Horror films are scary. Everyone knows that. However, what’s surprising is that often the scariest films are not even supposed to fit into the horror genre. Sometimes a thriller is so tense and bleak that it becomes terrifying, and sometimes there are certain scenes in perfectly normal movies that can chill audiences to the bone.
Here are ten of the most terrifying non-horror films that cinema has ever produced.
10. Green Street (2005)
Green Street is not a film that many people have love for. I, however, have a real soft spot for Elijah Wood’s post-Lord of the Rings football hooliganism drama. It’s not Oscar-worthy, but it’s an awful lot of fun.
Alongside all of the sweary banter and macho posturing though, there lurks true horror in the shape of Tommy Hatcher. British actor Geoff Bell conjures a performance of grotesque insanity as the loose cannon leader of Milwall’s violent firm.
Whether he’s shoving a broken bottle into someone’s neck, smashing heads off tables or merely simmering with barely concealed rage, he manages to imbue Green Street with hard-hitting tension, brutality and utter horror.
9. Stoker (2013)
One of the best films of 2013, Stoker is an erotic thriller of suggestion and symbolism. It earns its place on that list due to the grinning menace of Matthew Goode, but also due to the conflict raging within its protagonist, played by Mia Wasikowska.
In scenes such as the one above, Wasikowska’s character can be seen palpably struggling between the fear for her strange Uncle she feels and her strange sexual attraction towards him.
There’s always something bubbling under the surface of Stoker, and that is what makes it a truly terrifying piece of work.
8. American History X (1998)
There are loads of films about racism and neo-Nazi violence, but few are as bone-chillingly scary as American History X.
Helped by its regular shifts into monochrome cinematography, the film is a completely terrifying tale, full of unbearable tension and bursts of bone-crunching, horrible violence.
Edward Norton does a great job as a neo-Nazi, who can go from political argument to murderous rage in seconds. It is this lurking rationality that makes him scarier. He thinks he’s right.
7. Trainspotting (1996)
A true landmark of British cinema, Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting is a remarkable film. It also has moments that are scarier than anything in Devil’s Due and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones put together.
The scene in which Renton (Ewan McGregor) goes cold turkey from heroin brings forth a cavalcade of nightmares, including the now iconic baby crawling along the ceiling that turns – Exorcist style – towards Renton as he screams on his bed.
Trainspotting is often a true nightmare of a film, embracing surrealism and horror alongside the gritty social realism of its premise.
6. Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971)
This was always going to be on the list. I think that every last one of us has woken up in a cold sweat with Gene Wilder’s maniacal, screaming face flooding our dreams. Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory is the Roald Dahl adaptation that does the best job of understanding the author’s love of darkness.
It says a lot about the diversity of Mel Stuart’s film that it gives us both the psychedelic boat ride from hell and the beautiful, saccharine sing-a-long ‘Pure Imagination’. It isn’t even just that scene that’s horrifying – every appearance of Mr Slugworth/Wilkinson is genuinely scary.
The fact that a family film can embrace the nightmarish and the macabre so wholly is truly wonderful. They don’t make them like this any more.
5. Black Swan (2011)
Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar-winning Black Swan is a bizarre, fractured movie that masterfully builds up the mental state of its central character as she prepares for the performance of her life.
There are moments in Black Swan that are psychologically terrifying and it even has a tendency to veer into almost Cronenbergian body horror at times in order to make its philosophical point about the nature of performance.
Black Swan is a real masterpiece of a movie, showcasing Aronofsky’s skill at dismantling the human brain like a finished jigsaw, just ready to be rebuilt again.
4. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
And so we come to Stanley Kubrick – the true master of cinema. Full Metal Jacket is a terrifying war movie, right up to its explosive, dark conclusion.
The most horrifying moment though is, of course, the mental breakdown experienced by Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) at the end of the basic training portion of the film. The combination of performance, score and direction makes for something far scarier than almost any horror film ever.
I’d certainly rather meet Freddy Krueger than Private Pyle in a dark alley.
3. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Kubrick again. For me, A Clockwork Orange is his real masterpiece. Although it regularly appears in horror movie polls, it’s more of a dystopian sci-fi than a horror film, but it does feature a tonne of horrifying moments.
The scenes of ultra-violence that pepper the first act, complete with proper horror film masks, are incredibly scary, and the film has a real vein of darkness throughout.
Malcolm McDowell’s central character is a real horror villain, from vile beginnings to the evil sucker punch of the climactic line. Make no mistake, A Clockwork Orange is a really scary piece of work.
2. Se7en (1995)
David Fincher’s Se7en perfectly straddles the line between straight horror and pitch black thriller. In fact, it’s a bit of a cheat for this list because there’s a very strong argument for calling it a horror film. Infused with horror conventions every step of the way, it is one of the darkest films I have ever seen.
As well as the now notorious finale (see above) and the terrifying performance from Kevin Spacey, the film features one of the most alarming jump scares in the history of cinema.
Se7en is a film everyone should watch, but it certainly isn’t for the faint of heart.
1. This Is England (2006)
Set in the north of England during the Thatcher years, This Is England is a feisty, British successor to American History X, focusing on the neo-Nazi appropriation of skinhead culture.
Powered by a broiling performance from Stephen Graham and Shane Meadows’ kitchen sink realism in the director’s chair, the film feels like it’s never more than five seconds away from an outburst of brutality. Every conversation can turn into a clash, and it’s genuinely difficult to watch.
From start to finish, This Is England is an unpredictable film packed with unpredictable characters. You never know what’s going to happen, and that’s absolutely terrifying.
Are there any movies I’ve missed from this list? Can you top This Is England for non-horror scares or do you think that pure horror cinema can’t be touched for cinematic scares? Let me know in the comments section.