Top 13 Most Disturbing Horror Films I’ve Seen

Some people like horror movies that they can watch, get spooked by, and then put aside, only remembering if there was a deep social message or a particularly cool kill or villain. It’s a valid desire, and one I frequently have myself. As a collector of deep cut, so-bad-its-hilarious horror films, I can’t help but praise movies too such as Zoltan Hound of Dracula, Race with the Devil, and other “trashy” horror.

But sometimes, there’s horror that burrows into the soul. It stays there, rotting away at a tiny corner, ready to surge back out from the recesses of memory at any notice. Certain scenes, lines, concepts clawing at the back of your mind waiting to ruin your day with remembrance.

Those are the movies we’re covering today–those films I’ve seen in my life that just got into my brain and stayed there.

DISCLAIMER: As per usual, this only covers films I have seen. There are movies out there I refuse to see for my own mental health, and I think more people should have that level of care with themselves as far as self-love and personal responsibility. Certain films such as Irreversible, Antichrist, and Serbian Film are not ones I will ever see! Period! Therefore you will never see them as more than a passing mention on my lists.

….Human Centipede just makes my tummy feel icky so yeah I won’t watch those either. Not sorry :<

Onto the list!

Creep (2014)

Creep follows a cameraman (Brice) filming a series of uncomfortably intimate interviews with a man (Duplass) he met via online marketplace. The man claims the films are for his young son to know him better after his soon-to-occur death from terminal cancer. However, as the tension and awkwardness rises, it becomes apparent that nothing that the man says can be trusted.

Mark Duplass is a spooky bastard! Patrick Brice plays the foolish too-polite cameraman so well! As the writers and director, it was an inspired (and likely budgetary) choice for them to also be the sole actors of note in the film, but it paid off in spectacular fashion. That said there were parts in the film where my body literally folded up with my knees up my chin like a small child from the level of awkward tension provided by the film. It’s not an easy watch, even before the violence occurs, and I think that’s incredible. Nothing gets to me as a neurodivergent viewer like awkward tension, and this film is a much better masterclass in how to pull it off well than any of the million cringe comedies on television or big screen.

This film lingers in the mind beyond that–how many of us, femmes especially, have stayed in awkward potentially dangerous situations out of societally implanted politeness. How many disasters have we just avoided? The concept burrows deep, and honestly? These films made me better about escaping when I sense danger signals. So props for that!

Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007)

It takes a lot for my husband to stop watching a movie in the first ten minutes but this one sure did it for him. I first watched the faux documentary based on tapes of a serial killer uncovered in his basement after his escape. The film is dark, painful, and uncomfortable in how realistic it is. I have never had such a visceral reaction to a film. In fact, the first time I watched it was in my 20s…I just couldn’t finish it. Nor did I finish it until my 30s.

I’m glad I waited. I’m not sure how badly the ending would have messed me up at age 21, nor do I wish to know. It’s not just unsettling; it’s horrifying. 

It’s horrifying because it’s so painfully real for how misogynistic killers out there utterly destroy women.

Content warnings on this film include so many moments that I recommend please looking up a plot summary or triggers list beforehand. It is in no way an easy film.

Martyrs (2008)

This is one that anyone could predict would be here. Martyrs is a frequent flier on such lists, but for damn good reason–it’s not only violent and difficult to watch due to it, the cliffhanger of a philosophical ending haunts the viewer after the credits roll.

After a young woman performs revenge on the whole family of the people who held her captive, it soon becomes clear that a dark, occultic cabal was behind her torture and cpativity. The young woman and her girlfriend are soon put through a living hell, particularly the girlfriend. The violence is beyond the pale, making this film an absolute masterwork if not the most quintessential of the New French Extremity Horror wave.

To be honest, there is not much I can say on Martyrs that has not been said always, so analyzed is this film, so I shall say this: it’s incredible, uncomfortable, and not for everyone. But if you are wanting to be haunted by images and uncertainties, then give this a watch.

Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary is one of the most deeply affecting horror movies I have seen in my life that doesn’t–on the surface–directly have much in common with other movies that have garnered such a reaction from me. However, the story of an emotionally volatile intergenerational relationship with mother and grandmother that culminates in a loss of identity and autonomy?

….maybe a bit relatable.

Maybe.

The shocks of the script and fraught emotional performances of this cast as they suffer loss after loss orchestrated by mysterious forces is an excellent film–shocking for a feature length debut from director Ari Aster. 

El Orfanato (2007)

This movie about a mother living in a haunted orphanage after her son goes missing isn’t the scariest Spanish language horror film per say. It isn’t even del Toro’s scariest film. However, it is the most emotionally devastated I had been at any film up to that point in my life, and for that reason, it takes a spot on this list.

The atmosphere is perfectly gothic, and the set pieces and costume design truly sells the seeing reality of this film. It truly immerses you in the story, which makes its “twist” all the more soul-destroying. I won’t ruin the movie for y’all, but it absolutely will ruin your day.

Suicide Club (2001)

Y’all old enough to remember when they sold Japanese language films at Hot Topic? I’m sure old enough. I got quite a few films there–everything from the lighthearted if oddly named comedy Kamikaze Girls to Ghibli animated features to this and another entry on this list.

Suicide Club is one of the strangest movies I have ever seen in my life. I don’t think that I could adequately interpret it on my own even now, unless I read from someone more knowledgeable, yet multiple scenes of it stuck so thoroughly with me over the past 15 years that I included it on this list.

Whether it’s the branding scene, the leap from the tower, or the group massacre on the bullet train platform…well. I suppose it’s not shocking that a movie with the title Suicide Club is a bit of a gut punch huh?

Obviously this has trigger warnings even in the title. 

Tusk (2014)

While the idea for Tusk was born of a podcasted comedy bit, that doesn’t make the movie less disturbing to me personally. While I understand the many people who (rightfully for them) think the film is unfunny, not scary, and a mess, as someone who has lost a good deal of bodily autonomy to disability, Tusk’s story of a man kidnapped and slowly disfigured and mutilated by forces beyond his control hits uncomfortably to home.

Justin Long and Michael Parks both play over the top characters, yet within the context of the story, it only works to make my pain as an outside viewer worse. 

While I completely and entirely understand viewers who found the entire thing a waste of time, I wished I didn’t watch it for entirely different reasons. I’ve spoken before on body horror and bodily autonomy in horror, both as disability/chronic illness metaphor and bodily autonomy for people who can get pregnant, but maybe one day I ought to talk about Tusk and medical horror.

Inside (2007)

Even as I’m not a person who would ever (intentionally) get pregnant, there’s something particularly horrifying about horror involving the victimization of a pregnant person. When a young widow takes a retreat to prepare for the impending birth of her and her late husband’s child, she is stalked by a crazed woman who is determined to steal the newborn for herself. With a set of shears and a demented smile, the killer simply known as La Femme is a force of nature.

Another part of the New French Extremity genre of horror, this film sets the tone for the movement. It’s deeply disturbing, overtly violent, and conceptually horrifying beyond just the premise. The actresses involved in the film all sell their roles in the tragedy with a verve.

Ichi the Killer (2001)

Based on a series by mangaka Hideo Yamamoto and adapted by master director Takeshi Miike, Ichi the Killer is a gangland yakuza bloodbath that one might expect from a manga or anime but wouldn’t get made as a live action film in the west most likely. It’s heavily sexually charged in the worst possible ways dealing with themes of rape and sadomasochism regardless of consent. The film follows the highly unstable yakuza enforcers Ichi and Kakihara on a spree of terror across Tokyo.

The titular Ichi becomes violently sadistic when aroused and enraged, so you can see why this movie may get intense for most viewers. It’s themes of sexual assault and rape are what lists it as one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever viewed.

Funny Games (1997 and 2007)

This home invasion horror is both one of the best of the horror genre and the most shockingly unsettling. When two seemingly clean cut young men invade a family vacation home, things obviously go horrifically wrong. The movie was filmed twice by the same director (Michel Heneke), both in German and in English with an American cast. Both films are spectacular and soul destroying.

Some of the incidences of violence are more shocking than others, but ultimately the most disturbing part of the films is that it’s so realistically within the realm of possibility–home invasions happen. Killings without motivation happen. And young men who look like the ones in Funny Games? Are the most likely to get away with it.

Don’t Deliver Us from Evil (1971)

This is probably the deepest cut on my list, so bear with me. Don’t Deliver Us from Evil is another French entry onto this list. Are the French okay? We just don’t know. 

Two rebellious young girls go out into the countryside to get away from the eyes of their families only for one of them to be raped in an eerily shot and overly long scene in which her friend confuses the entire situation and does nothing to help. After both realize the full weight of what happened, they make a pact with each other and the Devil himself in order to have their revenge not only on the rapist but on all who have attempted to control them.

The scene of sexual assault in this film is deeply disturbing, not for the violence, but for the acting. The choice to make the friend misconstrue the situation and not act made my stomach roil, and while I appreciate the reasoning, I definitely would not recommend this film for most.

The House that Jack Built (2018)

The House That Jack Built is the only Lars von Trier film I have seen. It will be the only Lars von Trier film I see. The story follows Jack, played with utter brilliance by Matt Dillon, as he goes on his serial killer/architect life all while trying to build the perfect house. Once this is achieved he enters a strange world that may or may not be–well you’ll have to see.

The direction of von Trier is great, but Dillion truly sells this movie for me. The way he acts Jack makes me skin crawl, particularly the scene on his date with a single mother. It gave me similar vibes as Jake Gyllenhal’s performance in Nightcrawler for sheer ability to make me tense up so hard my whole body almost inverts.

Dahmer (2002)

While Dahmer is in the public focus and controversy due to the Ryan Murphy helmed, Evan Peters starred “Dahmer”, there was another Dahmer first as a film that was all the more disturbing to me. Starring Jeremy Renner as the titular human monster, his performance is so deeply unnerving that I had to start and stop the film multiple times and my husband couldn’t finish it at any point. The scene where the police return the child victim was particularly heartbreaking and skin-inverting.

Of all the films on this list, this is probably the one I am least likely to watch again. Because for all the other films might be more violent…

I can remind myself they were only movies.

But Dahmer was a very real monster. And that’s what makes me lose sleep the most at night.

What other list style articles would you be interested in seeing my opinions on? Please let me know in the comments below!

Nope and the Psychology of Trauma On-screen

“The depth at which we take in the preceding generations astonishes me. There is likely an epigenetic component to this as well as transmission through the internalizations that get passed down through the generations. Whole cultures are carried forward that way, so it makes sense that family legacies might be transmitted that way as well.”
― Bonnie Badenoch, The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships

I finally got a chance to watch a film that’s been on mine and everyone else’s radar for quite awhile: Nope, the newest entry into horror by Jordan Peele. I have several reasons for not having seen it until recently, but simply excuse my lateness. And blame COVID tbh.

However, my friend Sky wanted me to finally see and write about it, and y’all I’m glad she did motivate me on this. This movie hit me hard in all the right ways.

I went in fairly blind to any information (save for this wonderful blog entry by Lemon at The Writing Lich, which I highly recommend reading for an alternative look at what I will be discussing further). I often feel that’s the best way to watch horror films these days, as trailers do give away quite a bit–but praise to Nope for its vague trailers keeping my interest without giving anything away!

Spoilers ahead for Nope.

The trailers, posters, and advertising make it very clear: this is a movie about alien(s). At least on the surface. But like all of Peele’s films, this film has a deep social context and meaning.

Nope, to put it quite simply, is about trauma and the reaction to it. At least from my reading.

Much like the film itself, I’d appreciate your humoring me by going through named sections regarding each character of note that I’ll be exploring.

RICKY PARK

We start with Ricky “Jupe” Park, the former child star turned theme park owner played brilliantly by Steven Yeun. Yeun is a powerhouse of an actor who rarely gets the chance to show the breadth of his abilities in American film–he is still most known here in the US for his beloved turn as Glen in The Walking Dead. A great series of performances to be sure, but nothing comparable in my opinion to his work in Minari and Burning. He’s an expert in micro expressional acting–making even the most subtle of motions carry huge weight. I found a lot of that here in Nope, which pleased me a lot as a fan. Huge shout out, as well, to Jacob Kim who did a wonderful job playing child Ricky Park in flashback scenes.

Ricky as a character is hugely complex. The trauma of being a child star is well documented in our culture particularly through the predatory scum sites like TMZ and predecessors. Add into this Ricky’s frequent experience as being the only person of color on set–something that was emphasized in Ricky playing the “adopted Asian child” in the Gordy flashbacks–and you have a recipe for the subtleties of trauma as it relates to cultural isolation. We never ever hear about Ricky’s parents or biological family of origin. While we do see he grows up to have a wife and children, with whom he shares a wonderful relationship, I think the casting choice of Wrenn Schmidt for April Park was also intentional beyond her being good for the role.

We only ever see Ricky in his relationship to whiteness and things associated with it. Despite the reality of cowboys and the old west being overwhelmingly Black, Latine, Asian, and Indigenous, culturally the Western theme park Ricky owns and operates is a celebration of the Wild West as focused through the lens of John Wayne whiteness, with the only representations of BIPOC presence being the icons of Ricky himself and the complexity of Asian presence (via slavery) in the Wild West being completely sanitized through this.

However, this ultimately brings us to what is undoubtedly Ricky’s biggest source of trauma: the Gordy incident, an animal massacre on the set of a television show in Ricky’s past. Ricky secretly enshrines the massacre in a hidden area of his office, arguably for the money and notoriety with what he tells the Haywood siblings, but ultimately also as an expression of attempting to control his own trauma by caging it within walls he controls.

This makes his arc all the more tragic. We often talk about the repetitive nature of self-destruction via traumatic experience, and I think that is heavily reflected in Ricky’s story. What is more fitting if tragic for the boy who witnessed the utter destruction of his pseudo-family via trying to control a wild animal, than his unintentionally causing the destruction of himself, his wife and children, and his gathered friends and guests, via the same methods?

Ricky ultimately has internalized his trauma inside his own internal hidden chambers that it eventually explodes and takes him and everything he cares about with him. While the reading of Nope as commentary on trauma is subtle but visible in the Haywoods, I believe Ricky and the fate of the Parks and company is the ultimately explosive answer to the question of what happens when we internalize trauma in an unhealthy way without confronting it and attempting the painful road to genuine healing.

EMERALD HAYWOOD

While the scene which makes it explicit text was cut, Emerald Haywood is a messy queer and I am absolutely here for her. She fights, flirts, cusses, and cries, and does it all with a bombast that makes this a near explosive performance compared to the more staid and thoughtful performance of Daniel Kaluuya. Keke Palmer makes the character vivid and imperfect and relatable, and I adore her for that. I will fight for more messy women, messy queers, and messy characters of color on screen that are still celebrated and loved by the text.

This brings me to the character of Em Haywood, whose in-character trauma, I believe, is that she was never quite celebrated enough. At least, not in the ways she needed. There’s a subtlety to the way both Em and OJ voice their own tensions surrounding their father–who was textually a good man, but no parent is perfect.

Em describes, in the scene regarding the original Jean Jacket, a horse she was promised for her own, a sort of unintentional disregard for her by her father. While both Em and OJ seem to understand that it was upsetting for Em to lose the opportunity to train Jean Jacket, at no point did the narrative state (to my memory) that Otis Sr. attempted to make it up to Em via another horse or even via giving the horse to her belatedly post filming-wrap. The fact that she names the alien creature Jean Jacket indicates that even after all this time, it was a negatively impacting event for her.

We do not know explicitly how Em’s father reacted to her queerness, and while I won’t condemn the character via speculation, I think her actions bely as much tension between father and daughter as the tension that OJ holds in his entirely being belies that same ambiguity between father and son. While the narrative never states Otis was a bad man, it does imply there were aspects of his fatherhood that weren’t without fault, and it would be dismissive to say even well-intentioned parenting cannot leave scars. I will not discuss the complex intersections present regarding queer Black female sexuality as I am wholly unqualified, but I’m certain it would play a part in their relationship dynamic.

We still see a lot of love for legacy in Em though, even though it’s portrayed as harried and erratic. Her late entry to the rehearsal combined with her plug for her own career undermine it a bit, but Emerald’s speech regarding the Haywood Ranch’s historical significance is one that clearly is well practiced and loved. This makes the narrative all the more triumphant when her own healing can be seen through the Muybridge inspired series of photos she takes of the alien Jean Jacket with the park’s photo booth attraction. She’s come full circle with reconciling her family’s legacy, while symbolically destroying the thing to come between her and her late father through the destruction of the cosmic creature which tried to take away her remaining family.

This becomes particularly strong thematically as we assume OJ has sacrificed himself in trying to lure the creature away so Emerald can safely get the photographs. Even as she gets the shots, you can still see the incredible emoting of Keke Palmer–she is theoretically triumphant but at the cost of everything that held real value to her.

And then the camera cuts to the entrance and the dust clears….

And y’all I BAWLED I’m sorry to break the authorial voice, but I was SOBBING.

Speaking of OJ…

OTIS “OJ” HAYWOOD, JR.

From the moment he’s introduced as a named character and the white actress questions the safety of having a Black man named OJ around a movie set, we understand that OJ’s trauma is intrinsically linked not only with familial legacy but with how that complexity interweaves with Blackness (and likely colorism as well). He is highly capable with what he does, but we sense and see an intense anxiety with interacting with those outside of a close knit circle.

I don’t necessarily think or know if this was the intention on Peele and Kaluuya’s part but as someone on the spectrum, I sensed a neurodivergent vibe from OJ (and Emerald at times, but less so). Do with that what you will, but it also informs my interpretation of OJ as a character from henceforth.

OJ relied a lot on his father, while at the same time being smothered by the strength of legacy. This can be incredibly traumatic even with the best of intentions on the part of the parents, but it was shown in their interactions that their dynamic wasn’t always the easiest, even if it wasn’t outright abusive. After the death of a figure like that in anyone’s life, but especially a neurodivergent person’s, it becomes incredibly difficult to break the known patterns. OJ’s patterns were following what his father told him to the best of his abilities without breaking from the pattern unless absolutely necessary for survival (via selling the horses to Ricky to keep the main farm and stables, i.e. establishing new situational patterns while maintaining the overarching pattern).

This pattern only starts to break when Em returns, and the alien animal begins forcing them to confront reality. Em drags OJ into something potentially life changing, but OJ doesn’t seem enthusiastic. His spark only truly starts occurring when the horses, the home, and Em are in danger respectively–he is finding that which is truly important to him beyond that establishment of patterns left to him by his father.

It is eventually his special skill that saves his sister and untold amounts of lives via stunt riding. In this not only does he reinforce his own power, skill, and agency, but reinforces (while also reifying) his family’s legacy of Black horsemen. Even as much as I was upset and angry at the film when it was implied that OJ was dead, it made the triumph of his return greater than any ending twist in any traditional Western film I have ever seen.

Like I said, I bawled.

Overall I think Nope was a fantastic film on the surface of it, despite the mixed reviews it received. I think those mixed reviews too may have come from a place of not quite understanding how the layers tie together–it’s always admittedly difficult for even the best directors such as Peele to find the balance between showing enough to the audience for most to understand and absolutely hand-holding the lowest common denominator.

However, I feel the film not only works as an action-sci-fi-horror film along the lines of Alien, The Thing, and many other predecessors, I find it has a lot more to say that’s hidden behind the beautiful photography, acting and character design.

…also I did a little snort everytime someone in the movie said “nope.”

Well played, Mr. Peele.

Halloween (2018) and Generational Trauma

DISCLAIMER: This article also appeared on my now long dead WordPress blog. All of the writing, sans quotes, is original to me.

Trauma is a universal language. Like written and oral language, it is often passed down generation to generation. We all hear the stories, though we may not understand them. However, there is not–I would argue–any greater intergenerational trauma than the pain placed upon a person by an abuser or an attacker. Whether we are discussing institutionally crafted traumas such as genocide or slavery, more intimate yet pervasive issues such as long-term domestic abuse, or even single instance traumas which last a lifetime, the damage brought on by such pain is incredibly long lasting and indelible upon the psyche of a family or a people.

On May 23, 2016, John Carpenter announced to the world that he would be returning to the Halloween franchise as executive producer for a new foray into a reimagined nightmare. With the new film ignoring all of the previous Halloween canon save for the first installment, fans were excited but skeptical as to how Carpenter would pull off a Michael Myers story with both Michael and his protagonist counterpart Laurie being in their sixties. What fans wanted was a fantastic sequel to a beloved horror franchise; Carpenter certainly delivered on that. He also delivered something unexpected: a bold look into how trauma affects not just survivors, but their families as well. I would hope, by writing this, to not only justify the actions of Laurie Strode as a logical conclusion of severe trauma, but examine how that trauma passed itself down to both her daughter Karen and granddaughter Allyson within the confines of the Halloween (2018) universe. 

While further study is warranted, initial findings point to the heritability of trauma, particularly with regards as to how it affects the nurture bond between parent and child (Kaitz, et. al., 2009). Horror as a genre is not unfamiliar with depictions of intergenerational trauma, either. As Lowenstein (2005) questions: where would horror be without reliance upon reactionary terrors to historical and contemporary traumas? 

The historical trauma that the original Halloween movie franchise builds upon is women’s intergenerational trauma with regards to the male monster figure (Connelly, 2007). Michael Myers, or The Shape, is the prototypical figure of male violence within the slasher genre. Proceeded only by famous non-franchise slashers such as Psycho (1960), Black Christmas (1974) and The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976), Michael Myers became – mostly by default – the first and most defining figure for the slasher subgenre. With few exceptions, many slasher killers would begin to follow the model set by Michael: a mask, a slow looming walk, and a seeming immortality. Beyond even these characteristics, the genre also became defined by its victims–or rather its survivors. As the slasher movie shifts from the view of the hunter to the view of the hunted, it also shifts from the perspective of male to female.

Carol Clover (1993) originated the term Final Girl for this trope; the Final Girl survives the killer and is the last one left to tell the story. The Final Girl does this by setting herself apart from the average horror movie girl; not only is the Final Girl generally perceived as virginal, she is often perceived as tomboyish, though not tomboyish enough to be a credible threat to actual male power (Clover, 1996). While Clover derides Laurie in the original film somewhat as a more passive Final Girl who ultimately needs rescuing by the male Dr. Loomis, she does not deny that Laurie meets the model of the Final Girl for the time period. Laurie fights back against Michael, wounding him and confusing him at various points in the chase. It is only Michael’s functional immortality that keeps him alive past the climax of the movie. When Dr. Loomis arrives seemingly miraculously and manages to put a stop to Michael by somehow firing seven shots from a revolver, Laurie is saved and the movie seems to be over. Of course, a startling reveal of the empty ground where Michael should lie subverts this idea and makes room for multiple sequels. 

Of course, the sequels all became moot with the announcement of the new 2018 film. Denying such key original plot points as Michael being Laurie’s older brother, the film instead focuses on Laurie’s lasting reaction to trauma. Laurie, in her adulthood, became a recluse. Her marriage failed as she reacted to trauma by becoming a survivalist, a lifestyle she then attempts to force on her daughter until Karen is removed from her custody at age twelve. Her house is isolated; her backyard is a gun range. Laurie’s kitchen even has a secret secured entrance down to a hidden cellar, which becomes of great plot importance at the climax of the film.

In interviews prior to the 2018 film’s release, Jamie Lee Curtis spoke a great deal of Laurie’s initial denial of trauma, her feelings of freakishness, and her survivor’s guilt. Curtis went on to defend Laurie’s behavior as a reaction to untreated trauma. While she never justifies the trauma Laurie put her daughter Karen (and Karen’s daughter Allyson) in by proxy, the effect of untreated trauma in Laurie is not difficult to see manifested in her daily life. 

Like many people who suffer from an untreated trauma, Laurie ends up unintentionally passing down said trauma through the women in her family. This is most readily apparent in Karen, whose unhappy marriage and blasé denial of potential danger bely a past overshadowed by a survivalist education and emotional trauma. While Allyson is more distant from the trauma, it is obvious that Laurie’s pain impacts her a great deal.

This form of intergenerational trauma is one of the first of its kind within the horror genre. While movies like Hereditary certainly explore intergenerational trauma within a family (and Hereditary is likely my favorite film of all time), the way Halloween does so while brilliantly giving homage to its source material is unsurpassed in my opinion. 

I hope you’ve enjoyed things so far. Thank you for your patience while I got this out of my system.

13 Most Aesthetically Pleasing Horror Films

Horror is a genre often associated with the disgusting and vile, as opposed to anything approaching the aesthetics of beauty. In fact, one could argue that many films of the genre focus on the destruction of the concept: a once beautiful house falls into decay and becomes haunted, a gorgeous young woman is disfigured or destroyed by the forces of darkness, even institutions such as marriage (which should be positive) are oft corrupted by evil and betrayal. In short, anything seen as aesthetically valuable and pleasing in mainstream thought is annihilated.

There’s something to be said about horror as iconoclasm, especially in the context of the ongoing “culture wars.” From the “video nasties era” and “Satanic Panic” to today’s weird repeat cultural obsession with Satanic conspiracy in all aspects of culture that they conveniently disagree with, horror has responded in a reactionary way. Whether it goes far enough even is debatable, but that’s not the focus of the article today.

Today, we’re looking at those films which buck the norm and have a sublime sense of beauty about them or at least a unique and pleasing aesthetic vibe that contrasts greatly with the horror of the story and the aesthetics of the genre as a whole.

DISCLAIMER: As with all lists going forward, all of my choices are subjective and personal to my own experience! It’s possible that if you think a film should be here, that it would fit, but I just haven’t seen it or didn’t enjoy it personally. Art is a personal thing, and my dislike of something isn’t a condemnation of anyone else’s like or love of something.

Also these aren’t in hierarchical order, I just kinda threw em all on there. They all fit the prompt!

Love Witch (2016)

The Love Witch (2016, dir. Anna Biller) has a richly vintage aesthetic that does a wonderful job of throwing the viewer out of time and having any sense of surety or balance on when the film is actually taking place. Set in modern-day southern California, the film follows a recently widowed young witch on her increasingly unhinged journey of using spells and magic to get men to fall in love with her.

The Love Witch, 2016, Elaine absolutely serving.

One of the last movies to be filmed on 35mm Technicolor to invoke the most iconic horror films of the 60s and 70s, The Love Witch also leans into the vintage aesthetic through costuming, set design, and makeup. The vibe is so immaculately convincing that the inclusion of modern elements such as forensic DNA analysis throws the viewer off via a sense of anachronism–despite the film fully taking place in the 2010s!

In addition to that, the film is steeped in feminist analysis with Biller confirming that The Love Witch uses camp as a genre staple to examine the inherent narcissism of the femme fatale trope. The witch Elaine is the dissection of Biller’s deep dive into women’s self-help books wherein she noticed a common theme of advice: never love a man more than he loves you. Biller examines the logical if over-the-top conclusion of obsessive love at the consequence of loss of self, and does so in such a beautiful way that it’s almost easy to overlook some of the more viscerally disgusting elements of the film, particularly the murders.

Suspiria (1977), (2018)

Look, I know that the two Suspirias have such vast aesthetic disparities that it’s almost a cop out to judge them on one bullet point. But….both pretty. That’s it. That’s the entire argument, and no I will not be taking counterarguments at this time. Both the original Dario Argento film and the “reimagined” update directed by equally Italian director Luca Guadagnino have entirely different aesthetic sensibilities while both injecting a sense of otherworldly beauty into the world of witches, occult, and dance as artform.

Suspiria, 1977

The original film was shot using anamorphic lenses to emphasize the set pieces. The color theory of the 1977 version is the truly iconic element of it though, which the use of imbibition Technicolor prints only enriched. It was one of the final feature films to be processed in Technicolor, using one of the last machines available in Italy. In addition, the set pieces themselves contribute to the film’s aesthetics in a massive way; dripping with colors like everything else, every room of the Tanz Dance Akademie has a sinister vibe to it, even if it is only the setting for “safe scenes.”

Suspiria, 2018

In contrast, the 2018 version of Suspiria uses color sparsely and with deliberate intention, particularly the rich red that Argento used as a primary thematic color in the original film. By taking the film and placing it in more modern times, without it being contemporary, Guadagnino uses the gloomy brutalism and stark utilitarian designs of Soviet occupied East Berlin to make the pops of color…well, pop! The updated film is also more brutal, but still sticks to this aesthetic choice of rationing red; one of the most upsetting moments of violence in the film contains no blood (or so little that my brain didn’t register it upon viewing).

Despite seeming to be aesthetic opposites, the two versions of Suspiria are actually two partners in an odd waltz of visuals, and I couldn’t discredit either in favor of the other.

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

The fashion industry is cutthroat, a well-known fact if the two fashion based horror films on this list are anything to go by. The OG fashion house horror though, is Blood and Black Lace directed by Mario Bava, another master of the giallo horror film. One could describe the film as a mass market crime thriller novel cover come to life, with a pulp sensibility grounding the film amongst the otherwise glamorous world of haute couture.

Blood and Black Lace, 1964

Whereas Suspiria (1977) created a genre-defying style for a giallo horror, Bava’s Blood and Black Lace worked more as genre-defining. Even Martin Scorcese would credit the crime noir horror as being foundational for his future directional and aesthetic choices.

Helter Skelter (2012)

Based on the manga of the same name by Kyoko Okazaki, Helter Skelter follows the story of Ririko, a supermodel who has undergone head to toe plastic surgery to stay on the cutting edge of her modeling career. However, her body soon begins to break down, causing Ririko’s mental state to do the same. As police close in on a potential medical trafficking ring behind the dangerous and deadly plastic surgeon’s office, an unhinged Ririko begins lashing out at other women who present themselves as rivals.

Helter Skelter, 2012, Ririko living the dream of a tub where you don’t gotta pull up your knees.

The film is saturated in bright colors and rich with symbolism surrounding beauty as industry. Without the same preachiness found in lesser horror films, Helter Skelter asks its audience to consider: how complicit are we as consumers in the gradual destruction of the influencers we’ve commodified?

The Company of Wolves (1984)

Fairytale reimaginings have a large following, particularly fans of dark reimaginings. Company of Wolves is a 1984 British gothic fantasy horror film, directed by Neil Jordan, which was adapted from the fairytale reimaginings of British literary icon Angela Carter. The story tells Red Riding Hood with more sympathy for the wolves, reminding the human viewers that we are not above monstrosity ourselves through a series of acted out parables.

The Company of Wolves, 1984

The set and costume design beautifully mix the delicacy and femininity associated with fairytales while still incorporating the darkness and harshness of the gothic and beastial, sometimes in very creative ways. The wedding reception with the wolves is one of the most iconic images from the film and beautifully summarizes its overarching aesthetic.

Midsommar (2019)

While I tend to roll my eyes at anyone who says Ari Aster’s 2019 horror film Midsommar was so unique because of its use of broad daylight horror (Texas Chainsaw Massacre anyone?), that isn’t to sell its aesthetic beauty short. Aster has a way of setting a scene that makes it very clear why he’s one of the most watched and applauded new directors in the genre.

Midsommar, 2019

Going well beyond just the choice to film in daylight, Aster chooses to take the bright and happy aesthetics of the Scandinavian countryside, mix them with bright colors and lurid floral pieces, and still give us one of the most intense and visceral works of the last several decades. The way the film shifts from dull and dire at the beginning to almost neon brightness by the finale camouflaging the sinister ending with the scent of smoke and flower petals.

The Cell (2000)

What can I say about director Tarsem Singh that hasn’t already been said or wouldn’t devolve into a Mean Girls-inspired Regina George praise segment for the director?? He has some of the most iconic looks of film based on storyboards alone, with a visual sensibility that rivals (if not surpasses in some ways) that of Alejandro Jorodowsky.

The Cell, 2000

While this film is often overlooked due to the presence of Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn in the starring roles, it is still powerfully a Singh film, utilizing the film’s narrative to create extraordinary visuals for the dreamscape Lopez’s psychiatrist enters to psychoanalyze Vince Vaughn’s killer character.

Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992)

I couldn’t overlook this film: between the well planned storyboarding and direction of Francis Ford Coppola, the iconic costume design of Eiko Ishioka, and the amazing team behind the set production and photography, it’s no wonder that the film is looked to as the second most iconic Dracula film, behind on the 1931 adaptation which introduced the world to stage actor Bela Lugosi.

Dracula, 1992

The film defined an aesthetic for any gothic horror film to follow, as well as many other films both as homage and parody. Without it, we wouldn’t have a ton of media or at least not the same way we ended up getting it. For that alone, this film’s aesthetic is iconic!

Mandy (2018)

What can I say about Mandy besides “psychedelics sure are a thing”? Not that director Panos Cosmatos was on them during filming or during any part of the process, just that the entire two hour run time of the film feels like everything those old anti-drug PSAs warned me about. The vivid colors of the film swirl chaotically around staging and set design that feels straight out of surrealist art pieces. Is the movie any of the things critics claim regarding interpretation? Maybe? I’ve seen it three times, and I sure don’t know!

Mandy, 2018

But it’s so pretty and chaotic and almost dadaist in the level of nonsensical yet compelling visuals, that one almost doesn’t care what else can get out of it. Beyond that: what each viewer gets out of it will be different but due to the anarchy of it all. The only agreed upon premise? A mad drug lord brutally kills Nic Cage’s character’s wife, who then embarks on an apocalyptic, blood-soaked journey of revenge.

The Color Out of Space (2019)

I’d ask what it is about Nic Cage that lends himself to such unhinged films, but I have long ago decided that Nic Cage just does what he wants and I respect him for that artistically even if some of his decisions in and out of film are questionable. However, I have to say his decision to work with infamously deranged auteur filmmaker Richard Stanley on his return to the director’s chair? Inspired. Especially considering how utterly perfect the ensuing adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s standalone horror novella The Color Out of Space actually ended up being.

The Color Out of Space, 2019

The special effects and the aesthetics are pure Lovecraft, adapting the insanity of the indescribable perfected by that weird ole racist Rhode Islander who took his phobias and prejudices and somehow still defined a genre. What was previously thought to be unfilmable came to vivid life on screen in a cosmically terrifying and beautiful way, and it needs more recognition than it currently has.

Vampyr (1932)

One could argue that there are other more visually stunning or unique German horror films, both of this era and afterwards. However, there’s something almost ethereal about the filmmaking aesthetic of Vampyr, the whole film feeling like a dreamscape punctuated by moments of nightmare.

Vampyr, 1932

It defined the aesthetics of horror for decades afterward even into the modern day with the camera tricks it utilized. Film in general, really, was changed with the unique for the time ways that actors were framed by principle photography and lens tricks.

The Village (2004)

Okay so, hear me out. Hear me out. Is the movie actually that good? Not really. The twist isn’t terrible, but so much of the movie relies on lazy writing and outright ableism (a terrible trope that permeates so many of Shyamalan’s films) that I can’t actually praise it overall as I have the others. But visually? It’s a gorgeous movie, and probably the most visually interesting of any of M. Night’s films.

The Village, 2004

With the rich color symbolism, unique costuming, and interesting framing (which admittedly falters in the ending), it’s probably the most “film” instead of “movie” of the director’s oeuvre, which is why the disappointing twist ending and the ableist tropes that continued to plague his works are so disappointing.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014)

Ana Lily Amirpour directed this modern Iranian feminist take on the vampire legend with such a unique vision that many who view it can recognize some of the specific shots without any other context. The girl in hijab riding a skateboard under stark streetlights, the antagonist guy driving a car with his cat just hanging out in the backseat, focus on putting everyone’s eyes in the most sharp focus possible–even the cityscape of the fictional Bad Town is full of character.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, 2014

Despite being in black and white, the film oozes a vitality normally only associated with use of vivid colors, and it’s to the point I truly believe that color would have made the film overwhelming because of how powerfully framed Amirpour’s shots and vision are. That she throws in many cultural touchstones such as music posters, record sleeves, and recognizable-yet-not cosmetics add to the uncanny valley vibes of the real-world adjacent Bad Town.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:
Darling (2015)
The Neon Demon (2016)
Kwaidan (1964)
The Shining (1980)
Don’t Look Now (1973)
Vampyros Lesbos (1971)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

What do you all think? Do you agree with these choices? Disagree? Have additions that I may not have thought of? If you would like to discuss it, leave a comment! I’d love to hear from y’all!