Listicle

13 Best Horror Movie Subgenres

28 Oct 2021 | 8 MINS READ
Curzon

The witching hour is upon us. Halloween is just around the corner, and with it, a slew of new, old and revitalised horror films will play in cinemas. They run the gamut of subgenres, all with the intention of scaring the bejesus out of audiences.

So, what would make the perfect Halloween-film line-up? This list brings together two competing titles in 13 horror subgenres. Some might be familiar, others less so, but all are guaranteed to chill, thrill or shock you out of your wits.

Classic Vampire

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (F. W. Murnau, 1922) vs Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958)

W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece might never have seen the light of day. The family of Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, sued for plagiarism and a judge ruled that all copies of the film be destroyed. Thankfully they weren’t, and this film, with Max Schreck playing Count Orlof and Murnau showing his gift for conjuring up an unsettling world of shadows and atmospheres, remains a stunning piece of expressionist cinema.

Hammer studios had been in existence since 1935, but its step into horror – the genre that came to define it – began 20 years later with The Quatermass Experiment. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) was the first feature to cast the company’s most iconic actors opposite each other, with Peter Cushing playing the scientist and Christopher Lee his creation. Their collaboration would reach its peak the following year in Dracula, with Lee perfect as the prince of darkness and Cushing ideal as his nemesis Doctor Van Helsing. It remains a high point in Hammer’s prolific horror output.

See also: Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987), Cronos (Guillermo del Toro, 1993), Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)

Psychological Horror

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) vs Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)

Stephen King might not have liked what Stanley Kubrick did to his bestselling novel, but there’s no denying the power of what the filmmaker achieved. Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance is more than a little overripe to begin with ­– he’s clearly unhinged from the outset – but it’s seeing the realisation creeping across the face of Shelley Duvall’s Wendy that makes the set-up so chilling. Ultimately, the film is so effective because of Kubrick’s transformation of the Overlook Hotel into the stuff of nightmares. If The Shining isn’t the most terrifying horror film to watch, it’s the images that haunt us long after the film has ended that have come to define it.

Along with the openings of Scream and It Follows (see below), Jordan Peele’s modern masterpiece has one of the best prologues of any horror film of the last few decades. It then settles into a meet the parents-style comedy-drama, with the odd line of dialogue hinting at what is to come. When we finally understand the predicament that Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris has got himself into, it’s a killer moment. Part of the film’s genius lies in casting, particularly the Democrat-voting parents of Chris’ girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams), played by indie queen Catherine Keener and The West Wing star Bradley Whitford. Peele cleverly plays with their screen personas, just one element in his stunning critique of racism in the US.

See also: Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), Halloween (John Carpenter, 1977), Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)

Silent

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919) vs The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöström, 1921)

An Alpine village. A visiting funfair. A disquieting sideshow attraction. A series of murders. This classic of German expressionism, projecting the trauma of its protagonist as a demented world of misshapen buildings, chiaroscuro lighting and strange happenings, tells the tale of a murderous stranger and his somnambulant killer. It’s a strange story told in a way that feels unlike any other film made. And the major reveal has presaged the twist endings of so many subsequent horrors.

Director Victor Sjöström plays David Holm, an alcoholic who becomes an apprentice to death, driving the carriage that collects the souls of the recently deceased. Sjöström achieved his eerie effects through the use of in-camera multiple-exposure. But it’s the story of a man whose soul becomes the prize on an existential battlefield that makes the film so compelling. It was a favourite film of Ingmar Bergman, who would later cast Sjöström as the elderly professor in Wild Strawberries (1957).

See also: The Golem, How He Came into the World (Paul Wegener and Carl Boese, 1920), Häxan (Benjamin Christensen, 1922), The Fall of the House of Usher (Jean Epstein, 1928)

Giallo

Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975) vs Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2012)

If Mario Bava is one of the architects of giallo (the name comes from the yellow-paper crime novels published in the 40s and 50s Italy), Argento is its Pontiff, elevating the style to an operatic scale. Deep Red is a suitably grisly entry, with David Hemmings’ photographer investigating a murder in his apartment block with the aid of Daria Nicolodi’s journalist. Argento’s later films opted for grand set pieces over narrative logic (see 1977’s Suspiria), but the action here remains mostly faithful to the logic of the plot, albeit with a healthy amount of bloodletting.

Peter Strickland’s film is more an homage to and pastiche of the Italian genre, with Toby Jones’ foley expert hired by an Italian film studio to add texture to a new horror film, but whose grip on reality slowly unravels. Strickland’s knowledge of this genre is encyclopaedic (you can see it in the fabulous film-within-a-film moments). The result is a celebration of giallo and a knowing take on it.

See also: Blood and Black Lace (Mario Bava, 1964), The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Dario Argento, 1970), Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980)

Folklore

The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973) vs Midsommar (Ari Aster, 2019)

A young girl has gone missing on the Hebridean island of Sumerisle. An English police sergeant is dispatched to investigate. A devout Christian, Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) is disturbed to discover that the locals place their faith in pagan gods and rituals. And as his investigation continues he begins to suspect foul play at the hands of the mysterious lord of the island (Christopher Lee). A British classic, Robin Hardy’s film features a killer ending that has influenced countless other films.

After the success of Hereditary (2018), Ari Aster came up with this Scandi gothic delight where all the action boldly unfolds in daylight. A grieving young woman (Florence Pugh) joins her boyfriend and his friends on a trip to central Sweden, where they’ll witness a pagan event that takes place once every 90 years. We have a pretty good idea of what fate has in store for the characters, the pleasure here lies in exactly how they play out. It’s a hugely accomplished film from one of the shining new lights of US horror.

See also: Kill List (Ben Wheatley, 2011), The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015), Candyman (Barnard Rose/Nia DaCosta, 1992/2021)

Sounds That Scare

The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999) vs A Quiet Place (John Krasinski, 2018)

Would The Blair Witch Project ever have worked in our mediated world? On the cusp of society’s embrace of the world wide web, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez managed to convince a sizeable number of people that their story of students who went missing in an area known to have been the domain of a witch hundreds of years before was true. The film played at Sundance to shocked audiences. It was bought for a hefty sum, the sound and image improved significantly, and released in the weeks before the final Halloween of the 20th century. It fits snuggly in the increasingly populated found-footage subgenre, but what is so remarkable about the film is its use of sound to create terror; a nearby river, clashing pebbles and creaking trees added immeasurably to the growing terror lurking beyond our vision.

Few horror films have made such effective use of silence and sound as John Krasinski’s inventive speculative horror. Aliens with ultra-sensitive hearing invade earth and rapidly decimate its human and animal population. One family, already grief-stricken, survives on its wits. Krasinsky directs with impressive economy and, alongside Emily Blunt, plays one of the parents. But the star of the film – and its recent sequel – is Millicent Simmonds, a gifted deaf actor who plays the couple’s eldest child. It’s through her that the film finds its soul.

See also: Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), Audition (Takashi Miike, 1999), Them (David Moreau and Xavier Palud, 2006)

Post-modern

Scream (Wes Craven, 1996) vs The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2011)

Wes Craven, alongside John Carpenter and George A. Romero, had done more than most to drive US horror in different directions. Almost 25 years after his shocking debut The Last House on the Left (1972), followed by the success of The Hills Have Eyes (1977), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) and the underrated The People Under the Stairs (1991), he directed the postmodern horror movie par excellence. From it’s brilliant Drew Barrymore-led opening sequence, Scream is a smart, knowing commentary on horror tropes – but it wouldn’t be half as effective if it wasn’t also so terrifying.

How to have your cake and gorge on it too… Drew Goddard’s entertaining movie-within-a-movie plays out the classic scenario of a group of youngsters who find themselves trapped in the titular cabin. They each play an archetype of the genre (track star, virgin, nerd etc) and have no idea that they are pawns in a bigger, existential game. To reveal any more would spoil the layers that Goddard peels away. Suffice to say, it doesn’t end well. For anyone.

See also: A New Nightmare (Wes Craven, 1994), From Dusk Till Dawn (Robert Rodriguez, 1996), Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)

Blockbuster

The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) vs World War Z (Marc Forster, 2013)

We have become so inured to the effects of horror on the screen it seems unimaginable that when William Friedkin’s Oscar-nominated film opened there were ambulances on standby outside some cinemas, should audience members collapse from sheer terror. The Exorcist is serious in intent, but remains an entertainment more than a cohesive thesis on Catholicism, demonic possession and the work of those who battle dark forces. The lengthy prelude in Iraq, introducing us to Max von Sydow’s Father Merrin and the demon he will soon face, is richly atmospheric. The possession scenes still carry enormous power and shock value. And Friedkin’s nervy camera keeps us on edge. It was one of the first huge mainstream horror hits and remains a landmark in the genre.

Dividing critics and audiences alike, Marc Forster’s blockbuster movie is more action than horror, but it carries off some impressive set pieces. The film barely gives us time to breathe after the now familiar something-is-up-in-the-world montage credit sequence, with Brad Pitt and his family thrown into the chaos of an unidentified but rapidly transmissible virus. Thereafter, the film spans the globe as Pitt’s ex-UN rapporteur Gerry Lane attempts to trace the source of the virus and a possible cure. It’s the scale of the film that distinguishes it from most other zombie horrors. And, after travelling from the US to Korea and Jerusalem, it’s somewhat incongruous that the film ends up at a research facility in a rural Welsh valley town.

See also: Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975), The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976), The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999)

Zombie

I Waked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943) vs Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978)

Until the 2000s and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, there wasn’t much demand for zombies. These days, they’re like buses. Jacques Tourneur’s superb 1943 drama, like Wes Craven’s later The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), looks to voodoo myths for inspiration. (It’s also partly inspired by the Bertha Mason subplot of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.) What the film lacks in major scares is made up for in atmosphere. It’s one of the finest pre-Psycho Hollywood horror films.

George A. Romero hit the ground running with his midnight-movie cult hit Night of the Living Dead (1968). But as groundbreaking as that film was, it pales against the filmmaker’s follow-up, a stunning satire of consumerist society. A group of survivors from a zombie holocaust barricade themselves in a shopping mall, only to witness the walking dead returning to the one place they all feel at home. It’s an excellent set-up. So much so that  even without the satire it works well, as Zack Snyder showed with his excellent – if inferior – 2004 remake. Romero went on to direct another four sequels in the Dead series, but none matched the rawness of this film.

See also: Ganja & Hess (Bill Gunn and Lawrence Jordan, 1973), 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002), Train to Busan (Yeon Sang-ho, 2016)

WTF!

House (Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, 1977) vs Society (Brian Yunza, 1989)

Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s sophomore feature takes a familiar conceit, turns it on its head and delivers a phantasmagoria of kitsch, absurdism, thrills and weirdness. A schoolgirl travels with her friends to her aunt’s country house, which they soon discover is haunted. Right from the outset, Ôbayashi presents us with stylish flourishes and a cavalcade of colours. Sure, it might not be the scariest film ever made, but if you want to know what it’s like to watch a horror movie under the influence of LSD without actually taking any substances, this is as good as it gets.

For almost its entire run time, you might wonder why Society is in this list. At best, it comes across as a broad-strokes satire of life in Beverly Hills. There’s the odd strange moment, but, for the most part, the film embraces its cheesiness. And the casting of Billy Zane, best known at the time as one of the buff lifeguards on the TV series Baywatch, adds to the sense that this is nothing more than a humdrum, straight-to-video, low-budget production. When the finale arrives, everything falls into place. Brian Yuzna’s film may lack subtlety, but it makes up for it with the film’s climax, a sequence of WTF jaw-dropping audacity.

See also: In the Mouth of Madness (John Carpenter, 1994), The Addiction (Abel Ferrara, 1995), mother! (Darren Aronofsky, 2017)

Supernatural

Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1998) vs It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014)

The quality of J- and K-horror in the late 1990s and early 2000s offered up a bountiful treasure of supernatural chillers, from Cure (1997) and Dark Water (2002) to Ju-on: The Grudge (2002) and A Tale of Two Sisters (2003). But the first entry in Hideo Nakata’s trilogy of features about a cursed videotape is arguably the most terrifying of all. Doomed nemesis Sadako is a brilliant creation and the moment she first comes out of a TV screen is one of the classic sequences in modern horror. The set-up is a brilliant conceit, deftly handled and directed to perfection by Hideo Nakata, draining every last drop of suspense and terror.

The opening of David Robert Mitchell’s second feature sets the scene for a chilling portrait of modern-day suburbia in the US. The film’s premise is simple. A curse is passed between teens who have sex. To avoid being killed by a demon, the cursed person needs to have sex to pass it on. But if anyone succumbs to the demon, previous owners of the curse become a target once again. Skilfully balancing thrills with satire, Mitchell’s visual style resembles photographer Gregory Crewdson and the film’s weirdness edges towards David Lynch.

See also: The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1957), The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo del Toro), The Conjuring (James Wan)

Revenge

I Spit on your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978) vs The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell, 2020)

Rape-revenge films are a tricky subgenre. Some start out with good intentions, but they can easily err towards the lurid, exploitative or offensive. Meir Zarchi’s uncompromising feature remains a divisive example. It has been vilified over the years by those pillorying cinema for its indulgence of screen violence and promotion of misogynistic imagery, as well as celebrated by those who champion it for where its sympathies lie – the female protagonist and not her attackers – and for the reprisal enacted on the men. Like many of these films, it’s not an easy watch. Nor should it be.

Unlike Paul Verhoeven’s lurid and creepy (in all the wrong ways) Hollow Man (2000), Leigh Whannell’s radical revision of HG Wells’ 1897 novel tears into a culture of toxic masculinity. The Saw series writer’s third feature as director stars Elisabeth Moss as Cecilia Kass, who escapes a coercive relationship only to find the boyfriend, whom everyone believes killed himself, terrorising her in ways no one else can see. It leads people to believe she is losing her mind, particularly when it appears that she has killed her sister. The set pieces are impressive, but it’s the intelligence of the film that makes it such a compelling watch.

See also: The Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972), Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976), Revenge (Coralie Fargeat, 2017)

Cannibal

Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980) vs Raw (Julie Ducournau, 2016)

One of the most notorious ‘video nasties’ of the 1980s (see the recent Censor for a lowdown on how Thatcher’s Britain was apparently gripped by fear over the effect of watching extremely violent horror films as home entertainment), Ruggero Deodato’s film has proven influential. An early example of the found-footage film, it tells the tale of an amoral film crew who come a cropper at the hands of a tribe of cannibals who have previously had no contact with the outside world. It’s not an easy watch, and Deodato’s claim that the film is a scathing critique of colonialism and modern media practices is more than a little undermined by the relish he takes in detailing the violence carried out by the journalists and the tribespeople whose world they invade.

Recent Cannes Palme d’Or winner (for the forthcoming Titane) Julie Ducournau’s feature debut is a startling tale of vegetarian veterinary student Justine (Garance Marillier), whose tastes gradually become more corporeal. It’s a stunning central performance by Marillier and Ducournau successfully convinces us of the shift in her protagonist’s food of choice. It’s not a film to see on a full stomach.

See also: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), Ravenous (Antonia Bird, 1999), Bone Tomahawk (S. Craig Zahler, 2015)

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