10 Genre-Bending Thrillers
By Madeline StevensAugust 13, 2019
Author Madeline Stevens lists 10 genre-bending thriller movies that subvert expectations and succeed in turning up the suspense. See who made the list and then comment for a chance to win Madeline's debut novel Devotion.
Most of my favorite stories, whether written or on the big screen, have one thing in common: it’s difficult to put them in a box. Shamelessly borrowing tropes from multiple genres and subverting expected plot structures serves to expand our understanding of how narrative works. As a result, suspense is even more suspenseful for being unexpected.
Here are ten of my favorite thrilling film narratives whose cross-over appeal teaches us that, in art, boundaries are meant to be broken:
Woman in the Dunes (Suna no Onna)
One of my favorite films of all time, Woman in the Dunes, based on the novel by Kōbō Abe, is gorgeous, gripping, horrific, and, in the strangest of ways, heartening. An entomologist is at work collecting insects in a series of remote sand dunes when he misses the last bus home and ends up imprisoned with a local widow, forced to help her dig her house out from the ever-encroaching sand every day.
Released in ’81 and categorized as an exploitation thriller, this rape-and-revenge story is worth a post-#MeToo re-watch. Thana, a mute seamstress in Manhattan’s garment district, goes on a killing spree after successfully murdering her brutal rapist, turning into a feminist John Wick precursor intent on getting rid of gritty New York’s abundant creeps. Zoë Tamerlis, who was only 17 at the time, is captivating as the mute protagonist. Though the premise is triggering, watching Thana enact her revenge again and again is so much fun.
David Cronenberg’s ’79 Canadian thriller is deliciously (and disgustingly) weird. At times it feels more like a post-modern drama than a horror movie, but what it lacks in nightmare-level fear it makes up for in psychological depth. This is an interesting meditation on insanity and heredity, plus, I’m always a sucker for bizarrely stoic tiny blond children in horror (a la Poltergeist) and Cindy Hinds does an excellent job as little Candy.
Daughters of Darkness (Le Rouge aux Lèvres)
I can’t recommend this erotic Belgian vampire flick from ’71 highly enough. Newly-weds Stefan and Valerie find themselves stuck in a grand hotel on the Ostend coast during the off-season where the only other patrons are a mysterious Hungarian countess (Delphine Seyrig) and her “secretary.” Stunning visuals, super fun lesbian themes, and Seyrig’s amazing acting work to make this classic horror story incredible, but it’s the surprisingly poetic and philosophical script that blows it out of the water.
Cat O’Nine Tails (Il Gatto a Nove Code)
I could have easily put any early Dario Argento on this list, but this story of a corrupt medical institution—which can’t decide whether it’s a surrealistic horror story or a classic murder mystery—seemed the most fitting. Information is dangerous to a blind, retired journalist and a newspaper reporter who decide to investigate a series of murders surrounding a local establishment involved in experimental genetic testing. This one was largely dismissed in the U.S. (maybe due to the fact that the original release was butchered to fit on a single VHS), but I love this underrated suspenseful little gem.
Onibaba, labeled as an “erotic-horror classic,” a “period drama,” and a “stage drama” defies categorization. Set in Japan during a civil war in the mid-fourteenth century, the story revolves around a mother and daughter-in-law who steal the armor of dead soldiers to stay alive, tossing their bodies into a gaping hole in the ground. When an old neighbor returns from the war unharmed, the daughter-in-law is reluctantly seduced, much to the mother’s chagrin. You won’t soon forget the haunting ending, which ponders the nature of Japanese humanity in the aftermath of the atomic bombings of WWII but also seems, to me, a meditation on aging in a society that only values women for their eroticism.
Both a period piece and a horror film, this simple, engrossing story centers around a Puritan family in New England in the 1630s. When the baby of the family mysteriously disappears, everyone quickly blames the eldest daughter, claiming her involvement with the witches rumored to live in the surrounding woods. The family’s distrust of their daughter as she becomes a woman leads us to question the way society views women’s development and sexuality with an intense and dangerous fear.
Undeniably already a classic, Jordan Peele’s first film is a socio-political-comedy-horror masterpiece. Chris Washington, a black photographer, reluctantly agrees to a weekend at his white girlfriend’s family home, but, while he is welcomed with enthusiasm, things at the family estate are not what they seem. Exploring the horror of racial tension while never losing its sense of fun, this film operates on so many wonderful levels.
I honestly don’t know what to do with the fact that I love Roman Polanski’s early work as much as I do, considering what a supreme creep he turned out to be as a person. These two things just have to sit side by side in my mind: Polanski is a creep, and The Tenant, Rosemary’s Baby, and Knife in the Water are all so obnoxiously good. Much like his earlier movies The Tenant plays with paranoia in an alternately comic and scary way, though unlike his earlier films, it’s never revealed how much of this paranoia exists inside or outside the main character’s head. My favorite scene is where Trelkovsky, sloppy-drunk and in the midst of being fruitlessly undressed by his date, distractedly wonders at what point the self disappears. “And now, if you cut off my head… would I say, ‘Me and my head’ or ‘Me and my body?’ What right has my head to call itself me? What right?”
The People Under the Stairs
This early Wes Craven film captured my heart at a young age and I’m still won over each time I return to it. A young boy nicknamed “Fool” is being evicted from his L.A. ghetto by his landlords, the Robesons, who have been keeping mutilated children locked up in their basement for years. Fool breaks into the Robesons’s secret-passage-filled house in an attempt to steal a rumored treasure of gold, but soon is distracted by the more pressing desire to save the Robesons’s abused daughter. A horror, comedy, and adventure story, this marvelously entertaining film is still relevant thanks to Craven’s exploration of gentrification and the Robesons’s comic characterization as greedy conservatives hiding behind an act of absurd morality…sound familiar?
Photo Credit: Michael Assous
Ella is flat broke: wasting away on bodega coffee, barely making rent, seducing the occasional strange man who might buy her dinner. Unexpectedly, an Upper East Side couple named Lonnie and James rescue her from her empty bank account, offering her a job as a nanny and ushering her into their moneyed world. Ella’s days are now spent tending to the baby in their elegant brownstone or on extravagant excursions with the family. Both women are just 26—but unlike Ella, Lonnie has a doting husband and son, unmistakable artistic talent, and old family money.
Ella is mesmerized by Lonnie’s girlish affection and disregard for the normal boundaries of friendship and marriage. Convinced there must be a secret behind Lonnie’s seemingly effortless life, Ella begins sifting through her belongings, meticulously cataloging lipstick tubes and baby teeth and scraps of writing. All the while, Ella’s resentment grows, but so does an inexplicable and dizzying attraction. Soon Ella will be immersed so deeply in her cravings—for Lonnie’s lifestyle, her attention, her lovers—that she may never come up for air.
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