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Criticwire Survey: The Non-Horror Movies That Scare Us to Death

Criticwire Survey: The Non-Horror Movies That Scare Us to Death

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: Two years ago, we asked which horror movies don’t scare you at all. Let’s turn it around: What non-horror movies scare you the most?

Alissa Wilkinson, Christianity Today

I’m quite sure there’s nothing scarier than Anton Chigurh stalking down dusty roads with his pneumatic gun, unless it’s Anton Chigurh getting in a horrific accident and then getting up and walking away. In Cormac McCarthy’s world, evil stalks around on two feet, and there’s nothing you can do to escape it. If that’s not horror, I don’t know what is.

Kyle Turner, Under the Radar, Movie Mezzanine

Two films come to mind: Amy Berg’s documentary “Deliver Us From Evil,” which explores the Catholic Church scandal regarding abusive priests, and Todd Haynes’ “Safe,”  a film about a housewife that becomes allergic to her own environment.
The former film seems a little bit more pragmatic and obvious as to why
such a film would be horrifying, and Berg’s film feels no need to
intervene or manipulate audiences (unlike Alex Gibney’s “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God”),
and simultaneously allows its subjects to be frank, candid, and
vulnerable, but also serve as a powerful indictment of a corrupt
institution. Haynes’ film is slightly more abstract, though not entirely
dissimilar, functioning as an examination of how cultural institutions
can operate to other people and cast them to the margin of society.
Haynes’ deep focus in these sharply artificial settings feel as if
they’re closing in on Carol (Julianne Moore), and we feel trapped with
her. Aren’t some of the best scary movies about entrapment?

Chase Whale, Twitch

Todd Haynes’ “Safe” is a hypochondriac’s worst nightmare. It’s 20 years old this year but thematically timeless, especially when there are weird viruses every year and sometimes doctors don’t know what the fuck is wrong with you. AIDS? Allergies? Bad luck? Or, too much pizza?

Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out

So many horror movies creep me out, but I don’t think I’ll ever shake the unease of “Time Out” — not my publication, but Laurent Cantet’s 2001
masterpiece about a fired consultant who can’t bring himself to tell his
family about his setback. Instead he pretends to go to work every
morning, drives around aimlessly and builds this
incredible latticework of lies around his situation, making it
impossibly worse. The movie brews a churning unease that anyone can
relate to. It’ll make your mind wander to all the important things
you’ve left dangling (to go see a movie). I can’t call it
a pleasurable watch, but it is a terrifying one.

Stephen Whitty, Star-Ledger

The “7 Up” series. Seriously. Because you can’t watch it and not think, boy, it really is all pretty much set by 1st Grade, isn’t it? That’s exactly who you are and who you’re going to be.

Scott Weinberg, Nerdist

Saving Private Ryan.” More specifically, Adam Goldberg’s death scene in Saving Private Ryan. Horrifying.

Farran Smith Nehme, New York Post

I’ve known for a long time that I was afraid of heights. I also
know it has gotten worse over the years. But I didn’t realize just how
big a wuss I’ve become until I saw the 3D IMAX screening of “The Walk.” Raw, physical terror.

Close 2nd: “Ratatouille.” Those swarms of rats freaked me out. It’s a lovely movie
with an exquisite ending, but teeming masses of animated rats are still
rats. (And while I’ve got a megaphone here, please, pretty please, stop
posting that disgusting iPhone video of the rodent with his pizza slice.
I’m begging you. Hello, people who stand close enough to rats to take
pictures? You’re lunatics.)

Gary Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

This question gave me writer’s block, and being at a lost for words is possibly the scariest non-horror response a writer could have, isn’t it? Thankfully, my friend May-lee Chai offered: “Still Alice.” Every time I can’t remember a word, I’m on that slippery slope with Julianne Moore and fear I’ll soon be wandering lost on the streets.

Ethan Alter, Film Journal International, Yahoo Movies

There’s a moment in Charlie Kaufman’s comedy/drama/character study/whatsit, “Synecdoche, New York,” that never fails to chill me, maybe because it’s part of a scene that’s otherwise so absurdly comical. Caden is meeting with his therapist, Madeleine Gravis, and they’re talking about “Little Winky,” a much-acclaimed book by a 4-year-old Klan member who killed himself when he was 5. “Why did he kill himself?” Caden asks, and from off-screen Madeline answers, “I don’t know. Why did you?” In the next shot, she’s back on camera and, at Caden’s prompting, repeats the question, only this time saying, “Why would you?”

Something about that simple breakdown in communication — the disconnect between what she says and what Caden hears — is profoundly unnerving. And really, even though I’m singling out this one moment, the entire film is unnerving; Kaufman’s distortions of reality are less nightmarishly overt that, say, David Lynch, but each one judiciously peels back Caden’s brittle, death-obsessed psyche in both comical and creepy ways. I think an argument could be mounted that it’s Charlie Kaufman’s version of a horror movie. Of course, that argument would basically invalidate including “Synecdoche” here, but I’m sticking with it anyway.

Anne-Katrin Titze, Eye For Film

The precision of Claire Denis’ perplexities, the ardent blows that fire at the heart and the head, are unequaled in her film “Bastards.” Leaden, crushing rain, pouring down on the world. A man fixes his tie in an unused kitchen, we see a letter, a snakeskin pump. He looks out at the rain. An ambulance. A naked woman in high heels is walking on the road in a close to catatonic state. Even without the ingrained, indelible image of the bloodstained ear of corn, William Faulkner’s novel “Sanctuary” mirrors “Bastards” consummately in matter and method. The sound of rain at night can be most violent. Vincent Lindon gives an exquisitely steadfast performance and the almost wordless, bold execution by Lola Créton, who was discovered by Catherine Breillat for “Bluebeard,” is the stripped core of “Bastards,” the stain besmirched.

Jason Bailey, Flavorwire

“Deuce Bigelow,” “Bucky Larson,” “Grandma’s Boy,” “The Benchwarmers,” “Pixels,” “Jack and Jill,” “Joe Dirt,” “Dickie Roberts” — pretty much anything that bears the “Happy Madison Productions” imprimatur will cause me to dive under the covers, close my eyes, and whisper a prayer to make the bad men stop.

Richard Brody, New Yorker

It’s rare that I find a movie scary, because I’m not sure which experiences the word involves — intense suspense? shocking surprise? physical revulsion? moral horror? Though I don’t know exactly what the question means, exactly one answer to it comes straight to mind: the ending of “Fail Safe,” in which, in those final freeze-frames, my hometown and I are being destroyed. The moral horror and dramatic suspense of the sequence would be just as enormous regardless of the city in danger, but the uncanniness that kicks it into another dimension is that of seeing, in effect, one’s own death on screen.

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second

I’m often told that my favourite “Horror movies” are nothing of the sort. “Mulholland Dr.” has the best jump scare in all of the cinema, and the last act has me clawing my way out of my seat. The same can be said of much of “Inland Empire.” To answer the question though, I do find that documentaries on “hopeless” subjects, things like “You’ve Been Trumped,” “The Spirit of ’45,” “The House I Live In,” the sort of film that brings lights to real-world problems that we know are going to rumble on for generations and probably never going to be solved.

Alison Nastasi, Flavorwire

I have a bit of an obsession with films about cults. In the realm of horror cinema, I find movies like “The Wicker Man” entertaining and provocative, with just the right amount of social commentary to engage me. But nothing sends a chill down my spine more than an in-depth documentary about real-life cults and extreme religious groups, including Jonestown or the present-day abuses perpetrated by LDS communities that are playing out in our news headlines. It’s easy for some people to distance themselves from the horrors carried out by extremist militant groups in foreign cities. Organizations like the LDS Church and Catholic Church remind us that the devastation and depravity people will inflict and endure in the name of religion is also happening in our own neighborhood.

Tomris Laffly, Movie Mezzanine, Film Journal International

Not sure if “scare” is the right word for this particular one, but Stephanie Soechtig’s documentary “Fed Up” disturbed me thoroughly when I saw it last year, and made me conscious about my own poor habits about food consumption. But something good came out of it – now I pay attention to nutritional facts and packaging labels a lot more (though I still ignore them occasionally.)

Greg Cwik, Vulture, Indiewire

Given that humanity will probably cease to exist in a couple hundred years because we have, with astonishing haste and efficiency, totally fucked the planet beyond reproach or repair, “An Inconvenient Truth” has become rather scary in recent years. It seemed less severe when it came out in 2006, partially because it was hard to take anything Al Gore said back then seriously, partially because it prominently features a Melissa Etheridge song, but the scientists agree: “An Inconvenient Truth” gets five uninhabitable wasteland planets out of five. But that movie’s scary in implication, but aesthetic; the most viscerally scary non-horror movie I’ve seen is probably “Mulholland Drive,” which, with all due respect to my colleague Bilge (who wrote about this topic very eloquently last year), isn’t a horror movie and will never be a horror movie. If anything, Lynch’s film shows how scary a non-horror movie can be, and how a director can assimilate horror elements (the Winkie’s diner scene, my favorite scene of any movie) into a non-horror movie.

Peter Howell, Toronto Star

Racing Extinction” is scarier than horror fiction could ever be. This doc by environmentalist and filmmaker Louie Psihoyos takes the aquatic concerns of his 2009 Oscar-winner “The Cove” to a global level. It documents, often with gruesome and sickening images, the widespread devastation of ocean life that has been going on for decades but has accelerated almost to the point of no return. There have been five mass extinctions in Earth’s history, the film notes, and the sixth is rapidly approaching. We get half of our oxygen from the oceans, but global warming is heating the oceans and destroying plant and animal life on a mass scale. The Earth is burning, and we’re running out of time to save it.

Carrie Rickey, Truthdig, Yahoo! Movies

The genre that most frightens me is, for lack of a better phrase, is the Eco-mentary. Documentaries like “The Cove,” that show dolphin slaughter to make us aware of dolphin trafficking. Or “Forks Over Knives,” which shows the superiority of a plant-based diet by showing the coronary artery fat of someone who drinks milk and eats meat.

Ali Arikan, RogerEbert.com

Not that anyone is going out of their way to have a popcorn-and-wine night out of this, but I recently saw Haneke’s “The Seventh Continent” again, and not only do I hate that film (I really dislike Haneke in general), but it scared the fuck out of me. Hurtful and malignant.

John DeCarli, Film Capsule

Gimme Shelter” and basically every David Lynch film.

Charles Bramesco, Random Nerds, ScreenCrush

This is an easy one: “Knocked Up.” Seth Rogen’s got a kinda dumpy but, all things considered, solid life until he accidentally inseminates Katherine Heigl, and then he has to get a lame job and wear different clothes and stop smoking weed all the time. Nightmare scenario! The worst part is that it could happen to absolutely anyone. And it almost always does.

Peter Labuza, The Cinephiliacs

As a single male bachelor, “Window Water Baby Moving.”

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute

Bambi.” Terrified me as a kid, terrified me as a parent.

Josh Spiegel, Movie Mezzanine

I wonder if I’ll be the only one to mention Disney
(of course I’m mentioning Disney). Either way, the first movie I thought of was “Pinocchio.” Not only is this Disney’s greatest animated
film
, but it’s one of the most terrifying films to be released to
mainstream audiences. The quest to become a real boy depicted here forces Pinocchio
(and, by extension, the audience) to be put through the ringer again and again
and again.

In another Disney movie (certainly in the modern era, where
even as great as their films are, Disney doesn’t attempt to be this
disturbing), Stromboli would be the outsized Big Bad, locking up our hero in a
cage after he committed the cardinal sin of…inadvertently being lured away from
school on his first day. Or maybe it would be the nefarious coachman who leads
Pinocchio and so many other boys to their doom on Pleasure Island, their sin… to
have fun. But no, the climactic battle is between a little wooden boy and a
whale literally named Monstro, just in case the stakes weren’t high enough. So
many of this film’s sequences are haunting, but there may be no more terrifying
moment than the body-horror transformation of the snarky Lampwick into a donkey
in front of Pinocchio. (And there may be no sadder moment than the image of
donkeys who are still human enough to speak with squeaky male voices,
compounded by the realization that they are never saved or turned back into
boys by the end.) Pinocchio
celebrated its 75th anniversary earlier this year, and it remains
genuinely, truly scary.

Calum Marsh, Guardian, Village Voice

Thomas Edison’s “Electrocuting an Elephant” and Stan Brakhage’s “The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes.” Mortality is terrifying.

Tim Grierson, Screen International, Deadspin

I’m going to cheat a little bit and not name a movie, because no piece of non-horror entertainment has ever scared me more than the video for Genesis’ “Land of Confusion.”

Growing up in the U.S., I wasn’t familiar with “Spitting Image,” the U.K. show that featured those distorted-caricature puppets of celebrities, so when “Land of Confusion” came on MTV when I was a kid, I was positively horrified. I recognized most of the people being spoofed in the video, but the way their faces looked left me feeling deeply unnerved. They seemed inhuman and evil — and because they operated in a puppet-like fashion, which I associated with friendly characters like the Muppets, the whole video seemed like a mutated, twisted, not-right version of the world I knew. (And bear in mind, I’d seen darker films with puppets like “The Dark Crystal,” so it wasn’t as if I was completely unaware of such a universe.) Those flabby faces, those weird arms, those soulless eyes: Never had a piece of entertainment made me feel so profoundly unsafe and disassociated from everything I knew.

I’m an adult now, and most of the things that scared me as a boy no longer have any power over me. But I still don’t really enjoy watching “Land of Confusion.” It doesn’t terrify me like it used to do, but it still leaves me incredibly uneasy — which, I suppose, was the point of the video. To this day, when I think of Ronald Reagan, his “Spitting Image” puppet comes to mind within about a minute. I still recoil a little.

Neil Young, Hollywood Reporter, Sight & Sound

The correct answer is “Witchfinder General” (aka “The Conqueror Worm”), which is routinely — and wrongly — categorized as a horror film because a) it has the word “witch” in the title, b) it stars (a never-better) Vincent Price (as 17th century judge Matthew Hopkins); c) it was produced by horrormeister Roger Corman, who stuck an incongruous Poe-derived title on the US release; dd) it features generous swathes of violence, especially at the bloodthirsty finale; and e) it was directed by Michael Reeves (1943-1969), whose other two pictures (“The She-Beast,” “The Sorcerers”) are much more unambiguously “horrific”. But this is in fact a political western, without any actual witches or supernatural elements. Instead, it’s the greatest of all British/European westerns, a harrowingly horrible study of misgovernment and superstition that was intended as Reeves’ transition away from genre into bloody pastures new. But he was dead at 25 — the greatest and most tantalizing cinematic “what if” since Jean Vigo.

Luke Y. Thompson, The Robot’s Voice

Because my parents gave me the book “When the Wind Blows” at an age when I was too young to process it properly, nuclear war films have always bypassed my capacity to distance myself. This includes the movie of said book (though it’s way less of a mindfuck than the book), and of course most notably includes Threads, a literal scorched-earth take on the subject that is utterly unsparing, and shot in such a kitchen-sink style that even though other films of its era look dated today (“The Day After,” for one), it still feels immediate and real. It’s horror without any hope, and as such never found much of a market over here. It was made for TV, I suspect in part because nobody would pay to see such abject misery and despair onscreen.

Peter Keough, Boston Globe

Performance.” When this film came out I was an earnest undergraduate writing for my college paper. I was assigned to review but felt I hadn’t grasped it, so I saw it again, over and over and over… I nearly flipped out (this was drug free), but I do remember all the lyrics to “Memo from Turner.”

Jeff Berg Las Cruces Bulletin, ABQ Free Press

Executive Action” (although a tad cheesy) and “The Parallax View” — could be close to being true.

Edwin Arnaudin, Asheville Citizen-Times

Deliverance” and “Requiem for a Dream.”

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, One Perfect Shot

I tend to be scared by what I call “ordeal movies.” These are films where the main characters are forced to endure some kind of unthinkable, yet totally plausible, ordeal. They can be based on true stories (like “United 93” or “127 Hours”) or fictional (like “Open Water”). The best recent example is “Backcountry,” about a couple who get lost hiking in the woods, only to realize they have stumbled into the territory of a very hungry bear. I found the movie traumatically scary. I was literally shaking a little bit after it was over. If a film makes me mentally put myself in the character’s place and think about how I would react under such horrific circumstances, it’ll definitely get to me.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit

I’m not sure if it counts, but “Arachnophobia” absolutely terrified me, since it was the way that I learned of my fear of spiders. Normally I’d Google to see if it’s classified as horror or not, but I’m not taking the risk of googling that. At the off chance that it doesn’t count though, I’ll say my backup is the documentary “Racing Extinction.” Watching humanity essentially kill itself off is pretty terrifying.

John Keefer, 51 Deep

When I was a kid, NBC ran these specials entitled “Ancient Prophecies” that absolutely terrified me. You wouldn’t exactly call them horror films or documentaries, more like space filler with a creepy British host who appeared as a witness on an episode of “Law and Order” (the Briscoe years I think). Anyway, these cheaply made sub-MOWs detailed strange and unexplainable supernatural goings-on from around the globe, including Doomsday Prophecies (all of which would have already happened), sightings of the Virgin Mother, Alien Abductions, etc. There was one re-enactment, or enactment I suppose, of an apocalypse where our technology turns against us and it showed a man with his tie stuck in a toaster…and the toaster was eating the tie…and the man kept getting closer to the toaster, seemingly unable to un-tie his own tie. I’m sure it’s on YouTube but I don’t care to look mostly out of embarrassment of what pinned me to the back of the couch as a kid. But come to think of it the threat of complete global annihilation which, according to the show/Nostradamus/various losers they interviewed, was imminent should freak out a kid.

Mark Young, CinephileCity
While
I was watching it as a teenager, I found the Robert Zemeckis film “Contact” to be quite scary. I think part of it was the trailer,
which was masterful — no spoilers of the film’s dramatic high points,
no music except for that chilling electronic pulsing of the alien
signal. Part of it was Jodie Foster, who I then considered the queen of
serious acting; her presence led me to expect a creepy and ambiguous
ending on a par with “2001.” It wasn’t until the ending had just
happened, that I realized creepy-and-ambiguous wasn’t what we were going
to get. I didn’t hate the movie — still don’t — but was a much less
scary film afterward.

Alan Zilberman, Washington Post, Brightest Young Things
The Romanian film “Beyond the Hills”
is the non-horror film that scared me the most. It is about the
irreparable harm the Church inflicts on one troubled young woman, and
the silence that allowed it to happen. The film is scary, even
disturbing, because it looks the drama of an attempted exorcism with a
critical, unflinching eye. It is scary because it contains a depth of
arrogance that is instantly recognizable.

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: “Crimson Peak”

Other movies receiving multiple votes: “Steve Jobs,” “Bridge of Spies,” “Experimenter,” “The Martian,” “Room,” “Sicario”

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