In late September, we put out a call for readers looking for specific horror movie recommendations. It’s an offshoot of our Dear Polygon series, where we answer questions and give recs to readers like you. To our delight, hundreds of you responded. This is the second entry in what will be quite a few answering those requests, hand-picking a horror movie to watch just for you. You can catch up with the first entry here.
If you’d like to get in on the fun, you can still fill out our recommendation request form.
Let’s dig in.
I like slow immersion and atmosphere. I don’t need jump scares. Gore is fine, but when things get over-the-top, it takes me out of the experience. Unless of course, I’ve got something like Re-Animator on. But that’s on the other end of the horror spectrum; in this poll’s case, I’m looking for something serious.
Jonathan, I have an absolute treat for you. It’s one of those movies that has permanently lodged itself in my head since I saw it, and I’m delighted to share an underseen 2020s classic with you and other interested readers. —Pete Volk
She Dies Tomorrow (2020)
What’s it like? A palpable unfurling of dread, slowly enveloping you in a contagious paranoia that threatens to consume all. The movie follows a woman who becomes convinced she is going to die tomorrow, and her conviction spreads to those around her, including friends that try to comfort her.
What flavor of horror is it? Most certainly psychological horror. She Dies Tomorrow is particularly excellent at using empty space to depict isolation, in a twisted variant on “going viral gone wrong” stories that avoids the trappings of attempting to place such stories on the ever-changing internet.
Who made it? Amy Seimetz wrote and directed the movie, and she rules. A terrific actor (You’re Next, Upstream Color), this is her second feature film following 2012’s Sun Don’t Shine.
Who’s in it? Kate Lyn Sheil, who previously collaborated with Seimetz in Sun Don’t Shine, stars as the protagonist, Amy. She is jaw-droppingly fantastic in this, and one of the many reasons you should watch it. Michelle Rodriguez, Chris Messina, and Josh Lucas also feature in the movie.
How long is it? 84 minutes! But the memories will last forever.
Where can I watch? She Dies Tomorrow is available to stream on Hulu, for free with a library card on Kanopy, or via digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Apple, and Google Play.
I’ve always loved zombie things, but some are much better than others. But also, when I read scary stories or “creepy encounters” on Reddit or Kotaku’s scary story content, the ones that have no supernatural element or no obvious supernatural element I find immensely more scary since they are rooted in reality. For instance, there was a Kotaku scary story about a person being home alone, facing away from their door in their bedroom with headphones on, doing school work. Later you and the person in the story realize that someone was watching them, hoping they’d turn around, for a few hours. Or another story where someone was in an [apartment], and there was a creeper landlord sneaking into their place when they were gone, through some weird hole-in-the-wall passage. Or a story about someone running in a park, and coming across someone in the distant weirdly staring — which later turns out to be a person who hanged themselves, etc.
So I’m looking for horror rooted in reality, but without the serial killer vibe or without the torture porn vibe. No supernatural or obvious supernatural. Creepy and spooky, like if a friend were to tell you on a porch in the coming twilight, something that would make you think “Yeah, that seems plausible and creepy.” I also love foreign and old films.
Bret, I am glad you flagged that you are open to international films because I think Euro and Asian filmmakers are often more on this horror-rooted-in-reality wavelength than most American directors. But my twist recommendation is a little-seen film from last year with Euro sensibilities but an American cast, and the clash makes it all the more unnerving. —Matt Patches
John and the Hole (2021)
What’s it like? Imagine if Home Alone was a horror movie made with restraint and an eye for sinister beauty. The gist is that, one day, 13-year-old John (Charlie Shotwell) drugs his family and dumps them into a deep pit in the woods. Then he makes risotto. Then he does everything in his power to keep up the ruse that is parents are just... somewhere.
What flavor of horror is it? John and the Hole is much more of a slow-drip horror scenario than a propulsive scare vehicle, anchored by Shotwell’s weirdo performance. Like the films of Michael Haneke or Bong Joon-ho, the film indulges in the upper-middle-class life and scenic backwoods locale to unnerve as a genuine act of evil plays out. The movie is a fairly blunt examination of “affluenza,” the idea that privileged kids being afforded everything erodes the development of sensible social behavior, but it’s not preachy. John and the Hole is all about a gut feeling.
Who made it? Pascual Sisto, a Spanish artist whose visual art work has been shown in galleries and museums all over the world, but who decided to make a film in order to freak us out.
Who’s in it? While John figures out his new life, Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Ehle, and Taissa Farmiga co-star as his family, stuck in a hole.
How long is it? 98 minutes
I love horror movies of all kinds — tone, format, genre mix. My absolute favorites skew supernatural, usually the closer to demonology and the devil the better. Always love it when they surprise me with how scary they can be, and a fresh take on anything demons — possession, summoning, ill advised bargains, etcetera — that’s my favorite cup of black mass coffee.
Hey Mike, this is a great question, in part because it’s just so big that I feel like I can go with almost anything. But because you said you like a mix of genres and formats, and that you’re a sucker for demonology, I’m going with an often-overlooked classic that deserves a lot more attention than it got and to be seen as more than just another horror sequel. —Austen Goslin
The Exorcist III (1990)
What’s it like? Georgetown is terrorized by a series of murders that all seem to follow the MO of the same serial killer, but each killer has a different identity. Being as this movie is called The Exorcist III, you might already have a clue about what exactly could be behind this.
What flavor of horror is it? The Exorcist III treads the line between the careful investigation and quiet suspense of the serial killer movies that would come after it (like Se7en or Silence of the Lambs) and the more overtly supernatural bombast that most possession movies trade in. This gives it a wholly unique feeling and almost makes it a bridge between the horror of the ’70s and ’80s and that of the late ’90s and ’00s.
Who made it? The movie was directed by William Peter Blatty, the writer of the original Exorcist novel. Blatty adapts his own novel here, retrofitting a serial killer story to be part of the larger Exorcist universe. It’s one of two movies that Blatty directed, and both are fantastic movies that still feel offbeat and unique to this day.
Who’s in it? The cast is led by the fantastic George C. Scott (Patton, Dr. Strangelove), but also includes a wonderful collection of people you’ve probably seen before but may not recognize, like Ed Flanders (St. Elsewhere), Brad Dourif (Wormtongue in Lord of the Rings and the voice of Chucky), and Jason Miller from the original Exorcist.
How long is it? 110 minutes