Fear doesn’t need subtitles, but some of the best horror films do. J-horror, the New French Extremity, and other foreign-language scary-movie movements have provided much in the way of terrified shrieks and heightened pulses. Although dialogue may get lost in translation, blood-curdling screams never do. Horror is an especially visual genre, and one of the most universal.
The world is dark and full of terrors, especially where the movies on this list are concerned. Here are our favorite foreign language horror flicks made since the year 2000.
20. “We Are What We Are” (2010)
Horror filmmakers ruthlessly mine for metaphor, often at the expense of credibility. The tricky balance in the Mexican cannibal drama “We Are What We Are” (“Somos lo que hay”) pairs a conventional family unit with the ludicrously grotesque to chilling and absurd effect. Writer-director Jorge Michel Grau’s feature debut has the goriest signifier for underclass strife this side of George Romero’s “Land of the Dead,” but Grau smartly eschews satire for emotional legitimacy. Rather than a subversive treat, “We Are What We Are” aims for a darkly realistic note and finds it. Jim Mickle’s 2013 remake channels the same premise into an impressive dreamlike thriller, but Grau’s movie has a stronger element of desperation, one that resonates beyond the limitations of its gory premise. — Eric Kohn
19. “Alléluia” (2014)
Watching “Alleluia,” Belgian writer-director Fabrice Du Welz’s fourth feature, is like watching the world through a serial killer’s glasses. Inspired by the Lonely Hearts Killers of the 1970s, the movie follows an isolated woman named Gloria (Lola Dueñas), whose severe desire for a professional hustler (Laurent Lucas) leads her to assist his vicious acts of murder. The story may sound like an urban legend you’ve seen before, but Du Welz’s execution is unexpected and unshakable. Exploring the mindset of his protagonist by visualizing her unraveling psyche in every edit and camera angle, Du Welz replaces cheap thrills with an experimental and calculated sense of torture. As a result, “Alleluia” feels like nothing American horror directors bring to the table. –ZS
18. “Evolution” (2015)
Some movies revel in mysteries that don’t require solutions. In French director Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s mesmerizing and maddening “Evolution,” the story centers on a 10-year-old boy (Max Brebant) who lives in a remote seaside hospital where the staff subjects him and other children to an alarming medical process. Their mothers provide no answers as to what’s going on, and neither does Hadžihalilovic, though she carefully assembles the puzzle pieces to form an enigmatic whole that seriously gets under your skin. As the questions build (Where do the adults go at night? Where are all the men?), Hadžihalilovic pulls you deeper into an unsolvable hell that feels like some kind of a trance. Mixing the abstract art-house vibes of “Under the Skin” with the body horror of David Cronenberg, “Evolution” is one beautiful nightmare. –Zack Sharf
17. “Suicide Club” (2001)
“Suicide Club” isn’t conventionally scary — nothing that the irrepressible Sion Sono makes is conventionally anything — but it’s so unsettling that it sinks into your psyche like a night terror, continuing to haunt you long after you’ve forgotten what actually happens in this movie (that is, if you were ever able to make sense of it in the first place). Of course, nobody could ever forget the film’s bloodstained opening sequence, in which 54 uniformed schoolgirls all hold hands and jump in front of a Tokyo commuter train. From there, “Suicide Club” blisters into a broken portrait of millennial Japan, exploring the darkest crevices of the country’s generation gaps with a demented grin. How it all leads to a group of kiddie pop stars whose singles literally make people want to kill themselves… well, you have to figure that out for yourself, but rest assured you’ll never be able to get those infernal songs out of your head. — David Ehrlich
16. “A Tale of Two Sisters” (2003)
In general, after your sister’s stay in a mental institution it’s less than ideal to bring her home when your stepmom has decided to engage in an unusual relationship with ghosts. “A Tale of Two Sisters” is a psychological horror-thriller that mines the buried secrets of a family’s past and leaves the viewer as unsettled as the two sisters. A smartly assembled, non-linear film, it may require a second viewing to fully comprehend but will have you deeply disturbed by the end of the first act. The level of craft and storytelling are remarkable; Kim Jee-woon meticulous care with his images mirrors his careful plotting of how to completely screw with the viewer’s head. “Sisters” became the highest-grossing Korean horror film and the first to screen in the U.S., where it was remade in 2009 as “The Uninvited” starring Emily Browning and Elizabeth Banks. –CO