The recent boom in smart horror films has meant some of the most exciting releases in the last five years have been from a genre often ignored at award ceremonies. Works like Ari Aster's Hereditary and Midsommar, Jordan Peele's Get Out or Jennifer Kent's The Babadook have proved how effective horror is at delivering more serious messages amidst the foreboding music and bloodshed.
These prestige horror films prove that conjuring something frightening means being more inventive than relying on jump scares and spooky staircases leading to a dark basement. They prove that though horror might be the vehicle which these films arrive in, there are shades of so many other genres lurking within them too.
Best of all, you can stream them all right now.
Based on horror connoisseur Stephen King's 2010 novella of the same name, 1922 is the unsettling story of a Nebraska farmer's plot to murder his wife and how he manipulates his teenage son into helping do so. With a commanding lead performance from Thomas Jane as farmer Wilfred, 1922 hones in on his unravelling instead of sensationalising the violence he commits.
As with many of King's works it is a chilling picture of madness, and one filled with motifs that stay with you, from packs of rats to a butchers knife wielded in the dark. It's also a story told with some narrative distance from the events, allowing the protagonist to reckon with the blood on his hands.
With his 2014 sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, director Alex Garland created a chilling but elegant story about what it means to be human. His follow-up, based on the first of The Southern Reach Trilogy by author Jeff VanderMeer, is similarly complex, a sci-fi horror in which biologist and ex-soldier Lena sets out to explore Area X – the sinister space expanding across the American coastline where her husband went missing.
Annihilation isn't a jump-scare horror, but leaves a gnawing sense of dread in the pit of your stomach as you traverse through an extraterrestrial world. Natalie Portman gives a strong lead performance as do her all-female team of researchers played by Jennifer Jason Lee, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Notovny. There's also one particularly moment, featuring a screaming bear, which provides one of the most horrifying and twisted scenes of cinema in recent years. It will linger long after the credits. (Annihilation was, perhaps unexpectedly, also one of Barack Obama's favourite films of the year.)
Remember the buzz about Ari Aster's debut being "the new Exorcist"? Obviously that was a little bit overheated, but with the benefit of a couple of years' distance, it's easier to take it on its merits. And what merits they are: a staggering central performance from Toni Collette, who goes through the many octaves of her range; Aster's sadistic relish in trapping the viewer with characters having a freak-out; Aster's sadistic relish in cranial trauma.
The story follows Annie (Collette) and her family as they grieve for her cruel, private mother, and gradually find out grandma was part of a very select secret society. Possession, demon worship and peanut allergies ensue. Yes, some bits are a little cheap – our hero finds a book that details the entirety of the evil plan? How fortunate! – but it's more than gripping enough to power through that and hit a conclusion which still has a properly haunting, jaw-slackening power.
The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
Joss Whedon is the screenwriter behind this subversive film which cleverly dismantles all of the clichés within the horror genre. What begins as a classic doomed tale where teenagers take a trip into the woods turns into a maze of different tropes, referencing specific authors, films and conventions of the genre so that the whole thing feels packed with Easter eggs for horror fans.
Gerald's Game (2017)
This Netflix adaptation of Steven King's 1992 novel Gerald's Game is a psychological thriller which sees a good-natured sex game go very badly wrong. While there are no actual monsters in here, it's still a terrifying scenario – one pushed to extremes with acclaimed horror director Mike Flanagan at the helm.
The team behind the Saw franchise — James Wan (director) and Leigh Whannell (screenwriter) — take a visit to the haunted house in the first instalment of this franchise. It stars Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne as a couple whose son inexplicably enters a coma after discovering something in their family attic, which is never a good sign when you're spending time in somewhere this spooky. Upon awakening, they naturally discover he is possessed with a dark spirit. Cue carnage.
A Quiet Place (2018)
John Krasinski makes his directorial debut and stars alongside wife Emily Blunt in this taut and suspenseful story of a family evading monsters by staying very, very quiet. As well as compelling performances from both leads, the film masterfully manipulates sound to make moments feel unbearably loud after long spells of silence.
Kathy Bates won an Academy Award for her turn in this 1990 horror film about a novelist who is helped following a car accident by a kind nurse. His rescuer turns out to be a crazed fan who breaks his legs and holds him captive. Based on Steven King's novel of the same name, Misery has the same claustrophobia and unnerving 'what if' premise as Gerald's Game.
Yet another Stephen King adaptation, this one starring perhaps his most iconic villain in the form of Pennywise the clown. It tells the story of a community in Derry, Maine where children start to go missing at the hands of a shapeshifting evil which emerges from the town's drains. Fusing the Eighties spirit of Stranger Things with the horror of King's original story, It is more about adventure than pure horror but remains frightening thanks to the unhinged laugh of Pennywise.
American Psycho (2000)
Christian Bale plays the athletic, well-dressed, suave, successful serial killer Patrick Bateman in this stylish and grim adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis' novel of the same name. A dive into the mind of a psychopath with jet-black humour carried perfectly by Bale's maniacal grin.
Annabelle: Creation (2017)
The film from Swedish director David F. Sandberg is a prequel to the middling 2016 film Annabelle – itself a prequel of the brilliant The Conjuring. It tells the story of how a couple embed the spirit of their dead daughter into a doll, only to realise it is a demon. Sandberg's direction brings suspense and dread back to the story, with the 1940s American Gothic aesthetic and backdrop of an orphanage giving it a spooky feel.
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