Sure, horror movies packed with jump scares and gory sfx are frightening. Look past the gimmicks, however, and you’re often left with flat acting and a farfetched storyline.
Sometimes it’s the non-horror movies that provide a true dose of terror. Herewith, 10 must-sees about mental deterioration, excessive drug use, and the truly bizarre. These flicks may not be known as horror, but they still deliver the chills.
1. The Vanishing
Planning your next road trip? Think again. George Sluizer’s 1988 Franco-Dutch thriller about a young couple’s petrol station pit stop gone horribly wrong is an unrelenting anti-mystery. As the audience, we’re used to filmmakers keeping us in the dark until the final act. With this movie, however, Sluizer reveals the killer’s intentions almost immediately. What’s more? He lets us in on just how successful the killer is. For those not into subtitles, there’s a watered-down American remake, also directed by Sluizer, starring Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock.
2. We Need to Talk About Kevin
So we need to talk about this movie. Lynne Ramsay’s film, which is based on Lionel Shriver’s international bestseller about a teenage sociopath and the mother who never wanted him, is an emotionally crippling tale—and every mother’s worst nightmare. The fractured narrative jumps between jarring flashbacks and unsettling current events to ratchet up the tension. You know the train wreck is coming, but you’re unable to look away.
3. Martha Marcy May Marlene
One-third of the Borderline Films crew, Sean Durkin gives us the willies with his haunting directorial debut starring the other Olsen sister, Elizabeth. The unrelenting suspense builder centers on Martha (played by Olsen), a victim of trauma who struggles to escape the grip of a cult-like “family” clan. Durkin’s film took home Sundance’s Best Director title in 2011, and borrows from real-life events to reinvent what we all call “horror.” As if you needed more persuasion: It’s always a good time to be under the spell of John Hawkes.
Sometimes you come across a film so bizarre it just creeps you the eff out. This is one such film. From Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, who recently released on unsuspecting audiences, Dogtooth centers on a trio of adultish siblings so isolated from the outside world by their overbearing parents that they don’t even have names. Needless to say, the secluded youngsters find other ways to bide the time.
5. Take Shelter
Michael Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a husband and father who lives with his family in Lagrange, Ohio. But when LaForche begins experiencing nightmare visions of an impending apocalypse, he abandons all domesticity—and sanity for that matter—to build a doomsday bunker. Writer and director Jeff Nichols crafts an exceptional film with Take Shelter, one that haunts your head long after the credits roll.
6. The Act of Killing
Josh Oppenheimer’s exhaustively researched expose asks Indonesian death squad members who killed with impunity during the country’s communist purge of 1965-66 to reenact their state-sanctioned executions. The killers, many of whom believe they did nothing wrong, are happy to oblige, and recreate their killings with the giddiness of children obsessed with Westerns, gangster flicks, even musicals. Oppenheimer’s dark-and-twisted doc caught the eye of legendary documentarians like Errol Morris and Werner Herzog. It proves that the truth is often stranger—and more horrific—than fiction.
7. The Imposter
How well do you know those closest to you? Bart Layton’s The Imposter centers a brown-eyed, French-speaking wanderer who poses as a blue-eyed, blond-haired missing teenager from San Antonio, Texas. The bizarre creep show seamlessly mixes first-person interviews with reenactments to recount the saga of missing Texan Nicholas Barclay and the talented Mr. Ripley-like fake who consumes his identity. Mega twists and turns ahead.
Perhaps the most horror-like film on this list, David Fincher’s stylish thriller has forever changed the way we open a box. A hellish tale of murder and sin, Seven follows detectives Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt) through the rainy streets of an unnamed city as they hunt down a serial-killer who butchers his victims based on the seven deadly sins. Released in 1995, Seven still packs a wicked punch today. It’s one of those dark flicks that—in the words of the movie’s creepy killer—“people will barely be able to comprehend, but they won’t be able to deny it.”
Hang onto your wits; Gaspar Noé is here to destroy them with the blunt end of a fire extinguisher. With Irreversible, his 2002 experimental crime drama told in reverse, the Argentine filmmaker takes “extreme graphic violence” to new, well, extremes. The story begins with the end: a brutal attack in a nightclub. It then unfolds in reverse chronological order until the climax, a.k.a. the beginning, reveals the reason behind the initial attack. It’s definitely a difficult film to endure, and one that will stick with you, but Noé’s nifty filmmaking is reason enough to lock in and bear it.
10. Requiem for a Dream
At a friend’s house, in the fetal position on the floor, shaking and crying. That’s how Darren Aronofsky’s wrecking ball of a masterpiece left us after watching it. This set-in-the-slums film adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s 1978 novel is a bleak display of druggies from Coney Island hitting rock bottom. And by rock bottom, we mean ass-to-ass gentleman’s entertainment and temple-to-temple lobotomy procedures. It’s morbid, it’s disturbing, and it’s exactly the fix you need right now.
Featured still from "Dogtooth" via Boo Productions