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 some of them right now.
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.
The Conjuring (2013)
James Wan, a horrorphile who counts numerous instalments of the Insidious, Saw and Annabelle franchises under his directing credits, makes one of his very best in this supernatural horror. The story follows a family who experience a paranormal phenomenon after moving into a farmhouse in Rhode Island, their clocks all stopping at the same time and the family dog found dead in the garden. The story is made more sinister still by the fact it was inspired by a real-life couple, a pair of paranormal investigators and authors associated whose reporting inspired The Amityville Horror film.
Await Further Instructions (2018)
This 2018 film has eerie echoes in a time of global lockdowns, with the story unfolding after a family wakes up on Christmas morning toto find a strange black substance around their house and a single, haunting message from the TV telling them to: "Stay Indoors and Await Further Instructions." The British sci-fi horror invokes a sickening kind of dread as the family are left to sweat wondering whether what they are seeing is nuclear, terrorism or something less familiar. It also moves beyond the basic tropes of dystopian cinema by highlighting the toxic male bravado often brought on by panicked situations.
This update on the 1978 classic doesn't quite match the original, but it is the best instalment in the 11-part franchise since we first were introduced to Michael Myers. The story picks up four decades after Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) last came face to face with her nemesis Myers, reuniting them after the killer escapes while being transferred to a maximum security prison. The films sets the stage for a final showdown between the two, with production from Jason Blum giving the film a slick and modern feel. It also features a twisty post-credit scene to savour.
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.
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.
Based on the first of The Southern Reach Trilogy by author Jeff VanderMeer, Alex Garland's follow up to Ex Machina is 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, and there's also one particularly memorable moment, featuring a screaming bear, which provides one of the most horrifying and twisted scenes of cinema in recent years.
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.
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, American Psycho is a classic which pointed to the vanity of serial killers in a way that still feels beyond its time.
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