10 Terrifying Films (That Aren't Horror)
Typically, when movie fans think of “scary” films, the horror genre comes to mind. Whether Freddy Kruger is haunting your nightmares, your house is under attack by ghosts, or a loved one is possessed by a demon, the confines of the genre provide a plethora of frights for viewers looking for a good scare. However, they aren’t the only types of films that are terrifying. Films of any kind can be just as tense as a classic horror movie if the scenarios are scary enough. Case in point: this month’s Gravity. The new movie is officially considered to be part of the drama and sci-fi genres. Yet, with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock floating aimlessly in space with nobody there to save them, the dilemma they find themselves in is worse than being hunted by Jason Voorhees. At least you can fight back against a hockey mask-wearing murderer. Of course, Gravity is not alone in being a non-horror horror movie. To coincide with its release, here are ten terrifying real-life scenarios in films.
In this Oscar-nominated drama, James Franco stars as Aron Ralston, a lover of the outdoors who is always exploring the mountains in Utah. As he plans his latest weekend excursion, Ralston neglects to tell anyone where he is going. This crucial mistake comes back to haunt him when his arm gets trapped under a boulder and Ralston is left to his own devices as he struggles to survive over a period of… 127 Hours. Anyone who has seen the film can attest to its scariness. Not only is the infamous arm-cutting sequence gruesome and unnerving, Ralston’s entire predicament is more than enough to fill anyone with fear. Danny Boyle’s shot selection, illustrating Ralston’s loneliness, is particularly unsettling and the character’s slow march towards his presumed death (punctuated by the emotional gut-punch of video messages to his family and friends) makes this one harrowing experience.
James Cameron’s Oscar-winning epic gets a lot of flack for being a sappy, melodramatic, poorly written love story. While some of the criticisms lobbied at thin characterization may have some merits, it’s hard to deny the awe of Titanic’s final hour after the ship collides with an iceberg. It’s during this climactic sequence where the directorial king of the world gets to flex his filmmaking muscles and prove to audiences that nobody does action quite like him. The last act of Titanic is truly horrifying as passengers frantically try to escape the sinking ship. Shots of water bursting into cabins and rooms leave an empty feeling as people fight or accept their fate. Images of corpses floating in the ice-cold ocean look like something out of a nightmare. They say drowning is one of our greatest fears, and a single viewing of Titanic will make you never want to go on a cruise.
No Country for Old Men
In this award-winning Coen brothers modern classic, Llewelyn Moss stumbles across a bag containing $2 million after a failed drug deal. Thinking that he and his wife are set thanks to this new fortune, Moss makes plans to get his family far away to avoid the rightful owners of the money. If only he knew who was after him. Anton Chigurh, memorably brought to life in an Oscar-winning turn by Javier Bardem, is what gives this film a horrifying quality. Whenever the sociopathic killer is on screen, it’s always a tense moment. Only he can make small talk with a gas station owner uneasy. Just the sight of Chigurh on the hunt is enough to frighten even the most courageous law enforcement agent, but the villain’s many murders (and the way he executes them) make this masterful drama feel like a high-art slasher flick. Being pursued by a ruthless assassin/sociopath is certainly possible - and even more terrifying. If you ever encounter Chigurh, best of luck in that coin toss.
You would expect Martin Scorsese’s cops-and-criminals tale to be full of suspense and high stakes thrills, but it’s also a little on the scary side. Similar to No Country for Old Men, The Departed is elevated to a terrifying real-life scenario by the presence of one character: Jack Nicholson’s ruthless gangster Frank Costello. Who wouldn't be terrified at the prospect of being discovered as the rat in Costello's crew? It helps that protagonist Billy Costigan, undercover cop, is extremely paranoid. Leonardo DiCaprio’s on-edge performance makes it easy for the audience to understand why fearing for your life under a mob boss would be an agonizing experience - especially since Nicholson's character is so petrifying. The way he nonchalantly waves a severed hand or a gun in Costigan’s face molds Costello as a man you do not want to cross and puts everyone on alert. At a moment’s notice, you could be dead. It’s understandable to be frightened of a man who walks into a bar arms covered in blood.
If you’re a parent, the idea of losing your children is without question your greatest fear. That’s what makes this fall’s Prisoners so effective. Even those without any offspring can feel sympathy for the Dovers and the Birches after their young daughters go missing on Thanksgiving. The overwhelming feelings of hopelessness and grief can drive even the friendliest family man insane. Thoughts of lost girls is usually more than enough to amp up the tension in a drama, but Prisoners takes it one step further with the added element of torture. Not only is the film scary for Hugh Jackman’s Keller Dover, Paul Dano’s Alex Jones goes through his own terrifying ordeal as he is kidnapped and locked up in a house while Dover does unspeakable things to him. A title with multiple meanings, Prisoners mines the depths of what it is to be both terrified and the terrorizer.
Ben Affleck’s Best Picture winner is set during the Iranian Hostage Crisis and right from the opening minutes the viewer knows that this is going to be one tense, scary ride. When six Americans escape and take refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s house, it’s up to Affleck’s Tony Mendez to get them out under the guise of a fake movie crew - before they are all killed. In his meeting with John Chambers, Mendez calls Iran the “worst place you can think of,” and it’s easy to see why: between riots in the streets and the grim imagery of bodies hanging from construction cranes, there are plenty of reasons for the audience to believe that the Iranians are going to find the Americans. Hanging over everyone’s head is the fear of being caught – which would lead to the death of all involved. Affleck’s focused direction helps create suspenseful sequences at the bazaar and airport, which could cause anyone to fear the worst is about to happen.
A comedy is probably the last place you would go for real-life terror, but the premise of Todd Phillips’s breakout smash seems like something right out of our craziest nightmares. After an insane bachelor party, groom Doug goes missing and it’s up to his three best friends (that anybody could have) to find him before the wedding, setting up unusually high stakes for a comedic movie. Underneath the wacky cameos and hilarious jokes is a frantic race against time that makes events depicted in The Hangover very frightening. Not only does the Wolfpack need to find Doug so he can get married on time, they also want to make sure that he’s still breathing when they do. Any unfortunate viewer in the same situation as the Wolfpack would likely have the same gut-wrenching thoughts: What if something happened? What if he’s dead? To top it all off, the group is pursued by a merciless Chinese gangster and are nearly killed on several occasions. Some guys just can’t handle Vegas.
It’s a running theme on our list, but a person going missing is one of the most terrifying things that can happen – whether it is in a movie or real life. A great film example of this is Robert Zemeckis’s drama, Cast Away. Starring Tom Hanks as Chuck Noland, it tells the story of a FedEx employee whose world is turned upside down when he ends up stranded on a desert island following a plane crash. The movie provides an interesting “what would you do?” scenario to the audience and the scenes of Noland adapting to his new life are truly fascinating. But when you boil it down, Cast Away is a horrifying film. Despite the best intentions of Wilson, Noland is very much alone during his stay on the island, which taps into one of our most basic emotional fears. With nobody knowing where he is, the resourceful Noland spends years enduring scorching temperatures, fierce rainstorms, and hunger (not to mention, a failed suicide attempt). You’ll want to rethink that island fantasy after seeing this film.
The only thing worse than being trapped on a desert island is crashing into the Alaskan wilderness and being hunted by a pack of relentless wolves. That’s exactly what happens to Liam Neeson’s Ottway and his crew in 2012’s survival-thriller The Grey. Battling territorial wolves and a freezing climate, the group attempts to survive as they journey back to civilization. Scenes involving the wolves are particularly tense, but director Joe Carnahan makes sure there are other real-life dangers to deal with as well. The sequence in which the characters secure a makeshift line to pass through a canyon will make anybody afraid of heights cover their eyes. Even if you eliminate the wolves, The Grey still works as a terrifying film due to the man vs. nature aspect. The cold weather would be enough to keep the stakes of this movie high, as it provides a great enough threat to kill any of the survivors.
If you think fictionalized astronauts floating in space is scary, then a similar tale that actually happened should be even worse. Ron Howard’s cinematic telling of the failed Apollo 13 mission serves up plenty of tension and suspense - even if you already know how it ends. Making this (slightly) bearable is the fact that NASA is fully aware of the situation and their employees are hard at work to devise a way to get the astronauts home safely. Still, there are several obstacles Jim Lovell and his crew must overcome. The temperatures could freeze any of the crew to death and rising carbon dioxide levels are near-fatal. Due to the poor condition of their module, the protagonists are also unsure which systems (including the heat shield) are intact - making the reentry into Earth’s atmosphere an extremely frightening trip. The crew goes through a lot of emotions during Apollo 13 and after watching the treacherous ordeal, non-spacefarers will be happy they're on solid ground.
As we’ve illustrated, a movie doesn’t need monsters, ghosts, or goblins to terrorize the audience - real life provides enough danger for any of us. Prestige pictures, comedies, and worldwide blockbusters can give any horror film a run for its money in the scare department - if the filmmakers place the characters in the right situations. Our list is not meant to be all-inclusive, so be sure to include your picks in the comments section below and let us know if you think a reality-based drama is just as scary (or scarier) than Friday the 13th. ____ Gravity is in theaters October 4. Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisAgar90.