, true classic, a prime example of the genre and of filmmaking in general.
4. The Ninth Gate (1999)
A great film in every way, filled with beautiful visual touches by director Polanski and the great DP Darius Kondhji. The plot is intriguing and tense throughout, based on the playful thriller El Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Polanski's trademark whimsy is delightfully manifested by Johnny Depp in one of his very best roles, a complete creep of a person named Dean Corso who is hired by the demented Boris Balkan (Frank Langella - great as always) to find a book purportedly written by Lucifer himself. The European flavor is delicious, mixing the shadows of film noir, thrillers and horror. Depp disappears down dark alleys and cobblestone streets, sidebag slung over shoulder, long coat trailing after him, smoke swirling over his head from a crumbled Lucky Strike. Bizarre bad guys, femme fatales, demons, rituals, sex, books, drinks and cigarettes. A great film whose only slight is a flimsy script which nonetheless dances between being a drawback and a merit, as is often the case with genre films, since the plot hardly seems to matter when the minutiae is so lovely.
5. The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Maestro Argento's debut film, an assured piece that defined the "giallo" genre. The visuals are the whole story and they are nothing short of astounding, inspiring directors on both sides of the Atlantic (perhaps most obviously the great De Palma). Tony Musante plays an American in Rome who witnesses an attempted murder and then becomes obsessed with the identity of the serial killer whom he caught in the act. There are touches of Hitchcock, European art cinema and 60's/70's visual art (op-art and similar movements). The tone is sleazy and the script and acting are serviceable at best but this seems to matter little when contrasted against the beautiful direction, editing and cinematography. The film is also genuinely creepy and tense. A great and influential horror thriller.