1. The Shining
The Shining is a movie so smart there are other movies about how many philosophical layers are in it. Was Jack Torrence haunted by the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel—or was his mental health slipping as a result of cabin fever? Was he crazy, or could that happen to any of us? And then there’s the meaning behind some of Kubrick’s directorial decisions to think about.
2. Let The Right One In (2008)
This Swedish film about friendship and murder is perfect in its original incarnation. You won’t think kids are so innocent afterwards.
Triangle isn’t the right kind of movie to watch if you aren’t going to fully pay attention to it. You can’t play on your phone for awhile and then ask whoever you’re watching with to catch you up. A bunch of friends are boating (in the Bermuda Triangle—get it?) when some pretty strange shit starts happening, and for the rest of the movie, it keeps getting weirder.
David Fincher’s psychological thriller holds up 20 years later. Who is John Doe and what could possibly motivate him to pull of such a sick series of murders?
5. The Changeling (1980)
The Changeling is an intense (and scary) you know it’s based on a real life mystery. Transport yourself to a creepy old Victorian mansion and see if you can solve it.
6. Wicker Man (1973)
Please don’t watch the American remake with Nic Cage (lol). This British classic is a classic for a reason: it’s weird and terrifying and has a very juicy twist ending.
7. Jacob’s Ladder
There should be a support group for people who snuck a VHS of Jacob’s Ladder into a slumber party when they were a kid and it ruined their childhood.
In addition to being absolutely terrifying, Candyman also contains some smart social commentary. What’s easy to pass off as a silly urban legend, the tale of the Candyman, is actually one part history and one part supernatural.
Suspiria is one of those movies that separates casual horror fans from diehards.
10. Session 9
If you can figure out the twist in this movie before it happens, you’re way smarter than most people. The ending aside, the whole movie is brilliant in how creepy it manages to be. Even after it’s all over and the lights are on, Session 9 will linger in your head for a long time.
11. Shaun of the Dead
It takes smart writing to make a movie about dumb characters seem intelligent. Shaun of the Dead pokes fun at all the overdone tropes in the horror genre. We also get a glimpse of a truth often avoided by zombie films—even after the zombie apocalypse our dumb human relationship drama goes on.
12. Funny Games
This is one American remake that is really decent and stays close to the original. Funny Games is about the sheer terror of a pair of killers without any motive at all.
Say what you will about the never ending Saw franchise, the first one was just so original. We hadn’t seen anything like this before.
14. The Vanishing (1988)
You absolutely cannot watch the American remake before you have seen the original The Vanishing, even though Sandra Bullock and Kiefer Sutherland are in the remake. The original is universally revered among smart horror fans for being one of the most intense and unsettling movies of all time.
15. The Others
A common theme among the “smart” horror movies is they play with epistemology—what is reality? Do we know “what’s real”? Are the lives of the Stewart family real, or those of The Others?
16. American Psycho
Bret Easton Ellis is such an insanely good writer and this story is awesomely messed up. If you haven’t read the book, I strongly urge you to do so, even if you’ve already seen the film.
The Scream series is consistently underrated for being a cliche horror movie series when the reality is it’s a horror movie series about cliche horror movie series. It’s meta.
Featured Still from "The Vanishing" via Argos Films