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From David Lynch to Yorgos Lanthimos: 10 scary films that aren't horror movies

Nothing remains but to hope the end will come to extinguish the unrelenting pain of waiting for it.
– Pier Paolo Pasolini

The horror genre has garnered a popular reputation for subverting the aesthetic expectations of the cinematic medium to such an extent that we have started expecting to be scared by the thousands of films marketed as works of horror. However, there are some truly terrifying masterpieces which do not adhere to the conventions of the genre and cannot be identified as such.

If anything, this list proves that cinematic fear is not just restricted to the horror genre but has the potential of being an immanent voyeuristic drive. It has to be noted that some of the entries on this list, like Salò and Cannibal Holocaust, are often classified as horror films because of the reactions they evoke from audiences but doing so is disrespectful to their artistic merit and the inherent realism of their brand of fear.

While talking about making his infamous 1975 film Salò or 120 Days of Sodom, Pasolini once said, “My need to make this film also came from the fact I particularly hate the leaders of the day. Each one of us hates with particular vehemence the powers to which he is forced to submit. So, I hate the powers of today. It is a power that manipulates people just as it did at the time of Himmler or Hitler. I don’t think the young people of today will understand this film. I have no illusions about my ability to influence young people.”

He added, “It is impossible to create a cultural relationship with them, because they are living with totally new values, with which the old values cannot be compared. I don’t believe we shall ever again have any form of society in which men will be free. One should not hope for it. One should not hope for anything. Hope is invented by politicians to keep the electorate happy.”

With his words ringing in our ears, here is a list of 10 scary films that cannot exactly be pigeonholed into the horror genre.

The 10 scariest films that are not horror movies:

10. Deliverance (John Boorman – 1972)

Adapted by James Dickey from his 1970 novel of the same name, Deliverance stars Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox as four urban men who get attacked by violent hillbillies in the deep woods of Georgia. The film takes the adventure drama genre and layers it with dark and foreboding themes, unravelling the true depravity of humans.

Speaking about the project, Burt Reynolds once stated, “Women get this movie much quicker than men. Women also understand. You know, for so many years men threw the word rape around and never thought about what they were saying. And I think the picture makes men think about something that’s very important, that we understand the pain and embarrassment and the change of people’s lives.”

9. Funny Games (Michael Haneke – 1997)

Haneke’s 1997 psychological thriller follows two psychologically disturbed men who hold a family hostage in their idyllic vacation home. They subject them to their sadistic games and torture, pushing the boundaries of cinematic violence. Haneke’s film is a self-aware satire of “unnecessary” depictions of violence in cinema but ends up becoming a terrifying spectacle in the process of critiquing the mainstream.

Haneke recalled, “The ironic story is that when I did Funny Games and it was finished but it was not released anywhere yet, there was a story in a German news magazine Der Spiegel about two young men in Spain who had taken a man from the street and tortured him to death. And they wore white gloves.

“When they were asked in prison, do you feel any remorse? One of them wrote an essay and said no. They quoted Nietzsche all the time. They said this guy who murdered was a third-class individual anyway. So you can’t invent anything that is worse than what happens in reality.”

8. Perfect Blue (Satoshi Kon – 1997)

Based on the novel Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis by Yoshikazu Takeuchi, this film is considered by many to be among Satoshi Kon’s best works. The film follows the life of a celebrity singer Mima who attracts the unwanted attention of a stalker after she decides to retire from a Japanese idol group in order to pursue an acting career. Perfect Blue chronicles Mima’s slow descent into insanity, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality.

“It’s the difficulty of figuring it out that is at the core of the film,” Satoshi Kon said. “If you saw the film many times in order to distinguish between objective reality and the main character’s subjective experience, I think the film’s flavour would disappear. So long as you accept that it’s meant to be inexplicable, that’s fine.”

7. Oldboy (Park Chan-wook – 2003)

The second instalment of Park Chan-wook’s The Vengeance Trilogy, Oldboy is now regarded as one of the best neo-noirs of all time. It features a man’s quest for vengeance after he is released from 15 years of confinement. Although violence is omnipresent, Oldboy is critically acclaimed because it manages to make an artistic statement about the human condition while depicting the inhuman.

The filmmaker explained, “Just like that every other form of art, everything that comprises a piece of work has to have a reason to be there. Every element. Just like being a chef, you use ingredients to create something that wasn’t there before. And you have to carefully think about what ingredients you choose, and how you mix it into your final dish.

“How you use it as a means of expressing an idea. He might think of it as a composer trying to write a piece of music for an orchestra, and in order to effectively do that, you’re drawing on all the instruments in the orchestra, and thinking about how they’ll function in the piece of music.”

6. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay – 2011)

Based on the 2003 novel of the same name by Lionel Shriver, Ramsay’s 2011 psychological thriller stars Tilda Swinton as a travel writer/publisher who sacrifices her lifestyle in order to have a child. However, she experiences intense frustration when she realises that she cannot connect with her son. He grows up to be a sociopathic teen and she is left trying to make sense of the horrific acts her son is capable of committing.

Ramsay said, “People are funny. They bring their own stuff. The thing is, it’s not a realist film. That’s where people seem to be getting their knickers in a twist. It’s a ‘what if?’ film. And, if you’re a mother, it’s a bloody big ‘what if?’ What if I don’t love my child? What if he picks up on that and turns it back on me? It’s a taboo subject and, for that reason, very disturbing in the questions it asks.”

5. Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos – 2009)

Probably the most disturbing work by the director of films like The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Dogtooth features strict, manipulative parents who do not let their children leave the house until their dogtooth falls out. A bizarre take on sexual repression and psychological torture, Lanthimos’ film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best International Feature Film.

“We didn’t do any research at all, because I thought it was such a surreal story we were working on,” Lanthimos revealed. ”It was only afterwards, when we were already rehearsing, that this Austrian story came out about the father who kept his daughter in the basement, where she grew up like an animal, and he had children with her. But still, this felt very different from what we were trying to do since it had a very different tone to it, way too dark and dreadful.”

4. Come and See (Elem Klimov – 1985)

Soviet filmmaker Elem Klimov’s bleak anti-war film is a ruthless depiction of humanity’s capacity for unabashed evil. We experience the horrors of war through the teenaged protagonist, Alexei Kravchenko, in a landscape that has been subjected to a Nazi incursion and genocide. Come and See insists that although the war has changed what it means to be human forever, individual dignity is something nobody can take away from us.

It is a compelling tale of surviving against all odds even though an entire civilisation spirals into chaos all around us. Visceral and moving, Come and See is a nightmare but a necessary one, a reminder for us to steer clear of our past mistakes.

Klimov said, “It was some kind of reflection of what I felt of my own emotions at the time of the war. Or, you might say, of my wartime childhood. Because when the war started, I was only eight years old. I was born and raised in Stalingrad. So, like a lot of my friends and acquaintances, we all experienced together very hard times. We had to work hard. We felt human suffering. These were my memories of the war. Memories that will never leave me. And I am sure that, one way or another, they were reflected in the film Come and See.”

3. Eraserhead (David Lynch – 1977)

One of the most powerful and unique films of the last century, David Lynch’s remarkable first film is an unparalleled inquiry into the subject of male paranoia and the anxieties of becoming a parent. Set in a universe that looks like an amalgamation of Eliot’s Waste Land and Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Eraserhead launches a scathing attack on enforced reproductive expectations in a world where everyone is impotent.

Released in 1977, the experimental body horror was Lynch’s first foray into a feature-length production following a few short films. Having completed the film while studying at the American Film Institute, the project has since gone on to typify the director’s vision. Dark and confounding, the film didn’t grab attention right away, instead, Lynch made waves when the film took off after being run as a ‘midnight movie’.

Five years in the making and shot entirely in black and white, the film tells the story of Henry Spencer, a “man who is left to care for his grossly deformed child in a desolate industrial landscape.” It’s said that the script of Eraserhead is thought to have been inspired by Lynch’s fear of fatherhood, while the film’s themes were a direct reflection of Lynch’s experiences living in a troubled neighbourhood in Philadelphia, describing it as ridden with “violence, hate and filth”.

2. Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato – 1980)

Influenced by the documentaries of Mondo director Gualtiero Jacopetti and Italian media coverage of Red Brigades terrorism, Cannibal Holocaust is one of the most harrowing depictions of cinematic violence to ever exist. Set in the Amazon rainforests, it features a rescue mission for a documentary crew who had gone missing while filming local cannibal tribes. The only thing that was found was the footage that the crew shot, a stream of unfiltered and senseless violence.

In an interview, Deodato claimed, “People call me a horror director but actually I have only directed a couple of horror films, and I’m not referring to the usual titles of mine I’m associated with. Cannibal Holocaust is not a horror film, it’s just a depiction of reality. It’s not my fault the world we live in is so violent and dark.”

1. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini – 1975)

Writing about Salò is as challenging as watching the film itself because it goes against everything that conventional definitions of cinema prescribe. Pasolini conducts one of the impactful investigations of power relations through depraved sexual activities. Often touted as “the most disgusting movie ever made”, it features a group of young teenagers who are taken by powerful men to a remote mansion where they are tortured and exploited repeatedly until they forget what it means to be human.

Pasolini said, “Being based on De Sade, this film revolves around the representation of sex. But this aspect has changed in relation to my last three films that I call ‘the trilogy of life’: The Decameron, Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights. In this new film, sex is nothing but an allegory of the commodification of bodies at the hands of power.

“I think that consumerism manipulates and violates bodies as much as Nazism did. My film represents this sinister coincidence between Nazism and consumerism. Well, I don’t know if audiences will grasp this since the film presents itself in rather enigmatic way, almost like a miracle play, where the sacred word retains its Latin meaning of ‘cursed.’”