Some films are clearly not meant to be horror per say, and yet... Something about them just flat out scares the crap out of you. It may be a single scene, a moment, or even the general theme of the movie, but all you know is that the film left you totally unsettled (12 Years a Slave wrecked me worse than any slasher film). Some of these unnerving movies have ended up becoming my favorites, mostly because they confused the crap out of me with their tonal mindf*%ks. A lot of them are classic foreign films, but some are newer American films that have pushed the boundaries of genre with great success.
What are some of your favorite not-quite-horror films?
L'avventura (1960) - For a film in which so little happens, there are few movies that unsettle me so deeply as this masterwork in existential brilliance from Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. While a bunch of wealthy do-nothings are on a yachting trip, the gorgeous Anna disappears. Then, when her boyfriend Sandro and her best friend Claudia embark on a search for Anna, they begin sleeping together and basically, just forget about Anna, at which point the movie ends. What happened to Anna? Meh, who knows. But Sandro and Claudia are having a blast! Never has the selfishness of the elite wealthy class been so disturbingly committed to celluloid as in Antonioni's beautiful film.
La Jetee (1962) - Did you like Twelve Monkeys? Source Code? Pretty much ANY time travel movie made since 1962? Well, then you can thank Chris Marker, the writer and director of La Jetee, perhaps my favorite experimental film in the history of forever. Composed of still images rather than traditional film, La Jetee tells the story of a slave forced to time travel back and forth in the aftermath of World War III in an attempt to solve the resulting food and medicine shortages. However, the man is haunted by an image of a woman that he can't remember, but also can't forget. Sound familiar? Nary a Science-Fiction director hasn't pilfered elements from this amazing film, so save yourself some time and go straight to the source.
Lady Snowblood (1973) - This film was the inspiration for the Kill Bill films, and yet so many people haven't bothered to seek out the original. You're doing yourself a disservice if you haven't. It's a gorgeous, violent, bloody genre bender and one of the greatest martial arts movies of all time. Just do yourself a favor and buy it. It's totally worth the purchase, as you'll want to watch it over and over to make sure you catch every detail.
The Piano (1993) - Let us just say, that at a very young age, I was acutely aware that Hollywood was a boy's club. So despite the fact I was ten when this movie was released, I begged my mom to rent it for me when Jane Campion was nominated for Best Director. And I. Was. Horrified. Not by the sex, because even as I kid, I was pretty a cool cat when it came to understanding film vs. reality. But what bothered me was the aggressive violence of it. Even today, I am genuinely uncomfortable during many of the "love" scenes between Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel, but am still moved by Hunter's performance and Campion's direction. Anna Pacquin is still annoying as frak though.
Twelve Monkeys (1995) - This isn't my favorite Terry Gilliam movie, but I totally appreciate the way that it updated La Jetee without dumbing it down for American audiences. While not much on subtlety, I loved the performances from Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, and I'd be lying if I said that the idea of any sort of viral epidemic doesn't scare the crap out of me. Virus' are a billionth our size and can totally kick our ass. Terrifying.
The City of Lost Children (1995) - Jean-Pierre Jeunet is easily one of my favorite directors working today, as I love his style. You could walk into one of his films in the middle, and you would absolutely know it was his. While I have loved EVERY film he has made (and I mean that... test me Alien: Resurrection haters), The City of Lost Children is my favorite. The story of scientist who is kidnapping children to steal their dreams because he no longer has dreams of his own is absolutely terrifying, and the visuals are creepy beyond belief. The film is like some sort of surrealist fairy tale told by Mother Goose on meth, and I love every single insane second of it.
Fargo (1996) - The Coen Brothers are pretty much the kings of not-quite horror films, but for me, Fargo takes the cake. A cast of characters that are basically too stupid to live but are still armed to the teeth and all killing each other with abandon? "And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood-chipper." How is that NOT terrifying?!
Mulholland Dr. (2001) - I love David Lynch. Hard. I would sell a kidney to follow David Lynch around and pick up his used tissues. And while some people crap on Mulholland Dr. for being too complicated, that is one of the things I love most about it. It's a frigging brilliant meditation of fame at any cost and the desperate struggle for success. But on the horror note, if you don't pee your pants during the following scene, you're a robot. End of story.
The Center of the World (2001) - On the surface, this is just a movie about a nerdy dude taking a stripper to vegas with him for a weekend of fun and frolic. But it's also a movie about sexual dynamics between men and women, power struggles in gender, rape, S&M, and horrible, awful things involving hot sauce. If you can handle artsy slowness, this movie will mess you up. Seriously. It actually inspired my entire graduate thesis.
Dogville (2003) - Yeah, yeah, Lars von Trier is an ass. I know this. 60% of his movies are pretentious drivel. But for me, Dogville is the exception to the rule. It's a little too long, and it's set in a warehouse inside lines drawn to look like a town. But by the end of the film, if you aren't seriously questioning your own sense of right and wrong, you weren't paying attention. Does von Trier hate people? Probably. But sometimes, can you blame him?
Black Snake Moan (2006) - I think this movie got ignored, unjustly, because it was seen as Justin Timberlake's toe-dipping into the film world. (Also maybe because Samuel L. Jackson chains Christina Ricci up in his house but since when has something like that stopped you kids from seeing a movie?) We all now know that JT is a decent actor, so for the love of Godzilla, give it a chance. It's a great film. But the reason it stuck with me, and simultaneously scared me, was a particular scene where SLJ worked out his anger at his wife through a blues song. It's terrifying and haunting and beautiful all at the same time. Did I mention you should see the damn movie? (This is the scene I was talking about. It's amazing.)
Bronson (2008) - Were you blown away by Tom Hardy as Bane in The Dark Knight Returns? Well, you don't know the half of it. As British career prisoner Michael Peterson and his alter ego Charles Bronson (don't ask, just watch it), Hardy utterly transformed himself into an unrecognizable hot-headed street tough. This film was so odd and affective that it lingered with me for days after I watched it.
Black Swan (2010) - Darren Aronofsky is amazing at punching viewers in the face with visuals that make you want to puke into your popcorn (if you've seen Requiem for a Dream, you know what I'm talking about.) But Black Swan was so disorienting and strange and gross and terrifying, that it is totally a horror film except snooty people love it and like to pretend it isn't. So, whatever snobs, you like a horror film. Suck it.
Winter's Bone (2010) - This is one of those "horror of reality" movies that I both love and loathe. Love because the performances are so raw and so real (Jennifer Lawrence before she was "J. Law") that you can practically smell the dead squirrel roasting on the spit, but loathe because they make you feel so miserable and sad that you want to run right to Ozark's and adopt every child there. Either way, this film, and every performance in it, was so beautiful and affective, it stuck with me for literally, months.
Drive (2011) - This. That is all.
Honorable Mention to The Fall: There is nothing particularly frightening about this little seen masterpiece from visionary director Tarsem Singh. However, it is so emotionally exhausting and stunning and all-consuming that every time I watch it, I feel like I've run a marathon. The story of a suicidal stunt man and a little girl with a broken arm, both in a hospital in 1920s Los Angeles, is intercut with the epic fantasy story he tells her to convince her to steal him pills so he can end his life. I'm including it on this list because I'm am constantly surprised how much it can move me, upset me, and surprise me.
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