Part of the fun of horror is to be able to separate yourself from the images onscreen. The old “this could never really happen” thing helps us sleep at night. But there are some films that rob you of that safety net, burrowing under your skin and into your subconscious specifically because you are convinced that it could definitely happen—maybe it already has.
Today we salute realism in horror with five films to give you nightmares.
5. Nothing Bad Can Happen (2001)
This film is tough to watch, and the fact that it is based on a true story only makes the feat of endurance that much harder. But writer-director Katrin Gebbe mines this horrific tale for a peculiar point of view that suits it brilliantly and ensures that it is never simply a gratuitous wallowing in someone else’s suffering.
Tore (Julius Feldmeier) is an awkward teen in Germany. His best friend is Jesus. He means it. In fact, he’s so genuine and pure that when he lays his hands on stranded motorist Benno’s (Sascha Alexander Gersak) car, the engine starts.
Thus begins a relationship that devolves into a sociological exploration of button-pushing evil and submission to your own beliefs. Feldmeier is wondrous—so tender and vulnerable you will ache for him. Gersak is his equal in a role of burgeoning cruelty. The whole film has a, “you’re making me do this,” mentality that is hard to shake. It examines one peculiar nature of evil and does it so authentically as to leave you truly shaken.
4. Open Water (2003)
Jaws wasn’t cinema’s only powerful shark horror. In 2003, young filmmaker Chris Kentis’s first foray into terror is unerringly realistic and, therefore, deeply disturbing.
From the true events that inspired it to one unreasonably recognizable married couple, from superbly accurate dialog to actual sharks, Open Water’s greatest strength is its unsettling authenticity. Every element benefits from Chris Kentis’s control of the project. Writer, director, cinematographer and editor, Kentis clarifies his conception for this relentless film, and it is devastating.
A couple on vacation (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) books a trip on a crowded, touristy scuba boat. Once in the water, they swim off on their own – they’re really a little too accomplished to hang with the tourists. And then, when they emerge from the depths, they realize the boat is gone. It’s just empty water in every direction.
Now, sharks aren’t an immediate threat, right? I mean, tourist scuba boats don’t just drop you off in shark-infested waters. But the longer you drift, the later it gets, who knows what will happen?
3. The Snowtown Murders (2011)
John Bunting tortured and killed eleven people during his spree in South Australia in the Nineties. We only watch it happen once on film, but that’s more than enough.
Director Justin Kurzel seems less interested in the lurid details of Bunting’s brutal violence than he is in the complicated and alarming nature of complicity. Ironically, this less-is-more approach may be why the movie leaves you so shaken.
An unflinching examination of a predator swimming among prey, Snowtown succeeds where many true crime films fail because of its understatement, its casual observational style, and its unsettling authenticity. More than anything, though, the film excels due to one astounding performance.
Daniel Henshall (also in Babadook) cuts an unimpressive figure on screen – a round faced, smiling schlub. But he brings Bunting an amiability and confrontational fearlessness that provides insight into what draws people to a sadistic madman.
2. Hounds of Love (2016)
Driven by a fiercely invested and touchingly deranged performance from Emma Booth, Hounds of Love makes a subtle shift from horrific torture tale to psychological character study. In 108 grueling minutes, writer/director Ben Young’s feature debut marks him as a filmmaker with confident vision and exciting potential.
It is the late 1980s in Perth, Australia, and at least one young girl has already gone missing when the grounded Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) sneaks out her bedroom window to attend a party. This isn’t nearly as dumb a move as is accepting a ride from Evie White (Booth) and her husband John (Stephen Curry).
As the couple dance seductively and drink to celebrate, Young disturbingly conveys the weight of Vicki’s panicked realization that she is now their captive. It is just one in a series of moments where Young flexes impressive chops for visual storytelling, utilizing slo-motion, freeze frame, patient panning shots and carefully chosen soundtrack music to set the mood and advance the dreadful narrative without a spoken word.
And then, just when you might suspect his film to wallow in the grisly nature of the Whites’ plan for Vicki, Young turns to dialog sharp enough to upend your expectations, and three vivid characters are crafted in the suffocating dread of the White’s neighborhood home.
No doubt, events get brutal, but never without reminders that Young is a craftsman. Subtle additions, such as airplanes flying freely overhead to contrast with Vicki’s captivity, give Hounds of Love a steady dose of smarts, even as it’s shaking your core.
1. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Not everyone considers The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a classic. Those people are wrong. Perhaps even stupid.
Tobe Hooper’s camera work, so home-movie like, worked with the “based on a true story” tag line like nothing before it, and the result seriously disturbed the folks of 1974. It has been ripped off and copied dozens of times since its release, but in the context of its time, it was so absolutely original it was terrifying.
Hooper sidestepped all the horror gimmicks audiences had grown accustomed to – a spooky score that let you know when to grow tense, shadowy interiors that predicted oncoming scares – and instead shot guerilla-style in broad daylight, outdoors, with no score at all. You just couldn’t predict what was coming.
He dashes your expectations, making you uncomfortable, as if you have no idea what you could be in for. As if, in watching this film, you yourself are in more danger than you’d predicted.
But not more danger than Franklin is in, because Franklin is not in for a good time.
So, poor, unlikeable Franklin Hardesty, his pretty sister Sally, and a few other friends head out to Grampa Hardesty’s final resting place after hearing the news of some Texas cemeteries being grave-robbed. They just want to make sure Grampy’s still resting in peace – an adventure which eventually leads to most of them making a second trip to a cemetery. Well, what’s left of them.