I give director James Wan an awful lot of credit. After making a boatload of money creating the Saw franchise (a series of movies that popularised the term “torture porn”), he turned around and reinvented the spooky haunted house genre in Insidious and The Conjuring. Tastes in thrillers vary wildly, but it’s hard to argue that those movies were any less scary for being relatively blood-free, and sometimes you just want to watch a scary movie that won’t make you lose your lunch.
I’m neither pro-gore nor anti-gore myself, but it’s not uncommon for horror movies to rely on gross-out special effects as a substitute for scares — and while that can make for a good time at the movies, it doesn’t relieve horror filmmakers of the burden of crafting a film that’s genuinely creepy or unsettling. If a pierced eyeball or some intestines dangling on a hook contributes to that, great! Otherwise, and often, it’s simply a neat bit of practical effects.
If you’re a more squeamish thrill seeker, there are a ton of great movies that will disturb you without resorting to throwing a bucket of blood in your face. (My favourite local movie theatre serves a full menu now, and honestly sometimes I can’t handle wound closeups while I’m trying to eat my personal pizza.) Here are 18 of them — guaranteed to raise your heart rate but not your gorge.
Isle of the Dead (1946)
Though it’s not the best of producer Val Lewton’s spare, intelligent psychological horror films of the ‘40s (that would be Cat People), Isle of the Dead is the film most uncomfortably relevant to our current moment. It’s set during the Balkan Wars of 1912. Boris Karloff plays the complicated General Pherides, who tasks himself with enforcing the quarantine on the title Greek island when he’s exposed to septicemic plague ranging among his soldiers and the tiny local population. Some flee, while others begin to turn on each other when it’s suggested the deaths are a punishment for sin being doled out by the malevolent vorvolakas. Anti-scientific ideas exacerbating the already horrific impacts of a plague? Can you even imagine? It’s also a great reminder Karloff could do a lot more than stalk around as Frankenstein; he plays a deeply unsympathetic character who’s also the narrative’s only consistent voice of reason.
Dead of Night (1946)
In anthology films, the framing device is often an afterthought, or just ghoulish icing on a scary cake (think the Cryptkeeper’s introductions: fun, but not essential). In this rare British horror picture from the ‘40s (the genre was banned during the war years), a group gathers at a remote country cottage and begins sharing stories from their own lives, each with a different style or creepy theme (the one about the ventriloquist’s dummy is probably the most familiar). Each chapter is an effective little chiller, but the wraparound narrative is especially memorable — without giving too much away, it’s inspired generations of both filmmakers and physicists.
Actor Charles Laughton directed exactly one movie, but you can’t fault him for that, as it frequently winds up on the best-of-all-time lists. Its visual style is inspired by silent cinema, which gives it a quality both beautiful and distant. If the idea of a smooth-talking preacher (Robert Mitchum) ingratiating himself into your family doesn’t immediately creep you out, the fact that he’s a serial killer who believes he’s doing God’s work in killing unworthy women will (even scarier: It’s based on a true story of a killer from the 1930s). With “love” tattooed on one hand and “hate” on the other, Mitchum is a murderous, minsogynst nightmare who inspired decades of cinematic devils.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Two of Hollywood’s biggest stars, past their primes (at least as convention would have it), appearing in an over-the-top psychological horror with Grand Guignol sensibilities…it would be worth a watch in any event. But this movie wasn’t done as a cheap throw-off: A-list director Robert Aldrich brought not only a looming tension but also a pitch-dark sense of humour to the story of a deeply embittered child star tormenting her disabled sister in her old Hollywood mansion. When it’s funny, it’s very funny, and when it’s disturbing, it’s equally effective (and just try getting “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” out of your head).
It was a genuine sensation at the time, earning Academy Award nominations and serving as a full-blown comeback for Bette Davis that lasted pretty much the rest of her life (Joan Crawford had somewhat less luck in sustaining her success). Though it veers into the problematic, viewed decades on, it taps into our primal fears of physical helplessness, whether as a result of age or disability. And, given the high expectations and low pay for caregivers in modern-day America, there’ll probably come a time when you’d count yourself lucky to have an overly done-up Bette Davis serving up your pets on a tray as dinner.
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique (sometimes Les Diabolique) exists in a sort of dialogue with Alfred Hitchcock: inspired by Hitch’s thrillers, Clouzot set out to make a stylish scary movie, but his efforts proved so shocking and successful that Hitchcock himself acknowledged a debt to the film and its influence on his own Psycho (perhaps coincidentally, the two movies also share memorable set-pieces that take place in bathrooms). Set at a backwater boy’s school, the film stars Vera Clouzot as the headmaster’s abused wife (she’s also, technically, the owner — if she dies, everything becomes his). That headmaster has been having an affair with one of the teachers, played by Simone Signoret, but she’s getting tired of his increasing abuse. The two women hatch a murder scheme that they carry out…only to find the body later missing from their hiding place. What follows is an incredibly tense and cat-and-mouse game with several genuinely frightening moments.
The Birds (1963)
Generally more thrilling than scary, The Birds nevertheless has anxiety inducing moments to rival any true horror movie (though that will vary depending on your feelings about birds). There’a also a sense of existential dread here that goes beyond the stress of the bird attacks: it’s a film in which nature out of balance, and has revenge on its mind. There’s a feeling of helplessness among the main characters, because they’ve absolutely nowhere to hide when these flying representatives of our pissed-off planet decide they’ve had enough of our shit.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
Following the drowning of their young daughter near their home in England, John and Laura (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) head off to Venice in order to get some distance from the tragedy and focus on their relationship. Once they arrive, a pair of sisters — ostensibly psychic — insist that they’re in contact with the daughter. They may well be con artists, but John begins to experience a series of increasingly disturbing incidents that throw everything into doubt. A famously unsettling exploration of the toll that grief takes on our lives and our relationships, people have been debating the ambiguous nature of some of the film’s events for decades. There are a couple of violent moments here — tame by horror-movie standards, but its worth bearing in mind if you’re looking for something truly bloodless.
The Wicker Man (1973)
If you’ve seen the much more recent Midsommar, you have a sense of the vibe here, as well as of the horrific possibilities of a visit to a pastoral village marked by what appear to be charmingly quaint traditions. Investigating the disappearance of a young girl, Christopher Lee’s Sgt. Neil Howie takes a trip to Summerisle, an island in the Hebrides, where he’s shocked to find the residents having entirely abandoned Christianity in favour of a form of Celtic paganism. Despite the public copulation and toad licking, everything seems terribly pleasant…for a while. At least until Sgt. Howie comes to suspect that his arrival there was never truly an accident. (The remake with Nicholas Cage is also worth watching, but for very different reasons.)
The Shining (1980)
Stephen King and I will just have to agree to disagree on Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the novel: not only does The Shining conjure one of the most potent and looming horror-film atmospheres in movie history, it’s also got some of the most effectively scary set-pieces — though bits like the elevator, or the two little girls, or the axe attack have been endlessly parodied for decades, they’re still incredibly freaky once you’ve allowed yourself to be sucked into the movie’s incredibly claustrophobic universe.
The Vanishing (1988)
Remade by the same director in America with considerably less success, the original is the one to watch. A couple are on a road trip when, during a quick stop at a gas station, the woman, Saskia, disappears, suddenly and completely. What begins as a very reasonable quest to discover her whereabouts becomes an obsession for her boyfriend Raymond, one that leads him further into the darkness. It seems like the structure here would be obvious, but the tension is never really about the fate of Saskia: we always know more than Raymond about what happened to her. The movie generates suspense by playing our duel desires against each other. We want to see Raymond’s need for closure satisfied, but we also increasingly come to understand what that will mean for him.
The rare remake that equals the original, the American take on Japan’s Ringu expands that movie’s story in impressive ways, and is buoyed by an impressive lead performance from Naomi Watts. The story goes that once you’ve viewed a particular VHS tape, you’ve got seven days to live — pretty much no matter what. With a film noir-style sensibility, the film patiently constructs a sense of inevitability around the fates of its characters before cunningly suggesting that all hope isn’t lost via a mid-film twist. There’s nothing creepier than a creepy kid, and this movie’s got two of them. The Ring became a minor franchise in the US, with a somewhat underrated initial sequel and a pointless 2017 update. In Japan, though, you can Ring to your heart’s content, with books, manga, a TV series, and eight movies — the latest being a crossover with The Grudge franchise. (I’ve fallen down that particular rabbit hole myself, and lived to tell about it.)
Ju-on: The Grudge (2002)
While I can make a good case for either the original Japanese or the American remake of Ring, I’ll strongly recommend going with Takashi Shimizu’s The Grudge (this one’s actually the third Grudge movie, which gets a bit complicated, but the first two are neither easily available nor essential). In a way, this one’s a traditional vengeful ghost-style haunted house story, but the scares and the visuals are so wildly distinctive and influential that we’ve seen elements of the movie wander through many American and Japanese films since. For my money, there’s almost no creepier kid in horror movie history than Toshio. On spooky nights, I’m still pretty sure he’s hiding around some corner somewhere.
Paranormal Activity (2009)
Paranormal Activity was obviously not the first found footage-style horror movie, and boy oh boy was it not the last. There have been so many sequels, imitators, and parodies by this point that it’s really pretty impossible to recapture its original impact. But, I’ll say this for it: a few years after it came out, with my husband away for the night, I decided to pop it on to kill a couple of hours…and spent half the night staring from the bed through the open bedroom door, telling myself what an idiot I was being. From a budget that’s as close to zero as you can get in the movie business (around $US15,000 ($20,229)), the folx behind the film created a compellingly chilling atmosphere. It got me, anyway.
The Woman in Black (2012)
Hammer Films made a comeback bid with this impressive adaptation of the Susan Hill novel. In many ways it’s a very traditional haunted house story, but directed and acted with a chilly panache that prevents it from ever feeling stale. Daniel Radcliffe plays an Edwardian lawyer dispatched to the charmingly named Eel Marsh House to retrieve any significant documents remaining following the death of the owner. Naturally, the house has a history, but also a quirk: it’s on a marsh island that’s only accessible vie a single road that’s only sporadically accessible, trapping anyone at the house for extended periods. (In today’s real estate market, I’d probably still make an offer, dead children and all.)
While it did very good business, Hammer Films company hasn’t really managed to follow it with anything nearly as successful (the competent but unnecessary sequel coming the closest).
The Conjuring (2013)
Having mastered the art of the torture porn with Saw — about as gory as they come — director James Wan’s next big innovation in horror was the reinvention of the demonic haunted house movie, a la The Amityville Horror. It’s old-school, no question, but who cares when it’s this genuinely creepy? Wan knows exactly what buttons to push, and Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga make for a likable pair of demonologists (at least onscreen), based on the real Warrens.
The Invitation (2015)
In 2021, what could possibly be more scary than an invitation to a dinner party? Not just because of Covid…but because people are damned awkward. The 2015 Australian film (released in the US in 2016) plays with that premise with a lot of creepy style: Will and his girlfriend are invited to a party hosted by his now re-married ex-wife in their former home. The two were divorced following the death of their son, so the reunion is emotional and awkward for the both of them. Among the other guests are equally awkward connections, and the movie does a great job of dramatizing, in a creepily heightened fashion, the discomfort of a particular type of get-together. Of course, there’s more going on here, and the hosts’ behaviours get more and more suspicious, until it becomes clear something apocalyptic is going on.
Under the Shadow (2016)
A mother and daughter are under siege in 1980s Tehran — not only by the missile strikes from neighbouring Iraq during the War of the Cities, but by supernatural entities. There’s another level to the narrative as well: Shideh was a medical student before her leftist activities saw her banned from continuing her education — she’s trapped in every way possible, and the threats come from multiple fronts, not least of which is from the djinn that might be possessing her son. It’s not a quiet movie, but a nerve-jangling one that does an incredibly effective job of keeping of bloodlessly replicating (to an extent) the sense that every moment could be the last.
The Invisible Man (2020)
Though there have been many attempts to revive the old Universal-style monsters…very few have been successful, at least since the heyday of Hammer Horror. This one boldly updates the concept in a way that’s both clever and obvious: given access to invisibility, what would an abusive ex-boyfriend do other than stalk and gaslight? Elisabeth Moss gives a great performance, often playing against nothing; the mere idea that there might be someone or something in the room. Like all of the best horror films, it works both literally and as timely metaphor. (Bear in mind that there’s a fair bit of violence here. I certainly wouldn’t call it gory, but it’s not entirely bloodless.)