In the mood to watch something truly spooky?
As Halloween approaches, and movie night rosters are filled up with the usual assortment of beasts, boogeymen, witches, ghosts, and ghouls, let’s celebrate some indelible geek classics that are equally scary as hell, but aren’t technically horror movies.
From Hell (2001)
Serial killer thrillers are all inherently scary because they present a human monster at its most cunning and terrifying. There are a handful of impeccable serial killer thrillers that are all equally chilling in their own respect—The Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, Zodiac—but this Jack the Ripper tale from the Hughes Brothers not only stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of the genre but wins mention here above all others because of its sturdier geek bonafides: it’s adapted from the acclaimed graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, and directed by the Hughes Brothers, who by then had already established themselves to be one of the most important new voices in American cinema—black or white.
With this, their third feature film (fourth if you count the documentary American Pimp), they prove themselves to be master cine-magicians. The strikingly photographed film is part detective mystery, part forensic procedural, part conspiracy thriller, and part meticulously researched historical reenactment, but with a supernatural twist: our junky detective hero is prone to absinthe-and opium-induced premonitions.
Showcases one of Johnny Depp’s finer and subtler performances, one without all the bells and whistles that would later define his freakier turns—Willy Wonka, Sweeney Todd, Tonto, and especially Captain Jack Sparrow. The chilling ambient sound effects and menacing music help the film crawl under the skin, while grisly reenactments of the Ripper killings offer the requisite splatter factor of any good gore fest—though the true story elements lend a bit more gravitas to the proceedings than you’ll find in similar body count flicks.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
A quartet of Coney Island junkies each takes a hard dance with their addiction of choice in Darren Aronofsky’s stunning second feature. The depths to which they’ll willingly and tragically sink for a fix makes for psychological horror far more frightening than any run-of-the-mill stalker thriller.
Saying this one is the ultimate “Just say ‘NO’” film is an understatement.
Escape from New York (1981)
At the time of the film’s release, John Carpenter’s bleak vision of the year 1997 played as demented satire. Now, the film’s nightmarish vision of a totalitarian police state is more uncomfortably prescient than ever.
The fully realized world inside the prison—with its social hierarchy among the barbarian inmates and the many familiar NYC landmarks imaginatively defaced and decayed—is a grim metaphor for the utter dissolution of civilization as we know it.
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
A death dream dressed up as a Vietnam-era Army medical conspiracy thriller, the hallucinatory elements of this mindbender lent themselves to a misleading promotional campaign that made the film appear to be a traditional horror movie.
Granted, there are horror movie trappings galore: our hero is tormented by grotesque demons and suffers horrific visions; the sense of paranoia never eases; and there is some extremely disturbing gore—notably during a queasy “descent into hell” nightmare bit strewn with bloody mutilated viscera and deformed bodies.
At face value, Terry Gilliam’s dystopian satire is a Python-esque riff on George Orwell, and is replete with delightful visual comedy and morbid gallows humor, but make no mistake: this dark tale of bureaucracy and technology run amok in a totalitarian surveillance state is one of the most frightening visions of the future any movie has to offer.
Note specifically what happens when a literal bug in the system results in an innocent but similarly named man being wrongly prosecuted for a wanted terrorist’s crimes. And even though our hapless hero’s final fate is intended to be some sort of triumph—he’s successfully escaped from his thought police torturers—the fact that he’s forever trapped in blissful refuge inside his own broken mind makes his end a gloomy and horrific resolution no matter which way you cut it.