Are scary movies based in this world more unsettling than their supernatural counterparts?
On Halloween, Americans flock to their Netflix queues, libraries and few remaining retail video stores for something scary—usually involving monsters, ghosts or seemingly immortal knife-wielding killers. But for some, horror is at its scariest when it sticks closest to things that could happen without any tinge of the supernatural. Here are a handful of the creepiest, most unsettling movies that were based squarely in the real world.
Deliverance (1972): It has become something of a pop-culture punch line, with its evocation of inbred hicks playing “Dueling Banjos.” But director John Boorman’s adaptation of the James Dickey novel was also a primally disturbing tale for those whose urbanite lifestyles make them aliens in the wild. More than that movie with the “purty mouth,” it’s about masculinity threatened in both subtle and overt ways.
Jaws (1975): You could make a case that few films in history changed people’s behavior the way this one did, simply because it was possible that something was out there in the ocean. Plenty of things about the production and reception of the film—about a man-eating shark terrorizing an East Coast resort town—became the stuff of cinematic legend, but that’s largely because we felt its plausibility in our primitive backbrain. When that one unfortunate swimmer in the film’s opening sequence became our antagonist’s first victim, we saw—and felt—the kind of terror that anyone could eventually experience.
The Vanishing (Sporloos) (1988): The memory of George Sluizer's terrifying tale couldn't even be spoiled by his bastardized American remake. The set-up finds young couple Rex and Saskia on vacation, where Saskia disappears at a rest stop; years later, Rex begins receiving notes that suggest knowledge of what happened to Saskia. The horror of a sudden, unexplained disappearance is quite enough, but the real triumph here is Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu's performance as the seemingly normal family man who might have perpetrated a terrible act just to find out what it was like -- and may be prepared to do it again. Fear is often most profound when it's too inexplicable to be reasoned away.
Funny Games (1997, pictured): You could make an entire list on this theme strictly from Michael Haneke films, but this one—even more so than the similarly grueling American remake a decade later—provides the strongest gut punch. A family vacationing at a remote lake house is accosted by two strange interlopers who systematically torment them psychologically and physically. Some of Haneke’s fourth-wall-breaking tricks are gasp-inducing the first time you experience them, and even some of the moments of catharsis are torn away before they’re allowed to sink in. It’s the ultimate tale of banal evil for those who need to check the deadbolt twice before bedtime
Audition (1999): Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike loves pushing things to extremes, never more effectively than in this tale of a widower who engages a movie-producer friend with creating a fake audition process, where the goal is finding the man a potential new wife. Too bad the girl he has his eye on has a few … issues. Urban legends sprouted up around the reactions of moviegoers to Audition’s most infamous scenes, yet it’s not just an exercise in shock tactics. In hindsight, it gets under your skin (no pun intended) as the non plus ultra of cautionary tales about blind dating.
Day Night Day Night (2006): Writer/director Julia Loktev’s fiction-feature debut was ingeniously simple in its construction, following a 19-year-old young woman (Luisa Williams) over 48 hours as she prepares for her role as a suicide bomber. It’s never entirely clear what motivates the woman, nor does it particularly matter; the tension comes from the sense of wondering whether her uncertainty and sheer survival instinct will ultimately trump her political convictions. Perhaps it’s most disturbing for stripping away the simplistic notion of zealous madness that cloaks our assumptions about terrorists, and made it seem that any lost soul could potentially become a weapon.
What other films based purely in this world have shaken you up?