With Halloween fast approaching, EW is picking the five best films in a variety of different horror movie categories. Each day, we’ll post our top picks from one specific group—say, vampire movies or slasher flicks—and give you the chance to vote on which is your favorite. On Oct. 31, EW will reveal your top choices. Today, we’re ready to talk about those movies that hit a little too close to home.
All horror movies prey on the psychological premise that there’s beastliness roiling within everyone. But let’s get real: You don’t see news reports about werewolves, vampires, or zombies. You do see news reports about serial killers, sociopaths, and sadists. These are real people. They’re usually oddball outsiders. They’re sometimes handsome charmers. They might even be entertaining at a child’s party even as you read. These Big Bads walk among us—and you’ll most likely never be able to know who’s a threat until it’s too late.
While none of the films in this category are explicitly pulled from reality, they are woven from the fabric of real-life scenarios and actual events (who is Buffalo Bill if not a dash of Dahmer, a smattering of Ed Gein?). For my money, those are the sort of scares that stick with you for days, even weeks, after the show’s over. What could be more frightening than the fact that it could be you closing the mirror and finding a psycho behind you… or running up the stairs at the wrong moment… or just planning a lovely family vacation that takes a fatal turn?
EW’s top picks range from a genre-catalyzing torture spectacular to an Oscar-winning cultural lightning rod. Though these films’ killers have motives that vary from incredibly personal to absurdly arbitrary, one thing unites them: Folks with queasy stomachs are not the target demo.
5. Hostel (2005)
Saw may have kicked off the torture porn genre in 2004, but Eli Roth’s backpackers-in-peril film infused it with tart commentary. It’s worth noting, for example, that no other movie on this list has gotten its own theme-park treatment. Ironic, considering that Hostel subjected its sex-crazed, d-bag protagonists to the brutal havoc stemming from capitalizing on the whims of thrill seekers. On the most visceral level, though… Did they just pull out somebody’s eyeball?!
4. Funny Games (1997)
At the very beginning of Michael Haneke’s home invasion chiller, upper-crust housewife Anna (Susanne Lothar) asks her captors, “Why are you doing this?” One responds tersely, “Why not?” A few hours into the horror show, the teens propose this wager: “You bet us that tomorrow you’ll be alive. We bet you’ll be dead. Okay?” At another, they force Anna to play a game of Hot/Cold that leads her to the body of her murdered dog. The list goes on. As the title spells out, torture, murder, and degradation are just elements of a game for sadistic teens Paul (Arno Frisch) and Peter (Frank Giering). When Anna finally does get one up on the boys, Paul grabs for a remote control, hits rewind, and restarts the whole scene so it can play out to his satisfaction. And the only way that he will be satisfied is when Anna and her family are all dead. Most unnerving of all, Paul winks and talks at the camera throughout the film, making viewers complicit in the boys’ cruelty.
3. You’re Next (2011)
Similar to Funny Games, You’re Next builds on the idea of intruders making mincemeat ritzy vacationers. But Adam Wingard’s genre-hopping film quickly sends up that trope in gloriously hilarious fashion. Alternating between seat-gripping setups, a surprising action-flick undercurrent, and uproarious bourgeois freakouts (one victim actually yells, “Why meeeeee?“), You’re Next is a pendulum that swings in every direction—and boy does that make for one hell of a ride.
2. Audition (1999)
Revenge is a dish best served… regurgitated and in a dog bowl? Takashi Miike’s film explodes the notion of “perfect on paper” partner Asami (Eihi Shiina), who aces a casting call to the be the future wife of widowed film producer Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi). Asami comes with a stack of references—only Aoyama can’t reach any of them because Asami has murdered them all. Self-absorbed as Aoyama might be, the most unsettling part of the film—well, you know, other than the vomit eating—might result from pondering whether he brought this situation on himself, or whether he couldn’t possibly have seen Asami’s vengeful spree coming in the first place. Disturbingly, it’s probably a little of both.
1. Silence of the Lambs (1991)
One of an elite group of horror films anointed by Oscar (most of which appear in EW‘s Quintessentials), Jonathan Demme’s psychological thriller is the “It Could Happen to You” genre as its peak. Our aggressor could be our psychiatrist, a seemingly helpless stranger with a broken arm, even someone we’ve known for years…. The film presents a number of sick sons-of-guns (some of whom happen to be actual killers), yet the fact that the smartest psychopath has been “safely” stowed in a glass cage provides scant comfort—since his true power is getting inside your head. And, in the horror world, what’s inside our minds and memories is scariest of all. Silence ultimately succeeds by creating a pervasive, gnawing sense of unease rather than delivering sporadic jolts—though the climactic basement scene is a nail-biter for the books. Need something to take the edge off? Try a nice Chianti.