Isolation, loneliness, boredom…all the things you’re feeling right now. Check out these 10 classic horror movies (plus 3 bonus films) that feel your pain.
If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times…the year 2020 has brought us strange times indeed. Never before in history has the whole world been so united and yet so removed from one another.
But of course, isolation is nothing new. Humanity has always had to deal with isolation in some form or another. Luckily for us, filmmakers have been preparing us for this moment for decades by producing field guides to social distancing that we can look to for inspiration (or at least for a glimpse into what our own inevitable psychological breakdowns might look like.)
In honor of the 40th anniversary of one of the greatest isolation horror films of all time (#1 on our list), we proudly offer a selection of the best films to watch while you stay home and socially isolate.
Just try not to lose your cool…or get too caught up in that novel you’re working on.
10. 10 Cloverfield Lane
Anyone lamenting life in COVID-19 lockdown would do well to remember that it could be much worse —s o far, we haven’t reached full bunker-level quarantine status. Empty toilet paper isles are nothing compared to watching a slowly diminishing supply of food while the apocalypse is raging outside. Add to that the discomfort of being held captive in an underground lair by an overzealous prepper.
In 10 Cloverfield Lane, Michelle wakes up from a car crash to find herself chained to a pipe in a basement. Her abductor, a strange but kindly older man, claims he has rescued her from a sudden apocalyptic event that has rendered the earth uninhabitable. He insists that she remain with him in his secure underground bunker. Michelle is understandably skeptical and must weigh her options of attempting to escape into unknown dangers versus adapting to her weird new reality.
In some ways, it reflects the same feeling that is permeating much of the country right now: Do we accept a restless life stuck inside for the foreseeable future, or are we better off braving the invisible threat lurking outside?
9. Rear Window
Rear Window is how I imagine life is unfolding in New York City right now — closely packed neighbors with nowhere else to be, getting to know each other voyeuristically from their windows. I wonder how many of them are channeling Jimmy Stewart and becoming amateur sleuths as they run out of things to watch on Netflix.
Stewart’s character, Jeff, is homebound due to a broken leg, with little else to do but sit and watch the daily goings on in the adjacent apartment complex. After he believes to have witnessed a murder in the act, he attempts to intervene…without ever getting out his chair.
One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most iconic thrillers, in the current moment it stands as a testament to the adventures one can still have while confined to a tiny apartment.
Part of Roman Polansky’s “Apartment Trilogy,” Repulsion follows a beautiful woman’s retreat from society and descent into madness in 1960s London. Though it’s sometimes hard to tell whether Polansky’s film sources its horror from his protagonist’s tragic emotional breakdown, or the “horrifying” prospect that a beautiful woman would remove herself from society as a potential sexual conquest, it holds up as a vivid and unsettling portrayal of total psychological withdrawal.
When we first meet Carol, we find her often lost in a strange reverie, detached and faded away from her interactions with others. She begins spending an increasing amount time alone in her apartment, eventually locking herself in and spending days upon end in her nightgown (a familiar scenario for those of us who haven’t worn pants since March.) As her behavior devolves and becomes increasingly unhinged, it’s clear that she is a deeply suffering soul, though the roots of her trauma are only implied.
For Carol like for many of us, her apartment becomes both her refuge and her prison.
7. The Blackcoat’s Daughter
The Blackcoat’s Daughter is the story of a profoundly lonely young woman craving companionship and reaching out for a sense of connection…albeit to the lord of darkness. When Kat’s parents fail to pick her up from her Catholic boarding school for winter break, she’s left to pass the time in the (almost) empty dormitory. Her seclusion is compounded by her standoffish and distracted nature, which makes it difficult for her to relate those around her.
Eventually Kat senses a dark, demonic presence lurking in the hallways. Instead of fear, the demon gives her a strange sense of comfort, and she finds herself drawn to it, despite the evil acts it induces her to commit. Later in the film, the Catholic church intervenes to free her of the demon’s influence. The moment the demon leaves her is actually heart wrenching to watch, like a child bidding farewell to a beloved family member.
The tragic lack of love and warmth Kat has felt in her life and her sense of utter abandonment is dramatically illustrated in the final scene when, despite dedicating her life to rediscovering her lost connection, she realizes just how alone she truly is.
Hagazussa is the story of a witch in medieval Austria — or at least, the story of the sort of person who might be accused of being a witch. Albrun is a young woman who keeps to herself and lives alone on the outskirts of an Alpine village. Growing up, she and her mother were outcasts, viewed with suspicion by the villagers and subject to constant harassment. Having experienced the death of her mother at a young age, as well as having suffered a history of sexual abuse, Albrun’s social skills have deteriorated, with just a goat herd and her infant daughter as sources of companionship.
When another woman from the village begins to show an interest in her, Albrun feels a momentary sense of acceptance for the first time in her life…until the woman’s ulterior motives are eventually revealed. The film takes an even more disturbing direction as Albrun’s sanity crumbles along with her hopes to someday find a sense of belonging.
The story gives voice to the perspective of the marginalized individuals — mostly women — who have historically been labeled as witches, shunned, and violently discarded by an irrationally paranoid society.
5. The Lodge
Stepmothers have traditionally made for easy targets in western fairy tales. In The Lodge, siblings Mia and Aiden are forced to spend Christmas break in their family vacation home with their new prospective stepmother, Grace. Though not a stepmother of the wicked variety, Grace does harbor a sordid past. The sole survivor of a zealous Christian death cult, she has moved on to build what she hopes will be a new, more normal life with a new family.
Unfortunately for her, the children have made it clear that they are not ready to welcome a newcomer. Tensions come to a head when they all wake up one morning to discover that the house is without power, and that almost everything — their clothes, their food, and, most importantly, Grace’s medication — has inexplicably vanished. With no way out due to frigid temperatures and snow-blocked roads, a cozy Christmas getaway quickly transforms into a nightmare.
As Grace struggles to hold herself together, it’s clear that she is trapped in more ways than one — in an unhappy, rejecting family, by a notorious history that she can’t seem to outrun, and beneath the burden of an overwhelming spiritual guilt. The mood of the film draws heavily on its icy grey backdrop, thrusting us into the middle of winter at its coldest and most forlorn.
It’s fitting that the film includes a not-so-subtle reference to another infamous snowed-in horror feature, the next entry on my list…
4. The Thing
It takes a certain kind of mental fortitude to take a job as a researcher in Antarctica, literally the most desolate and inhospitable place on earth. Add to that the threat of a monster from outer space that hunts down and inhabits the bodies your team one by one, with no hope of escape for fear of infecting the world with a shapeshifting, parasitic alien.
John Carpenter’s 1982 film, The Thing, is legendary for its visual effects and over-the-top gore, but also succeeds in building a high-pressure atmosphere of distrust, paranoia, and desperation. As the lifeform infests and transforms the team members, they attempt to weed out the imposters and stop the creature before it has the chance to annihilate all human life.
In the south pole, no one can hear you scream.
3. The Lighthouse
Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe’s characters exist in a place and time in which being an “essential worker” meant four weeks of self-quarantine on a remote New England island. Defoe’s character, Thomas, is a lighthouse attendant in the late 1800s, accompanied by his young new assistant, who calls himself Ephraim. The pressures of isolation, however, prove too much for the pair.
Harsh weather creates uncomfortable living conditions, personalities clash, fiction blends with reality, and an over-abundance of alcohol ignites passions of all kinds. Most of all, the strain that develops when two people are forced into close quarters with no change in scenery and no way out inevitably results in the mind’s need to create its own version of reality. Perhaps it’s a scenario that many viewers have already begun to understand on a more personal level (though thanks to technology, we won’t have to resort to crudely carved mermaid figurines to uhh…entertain ourselves.)
The film is both nerve-wracking and humorous, beautiful and repulsive. Writer/director Robert Eggers’ (The Witch) choice to film in black-and-white using a square aspect ratio intensifies the claustrophobic, otherworldly tableau that really gives the viewer a sense of being trapped in the characters’ bleak world with them.
2. The Others
On the surface, The Others portrays a family living in isolation as a result of a debilitating medical condition that causes the two children to experience a life-threatening reaction to sunlight. On a deeper level, the film reveals a more existential kind of isolation.
Assuming that over the past 10 years people have had a chance to figure out the big reveal, I’m going to dive right into the spoiler and discuss the fact that what we’re experiencing is the perspective of ghosts who are imprisoned in the house where they died. The Others is terrifying in the traditional sense — darkened rooms, disembodied voices, creepy characters with spooky secrets — but even more terrifying is its implications about existence.
If you believe a place can be haunted by a person’s spirit, on some level you must contend with the idea that a sentient soul is stuck in the mortal realm, disconnected from human interaction and robbed of the answers about the meaning of life he or she probably hoped to find after death. “What does all this mean? Where are we?” Nicole Kidman’s character, Grace, asks. The questions of a forsaken soul.
1. The Shining
Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of The Shining burned itself into the zeitgeist of the 20th century in ways that few other horror films have achieved; just ask anyone who can’t look down an empty corridor or walk past a slightly ajar hotel room door without an instant feeling of dread.
The film’s setting, the remote Overlook Hotel, invokes fear in the viewer as much as any of its ghosts. It possesses the kind of foreboding emptiness that is especially unnerving in a place otherwise intended to be packed with life (the same way the images of a vacant Times Square are more uncanny than pictures of an empty field.) Yet the building itself does not represent an actual place as much as a state of mind (seriously, shutting down a luxury mountains hotel during ski season would be financial suicide).
Like the hotel, each of the characters exist in their own world of isolation — Jack’s inward struggle with alcohol addiction and midlife stagnation, Wendy subverting herself in an abusive and stifling relationship, and Danny who can only find solace by retreating inside himself to an imaginary protector. Like many dysfunctional families, the Torrances are stranded together in an insular prison of their own making, which is one of the reasons the film continues to have such an impact on its viewers, no matter how many times you watch Jack Nicholson’s axe-wielding rampage.
To this day, 40 years after the film’s initial release on May 23, 1980, The Shining‘s ability to create an atmosphere of genuinely desperate isolation remains almost unmatched.
What follows are three more great picks for films about isolation and madness, which you may not have seen, available to stream right now.
Darling is a young woman struggling with a few inner demons, who takes a job as a live-in caretaker at a mysterious New York City apartment — a place she believes may have some demons of its own. The film is a 2015 post-horror homage to Roman Polansky’s Repulsion — only with a touch more gore and a way more satanic vibe.
Darling is also a more enjoyable viewing experience if you’re the type of person who is uncomfortable with the baggage that comes with Polansky projects (especially in a film like Repulsion, which features scenes that almost seem to foreshadow crimes he himself would later commit.)
You can watch Darling right now on Tubi.
Without a doubt, the ultimate symbol of utter desolation is the infinite void that surrounds us: outer space. With so many great movies that exploit our human fear of being separated from our home planet, it’s hard to choose just one.
While there are certainly more masterfully crafted space movies out there, Pandorum stands out because it taps so viscerally into the insanity-inducing terror of being stranded in space. Not to mention, it also has plenty of zombies, violence, cannibalism, and a Lovecraftian set design to keep you entertained from start to finish.
Pandorum is available to watch for free if you have HBO Now or HBO Go. If not, you can rent it for less than $4 over on Prime Video.
Housebound is a horror comedy from New Zealand about a delinquent who is forced under house arrest with her parents for 8 months — in a house which may or may not be haunted. In addition to featuring the most endearing accent in the English language, Housebound serves up equal doses of legitimate scares and the kind of quaint subdued humor that harkens back to its fellow homegrown classic, Peter Jackson’s Braindead (or Dead Alive as it’s known in the U.S.)
It’s a fun movie to watch when you’re lamenting your own housebound situation and may be in need of a little macabre lightheartedness.
You can check out Housebound for free on Shudder or Tubi.