There are countless reasons why people love Halloween. ‘Tis the season for pumpkin-flavored everything, costume parties and eating way too much candy. Of course, part of the fun is spending hard-earned money to get the crap scared out of us. We shell out top dollar for haunted hayrides, horror nights at the theme park and—of course—the movie theater, where the latest Hollywood fright flick is often more funny than it is scary.
But! If you truly want to watch a movie that’s going to make you lose sleep at night, might we suggest these 10 indie documentaries and narrative features based on true-life tales of the macabre? After all, what could be more terrifying than a maniac made of flesh and blood? Here are 10 Indies We Love based on or inspired by actual, horrific (or just plain weird) events. Considering these non-fictional nightmares could happen anywhere, at any time… well, we suggest watching with the lights on.
HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986)
Where You Can Watch: Amazon, Vudu, GooglePlay
Director: John McNaughton
Starring: Michael Rooker
Why We Love It: Serial killer Henry Lee Lucas was the inspiration for director John McNaughton’s feature filmmaking debut, frequently condemned/praised as one of the most disturbing movies ever made. Henry stars Michael Rooker as the cold-hearted Henry, following the disturbed drifter as he and his roommate Otis roam the streets of suburban Chicago, randomly select victims while traveling down a blood-soaked road to hell. In reality, Lucas was an abused child who started sexually abusing (both living and dead, allegedly) and murdering his victims as a teenager in the early 1950s. While he’d been arrested for burglary, it wasn’t until stabbing his mother to death in 1960 that he was finally sentenced to prison. Unfortunately that was not the end of the bloodshed, as Lucas was released some years later on parole and continued to commit grizzly acts of violence, making him one of the most notorious serial murderers of all time. At his trial, Lucas claimed responsibility for over 600 deaths—only to later recant those slayings and claim to only have had killed his mother. But in McNaughton’s gruesome horror show, Henry most definitely claims multiple victims. The film was shot on a micro-budget and practically feels like a documentary. But despite engendering protests for its disturbing content, the film is nevertheless one of the defining horror works of all time—and was nominated for six Film Independent Spirit Awards, including Best Feature.
DEAD RINGERS (1988)
Where You Can Watch: Amazon, iTunes
Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Jeremy Irons, Geneviève Bujold
Why We Love It: For Dead Ringers, Canadian “Baron of Blood” David Cronenberg took inspiration from the Bari Wood novel Twins, about the lives of Stewart and Cyril Marcus. The Marcus brothers were identical twins who found success in the medical field as gynecologists. In 1975, both siblings were found dead in Cyril’s New York City apartment under mysterious circumstances. But it wouldn’t be a Cronenberg movie without the director’s signature WTF?!-level imaginings, so there’s definitely a great deal of fiction intertwined with reality in this psychological thriller. In an acclaimed performance, Jeremy Irons plays both Elliot and Beverly Mantle, identical twin gynecologists whose practice specializes in fertility. Despite being clones in appearance, there are drastic differences in the twins’ personalities, performed with such conviction by the versatile Irons that you’d think Irons had an actual twin of his own. In the film, the brothers use twin tricks in the sport of womanizing. Elliot seduces women, tires of them, and passes them along to Beverly. For Cronenberg, the twins’ bait-and-switch tactics didn’t have enough of a creep factor, though, so he spliced in some bloody scares in addition to “mutant women” with abnormal genitalia. (One might consider a period of abstinence after viewing.)
PARADISE LOST: THE CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD HILLS (1996)
Where You Can Watch: Amazon, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu, Playstation, Microsoft
Directors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
Why We Love It: Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Stevie Branch were three young boys on the brink of puberty when they were brutally murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentary Paradise Lost reveals the after-effects this grizzly, demonic triple-homicide had on the West Memphis community, known as “Robin Hood Hills.” The film also details the trials of the three teenage boys accused of sexually mutilating and murdering these innocents. It goes without saying that the unfathomable slayings and events surrounding the deaths are beyond any parents’ worst nightmare. After the hogtied bodies of the boys were discovered, rumors began to circulate throughout the community (made up mostly of Evangelical Christians) that the killings were instigated by Satanic worship, implying the accused carried out the crime act as part of a ritual. Berlinger and Sinofsky’s documentary was nominated in 1997 for Film Independent’s “Truer Than Fiction” Spirit Award, and inevitably spawned a trilogy. The third-and-final chapter, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature.
Where You Can Watch: iTunes
Director: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci
Why We Love It: If you want to learn more about the life and death of “the world’s first female serial killer” Aileen Wournos, you could watch either of acclaimed filmmaker Nick Broomfield’s two documentaries on her, Aileen Wournos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992) or Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003). Another option would be Patty Jenkins’ captivating drama, which sheds an empathic light on this “monster” of a human. In Jenkins’ acclaimed first feature, viewers are introduced to Aileen as a seemingly good-hearted individual. Charlize Theron’s unrecognizable transformation into Wournos is one of the many factors that contributed to her unforgettable, Oscar/Golden Globe/SAG/Spirit Award-winning performance. After a childhood full of sexual abuse, alleged incest and a habit of exchanging sex for money or drugs from an early age, the film introduces the grown Wournos as its flawed protagonist. She’s uneducated and rough-around-the-edges. To say she’s socially awkward would be an understatement. But she’s making an honest effort to find a job and is overly optimistic, convinced a better life lies ahead—especially after meeting and falling in love with Selby (Spirit Award nominee Christina Ricci). The relationship shows a more humane, relatable angle to Wournos, enabling us to connect with her beyond the crimes she commits. Wournos killed seven men, shooting them at point blank range, claiming she acted in self-defense in each circumstance. She was sentenced to die by lethal injection and died in 2002. At the 2004 Film Independent Spirit Awards, the film won Best First Feature—and, obviously, Best Female Lead for Charlize Theron.
HARD CANDY (2005)
Where You Can Watch: Amazon, GooglePlay, Playstation, Vudu, Microsoft
Director: David Slade
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Ellen Page
Why We Love It: Hold on to your manhood, gentleman. David Slade’s first feature will definitely make you think twice before embarking on your next sexual solicitation—especially if it’s the result of meeting someone online. The film is loosely based on an actual news item from Japan about girls who would seductively lure men to a building before beating and robbing them. (Kind of gives new definition to blue balls, wouldn’t you agree?) But that’s nothing compared to what Patrick Wilson’s character has to face as punishment when he decides to meet an underage girl from an online chat room IRL. An even bigger mistake is inviting the 14-year-old (Ellen Page, in a transfixing debut) back to his house. That’s how you end up drugged, tied up, taunted, tortured and on the verge of castration. The cat-and-mouse nail-biter definitely has scenes that make your skin crawl, feeling a little too real for most of its run time. The dichotomy between the two characters is interesting, as both are essentially committing crimes and doing things that would not make their mothers very proud. Nonetheless, Page’s character is pretty badass, and the film certainly makes a strong case against (sort of—no spoilers) pedophilia, encouraging safer practices when engaging socially with others on the World Wide Web.
Where You Can Watch: Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Playstation, Microsoft
Directors: Barbara Brancaccio, Joshua Zeman
Why We Love It: As children growing up on Staten Island, filmmakers Brancaccio and Zeman always heard of the myth of a boogeyman named “Cropsey”. Fear was instilled in all the kids of the community. They were taught that Cropsey was an escaped mental patient who lived in an abandoned asylum close-by. By day, he hides. Late at night, he sneaks out and snatches children. All grown, Barbra and Josh were convinced Cropsey was nothing more than an urban legend. That is until the summer of 1987, when a 12-year-old girl named Jennifer disappeared. Brancaccio and Zeman’s documentary investigates the disappearance of the young girl, one of five eventual missing children in the Staten Island area. Eventually, a real life “boogeyman” named Andre Rand was linked to their disappearances, as the filmmakers’ journey back to their homeland led to a haunting realization far spookier than any legend.
THE IMPOSTER (2012)
Where You Can Watch: Netflix, GooglePlay
Director: Bart Layton
Why We Love It: This next documentary tells a story so unbelievable you’d think it couldn’t possibly be anything other than fiction. Ironically enough, fiction is the key ingredient in subject Frederic Bourdin’s con-artistry. The young man’s neglectful upbringing inevitably led him to a life of scheming, manipulating and imitating. An eerie, unsettling energy is imposed upon the viewer from the moment Bart Layton’s first (and only, so far) nonfiction feature begins. Bourdin, who had proven himself a grade-A mastermind in the art of identity theft, wasn’t even confident that he’d be able to pull off the performance of a lifetime when he convinced a grieving family from Texas that he was their missing son. Nicholas Barclay disappeared three years prior to Bourdin’s decision to impersonate him. After learning about the Barclay family and seeing a picture of Nicholas, Bourdin set out to convince the boy’s mother, sister and uncles that he was the missing member of their family. Since Nicholas was pre-pubescent at the time of his disappearance, the family believed that this very well could be their loved one, lost then found, as a 16-year-old teenager. Details unravel, not only about Bourdin’s improvised, shocking escapade; but also about the questionable elements to Nicholas’ disappearance in the first place. From start to finish, there never seems to be a moment throughout The Imposter that isn’t 100% creepy and deranged. There’s no blood or massacre, but the darkness of the subjects’ lives and idea that someone could be so much of a sociopath to even attempt to do what Bourdin did makes this one totally twisted true story that is far from easy to shake off.
ROOM 237 (2012)
Where You Can Watch: Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, Playstation, Amazon, GooglePlay, Microsoft
Director: Rodney Ascher
Why We Love It: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is arguably one of the horror genre’s absolute classics. Stephen King’s eerie novel has enough haunting imagery to last a lifetime as is, let alone being suffused with the permanent nightmares Kubrick and star Jack Nicholson added with their astounding artistic contributions to the film adaptation. But not only was Kubrick’s picture an acclaimed success, it also opened up the analytical gateways of many fans and obsessives, who each had their own interpretation of the film. That’s the premise of Rodney Ascher’s documentary/feature length video essay, Room 237. You’re probably thinking, what could be scarier than watching or reading The Shining? The obvious answer is talking about it! It’s like that feeling you get when someone tells you something morbid or you hear a ghost story. Squeeze your eyes shut and plug your ears—you can’t handle the theories and interpretations behind The Shining.
THE BLACKOUT EXPERIMENTS (2016)
Where You Can Watch: Amazon, GooglePlay, Playstation, Microsoft, iTunes
Director: Rich Fox
Why We Love It: Rich Fox’s The Blackout Experiements is one of the most unrelentingly visceral horror movies of this decade, never mind the fact that it’s a documentary or that the “victims” being tortured in the film are actually paying (quite handsomely) for the “privilege” of being abused. Examining the odd, underground performance-art-group-cum-rogue-therapy-experiment Blackout, the film interviews a half-dozen or so clients of the mysterious organization, who, after filling out an online application, are instructed to report to a secret location. There, the clients are “abducted” and put through a grueling series of physical and psychological torments custom-tailored to confront their own specific fears and triggers. It’s fascinating that such an extreme form of recreation is able to exist (let alone seemingly thrive) in today’s litigious culture, but Blackout’s clients all swear up and down that these acts of abuse are surprisingly therapeutic. To each their own, but we’ll stick a glass of warm milk, thank you.
AMANDA KNOX (2016)
Where You Can Watch: Netflix
Director: Rod Blackhurst, Brian McGinn
Starring: Amanda Knox
Why We Love It: The unfortunate murder of Meredith Kercher in 2007 became a worldwide scandal that people consumed like a soap opera. But in case you lived under a rock at the time and need a recap: Kercher was studying abroad and sharing a living space with Amanda Knox, an all-American girl that would become the center of media attention in the most horrifying way imaginable. Not long after falling in love with both Italy and new boyfriend Raffaele, Amanda was accused and arrested for Kercher’s murder. In the month’s and years that followed, the media’s involvement spiraled so out of control as the international headlines got more preposterous and fictional. In Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn’s Netflix-exclusive documentary Amanda Knox, “foxy Knoxy” opens up on camera for the first time since finally being released from prison. Can you imagine being on foreign soil, accused of murder, having the entire world think you’re some sex-crazed killer and then being imprisoned for four whole years never knowing if the truth of your innocence will ever be revealed? The entire documentary is fascinating, and the unanswered questions surrounding Kercher’s death are nausea inducing. Putting yourself into Amanda’s shoes is damn near impossible, and watching the case investigators (along with members of the media) on their completely misinformed crusades is the type of real-life horror one attempts to never imagine.