Cinema has come a long way since audiences screamed hysterically as a train pulled into La Ciotat station. The year was 1896, and the Lumière brothers’ black-and-white short supposedly had people bolting to the back of the room in terror, convinced the locomotive on screen was about to barrel into the front row.
Film historians have long debated the veracity of such a reaction, but in the 120 or so years since, the perpetual desire of movie-goers to face their darkest fears—and indeed, deepest desires—in the multiplex can hardly be disputed.
By taking the form of a masked serial killer, a gothic structure inhabited by malevolent spirits or a weekend trip to meet a partner’s parents for the first time, for over a century, horror films have stood as an embodiment of the trials and tribulations of the day, unabashedly reflecting society’s sins right back at us.
Horror in the 21st century has been no exception. Despite what the cynics might say, the genre has, in recent years, not become a sterile wasteland harvesting only lazy remakes and cheap imitations. On the contrary, in fact: for every needless reboot or cash-fueled rehash there’s a fresh new terror lurking in the shadows, a brazen disemboweling of traditional formulas, or a searing subversion of the most exhausted genre tropes.
The following films are testament to that, only without the virtue of being a much-anticipated Stephen King adaptation, or the gleeful recipient of a seemingly limitless marketing budget. These films are made great not because of how much money they made, or how many people saw them, but because of their willingness to try something new, their intelligent and incisive storytelling and, perhaps most importantly, their knowledge of how to scare the living daylights out of us.
Brace yourself, you might just discover fears you never thought you had.
Train to Busan (2016)
For anyone who’s ever found themselves on the Central Line during peak time, the idea of a crowded train as the backdrop for a horror film seems terrifying enough. Throw a zombie apocalypse into the mix, however, and the fear of being thrust into the armpit of a sweaty commuter suddenly starts to feel a whole lot more trivial.
So much so, that when someone starts to nibble at the passengers on a packed high-speed train out of Seoul in Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan, you’ll quickly discover a gratitude for the relative harmlessness of pungent perspiration you never knew you had.
A kinetic, claustrophobic action horror that toys with familiar conventions while gleefully revelling in the confinements of its setting—just how would you, for instance, get through a carriage packed full of flesh-eating zombies without being detected?—Train to Busan is a slick, gory thrill ride that also packs a rather sharp satirical bite.
Above all, though, it’s Sang-ho and writer Park Joo-suk’s firm commitment to ensuring we care about their mismatch of survivors that elevates this film above the hordes of mediocre, Romero-imitators in recent years.
It occasionally teeters a little too far on the side on melodrama, but amidst the wincing and cowering, you might just find yourself shedding a few tears.
Session 9 (2001)
It’s likely you won’t even need one hand to count the number of jump scares there are in Session 9, Brad Anderson’s skillful slow burner from 2001. As for blood and gore, it can probably be measured in millimetres.
Yet there’s an almost palpable sense of dread that emanates from nearly every single frame of this brooding tale about an asbestos abatement crew who land a job at an abandoned psychiatric hospital.
There’s little need to indulge in cheap genre tricks here, such is the effectiveness of the film’s patient, screw-turning approach to building tension. Even if its final-act reveal doesn’t quite stick the landing, Anderson’s shrewd take on the traditional gothic formula knows exactly how to bury itself deep under your skin. Once a member of the team discovers a series of patient session cassette tapes, any hopes of a good night’s sleep will have been well and truly surrendered.
It Comes at Night (2017)
Not since The Blair Witch Project has minimalist horror been utilised with such unsettling effect as it is in Trey Edward Shults’ moody, melancholic sophomore feature from 2017.
It Comes at Night, despite a modest box office return and a title that bears all the hallmarks of a trashy ‘50s B-movie, is, in fact, a masterful lesson in restraint. Set in a remote woodland cabin after the world as we know it has all but ended, the film follows a family unit driven to its limits by the arrival of enigmatic strangers seeking refuge for a new-born child.
Notably, Shults, whose 2019 family drama Waves is equally sublime, seems less interested in the whys and hows of his post-apocalyptic backdrop as he is with observing the dwindling embers of humanity and morality extinguish in the name of survival.
And perhaps it’s this unrelenting, uncompromising bleakness that audiences found so difficult to embrace upon initial release. Or perhaps it was a simple case of mismarketing: a largely character-driven narrative when the trailer may have teased something different altogether.
The again, with a cast that includes the likes of Joel Edgerton, Riley Keough and Christopher Abbott, who can really argue?
The Invitation (2015)
The power of Karyn Kusama’s tense, atmospheric film The Invitation lies in the simplicity of its setup. When we first meet Will, a solemn, stoic Logan Marshall-Green, he is driving with his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) to a dinner party at the house of his ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new partner, David (Michiel Huisman). The sense that something doesn’t feel quite right—Will has not seen Eden in two years—is immediately compounded by the foreboding moment he hits and kills a fox on the road, while the film’s Hollywood Hills setting (the backdrop, of course, to one of America’s most infamous crimes) does little to settle the nerves.
Like all good suspense dramas, The Invitation rejects the option of neatly-packaged exposition and instead colours the details of Will and Eden’s divorce in distinct shades of ambivalence. Any rationality to the former’s growing paranoia, meanwhile, remains uncertain until we’re well into the movie’s third act.
With the aid of Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s slow-burning screenplay, Kusama crafts an astute story about relationships with a distinctly sinister twist. The results are chilling, right up to, and long after, the film’s haunting final frame.
Kill List (2011)
The ease at which Ben Wheatley’s second feature film morphs from a kitchen sink-style domestic drama into a hitman thriller and then into full-blown horror speaks volumes for his ability to meld genre while simultaneously defying convention.
In fact, part of the devilish thrill of Kill List is not knowing where it’s headed, but instead basking in the ever-present sense of dread and the increasingly precarious situation its protagonists—played by Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley—unknowingly fall deeper and deeper into.
By the time ominous carvings are etched onto the back of bathroom mirrors and cryptic last words provoke almost unwatchable outbursts of violence, turning away will be a near impossibility, however great the urge may be.
The House of the Devil (2009)
Ti West knows a thing or two about the horror genre. That is if the American filmmaker’s spooky third feature is anything to go by. Where many would look to break out into a blood-soaked sprint before they’ve learnt to walk, The House of the Devil is quite content to crawl well into the final stretch of its 95-minute run time.
At a time when the guts’n’gore of the torture porn boom was being splattered across every inch of the genre, West’s brazen patience-over-excess approach towards the story of a college student who takes a babysitting job at a creaky old Victorian house is commendable in and of itself. When the pace suddenly quickens during its chaotic climax, it feels totally undue and yet entirely justified.
But even more impressive than West’s understanding of the power of suggestion—just what dark secret is the place’s shady owners concealing?—is his enjoyably meticulous attention to detail in what is, above all else, a love letter to the classic slasher films of the early ‘80s. Between the grainy, retro visual style, the cranked-up Walkman, and the implausibly long landline phone cord, one will do well to remember that the film actually came out in 2009.
Goodnight Mommy (2014)
Creaky floorboards. Ropey phone signal. The elderly. Just a handful of indicators that, in a horror film, shit is most certainly about to hit the fan.
Few things, however, signpost impending doom quite as patently as the mother of all ubiquitous red flags: identical twins. And in this sleek debut from Austrian duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, they are especially nasty.
The unfortunate recipient of their torturous tendencies is the mommy of Goodnight Mommy, whose volatile mood swings upon returning from facial surgery convince the boys this woman might not be who she claims to be.
A series of unnerving, original interrogation methods soon follow, but what sustains the lure of this disconcerting little flick is its slippery examination of duality and, ultimately, its particularly grisly subversion of Freud’s Oedipus complex.
Under the Shadow (2016)
It speaks to both the poignancy and intelligence of Iranian-born Babak Anvari’s 2016 directorial debut that the supernatural elements are perhaps the least frightening facet of a story about a mother/daughter duo whose Tehran home comes under siege from sinister spirits.
That’s not to say the ghostly presence isn’t terrifying. Far from it. But it’s by no means the only force threatening to tear apart the domestic unit at the centre of this story. Steeped heavily in subtext, Under the Shadow, using a familiar haunted house hook as a thin veil, is really an examination of the internal struggles and physical nightmares of being a mother in an oppressive environment battling war and political unrest.
That’s not to say Anvari focuses solely on the larger social picture. There is much narrative subtlety, intricacy, and character nuance to admire here, and a deftness to Anvari’s direction that renders much of the film at once incisive and ambivalent.
Before he was helming Netflix big-hitters like The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor; before he was at the wheel of a sequel to The Shining, Mike Flanagan was busy imbuing the familiar slasher set-up with a neat twist.
A low-budget thriller predating the influx of movies with a sensory-deprivation premise like Birdbox and A Quiet Place, Hush imagines how a home invasion horror might play out if the main character was deaf.
Living an isolated life in the woods in the hope of furthering her career, horror author Maddie (Kate Siegel, who co-wrote the film with Flanagan) is targeted by a masked assailant with a crossbow. Over the course of a night, she inadvertently becomes the hero of a story she herself might write, fighting for her life in a world that, since the age of 13, has been silent.
It’s an economic film both in budget and storytelling, but Hush’s shrewd concept elevates it well above the majority of its contemporaries and marks a progressive step towards greater representation in the sub-genre.
Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
The horror genre, to a certain degree, has always been a bit meta. It’s the merging of character and audience in Michael Powell’s 1960 film Peeping Tom. It’s Jamie Kennedy’s movie nerd explaining the rules to surviving a scary movie in Wes Craven’s ‘90s slasher Scream (“Never say ‘I’ll be right back’…because you won’t be back”). It’s basically everything about 2011’s The Cabin in the Woods.
Berberian Sound Studio is meta in its own wonderfully unique way. Starring the perpetually impressive Toby Jones as a sound engineer called Gilderoy whose grip on reality starts to wobble while working on an Italian giallo film, Peter Strickland’s psychological chiller brings to the fore all that is usually hidden in cinema. Here, it’s the specifics of the film’s fictional movie that remain ambiguous, while the mechanics of film itself—Foley work; sound mixing—form the backdrop for Gilderoy’s gradual descent into a dark, detached state.
It’s intelligent work from Strickland, who would go on to dabble in even more playful territory with 2018’s In Fabric, about a haunted red dress that wreaks havoc on its various owners.
You’re Next (2011)
Sick laughs and clever twists. Home invasion horror meets screwball comedy. Adam Wingard’s 2011 is an enjoyably off-the-wall affair.
But what works best about You’re Next, which sees an estranged family besieged by a group of killers wearing animal masks, is that it never attempts to be more than it is. There is the occasional jab at issues of class divide; but, by and large, this is a film that’s far more interested in what things would look like were someone to set piano wire across a door frame at neck height.
The gory delights, coming both thick and fast, are therefore dressed up to be as brutally distressing as they are unexpectedly slapstick.
And, from the violent embers of this comically-laced family drama doused heavily in blood, Sharni Vinson’s resourceful protagonist emerges, carrying all the hallmarks of the horror genre’s most iconic, kick-ass heroines.
George Nash is a freelance film journalist. Follow him on Twitter via @_Whatsthemotive for movie musings, puns and cereal chatter.