“We Need to Talk About Kevin” (Lynne Ramsay, 2012)
Director Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin” carries the label of a dramatic thriller, but is there any doubt it’s truly a horror film? Over the course of this psychological trial, Ramsay creates an impressionistic nightmare that tells the story of a mother’s emotional and physical reality in the timeframes before and after her son commits an unthinkable tragedy. We don’t just see the mother’s emotions as Tilda Swinton runs the gamut of emotions, we feel them in every shot and every frame. Ramsay composes sequences of horrific beauty (a blood red tomato stomping festival) and unrelenting realism (Swinton driving through the streets on Halloween as kids in monster masks surround her), and her disorienting editing leaves it up to the viewer to figure out where in time the movie is taking place. With astonishing assistance from Swinton, whose performance hits like a wrecking ball of shattered vulnerability, “Kevin” will leave its haunting images and atmosphere seared in your brain for days.
“Martha Marcy May Marlene” (Sean Durkin, 2011)
Director Sean Durkin’s debut feature is a terrifying psychological head trip with a star-is-born performance by Elizabeth Olsen. Similar to “Kevin,” “Martha” unfolds in both the past and present as it tells the story of a young woman’s encounter with an abusive cult in the Catskill Mountains. The jarring time switches (sometimes lasting only seconds) draw the viewer into the damaged mind of Martha, and the quietly building suspense pins you to your seat in ways most conventional horror films couldn’t even dream of. While Sarah Paulson and John Hawkes do strong supporting work as Martha’s distant sister and her sinister cult leader, respectively, it’s Olsen’s ever-changing sense of deranged fear and paranoia that is most haunting. While flashbacks to the cult are sickening (a depiction of a cult-initiation rape is not for the faint of heart), the present-day scenes are most tormenting as Martha’s road to recovery fuels one too many anxiety attacks. As Olsen gasps for breath, “Martha” becomes a horror film of the scariest order.
“Take Shelter” (Jeff Nichols, 2011)
What Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter” may lack in narrative ambition it more than makes up for in the ambiguity it uses to depict its lead character’s psychological reckoning. Michael Shannon gives an unshakable performance as Curtis, a family man slowly losing his mind thanks to a series of apocalyptic nightmares. Shannon is so convincingly distressed in his performance that his nervous breakdown is a terrifying descent to behold, constantly calling into question whether or not Curtis is truly out of his mind or actually on to something that none of his fellow townspeople can see. The shifting answer behind Curtis’ visions gives the film an alarming hook, and scenes where he is confronted by his petrified wife (Jessica Chastain) are crippling knockouts. The bunker-set climax, in particular, is a hair-raiser you’ll never forget.
“The Vanishing” (George Sluizer, 1988)
Kidnapping dramas don’t need much more than their horrific subject matter to be terrifying, but George Sluizer’s confident approach to the genre in his Dutch-French thriller “The Vanishing” makes for the most bone-chilling of its kind. Rex and Saskia are on holiday in France and stop at a rest area after their car runs out of gas. After they confess their love to one another, Saskia goes into the convenience store for a drink. She never returns. Before Sluizer takes the traditional approach by lingering on Rex’s exhaustive search for his love, he rewinds the clock to introduce the killer, Raymond, turning the film into an anti-mystery of disturbing proportions. We watch Raymond as he experiments with chloroform and practices his routine to carry out the perfect kidnapping over and over again. By having the viewer already know the successful outcome of the killer’s efforts, Slauizer is able to enter the methodic mind of a sociopath with a frightening level of intimacy.
“Seconds” (John Frankenheimer, 1966)
John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film is an oddity. An understated sci-fi thriller starring Rock Hudson, “Seconds” is the story of Arthur Hamilton, an aging businessman tired of his boring day job and losing interest in a family that’s lost interest in him. When a friend he long thought dead refers him to a mysterious secret society that uses advanced plastic surgery to create a new life for bored middle-aged men, Arthur is turned into the handsome and artistic Tony and goes to live on the beach in Southern California. What begins as a charming new life after a mid-life crisis quickly becomes a trap as Tony realizes he can never return to his old life, whether he wants to or not. The slow reveal of Tony’s catch-22 is deeply upsetting, and the mere notion that not even the fulfillment of our wildest fantasies could bring us happiness is equally dismaying. What’s most terrifying, however, is the film’s ending, which is one of the most viscerally disturbing and unexpected resolutions to ever hit the screen.
“The Imposter” (Bart Layton, 2012)
Bart Layton’s crime-thriller documentary “The Imposter” is the true definition of a shocker. The film doesn’t just investigate the true story of Frédéric Bourdin, who had a history of impersonating children and found much success when he took on the identity of a Texas boy who had gone missing at the age of 13, it recreates it with elaborate reenactments that have the brooding and sinister aesthetics of a certified horror film. Bourdin embellished his lie by alleging that he had been kidnapped for purposes of sexual abuse by Mexican, European and U.S. military personnel, and though certain facts (his age and accent, chief among them) don’t add up, the boy’s family embraces Bourdin as if he was their long lost son. The results paint a chilling portrait of devastating mind trickery that is nothing short of haunting.
“Inland Empire,” (David Lynch 2006)
Any David Lynch film would be a welcome addition here, as they often transcend description and include nearly every cinematic genre known to man. Made five years after “Mulholland Drive,” “Inland Empire” shares much thematic crossover with Lynch’s 2001 magnum opus, blending Hollywood satire with psychological surrealism for a result that is nothing short of extreme horror. Laura Dern plays Nikki Grace, an actress desperately seeking a comeback role. Her attempts at recapturing stardom bring her into contact with a deranged world full of prophecy-spouting old ladies, time travel and some kind of haunted house. It’s hard to make sense of much of what’s going on plot-wise, but Lynch’s confident approach to the material makes it impossible to look away. By swapping his usual taste for operatic visuals with the grungy feel of standard definition digital video, Lynch creates one of his most grimy and grounded nightmares, which alone makes “Inland Empire” his most horrifying feature.
“The Night of the Hunter” (Charles Laughton, 1955)
The only film directed by actor Charles Laughton, “Night of the Hunter” begins as a mystery/crime film but quickly leaves you shaken to your core. Robert Mitchum stars as Rev. Harry Powell, an ex-con out to find the money his former cellmate had stashed away before receiving the death sentence. Tricking the man’s widow into marrying him, Powell appears pious and friendly, but when he’s left alone with his new wife’s children, who know more than they’re letting on, he becomes sadistic and intense, stopping at nothing to find the fortune. On the surface, “Night of the Hunter” is a classic Hollywood thriller, but Powell’s relentless pursuit of the children and his violent acts, rife with sexual undertones, become deeply disturbing, making you question what every stranger who comes your way is really after. Powell’s chilling treatment of the kids in the film is only made creepier by the fact that director Laughton was well known for his real-life hatred of children.