The horror genre is one of the most widely varied film types in the medium. The slasher films are perhaps the most popular of the horror sub-genres while tales of hauntings are the most classic format.
Due to the fact that the basic requirement of horror is to instill fear, it can be applied to virtually any setting. Some of the unexpected horror combinations that have sprung up throughout film history include science-fiction horror, romance horror and even comedy horror.
While horror has been one of the most popular genres, it has a bad reputation due to the large number of low quality films that are churned out every year. Some visionary directors, however, are attracted to the genre or more than its typical cheap thrills and stretch its boundaries into the surreal.
The inventive directors of the films in this list do not settle for jump scares or mindless gore but use the horror setting to analyze the psychology of the characters and explore deeper, more complex themes. Although some of these film may be more unsettling and disturbing than the common horror film, if you can stomach their bizarre nature you will find them more rewarding.
10. Tetsuo the Iron Man (Shunya Tsukamoto, 1989)
This brief but incredibly memorable cult film is one of the most energetic and bizarre movies ever made. The film’s scattered, fantastical plot starts when a “metal fetishist” gets hit and killed by a businessman and his girlfriend in a car. They dispose of the body but the fetishist’s spirit comes back to torment the businessman.
The businessman begins to grow metal from inside his body until eventually he becomes a walking pile of scrap metal. After accidentally killing his girlfriend, the businessman flees and is confronted by the fetishist’s spirit and the two merge in an extremely stylized, psychedelic climax.
Even the previous summation of the film’s plot cannot do justice to the surreal oddity that is film. A cyberpunk version of a Cronenberg horror film, interlaced with hints of anime style and a thumping industrial soundtrack, saying that Testuo is a wild ride is an understatement.
The film’s one of kind aesthetics have understandably given it a large cult following and a reputation as one of the most significant underground films of its time.
9. House (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977)
One of the most jarringly weird films on this list, this Japanese haunted house picture switches up the common haunted house scenario by infusing it with goofy, dated special effects that were popular in Japan at the time.
The film follows a young girl named Gorgeous who visits her aunt’s house with her three school girl friends. Things start out normally until one of the girls goes go missing. When they go looking for the missing girl, one finds the girl’s decapitated head, which promptly flies across the room and bites her on the rear.
Things only get weirder from here. The girls try to escape the house but become stopped as the house has come alive and throws everything at them. Some of these traps include violent mattresses, pianos that bite and possessed spirits. While the film does not offer as much intellectual content and nuances as most of the other surreal horror films on the list, its exaggerated style and unique atmosphere elevate it above the common horror pack.
8. Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, 1981)
Andrzej Zulawski’s cult masterpiece stars Sam Neill as Mark, an international spy, whose life shatters when his wife, and the mother of his child, asks him for a divorce. He separates himself but keeps visiting for the sake of his son.
Mark begins to notice his wife acting more and more bizarre, sometimes leaving their child alone for hours. He becomes obsessed with her behavior and begins following her, but cannot figure out where she spends all of her time. Eventually, Mark hires a private investigator to track her down, making a horrifying discovery.
Without giving away the film, I will try to explain its strengths. The plot and twist of the movie are not what make Possession special, but rather the unnerving way in which they are carried out. The supernatural events that occur in the film are displayed with such abruptness that the supernatural feels eerily realistic.
Combining that with the sudden, brutal violence that is interspersed and the creepy atmosphere, Possession is an utterly unique psychological horror film that should be searched out by horror fans.
7. The Serpent and the Rainbow (Wes Craven, 1988)
From one of the most influential master of horror, Wes Craven, The Serpent and the Rainbow is one of the most original horror films to come out in 1980s Hollywood. Bill Pullman stars as Dennis Alan, a botanist who is hired by a pharmaceutical company to investigate a drug that is used by the Voodoo doctors in Haiti that is said to induce zombie-like symptoms.
Haiti is undergoing a revolution, and to make matters worse the government is aggressively suggesting he leave. After drawing suspicion from with doctors, Dennis is beaten badly, but instead of fleeing the country, determines to stay and uncover the secret of the drug.
On its surface, the film does not seem to be of the horror genre, but it in fact has a frightening atmosphere. The surreal nature of the Voodoo culture that Dennis surrounds himself with is filled with mysticism and the unknown that an air of unpredictability surrounding the plot makes the viewer second guess everything they see.
Most terrifying are the hallucinogenic dreams that occur when the Voodoo drugs are ingested. This underrated gem deserves a wider audience and is a bright spot in the great director’s career.
6. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Weine, 1920)
One of the very first horror movies and an integral piece in the development of German Expressionism, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a must see classic for all students of film due to its brilliant artistic design.
The plot follows a young man, Francis, who is telling a story of his past grief to an older man. Frances’s carefree life was interrupted when, during a town festival, a mysterious man named Dr. Caligari takes the stage with his somnambulist partner, Cesare, who magically answers the crowd’s questions while asleep. Frances’s friend asks Cesare how long he will live, and gets the response that he will only live until dawn.
Indeed, that night an intruder sneaks into the friend’s room and kills him, leading Frances on an investigation of the killer and the mysterious Dr. Caligari. The film is important for many reasons as well as being one of the first horror films. German Expressionism is in full force here, with kaleidoscopic sets, wacky camera angles and extensive use of shadows to convey fear and other emotions.
The film is also notable for implementing a great twist ending, that has been copied countless times since. Even if horror movies are not your cup of tea, the artistic expression in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and its innovation of the craft make this a must see for film lovers.