I can’t count the number of times I’ve said, “Well, it’s almost a horror movie…”
We’re living in a golden age of horror with enough new films and classic reissues to offer genre fans endless hours of entertainment. But just because you can watch horror exclusively doesn’t mean you should. Too much exposure to gore and jump scares can leave even the most enthusiastic horror aficionados feeling jaded; believe me, I know what I’m talking about.
My Dread Central colleague Mike Sprague recent penned the editorial Why Horror Fans Should Watch Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. He points out how there’s a nebulous divide separating bleak dramas like Super Dark Times, which is considered a horror movie, from others that are thematically similar but separated from the genre.
I’ve always had a somewhat liberal definition of horror, believing it’s more than a genre classification. Horror is a feeling, one most commonly associated with a confrontation with, or realization of, mortality. In other words, anything is horror if it taps into your primal fear of death. With this attitude, the entirety of cinema becomes horror’s stomping ground.
Watching a variety of films from all genres will make you a more rounded and educated horror fan while rekindling your love for the more extreme subgenres. I’m not suggesting you go out and rent a bunch of musicals and romances if that’s just not your cup of tea. What I can do, however, is steer you towards some non-horror films that approach but never cross the genre’s most drastic borders. I hope you find them all both thrilling and entertaining.
Nocturnal Animals, IMDB Classification: Crime, Drama, Romance
Normally, a film containing kidnapping and rape would be off-limits to mainstream moviegoers, no matter what its genre classification. But Nocturnal Animals approaches these concepts with a level of detachment that makes it tolerable. While we understand that actors and actresses are merely characters playing parts, this film has a telescoping effect, delivering a fiction within a fiction.
With all the hallmarks of a revenge horror, Nocturnal Animals is nonetheless a meditation on guilt and regret, one that could make anyone second-guess his or her decisions in life. And while it definitely delivers some heavy subject matter, it never uses graphic imagery or unnecessary on-screen violence to convey its messages.
127 Hours, IMDB Classification: Adventure, Biography, Drama
Ghost and slashers are terrifying, but truth is always scarier than fiction. And a movie about a guy with his arm stuck beneath a rock might seem mundane, but knowing that someone actually endured this trauma creates a visceral intensity most horror movies can’t match.
Like Carrie, 99% of those going to see 127 Hours already know how it’s going to end; yet, this only adds to the suspense as the film creeps towards its inevitable outcome. But part of its success is that it’s immensely entertaining, even ion its most harrowing and depressing moments. The film culminates with 90 seconds of pure body horror but results in a conclusion that’s poignant, triumphant, and inspiring.
Jungle, IMDB Classification: Action, Adventure, Biography
Also described as a biographical survival drama, Jungle is based on the true story of modern-day adventurer Yossi Ghinsberg who, along with a couple compadres, became hopelessly lost in the Amazon rainforest back in the 1980s. It’s a real-life journey into The Heart of Darkness with a set-up and premise that puts it alongside horror heavyweights like Cannibal Holocaust and The Green Inferno.
Though Ghinsberg never crossed paths with dangerous cannibals, the nightmare he endured is beyond anything most of us can even imagine. And Jungle is engrossing for its accurate portrayal of the realities of extreme survival (much unlike Holocaust and Inferno). Emotionally, Jungle carries the same weight as Alive, another biographical survival drama; still, it’s differentiated by a triumph of spirit that makes it both thrilling and inspirational.
Bullet Head, IMDB Classification: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Describes as Reservoir Dogs meets Cujo, Bullet Head is as intense as both yet completely unique and nowhere near as horrifying. Yes, it’s sometimes hard to watch and, yes, it’s tragic, but Bullet Head is a movie for animal lovers—especially dogs. While the plot hinges on an underground dogfighting ring, and the camera takes us all the way into the bloody arena, viewers are never subjected to depictions of violence against animals. People, sure, but not animals.
Though punctuated by scenes of intense action, Bullet Head is primarily dialog-driven and includes several extended flashback scenes. And it uses some great creative techniques, like giving us a POV from the dog’s point of view. Bullet Head gave me all the feels, so I can’t recommend it highly enough. And though there’s no need to warn against blood or violence, it might just break your heart.
Side Note: Bullet Head ends with the statement: “A portion of the proceeds of this movie will go toward eliminating dog fighting, rehabilitating its canine victims, and promoting awareness and education about the humane treatment of man’s best friend.” So, enjoy this one knowing your money is also going to a worthy cause.
Good Time, IMDB Classification: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Just as Kristen Stewart was able to shake her Twilight legacy through a series of great performances in serious movies, Robert Patterson officially ditches any remnant of his sparkly, vampiric past with a gripping turn in Good Time.
The film follows Connie Nikas (Patterson) for several intense hours following a botched bank robbery. It would be a comedy of errors if it wasn’t so harrowing. Through a series of desperate actions and blind luck, the crook attempts to elude capture, all while trying to prevent his disabled brother/cohort from ending up on Riker’s Island. It’s a chaotic ride with some genuinely disturbing moments, but Good Time has both heart and soul—something sorely lacking from many genre offerings.
One of my personal favorites of 2017 just skirted the boundaries of straight-up horror, but every genre fan should be more than willing to see anything featuring Jane Levy, am I right? No, she’s not the star, but the rising Scream Queen does deliver her most unhinged role since Mia in 2013’s Evil Dead. The cast is led by Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood as Ruth and Tony, an unlikely (and unqualified) crimefighting duo.
When police prove ineffectual following a home break-in, Ruth and Tony take matters into their own hands—and quickly find themselves in way over their heads. There are some bleak moments, and the film addresses some heavy issues, but it’s mostly a hysterical dark comedy that sees underdogs refusing to take shit, rising up after a lifetime of petty indignities.
And did I mention Jane Levy?
The Beguiled, IMDB Classification: Drama, Thriller
2017’s The Beguiled is the second film adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan 1966 Civil War-themed novel; directed by Sofia Coppola and anchored by performances from Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning, it oozes with tension and sexual deceptions.
When a wounded Union soldier is taken in by the remaining residents of an all-girls boarding school in Confederate Virginia, repressed desires and pre-established hierarchies collide with shocking consequences. What might have seemed like Heaven for Corporal McBurney (played by Colin Farrell) becomes hellish as his situation starts to resemble that of Paul Sheldon in Stephen King’s Misery.
The Beguiled is slow burn, but the intensity hits a fever pitch; engrossing performances and a moody aesthetic should captivate even the most action-hungry horror fans.
Okja, IMDB Classification: Action, Adventure, Drama
Babe meets Jurassic Park in this wildly imaginative, multicultural film from Bong Joon Ho (Snowpiercer). Don’t believe grumblings claiming there’s an anti-meat agenda; Okja merely asks viewers to think about where their food comes from. Of course, it does so by creating scenes reminiscent of the Holocaust. So yeah, it’s heavy.
But it’s all about the journey and, ultimately, this is one of triumph through perseverance, a story that celebrates the emotional bonds between humans and animals. There are madcap dystopian elements throughout Okja that are more akin to the psychedelic imaginings of Terry Gilliam than the utilitarian Snowpiercer. It’s almost like a live-action anime and though it has a grand scope, it hinges on down-to-Earth themes of family and home.
Swiss Army Man, IMDB Classification: Adventure, Comedy, Drama
I took some guff for including Swiss Army Man on my list of Best Horror Movies of 2016, and I understand why. On paper, the story of a man spending weeks alone with a corpse sounds grotesque, but filmmakers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert delivered an often hysterical, thoroughly poignant, intellectually steeped examination of social detachment—with farts. Indeed, Swiss Army Man is closer to a bromance than a horror flick.
Of course, a movie that features a man living with a corpse can’t be all dancing and butterflies; there’s an emotional component to Swiss Army Man that I found absolutely devastating. Beyond themes of misguided love and misplaced affections, there’s a stark reality revealed when all illusions are finally abandoned. It’s proof that healing doesn’t always bring a happy ending, merely a chance for a new beginning. What happens next is up to us.
The Falling, IMDB Classification: Drama, Mystery
There’s a whole subset of horror movies that take place at girls’ boarding schools and, in many ways, The Falling fits in with films like The Moth Diaries, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, and The Woods. When a fainting plague sends staff and students into a panic, genre fans can’t be faulted for detecting hints of virus horror or supernatural intrusions. Indeed, the woods surrounding the school, along with familiar Gothic elements merge for a compelling narrative and a haunting mystery.
But whether there’s a scientific explanation or demonic forces at work is never revealed; instead, The Falling is a suspenseful examination of shared hysteria, pack mentality, and deviant social behaviors. The concentration of adolescence creates a powder keg of sexual awakenings, social maneuverings, and budding psychoses.
Making the film more than simply noteworthy is a knock-out performance from Maisie Williams (“Game of Thrones”) as Lydia Lamont, the young woman at the center of the school’s disturbing epidemic. I can’t wait to check her out in The New Mutants come 2019.