ORION PICTURES; SCOTT GREEN/A24; NETFLIX
Autumn is coming on fast this year; it already feels like Halloween’s just around the corner. This is a time when many of us get interested in horror movies — they just have a way of putting you in the correct chilly mood for the final stretch of the year. Streaming services offer plenty of options, but sometimes the amount of choices can be overwhelming.
Here is the list of the 15 scariest movies you can watch on Netflix right now.
The Raid director Gareth Evans leaves his martial arts comfort zone for this Wicker Man-type story of an outsider (Dan Stevens) coming to an isolated community with their own violent pagan religion. Apostle is a mash-up of lots of different ideas, but it gets truly terrifying when Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones), one of the community’s founders, starts asserting himself as an authoritarian patriarch. There are brutal fight scenes that recall some of the flavor of The Raid movies, and a good amount of demonic magic, but nothing is as horrifying as Quinn’s reaction to learning his daughter has had premarital sex.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)
Not every horror story has to be a mystery, but this is a particularly effective one. Father and son coroners played by Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch examine an unidentified female body in what they think is gonna be a quick evening job, but instead they keep finding weird things about the body (from a missing tooth to Roman numeral symbols) and things start to go very bad around them. It gets a little outrageous by the end, but in the meantime The Autopsy of Jane Doe keeps throwing enough scary things at the viewer to keep you on your toes.
The Boy (2016)
The Uncanny Valley is the concept for the feeling when a representation of human life is so close to being real, but just short enough that it generates a terrifying limbo. Usually the term is applied to computers and AI, but a similar sensation must surely date back to puppets and dolls. It’s the best explanation for the horror of The Boy, in which an American woman (Lauren Cohan of The Walking Dead) is assigned to babysit the son of a rich English family, only to discover that the “son” they’re referring to is a porcelain doll.
The Evil Dead (1981)
Although Sam Raimi’s debut film is really just the template for his subsequent collaborations with star Bruce Campbell, The Evil Dead still packs a punch (if it didn’t, those two would never have gotten their storied horror careers off the ground in the first place). The premise may be basic — group of attractive young people find an abandoned cabin in the woods and set off a dark magic artifact — but The Evil Dead’s gore and viscera is so gruesome and colorful that it still revolts and unsettles 40 years later, even in the shadow of its many imitators.
The Forest (2016)
Aokighara Forest in Japan is often referred to as the “suicide forest” for the amount of people who go there to die. What better setting for a horror film? The thought of a natural environment weighed down with so much death, combined with the sadness that must drive one to such a death, gives this entire film a creepy atmosphere that’s further compounded by figures who might be ghosts and Natalie Dormer playing twins searching for each other — it’s not always clear which one is alive and which isn’t.
Gerald’s Game (2017)
Stephen King’s 1992 novel was long thought to be unfilmable — after all, what’s cinematic about a woman handcuffed to a bed by herself with only her own memories to interact with? Enter Carla Gugino, who uses her considerable charisma to put this film adaptation from director Mike Flanagan on her back (little wonder they would collaborate again for another Netflix release, The Haunting of Hill House). The scenario is classic King ingenuity — what if you started a BDSM sex game and then your partner died before releasing you? — and Gugino convincingly portrays the relatable terror of a seemingly simple situation quickly devolving into a life-or-death struggle.
Green Room (2015)
Director Jeremy Saulnier’s thrilling film about a punk band trapped in their own green room by white supremacists was beloved by horror fans as soon as it landed in 2015, even though it didn’t do particularly well at the box office. Five years later, with all of us stuck inside while more and more people openly declare their support of white supremacy, the horror of Green Room packs an even bigger punch. Plus it’s always exciting to see a heroic actor break bad, and Patrick Stewart going from the noble likes of Jean-Luc Picard and Charles Xavier to a brutal Nazi leader is downright unsettling.
Like Gerald’s Game, that other Mike Flanagan Netflix horror film already present on this list, Hush has an imaginative yet simple premise. This story is about a deaf woman (Kate Siegel) being stalked by a killer she can’t hear. Flanagan and his actors mine a lot of fun horror out of the premise, particularly. Anytime the killer is making moves just out of the woman’s line of sight, you might end up screaming yourself hoarse begging her to turn around in time.
The Invitation (2016)
Compared to most of the other films on this list, The Invitation boasts a seemingly innocuous premise. What’s so terrifying about an L.A. dinner party, you ask? Lots of things, it turns out! Director Karyn Kusama mines horror out of both the the standard awkwardness of reunions between adult friends and former lovers who haven’t seen each other in awhile, and especially the protagonist’s increasing conviction that something truly terrible is about to happen.
It Comes at Night (2017)
Now here’s a plague nightmare for you. Trey Edward Schults’ 2017 film was always scary for how it zeroed in on the minutiae of post-apocalyptic living, but It Comes at Night definitely packs an even more horrific punch in the year of quarantine. The most unnerving thing about watching a world where masks are the only tenuous security blanket you have and every other human being appears like a threat to your own health and safety… is thinking about how it’s maybe only a few steps down the road from where we are now.
Bong Joon Ho’s one Netflix-exclusive film is not usually described as a horror movie, but it still gets much scarier than you might expect from a story about a girl and her animal friend. In classic Bong style, Okja combines all sorts of tones and genres. It’s not as tightly controlled as Parasite, but Okja’s terrifying moments are just as emotionally deep as its happy ones. Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance has already become rather infamous for how high-pitched his performance is in this film, but it’s not exactly a laugh riot; at one point, the combination of his hysteria with an assault on the titular animal is so horrifying you won’t soon forget it. At the time it was released, Tilda Swinton’s climactic deployment of blackshirt mercenaries to round up animal rights activists seemed like a terrifying vision of a possible future; these days, it plays like a terrifying replica of real life.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
After being produced for just $215,000, the first Paranormal Activity made more than $190 million at the box office — making it, by some measurements, the most profitable movie ever made. Even now, you can see why. The found-footage story of a couple moving into a haunted house (filmed through the viewpoint of their security camera) is still fresh and horrifying after years of sequels and rip-offs. As one of the films that launched Blumhouse, you have Paranormal Activity‘s success to thank for most of the well-told low-budget horror films of the last decade.
Poltergeist was directed by Tobe Hooper and produced by Steven Spielberg. This combination has inspired a decades-long debate over who deserves credit as the film’s true auteur, which is especially silly when you consider that Poltergeist is a fascinating meeting point for the two legendary filmmakers’ styles. The bucolic ‘80s suburbia that we know and love from other Spielberg movies is present, but it’s run through Hooper’s flesh grinder of ectoplasmic demons and interdimensional portals. Much of the horror of Poltergeist is apparent on the screen, from the big monsters to the creepy medium played by Zelda Rubinstein, but it gets even creepier when it makes you think about how maybe every American suburb is built on top of a graveyard in one way or another.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Accept no substitutes: This is still the definitive Hannibal Lecter screen adaptation. Netflix currently hosts both the three-season Hannibal TV series and 2002’s Red Dragon on its platform, but the latter film pales in comparison both to Michael Mann’s original Manhunter and the Red Dragon material in the show. Hannibal never had access to The Silence of the Lambs due to a weird rights inconsistency with the original Thomas Harris novels, so despite gender-flipping a few minor characters the show mostly oriented itself around the male relationships between Dr. Lecter, Will Graham, Jack Crawford, and (eventually) Francis Dolarhyde. By contrast, The Silence of the Lambs mines much of its horror from the experience of living as a woman in a world dominated by violent and cruel men.
As we see the world through the eyes of Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, we sense danger and entitlement not just from the imprisoned Hannibal (Anthony Hopkins in his career-defining, Oscar-winning performance) but from her male colleagues as well. The movie’s climax, where we viewers are hunting her through the night-vision goggles of woman-hating serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), is one of the most terrifying sequences in all of cinema. But part of what makes The Silence of the Lambs so iconic is that Clarice is never a victim; far from it, she actually manages to defy the world’s expectations of her and save some of the titular lambs from screaming.
The most unsettling serial killer film of all time, precisely because it’s based entirely on real people and real events. The Freudian cannibalism of The Silence of the Lambs and the Biblical violence of director David Fincher’s own Seven are nightmarish depictions of evil, but what’s worse than knowing there’s a real-life monster out there who got away with everything? Not only does Zodiac depict the titular killer’s crimes in ways that put you in the terrified victims’ shoes; it also shows the psychic trauma inflicted on all the people in ‘60s Bay Area who always found themselves one step behind the mastermind.