It’s pretty easy to identify a horror movie. There is usually someone or something bad – a murderous killer or a monster that eats souls or someone who does not text and only calls by phone. It’s a go-to genre for many for that reason: it’s reliable and in the right hands can be truly transcendent.
However, sometimes the horror is not “hitting you over the head with a rubber mallet”, but rather “tickling your foot with a feather”. Something is wrong, but you can’t quite tell what, and then all hell breaks loose. That’s how surreal horror works.
It’s not a gory murderer chasing a victim with a knife as much as things are normal, except obviously something hell is going on and people keep disappearing in the meantime. Sometimes it’s not even really clear what’s going on.
Surreal horror is a genre in its own right. Let’s review some of the best surreal movies of all time, starting with a classic of the genre.
Absolutely one of the weirdest films of all time for a litany of reasons, this David Lynch classic has all the touchstones of surreal horror and stands out in the genre. It starts off innocently enough with Naomi Watts playing the wide-eyed Hollywood newcomer, but things quickly turn into something else.
Released in 2001, the film starred Watts and Laura Harring as a woman who completely loses her memory after a brutal car accident. They decide to solve the mystery together and end up finding money and a strange blue key. The plot is convoluted and like any Lynch movie requires a few viewings but it’s Lynch’s personal genius that really makes this surreal mystery sing.
The film seems to exist in this world between the waking world and the unconscious, and Lynch uses non-sequences, close-ups, comparisons of seemingly normal and mundane objects with absurd objects, and the contrast between beauty and terror. Don’t try to figure it out.
One of the weirdest movies in Jennifer Lopez’s filmography, especially because it doesn’t involve her being a working-class person meeting a rich guy and falling in love. It’s one of those movies that still holds up due to its premise and its truly striking visuals.
The film was released in 2000 and starred Lopez as a child psychologist named Catherine who works for an agency that puts her on people’s minds to help them. A serial killer named Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio) kidnaps women and slowly murders them in quite terrifying ways.
He kidnaps a woman and hides her somewhere before falling into a coma, and Lopez is tasked with delving into her brain and finding out where she is. The movie is a pretty standard thriller, but it really shines during Lopez’s journey through the killer psyche.
His unconscious mind is a hellish landscape with chained female bodies and tortured animals. The costumes are iconic and everyday objects are blown up or mutilated in appalling ways. At one point, Lopez wears nuns’ clothes resembling Mother Teresa trying to help the child version of the killer. Eventually we enter his mind and it is full of jewels and white peacocks.
This 2017 film starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem can be watched in many ways. One as a statement about what we as a race are doing to the earth, another as a take on human creation myths, and finally as a bonkers movie with lots of weird things going on.
It was directed by Darren Aronofsky, purveyor of other surrealist classics like Pi and Black Swan (more on this later). If David Lynch is the king of surrealism, then Aronofsky is the clown prince waiting to snatch the crown. The idea that this movie is “about” something honestly ruins the mood. It’s so banal but also so offbeat that you almost have to experience it to describe it faithfully.
The basic plot points are that a man and a woman live in a mansion that they have fixed up and things are quite peaceful. Then the guests start arriving and things gradually get more violent and bizarre. It’s a masterful take on surrealism because everything is kind of normal on the surface (well, aside from the violence) but there’s definitely something sinister going on here.
Aronofsky is a master of tone and tension, and this film is no different. Truly one of the weirdest films of the modern era.
One of the weirdest movies on a list of really weird movies. The diary line for this 1991 film was “Exterminate all rational thought”. The film, directed by surrealist master David Cronenberg, is an adaptation of the 1959 novel of the same name by author William Burroughs.
The book was widely considered unfilmable due to all the different locations and the exorbitant amount of money it would take to produce. Cronenberg instead chose to offer a fictionalized version of Burroughs’ life and pepper the book’s plot points in the film.
The film centers on exterminator William Lee who has to deal with typewriters that turn into insects, aliens with juices that cause hallucinations, and people you don’t know if you can trust. While it’s not necessarily gory, it’s twisty in its own way and definitely has a way of changing one’s view of the world, or at least making it easier to look at the world in a different way.
Much of nailing a good surreal horror movie is in the hands of the director, and like Lynch and Aronofsky, Cronenberg is a master. Peter Weller, on the heels of Robocop 2, also knocks him out of the stadium with his take as the film’s protagonist, who becomes addicted to the extermination fumes and kills his wife.
American psycho it’s all in the details. This 2000 film starring a pre-Batman Christian Bale is bloody, bloody and psychologically scarring. A reverse morality game about 80s greed, Bale plays a banking executive named Patrick Bateman in New York who poses as a thing to hide the murderous man he is inside.
There are so many classic scenes to shoot, but Bale’s character putting plastic on before bludgeoning a victim to death really resonates because of his occasional morbidity. The contrast between the waking world and the world Bateman lives in makes this a psychological tale as sharp as a bloody knife.
It’s a brilliant satirical cultural commentary that’s only enhanced by its otherworldly gore. There are also small flourishes that slowly paint Bateman’s character. He drops a chainsaw directly on a victim; he receives an order from an ATM to feed a cat; he shoots at a police car and it explodes.
There’s a lot of debate online about whether things in the movie really happen in reality or just in Bateman’s mind, and if it’s not the heart of a surreal nightmare, I don’t know. what it is.
Black Swan is one of those weird surreal films that eventually went mainstream and won numerous awards (including an Oscar for star Natalie Portman). This 2010 film is a loose interpretation of the denouement that accompanies mental illness. Where mother! was loose and flowing, Black Swan is tight and tense.
The premise is pretty simple and digestible: Nina Sayers gets the lead role in Swan Lake and the pressure of everyone around her is cracking her like an egg. She hallucinates things that happen to her body and can’t quite decipher reality and fiction. She kills a rival, but doesn’t as it turns out she ended up hurting herself.
Mila Kunis plays Sayers’ rival and provides the perfect contrast to Sayers’ prickly perfectionism. It’s about the human mind and how far it can be bent before it shatters into a million pieces and shatters any semblance of reality that was there in the first place.
It’s a tight film that, again, is almost more of an experience than anything else. It takes you for a ride, and Aronofsky uses all of his directorial skills masterfully in this one. The idea of ”is it real” is explored through the lens of unbridled competition and mental illness, but it never feels preachy or ordinary.
It’s impossible to have a conversation about surreal horror without mentioning director Ari Aster. His previous film, Hereditarywas so creepy and surreal that it practically invented a new genre. Midsommar does that too – presenting the daytime horror movie.
Midsommar is a slow-release study. Things are bubbling under the surface, terrifying things, but they’re not overt until one particular scene when people are intentionally jumping off cliffs to their deaths. Even then, it’s sunny and friendly and bright. It unfolds so slowly that when things start to happen, it’s that much scarier.
Aster is a master of contrast. The banal becomes psychologically authoritarian in his hands. There’s always something bubbling under the surface that everyone seems to know about but no one talks about. Florence Pugh offers a star spinning lead and has the biggest character arc from normal suburban girl to something else entirely. This one has to be seen to be believed.