6 Great Horror Films That Require Reflective Thought

Thought-provoking horror films for a socially-distanced Halloween.

Posted Oct 27, 2020

Over the past few months, I posted a couple pieces wherein I recommended some films for those looking for cinematic entertainment while keeping their social distance at home (i.e. 5 Films That Require Reflective Thought and 5 More Films That Require Reflective Thought). Of course, consistent with the goals of this blog, a major criterion for making these lists was that the films must make one "exercise" higher-order, reflective thinking.

These lists seemed to garner some interest on my blog; so, given our approach up to Halloween, I’ve compiled a similar list of some great horror/psychological thriller films. Following my initial compilation of such films, I noticed there were over 25 recommendations and so, much like a systematic review, I applied some more stringent inclusion criteria: (1) must require a fair amount of reflective thought (sorry The Mist [2007], Evil Dead II [1987], 28 Days Later [2002], Saw [2004] and Event Horizon [1997]); and (2) consistent with another previous Halloween-themed post, 5 Reasons We Enjoy Being Scared, there must be some element of the film that is genuinely "scary" (sorry American Psycho [2000], Black Swan [2010] and The Cabin in the Woods [2011]).

Two further exclusion criteria were also applied: (1) no "anthology" films (sorry The Signal [2007], V/H/S [2012] and Trick ‘r Treat [2007]); and (2) no films that were covered in previous posts (very sorry Lost Highway (1997) and, what I believe to be the greatest horror of all-time, The Shining (1980).

Following the application of these criteria, six remained; so, let’s have a look at these six great horror films that require reflective thought:

1. Funny Games (US Version: 2007)

Funny Games follows the hostage-taking of a family in their holiday home by two young men who force the family to participate in a number of "games" so as to stay alive.

What makes it scary: Michael Haneke is a Cannes Film Festival and Oscar Award-winning director best known for his psychologically-driven dramas. His foray into genuine horror with 1997’s Funny Games and his own 2007, shot-for-shot US remake, evidence his expertise in the dramatic. For example, well-considered timing is a tool used in this film – some scenes seem to drag on, but purposefully so – forcing the viewer to enter the mindset of the victims and to experience with them, somewhat like in real-time, the horrors they face. An out-of-nowhere plot manipulation also adds to both the family’s (and viewer’s) sense of despair.   

Why it requires reflection: Where some horrors make the audience wait for a big reveal at the end of the film, Haneke presents an aforementioned out-of-nowhere plot manipulation/philosophical question much earlier, making the viewer question their established perspective; thus, requiring they watch the remainder while acknowledging a caveat to their initial standpoint. 

2. The Machinist (2004)

Trevor Reznik, played by Christian Bale (in a role he’s said to have lost approximately 70 lbs to play), is the titular machinist and an insomniac, who loses his job for assumed negligence, following a significant injury to a co-worker. Trevor’s insomnia progressively worsens throughout the film, calling his reality into question.    

What makes it scary: Though not "scary" in the traditional sense, this film is genuinely unsettling. If the events occurring around the protagonist are not a result of deteriorating mental stability, then there’s something supernatural at play or there is a conspiracy against him – or maybe it’s some combination of the three. Not knowing the answer, alongside the suspense woven through the narrative, the film’s cinematography, grey hue, and pacing provide for a foreboding and threatening atmosphere.

Why it requires reflection: There is subtext throughout about what is a particularly creepy mystery, providing clues along the way as to what is going on in the film, below the surface. Essentially, the film passively presents the action, but forces the viewer to ask why?

3. The Wicker Man (1973)

A police sergeant travels to a small, remote island in search of a missing girl. 

What makes it scary: Though the film feels like an investigatory detective story for a large portion of its run-time, there’s an unease woven through the narrative that builds suspense over time (facilitated by the confusion and distrust of the Christian policeman and the island’s pagan inhabitants) – just in time for the horror of the film to unleash itself; and when it does, it occurs in a very realistic manner aided by some top-notch acting.    

Why it requires reflection: The Wicker Man requires reflection because it is in many ways a detective story; and so, we the viewers, join our protagonist along the way, evaluating clues regarding the whereabouts of the missing girl. Analysis of other subtextual clues throughout will also lead viewers to identify the famous ending (if they don’t know it already).

4. Resolution (2013)

Resolution begins with a relatively straightforward premise – a man is invited to an isolated cabin to help an old friend kick his drug addiction – before veering off into an exploration of the surreal and frightening as the two old friends are forced to face off against the ensuing metaphysical hijinx. Though that may seem like a vague synopsis, it’s about as clear as one can get without presenting major spoilers or a scene-by-scene breakdown!

What makes it scary: Though the film isn’t surrealist in the "traditional" sense (e.g. see the films of Luis Buñuel and David Lynch), the infusion of surrealist touches within what is largely a straightforward storyline is genuinely disconcerting and the confusion it breeds builds and maintains suspense throughout. Couple this confusion with various occurrences of the "impossible" (above and beyond the suspension of belief associated with the supernatural inherent in typical horror films) and the viewer is treated to a kind of nightmare-scape that they know isn’t actually being dreamt. Simply, there is an expert mixture of cinematic realism with the unknown that creates a genuinely unnerving viewing experience.  

Why it requires reflection: Like most of the films presented on this list, there is subtext here that requires interpretation to fully appreciate the film beyond the surface-level narrative – and there would want to be, given the "nightmarish dreamscape" of the storyline unravels a bit at certain points – and purposefully so, it can be argued. Though the "answer" is somewhat addressed at the climax, there is some work to be done by the viewer to try and piece together the events prior.

5. Antichrist (2009)

Following the death of their child, a couple (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Defoe) retreat to an isolated cabin to grieve as part of their therapy.

What makes it scary: Though this is by no means your typical cabin-in-the-woods-type horror, the unnerving vibe of isolation often associated with such stories is alive and well here. Given the emotional weakening of the audience from the very start, along with the couple’s psychological deterioration (despite the therapy’s focused efforts to combat it) – lingering thoughts, delusions and fantasies, as well as a few scenes of gore and the surreal, the events that follow pack an even harder punch; and now, what you’ve got isn’t just a horror; rather a damn-fine psychological horror! 

Why it requires reflection: The basic premise is simple, but like all the other films on this list, there’s a good deal of subtext to analyse and interpret – perhaps more than any other film on this list. It’s a smart film that asks many philosophical questions of its viewers, provided they can handle its visual intensity. It can be argued that Antichrist purposefully tests the audience in this manner, to go beyond its graphic nature and evaluate it for what it truly is – whatever that may be… With that, it’s fair to say that there are an unlimited number of ways to interpret this film and so, weaving an integrated sub-narrative for oneself will provide an interesting task. The catch is that, to unlock such meaning, multiple viewings may be necessary – however, Antichrist has often been noted as a film that very few ever want to watch a second time.  

6. Kairo (Pulse: 2001)    

Kairo is a Japanese horror about the manifestation of ghosts through the internet. Yes, I know it sounds bad... and yes, its production in 2001 dates it a bit; but, nevertheless, its message is still valid and, despite its premise and age, still provides some good scares.

What makes it scary: Kairo’s nonlinear narrative structure, wherein there are multiple narratives, does well to develop a feel of disconnection and confusion that creates an off-putting atmosphere of uncertainty that reinforces the scares when presented. What kind of scares? Well, it’s difficult to put into words, but if you liked Ringu or Ju-On, Kairo is definitely worth a watch!

Why it requires reflection: Kairo is not unlike the other movies discussed here with respect to subtext; however, the underlying theme of "fear and potential danger of advancing technology" is made pretty clear early on. The reflective aspect here is how the narrative progresses with the goal of making the audience follow the logic of Kairo’s "story" and simultaneously apply it to mankind’s relationship with technology, making the film linger in the mind – along with the scares.