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Horror dramas, or arthouse, may be dismissed by horror purists, but they can be among the most harrowing and affecting films in the genre.

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Horror dramas are often overlooked as not being “real” horror or as being pretentious. This assumption is unfair to make, given that the subject matter examined in these films is truly horrific. With a heightened focus placed on the atmosphere and character development, this subgenre speaks to societal fears and often taboo aspects of human behavior. These four films are prime examples of the drama horror film and all that it encapsulates.

1. Antichrist (2009)


To love Lars von Trier (The House That Jack Built) is to hate him for the emotional anguish you are put through as a viewer of his films. This holds especially true for Antichrist, which follows the story of a couple suffering from the loss of their son after he crawls out of an open window from a second-story apartment and falls to his death.

The woman experiences traumatic grief, which the man does not believe is being adequately treated by her current therapist. Against all ethical codes, the man decides to take the care of his wife into his own hands and subjects her to psychotherapy and exposure therapy, as she has also developed a fear of nature. The exposure therapy includes hiking to their remote cabin in the woods (referred to in the film as “Eden”), where the woman had spent a significant amount of time the previous summer with their son while she worked on a thesis regarding femicide.

From the increasingly aggressive requests for forceful sex to the oddities encountered in Eden (such as a doe with a stillborn fawn hanging halfway out of her body and a talking fox that disembowels itself) to the graphic genital mutilation, it’s a difficult but potent watch.

Antichrist mercilessly and effectively depicts the animalistic nature of humans at their worst and explores the trauma of grief and the fraught road to recovery. 

2. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (number 25 on our “Best of 2017 Horror” list) establishes a world so cold and detached that it is hard to imagine that, as the viewer, you will attempt to put yourself in the shoes of the main characters.

In this Yorgos Lanthimos (Poor Things) mind-bender, cardiothoracic surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Ferrel) and his family are haunted by his dark past after his battle with alcoholism results in the death of one of his patients. In an absolutely chilling performance, the deceased patient’s son, Martin (rising star Barry Keoghan, who recently made a splash in Saltburn), slowly infiltrates the Murphy family to get his revenge for the death of his father.

In order to accomplish this, Martin promises Steven that, one by one, each of the Murphy family members will succumb to the following fate: they will become paralyzed, refuse all food intake, and bleed from their eyes. All of this suffering can be avoided, however, if Steven simply chooses to kill one of his family members in an act of sacrifice.

In this modern exploration of the trolley problem, viewers will find themselves immersed in the characters’ decision-making processes as they attempt to make an impossible decision.

3. The Eyes of My Mother (2016)

The Eyes of My Mother

Francisca grows up with her mother and father on a rural farm. Her mother, a former eye surgeon, teaches Francisca from an early age not to fear the grotesque by showing her how to remove eyeballs from farm animals. One day, Charlie, a salesman, is allowed into the family home and brutally beats Francisca’s mother to death in the bathtub with a handgun.

When Francisca’s father later arrives home from work, he ties Charlie up in the barn and tasks Francisca with taking care of him. So, she does what any young girl would do — she cuts out Charlie’s eyeballs and vocal cords.

The keeping of a human being as a pet doesn’t usually end well (see Tusk for further information).

When Francisca’s father later dies, she spirals out of control to keep people in her life and rid her of her loneliness. She even resorts to hitchhiking a ride with a woman and her newborn child, which Francisca kidnaps and attempts to raise as her own.

Did Francisca commit acts of brutality and murder to prevent people from leaving her? Or did her upbringing, filled with death and violence and desensitization to anatomy, lead her to this?

The Eyes of My Mother is a hauntingly beautiful examination of nature vs nurture and the loneliness that can result from your life experiences from director Nicolas Pesce.

4. Mother! (2017)

Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is rich with biblical allegory and the ultimate arthouse feel that all horror drama lovers can appreciate.

Jennifer Lawrence plays the mother, the spouse of a writer who is currently suffering from writer’s block. After a series of guests inexplicably arrive at their fixer-upper home, mother grows increasingly agitated and panicked when her husband does not ask them to leave. After the conception of their first child, Him’s writer’s block is seemingly cured, and he is able to write new material.

Upon the publication, their home is overrun with visitors who have traveled long and far just to be in his presence. What follows is the birth and nearly immediate death of their child, which includes some flesh consumption by the guests (a sort of communion, if you will).

This metaphor for the destruction of the earth and the endless taking of humanity from each other is effective in the most horrific way.

I would suggest watching this film twice, once going in completely blind and again to catch the subtext that was likely missed the first time around.

While horror drama may not be the subgenre of choice for a casual movie-watching experience, these films are intended to make the viewer think and feel rather than scare. How the viewer interprets the film and ponders it after watching is where the real fright comes into play. Horror dramas reinforce the concept of the real monster being the one who stares back at you in the mirror.

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