One of the draws of watching some of our favorite horror movies is that we can often turn off the noise of reality and dive into a world where over-the-top scares, insane monsters, and non-stop chills provide for some blood-pumping good times. Occasionally though, you also come across horror that isn’t, for lack of better words, all that fun. In fact, it’s hard not to feel emotionally drained, disturbed, or just outright shitty after watching some of these movies.
Despite this, many of these films are still rather brilliant when all is said and done, even if you don’t feel all that great once the credits rolls. Flicks of this caliber often masterfully tap into the dark reality of humanity, explore truly damaged characters, and bypass comeuppances and emotional catharsis for outright tragedy–with great success.
This crop of “feel-bad” horror films tends to really divide some audiences and can be majorly disappointing and/or off-putting for the moviegoer looking for a quick, fun scare. Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t gravitate towards these kinds of movies for whatever reason, in all of their upsetting, emotionally complex glory. I particularly love that many films of this ilk manage to cross genre barriers in fascinating and atypical ways–shifting from horror to dark drama to suspense, while sporadically peppering in dark comedy or bursts of action to shake up the mood. Luckily for those of us who rather enjoy this approach to the genre, 2017 had no shortage of these horror downers.
If you aren’t a fan who particularly enjoys horror that takes a toll on your serotonin levels, have no fear; we have an accompanying list of the 2017’s more fun, crowd-ready genre entries just for you. For the rest of us, however, we are happy to present our top feel-bad horror flicks of 2017!
*Some spoilers ahead*
The Blackcoat’s Daughter
The directorial debut from Osgood Perkins, son of Anthony Perkins, saw its first screening all the way back in 2015. While its long journey to distribution might have signaled to horror audiences that the film was perhaps not all that good, this could not be less accurate. The Blackcoat’s Daughter–which retains its original title of February on Netflix in the UK–is a rather dreary, but exceptionally chilling film set at an isolated boarding school over winter break. With very strong performances from its female leads Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men), Lucy Boynton (I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House), and Emma Roberts (American Horror Story) and an ending that is deeply sad in ways you’d never expect, I’d say we are rather fortunate that Perkins’s debut finally saw proper distribution earlier this year.
Hounds of Love
Australian filmmaker Ben Young’s directorial debut Hounds of Love is an upsetting exercise in both psychological and realistic horror. Set in the 1980s, the film follows serial killers John (Stephen Curry) and Evelyn White (Emma Booth), who have been abducting and murdering young girls in the Perth suburbs. After kidnapping Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) while on her way to a party after a fight with her mother, John and Evelyn engage in a course of violent, abusive acts that will change not only Vicki’s life, but also their own relationship. Reportedly inspiring numerous walkouts during early screenings, Hounds of Love is most disturbing due to how much of the violence is left to the imagination. Yet beyond these horrific moments, the film also does a number on its audience’s emotions by additionally making Evelyn–embodied in a stunning performance by Booth–a complex villain who is also a captive of sorts in her own relationship with Curry’s domineering and manipulative John. Without saying too much, Hounds of Love features my favorite final moments of a horror film this year. You won’t be feeling particularly happy by the end, but damn it if it isn’t a gut punch of a finale.
It Comes at Night
It Comes at Night seemed to divide many horror fans who went into it expecting more traditional scares. Granted, the marketing for Trey Edward Shults’s follow up to 2015’s drama Krisha did admittedly paint the film as a straightforward horror entry, setting up an expectation that perhaps an unseen creature would ultimately be revealed by the film’s end. Instead, the movie focuses on a family struggling for survival in the midst of post-apocalyptic paranoia. It Comes at Night is ultimately a slow burn far more rooted in reality than audiences probably expected, focusing more on the horrors that can result of man’s own doing and fear of the unknown. There is ultimately no catharsis here either; the film’s ending packs an emotional punch that matches the heavy, bleak tone that precedes it. For those willing to take the ride, however, It Comes at Night is a striking nightmare.
The Devil’s Candy
I argued with myself for quite a while about whether to put The Devil’s Candy on this list or the aforementioned one (2017 Best Horror Films to Watch with a Crowd). Sean Byrne’s long-awaited follow up to 2009’s The Loved Ones is quite a blast to watch with a crowd, mind you; it’s a serial killer/possession/supernatural/heavy metal flick all at once that explodes in a blaze of glory–quite literally–by its finale. Still, it is also a dingy, tonally discordant film drenched in sweat and blood that focuses heavily on child murder–all things bound to make some people feel outright icky, even if its ending is probably the most cathartic on this entire list. For that reason, I’m content including it here, but will simply say that you need to see The Devil’s Candy. It is a narrative rollercoaster of horror that simply works, backed by fantastic performances from Kiara Glasco (Maps to the Stars), Ethan Embry (Cheap Thrills), and Shiri Appleby (UnREAL), as well as a majorly unsettling turn from Pruitt Taylor Vince (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).
Super Dark Times
First-time feature director Kevin Phillips imbues the 1990s-set Super Dark Times with a welcoming and nostalgic air early on. It’s no surprise then that the film’s subsequent turns of violence feel all the more unsettling later on because of it. Following Owen Campbell’s Zack and Charlie Tahan’s ticking timebomb Josh after a horrendous accident, Phillips does a killer job of authentically exploring both the naivete-fueled, hormone-driven, and emotionally trying experience of teenagers, as well as the darker side of what can happen in this confusing stage of life when mental health concerns and compounding social problems go unchecked. The brief bursts of violence in Super Dark Times are definitely difficult to endure, if for no other reason than that they seemingly explode out of nowhere. Above all though, the film succeeds in its ability to channel the unstable and often frightening emotional experience of being a teenager–albeit to an exceptionally heightened and horror-audience-friendly degree.
British filmmaker Alice Lowe shines as she pulls triple duty in Prevenge–writing, directing, and starring as the film’s unhinged antagonist Ruth, a recently widowed mother-to-be in the midst of a blood-soaked tear of revenge. While you can read all about just why I loved this film in my SXSW 2017 review, I will say that one of its greatest draws is its ability to handle very heavy emotional content–grief, sadness, fear–with a profoundly effective sense of humor. Yet by the time we reach the film’s surprisingly poignant denouement, you are reminded once again of how, for all of its overt bloodshed and outlandish death scenes, the reality of Ruth’s loss is genuinely still very heartbreaking. You’ll laugh then you’ll cringe, and you may even be tempted to shed a tear… even if Ruth is an unapologetic killer.
A dark drama in the guise of a “vampire film,” Michael O’Shea’s The Transfiguration is a strikingly beautiful but especially melancholic experience. The film follows Milo (Eric Ruffin), a lonely teenage orphan living in a low-income neighborhood in Queens, New York who is obsessed with vampire movies, so much that he regularly feeds on the blood of unsuspecting strangers. O’Shea crafts this urban fairy tale with sharp psychological horror and dramatic sensibilities and gets the most out of his young stars, including Ruffin and Chloe Levine, who plays Milo’s equally damaged confidant Sophie. As is the case with many films on this list, the film’s finale will absolutely break hearts, but it is executed with such a cinematic grace that you probably won’t mind.
Another of my favorite films of the year also featured on this list is Icelandic director Erlingur Óttar Thoroddsen’s Rift, a gay horror/romance/drama hybrid of a film that follows two men who reunite under mysterious circumstances at an isolated cabin after their relationship has ended. Set against a chilly Icelandic backdrop, Rift successfully channels the loneliness and emptiness that often accompany a love turned sour. Compounding these with the very real (or are they?) threats surrounding the secluded cabin make for a chilling slow-burn of a film that recalls Don’t Look Now with touches of Lynch. Needless to say, Rift is not the movie you want to watch on date night.
You can say what you will about Kristen Stewart, but it is hard to deny how much she shines amidst the effective minimalist horror of Personal Shopper. As Maureen, a personal shopper in Paris who has recently lost her twin brother Lewis, Stewart wears the masked pangs of loss and depression that accompany the death of a close loved one with an effortless skill. What begins as a typical indie drama set-up ultimately ventures into horror territory in very creative ways, slowly overtaking audiences with fear for Maureen as an unknown individual begins intruding into her life. Though the film consists of almost no violent images, it is surprising how disconcerting some of its sequences ultimately are. Above and beyond these moments though, Personal Shopper is a look at death, grief, and belief, and while the ambiguous last act may not provide the answers many will want, there is no denying its curiously resonant emotional effect.