They say that too many horror movies will rot your brain. Who says that? Moms and dads of the world, and other concerned types, mostly. Yes, there are few movie genres that generate quite as much scorn amongst the intellectuals and uninformed quite like horror. To be fair, their viewpoint is not entirely without merit. Over the years, horror movie viewers from all walks of life have had to endure a seemingly endless string of horror movies that are just plain…well, dumb. Some of them are still entertaining, but they’re dumb nonetheless.
It’s why the idea of a truly intelligent horror movie is so surprising to people. Even though anyone who has ever tried to create a scary story of their own know that the business of scaring people is not nearly as easy as it seems to be, the overtly stupid nature of your average horror film (“Why are they going in the basement?”) has led many to associate all horror movies with a lower form of entertainment. Sometimes, though, a rare film comes along that manages to make us think just as much as it frightens us.
These are the 15 Most Surprisingly Smart Horror Movies.
15 Jacob's Ladder
Jacob’s Ladder is the kind of movie that you happen to watch as a kid and later have to talk about to a very well-trained (and suddenly overworked) psychologist. It follows Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) as he attempts to discover how he got from the jungles of Vietnam to some kind of alternate timeline life in Brooklyn, NY. Even worse, Jacob can’t help but notice that there are a lot more giant bat monsters, disappearing people, and other inexplicable occurrences in this version of New York than the one he remembered.
The film is commonly described as a cinematic acid trip, which is pretty much how critics admit that they have no idea what’s happening, but there’s a lot of really strange stuff going on at once. In truth, Jacob’s Ladder is a commentary on man, religion, war, and death disguised as a horror film. The horror comes from the simple shock of the increasingly disturbing images that fill the screen. The brilliance, however, is only revealed to those that dig deep into the symbolism and subtle storytelling that make up this sometimes frustratingly complicated film.
14 The Others
The Others is a movie that you could easily look past if you’re just going off of the film’s marketing material. Anyone who was alive during the time of the film’s promotion will certainly remember the shots of ghostly figures taunting Nicole Kidman throughout what appears to be a haunted house. It certainly looked like a generic ghost story that relied on all the old tricks to convey scares. The truth is shockingly more complicated than that.
If you really want to, you can easily cut together snippets of traditional horror movie moments from the scenes in this film, but the brilliance of it occurs between the big moments. The Others utilizes a sub-plot involving the lead children’s extreme sensitivity to sunlight to create a pure gothic atmosphere that serves as the backdrop to a story that is never in a hurry to reveal itself at once. Subtlety is the order of the day. There is a genuinely deep mystery that plays out across the film’s 104-minute runtime, and director Alejandro Amenabar does a tremendous job of making you strain your brain for all the answers.
Much of the intelligence of Psycho requires you to look at the time of the film’s release for context. Psycho is regularly cited as one of the first real “slasher” films, which is an impressive legacy that tends to dilute the film’s intelligence when you think of what that the genre eventually became. What Psycho really did was rip audiences from the sci-fi terrors that dominated the ‘50s and place them in a world where the horrors were much more visceral and potentially right around the corner. It was one of the first films to explore how much more frightening man is than monsters.
Even now, modern film audiences will be able to appreciate the intelligence of Psycho in comparison to many recent horror films. Psycho isn’t trying to scare you at every moment; it’s trying to examine the consequences of what happens when several fascinating characters find themselves in a unique situation. Nearly every character in this film is playing some kind of symbolic role in a story about redemption and the justice of man. Each scene in this film serves as much larger purpose than advancing the story to the next big scare.
12 Session 9
Thank god for the internet. No, seriously. Were it not for dedicated film fans taking to their corner of the internet to inform the rest of the world about some obscure piece of brilliance they happened across one dark and stormy night, movies like Session 9 may have never surfaced. What a shame that would be. Session 9 initially intrigues viewers with the premise of a desperate asbestos removal company that have agreed to clean out an old mental institution at a reduced price and in record time. With the exception of the mental institution, that’s not the kind of plot most horror movies build their scares upon.
Session 9 isn’t most horror movies. In fact, were it not for the discovery of a series of tapes that cover the psychology session of a schizophrenic patient, it might not have been a horror movie at all. The movie does a great job of maximizing the effectiveness of its atmosphere for scares, but the true draw here are the personal stories of the removal crew and how their own lives start to intersect with the horrors of the hospital. It all leads to an ending that maximizes a rare moment of traditional horror.
There’s been a lot of talk over the years about how Hollywood has abandoned the frightening vampire in favor of ones with tortured souls begging to be loved. It’s a fair criticism, but it is a bit shortsighted. While there are some pieces of work that take the humanization of the vampire too far (we’re looking at you Twilight), sometimes, the nature of the vampire can be used as a tremendous starting point for the exploration of life. Such is the case in Byzantium; a movie that sees a mother and daughter vampire hold up in a seedy motel while they hide from a group of rival vampires.
Byzantium is something of an elaborate allegory for a variety of topics that include: mother-daughter relationships, the power of women, and sexuality in general. Unlike many other movies that deal with such sensitive subjects, Byzantium deserves to be praised for the way that it subtly addresses the issues it wishes to cover. The film’s primary interest is to tell you an interesting (and sometimes quite scary) story. Beyond that, however, lies a healthy amount of subtlety that adds layers to the final film.
10 The Cabin In The Woods
Anyone who has ever seen Epic Movie, Superhero Movie, Disaster Movie, or Meet the Spartans will tell you that good parodies are a precious thing. Anyone can just make some cheap jokes about some chosen source material, but it takes a real master to effectively dissect a genre and find the humor within. Joss Whedon is such a master. For years, fans waited patiently for him to deliver a full-length horror movie after he showed his scary skills as the showrunner of Buffy. The Cabin in the Woods presents itself as that, but its true nature is something much more brilliant.
People always said that the best parodies are those that present themselves as a semi-serious entrant into the style that they are mocking, which is a pretty great basic summary of Cabin in the Woods. When the film is trying to be an effective horror movie, it is an effective horror movie. Most of the time, however, it is a teardown/celebration of the horror film genre. Only those that are true students of horror will be able to spot the many moments of brilliance peppered throughout this masterpiece.
9 The Devil's Backbone
Guillermo Del Toro is just the best. Apologies for starting off this entry with a moment of fandom, but the man deserves the occasional moment of unabashed praised for what he has managed to do throughout his accomplished career. If you had to associate Guierrmo Del Toro with one filmmaking element, it would be striking visuals reminiscent of the works of Tim Burton. However, Del Toro has always been the master when it comes to using those striking visuals as an anchor for something much more subtle.
In that respect, The Devil’s Backbone is arguably the director’s masterpiece. It takes place during the height of the Spanish Civil War and is set at an orphanage where a young boy begins having visions of a child that was thought to be dead. The visions of this child provide the film’s scares, but if you are able to get past the shock of those scenes, you’ll find one of the most heartbreaking films about war ever made. It seems natural that horror and war would go together well, but few directors have ever been able to blend the two so smoothly as Del Toro does here.
If you’re reading this entry with raised eyebrows and a boiling hot feeling of doubt swelling in your stomach, just know that we don’t blame you. On the surface, it’s almost impossible to think of Saw as a smart movie. After all, this is the film that launched the kind of cheap horror franchise not seen since the heyday of the ‘80s slasher film. This is the movie that helped launch the unfortunate era of the torture porn film. How could anyone ever label Saw as intelligent?
To that we say: “Watch the movie again.” Much like The Matrix, the reputation of Saw has become so maligned because of what followed the original movie that it’s difficult to remember why it was such a big deal in the first place. However, a simple fresh viewing reveals that Saw is much smarter than its sequels and genre competitors. Much of the movie plays out in a single room and a lot of the violence that is typically associated with the film is actually not shown on-screen. Saw is a movie that makes you think it’s much dumber than it really is, which is actually pretty smart.
7 The House of the Devil
With The House of the Devil, you could argue that director Ti West wanted to make a movie for himself and nobody else. To call House of the Devil a throwback to the era of ‘70s and '80s movies is like saying that Quentin Tarantino occasionally inserts a film reference into his movies. Every piece of equipment, ever actor, and every shot are designed to perfectly emulate the spirit of that old style. West even insisted that a print of the film be transferred to VHS in order to retain the aesthetic.
All this flattery serves a greater purpose, however. The House of the Devil is the rare kind of horror movie that doesn’t necessarily care if its audience is having a good time. It tests the limits of the genre slow-burn and, in doing so, really exposes the mileage a film can get out of teasing the promise of scares as opposed to constantly shoveling them onto the screen. The challenge here isn’t so much to think hard about what is happening on screen (although there is some of that) but rather to allow yourself to patiently appreciate the fact that the threat of being scared is sometimes just as scary as the moment itself.
6 It Follows
Don’t freak out, but we’re quietly living in a second golden age of intelligent horror films. It’s true. Not since the ‘60s and ‘70s have a group of horror directors been so dedicated to respecting the intelligence of their audience. Films like The Babadook, The Witch, and Don’t Breathe all aim to challenge the conventions of horror and present something a little different. It Follows is arguably the most intriguing entry into this new wave.
Some people have disputed whether the central premise of a mysterious entity serving as an elaborate metaphor for STDs is really all that clever. It's ground that far lesser movies such as Species have covered in one way or another. What separates It Follows is the execution. Director David Robert Mitchell isn’t interested in commentating on sex and disease; he wants to use this very common part of life as a tool to ground the audience to a very supernatural story. The true intelligence of It Follows, however, is the way that it eschews so many horror techniques (such as tight camera shots) in favor of creating an environment where you’re constantly scanning the perimeter in search of the next big scare.
5 Let The Right One In
In another world, Let the Right One In could be a classic children’s film. It’s the story of a young Sweedish boy who finds himself constantly tormented by the kids in his class. He dreams of getting even with these bullies and also of finding friends of his own. Into this boy’s life comes a cautious young girl named Eli who is also a loner. They slowly break down their personal barriers and form a bond. What makes the whole thing a deeply troubling horror story is the fact that Eli is a vampire.
It’s a strange thing to mix the heart-warming with the horrifying. Let the Right One In is a deeply terrifying film not because of the presence of a vampire, but because of the way it toys with our emotions and expectations. You’re not meant to simply classify this film as one thing or another just as you are not meant to label its characters based on what they appear to be. It’s tempting to draw conclusions at every moment, but Let The Right One In is the rare horror film that discourages gut reactions in favor of searching your soul.
4 The Changeling
Generally speaking, horror films are far more frightening when you are younger. It’s something that a lot of people don’t want to talk about, but the truth is that horror movies are always going to be more effective when you can buy into the possibility that what you're watching is real. Call it blissful ignorance. The exception to this rule tends to be smart horror movies. There are few movies on this list that a kid might appreciate as much as an adult that is willing to dig into them.
That’s especially true of The Changeling. There are a couple of moments in The Changeling that are universally terrifying, but the story here is much closer to a particularly complicated political thriller in terms of structure. You constantly have to pay attention to every new development in this movie which is not easy when most of them are subtly presented in such a way that you’re not entirely sure what is relevant. It also doesn’t help that most plot developments are accompanied by some expertly implemented paranormal event meant to throw you off the path of reason.
3 Don't Look Now
Don’t Look Now is a movie that shares many admirable qualities with The Changeling, but arguably does them even better. For years, people looked down on this movie about a husband and wife that decide to take a trip to Venice following the death of their daughter. They said it was too artsy, too cold, and, because of a particularly involved sex scene, too vulgar. Some even said that the whole movie was an excuse to take a trip to Venice, which is understandable given the number of scenery shots. Others, however, rightfully recognized this movie as one of the most complicated thrillers ever filmed.
Director Nicolas Roeg has stated in the past that he considers this movie to be a testament to how nothing in life “is what it seems.” This means that he spends a lot of time using the delicate psyche of the main characters to toy with the audience in regards to what is coming next. So much of this movie is meant to invoke the feeling of being just behind the point that it will take even the most intelligent of viewers several showings to really understand why everything is the way it is.
Suspiria is rightfully recognized by just about everyone that has seen it as one of the most beautiful movies ever shot. It’s one of the final films to use Technicolor which is a fact that becomes readily apparent to any viewer that lends even a few minutes of time to the movie. Everything in this film is bathed in vibrant reds, greens, and blues. If it was the job of Dario Argento to shoot a movie that nobody would ever be able to visually top, then mission accomplished.
The thing that tends to get swept under the rug when people speak of Suspiria’s visual splendor, however, is just how smart the overall film really is. Suspiria is designed to simulate the feeling of having wandered into a dream. As anyone who has ever had a lucid dream knows, they typically don’t involve a very cohesive narrative structure. Suspiria doesn’t either, but the film does a remarkable job of hiding a cohesive mythology under initially bewildering events. Fans of this movie eventually must come to realize that there are several elements of it that the film has no intention of answering. It forces you to draw your own conclusions.
People are pretty quick to describe a film as a head trip (or its slightly more popular, much more vulgar alternative phrasing). Sometimes, it seems that any movie which intends to throw the viewer off track through even the most simple use of nonlinear storytelling or editing is a confusing piece of filmmaking. That’s a shame because that tag really deserves to be applied to those movies which completely shatter the notion of simple stories. It deserves to be applied to movies such as Triangle.
Let’s be clear: Much like primer, you’re probably going to have watch Triangle several times and perhaps even seek the assistance of the film’s community if you’re ever going to have a hope of understanding everything that happens in this movie. Triangle plays with the concept of alternate realities and timelines. It plays with them so much, in fact, that there comes a point where it’s almost impossible to be entirely sure what reality you are viewing. Despite the deep levels of confusion in play here, what’s remarkable about Triangle is that everything that happens does make sense. Manage to overcome the movie’s considerable scares, and you have a chance of appreciating its intellect.