It’s scary how many horror movies come out each year that immediately fade into oblivion — yet they enjoy broad releases and overly excited followings (looking at you, Ari Aster’s oeuvre!). These films regurgitate the themes of classic horror and science fiction, and while some, such as The Witch, are worthy contenders, die-hard horror fans like me are eager to find some fresh blood (so to speak).
Thankfully, the past few decades have yielded some hidden gems, all with unique concepts and genuine scares. To me, the best horror films strike a good balance between premise and creepiness. They feature tense character dynamics, subtle themes, and plots that aren’t contrived or silly. Without further ado, here are five films meeting these qualifications.
Note: I’m limiting this list to North American/UK films, but there are many more wonderful horror movies available if you dive into the world of European, Asian, and Central/South American cinema!
As Above So Below
Movies such as Indiana Jones and The Mummy play up the spooky elements of tombs and supernatural bogedies, but those are ultimately hero stories. In truth, searching for hidden treasure in underground tombs would be downright terrifying. As Above So Below recognizes this, and shows no mercy as it pits its characters against ancient horrors.
The film revolves around a bullheaded young archaeologist, Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), who rivals Dr. Ellie Sattler in tenacity. In fact, Scarlett is hyper-focused on the goal of uncovering the Philosopher’s Stone, to the point that she drags a whole crew into the deadly labyrinth of Paris’s catacombs. Despite her obnoxious behavior, her intelligence and passion are palpable, making Scarlett an empathetic character. It was refreshing to see a female lead who’s neither angelic nor tough-as-nails, but just plainly human, flaws and all.
The supporting cast is good as well, and as the characters become entwined in the catacombs’ mysteries, each of their backstories becomes painfully important. So many horror movies, especially found-footage films, treat the secondary characters as fodder for gore and shocks. As Above So Below doesn’t neglect its core premise (and namesake), which is that magic stems from people’s tragedies as well as their talents.
The film is also exceptionally spooky. Like The Descent, it makes great use of the sagging ceilings, tight crevices, and oppressive environment in which the characters struggle for survival. The horrific elements they encounter are portrayed in an understated way. Indeed, the production design effectively suggests an eldritch horror, one that cannot be easily undone by quick wits and clever one-liners.
Could a hero survive these catacombs? In As Above So Below, that’s the real question.
The Beach House
H.P. Lovecraft wove an entire universe of monstrous gods that defied the rules of nature and brought humans to their knees. From compellingly frightening films such as Colour Out of Space to twisty tragedies such as The Mist, Lovecraft’s influence on contemporary horror is palpable. One of my favorites, though, is a recent entry into the genre. Like Lovecraft’s best works, it speaks to environmental disruption and psychic manipulation, forcing us to question just how stable our humanity really is.
The Beach House starts out as a quirky comedy might: a young woman hoping to rekindle the passion with her boyfriend accepts his invite to his father’s secluded beach house. When they arrive, they find that another couple, friends of his father, are already staying there. Awkwardness ensues, followed by a night of hedonism fueled by alcohol and weed. That night, a strange bioluminescence takes over the beach. From then on, things get…weird.
The Beach House deftly juggles creepy visuals with existential horror, and for a good part of the film, it does so in broad daylight. The spectacular beach and sweeping blue ocean became sites of horror as the line between human and nature begins to blur. The film does a great job of making you feel uneasy with a simple camera angle, then smacks you in the face with a heartpoundingly effective gross-outs. The performances are astoundingly creepy as well — and all the more powerful as the true cause of the horror is revealed.
In a nutshell: If you’ve been feeling uneasy about climate change, this film will have you desperately looking to reduce your carbon footprint.
In the Tall Grass
When most of us think of Stephen King’s creepiest works, we tend to list Carrie, The Shining, IT, and other stories that dabble in the basic spooks: witches, ghosts, and interdimensional demons, oh my! However, some of his scariest concepts appear in his short stories.
In the Tall Grass, based on the novella by Stephen King and Joe Hill, follows a family who hears a voice calling for help from within a field of grass. Upon entering, they find themselves trapped in an endless maze of time and space. With a clever hinge-pin plot and twists that put Shyamalan to shame, In the Tall Grass is a horrifically bendy treatise of fate, terror, and psychosis.
The film successfully blends riveting visuals with toxic character dynamics, bolstering an oppressive dread that culminates in complete hopeless. Don’t let the heavy despair keep you from missing the exquisite cinematography. If you know the classic creepiness of tall plants, you won’t be disappointed by this film.
However, it’s the striking performances by horror veteran Patrick Wilson and newcomer Laysla De Oliveira that give this film its true horror. Both fully embrace the grotesque demands of their roles — and believe me, you won’t be able to look away when you want to. In the Tall Grass portrays a psychological hell enmeshed with blood-soaked earth and oddly sinister blades of glass. The visuals are unforgettable, yet so mundane that you’ll never look at fields the same way again.
The scary-woods trope has been so overplayed that at first glance, The Ritual seems like yet another hiking-trip-gone-wrong movie. Scratch the surface, and you uncover a thrilling metaphor for grief and guilt, all wrapped up in a pagan horror WAY scarier than Midsommar.
The Ritual follows a group of friends who embark on a hike in memory of their late friend Rob. They perform a small ritual in his honor before they venture into a mysterious forest in northern Sweden. It’s not long before a different ritual seizes them, and they find themselves acting out some strange impulses while they struggle to escape an unseen stalker.
Thanks to engaging performances by Rafe Spall and the rest of the cast, the film never loses its psychological weight. You feel the emptiness of both the space among the trees and the growing holes in each character’s heart. The Ritual explores the darkest of human impulses as its characters battle an oppressive forest.
Despite the clear nods to The Blair Witch Project and other predecessors, this film pursues its own terrifying premise, with a visually stunning payoff you’ll never forget.
Goodness — or rather, darkness — knows that possession movies are a dime a dozen. Between The Exorcist and the entire Conjuring Universe, there is no shortage of demons from various mythologies. Yet most possession films pit demons against Christian investigators, often with moralizing overtones about female sexuality and borderline psychosis.
The Possession is different. With its distinctly Jewish viewpoint, it maintains a deeply traditional sense while tapping into the ancestral trauma of Hebrews. This film follows a family who purchases an intriguing wooden box, not knowing that it contains more than meets the eye. The box becomes a link between the host, Emily, and a dybbuk, which blurs the lines between ghost and demon. As Emily’s behavior begins to change, her father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) faces a worsening stream of creepy encounters. Rather than relying on classic jump scares and “demonic” activity, the film makes Emily’s fading humanity the point of interest.
It works. Between riveting performances and some stunning visuals, The Possession up-ends the classic narrative of a random demon possessing an innocent girl. It portrays the dybbuk as an entity that bridges the gap between human and demon, causing those lines to blur in its victims as well.
With an explosive climax and heavy philosophical weight, The Possession definitely stands out from a long line of possession films.
In each of these films, supernatural forces invade the elements of our humanity, forcing us to reconcile our fears. Strained relationships and dark impulses underpin each story, while even the most mundane items become terrifying. That’s perhaps why these films haven’t achieved the popularity of major horror movies: they throw our common sins into sharp relief and suggest that our existence is, truly, hopeless.
Now that’s scary.
Have you seen any of these films? What are our favorite hidden gems in horror cinema?
Dark: Chamber Films of the Horror Genre — Part 1
Chamber theatre is a style of theatrical production in which there is typically little to no set (and any set pieces…
Dark: Chamber Films of the Horror Genre — Part 2
This is part two of a series on chamber horror. A link to the first part of the series is at the end of this piece.