Horrifying Movies That Aren’t Actual Horror Movies
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
Actual Genre: Drama/Thriller (all genre listings according to IMDB)
10 Words or Less Summary: Woman suffers PTSD from time spent with mysterious cult.
Why it’s horrifying: Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of the tensest, most claustrophobic films I’ve ever seen. It depicts Martha’s readjustment to a normal life at the luxurious lake house owned by her sister and her sister’s new husband. However, we constantly flash back to her traumatizing time with a cult controlled by a sinister, Manson-esque leader. At times, we’re not sure which narrative we’re in, and the result is that the audience is always on edge, terrified that these worlds might collide. Martha Marcy May Marlene is deliberately paced, but it’s more than worth it for the willing viewer. Most shocking of all, it features a terrific lead performance from Mary-Kate & Ashley kin Elizabeth Olsen!
Don’t take my word for it: “The horror aesthetic of B-movie producer Val Lewton — that the unseen is more frightening than the seen — is carried to a merciless extreme in this unnerving debut feature by writer-director Sean Durkin.” J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader
Black Swan (2010)
Actual Genre: Drama/Mystery/Thriller
10 Words or Less Summary: World-class ballerina suffers psychotic break training for new role.
Why it’s horrifying: Incredibly talented director Darren Aronofsky created perhaps his most taut and unsettling film yet in Black Swan, and that’s saying something since he also brought us Requiem for a Dream and Pi. Portman is magnetic, the imagery shocking, the sexuality tormented, the atmosphere anxious and nerve-wracking. The good swan/bad swan stuff is pretty silly, but the film’s tension is dead-serious.
Don’t take my word for it: “The film picks at our deepest anxieties — injury, disfigurement, loss of a coveted job, loss of identity, loss of sanity. In most fright films, danger lurks in the shadows. Here it’s grinning from a mirror.” Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune
Wendy and Lucy (2008)
Actual Genre: Drama
10 Words or Less Summary: Unemployed woman’s car breaks down, stranding her in small-town, USA.
Why it’s horrifying: Wendy and Lucy is a minimalist nightmare of modern American fears: jobless and quickly running out of money, Wendy (Michelle Williams) embarks on a road trip to Alaska where she’s heard work is available. But when her car breaks down and her dog (and only ally) disappears, Wendy’s life completely unravels. The film, a stark reminder that everyday people can still fall through the cracks, is full of simple, realistic horrors: showering in the sink of a gas station bathroom, waiting in line to deposit empty cans, running into a potentially dangerous drifter. Heads up: Wendy and Lucy, though powerful, is a slow-burn. You’ll have to be patient with this one.
Don’t take my word for it: “The movie, for all its morose impassivity, is beautiful and haunting.” David Denby, The New Yorker
Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
Actual Genre: Documentary/Biography
10 Words or Less Summary: Really weird family fractures after accusations of child molestation.
Why it’s horrifying: First of all, though the Friedmans are seemingly just a mild-mannered Long Island family, they’re actually really freaking strange (potential pedophilia aside). The film, told mostly via home videos, shows them as cut off from the rest of the world; they’re self-enclosure leads to an odd sense of humor and ignored pathologies (Freud would have had a field day with these guys). However, when father Arnold and son Jesse become embroiled in a child molestation investigation, the home videos begin to chronicle the family’s frightening disintegration. In fact, even when compared to the sensational accusations, it is the Friedman’s crumbling family dynamic that emerges as the film’s most gripping aspect.
Don’t take my word for it: “The film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2003, is disturbing and haunting…” Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
Inland Empire (2006)
Actual Genre: David Lynch Movie (IMDB claims “Drama/Mystery/Thriller”)
10 Words or Less Summary: Defies summary.
Why it’s horrifying: Well, it’s a David Lynch movie, for starters. Lynch is a master at exposing the horrific underbelly of everyday life, and all of his movies have disturbed me in one way or another. The main reason I chose Inland Empire (Tagline: “A woman in trouble”) from the bunch is because it was very much neglected at the time of its release, unlike the more iconic Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive. Featuring anthropomorphic rabbits (a recurring theme in this list), nonlinear narratives, odd musical numbers, laugh tracks, and lots of prostitutes, Inland Empire is inaccessible, disorienting, and thought-provoking.
Don’t take my word for it: “Lynch serves up enough irrationally disturbing images for 100 classic Asian horror films, and the bedraggled Dern is so overflowingly open that you can’t dismiss the movie as an arty exercise.” David Edelstein, New York Magazine
Taxi Driver (1976)
Actual Genre: Drama
10 Words or Less Summary: Taxi driver has a psychotic break in 70s NYC.
Why it’s horrifying: Although Shutter Island was touted as Scorsese’s first true horror movie, Taxi Driver is about as grim as it gets. Scorsese (justifiably) depicts 70s NYC as Hell on Earth, lingering on the smoke flowing out from under manhole covers and the unforgiving light cast by “XXX” neon signs. De Niro’s Travis Bickle (when he’s not cleaning jizz off his taxi’s upholstery) is the ultimate antihero; dangerous, delusional, and suicidal, he’s eventually celebrated for going on a murder spree.
Don’t take my word for it: Take the word of, like, anybody else. It’s Taxi Driver.
Take Shelter (2011)
Actual Genre: Drama/Thriller
10 Words or Less Summary: Midwestern engineer builds shelter after experiencing apocalyptic visions.
Why It’s Horrifying: Michael Shannon is crazy intense in the role of a family man quickly and maddeningly descending into delirium. If he is going crazy, that is — part of the film’s power is that we’re never entirely sure if Shannon’s character is losing his mind or if he’s actually some kind of visionary oracle or soothsayer. Either way, we can’t help but sympathize with his family as we watch him give up everything — his job, their friends, their savings — to construct a shelter for a storm that may exist only in his mind.
Don’t take my word for it: “It is a quiet, relentless exploration of the latent (and not so latent) terrors that bedevil contemporary American life, a horror movie that will trouble your sleep not with visions of monsters but with a more familiar dread.” A.O. Scott, New York Times
Donnie Darko (2001)
Actual Genre: Drama/Mystery/Sci-Fi
10 Words or Less Summary: Teenager is plagued by visions of anthropomorphic bunny.
Why It’s Horrifying: You mean besides Frank, the hideous, gnarled rabbit that haunts Jake Gyllenhaal’s dreams and talks to him about the end of the world? Richard Kelly’s debut film is a wild maze of unsettling themes and dark imagery. Not everything fits together — in some ways, the plot starts to fold into itself (it actually becomes more convoluted and less clear upon further examination). But the recurring images (rabbits, clowns, masks, clocks) are iconic and powerful, and the narrative is so mysterious and unusual that you don’t mind if it doesn’t all come together. Donnie Darko is a revelation: an eccentric, remarkable idea perfectly realized.
Don’t take my word for it: “A wondrous, moodily self-involved piece of work that employs X-Files magic realism to galvanize what might have been a routine tale of suburban teen angst.” J. Hoberman, Village Voice
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Actual Genre: Adventure/Drama (I guess?)
10 Words or Less Summary: Journalist and lawyer descend into druggy madness during Vegas trip.
Why it’s horrifying: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a mesmerizing bad trip of a movie, recreating the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson in all its self-destructive, debased glory. The film has almost no plot, but it’s not mindless; it is a terrific exploration of the power of drugs, the psyche of the addict, and the death of a generation. After placing you in close quarters with these two completely depraved addicts, the film gradually assimilates their subjective experience and forces you to see the world through their eyes. If that’s not horrifying, I don’t know what is — maybe an LSD-poisoned Benicio Del Toro sitting fully clothed in a bath tub and wielding an awfully large knife.
Don’t take my word for it: “As Gilliam and Thompson saw it, the dreaded hangover after the hopeful, idealistic bliss-out of the ’60s was pitched somewhere between gallows humor, existential mania, and the unrelenting horror of not only what we had lost but what we had traded it in for.” Chris Cabin, Slant Magazine
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Actual Genre: Drama/Mystery/Thriller
10 Words or Less Summary: Married man explores sexual deviancy, occult.
Why it’s horrifying: The Shining may be Stanley Kubrick’s only straight-up horror film, but nearly every one of his movies possesses horror or menace of one kind or another. Eyes Wide Shut is particularly disturbing, a revealing ride through the depths of one man’s sexual psyche. After his wife (Nicole Kidman) recounts a sex fantasy, Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) embarks on a night-long sexual odyssey that culminates in a masked orgy where his uninvited presence is not appreciated. The orgy scene, full of dread and foreboding, is one of the strangest and most ominous I’ve ever seen.
Let’s just say this movie is responsible for me taking “Masked Orgy” off my bucket list.
Don’t take my word for it: “Kubrick’s great achievement in the film is to find and hold an odd, unsettling, sometimes erotic tone for the doctor’s strange encounters.” Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
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If you’ve been looking for a chance to say something then this very well could be it.
I wish to God I’d had a list like this when I was 23.
Answer phones better than anyone else has answered phones before. Relay messages so brilliant, they bring people to tears. Turn the coffee run into the choreography of Swan Lake. Become best friends with every intern and every underling and every taxi driver you encounter.
I remember taking the pen and notebook from that woman outside the courtroom, flipping to a clean page in the book, and writing, JESSICA IS SAD in big, bold, uncoordinated letters. “My sister is going to be a good writer someday! Look at how nice her lines are!”