5 Great Horror Movies Based On Urban Legends

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Best Of Best of Movies Featured Horror Mystery and Lore

Horror movies are always more effective when reminiscent of, or straight up depicting, real world fears. What better way to terrify the masses than by visually portraying urban legends, some of the most widespread of superstitions and irrational paranoias? Many of these folk horror films are tackled by smaller directors looking to kickstart, though some bigger budget gems have been known to shine through. 

Triangle 2009

Triangle Folk Horror movie poster with girl holding axe on a boat with a bloody reflection

Triangle is a twisting, turning, chilling British horror/thriller from Christopher Smith, director of Severance (2006) and Black Death (2010). A potent hybrid of old school slasher à la Friday 13th (1980) and mind-bending science fiction in the vein of Predestination (2014) and Coherence (2013), this unsettling nautical romp is certain to please fans of both. When Jess, a single mother, embarks on a boating trip with her friends, a storm forces them to abandon their vessel for a seemingly deserted cruise liner. Once aboard, the group are faced with a deranged killer, along with waves of psychological mayhem and headache-inducing time loops. 

As the name may suggest, Triangle is centred around the infamous Bermuda Triangle, a region in the western part of the North Atlantic Ocean. The region is said to have played setting to, and been the culprit of, a great number of obscure sightings and disappearances leading back to 1492. It was then that Christopher Columbus and the crew of the Santa Maria sailed through the triangle to arrive at Guanahani, though not before reportedly seeing a strange and unknown light in the sea fog. Since then a great deal of boats and aeroplanes have disappeared in the sinister sea-region, from the USS Wasp in 1814 to Turkish Airlines flight TK183 in 2017, some carrying upwards of a hundred passengers at the time of disappearance. 

Triangle does great justice to the eerie and unexplainable legend of the Bermuda Triangle, it’s warping story leaving viewers guessing and re-guessing until its bleak and poignant closing scene. Weight is added through Smith’s use of bloody violence and tense horror, creating a soft hybrid of a film which remains as entertaining and thought provoking now as it ever was. 

Bermuda is not the only area that has a mysterious triangle. The Alaska Triangle has similar tales albeit over land.

The Blair Witch Project 1999

Blair Witch Project 1999 Movie poster with scared face and text

This pioneer of the found-footage subgenre shocked audiences in 1999 with a claustrophobic and wholly believable portrayal of young adults falling victim to the legend of the mysterious Blair Witch. After setting off into rural Maryland to document and hopefully capture some evidence of the insidious figure, including interviewing locals and camping in some questionable spots, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams (playing themselves) soon become lost in the vast wilderness. Seemingly stalked and tormented by the very myth they sought to invoke, the three encounter dread and distress enough to make any viewer think twice about their next camping trip.

Of course, the legend of the Blair Witch is just that, a legend. That being said, it had more of an interesting start than most. Writer-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez fabricated an entire urban legend regarding the town of Burkittsville, Maryland, plastering missing-person posters around the 1999 Sundance Film Festival and claiming their footage was real. Sundance legally had to confirm the film as a work of fiction, though this did not lessen the impact the marketing ploy had. The rise of a $60,000 indie flick to $248,000,000 blockbuster is staggering, as is the influence the film has had on the horror scene long after its release. 

The Blair Witch Project relied on a strong cast utilising a lot of improvisation to help its desired effect come to life. Not just for the claims of authenticity (though it did help those) but for the raw and genuine atmosphere running through the flick. The actors camped for ten days in the Maryland wilderness while cremembers posed as their antagonist, leaving stick figures and bloody packages at camp, shaking their tents in the early hours. Only Heather, of the three, was given any information about the witch to ensure the others gave authentic reactions and asked plenty of questions. 

While this type of filmmaking can come with complications, such as the actors’ parents being sent sympathy cards over their children’s fictional deaths to this day, it shows a complete commitment from cast and crew. To make something with this impact, small sacrifices must sometimes be made, though we’ll leave it up to the creators to decide whether it was worth it.

Willow Creek 2013

Willow Creek Folk Horror Movie poster with a big foot imprint and red background

When Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) and Jim (Bryce Johnson) travel into Humboldt County, California on a camping trip to find the famous wildman, Bigfoot, their faith and will to survive are tested in equal measure. 

If Willow Creek isn’t a tribute to The Blair Witch Project then it’s at least a loving nod. Effectively sparse and utilising tireless and detailed acting from what is effectively a cast of two, prolific writer/director/comedian Bobcat Goldthwait’s directorial foray into tense horror is a potent one. It shares Blair Witch’s theme and structure almost to a tee, other than replacing Myrick and Sánchez’ fictitious urban legend with one very much known in the real world.

Bigfoot, also referred to as Sasquatch in Canadian and American folklore, is an ape-like wildman of worldwide legend and innumerable alleged sightings. While all accounts of the Bigfoot are anecdotal, or highly disputable video footage or photographs, it manages to retain one of the highest cult followings of any urban legend, with followers deeply entrenched in the culture of searching out and worshipping the elusive ape-man. 

Bigfoot has been a figurehead in popular culture for years, appearing on television, in films and countless pieces of merchandise. A few horror films such as Exists (2014) and Evidence (2012) have included the towering hair-covered phenomenon as an antagonist, though none quite so efficaciously as this one.

Ringu 1998 / The Ring 2002

The Ring Horror Movie poster showing a glowing supernatural ring

This Japanese frightfest and its American counterpart are a perfect example of a western adaptation done right. Japan has always had a distinct and dynamic take on horror as a genre, favouring dark spaces, pale ghosts with jet black hair and some truly unsettling signature sounds. One may think that a western attempt would completely miss the mark (or, as they tend to, miss the point completely) on such an unmistakable style, though Ringu’s remake The Ring proved to be as good if not a more accessible way to deliver its story to a wider audience. 

When journalist Rachael (Naomi Watts) comes across a videotape that allegedly kills people seven days after watching, she must act quickly to decipher the meaning behind the object before it claims her own life. Featuring a solid performance from Naomi Watts along with a morbidly bleak atmosphere and some horrendously chilling imagery, The Ring managed to take an age-old Japanese urban legend and present it in a way certain to scare the worldwide masses. As if Ringu wasn’t unnerving enough.

The story itself is, as you may have guessed, based on an old Japanese legend dating as far back as the 12th century. Somewhere between 1333 and 1346 a fort now known as Himeji Castle was erected on Himeyama hill in western Japan. A samurai named Tessan Aoyama was said to have taken a particular fancy to a young servant of his named Okiku, so much of a fancy in fact that he vowed to take her away and marry her. When she refused his advances, the samurai hid one of the ten priceless golden plates Okiku was charged with looking after. He told her that if she did not agree to marry him he would openly blame her for the plate’s disappearance, an accusation that would undoubtedly lead to her being tortured and executed. In full knowledge of her predicament, Okiku was said to have committed suicide by throwing herself into a well in the castle grounds. Each night, so the tale goes, she would crawl back out of the well, appearing to Aoyama on a nightly basis until he went mad from her haunts. She was regularly heard counting the plates she had sworn to protect, throwing a destructive tantrum whenever she realised that number ten was still missing. 

Ringu proves that a terrifying story does not have to be wholly original; sometimes a rework of an ancient tale will do just nicely. 

Candyman 1992

Candyman Urban Legend Horror Movie Poster with a bee in an eye

Candyman is the quintessential urban legend brought to life. Based on a 1985 Clive Barker short story entitled The Forbidden, the film shares a few similarities. The infamous Candyman, with his aura of bees and hook for a hand, will appear to anyone who either uses his name in vain or flat out refuses to believe in him. Say his name five times in a mirror (yep, that’s where that came from) and he’ll appear behind you, ready to drive his deadly hook into your tender form. That’s if you’re brave or stupid enough to even bother.

A graduate student named Helen comes across the Candyman legend while researching her thesis paper. Her examination into the insidious entity brings his attention right back on her, and soon she finds herself fighting for her life against an age-old evil that apparently only she didn’t know not to mess with.

Candyman has taken his share of inspiration from several sources, most notable of which being the Hookman legend. In the story, a young couple are getting steamy in a parked car when an emergency radio bulletin says that a mental patient with a hook for a hand has escaped the nearby asylum. The girl becomes terrified when she hears something scraping along the car, convincing the boy to drive off. When he does, neither of them notice the metal hook hanging from the door handle. While the similarities here are purely aesthetic, the Hookman appearance is unmistakable in any form.

The other clear inspiration for this 1992 classic is one of the many manifestations of the ‘say their name five times in a mirror’ dare, Bloody Mary. One of the most widely known tales to date, Bloody Mary is said to have been a witch who was burned for practicing black magic, though more modern retellings say that she was a young woman who died in a car crash. Every kid’s first sleepover isn’t complete without a game of Bloody Mary, making her one of the first spirits many of us will have encountered.

Links

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Bermuda_Triangle_incidents

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1187064/

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0185937/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_0

https://www.thrillist.com/entertainment/nation/blair-witch-project-true-story-burkittsville-maryland

https://www.mirror.co.uk/film/blair-witch-real-truth-behind-8844017

https://www.vice.com/en/article/8xzy4p/blair-witch-project-oral-history-20th-anniversary

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Himeji_Castle

https://screenrant.com/candyman-movie-real-urban-legends-inspiration-tony-todd/

https://www.popsugar.co.uk/entertainment/where-does-candyman-legend-come-from-47313482

Best Found Footage Horror Movies

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Best Of Best of Movies Featured Scary Movies and Series

What makes a horror movie scary? The answer to that question is fairly subjective, but there are likely some commonalities across the board.. And while intense action sequences, shocking twists, chilling imagery, and startling jump scares all deserve a place on that list, one of the most important factors (in our opinion) is realism. The more believable a horror film is, the more genuinely terrifying it will be. This suspension of disbelief, the thing that pulls audiences into the story and envelops them in its horror, is a contributing factor to some of the scariest films ever made. The best found footage horror movies exemplify this.

This is why the found footage horror genre works so well in horror. Found footage movies are presumed to be recovered recordings of actual events. They’re shot with low quality cameras, cast with no name actors, and often created on a tight budget. And yet this obvious lack of “quality” is exactly what makes these films succeed. The handheld cameras and documentary-style narratives help shape movies that seem incredibly realistic – and when they’re in the horror genre this also makes them incredibly frightening. To give you a taste of what this wide-ranging sub genre has to offer, we’ve explored the history of found footage horror to give you some of the best found footage horror films!

Host (2020)

Host found footage horror movie poster

It’s July of 2020, and the United Kingdom is in the middle of a lockdown due to the Covid-19 virus. A group of friends have decided to use weekly Zoom calls as a way to stay connected, and in this latest call they have invited a medium to host a seance. Things start off innocently enough, but when one of the friends feels the presence of their dead friend Zack, things start to go off the rails. It’s a frighteningly good time, blending real world circumstances with supernatural scares. The entire movie was shot on Zoom during Covid, so it works as effective found footage horror movie as well as a marker of life during the pandemic. In the realm of “movies shot on the Internet” this stands out above the rest.

Creep (2014)

Creep found footage horror movie poster

A young, burgeoning filmmaker named Aaron has found a new gig: recording a video diary for a new client. Josef, who wants to film his final moments for his family, invites Aaron to his cabin in the woods. But Josef’s behavior is increasingly erratic and strange, and by the time Aaron realizes the truth of what’s going on it may be too late. This psychological horror film has the found footage horror movie genre hallmarks of a low budget and stripped down story, but it goes a step further by removing many of the obvious horrors. Instead it’s a case study of two men – one whose madness is slowly revealed and the other whose life is in danger because of it. It’s a risky choice for the genre, but it’s pulled off incredibly well thanks to the magnetic energy and chemistry of its leads Mark Duplass and Patrick Brice.

What We Do In the Shadows (2014)

What We Do in the Shadows found footage horror movie poster

It may not be as scary or disturbing as the other entries on this list, but as a horror comedy hybrid What We Do in the Shadows excels. The movie fits into another sub genre known as mockumentary, and the premise concerns a documentary crew who are filming a group of vampires who share a flat in a suburb of New Zealand. These vampires have varying powers and personalities, and much of the film follows their nightly exploits as they search for humans to kill and live their best undead lives. Comedic duo Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement wrote, directed, and starred in the film that has also launched a television show and a cult following of loyal fans.

Frankenstein’s Army (2013)

Frankenstein's Army found footage horror movie poster

It’s towards the end of World War II and a Red Army team on the Eastern Front has received a Soviet distress call. The company traces the call to a seemingly abandoned church where one of their members is suddenly attacked and disembowled by a zombot – a murderous half man/half robot creation. It turns out that the church, as well as the catacombs beneath it, are teeming with zombots created by a mad scientist descended from Victor Frankenstein. The movie has its gory moments and the plot takes some interesting twists and turns, but the standout stars by far are the uncanny and unsettling monster designs and grisly practical effects. Altogether the film is a fun mix of grindhouse, sci-fi, and body horror.

The Conspiracy (2012)

The Conspiracy found footage horror movie poster

Two young documentary movie makers, Aaron and Jim, have decided to make a film about a local conspiracy theorist named Terrance. During the course of their movie, Terrance suddenly disappears, leading them further down the rabbit hole. Their search reveals a secret organization named the Tarsus Club, and soon they are wrapped up in its strange rituals and shadowy machinations. The film does a good job of striking a mysterious tone early on before shifting to mounting dread as the plot goes from faux documentary into straight horror. The final scenes are shocking, particularly one involving a bull’s head, and they will stay with you long after the movie ends.

Grave Encounters (2011)

Grave Encounters found footage horror movie poster

Grave Encounters is about a reality tv show that focuses on the paranormal. Its crew consists of ghost hunters, occult specialists, and mediums who journey to various haunted locales. Each episode features a different spot, and their latest is an abandoned and presumably haunted insane asylum known as the Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital. Part of the hospital’s sordid history involves a mad doctor who conducted ghastly experiments on the residents. The crew decides to spend the night in the hospital and becomes inexplicably trapped inside, filming what may be their last episode. Not only is this movie a humorous parody of actual paranormal reality shows, but it is also one of the more genuinely frightening found footage horror movies.

Lake Mungo (2008)

Lake Mungo found footage horror movie poster

The Palmer family is grieving the loss of their sixteen-year-old daughter, Alice, after she drowns while swimming in a dam. Her younger brother, Mathew, sets up video cameras around their house to record what appear to be images of her ghost as more dark secrets begin to unravel. The film is shot in a docufiction/mockumentary style, where the main story is communicated through a series of interviews with the family and found footage. More than just a supernatural thriller, the movie is a tense and mournful exploration of grief and how families cope with loss. There was no dialogue written into the script, and the ad-libbing of lines lends to the “real” feel of the movie. Overall, it’s a masterclass in making a powerful movie on a shoestring budget.

Cloverfield (2008)

Cloverfield found footage horror movie poster

Unlike most found footage horror movies, Cloverfield was created by a big name creator, backed by big name production companies, and funded with a moderate budget. J.J. Abrams was able to get the project secretly greenlit and utilized a viral marketing campaign of trailers, posters, websites, and merch tie-ins to build hype before the film’s release. The movie is about an enormous monster attacking New York City, and it’s all filmed cinema verite style through the camcorder of a character named Rob. The chaotic scenes of destruction, the incredible design of the creature, and the realistic shaky home video quality (which caused some moviegoers to fall ill) all work in tandem to create a tense and highly enjoyable found footage movie.

REC (2007)

Rec found footage horror movie poster

A reporter and her cameraman are covering the night shift of a local fire station for the television program While You’re Sleeping. A fire station gets a distress call from a nearby apartment building, and after they arrive the building ends up being sealed off due to the outbreak of a deadly virus. The virus, which presents like rabies, is causing the residents to attack and subsequently infect each other, spreading quickly throughout the building. Those who haven’t been infected, including the camera crew, must find a way to escape and survive. The Spanish film was an immediate critical and commercial success, even spawning a less-than-stellar American remake (Quarantine). 

Paranormal Activity (2007)

Paranormal Activity found footage horror movie poster

Not many movies (except the next one on our list) are as closely associated with the found footage movement as the Paranormal Activity franchise. The first film centers on a couple named Katie and Micah who are trying to capture evidence of and communicate with the increasingly angry demon that haunts their house. The creation of one-man show Oren Peli, who did pretty much everything but act in the movie, Paranormal Activity was an unexpectedly massive success. It’s one of the most profitable films ever made and, because Peli decided to focus on believability instead of gore and action, it’s also one of the most genuinely terrifying films in the found footage horror movie genre. 

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

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Paranormal Activity may have generated more sequels, prequels, and video game adaptations, but its success owes thanks to one of the first found footage horror films that pioneered the genre in America: The Blair Witch Project. The film, which follows doomed student filmmakers as they attempt to investigate and document the local legend of the Blair Witch, has all the classic tropes and markings of the found footage genre. It’s shot mockumentary style on handheld cameras, it features no name actors ad-libbing the script, it utilized a viral marketing campaign, and it grossed many times over its miniscule budget. It may not be the best found footage movie ever made, but it will always hold a special place in our hearts thanks to the groundbreaking work that paved the way for future films and enabled the genre to become a mainstay in pop culture.

Honorable Mentions

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018)
Unfriended (2015)
Hell House LLC (2015)
The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014)
As Above, So Below (2014)
Afflicted (2013)
The Borderlands (2013)
Trollhunter (2010)
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

Best Sci-Fi Horror Movies

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Best Of Best of Movies Featured

Though the sci-fi horror genre has been around for century, it’s really in the last few decades that it has hit it’s stride. Nowhere has that jump in popularity more prevalent or evident than in the world of film. The 70’s and 80’s represent a golden era in sci-fi horror movies, with the rise of such giants in the industry as John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, and Ridley Scott. But even from the 90’s onward sci-fi horror shows no signs of slowing down, and some really incredible entries have come out in just the last couple of years.

There are so many excellent sci-fi horror movies out there that it was very hard to narrow this down to a manageable list. Even with an “Honorable Mentions” section at the end, we know we missed plenty of viable candidates. Let us know some of the better films we left off down in the comments below!

Color Out of Space (2019)

Color out of space 2019 poster with sci-fi horror background

Did you know colors could be scary? H.P. Lovecraft certainly thought they could be, and he wrote a deeply unsettling story to prove it. Color Out of Space is a cosmic horror film based on that titular story, and it’s about the Gardner family who find that a meteorite has crash-landed on their farm. Suddenly, their once peaceful life in the country is shattered as the family finds themselves fighting an alien being that can infect and mutate their bodies and minds. Come for the Nicolas Cage performance, stay for the grotesque practical effects. With a slow build in the first half and a wild spree of body horror in the second half, Color Out of Space is a rare example of a Lovecraft adaptation done right. 

Annihilation (2018)

Annihilation horror movie poster with scary sci-fi landscape

Criminally underrated and suffering from a shoddy release, Annihilation is a film that deserves your attention and awe. Based on the book by Jeff Vandermeer, it’s a story about a group of scientists who venture into a mysterious zone called “the Shimmer” to collect data and locate the early explorers who have vanished inside. The movie shares some similarities with the book, but writer/director Alex Garland also made some significant changes and it’s best to view them as alternate entries in a shared universe. It’s notoriously difficult to translate cosmic horror to the big screen, but Annihilation manages to do it and do it well. Full of mind boggling images and a deep unfurling dread, this is a movie that really translates a sense of hopelessness and unfathomable fear.

Timecrimes (2007)

Timecrimes horror movie poster with creepy killer

Though perhaps more of a sci-fi thriller than horror, there are enough shocking scenes and gut-twisting suspense to earn the Spanish language film Timecrimes a spot on this list. The film opens with a man named Hector spying on a beautiful woman. His moment of voyeurism is suddenly disrupted when he is attacked by a man whose head is wrapped in bandages. Fleeing the scene, Hector is able to find refuge in a remote lab where a scientist convinces him to hide in what turns out to be a time machine. To say more would be to spoil critical scenes, but just know this movie, though saddled with a low budget and amatuer actors, is a wonderfully confounding and deeply disquieting.example of sci-fi horror.

Event Horizon (1997)

Event Horizon sci-fi horror movie poster with space ship and planet

Sure it flopped on its initial release (as did several other films on this list). Sure it’s been panned by critics and holds a highly debated place in film fandom. But whether you hate or, in our case, love it, there’s no denying that Event Horizon is fully ingrained in pop culture and space horror sensibilities. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s about a spaceship that stumbles across a portal to hell. As this infernal dimension begins to assert it’s dark influence the crew is slowly driven into a violent madness. Full of existential dread and shots of pure horror, Event Horizon is a film not to be missed. Just hope you return from the experience in a better state than the crew.

The Fly (1986)

The Fly horror movie poster with a fly and black background

We’re big fans of both body horror and practical effects over here at Puzzle Box, and one of the movies that best combines those two elements is David Cronenburg’s The Fly. Really there are many great choices in the Cronenburg cannon, but picked this one for its engaging premise and delightfully gross effects. Jeff Goldbloom, who gives a particularly captivating performance, plays a scientist whose failed experiment in teleportation transforms him into a gigantic insect. It’s a disgusting and nightmarish riff on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, but it’s also a surprisingly poignant look into the complexity of human relationships. 

Re-Animator (1985)

Re-Animator horror movie poster featuring a severed head and a creepy scientist

Herbert West, a slightly off-kilter scientist, has discovered a secret formula that can reanimate dead tissue and ultimately bring the deceased back to life. After a successful trial run on a fellow student’s cat, West takes his extraordinary elixir to the morgue and from there all havoc breaks loose. Though the movie is loosely based on an H.P. Lovecraft short story, there were some major changes made and a lack of overall otherworldly dread. Instead we get a gloriously violent and darkly comedic romp full of gore and humor, all centered around the delightfully cheesy performance of actor Stewart Gordan. And really, what more could you want?

The Thing (1982)

The Thing 1982 sci-fi horror movie poster featuring a man in an arctic suit with beams of light coming through his head

John Carpenter’s The Thing is a masterpiece of paranoia and gorey practical effects. Based on the novella Who Goes There? by John Campbell Jr, Carpenter’s version is actually the third adaptation of the story and by far the most famous. In an isolated arctic setting, a team of scientists uncover an ancient alien being. Despite their best intentions, the creature is revived and begins to take them out one by one. What makes this plot particularly terrifying is the alien’s ability to mimic other lifeforms.The frenzy of shapeshifting that ensues, from the normal humanoid forms to the outrageously bizarre spectacles, keeps the scientists (and the audience) guessing on who is friend or foe. For the staff at Puzzle Box Horror, this is easily one of our favorite sci-fi horror films.

Scanners (1981)

Scanners horror movie poster from 1981 featuring a man whose head is exploding

Ok we swear this isn’t cheating, but we’re double-dipping in the Carpenter oeuvre. His movie Scanners, essentially about a group of telepathics seeking world domination and the counter-group fighting to subvert them, is what we consider essential viewing when it comes to the sci-fi horror genre. Yes it has the infamous head-exploding scene, and yes it’s as entertaining and memorable as you’d assume from a Carpenter film. But it also features some fine character acting and touches on some intriguing sociopolitical themes. Overall it’s a satisfying blend of cerebral commentary and visceral chaos. 

Alien (1979)

Alien 1979 horror movie poster featuring an alien egg

It’s impossible to talk about sci-fi horror without the angular, toothy distorted image of a xenomorph coming to mind. The whole alien franchise is fantastic (yes, even that one), but we have to give credit to the one that started it all. Ridley Scott’s Alien is dark, tense, and claustrophobic; a slow-burn of mounting dread and unseen foes until about the halfway mark when it explodes (literally) with stomach-churning horror. Featuring the unforgettable designs by H.R. Giger and inspiring decades of filmmakers after it, Alien stands as a shining example of the “horror in space” genre.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978 movie poster featuring aliens and a person in a cocoon

It’s not often that a remake is better than the original, but the 70’s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is arguably superior to its predecessor. The enthralling performances of the leads, the creepy practical effects, the unnerving musical score, and the harrowing ending all work in perfect unison to make this a shockingly scary film. The cold war paranoia of the first movie has also been updated to showcase more relevant social metaphors, such as the loss of self and breakdown of community. Body possession movies have always been terrifying, and this one, about an alien plant that consumes its sleeping host and assumes their form, is a must-watch entry in the sci-fi horror genre.

Honorable Mentions

Possessor (2020)

The Invisible Man (2020)

Life (2017)

Ex Machina (2014)

Europa Report (2013)

Sunshine (2007)

Slither (2006)

28 Days Later (2002)

Donnie Darko (2001)

The Faculty (1998)

Demon Seed (1997)

Mimic (1997)

Cube (1997)

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

Aliens (1986)

From Beyond (1986)

Altered States (1980)

The Fury (1978)

New Nightmare and the Art of Meta Horror

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Best Of Best of Movies Featured Scary Movies and Series

The idea of a metafilm has resulted in some brilliant innovations over the years, with plenty of pretentious cinematic offerings to follow. Simply meaning ‘self referencing’ or ‘self-reflective’, meta can apply to many things in the world, though when a filmmaker goes meta, the potential for genius is right at hand. No genre has arguably gotten the most mileage out of this idea than horror. For all its merits, there are plenty of well-trodden conventions to pick at with horror, particularly across the slasher realm where by the mid 80s the cheap-and-cheerful trend had become a by-the-numbers slog, begging to be re-evaluated and poked fun at in the process. There is a fine art to a good meta horror film, though for every Scream there is of course a Scary Movie which, while self-referential (and often hilarious), has stretched beyond meta into parody. This list tries to keep it close, though comedies are by no means excepted.

8 Meta Horror Movies That Define the Genre

From 90’s dream slashers to Whedon’s meta horror masterpiece these 8 meta horror films are perfect examples of what can be done in meta horror.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) horror movie poster

Picture it; you’re six films deep into the A Nightmare on Elm Street series and you’re sure Freddy Krueger is gone for good. Then horror maestro Wes Craven decides to up the ante with one of the more original twists on any established horror franchise, and brings Freddy into the real world.

Set apart from other films in the series, New Nightmare portrays Krueger as a fictional villain who begins to terrorize the ‘real-life’ Heather Langenkamp, who played Nancy Thompson from the original series. Heather is plagued by her history working on the Elm Street series, experiencing nightmares, menacing phone calls and traumatic episodes involving her son Dylan. When her husband is killed by mysterious claw marks, she suspects that Freddy himself has found a way into the real world. She visits recognizable figures such as Robert Englund and Wes Craven to try and get to the bottom of the horrific events.

Taking this kind of leap with an established horror villain was bold to say the least. The result could have been an overly campy, self-parodying mess by all accounts, however Craven knew just how to keep things sinister. Robert Englund’s Freddy is far more menacing this time around, swapping goofy lines and comedic runaround for focused and evil kills, while his signature smirk lets you know you’re still watching a Krueger flick, just an altogether nastier one.

Scream (1996)

Scream horror movie poster featuring a hand over a woman's mouth

If New Nightmare was Craven’s warm-up into meta-commentary, then Scream was both his sharp jab at, and celebration of, the entire horror genre. The film that arguably kicked off a whole generation of parodic comedy with the reactionary Scary Movie series, Scream was Craven taking his self-aware buzz to the next level with a brand new property that would become a long running blockbuster series itself.

Scream gave a whole new generation of horror fans something to revere. While some had the likes of Psycho or Halloween to call their generation’s own, now the 90s had Scream. Taking a simple slasher formula involving a group of college teens being picked off by a masked killer, Craven takes every opportunity to flip each slasher trope on its head, all while having his characters spend much of the film discussing the exact tropes he explores. They describe the rules to surviving a horror film while their friends break each rule and are picked off around them. With a very human-feeling villain, an iconic mask, and some stellar performances, Scream manages to be not only a worthy entry into the slasher genre but an intelligent reevaluation of it and a worldwide classic in its own right.

Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986) meta horror movie poster

This was the point where Director Tom McLoughlin took a good look at the Friday 13th series’ strengths, realised why it was becoming stale and decided to take a less serious, though far more enjoyable approach. The film starts with Tommy Jarvis (Thom Mathews) exhuming Jason’s body to cremate it, in the fear that the maniacal masked killer would arise once more. After impaling the corpse with a metal rod in a fit of rage, the rod is struck with lightning and Tommy’s worst fears are realised.

Jason Lives features the best kills, one of the more likeable casts and more comedy than any other film in the series, and the result is a looser and more exciting affair. With the series’ unexpected, yet greatly effective foray into comedy came constant winks at slasher tropes and jokes like the James Bond gun-barrel opening to Bob Larkin as the graveyard’s groundskeeper, breaking the fourth wall to reprimand the audience for their blood lust. “Why’d they have to go and dig up Jason?” he exclaims directly at the camera. “Some folks have a strange idea of entertainment.”

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

The Cabin in the Woods (2011) Movie Poster
The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, and directed by Goddard as his directorial debut, The Cabin in The Woods knocks things up a major notch on the meta-scale by showing awareness of all other horror franchises and attempting to build a lore involving all of them. Created as a commentary on ‘torture-porn’ and popular cabin-based horror outings, the film follows five college students travelling to a recognizably rickety old cabin for a retreat. Instead of shrouding the events in mystery, Whedon and Goddard waste no time in showing us a secret underground facility whose occupants are heavily involved with some unknown ritual. The relation between the cabin and the jarringly juxtaposed technicians of the facility is what truly elevates The Cabin in The Woods from comedy slasher to something far more clever and unique. Comedy elements help elevate the meta-slasher plotline and lean more towards wit than slapstick which avoids the film feeling silly or parodical. Goddard runs through each slasher trope, gleefully providing clever insights into how they would work if engineered by some unseen corporate entity. With a competent and often hilarious cast, top quality CG and practical effects and one of the coolest scenes to ever involve a ‘purge system’ button, The Cabin in The Woods is a meta slasher that even the most discerning horror fans can get behind.

Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010)

Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010) meta horror movie poster featuring a man with a chainsaw

While Tucker and Dale is, on its surface, a classic horror-comedy complete with bloody slapstick and hilarious banter from its leads, it is also a sharp deconstruction of the slasher genre, employing a ‘what if’ edge to classic tropes in a similar fashion to TCITW. Highly subversive and knowledgeable in its source material, Tucker and Dale vs Evil plays with the idea of ‘what if those menacing hillbillies were actually really sweet?’, borderline parodying films like Wrong Turn and Hatchet. Full of hilarious misunderstandings leading to violent consequences, Tucker and Dale manages much of its runtime without an actual established villain in place. Thankfully vacuous-teen-fodder coupled with a wholly lovable pair of lead characters make the entire ride a blast.

The Final Girls (2015)

The Final Girls Movie poster featuring a slasher and many women

The Final Girls plays out like the daydream of a horror-obsessed teen, though something in the sincerity of its execution really works. Recently orphaned Max heads to the cinema with her friends to see a horror flick her mother starred in in the 80s. When the group are sucked into the film and find themselves trapped in its horrific world, they must use all of their wits and knowledge of the genre to survive. Taissa Farmiga does a brilliant job of portraying the grieving and confused Max Cartwright who must reunite with a version of her late mother and come to terms with her realities before it is too late. With plenty of light-hearted jabs at 80s slashers, along with comical performances by the likes of Adam Devine and Thomas Middleditch undercutting the heavier themes on show, The Final Girls is a fun meta slasher idea executed with razor precision and gleeful energy.

Resolution (2012)

Resolution 2012 horror movie poster featuring a phantom over a house

Every film Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead make seems to be layered in more self-awareness than one viewer knows what to do with, though their most committed and playful experiment into meta horror filmmaking is by far 2012’s Resolution.

Chris is a drug addict living in a dilapidated shack in the woods. One day his old friend Michael turns up and, deciding to cure Chris of his addiction, handcuffs him to a radiator. From here, viewers with a wide knowledge of horror stories will be mentally skimming their back-catalogues for some idea of what is about to take place. Very few will get anywhere close.

Without spoiling too much, Resolution has one of the more interesting stories of any horror film in that it creates something of a ‘metanarrative’ in itself, meaning that the plot taking place actually becomes sentient and even a character within itself. While variables are thrown into the mix, such as a couple of drug dealers looking for owed money, the plot eventually inverts on itself and boils down to a story’s purest form, as if Charlie Kaufman himself had directed, albeit with a little more restraint.

Funny Games (1997/2007)

Funny Games Horror Movie Poster

Michael Haneke’s 2007 remake of his harrowing 1997 horror/thriller Funny Games is not only one of the most disturbing films ever made, but is also boldly and unabashedly meta. Haneke was bored with the excessive violence he saw in the media and so set about making a brutally violent and otherwise rather pointless film of a family being terrorised by two unassuming men. The film is a commentary on Hollywood’s dependence on gore, featuring several fourth-wall breaks from its two lead antagonists, questions as to why the events are even taking place and an ending that throws the viewers entire experience back in their face. With stark realism and phenomenal acting, particularly from Tim Roth and Niomi Watts as the protective parents, Funny games is to this day a unique cinematic experience, and it is recommended you watch both original and remake.

Possessor – Your Actions Are Not Your Own

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Possessor is the new horror film exercise in psychological science-horror from Brandon Cronenberg, son of David ‘The Baron of Blood’ Cronenberg himself. For those who don’t know, The Baron brought us such shockers as Scanners, The Fly, Videodrome and an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone in the 80s, as well as the deeply unsettling The Brood in 1979. His work with gore and outlandish practical effects earned him a legendary status in the world of horror, and if Possessor is anything to go by, his son is taking the baton with heavy enthusiasm and a deft hand. 

Have you ever felt that your actions are not entirely your own?

Possessor is Brandon Cronenebergs debut feature film, following a slew of surreal shorts such as 2019’s Please Speak Continuously and Describe Your Experiences as They Come to You, and hopefully serves as a first real look at a bright directorial future. With skills like these, it would seem a waste not to.

Visually, the film is stunning. The vibrant colour palettes and psychedelic slow-mo sequences remind me heavily of Panos Cosmatos, which can only ever be a good thing, and fit perfectly with the stark, often expressionist imagery used to depict strange conceptual mental processes to a high artistic degree. The cinematography by Karim Hussain feels alive yet purposeful, only intending the greatest effect for each scene. The settings in which these scenes play out feel gritty and earthly which works alongside the light sci-fi themes to give proceedings a rough, nasty edge. This edge is sharpened to its apex by the violence itself, which is where Possessor derives a good deal of its horror. 

It looks downright horrific in places. Whereas more high-concept sci-fi commonly employs computer-generated violence and gore, a lot of the time among a computer-generated background, Possessor makes heavy use of practical effects to create a borderline grindhouse feel, it’s sudden acts of realistic, disturbing and brutally savage violence bringing the gut-dropping style of Craig Zahler in films such as Brawl in Cell Block 99, though to a more refined degree. 

possessor horror movie poster featuring a screaming woman

Possessor’s dreamy synth score by Jim Williams perfectly compliments each scene it is needed, often lurking in the background to invoke greater dread from it’s slow-burning second act while sometimes swelling and exploding to punctuate the more abstract happenings for greater meaning and impact. It fully expands on the film’s hallucinatory sci-fi atmosphere, while sickening sound effects boost each savage kill to its full effect. 

Being more on the light, conceptual sci-fi end of the spectrum, Possessor’s character-based plot relies heavily on its actors and aesthetic, using it’s basis of ‘entering the mind of other people to carry out covert kills’ as a vehicle for its own nasty, nihilistic take on a character arc. Some warm, believably human elements are at play, making the overlaying ethos and point of the film all the more disturbing. Its squirming, corrupt nature is reminiscent of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer, though omitting its self-aware winks for an even darker, more consequential message. This style of film benefits greatly for the thematic blend on show here, looking back at science-horror precursors such as Harlan Ellison’s short story I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream where ideas of humanity are irreverently twisted and spat at in place of a colder logic, a darker horror. 

Possessor plays with themes of consciousness, though never becomes self indulgent when doing so. It uses these themes to further its artistic vision, with some psychologically internal sequences playing out like music videos. The pacing of the film bleeds intent as a slow burner punctuated with sudden hyper-violence, this coupled with the sharp and meticulous visuals giving the finished product a very ‘A24’ feel.

Possessor is meditative and clever. It won’t hold your hand with pointless exposition, nor will it try to confuse you with arrogant sci-fi contrivances. It is a skillfully executed offering of disturbing cerebral horror and I for one hope to see much more from the Cronenberg name. Long live the new flesh.

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