The days are getting darker, the weather’s getting colder, and Halloween approaches — which can mean only one thing: It’s scary movie season!
Streaming services get crowded with horror movies in October, capitalizing on viewers’ desire for seasonal scares. But sometimes US horror is just a little too predictable, a little too familiar. If you’re looking for something a little out of the ordinary — or just want to see what scares people from other cultures — consider looking beyond our country’s borders to seek out international horror movies that offer something a little more eerie, a little more, well, foreign, than your typical American fright-fest.
Of course, that may be easier said than done, depending on your knowledge of international cinema and niche horror, so here’s a cheat sheet on some of the best foreign horror films you can watch at home — all available on streaming services.
Now go get scared.
Audition (1999), Japan
Streaming on Shudder
Among the great films of the late ’90s (Ringu, Cure, Pulse) that jump-started a decade of excellent J-horror, Audition remains the best. It’s most satisfying when watched cold, with absolutely no idea what you’re in for; but even for repeat viewers, Takashi Miike’s slick, eerily noir-ish horror classic remains intriguing and visceral, with its famous twist and frenzied finale delivering a deeply satisfying tale of chaotic vengeance. (Try watching with hardy but unsuspecting friends who think they’re just in for a poignant story of budding romance.)
This study of a lonely man who arranges a fake “audition” in order to find a soulmate examines the delicacy of new relationships, the fragility of falling in love, and the inherent fear that we’re all just a bunch of feet waiting for our date with piano wire. That’s amore!
The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Mexico
For digital rental on Amazon
Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s eerie ghost story takes place against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, in an orphanage filled with boys whose lives have been ripped apart by the conflict. In the orphanage’s courtyard, an unexploded bomb, dropped from a plane, juts out of the ground, a vivid reminder of how close death is to these kids at every turn. Then again, the ghost is a reminder of that, too. One boy, a new arrival, starts to hear strange whispers in the night, which leads him to questions about what happened to a now-missing boy named Santi. This is not a super terrifying film — though it is a deeply creepy one — but you might find yourself surprised by how moving it can be.
The Host (2006), South Korea
When Bong Joon-ho’s monster-movie-slash-environmental-allegory The Host came out in 2006, it quickly became South Korea’s highest-grossing film ever, a record it held until 2014. Perhaps that’s why it’s become a go-to jumping-off point for English-speaking viewers looking for a window into the increasingly prolific and influential world of Korean horror: It’s the closest thing the genre has to a blockbuster.
But beyond its box office success, The Host is, quite simply, a wildly entertaining film, horror or otherwise. In the tradition of great monster movies, its central aquatic monster is both a physical terror and a pointed metaphor, and Bong makes great use of the creepy, tentacled beast in a daytime attack scene early in the film that stands along some of the best monster rampages in cinema history. The Host never quite reaches the highs promised by that set piece — and its seemingly random forays into slapstick humor may be jarring to viewers unaccustomed to that aspect of Korean cinema — but it remains throughout a grand, sometimes gory adventure that strikes just the right balance of creepy, startling, and totally weird.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), Iran
Streaming on Netflix
Described by director Ana Lily Amirpour as an “Iranian fairy tale,” this highly touted “vampire spaghetti Western” features a titular heroine who gracefully stalks the streets clad in a chador, occasionally traveling by skateboard and carrying a cat. Far from your average vampire movie — but not that far — Girl Walks is a gorgeously filmed, emotionally resonant story of life in a dying town ravaged by the oil economy, a boy who longs for something better, and a girl who probably didn’t fit in even before she became a creature of the night.
Simultaneously rich with dread and joyfully romantic, with more than a touch of humor — at one point a street crossing sign that warns of skateboard-riding vampiresses is clearly shown in the background of a scene — Girl Walks explores escapes both figurative and literal, through music and dancing, through friendship and love, and, of course, through bloodsucking.
A little Let the Right One In and a lot Last (Vampire) Picture Show, the film lingers on Sheila Vand’s face as she weighs the merits of life and death in each of her potential victims, offering a quiet, matter-of-fact judgment that’s all the more powerful for the innate humanity we see inside the judge. And lest we forget to pay homage to the film’s title, the scene where she follows a grown man who grows increasingly terrified with every step is a silent victory for every woman who’s ever been in the reverse position: simple, clear, and wholly empowering.
Goodnight Mommy (2014), Austria
Two young boys in Austria wonder if their mother hasn’t been replaced by some other creature when she returns home to recuperate after major reconstructive surgery. It’s easy to see why they fear her so, given that her head is wrapped in bandages that don’t allow for easy recognition. And this film, by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, offers up several superbly creepy scares featuring the mummy-ish mommy. But the real story here goes several layers deeper than the suspicion that your parent is no longer your parent. You might guess the twist here before it happens, but in some ways, that’s part of the fun.
I Saw the Devil (2010), South Korea
Part of a wave of vengeance-fueled Korean thrillers that blur the lines between action and horror, I Saw the Devil has drawn frequent comparisons to Park Chan-wook’s masterpiece Oldboy, both for its combination of intricate plotting and its fantastic performance by Oldboy’s star Choi Min-sik. Director Kim Jee-woon’s story begins as a fairly typical tale of a grieving intelligence agent (Lee Byung-hun) who decides to take justice into his own hands after the horrific death of his fiancée at the hands of a serial killer. Soon, however, the violence and chaos spins out of control as vengeance becomes secondary to the thrill of the chase.
Thanks to pitch-perfect direction and pacing, and above all a deep level of commitment from the two main actors, who spend most of the film’s 140 minutes wrecking themselves in front of us, I Saw the Devil takes a basic premise and revs up the tension through one bloody act after another. It pushes its characters to the limit until revenge has become exhausting and we all need a lie-down. Horror doesn't get more unhinged and enjoyably adrenaline-fueled than this.
Let the Right One In (2008), Sweden
Streaming free on Amazon Prime
As befitting its Nordic origin, Tomas Alfredson’s film about the beguiling friendship between two 12-year-olds — one of whom happens to be a vampire — is resolutely chilly. That applies to the snowy setting, sure, but also to the mood of the film, which trades traditional horror scares for a permeating unease and unnerving quiet.
It fits the story, which is as much about the vulnerability and uncertainty of childhood as it is bloodsucking creatures of the night, but it also makes Let the Right One In an appealingly different sort of scary movie — and vampire movie, for that matter — for those weary of the genre’s well-worn tropes. Let the Right One In was remade as the fairly faithful American adaptation Let Me In the year after Alfredson’s film debuted, but it’s worth going back to the source to see how this story plays in a different sort of cinematic milieu.
Martyrs (2008), France
Streaming on Shudder
Starting with challenging, polarizing films like Haute Tension and Trouble Every Day, France has spent most of the 21st century churning out excellent horror films loosely categorized as New French Extremity for their subversive elements, their controversial content, and their deep exploration of serious issues through gore that’s too often written off as “torture porn.”
Into this dark fray wades Pascal Laugier’s story of two girls, lifelong friends drawn together by their shared experience as abuse victims, who embark on a terrifying visit to the house of someone who may or may not be one of their abusers from the past. Martyrs is a study of living trauma and the social systems that cause abuse, and it is as nightmarish, angry, and merciless as any film before or after it. It’s also arguably the goriest, most polarizing, most controversial, and most beautiful of the New Extreme — a film that stakes a place for itself among great cinema as shockingly and unmistakably as Hanya Yanagihara’s similarly-themed novel A Little Life did within great modern literature.
Martyrs is not for everyone, and it’s difficult to watch even for die-hard horror fans, but it’s supposed to be. It offers far more questions than answers, and has left horror critics utterly divided: More than a few have dubbed it the greatest horror film of the new millennium, but it still only has a 52 percent Rotten Tomato aggregate rating. But the real testament to the legacy of Martyrs is in the influence it’s already had on films that have come after it — notably this year’s more palatable, still visceral hit Lights Out.
A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), South Korea
Streaming on Shudder
The other film on this list from director Kim Jee-woon, A Tale of Two Sisters is psychological horror at its best. Even better, it’s fabulous filmmaking that uses all the cinematic tricks of the trade — lulling cinematography, sumptuous scoring, brooding lighting, deceptive mise en scène — to build upon its extremely unreliable narration.
The story of two sisters with an incredibly close bond who find themselves battling the classic “evil” stepmother is a slow, agonizing study of family dysfunction and grief that ultimately leads to a deeply unsettling and unforgettable climax. (The US remake, The Uninvited, is so poorly done as to be all but unrecognizable as a response to this film; skip it and accept no substitutes.)
Under the Shadow (2016), Iran
For digital rental on Amazon
Under the Shadow is the UK's entry into the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars this year, and no wonder: An admirably strong feature debut from writer-director Babak Anvari, the film puts a mother and daughter at the center of war-torn 1980s Tehran, just after the Revolution.
The panic that Shideh (Narges Rashidi) experiences while trying to protect her feisty daughter (Avin Manshadi) translates into attacks from djinn (the word for ghosts in Islamic mythology). It's the rare knockout political ghost story that also explores the psychological terror of repressive regimes, particularly on women.
We Are What We Are (2013), Mexico
Streaming on Shudder
Mexican filmmaker Jorge Michel Grau turned international heads with this thriller, his debut feature, which is part touching story of a family trying to survive and part gory cannibalistic feeding frenzy.
After the head of the family unexpectedly passes away, a poor family that has passed down cannibalism for generations has to figure out who among the surviving wife and children will become the next breadwinner. Despite living among oblivious neighbors, apathetic cops, and a society of utter indifference, the kids find actually going through with cannibalism is not as easy as one might expect.
Out of the ensuing familial dysfunction and escalating chaos, Grau creates a vivid, beautifully filmed portrait of family values wrestling with change and modernity — a subtle social satire that’s also a gripping drama. Though the 2013 American remake is a fascinating and worthy watch, it’s markedly different from its predecessor; so if you’ve seen the English version, don’t let it keep you from its Mexican sibling.