The 20 Best Atmospheric Horror Movies of All Time

14. Kill List (Ben Wheatley, 2011)


In a few years’ time, Ben Wheatley will be hailed as one of the greatest living directors coming from the United Kingdom. Even if he spends the rest of his lifetime as a cult icon and underground director (though his next film, High Rise, already has names such as Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons attached), he has successfully carved his unrelenting will and strain of filmmaking that strives for something completely different.

Kill List is his sophomore film, about a British soldier that returns home after a non-disclosed, disturbing mission in Kiev that could have involved infanticide. After a few bouts with his wife, mostly regarding their ever-deepening money problems, he returns to his old job of contract killing.

What then ensues is a deeply weird, but classic hitman narrative, even though it sports a kitchen-sink sensibility that’s particular of Wheatley and his roots on the country’s 60’s new wave. It does so until the last 15 minutes, which feature one of the decade’s best twists when it comes to genre-bending and general what-the-fuckery.

This sudden turn from a suspenseful and weird thriller to unrelenting horror has since then divided the viewers’ opinions of the film. Some love its out-of-nowhere quality, while some dislike the obvious tone-shifting. There’s no arguing, though, that that particular tunnel sequence is an especially harrowing and adrenaline-pumping piece of horror filmmaking.


13. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)

the texas chainsaw massacre

A highly-controversial movie for its time, Tobe Hooper’s sophomore film is a profoundly disturbing piece about the American countryside, and the culture of violence therein. It could be overlooked as a simple exploitation roadside movie, which it is, but it also has a raw and no-bullshit approach to its narrative, stripped of any comedy that could balance the bleak script co-written by the director and Kim Henkel. It transcends the exploitation category; it aggressively refuses to be pigeonholed as such.

The incredibly weird opening scene fills us with suspense immediately: the lingering shot on the skinless bodies under the immense heat of the orange sun, accompanied by the endless string of violent radio news set the theme of the movie.

With a minimalistic soundtrack and breathtaking cinematography, the film has such a poetic quality that could jarringly break into conflict with the seemingly random violence that’s being perpetrated on the protagonists, but it doesn’t. It’s this junction of high-art with low-brow culture that makes the film work.

One of the best horror films, and an undisputed classic.


12. Onibaba (Kaneto Shindô, 1964)


Onibaba is one of the early precursors of the erotic strand of horror films, Kaneto Shindô’s 1964 masterwork is a tour de force of strong female characters: deep, complex and fully tridimensional, warring for their own sexualities, envies; their wants and needs.

Set in Japan, somewhere in the mid-fourteenth century, Onibaba works as a great retelling of an old Budhist fable about the homonymous demons. The film revolves around two women, who must kill wounded soldiers coming from the war so they can sell their valuables in order to survive.

They live on a remote wetland, surrounded by tall crops, and we never leave that place. Shindô films the seven-foot-tall reeds majestically, from time to time showing us their never-ending swaying, accentuating the passing of time and, paradoxically, the timelessness of the story.

The pounding drums and seemingly random horn blasts work their way to form a tension-filled, apocalyptic ambience, ever rising until the climax downs on us.

Onibaba is a psychosexual horror-thriller; an expressionist portrayal of nightmarish poverty.


11. Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)

best 1970s thrillers

Nicolas Roeg is perhaps one of the most overlooked masters of cinema. With the influence his movies, like 1971’s Walkabout, have had on mainstream and auteur cinema, you’d expect his name would populate a lot more top all-time best directors’ lists.

Nevertheless, this 1973 horror film has some of the most carefully crafted ambience right from the poignant and evocative opening shot: the simple action of the little girl running through the woods has such visual poetry that it can’t help but gut punch the viewer with what happens next.

A special note to the movie’s peculiar editing and offbeat narrative that contribute to a truly unique film.


10. Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)


Suspiria is a highly stylized, subversive ballet-horror. Not in the vein of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan: it has way less dancing and lesbian sex. On the other hand, the use of anamorphic lenses, vibrant primary colors, especially red, the crazy, endlessly pounding score, all merge to create a nightmarish setting that we just can’t turn off of.

Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) flies to Munich, Germany, so she can get proper ballet classes. The night of her arrival there’s a gruesome murder in what’s perhaps the most iconic scene of the film. From there, the whole thing spirals out of control: witch covens, bug infestations, pajama parties, mind control; a bunch of crazy happenings that are so out there but that comfortably fit within the film’s narrative, going hand in hand with the overly-stylistic flourishes that are trademarks of Argento’s work.

Aside from the visual touches, not enough can be said about the score. The progressive rock band’s Goblin second outing writing music for a Dario Argento film (the first one being Profondo Rosso, for the film Deep Red) is a gothic fusion of African drums, growled utterings and whirling keyboards. The film is worth watching for the score alone.

Despite some continuity errors, narrative blunders and dumb character choices, the film never feels forced or boring. It has a not so great ending, although it is delightfully disgusting. The atmosphere is everything in Suspiria.


9. Antichrist (Lars Von Trier, 2009)


Even after the black and white, short-film-esque masterpiece that is the prologue (a not-so-subtle homage to Roeg’s Don’t Look Now?), Antichrist still conveys the bleakness of its world through the dampness of the colors, the grey walls, brown rooms and washed-out grass.

Danish director Lars Von Trier has always been kind of an infant terrible of cinema, with his earlier days of writing manifestos and the whole Dogme 95 ordeal that has kind of died out since the last sanctioned film in 2005, Gypo. One of the rules of this brand of avant-garde filmmaking was that the director should never be credited, in order to properly elevate cinema as a communal art, not an auteurist one. Antichrist, on the other hand identifies immediately Trier as its creator, a clean break with his previous idealisms.

Sporting a disconcerting amount of jump cuts, and clear violations of the 180-degree-rule, the film swiftly creates a general feel of unease and discomfort. The pounding, industrial beats add to this; in Antichrist, even something as simple as walking through grass can become disorienting and terrorizing.

What starts as a non-traditional exploration of grief, distressingly descends into a primal, agonizing and sadomasochistic fight between sexes, coping with infanticide and emotional tug-o-war.

Antichrist is one of the most polarizing films of the last few years, ridden with haunting imagery and subtext, and a visual treat for everyone who loves semiotics.


8. Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)


Repulsion is the first film of director Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy, the other two being Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 and The Tenant in 1976. They’re all horror-thrillers revolving around people in an apartment, but Repulsion takes the cake as being the most atmospheric of the bunch.

The story’s about the aversion protagonist Carol (played by an almost completely silent Catherine Deneuve) feels toward men and her paranoid, disturbed state of mind when confined to the solitude of her apartment after her sister leaves for a vacation with her lover.

The film’s first half-hour is slow paced, taking its time to set the sluggish tone so the viewer can get into the protagonist’s mindframe. The camera moves support this notion: Polanski uses progressively more and more POV shots as the narrative unravels.

With a jazzy score, real scares and twisted images that will forever linger in the viewer’s minds, Repulsion is one of the best Polanski films, and one of his most complex and rewarding.