This nontraditional list of scary-but-not-actual-horror films will have you on the edge of your seat — or jumping out of it — this Halloween season.
Whether you’re a gore-loving hardcore fan, self-proclaimed expert on the supernatural or a more casual consumer of scares, screams and ghoulish themes, everyone has their favorite go-to flicks. But despite Jamie Kennedy’s character in “Scream” who so adamantly defends “the rules” to horror films, picture if you will (a la any “Twilight Zone” intro) another line of thought on the subject. We’ve assembled a selection of titles that may not be considered part of the traditional genre, but nevertheless contain just as much fright, thrills or terror as any classic horror film.
Screenwriter Alex Garland got his start as a novelist — penning the book that would later be adapted into “The Beach” — before moving on to write a number of impressive, critically-acclaimed scripts for both film and television. A few highlights include “28 Days Later,” “MEN” and the FX series “Devs”. His sharp sense of style and knack for building tension is omnipresent in his subsequent work as a director, including this eerie thriller based on a 2014 book series. His work often focuses on the fear present in both science fiction and horror — but “Annihilation,” led by Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac, is laden with gorgeous, colorful environments and profound questions about identity, nature, evolution and the concept of being human.
“Blue Ruin” (2013)
A wandering transient is called into his local police station and informed that the man who murdered his parents has been released from prison. Such begins the tale of filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier’s atmospheric meditation on revenge. In “Blue Ruin,” Saulnier (“Green Room,” “Hold the Dark,” “True Detective”) combines an intimate character study, beautiful yet understated staged settings and grisly violence. The film’s narrative seeks to shed light on the meaning of family, the nature of trauma and the desire for emotional closure — even if obtained through violent ends.
“Fatal Attraction” (1987)
Other than “Basic Instinct,” this film remains the benchmark for psychosexual thrillers, and it’s just as visceral to watch as the bloodiest modern-day slasher flick. Quite possibly the most fascinating layer is how it examines the multifaceted topic of consent, which remains as relevant today as it was upon its original release. The film has the added benefit of decades passed, allowing for perspective and cultural comparison. There’s even a recently released companion series on Showtime starring Joshua Jackson and Lizzy Caplan for further consideration and analysis. Not to over intellectualize, but it’s still a well-crafted film with some great jump scares.
“Hard Candy” (2005)
This film’s righteously foreboding mood and subject matter only scratches the surface of the many factors at play. Directed by David Slade, who is versed in more straightforward horror like “30 Days of Night” or “Black Mirror”, the film contains a talented but strikingly sparse cast. It focuses almost entirely on two characters, played masterfully by Elliot Page and Patrick Wilson. Given its structure and storyline, it’s hard to not spoil the ultimate climax without giving too much away. What can be said is it topically follows in the vein of films like “Primal Fear” or “Sleepers,” but remains rooted in an ever-increasingly claustrophobic location (think “Buried” or “Panic Room”).
“I Love My Dad” (2022)
Somewhat of a distant cinematic cousin of Bobcat Goldthwait’s pitch-black comedy “World’s Greatest Dad,” this tale plays out in all the cringeworthy but glorious fashion you could hope for. (Think: Manti Te’o catfishing incident, but the fake girlfriend ends up being your dad). Along with his work colleague played by Lil Rel Howrey, Patton Oswalt delivers just the right notes of sincerity and sentiment amongst an. otherwise hilarious nightmare scenario that unfolds. Based on real-life events, the film deftly works issues involved with social media, mental health and suicide into its running subtext. It’s an ultimately fun but different way to scream, “No…? NO” at your screen.
“The Machinist” (2004)
Lead actor Christian Bale undertook an incredible physical transformation for this film, losing a staggering 62 pounds — nearly one third of his body weight — to prepare for the role. Main character Trevor Reznik’s stark and pitch-black journey is also transformational. An industrial worker who starts to question his own sanity and perception of reality (given that he has not slept in a full year), he is haunted by an unknown sense of dread, only amplified by his relentless exhaustion and physical deterioration. As he starts to descend further into delusion, he tries to uncover the cause behind his ever-growing madness. While an admittedly intense work, the terror of his paranoia and the film’s compelling mystery makes it both hard to look at but impossible to look away.
While not as iconic as Hannibal Lector or Norman Bates, one of this decades’ more subtly and subversively horrific characters resides in Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance as Louis Bloom. A Los Angeles loner aimlessly in search of purpose, profit and recognition, he stumbles into the world of after-hours cameramen who hunt down and film news footage. He becomes like an animal stalking prey — the bloodier the better. With a strong supporting cast including Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed and the late, great Bill Paxton, “Nightcrawler” examines the sociopathic lengths someone will go to achieve acknowledgement and success in the unforgiving landscape of Hollywood.
Given a recent 25th anniversary retrospective release by distributor A24, Darren Aronofsky’s feature debut encompasses many of the visual and tonal signatures that became the director’s calling cards in future offerings, including “Requiem for a Dream” and “Black Swan”. It plays on themes of erratic obsession, inescapable paranoia and lingering dread, all viewed through the protagonist’s quest to solve a global conspiracy wrapped within the mysterious truth behind a mathematical symbol. Its standout performances and frenetic, black-and-white photography editing style makes it an arresting and engrossing fever dream of a film.
While Denis Villeneuve has gained widespread acclaim from his more recent science fiction projects (“Arrival,” “Blade Runner 2049,” “Dune”), his films remain rooted in a sense of practical realism on both sides of the camera. “Sicario” is no exception. Built on the foundation of a solid script by Taylor Sheridan (“Wind River,” “Yellowstone”) and performances from Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt, it questions how deeply people — and governments — will venture into their darkest nature to protect others, the greater good and themselves. Given the taut, skillfully executed interrogation and gunfight scenes, the answer seems to be pretty far.
“Uncut Gems” (2019)
The writer/director duo Josh and Benny Safdie and star Adam Sandler received plenty of critical praise upon its initial release, and for good reason. The brothers helm a non-stop, white-knuckle thrill ride in the truest sense. The film skips the gory spectacle of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” but is just as grimly horrific. Its character study follows a New York diamond merchant desperately chasing “the big score” while throwing his business, family and personal safety into perilous jeopardy. Compellingly watchable, inventive and energetic, it captures the essence at the core of any great horror film: relentless tension leading to an unavoidable and gruesome climax.
Want to stay up to date on the latest film picks and releases in the area? Join the District Fray community for exclusive access to guides and recommendations. Become a member and support local journalism today.