Thirteen terrifying classics that aren’t actually horror movies

by Peg Aloi

Viewers who love cinema that frightens and disturbs are often horror fans as well. But beyond the more popular and clear-cut horror film genres (slasher, zombie, serial killer, paranormal, supernatural, monsters including vampires, werewolves, etc.) there are a great many scary films that don’t quite fit into the realm of horror. The term “terror film” doesn’t really have the same cultural cachet as “horror film,” perhaps because any film that excites our emotions and is suspenseful, but that doesn’t dabble with monsters or the supernatural, has come to be vaguely defined as a “thriller.” But thrillers aren’t always necessarily all scary: stories of relationship intrigue like Closer, or stories of self-destructive sociopaths like Flight, could easily be labeled thrillers.

Terror is really a more appropriate way to refer to the kind of psychological narrative that stirs up fear, anxiety and, yes, terror. Horror works on our visceral responses, literally making our gorge rise: violence, blood, gore, decay and destruction, as well as an overwhelming sense of danger or dread, are common elements seen in many horror films. Heavy duty gore can even be somewhat cathartic, because it’s so over the top we can keep it at a distance and leave it behind at the movie theatre. But with terror cinema, scares are subtle. Less is more.

Terror films taunt us with what they don’t reveal, haunt us with the depth of evil inherent in character actions. Films that deliver maximum terror with minimal violence are the focus here. Here are thirteen films I find terrifying, and maybe you will too. They’re in no particular order. It should go without saying that the performances, writing, direction and production values are all excellent as well.


1. Martha Marcy May Marlene (2012)

Elizabeth Olsen stars as Martha, a cult survivor in filmmaker Sean Durbin’s sure-handed debut. Sarah Paulson is the sister who tries to help her, and John Hawkes the charismatic cult leader. Told partly in flashback, the film creates a jarring sense of confusion mirroring Martha’s broken memories and gradual awareness of what she experienced. I found this suspenseful, fascinating and haunting, with an ending that gave me chills.


2. Take Shelter (2011)

Michael Shannon is a working class man who starts having disturbing dreams, disrupting his life, and realizes he may be in the grip of mental illness. His wife (Jessica Chastain) tries to be supportive as his behavior becomes increasingly erratic. Director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Loving) conveys a slowly burgeoning sense of dread that is ultimately terrifying.


3. Heavenly Creatures (1994) 

Featuring New Zealand actress Melanie Lynskey and megastar Kate Winslet in her breakout role, and directed by then-unknown filmmaker Peter Jackson, this film is based on the true story of two New Zealand schoolgirls whose obsessive relationship leads them to commit a horrific crime. There are innovative, fantastical segments exploring the girls’ delusional games; but there is also raw, simple brutality.

4. All is Lost (2014)

Robert Redford is the sole performer in this gripping tale of a man whose solo sea expedition is beset by increasingly bigger problems that eventually overwhelm him. For some viewers, the film begs for philosophical analysis; for others, it’s a hellish metaphor that grows more frightening with each swelling wave.


5. Woodshock (2017) 

This cinematic debut from designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy starts Kirsten Dunst as a young woman numb from grief who slips into a dreamy state of confusion fuelled by potent cannabis derivatives. The visuals are stunning, and Dunst is quietly compelling as a young woman whose journey takes her deep inside her own fear, anger and darker impulses.


6. The Vanishing (1988) 

Skip the American remake and go for the original: this Dutch-French thriller about a woman (Johanna ter Steeke, in her first lead role) who disappears suddenly and without trace, and her boyfriend’s attempt to find out what happened to her. Even having not seen it for years, I can still vividly recall this film’s most frightening moments.


7. Dogtooth (2009) 

Yorgos Lanthimos is attracting attention from his recent English language films The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. But this earlier work is a strange story of a family who keeps its nearly-adult children under close scrutiny to “protect” them from the outside world. Perhaps most disturbing of all is the unapologetic sense of realism the filmmaker brings to subject matter that seems the stuff of very dark fairy tales. The implications of this film had me shuddering long after it ended.


8. It Comes at Night (2016) 

A family hides out in a cabin in the woods avoiding an apocalyptic epidemic. When another family joins theirs, all are buoyed by the help and companionship, but soon, tensions surface. This film is less about the cause of the apocalypse than it is about the fears teeming inside us all when we confront our humanity and mortality.


9. The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1976)

This unusual film, starring Kris Kristofferson and Sarah Miles, seems on one level to be about a lonely widow and her passionate affair with an intinerant seaman. But there’s a cabal of adolescent boys hovering in the background, curious about sex and death, and their actions make for one of the most terrifying endings in cinematic history.


10. Sweetie (1989) 

Jane Campion’s feature debut stars Genevieve Lemon as a poorly-socialized young woman whose family finally decide they’ve had enough of her juvenile, manipulative behavior. Campion’s lifelong cinematic obsession with difficult, misfit women began here, and Sweetie’s dark vision is haunting and alluring.


11. Fishtank (2009) 

British director Andrea Arnold made a name for herself with last year’s erotic tale of teen drifters American Honey; but her first feature was a stunning debut. Starring Michael Fassbender as a man who gets a bit too close to his girlfriend’s teenage daughter (another stunning debut performance by Katie Jarvis), this working class drama unravels into something very dark indeed.


12. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

Scottish director Lynne Ramsay should probably have three entries in this list: Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar, both set in Scotland, are also highly recommended. But this disturbing story of a family dealing with a sociopath in their midst is quietly, deeply terrifying. The film juxtaposes dreamy, prescient flashbacks with almost unbearably intimate glimpses of mundane routines made horrific by grief and guilt. The always-riveting Tilda Swinton explores the terrifying trajectory of a mother who must face the fact that her son is a monster.


13. The Celebration (1998) 

Billed as the first official film of the Dogme 95 movement, this Danish film feels at times like black comedy. A birthday party for a wealthy patriarch is upended into chaos when the eldest son publicly accuses his father of unspeakable crimes. Despite Dogme’s rules requiring adherence to realism, this is also a gently-rendered ghost story.

Peg Aloi is a freelance film & TV critic who also writes for The Arts Fuse, the Orlando Weekly, and Diabolique, among other places. Her blog The Witching Hour appeared on Patheos for several years. She is also a traditional singer, organic gardener, semi-professional baker and practicing witch.

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