Horror is a polarizing genre and sometimes gets dismissed as an eerie brand of cheesy movies with only the intention of eliciting fear. It’s not for everyone. But cheesy isn’t always bad, being scared can be fun, and the best horror films are those with substance.
Substance sparks discussion. An effective movie is something you should want to talk about afterwards. After all, you’ve given somewhere between 80 and 120 minutes of your life to witness someone else’s vision come to life onscreen, boiled down from months or years of conceptualizing, pitching, writing, rewriting, casting, performing, directing, shooting, reshooting, editing, cutting, producing, and fine-tuning. Ruminating on it after the fact is what gives the project a legacy. It’s what keeps it from disappearing back into the ether after the credits roll.
So if you’re someone who wants to watch something with staying power, something that will lead you to Reddit for a dozen other interpretations, or if you’re just someone who wants to try out a creepy movie without hiding the whole time, here are five thought-provoking sci-fi thrillers that are about much more than being scared.
Coherence follows a group of friends at a dinner party who begin to experience strange events as a comet passes them overhead. When the house loses power, two of them leave to investigate and return with evidence that suggests they may be tangled up in a number of parallel universes. One of the best things about James Ward Byrkit‘s directorial debut is that if you strip back the science fiction, the film is still a strong portrait of intertwined relationships with overlapping dialogue that is strikingly realistic. The horror simmers quietly in the background, laced with Mandela-effect details and disturbing realizations illuminated by plastic glow sticks.
THE ONE I LOVE (2014)
I went into Charlie McDowell‘s debut The One I Love expecting a romantic dramedy, so the second it veered into thriller territory, I was properly unsettled. Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass do a killer job portraying a married couple who, on their therapist’s advice, embark on a weekend getaway to reconnect. It’s a slow burn of polite tension that ultimately forces them to consider, if your partner becomes everything you want them to be, are they still them anymore?
“Vivarium” is a pretty word for what is essentially a cage in which to observe the life inside. The on-the-nose title of Lorcan Finnegan‘s depiction of a young couple looking to buy their own piece of picket-fence suburbia becomes a literal metaphor when, after taking a tour of Number Nine in a private development of identical houses, the pair becomes trapped. Like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone (in particular, this one) that heads to even darker territory, Vivarium hones in on the parallel plights of the couple as they struggle to perform their gendered—and potentially futile—duties to escape.
THE ENDLESS (2017)
Directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead present an interesting study on the complexities of family and aftermath of trauma with The Endless, a follow-up to their debut Resolution that takes place in the same universe. Benson and Moorhead play two brothers (named after themselves) who receive a cassette tape from the commune in which they were raised. While Aaron remains fond of Camp Acadia and is eager to visit, the elder Justin maintains that the group is a cult planning a mass suicide and is reluctant to return. Upon their arrival, the brothers make inexplicable discoveries such as a giant rope hanging from the night sky with no visible origin point, two moons instead of one, and that nobody appears to have aged in the past decade.
THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE (2015)
As the intriguing title suggests, writer and director Perry Blackshear made a movie about paranormal imposters. But what sets They Look Like People apart from cult classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Mimic is that Blackshear is more concerned with topics like friendship, love, and mental health than an alien or mutant origin story. Estranged best friends Wyatt and Christian reconnect after making big life decisions, just as the former begins to receive troubling transmissions about an impending demonic invasion. It feels dismissive to call it a “sci-fi bromance” since there’s a serious atmosphere to the film, but you’ll likely be asking yourself who you will want beside you should you start to suspect the world is overrun by predators.
Cover image is a still from VIVARIUM (2019).