5 great existential horror movies
The 1988 Dutch thriller The Vanishing hit Blu-ray this week, thanks to the good folks at Criterion. Without a drop of gore, it’s the perfect centerpiece for an All Saints’ Eve frightfest that shivers the soul but doesn’t turn the stomach. And why not round out that scare-a-thon with four more examples of great, relatively bloodless movies that go for your soul instead of your jugular? Here’s a list of suggestions. (And if you’re looking for more traditional horror flicks, consider perusing our carefully-curated Horror Quintessentials lists.)
The Vanishing (1988)
The horror genre tends to be about as subtle as a meat cleaver to the skull. But there can be more to a scary movie than just screaming apparitions or a gradually diminishing number of coeds with a bad sense of self-preservation. Exhibit A: The Vanishing, an unnerving tale of dread and obsession that burrows under your skin and makes a home there.
A Dutch couple is vacationing in France when the woman (Johanna ter Steege) suddenly disappears at a roadside gas station, leaving her boyfriend (Gene Bervoets) haunted by the need to find out what happened to her. Driven by this primal curiosity as much as by duty and love, the man eventually comes face-to-face with her abductor (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) and follows him down a rabbit hole that leads to the film’s grim punchline of an ending. Director George Sluizer, who years later would also helm the inferior Hollywood remake, constructs the plot like a puzzle box and inserts small moments of slapstick humor that only serve to further disconcert the viewer. Stanley Kubrick reportedly told Sluizer that it was the most horrifying film he had ever seen—no weightless accolade from the man who made The Shining. Indeed, despite a distinct lack of anything supernatural (or even a single onscreen death), The Vanishing produces a terror that’s bone-white rather than blood-red.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
Based on a Daphne du Maurier short story, Nicolas Roeg’s Venice-set thriller about a grieving couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) that holds a séance to commune with their drowned daughter is a master class in atmosphere-building. Dread collects like fog, mounting intolerably until the film’s final minutes—when it climaxes in a jaw-dropping sequence of pure WTF-ery. You’ll never look at a red raincoat the same way again.
Before he cast his eye backward to Sirkian melodrama with Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes created the ultimate horror film for the modern age. Julianne Moore plays Carol White, a woman who develops vague and persistent symptoms stemming from omnipresent chemicals and household products. As her condition worsens, she desperately seeks a cure—but how can you alleviate an allergy to 20th-century life?
George A. Romero may be known for single-handedly inventing the zombie genre, but it’s his low-budget, high-tension vampire movie that manages to really gnaw at you. Stripping the bloodsucker mythology of all its glamour, Romero presents a psychological portrait of a young man convinced he is a creature of the night. Never mind that he’s actually a fangless weirdo who must subdue his prey with syringes and use razor blades to “feed.” The possibility that everything we see is all happening in his head makes you realize: Who needs real monsters when we’ve got people like Martin?
Inland Empire (2006)
The diner scene in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive surely ranks as one of the top pants-soilingly terrifying moments in cinema,. But it’s his sprawling follow-up that takes the prize for sustained mind-warping ghastliness. Laura Dern gives her all as an actress whose sanity is crumbling in this nightmare opus, a slowly-circling black whirlpool that pulls you in with its dream logic and traps you in the dark.