Paranoid about all the dark spaces in your empty apartment? Perhaps you’re suffering from high blood pressure? Or maybe ( like me) you’re just a big neurotic, scaredy cat who thinks every time you got to the bathroom and you drop something on the floor and pick it up, you’ll see a ghoulish face in the mirror…and hear a literal piano crescendo? Well then friend, it can be hard for people like us to get into horror films when we have jumpscarephobia. Because as far back as the 80’s, jumpscares have been a mainstay of the genre. Whether you’re watching the slasher films of yesteryear (Friday the 13th) or peeking over the covers at the modern day escapades of hot morons messing with a spirit(Truth or Dare), rest assured you’ll find one.
And for the record, I don’t have anything against jumpscares if they’re used well and sparingly like the projector scene from Stephen King’s 2017 adaptation of IT. It can be a great way to impress truly creepy imagery and can provide some good fun for the audience. But sometimes it can be used in excess just for cheap thrills without ever advancing the plot (The Woman in Black). Recently, I had the chance to watch A Quiet Place by John Krasinski and I have got to say that I was pleasantly surprised by how little the film relied on jump scares. Rather the film leaned on intelligent lighting, suspenseful pacing, and claustrophobic spaces to carry it through. Which got me thinking, are there films out there that use a broader range of cinematic devices to give us the hibbie jibbies beyond a loud thump? Are there horror films that people with weak hearts can still enjoy? There are. In fact here are ten amazing horror films perfect for you jumpy folks!
1. The Babadook (2014)
Monsters are often representations of real-world fears and can serve as a form of social commentary. Take Godzilla for example, who has come to represent the destructive power of nuclear weapons and Japan’s post-World War 2 anxiety. One film that does a great job at exemplifying the far too relatable stress and fears of parenthood is the Australian indie film, The Babadook. For the majority of the film, the “monster” is absent. Beyond a few glimpses and a brief scene at the end of the film, the Babadook’s presence is more felt than seen.
The story follows a worn-out, depressed widow Amelia Vanek trying her best to raise her rambunctious, difficult son, Samuel. One night she finds a strange, creepy pop-up book about the titular monster and about how he eventually drives his victims to do horrible things to one another. As the film progresses, we bear witness to the Vaneks gradual but frankly frightening descent into madness as the relationship between mother and son becomes increasingly hostile.
What really makes the film is the chemistry between lead actress Essie Davis and child actor Noah Wiseman. So much of it falls on their performance to make the emotional stakes of the film count. Watching them on screen was like watching an angry couple fight, it’s awkward, nerve-wracking and organic. There’s no contrived sequence in which random nonsense pops up on screen. No spooky corridors. Though you can see what’s coming a mile away, the tension of the journey to its foul destination is not diminished.
2. The Blob (1988)
If you’re looking for that happy medium between the downright scary and the downright fun, look no further than 1988’s The Blob. When a mysterious asteroid from outer space lands in the small town of Arborville, California, a strange alien creature is unleashed upon the unsuspecting populace. It’s up to the leather-clad rebel, mullet topped Brian Flagg, played by Kevin Dillon, to lead a band of survivors to safety and save the day. All the while never messing up his hair.
What can I say? It’s good ole 80’s camp. Everyone in this film is just having a blast, from the high school sweetheart to the lovable loser to even the old, tough-as-boots lunch lady! When the movie isn’t following the carnage that the Pink Menace leaves behind, it’s painting a pretty interesting and fun picture of suburban life. And when your favourite stereotype is eaten by it, you’re actually bummed out.
As for the eponymous creature, the design and effects hold up pretty well, even by today’s standard. The way it slithers and wriggles around in tiny spaces before becoming an anthropomorphic tsunami of goo is pretty gross and creepy. It’s like a force of nature, cold and indifferent to the existence of these small-town folk. By the way, the few jump scares in this one are so lame and exaggerated they’ll leave you rolling on the floor in laughter. I seriously recommend checking out The Blob, especially if you’ve got friends over. It’s one awesome blast from the past!
3. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Much like comedy and satire, horror is at its most effective when it is at its most transgressive. It isn’t so much a scary ghoul or bloodthirsty killer that is the cause for fear, rather the act itself and how it maliciously deconstructs what we’ve come to know as sacred. In Rosemary’s Baby, horror veteran Roman Polanski tackles the miracle of childbirth in a chilling and thoughtful manner. The story follows the life of Rosemary Woodhouse, played by the lovely Mia Farrow, as she struggles with her husband, Guy to have a child. They move into a cozy little apartment with a mysterious past owned by the even more mysterious Mr. and Mrs. Castevet. Eventually, Rosemary gets her wish but at the cost of her beliefs and soul.
Though the film is a bit of the slow burn, trust me when I say that the reveal at the end makes it all worthwhile. Polanski doesn’t hold your hand or tries to substitute the experience with petty thrills, he simply allows the story to unfold. It also certainly helps that Farrow delivers one heck of a performance here, being able to go from dainty to hysterical. When you see her agency robbed and her body ravaged by this child inside of her, you feel her helplessness. You feel not only her pain as a victim, but as a mother as well. Just as Jaws made us all scared to hit the beaches, this one will make you seriously reconsider having kids.
4. The Thing (1982)
What happens when you mix a deadly shapeshifting alien with a twelve-man research team in empty Antarctica with a dose of cabin fever? You get one of the most captivating sci-fi horror films of all time! John Carpenter’s The Thing is a brilliant exploration of the human psyche and its capacity for mistrust and paranoia. It starts with twelve and one by one, each of them gets done in, either by the hand of the creature or their own comrades. The truly frightening part of the film is how quickly the creature learns to adapt to its surroundings. It looks like us, talks like us, but get into a room alone with it and you’re in for one face melting, limb chopping surprise.
The effects in here are masterful. This strange and macabre alien will absorb the limbs and face of your dead friend. Then it’ll use it to psych you out before reducing you into in a puddle of dissolved tissue and flesh. I’ve never been so terrified of a puppet as I have, watching The Thing. It is a love letter to Lovecraftian Horror. However, it’s not just the creature that makes the film. It’s the mood. It’s the eerie silence and quiet conspiring that makes this film so tense, both on man and the alien’s part. Moments of civility can quickly descend into Russian Roulette in a blink of the eye. Creepy and atmospheric, The Thing is one of those rare horror movies you’ll want to watch alone.
5. Misery (1990)
Stephen King is an icon of the literary world, an accomplished horror novelist with over 50 books under his belt. His works have been consistently thrilling and engaging, but how are they when translated into the medium of cinema? Well, they’re a mixed bag. Some of them are awful (Tommyknockers), some are fairly entertaining (The Mist) and some are the stuff of nightmares. His 1990’s film adaptation of Misery so happens to be in the last category. Relatively faithful to the novel, the film revolves around a successful but frustrated fiction writer, Paul Sheldon and his forced captivity/sick fan club at the hands of Annie Wilkes. Though sweet and admiring at first to Sheldon, claiming to have to keep him in her house to heal after a leg crippling car accident, we soon find out her intentions may be less than noble.
Kathy Bates’s performance as the seemingly well-intentional yet insane Annie Wilkes is one for the ages! Her portrayal of Wilkes scarily resembles the real world idiosyncrasies of abusive partners and how they justify the heinous things they do. Initially apologetic about their abuse, attributing it to mood swings, and then eventually blaming their victim. Along with Paul, we endure her suffocating presence and root for him at every attempt at freedom he tries to make. But every time he fails, the consequences become more horrifying than the last. The entire film is an exhilarating race against time for Sheldon to escape, building increasing tension while avoiding pointless jumpscares.
6. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Every now and then, there comes a film that changes the way we experience cinema. For this particular genre, one film that has had a profound impact on modern horror films is The Blair Witch Project. Touted as the father of found-footage horror, it is considered not only a cinematic landmark but also one of the scariest films of the early 90’s. The film follows the misadventures of three student filmmakers who venture into the woods to investigate and document the urban legend of the infamous Blair Witch. Their trip takes an unfortunate turn when they become hopelessly lost without any way of contacting the outside world. Furthermore, the crew begins to suspect that they are not alone in the woods, something stalks them.
The key factor that separates The Blair Witch Project from your typical haunted cabin in the woods story is immersion. The entirety of the film is shot on a handheld camera. The main cast are relatively unknown, there is no music score and only rudimentary editing. This minimalist approach lends an air of authenticity that few films can achieve. At some point, people were actually debating whether it was real! When you can make your audience wonder at the possibility of your film being real and make them shit themselves, you know you have a winner here. Atmospheric, tense and unsettlingly creepy, The Blair Witch Project is definitely something you don’t want to watch before a camping trick. Also, there are no jump scares, they couldn’t afford it.
7. Coraline (2009)
The world can seem a lot bigger and safer when you’re a kid. But as you experience the growing pains of childhood, there comes a time when you realize that not everything is at it seems. There are sinister things in hidden in the background… things that want to hurt children. 2009’s stop-motion film Coraline is a film that makes you feel like a kid again in the most terrifying way. Now I know what you’re thinking, “A children’s animated film, really?”. Don’t let the label fool you. Spawned from the demented playground that is Neil Gaiman’s mind, the film follows Coraline a bored and lonely girl forced by her parents to live in a rainy and dreary town, full of strange characters. It becomes apparent to her that there’s something odd about her house. Longing for love and attention from her parents, her dreams come true one day via a little door in the wall. A paradise world where everyone has buttoned eyes. But not everything is as it seems…
Stop-work animation is an incredibly versatile art-form. Capable of molding fantastical worlds and unique characters. The way charming and quirky characters morph into their dark counterparts can be the stuff of bad acid trips, man. Especially that creepy Beldam. It is that creative fluidity that makes this a truly unique and terrifying ride. Painstakingly made from scratch, Coraline is a haunting cautionary tale about the value of gratitude you won’t forget. Don’t worry if kids can take it, so can you.
8. The Fly (1986)
Director David Cronenberg is not someone you want making your wedding cake. Chances are the cake will have monstrous appendages sticking out of it and the bride figurine would be some horrible insect monster devouring the groom! The man is an obsessive genius when it comes to body horror. If you’re a fan of creature effects and design, you will have to check out his 1986 classic, The Fly. Brilliant scientist Seth Brundle, played by the charismatic Jeff Goldblum, is on the verge of perfecting his matter teleportation device when he encounters a tiny hiccup. During an experiment to teleport himself, a fly sneaks into the machine. Brundle comes back but the fly doesn’t. Much to his horror and to the audience’s disgust, we realize that Seth is becoming more fly than man!
First things first, if you’re squeamish when it comes to gore or bodily deformities, this film will have you face down in a bucket. The make-up department was nominated for an Academy Award for what they’ve achieved here! The way Brundle’s mild skin infection swells and oozes pus to his final transformation when his face literally falls off is nothing short of petrifying. Don’t worry folks, the Fly won’t pop out of nowhere to startle you. No, Cronenberg wants you to see his monster come into being in its full glory. Oh yes, this is so much worse. I’m still scared to scratch my scab.
9. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Evil comes in many forms. It can be a bloodthirsty monster, a destructive force of nature or even a rather charming, psychopathic cannibal. Enter Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. It’s no secret that this is the film that put English actor Anthony Hopkins on the map for his chilling portrayal of the frenzied foodie. The film chronicles the exploits of FBI trainee Clarice Starling and her attempts to catch a woman-hunting serial killer who goes by the name of Buffalo Bill. Stumped and out of her depth, she turns to a psychopathic serial killer to catch another. Together they’ll attempt to stop Bill before he strikes again.
This psychological-horror crime caper will keep you captivated and gob-smacked all the way through as you watch Clarice unravel the sick, twisted logic behind Buffalo Bill. The film constantly cuts between Clarice’s journey to crack the case and Bill’s disturbing life, giving us a sense of what’s at stake here. And then there’s the man himself. Though he’s given only 16 minutes of screen time, Hannibal makes the most out of it, giving chilling yet surprisingly sound advice to Clarice. What makes this whole affair so terrifying isn’t how these loonies act crazed or demented. It’s rather how they justify their atrocities with complex reasons of their own. You’ll spend more time thinking than screaming.
10. Nosferatu (1922)
I can think of no better way to end this list than with F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. There is absolutely no way you could be startled by jumpscares in this one because it’s a silent film. It’s perfect! Even after 96 years, Nosferatu has still got some bite to it. Loosely inspired by Bram Stroker’s Dracula, the film follows a solicitor, Thomas Hutter who goes on a trip to Transylvania to meet with the mysterious Count Orlok. He intends on acquiring the count’s strange estate by the end of his visit. Little does he know that Orlok has no intention of letting Hutter leave, ever. For he is the vampire Nosferatu and Hutter his prey.
Back then, scores played an important role in controlling the tone and mood of scenes. It could make a moment light-hearted and it could transform it into a frightful orchestral assault on the auditory sense. Composer Hans Erdmann manages to capture the foreboding and horrid imagery on screen with an iconic score that is set to chill you to the bone. Orlok himself is a deeply unsettling monster. His dead (or rather undead) stare and lumbering mannerisms more than makes up for his lack of audible features. The way Nosferatu masterfully plays with lighting, shadows and film filters to create mood greatly contributes to Orlok’s fear factor as well. The film is available free on YouTube now so go on over and check out this unforgettable classic today!