Following a preview screening of Gravity last week (which we’re excited to review on Vada ahead of general release next week!) – and which is tense and claustrophobic and genuinely terrifying at times – I got to thinking: what other films outside the horror genre are truly scary? And I realised (or rather, remembered) that there are many, many films out there which manage to frighten or upset me.
Before I hear sarcastic cries of Juno (pregnancy, argh!) or Sex in the City 2 (first-world problems, yuck!), let’s be serious for a second. Whether it’s a moment or a character or a scene, some films have the ability to unnerve an audience (or perhaps it’s just me or you) out of nowhere. And there’s something really quite impressive about that.
It’s not just those genres that sail close to the shores of horror, either. And the following seven suggestions will prove just that. Starting with…
This is the film that immediately springs to mind when thinking about this topic. And I can also sum up my greatest fears about Zodiac in three simple words without spoiling a thing: the cellar scene. Make no mistake, Zodiac never strays far from horror throughout the entire film. The tone is bleak and unnerving, and yet it gets darker as it goes. From the gruesome murders at the start to Paul Avery’s death threats and even a full-blown horror sequence involving a mother, her baby and a stranger’s car… it’s devastating. And then there’s that nervy, pulsating wreck of a cellar scene…
See also: Prisoners. A similar sort of film (mixed with Gone Baby Gone) and also featuring Jake Gyllenhall. There’s similar tension throughout – particularly in one-on-one confrontations – but the scares don’t quite match up to the incredible Fincher film.
We Need To Talk About Kevin (Coming-of-Age)
Speaking about being made to feel uneasy throughout a whole film, Lynne Ramsay’s brilliant and punishing adaptation of We Need To Talk About Kevin is hard work in a slightly different way. Its fear factor stems from the fact that you know it’s not going to end well, and yet you’re still so attached to the narrative (whether you want to be or not). Kevin is an enigma who doesn’t reveal his inner workings or thoughts, and so it’s coming-of-age in a startlingly depressing manner…
See also: The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Seemingly a mile away from WNTTAK in tone, the overall narrative is not altogether different but simply flipped. This time it feels ominous because the truly loveable protagonists are headed for seemingly dark futures.
Alice in Wonderland (Children’s/Animation)
If you really want scenes to scar-for-life then there’s no better genre! Not only are the intended audience of a fragile age, but those re-watching as parents (or well-wishers) will likely be just as affected because of their own childhood experiences. Though I’ve gone with Alice in Wonderland because of how much I adore (and am simultaneously upset by) this film – particularly where the caterpillar loses his shit (and his skin) – any number of others are also applicable.
See also: Coraline, James and the Giant Peach, Where the Wild Things Are. Buttons for eyes? Freaky and frightening new worlds? Talking creatures that will at best manipulate you and at worst try to maim? Just dandy, thanks for that.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Family)
And if torturing kids isn’t enough to satisfy you, why not be sure to adversely affect the whole family with a light-hearted entertainment that features corruption or abandonment or something equally soul-destroying? Willy Wonka takes the form of poverty and crushed dreams – as well as near-death experiences for your conceited friends-cum-rivals – and that’s just the fun stuff. When Wonka starts losing his mind – I’m thinking about the boat trip and his rant at Charlie in particular – it’s all a bit too much. Not to mention slimy Slugworth.
See also: The Sound of Music. What could be more fun than a three-hour musical romance that ends up with this all-singing family being hunted by the Nazis? The hiding-in-the-abbey scene is so unbelievably worrisome that it puts me on edge even just writing about it. Huddle closer, and keep quiet everybody!
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Psychological Thriller)
Martha Marcy May Marlene arrived in the UK at the start of last year and it’s absolutely petrifying. It focuses on a young woman (the brilliant Elizabeth Olsen) who has escaped from what’s essentially a cult, and is trying to re-adjust to normal life. If her inability to do so in any normal way isn’t difficult enough to deal with, the constant flashbacks that demonstrate her daily life at camp – including rape and murder – are just harrowing. And to top it all off, a menacing presence appears to linger in the background, throwing her safety into question.
See also: Red State. A kind-of inverted premise (where the kids seek out these odd strangers) but with a similar tone, Kevin Smith’s surprise foray into thriller/horror territory with Red State is a quality little film. It shows another cult-ish community who are religious and who take their views to extreme levels. There are a number of terrifying films in this ‘being-chased-by-a-monster’ ilk: Animal Kingdom, Snowtown, No Country for Old Men, The Night of the Hunter, The Lovely Bones, etc. Chilling – at least in part – the lot of them.
The Wave (Social Realism)
There are different things at play within this sub-genre, one of which is the comment on race, gender and other identity issues in films like This is England, American History X and Boys Don’t Cry. Another is where our characters are believed to be inherently good but their actions say otherwise, including The Wave. It’s a brutal look at history and the dangers of repeating it via classic psychological themes of conformity and friendship, and is cleverly set in Germany which admits and addresses important social/cultural context. The shift in attitudes is well-done, and the results therefore are terrifying.
See also: Mean Creek, Bully. Two films that have a very similar starting point, although the malice involved is at a very different level indeed. Practical jokes go awry as the hunted become the hunters, and our understanding for who or what makes up tormentors is more appreciated and re-appraised.
Pan’s Labyrinth (Fantasy/Sci-Fi)
Pan’s Labyrinth brings with it the gothic presence of director Guillermo Del Toro, and so it’s no wonder that this coming-of-age historical fantasy is full of such striking imagery and fearful characters (in both worlds). It’s a brilliant blend which captures the ferocity of the stepfather figure (Cpt. Vidal) whilst replicating this horror in the fantasy world, particularly in the most memorable scene with the my-eyes-live-on-my-palms fella.
See also: TimeCrimes. In fact, the above creature appears to be a direct influence for the Spanish sci-fi time-travelling flick, which features something of an homage. These are inextricably linked to other films with similar visuals including another time-travel (horror) film, Triangle, as well as the Del Toro-produced The Orphanage.