Halloween isn’t the only time of year when you can fully embrace the bloody brilliance of the horror genre but it certainly is the month where it’s most encouraged. With the days getting shorter and the nights getting darker, it can feel like our evenings are screaming out for something truly terrifying to fuel our nightmares until Christmas arrives. That said, if you’ve found yourself a little jaded when it comes to horror then it can be tricky finding something that really gets under your skin.
If this sounds like you, we’ve got you covered. Read on to explore 10 frighteners so unflinching and bleak, you’ll never need — or maybe even want — to watch them twice. Forget the Sanderson Sisters or Michael Myers: these gut-punchers may not all fall under the ‘horror’ genre but they’re all psychologically uncomfortable enough to make you question why you hit play.
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With many of these features keeping their biggest shocks until their final moments, we’ll try to go light on the spoilers, but reader beware: this list of Halloween viewing is not for the faint of heart.
Gaspar Noé’s 2002 breakout Irreversible was unforgettable for all the wrong reasons, and those familiar with that film will be aware that this Argentinian filmmaker isn’t one to shy away from bringing us face-to-face with the ugliest sides of humanity.
With his 2018 fever dream Climax, he’s back in bleak territory once more, taking us inside the rehearsal room of a French dance troupe. As the 24 performers practice their moves in an abandoned, rural school, all is going well, and when night arrives, work turns into play, complete with a bowl of celebratory Sangria.
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However, it’s here where things take a considerably darker turn. Pretty soon, it becomes clear that an unknown individual has spiked the gang’s tipple with LSD, sending the dancers into a paranoid, hallucinogenic frenzy that wastes no time becoming uncomfortably dark.
Trapped inside their remote practice room, suspicions around who’s behind the spiking rise as personal conflicts once bubbling quietly below the surface quickly spill over into reality, leading its characters to undertake some truly unspeakable acts. Chilling and unsettling, like most of Noé’s work, it’s not one you’ll forget in a hurry.
The Mist (2007)
It takes a lot to out-creep Stephen King but director Frank Darabont somehow managed it in his despairing 2007 masterpiece The Mist. Just a few years after its release, the director behind other successful King adaptations like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, helped bring The Walking Dead to screens, and in hindsight, this feels like a practice run. It shares some of the same cast, including Laurie Holden and Melissa McBride, similar dystopian themes of the end of the world, plus the same morbid fascination with the lengths ordinary people will go in order to survive when society breaks down.
Here, Darabont takes us into a middle-America supermarket where a small group of shoppers have become trapped following a thunderstorm. Before they have a chance to escape, a mysterious mist descends upon the outside world, and when an unfortunate few head out to investigate, we discover that it’s harbouring ferocious, Lovecraftian creatures, each with sharp teeth and a taste for human flesh. It’s not long before the terror outside leads to paranoia inside, splitting the survivors apart. However, when it comes to the real horror in The Mist, nothing beats its final moments where Darabont takes a detour from King’s original text to serve up something unimaginably darker. No spoilers here, you’ll have to watch it for yourself to see what happens.
Requiem For A Dream (2000)
Few films do a better job at convincing you that maybe dabbling with hard drugs might not be the best idea ever than Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream. Released back in 2000 and featuring a fresh-faced cast of Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans, Aronofsky adapts author Hubert Selby Jr’s novel of the same name with a sinister flair, combining his sleek filmmaking style with spiralling horror. It follows four people living in Coney Island, each addicted to their own drug of choice. For Harry (Leto), Marion (Connelly) and Tyrone (Wayans) that’s heroine, while for Harry’s mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn), it’s a creeping addiction to meth amphetamines, and for all of them, these crutches quickly become inescapable.
Perhaps the most distressing aspect of Aronofsky’s movie is the way in which it slowly erodes hope from its characters’ lives. Like a more bleak, American version of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, Aronofsky introduces us to people with real dreams and aspirations and all the tools and talent they need to get there, until drugs get in the way, with devastating consequences. Meanwhile, all of this tragic chaos is underpinned by Clint Mantell’s chilling and constantly-rising score, adding to the inescapable terror like an audio-based panic attack. You may only watch this one once but it’ll stay with you forever.
Speak No Evil (2022)
Directed by Christian Tafdrup, this Danish psychological thriller starts innocently enough. In it, we meet Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), a couple vacationing in Tuscany with their young daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg). When Agnes loses her beloved bunny toy, her dad sets off to find it and bumps into friendly strangers Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders). A conversation ensues, with Bjørn feeling like he’s made an unlikely new friend. When a letter arrives out of the blue a few weeks later inviting the duo to stay with their new pals at their rural house in the Netherlands, Bjørn convinces his reluctant wife to embrace her impulsive side and take them up on the offer, despite not knowing them very well.
Watch a trailer for Speak No Evil
If you’re at all familiar with the horror genre, your brain should be full of red flags right now. And rightly so. What follows is a terrifying lesson in the perils of being too polite, as poor old Bjørn’s inability to believe the worst in people ultimately leads to the destruction of his own family unit. If you decide to venture into this part-Dutch, part-English language feature this October be warned: while it may take a moment to really get going, its third-act pay-off has to be one of the most horrific and harrowingly-affecting moments in recent cinema history. Powered by an air of anxious unease, Tafdrup goes for the jugular whilst leaving you screaming at the screen.
Speak No Evil is streaming on Shudder.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Considered one of the most influential movies of all time, Roman Polanski’s 1968 psychological horror Rosemary’s Baby may be more than 50 years old but it still packs a punch. Here, we meet the titular Rosemary (Mia Farrow), who together with her actor husband Guy (John Cassavetes), moves into a large apartment building in New York City. Not long afterwards, Rosemary discovers she’s pregnant. However, when she starts to notice her elderly neighbours acting strangely, all clues seem to point towards them being members of an ancient satanic cult. With many of them taking an unnatural interest in her unborn child, Rosemary eventually comes to believe that her bump may be in danger of being used as a vessel for the Devil’s offspring.
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Perfectly weaving themes of satanic panic and a hiding-in-plain-sight witchcraft threat with prenatal mental health issues, Polanski’s horror works so well thanks to its open-ended vagueness. Just as we viewers are left paranoid and second-guessing everything we’ve just seen play out on screen, so is Rosemary on the other side of the camera - and just like Rosemary, it’s not until things are too late to fix that we come to understand the real level of horror at play. If you’re after some Halloween viewing that splices a doomed narrative with elements of the supernatural, this is the one for you.
“What’s in the box!” It’s a line that’s become synonymous with cinema and if you know the answer to this question — uttered by Brad Pitt’s doomed Detective Mills — then you’ll know why David Fincher’s rain-soaked neo-noir is worthy of a place on this list of terrifyingly memorable movies. Released in 1995, Fincher’s second film followed his nightmarish experiences on the troubled set of Alien 3 and cemented his status as an auteur with a distinct aesthetic, incredible attention to detail and something to say. Plot-wise, Seven pairs Pitt’s rookie cop with hardened, seen-it-all-before Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) as the pair work to stop a deranged killer who’s offing folks that he deems guilty of committing the seven deadly sins.
Flipping noir motifs on their head, Fincher’s movie may be one of the more mainstream offerings in this guide but it’s here for good reason. Just as Freeman’s world-weary cop is starting to come around to the idea that hope and goodness may still exist in this crazy world of ours, Kevin Spacey’s sadistic murderer John Doe is quick to remind him just how dark, dirty and brutal human nature can be. With a killer soundtrack, plenty of quotable lines and more than one iconic scene, Seven set Fincher apart as a filmmaker destined for great things — and he hasn’t disappointed so far.
Combining the complexities of depression and mental health with the existential dread of interplanetary wonder, 2011 Melancholia is a film that’s unforgettable for a host of reasons. Perhaps the most obvious is its refusal to shy away from its primary premise, following through to devastating and utterly... well, melancholic results. After all, it’s a film helmed by controversial director Lars Von Trier, someone infamous for his button-pushing abilities and fondness for lingering in uncomfortable areas of the human psyche. It’s also part of his aptly-titled ‘Depression Trilogy,’ sandwiched neatly between 2009’s Antichrist and 2013’s Nymphomaniac so, you know... you’ve been warned.
It follows sisters Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Justine (Kirsten Dunst) on the day of the latter’s wedding. It also just so happens to be the same day that a mysterious planet named Melancholia appears in the sky and looks set to be on a collision course with Earth. As Claire’s battles with depression intensify, we learn that this rogue planet is indeed due to smash into ours, and while everyone in Claire and Justine’s circles begins to lose their cool, Claire — the person most familiar with a feeling of hopelessness due to her depression struggles — emerges as the only person ready to welcome her fate.
Melancholia is streaming on Disney+.
Drag Me To Hell (2009)
Audiences have been waiting for Sam Raimi to return to the world of the Deadites ever since he said goodbye to Bruce Campbell’s boom-stick-wielding hero Ash in 1992’s Army of Darkness. By the time 2009 rolled around, we’d had no such luck (thanks Spider-Man), however, Raimi was ready to return to the world of flying demons with the brilliant Drag Me to Hell. Before we get into the plot details, we know what you’re thinking: what’s so horrific about this over-the-top, darkly comic horror? It co-stars Justin Long, so it can’t really be that mentally scarring, can it?
Well, the answer lies in the film’s final moments, which we won’t spoil here in case you’re yet to see this modern-day horror gem. Raimi’s return to the genre follows timid bank clerk Christine (Alison Loman) who, after denying an old woman a crucial bank loan that’ll help her save her property, finds herself on the receiving end of a particularly nasty curse. For the rest of the movie, Christine tries desperately to reverse the old lady’s spell and get the evil spirit known as ‘The Lamia’ off her tail. Does she succeed? Well, you’ll have to hit play to find out exactly what happens… but it is on this list, so things can’t end all that well.
Certain movies are notorious and totally worth your time but deep down, you just know that you’ll only ever need — or want — to watch them once. Pascal Laugier’s 2008 visceral horror Martyrs is one such movie. This French psychological terror follows Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï), a young woman who was tortured as a child and dreams of seeking revenge. Believing she’s found the people responsible for her brutal childhood, she sets out to enact her vengeance but instead finds herself embroiled in something much more sinister.
Abducted and subject to a series of horrific bodily mutilations, we soon discover that Lucie has become the latest test subject in an experiment run by a secret society determined to discover what happens after death. To do this, they put Lucie through a series of tortuous experiences while keeping her just on the brink of life in the hopes that she’ll eventually experience a transcendental moment, glimpse the afterlife and provide an answer to the age-old question of what’s waiting for us after death. Unforgiving and hard to watch, it’s worth sticking with Martyrs for its thought-provoking final moments that’ll leave you horrified and deep in thought.
The Road (2006)
We never quite find out what causes the world-ending event at the centre of stark, apocalyptic drama The Road. In Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 book of the same name - the basis for director John Hillcoat’s 2009 adaptation - the author clues us in with just one solitary line that explains that there was “a long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.” After that, we’re on our own - much like the movie’s struggling father and son protagonists known only as Man (Viggo Mortensen) and boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
What follows is a brutal quest for solace in a world that’s swiftly become a harsh and unforgiving place, filled with murderous gangs and flesh-hungry cannibals. At times, The Road can be relentlessly depressing viewing, with our leads finding themselves wandering into one nail-biting situation after another as they try to make their way across a scorched, dead America and to the coast in the hopes of warmer weather. In hindsight, it’s similar in tone and savageness to zombie drama The Walking Dead. However, remove Walkers from the equation, and you’d be surprised how much more dread-inducing the world gets when the real terror is ourselves.