Though a good cinematic thriller needs to scare you at least a few times, what often ends up separating the ones that really stick with you and those that fade away is how effective they are at creating a sustained atmosphere of good stress for you to live in as you watch their stories unfold. This strangely enjoyable stress can be hard to describe, and a bit tricky to seek out, but when you encounter it, it’s unmistakable.
Though this brand of good stress is unsettling to sit with, it works to intensify horror and thriller films’ ability to tap into your emotions. Whatever guards you try to put up against a movie’s attempts to frighten you with jump scares or gory close-ups, good stress subverts by turning everything about the narrative into its own kind of pervasive terror that lingers well after the end credits start rolling.
In small doses, good cinematic stress can be just the thing to snap you out of a funk — and remind you why it’s always worth seeking out features that wander off the beaten path of sights and sounds that are every bit as haunting as the performances being delivered. With fall officially upon us once again, it’s high time to break out the good stress movies to set the mood for whatever spooky nonsense October has in store. Here’s a solid list of features to dig into if and when the mood strikes.
Director Tarsem Singh’s The Cell luxuriated in the unnerving intersection between brilliance and absurdity with a twisted tale of a psychologist’s journey into the mind of a deranged killer. Psychologist Catherine Deane’s (Jennifer Lopez) expertise in the minds of children makes her an invaluable asset as she’s pulled into the police’s investigation of Carl Rudolph Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio), a serial killer who takes his victims’ lives by drowning them in glass boxes.
The harsh, coldness of The Cell’s “real” world contrasts with the suffocating heat and nightmarish darkness that defines the dream world within Stargher’s mind that Deane finds herself in as she searches for the location of the murderer’s latest soon-to-be victim. Each of costume designer Eiko Ishioka’s ensembles featured throughout the film creates a gravity well of focus that makes it hard to look away as The Cell alternates between visions of absolute beauty and the macabre.
Beyond the Black Rainbow
Long before the mystery at the centre of Beyond the Black Rainbow is revealed, the film first invites you to suss out the meanings behind its utterly striking imagery, and its spare, dread-inducing score. The 2010 film from director Panos Cosmatos tells the story of Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers), a research lead at an organisation that studies the metaphysical, who spends his days toiling at a facility where a young psychic named Elena (Eva Allan) is being held prisoner. No matter how hard Barry pushes Elena to open up to him, the girl’s resolute in her physical silence, and only communicates her one desire — to be reunited with her father — telepathically.
Beyond the Black Rainbow’s powerful use of colour and disturbing imagery to set the sickly, twisted tone that shapes its story evokes Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jonathan Glazer’s cinematic adaptation of Under the Skin from 2013. The film creates a sense of claustrophobia that heightens as Barry’s sinister fixation with Elena grows stronger, and by the final scene, Beyond the Black Rainbow will leave your skin crawling as if you, too, were fighting for your life to escape a madman’s prison.
Denis Villeneuve spins an intricate and enthralling web in Enemy, his 2013 psychological thriller about a seemingly ordinary college professor who one day discovers that he might be a twin, a clone, or the inexplicably perfect doppelganger for a struggling actor. After catching sight of an actor who bears an uncanny resemblance to him, Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) sets out to learn more about who the other man, Anthony Claire (also Gyllenhaal) is.
While neither Adam nor Anthony recall having any siblings or undergoing secret genetic experiments, they also can’t deny that they’re dead ringers for one another down to minute marks on their bodies that biologically identical twins do not tend to share. Knowing that there’s someone else out in the world whose lives they could easily slip into unnoticed opens both Adam and Anthony’s imagination to all of the possibilities their meeting presents, but both men’s minds begin to wander to dark places when they realise that they may have more in common than they think.
Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s Goodnight Mummy turns Germany’s picturesque countryside into the stuff of waking night terrors with a morbidly stylish story about young brothers who suspect that their mother may have been replaced by a monster. After an unnamed woman (Susanne Wuest) returns home from surgery to her twin sons Elias (Elias Schwarz) and Lukas (Lukas Schwarz), the boys can’t help but notice a marked change in her appearance and demeanour.
In addition to the thick bandages the boys’ mother has to wear all over her face as she recovers from her procedure, she also exhibits a new level of strictness with the children that’s far from how she interacted with them before she left. Though Goodnight Mummy initially lets you wonder whether the bumps in the night that keep the boys up might just be figments of their imagination, it isn’t long before the movie makes you begin to doubt the woman’s identity and her repeated insistence that she’s the same person the children have always known, and just dealing with the stressors of adulthood.
Mathieu Kassovitz’s Gothika is only a ghost story if you really want it to be, but it works perfectly well as a straight-on thriller about a psychiatrist who, after she’s accused of murder, finds herself committed at the same institution she once worked. Dr. Miranda Grey (Halle Berry) puts all the faith in the world into both science and her own medical expertise, but nothing about her apparent psychotic break makes much sense even though those closest to her almost immediately believe that she might actually be a killer.
As Miranda resigns herself to her new tortured existence in the psych ward, she learns first-hand what sort of inhumane abuse those under her care experienced at the hands of other employees of the facility. What truly disturbs Miranda as she searches for a way to clear her name, though, is the very real possibility that whatever force is guiding her to the truth about a string of murders might actually be reaching out to her from beyond the grave.
Blood Red Sky
Peter Thorwarth’s Blood Red Sky follows mother/son duo Nadja (Peri Baumeister) and Elias (Carl Anton Koch) as they set out on a journey from Germany to New York by plane. Because of Nadja’s special blood-related medical condition, she and Elias put considerable time and planning into their voyage, which they need to make without ever coming in contact with direct sunlight, and all seems to be going according to plan as the movie begins. But when the family’s flight is interrupted by a group of racist hijackers led by an American named Berg (Dominic Purcell), Nadja realises that the only way to save her son and herself is to fight back and reveal the secret she has been working so hard to hide from not just her son, but the rest of the world.
Strictly speaking, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite only veers into the horror space toward its end, as the lives of multiple South Korean families intersect in an elegant mess of deception and aspirations of upward mobility. To explain how Parasite goes from being a high-strung drama about one family lying its way into the graces of another to being a psychological thriller with elements of horror would require giving away the twists and turns that begin to unfurl in its final act. But it’s specifically because of Parasite’s stunning ability to seamlessly vacillate between cinematic genres that the turn towards the almost supernatural makes sense in context — and lands like a very purposeful reminder that any story can scare you in the hands of the right creative team.
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