If you’re tired of masked killers and machete-wielding psychopaths, here are fifteen horror flicks that stray from horror movie norms while still offering plenty of scares.
1. Alien (1979)
Ridley Scott’s horror, sci-fi film about an alien hunting the crew of a commercial spacecraft is everything an alien flick should be: suspenseful, eerie, and well-paced. There are a few gory scenes, but the marvel of this film lies in that it does not rely solely on violence for scares as many other monster movies do. The slow-building tension as the crew fights to survive, culminating in a heart-pounding alien showdown, makes this movie a horror classic that should not be missed.
2. The Shining (1980)
Nothing good ever comes from a hotel visit in horror movies. Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece The Shining is based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King and tells the story of a father’s descent into madness during his stay at the vacant Overlook Hotel. Watching an everyday, down-on-his-luck writer slowly lose his mind and murderously stalk his family is unnerving to say the least. Which brings me to my last point: I am afraid of Jack Nicholson.
3. Misery (1990)
I am also afraid of Kathy Bates. Similar to The Shining, Misery was also based on a Stephen King novel and masterfully creates a story that largely takes place in one location. The story centers around an author who finds himself taken hostage by a deranged fan – perfectly portrayed by Kathy Bates – after she rescues him from a car wreck. What follows is equal parts shocking and terrifying with an ending that will make you fear the phrase, “I’m your number one fan.”
4. Identity (2003)
What do you get when you have ten people trapped at a creepy motel who discover they are being picked off one by one? A compelling movie. Identity is a smart, psychological thriller/horror film that, on the surface, seems to be a traditional murder mystery, yet quickly establishes that it will not play by traditional horror movie rules. Filled with plot twists and intriguing characters, Identity is a hair-raising thrill ride that doesn’t let up until the credits roll.
5. The Descent (2005)
If you are claustrophobic you might want to stay away from this one. The Descent is a British film about a group of young women on a caving expedition that goes horribly wrong. After descending deep underground, the women discover they are being stalked by wall-climbing, flesh-eating creatures. The story itself is a unique one, but the real star of the show is the creepy atmosphere of the cave achieved mostly through the use of red, minimalistic lighting. By the end of the film, you too may find yourself craving sunlight.
6. The Mist (2007)
What can I say? Stephen King writes some good horror movie material. The Mist centers around a group of people barricading themselves in a grocery store after a mysterious mist releases horrifying monsters in their town. What follows is a fight for survival that realistically portrays the dark side of human nature, while also providing lots of creature scares. Surprisingly, this film also delivers intense emotional performances and an ending that will leave you reaching for the Kleenex.
7. Quarantine (2008)
It was a simpler time in 2008 before found footage horror became overused. Quarantine is based on the Spanish film, REC (2007), and follows a young television reporter who becomes trapped in a quarantined apartment building as a mysterious virus causes the residents to become cannibalistic savages. Filmed exclusively with a handheld camera, the audience is not given any access to the outside world, meaning the viewers do not have advanced warning of attacks. Rather, we are forced to explore the horrors of the apartment building as the film crew does, making us feel somewhat trapped ourselves.
8. Orphan (2009)
Kids in horror movies are creepy. Isabelle Fuhrman as crazed newly adopted child, Esther, is downright spine-chilling. According to IMDb, the script for Orphan was voted as one of the most liked, unproduced scripts of 2007, and it is easy to see why. While on the surface, this film appears to be your typical deranged-child-wreaks-havoc-on-the-family story, in reality the writing is so much deeper and darker than that, leading to a climax that will leave you shivering long after the film cuts to black.
9. Pandorum (2009)
Pandorum is a largely unknown, highly underrated film that seems to take inspiration from the bits of Event Horizon that I did like, and leaves out the parts I didn’t. Two crew members aboard a deep space vessel awaken to find the rest of the crew gone along with their memories. The two men quickly realize something horrific has happened aboard the ship and their lives are in danger. Combining elements of horror and mystery, Pandorum is a fast-paced adventure filled with twists and mind-bending exposé.
10. Insidious (2010)
Modern-day slasher movies take note: Sometimes, when it comes to violence and bloodshed, less is more. Insidious manages to deliver the screams without spilling a drop of blood. Refreshingly, because the film does not rely on violence, shock and terror are built on the ever-growing presence of creatures that lurk in the shadows of the Lambert household. On a side note, this movie made me cry out of fear at one point.
11. The Thing (2011)
Some will fault me for putting this on the list because it’s a reboot/prequel and therefore not entirely original, but hear me out. The Thing is a prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 film of the same name and follows a Norwegian research team in Antarctica as they uncover an alien lifeform under the ice. The entity escapes and creates a major problem for the camp as they discover its shapeshifting nature. As the camp battles to survive, all events lead to a finale that perfectly ties this film to its predecessor, without over-reliance on the original. In this film, the story gives more screen time to the abilities of the alien (without showing it too much) and allows the CGI team to construct some pretty grotesque transformations. As far as prequels go, The Thing is suspenseful, action-packed and – thanks to modern day special effects and makeup – doesn’t venture into the uncanny valley as its predecessor often did.
12. Oculus (2013)
Honestly, I did not expect to like this one. Going into this film, I expected cheap, jump scares and illogical characters, but I was delighted to discover a well-written, psychological horror film about two siblings attempting to piece together the horrible, irrational events of their childhood. And the villain of the film? A creepy antique mirror responsible for hallucinations and ghostly apparitions.
13. The Babadook (2014)
If you’re looking for a typical monster movie then go ahead and skip this one, but for those seeking something more, this is one emotionally powerful and downright creepy film you should not miss. The Babadook is an Australian film that centers on a mother and son grieving the loss of their husband and father. After the mother reads her son an eerie children’s book, she discovers an unwelcome and malevolent presence in their home. I’ll admit, I had to consult the internet for theories about the film’s undertones and metaphors before I could fully appreciate what I had just seen…and I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. It’s fun to theorize about a film, and discovering that a film was actually a lot deeper than you thought originally makes the prospect of a repeat viewing pretty exciting.
14. It Follows (2014)
It Follows is one of the scariest movies I have ever seen. After a sexual experience, Jay finds herself being stalked by a shape-shifting humanoid that can only be seen by her and will only relent if she has sex with someone else, thereby passing on the curse. One of the things I love most about It Follows is that, similarly to The Babadook, it is open to interpretation. But this film goes even further by not providing the audience with definitive clues as to what the time period is. The director, David Robert Mitchell, has made remarks saying that this was intentionally done to create a dream-like atmosphere. This decision paired with the wonderfully creepy 80’s synth soundtrack and the beautiful cinematography contributes to a truly terrifying and disturbing film.
15. The Invitation (2015)
Good things come to those who wait. This under-the-radar, psychological thriller/horror film is the perfect example of how to build tension. Invited to a strange dinner by his ex-wife and her new husband, Will suspects that the couple has evil plans for those in attendance. As Will grows more and more suspicious, the audience is left to question whether we are watching the slow deterioration of his mind brought on by jealousy and dark memories or a sinister plot unfolding at what was initially an innocent-looking event.