The most influential survival horror films of all time are a diverse group. The finest scary movies in the minds of non-horror enthusiasts are endless slasher films drowning in gore and depravity. While some of the films listed below are somewhat graphic, the best horror flicks accomplish far more than scaring you. They terrify you on a primal level, instilling in you new phobias you never thought imaginable. Are you sure you wouldn’t be terrified of camping if you hadn’t seen The Blair Witch Project? If you had a lucky number and stayed at a hotel, would you want it to be in room 237? Many of us are terrified of darkness. Horror films put things in our heads that we couldn’t have imagined before.
Horror films have been around almost as long as cinema itself. While the genre has always been cyclical, with quality and quantity decreasing from time to time, all it takes is a well-timed box office smash, a fresh new approach, or a hot rookie filmmaker to resurrect it. With all this in mind, let us look at five of the best survival horror films you must see.
1. The Shining – The Shining follows a man and his family as he accepts the position of winter caretaker at The Overlook, a vacation hotel. Given that this is a Stephen King adaptation (albeit one he despises so much that he made his own film), the winter months are not ideal. The Overlook Hotel, it turns out, isn’t very fond of visitors.
The Shining has a sinister vibe to it. This is a film that never lets you feel comfortable, from Jack Nicholson’s unhinged acting as a guy spiralling into incurable insanity to Kubrick’s unrelenting directing as we descend into a state of hypnosis and follow Danny as he wanders the hotel’s halls on his bike. This isn’t a cheap horror film with jump scares; Kubrick’s film is a lurking, dangerous beast that haunts you long after the TV has turned off.
2. Relic – The best horror films allow us to metaphorically experience our deepest real-life fears, which is exactly what the brilliant Relic delivers with great precision, empathy, and atmosphere. Kay is played by Emily Mortimer, a hardworking single mother who receives a call from the police informing her that her elderly mother Edna has vanished from her home in the Australian countryside. Edna (Robyn Nevin) reappears after two days when Kay and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) go out from Melbourne to the house.
Edna’s residence is untidy, gloomy, and cluttered with strange notes and markings. Her behaviour leads Kay and a local doctor to believe that the feisty Edna is succumbing to dementia. But something else is at hand — an invisible presence that appears to bend reality. Filmmaker Natalie Erika James’ feature debut works effectively because the characters, topic, and imagery are all in sync. Every shot of the picture oozes with grief and loss, as well as an ominous sense of dread and claustrophobia.
3. Annabelle Comes Home – Who’d have guessed that this popular Conjuring spin-off series’ third installment would be the charm? Gary Dauberman, a first-time filmmaker who also wrote all three entries in the sub-franchise, rises to the occasion and gives the proceedings a superb sense of atmosphere and dread lacking in the previous films. In our opinion, anyone who emulates the lighting schemes of horror classics like Mario Bava is on the right track.
Annabelle Comes home is also the best-written of the bunch, with four girls — one of whom is the daughter of Conjuring ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, who also appear in this film) — attempting to fight off the evil title doll as she unleashes hell on them for one night. Again, the characters are given complexity and agency, which makes us care even more when Dauberman turns the film into a monster mash. But, again, this one is a throwback to the good old days.
4. Us – Jordan Peele’s second feature film, Us, continues to use the horror genre for social commentary ingeniously, but this time the focus is less on race and more on class and privilege. Adelaide, whose well-off family is plagued by ferocious doppelgängers intent on murdering them, is played superbly by Lupita Nyong’o. The identities of the copies and the implications of their existence create a scathing commentary on the haves and have-nots. The storey logic is a little fuzzier this time around, but Peele is still capable of conjuring up a genuine sense of dread while employing tried-and-true horror tropes in novel ways.
5. Train To Busan – Just when you thought the zombie genre was dead, someone comes along and breathes new life into it. The South Korean production of director Yeon Sang-ho brings something back to the genre that had been eroding: humanity. Sure, there’s some sentimentality in this story about a father desperately trying to get his daughter to her mother by train as a zombie plague spreads. Still, the film’s well-drawn characters, subtle social commentary (some on the train believe they are more deserving of survival than others), and terrifying action sequences add to a thrilling and emotionally powerful ride.