Who doesn’t enjoy a good mystery? A puzzle or an element of suspense that gradually reveals itself––often with a detective figure or maybe even a supernatural ingredient to elevate the stakes or uncertainty?
It’s often in genre films that we get the most tangible of mysteries, in horror, crime, sci-fi, or maybe a hardboiled noir setting. True crime and fact-based narratives also provide ample intrigue. But, as with real life, sometimes there are no easy answers, clues have been covered, tip-offs withheld, witnesses vanish, lies told, the truth fractured, obscured, or altogether invisible.
A good mystery, as the films presented in this list suggest, may not necessarily be satisfyingly resolved. Maybe the real drama rests in the unraveling? Or the obsessions of the investigator, or the guile of the guilty party?
One final note, as the very nature of this list suggests, there are spoilers ahead that reveal certain elements of the films, though care has been taken to preserve much of the mystery so that there are still ample reasons to track down those films discussed that you’ve yet to see. Enjoy the ensuing drama, maybe you can figure out elements others missed, or maybe not, either way happy snooping and maybe endure a sleepless night or two…
20. The Mothman Prophecies (2002)
For over forty years conspiracy theorists and UFOlogists have followed the writings of the late journalist and parapsychologist John Keel and specifically his 1975 best-seller “The Mothman Prophecies”. The supernatural horror mystery at the crux of that book––detailed accounts of numerous alleged sightings of a winged creature called Mothman in the vicinity of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, during 1966 and 1967––was the basis for director MArk Pellington’s moody though meandering 2002 film.
Reporter John Klein (Richard Gere) is drawn to Point Pleasant to scrutinize a series of odd occurrences and strange events, including the titular prophecies which take the form of startling psychic visions and the manifestation of the bizarre Mothman entities.
Fans of Keel’s brand of “out there” investigative journalism, UFO-hounds, horror buffs, and Gere-heads will find ample reasons to watch this film, even if the answers to the questions poised amount to little more than speculation and biased psychobabble, there’s still plenty of intrigue and eye candy on hand to warrant a watch.
19. The Boston Strangler (1968)
There are many troubling elements about the real life Boston Strangler––who was responsible for the murders of 13 women in and around Boston, Massachusetts, in the early 1960s––and most of them are fictionalized or glossed over in Richard Fleischer’s well-made neo-noir exploitation film which stars Tony Curtis and Henry Fonda.
Based loosely off of Gerold Frank’s 1966 book “The Boston Strangler”, both it and the film eventually identify Albert DeSalvo (Curtis) as the eponymous murderer. Though in the years since this has been largely disputed and evidence suggests there may have been at least one other Strangler who eluded capture, despite DeSalvo’s confession to chief detective John S. Bottomly (Fonda).
18. Fire in the Sky (1993)
With some similarities to the aforementioned film The Mothman Prophecies and also akin to the 1989 “fact-based account” of an alleged extraterrestrial encounter Communion (omitted from this list for being so uniform but cinematically not as good) comes Robert Lieberman’s Fire in the Sky.
Adapted by Tracy Tormé, based on Travis Walton’s biographical 1978 book “The Walton Experience”, Fire in the Sky stars D.B. Sweeney as Walton, an experienced logger who vanished while working with his logging crew in Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in early November, 1975.
When Walton reappeared five days later, after an exhausted search by law enforcement lead to nothing, he claimed he was abducted by a UFO. As detailed in the film and in actuality, Walton’s encounter received much mainstream attention and publicity and is considered one of the best-known instances of alleged alien abductions.
While naysayers claim it’s all an elaborate hoax, one thing’s for sure: you can’t ever shake the image of evil aliens smacking a glob of sickly muck into the forced open mouth of a terrified restrained abductee because it’s “BASED OFF A TRUE STORY”. Uh-huh, sure.
17. The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)
This exploitation slasher flick is perhaps best appreciated by genre fans (and the 2014 “meta-sequel” is surprisingly decent, too, if you can believe it), though director and co-star Charles B. Pierce (who’s 1973 fright flick The Legend of Boggy Creek is also worthy of this list) gets a lot of things right while maximizing all the mileage from the film’s opening title card: “the incredible story you are about to see is true, where it happened and how it happened; only the names have been changed.”
Set in Arkansas, The Town That Dreaded Sundown isn’t as factual as Pierce wants us to believe. The actual murders occurred in Texarkana, Texas, in 1946, though accurately were never solved, and the unidentified serial murderer, dubbed “the Phantom Killer” was never apprehended.
An atmospheric thriller, the film works well as an artifact of mid-70s horror, when the slasher film was neoteric and just taking flight, though aspects of the film are clichéd police procedural tedium. All told it’s an entertaining and influential film and the unsolved aspects are intriguing and worth scrutinizing.
16. Willow Creek (2013)
Despite the fact that Bobcat Goldthwait has reinvented himself in earnest as an established indie auteur in recent years (Sleeping Dogs Lie, World’s Greatest Dad, God Bless America) people still tend to think of him as the hyperventilating/half-choking-sounding comedic actor from Police Academy, and other mediocre 80s fare. So it’s all the more shocking that Willow Creek is as far removed from that side of Goldthwait as can be.
After vaulting that hurdle the next obstacle for the viewer is probably going to come in the form of the question: “WTF is Bobcat doing a found footage horror film about young people venturing into murky woods in the still dark hours?”
From this familiar angle the deck is stacked wholly against Goldthwait and yet, with Willow Creek, he plays a monstrously winning hand.
When Jim (Bryce Johnson), bristling with enthusiasm, drags his doubtful but supportive girlfriend, Kelly (Alexie Gilmore), with him on a sojourn to Northern California in search for signs of the legendary Sasquatch, the stereotypical stage is set. Jim’s obsession with the famed Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film is palpable, though at first, more laughable. And maybe it’s our lopsided expectations as an audience that helps the whole “power of suggestion” notion take hold.
Soon, as suspected, the woods get lovely, dark, and deep, as Goldthwait and his charismatic cast play it all with utter conviction and sinking fear. Things build to a tizzy and it’s impressive how much is accomplished within the strict confines of the found footage motif.
15. The Black Dahlia (2006)
Largely a disappointing neo-noir crime thriller considering it comes from genius director Brian De Palma, there’s still a lot of style, delectable period detail, and at least one excellent performance––Mia Kirshner thrills in the doomed title role––in The Black Dahlia. Adapted from the James Ellroy 1987 crime novel of the same name, The Black Dahlia works on the widely sensationalized unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short in 1947.
The sordid true crime details remain in the film––Short was brutally dismembered and mutilated and discovered in Leimert Park, Los Angeles––but given a glossy and overrich rendering in this movie, originally intended as a sequel to the hit L.A. Confidential (1997).
LAPD Detectives Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett, phoning it in) and Lee Blanchard (a woefully miscast Aaron Eckhart) are investigating Short’s tragic murder, but the only part of the film that really leaves an impression, apart from the aforestated performance from Kirshner, is in the rendering of 1940s La La Land, the seamy Hollywood babylon vibe, and the recreation of the Black Dahlia crime scene and investigation minutiae. For forgiving audiences, there is much in this film to muse over and De Palma diehards will devour a few of the inspired and visually vibrant set pieces.