10 Scary, Suspenseful, and/or Freaky Non-Horror Films for Horror and Non-Horror Fans Alike
If you couldn’t tell from the past 17 days, I’ve been focusing on strictly horror films for my reviews. The thing is, I’m not really that into horror! I felt like this was the perfect opportunity for me to broaden out into the genre, however, and honestly, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Mostly cheesy, low quality B-movie and B-movie level films that I likely will never watch again. There are a few better ones I have yet to publish reviews for, but I’m reluctant to go much further into new territory because, quite frankly, it’s burning me out.
That isn’t to say I don’t have any more horror film reviews to come. The next several reviews I have coming down the line are 28 Days Later, The Sixth Sense, Scream, The Others, Halloween, , and trio of horror-comedy hybrids, Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, and, even one for the kids with Monster House, so there are still plenty of horror films that I’m going to be filling out the next week or so with, all of them quality films.
But I’m taking a bit of a break with this article. If you can read, then you know that this is a list of ten scary, suspenseful, and/or freaky non-horror films for horror and non-horror fans alike! If you’re feeling a little left out of the loop among your horror-loving friends, or if you’re just wanting something of a change of pace from the standard comedies and action films you’re so used to, these should sufficiently get your adrenaline going without feeling as though you’re going to have nightmares afterward. … Well, with most of them at least. Insert maniacal laugh.
Darren Aronofsky’s film about a ballerina is a lot more heavy and freaky than a film about a ballerina should be, but the film focuses intensely on Nina’s (Natalie Portman) obsession with winning and maintaining the role of the progressive interpretation of Swan Lake, which would have her play the role of both the delicate, prim white swan and the wild, unruly black swan. Aronofsky is known for his visual flair, and Black Swan puts to good use some bizarre imagery thanks to the magic of computer effects and editing and filming techniques borrowed from the horror film genre.
Over the course of the film, Nina’s obsessive nature and jealousies, especially towards Lily (Mila Kunis), the uninhibited new arrival whom Nina both greatly admires and loathes, begin manifesting themselves into strange visions and gruesome actions. Black Swan isn’t a horror film, but it comes close surprisingly close, as there are several moments where you will cringe. It also features a spectacular performance on Natalie Portman’s part. She absolutely deserved the Oscar she got for her work in this film. Take it very literally when I tell you that it kept me on the edge of my seat until the masterful end.
Of all the movies on this list, this is possibly the one movie that might actually give you nightmares. Directed by David Fincher (Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey, Jr., Zodiac is a thriller that’s infinitely more scary than any horror film, primarily due to the film being based on the true story of the investigators of a real life villain worthy of Batman’s rogues gallery. The Zodiac Killer terrorized the San Francisco Bay area, and possibly beyond, from the late 1960s and into the 70s with a series of random murders and teasing encrypted letters to the public. Despite the chills I get, I’ve been fascinated by the Zodiac Killer since I was really young, and Fincher’s account of the people involved in the investigations, including Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhaal), a cartoonist with possibly too much time on his hands, only helps to make these cases a lot more mysterious but also grounded and realistic.
The film, like most of Fincher’s films, is heavily stylized but never intrusively so, with a grainy, saturated look, the use of music to enhance the terror, and the use of montage to show the passage of time. Though the film does show us fairly detailed depictions of the Zodiac’s crimes. Unlike with many horror films, these scenes focus primarily on the victims, and not just the cloaked figure attacking them. Fincher doesn’t allow his film to become a slasher. It’s a noir-like detective story that smolders, flares up in fits and starts, and then just simply fades into a smoky haze. It’s the only way the film could end.
A Halloween story for the scientifically minded, Donnie Darko charts the life of its title character (Gyllenhaal, again) from October 2 to October 30, when the giant, demonic bunny rabbit named Frank that he’s been having visions of tells him that the world is going to end. Donnie Darko — also starring Jake’s sister Maggie Gyllenhaal (as his sister no less), Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Noah Wyle, and Patrick Swayze — is not necessarily a scary film. It is incredibly bizarre, though. You’re unlikely to “get” the film in your first viewing. Heck, by your fifth viewing, you’re still going to think it’s confusing.
The film is more concerned with the disturbing implications of Donnie’s doomsday visions and what they mean for his reality than creating any sense of dread in viewers. As each day goes by, Donnie, already a troubled teen, becomes more and more disconnected with his reality — at least from other characters’ perspectives — and begins lashing out at those who he believes are deluding themselves with false hopes and prophets. It’s been said that director Richard Kelly doesn’t even know what the film is about, though I doubt this is entirely true.
There’s a definite vision of the nature of reality going on here, and though the plot is certainly complex, folding over upon itself and relentless in throwing out metaphysical lessons as much as it does disturbing imagery, the film actually does begin to make a sort of sense the more you watch it. Give it a try. The worst that could happen is that your brain will fry by the unexpected ending.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy, The Road is a depressing, relentless story of a nameless father and son traveling across a desolate, post-apocalyptic wasteland. What caused the worldwide devastation is never clearly explained, but the causes aren’t nearly as important as the bond of the father (Viggo Mortensen, Lord of the Rings) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee, Let Me In) as the attempt to find hope in the hopeless. The world in The Road has been reduced to ash, and due to the global death of most plant and animal life, food has become incredibly scarce, and many have turned towards cannibalism. Though the father attempts to keep his son alive, he’s more concerned with keeping his son a moral person in a fallen world. Though they are starving and sick, the father tells his son, they’re “the good guys,” and they won’t compromise their values.
The film was shot on site in post-disaster areas such as a post-Katrina Louisiana in creating this post-apocalyptic wasteland. Viggo Mortensen is fantastic in this film and was so dedicated to his role that he even starved himself to portray it accurately. And the boy, Kodi Smit-McPhee, is also one of the many child actors who are coming out these days as a great talent, and has already shown that he can continue to do so in movies like Let Me In. Their scenes together are touching, tragic, and realistic, especially in scenes like the one where Mortensen has to explain to the boy how to commit suicide should he ever face a fate worse than death. The matter of fact way it’s explained and the boy’s ease of acceptance of his father’s instructions show just how dark this world has become, and the scenes where the boy thinks he’s seen another child to play with, something he’s never seen or had before due to being born into this world, are just as heartbreaking. The Road is dark, but if you can make it through the film, you’ll also find a movie that shows that there are always glimmers of hope in even the darkest of days.
David Fincher makes another appearance on this list with an earlier film, another crime story involving a serial killer, this one fictional but nearly just as creepy as the real thing. Morgan Freeman stars as William Somerset, an aging detective who’s about to retire but is too involved in a grisly crime spree to go leave just yet. He’s paired up with David Mills (Brad Pitt), a younger transfer with a bad temper. In a city where crime is non-stop, this case is special. The killer seems to be killing those who specifically violate one of the seven deadly sins: gluttony, sloth, lust, greed, pride, envy, and wrath.
As the two attempt to solve the cases, getting ever closer to the end of the list, they also, of course, begin growing closer together, with Mills introducing Somerset to his wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), who isn’t too pleased with her new life in this crime-ridden city. Seven is a neo-noir thriller in the same vein as Silence of the Lambs, only it’s less inclined towards scaring its audience — that isn’t to say that the film is tame by any means. If you’re lucky enough to have avoided any spoilers, you’re surely going to get the most from this movie, but, if you’re like me and the film was spoiled for you long before you ever saw it, you’ll still get a lot from actually watching the film and seeing it played out. It’s an almost relentlessly dark drama, but it more than pays off for your endurance by the end.
The Coen Brothers are two of my favorite filmmakers. I admit that their work doesn’t always cross my mind when I’m asked to list my favorite films, and I’m a bit too afraid to call myself a true connoisseur of their work, but, if you were to ask me who my favorite filmmakers were, I’d more than likely list these two in that list. And why not? They’re the ones who brought us Fargo, Raising Arizona, O, Brother, Wherer Art Thou, and the great recent remake of True Grit. They’ve had their hits, and they’ve had their misses, including Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading, but even these films have some entertainment value to them.The two are known for their quirky but excellent film making sensibilities, and if you wanted to get a taste of just how off beat they can be, Barton Fink could very well be a prime example of how weird and even funny the results can be.
A strange mishmash of styles, Barton Fink follows its protagonist, Fink (John Turturro, Transformers, Quiz Show), as he moves from Broadway to Hollywood to write a movie script about boxing, all the while trying not to lose touch with “the common man.” He checks into the dank Hotel Earle, where in the neighboring room he meets Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), an insurance salesman. Charlie is just the kind of common man that Barton admires, and yet the guy proves to be more of a distraction to his writing than anything. So Barton spends the movie going from one person to another seeking help with his writer’s block, but, in a way, Barton just digs himself further into this personal hell of his, widely known as writer’s block. With all the distractions he runs into, and all the weird events going on around him, Barton just cannot catch inspiration.
Barton Fink, as a movie, is a surreal film, at times just about eccentric people and their problems and then going into left field with almost horrific imagery, all the while keeping a sort of morbid sense of humor that has become a staple of the Coens’ films. The film defies any definitive explanation, but the plot is surprisingly relatable, as anyone who’s ventured into a project and run into significant roadblocks can tell you. Barton Fink takes that anxiety and blows it out of proportion spectacularly.
More depressing and moody than frightening, Winter’s Bone can still send shivers down your spine thanks to its chilly setting and some genuinely creepy people. The film centers on Ree Dolly, a teenage girl on the verge of adulthood but already wiser than most of the actual adults around her, who aspires to join the Army, but is held back due to her obligations at home. With her mother in a catatonic state and her father Jessup an often absent meth maker, she teaches her younger brother and sister how to survive off the land and take care of themselves for when they may have to.
The sheriff shows up one day and tells Ree that her father, out on bail, needs to show up for his court date or they’ll lose the house as part of his bond. The story follows Ree’s terrifying and courageous journey through a world of truly screwed up meth addicts and their suppliers, taking their abuse and facing almost certain death, all in the name of turning in her own flesh and blood in order to save the people she loves at home. The drama is rooted in our admiration for Ree, who is compellingly played by Jennifer Lawrence (X-Men: First Class), in a breakout, Oscar-nominated role. It doesn’t do much for the image of Ozark culture, but when you’re exploring a world of meth heads, which are prominent in the area, it’s hard to say many nice things.
If you haven’t seen this movie, you’ve seen it parodied — possibly most notably in the sixth season premiere episode of The Simpsons, “Bart of Darkness,” — and have seen it basically remade for a modern teenage audience with Disturbia. James Stewart plays a photographer, L.B. Jeffries, who has broken his leg and is confined to a wheelchair in his apartment. He spends his time watching his neighbors through the rear window (there it is) of his apartment and begins to suspect that one of his neighbors across the courtyard has murdered his wife. He gets his girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly), and detective friend Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey) involved in the situation, but it looks as though the neighbor either hadn’t done anything or has just been too crafty in his evil deed to get caught.
It’s been a while since I last saw what I believe to be Alfred Hitchcock’s best film, but the tension and intrigue of the film I can still remember. Hitchcock builds a community of various characters all from within the confines of this smal apartment complex, all the while building up the mystery behind the man L.B. truly believes is a dangerous murderer. The decision to confine the setting and its character to a wheelchair in a dimly lit apartment just adds that much more to the tension, especially since this necessitates for L.B. to place his all-too-willing girlfriend in potentially serious peril. It’s a great looking movie with a fun concept, and you’ll be kept on the edge throughout.
Okay, you’ve seen this movie, haven’t you? Out of all the movies on this list, you must have seen this one! It was the film that brought to life every little boy and progressive little girl’s fantasies, and it did so spectacularly. Based on the novel by Michael Crichton, who also helped create the film’s screenplay, Jurassic Park and director Steven Spielberg proved that movie adaptations can still have a spectacular magic that is all together their own. I understand the power of prose and imagination and all, but tell me that you weren’t in absolute awe at the early computer graphics and Stan Winston’s animatronics’ ability to bring these prehistoric creatures to visual life.
That’s actually one of the greatest things about this film — its ability to maintain all the wonder surrounding these long extinct creatures while showing us just how incredibly terrifying they actually were when they were alive. I guarantee you that no kid came out of that theatre deciding that they no longer liked dinosaurs because they were “so mean.” In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it has probably inspired more than a pretty sizable amount of the paleontologists working today since its 1993 release. And the visuals, believe it or not, still hold up today, 18 years later!
Like all good scary movies, however, we also need some compelling human protagonists to narrowly escape the sharp teeth and claws, and Jurassic Park actually manages to have those, too, with Sam Neill adding the right amount of charm and smarm in Dr. Grant, who has apparently forgotten that he too was once a child, fascinated with dinosaurs and the unknown, but grows as a person over the course of the film as he becomes the reluctant caretaker of the grandchildren of the park’s creator, Richard Hammond (Richard Attenborough). Lucky for us, the kids, Lex and Tim (Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello), manage to be not only un-annoying but actually quite resourceful in their own right! — “It’s a Unix system… I know this!”
I follow up the most widely watched movie on this list with possibly the most under appreciated. Directed by Danny Boyle (28 Days Later) and starring Cillian Murphy (again, 28 Days Later) and Rose Byrne (… 28 Weeks Later, but also, recently, Bridesmaids), Sunshine is a genuinely gorgeous-looking sci-fi thriller about a group of scientists on a lengthy mission to restart the dying sun. The Icarus II is the second ship to be sent out in seven years, after the crew of the Icarus I befell an unknown fate and failed to complete its mission. Both ships were armed with nuclear payloads the size of Manhattan, and both have been equipped with some of the world’s best scientists, each with their own set of skills.
Boyle reportedly had his cast — a group of international actors that includes familiar faces Chris Evans and Michelle Yeoh — live together and learn the topics of their characters’ individual specialties. This no doubt formed a bond between the actors that reflected in their acting, as the primary focus of the film, as most good sci-fi stories do, is on the characters and the personal journeys they go on.
Sunshine goes through its own shake ups, starting off as a sort of quiet, realistic sci-fi drama with the usual fleeting emotional pain and physical activity, while an almost horror-like evolution takes place in the last half of the film, where the paranoia and scares really begin to set in, becoming pretty much a surreal depiction of fear and delusion. The visuals, however, remain arresting through out, as Sunshine is truly a sight to behold, almost worthy enough to rival that of the actual cosmos. It’s a shame that more people out there do not know it exists, especially considering Danny Boyle’s rising reputation as a director these days. If you watch any film on this list that you haven’t already seen, definitely give this one a try, as it just doesn’t get the attention it rightfully deserves!