Just because it’s not a horror movie doesn’t mean it can’t be terrifying. In fact, the movies that stick with me the most – the films that really keep me up at night – are usually not horror films at all. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent more than my share of time sitting up wondering what supernatural beings lurk in the darker corners of my apartment (it’s usually mice), but the non-horror films which instill me with midday fear are just as worth mentioning at this, the spookiest time of year. Here are some deeply unsettling films that don’t quite fit the mold of the genre.
Jagten (‘The Hunt’ 2012 – Dir. Thomas Vinterburg)
Mads Mikkelson exhibits a departure from the villainous roles we Americans are used to seeing him in, as a schoolteacher who is wrongfully accused of child molestation. While many films would take the time to frame the events with ambiguity, the horror of The Hunt stems from the fact that we know, without a doubt, that our protagonist is innocent. Furthermore, it’s equally clear that he’s a very good man and a very good teacher. Watching The Hunt is a uniquely frustrating experience given how easy it is to understand and forgive the actions of the accusers even if they are based entirely in emotion rather than fact. Ultimately, what gives this the most intense feeling of horror is the idea that this basic misunderstanding could happen to just about anyone. The haunting final seconds of the film are the art-house version of that moment in every slasher film where the supposedly dead killer’s eyes burst open right before the credits roll.
Barton Fink (1991 – Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen)
Writer’s block is hell. Especially in the face of deadlines. Doubly so when what you’re writing is a mandated assignment rather than a passion project. Barton Fink is this concept made literal, flames and everything. The Coens capture self-doubt in the face of studio-mandated pressure through their loosely autobiographical and fantastical lens, while simultaneously questioning the limits to which a creative person can mitigate their own freedom while maintaining a soul. Anybody who has ever had to create in order to stay alive knows this feeling all too well, and Barton Fink wrings every ounce of existential horror out of it. You may not be scared in the moment, but it’s hard not to think about this film during any bout with creative block.
The Imposter (2012 – Dir. Bart Layton)
So many horror flicks claim to be based on a true story, but The Imposter needn’t make such a claim. It’s a documentary – it is a true story. When a young man claims to be the missing son of a grieving Texas family, it seems like all of their prayers have been answered, but as it becomes clear that he is not who he claims to be, new questions come to the forefront. Who is this guy? Where did the missing boy actually go? Why was the family so quick to believe that this strange, unrecognizable man is indeed their child? Using spooky reenactments and real home video footage, Layton probes every aspect of his subjects’ situation while making it clear that concrete answers are likely never to be found.
Under the Skin (2013 – Dir. Johnathan Glazer)
I’m having a hard time coming up with a way to classify Under the Skin outside of horror. It is one of the most haunting films I’ve ever seen, to the point that when I hear similar sound cues in other films, I end up reverting back to the state of panic induced by Glazer’s, um, thriller? Yeah, we’ll call it a thriller. There are indeed horror elements to Under the Skin, but none are of the classic variety. No jump scares, no moments of dread, no shadowy figures lurking just outside the frame. Nothing that would find a home in the mainstream, yet what the film does introduce is an almost Lovecraftian fear of something so alien that is simply cannot be grasped by puny humans. Skin is just a small portion of a huge tale that, if we humans were more than relative ants in the big picture, might merit telling. Glazer constructs moments of both quiet unrest, and balls to the wall strangeness that keeps even the most confident viewer on edge, while also giving males like myself a window into the world of street harassment faced by many women.
Mulholland Drive (2001 – Dir. David Lynch)
I don’t know what this movie is about in the literal sense, but even so, it captures one of the biggest fears a person can have: mental decline. If you live long enough, or experience enough trauma, your brain and your perception can turn on you in disastrous ways. Heck, some unlucky folks lose their mind over nothing at all; just bad roll of the genetic dice. With Mulholland Drive, David Lynch puts the viewer into an emotional labyrinth in which our audience surrogate is, at minimum, an unreliable storyteller, and at most, a high-functioning psychopath. Even when the plot actively betrays our sense of narrative, Lynch gives us just enough to continue engaging the material, but not enough to make us feel okay about it. The feeling one gets while watching the film (which famously won the love of Roger Elbert, a harsh critic of Lynch’s films) is one that will stick with you for weeks. It also has the most effective jump scare since Hooper discovered the dead sailor in Jaws.
La Piel Que Habito (‘The Skin I Live In’ 2011 – Dir. Pedro Almodóvar)
Perhaps the best riff on the Frankenstein tale ever (Jurassic Park notwithstanding), Pedro Almodóvar’s mystery is best left unspoiled. But I will say this: upon first viewing the film is simply a twisty-turny medical thriller, but upon repeat viewings it becomes a study of gender roles, vengeance, and the limits of ethics in science. It also becomes one of the most mind-blowing body horror films of all time. This is one of very few movies that I immediately rewatched upon completion just to apply the knowledge gained in the third act to the events of the first two. This is not a horror movie until you see it a second time, and then it’s one of the best.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.