Horror is often about creating discomfort, but psychological horror goes for psychological fears more. We get to the inside of these morally ambiguous people’s minds. Those films try to explore darker parts of our minds that sometimes we repress or just don’t want to admit. No wonder it’s the favorite horror subgenre of so many people. Since they often overlap with psychological thrillers, it can be hard to tell them apart.
Hopefully these 10 selections on the list will appeal to those who’re looking for films that are heavier on the psychological horror side rather than the thriller. This subgenre has given us great movies like “Jacob’s Ladder,” “The Vanishing,” “The Silence of the Lambs” and most recently, “Saint Maud,” which maybe should’ve been here also but it needs its time. Hopefully it’ll find its audience. Some of those films reached cult film status and got popular among some fans, while the rest were ignored, but all of them deserve a certain kind of attention.
10. The Witch Who Came From The Sea (1976)
Molly is a young woman suffering from mental disorders, due to the repeated sexual abuses she suffered as a child by her father. She is an alcoholic and deranged. Strongly attracted to men, however, she fails to control her impulses of anger and repressed feeling of revenge against men, and so she kills casual partners, raging on their bodies. The spiral of sex and death becomes more intense.
Its title and poster might be misleading for some viewers. Its title refers to The Birth of Venus, which figures in the film, and the movie has actually something to say about problematic aspects of certain fairy tales and classic mythology. Even its plot description can make you think that it’s some sort of rape-revenge film in a slasher film form but no, it’s more than this. It’s incredibly ambitious with a complex character in its center, and Millie Perkins gives a terrific performance, making her a very interesting lead character. Have to note that the film has a wonderfully melancholic atmosphere. Credit has to go to Dean Cundey here, the cinematographer who later went to shoot John Carpenter’s films. A bizarre film for sure, but for viewers that love to be challenged by their films, it sure will be a fascinating experience.
9. Would You Rather (2012)
Iris, a young woman caring for her brother Raleigh, who is suffering from leukemia, cannot afford his treatment. Dr. Barden, the doctor who cares for Raleigh, introduces Iris to the noble philanthropist Shepard Lambrick, who makes her an offer: If she participates in a dinner game and wins, his charity will pay for the cost of her brother’s treatment and one donor organizes what Iris accepts.
For those cultures who’re not familiar with it, “would you rather” is a conversation or party game that poses a dilemma in the form of a question beginning with “would you rather.” So no wonder a game like this found a place for itself in the world of horror films. Admittedly, the film has some repetitive moments and doesn’t really go deep enough at certain moments, but it’s still an intriguing theme; how far will you go for the money so your loved one will survive? Unlike almost every film on the list, this is the only one that might feel like you’re watching “torture porn,” but the blood and guts are not just for shock value. All those violence in the film are actually thought-provoking. This is one of those horror films where the “monsters” are real people and every monster can come alive with the right price tag.
8. Emelie (2015)
There are certain actresses who just can’t get a breakthrough. Irish actress Sarah Bolger has been around for so long, she even got awards attention for “In America” (2002) and most recently received more praise for her turn in “A Good Woman is Hard to Find” (2020). She has certainly got the range as an actress. “Emelie” is possibly her most disturbing performance. Bolger plays a deranged woman with a secret who poses as a babysitter to enter the house of Dan and Joyce and their kids, 4-year-old Christopher, 9-year-old Sally, and 11-year-old Jacob. When the parents leave, Bolger’s Emelie starts to act truly weird and disturbing.
“Emelie” is made on a simple premise; it has no big conclusions or events, but the setting and the main character makes it all truly unsettling and involving. You don’t know what she’s up to and since the film takes its time to build the tension, you get more and more confused by this young woman and want to know her more. Those who’re into home invasion films will probably appreciate this more, even though the final might be slightly divisive. It also has possibly one of the best uses of end credits songs; it truly fits the mood of the movie.
7. Hounds of Love (2016)
Sadistic serial killers Evelyn (Emma Booth) and John White (Stephen Curry) are looking for a new victim. On a warm summer night, they discover the intelligent but fragile Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), who a short time later finds herself tied up in a dark world of violence. Her instinct for survival picks up her mind and she realizes her only way to escape this madness is to drive a wedge between the couple.
Some Netflix subscribers probably watched the underwhelming (but with a fine twist!) sci-fi called “Extinction” without realizing that the Australian director Ben Young has actually made a great but unfortunately, lesser-seen film prior to this titled “Hounds of Love” inspired by that very same incident. It might sound like some sort of torture porn, but it definitely is more than that. Young manages to create a genuinely disturbing atmosphere, giving perspectives to all characters. The intelligent script and great directorial choices turns this movie into an actual exploration of the psychology of everybody in the film. Not without gut-punching scenes, “Hounds of Love” is definitely not for audiences who can’t take brutality. The film is based on the real life “Moorhouse murders,” when Australia couple David John and Catherine Margaret Birnie murdered four women at their home in 1986, and attempted to murder a fifth.
6. Joshua (2007)
If you’ve seen “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” you might think this one is inferior. Mostly because “Kevin” had much more of a disturbing tone and a richer cinematic language, but nevertheless, “Joshua” is worth checking out to see what a disconnection between a child and parents can lead to. Or maybe is it about something else? The movie is never too clear anyway but it’s not a negative side. It only adds to the ambiguity of the story.
The story follows the seemingly happy couple – Brad (Sam Rockwell) and Abby (the future scream queen Vera Farmiga). Brad is a successful stockbroker and Abby has just given birth to a baby girl. Their son Joshua is a child prodigy, but there’s a darker side of his intelligence. While the film has some clichés, like dying pets, the atmosphere being grounded in realistic settings makes the whole thing more engaging. Its slow-burn approach really works for the material, because it helps to build the suspense very carefully. Similar to many other successful psychological horror films, there’s no on-screen violence, but the ideas are horrifying enough. The lead performance is very effective as well. By watching the film, it’s crazy to think that directors once turned down “The Exorcist,” claiming a child can never be scary.