Not sure what to watch this Halloween night? We all know that Netflix’s recommendation algorithm is just as woefully unqualified as YouTube’s, and it’s almost impossible to find a great horror film based on the poster alone; after a while, all those dilapidated houses and severed limbs start to blend into each other.
I compiled a list of five great horror/thriller/sci-fi films, so you don’t have to flick through the endless image gallery of creepy kids in nightgowns.
I love this movie. Love it. It’s the best alien invasion film I’ve ever seen, because it disregards every single stupid trope from that genre, and tries to envision what an otherworldly, unknowable entity would actually do if it landed on Earth.
The answer is vague, but incredibly unsettling. Natalie Portman leads a group of scientists into a bubble of alternate reality known as “The Shimmer,” an area in which some kind of mysterious, unnatural process is taking place.
As the unfortunate group moves further into the center of The Shimmer, biology begins to break down, along with their mental health. The deformities they encounter are both beautiful and grotesque, and the inevitable confrontation with the alien invader is deeply disturbing.
I don’t want to reveal anything else about this surreal story – just watch it.
On the surface, this seems like yet another cliche-ridden “camping trip gone wrong,” but The Ritual boasts a startlingly original creature design and concept, and shows just enough of the beast to keep the imagination working.
The film also has a simple-but-strong plot at the center of this camping trip; there’s a very good reason these British boys go off into the woods, and the protagonist’s psychological burden is reflected in his confrontation with the beast.
While this film doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it does everything right, giving us just enough character development to care when things turn nasty, and utilizing the fear of the unknown and unseen to induce anxiety, rather than relying on jump scares.
The woods can be incredibly unsettling, given the right cinematography, and the tidbits we’re drip-fed about the creature have some very interesting implications.
10 Cloverfield Lane
This one is technically more of a psychological thriller than an outright horror, but it’s a ridiculously tense experience, imbued with some ambiguous sci-fi elements.
If you’ve never seen a Cloverfield film before, don’t worry about it, because this story has nothing to do with Cloverfield whatsoever. No, really – this was a standalone film, injected rather clumsily with cinematic universe tie-ins, and has almost no similarity to the Cloverfield franchise, however you want to define it.
The tremendous performance from John Goodman is the heart and soul of this movie, with the story taking place essentially in a single, claustrophobia-inducing location. The central question of whether Goodman is a good man (get it?), a bad guy, or a delusional control-freak drives the plot forward, and keeps the adrenaline flowing.
Intriguingly, the sci-fi elements are the least interesting aspect of this story; it’s simply about trust, and control.
Train to Busan
This is one of my favorite zombie films ever, and in such an overcrowded genre, it’s difficult to stick out. Train to Busan doesn’t offer a unique twist on the undead outbreak, but it does take place in a unique location.
If you’ve ever seen Snowpiercer (and if you haven’t, you should), then you’ll know how cinematic a bloodbath in a speeding train can be. Word of warning – this is a Korean film, so if you don’t like subtitles, you’re going to have to get over it; foreign-language horror is often superior to ours, anyway.
Weirdly, the actors who portray zombies in this film give amazing performances, which sounds like a ridiculous thing to say, but it’s true; bad actors make zombies seem silly. The way these guys move their bodies is wonderfully unsettling, inflicted with a mixture of adrenaline and rigor-mortis.
Train to Busan manages to make zombies frightening again, and offers a strangely heartwarming theme of fatherly redemption, amongst all the action-packed gore.
This is an unusual horror film, because while it’s technically about a kid being tormented by a supernatural bedroom-dweller, it’s really about the horror of motherhood.
Single motherhood, to be precise. And grief. The titular Babadook isn’t all that scary; he’s actually a character from a children’s book, and looks the part. But he gets inside the mind of widowed mother Amelia, and warps her perspective, pushing her terrifyingly close to infanticide.
The best supernatural antagonists are metaphorical, and the Babadook represents the specter of Amelia’s dead husband, the immense psychological burden that she has been repressing.
It’s not so much about defeating the creature, but acknowledging that it exists in the first place.