Netflix offers thousands of movies to choose from, and while it’s good to have options, sometimes sifting through all of those films for some spooky thrills can be rather laborious. Luckily, we’ve done the digital grunt work on your behalf and combed the service for the best offerings currently available in the world of screams. From gruesome throwbacks to new cult favorites, here are our picks for the best horror movies on Netflix.
Social media horror is starting to become its own genre. Joining the questionable ranks of films like Unfriended and Friend Request is Cam, from director Daniel Goldhaber and screenwriter Isa Mazzei, one of the better films so far about the horrors of life online. The film follows Alice (Madeline Brewer), a woman who makes a comfortable living as a “cam girl,” performing erotic acts on livestreams for an adoring audience. Alice is stressed by the unceasing competition of the webcam industry; she’s pushing hard to be one of the top 50 performers. One day she finds that she has been locked out of her account — and is forced to call customer support, which should be frightening enough — and things take a turn for the creepy when she realizes that someone is still streaming via her account, someone with her same face. Cam is a creepy thriller built around a case of stolen identity and a protagonist with a fresh perspective.
Director Gareth Evans is best known for his frenetic martial arts films like The Raid, but his breakneck style translates well to horror, as seen in Apostle, the story of a man racing against time in a dangerous, creepy setting. The man in question is Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens), estranged son of a wealthy family, who finally returns home when his sister is kidnapped and held for ransom by cultists. Thomas journeys to the desolate island where the cult makes its home, pretending to join so that he can search for traces of his sister. As he plumbs the community’s depths, he slowly unravels the mysteries of the cult and their disturbing practices. Apostle is a galloping, gruesome ride, with the ominous atmosphere of the island village eventually exploding in gore and brutality. It might not be the most cerebral exploration of religious horror, but it is thrilling.
On the island where Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Evolution takes place, there are only two groups of people: Young boys and the women who oversee them. It’s an eerie setting, and it only grows more so after Nicolas, the young protagonist, sees a body while swimming in the ocean. His mother dives in to investigate, but finds nothing, nor do the other boys when they hear Nicolas’ story. Nicolas can’t shake the memory of what he saw, though, and when his mother takes him to the hospital for a mysterious operation, his worries intensify. Evolution opens with a series of shots under the surface of the ocean, an alien world filled with wiggling, colorful plants, and it sets the tone well. This is a film of creeping dread, of terror that lurks just out of sight, and fans of atmospheric horror (or luscious cinematography) will find it here.
The horror anthology XX features four short stories of the grotesque and the macabre, each from a different female director. The segments include The Box, a creepy tale of a young boy who sees something horrifying that changes him; Don’t Fall, about a group of campers who run afoul of a monster in the woods; and Her Only Living Son, the story of a woman whose teenage son displays increasingly disturbing and violent behavior. With anthology films, the quality of the various segments tends to vary, and that’s true of XX as well, but the tales are wildly different, and at under 90 minutes in total, it’s a breezy collection of scares.
‘Under the Shadow’
The Persian film Under the Shadow drew a lot of comparison to The Babadook (see below), and it’s easy to see why. Both films follow mothers caring for troubled children while supernatural forces torment them. Under the Shadow begins during the war between Iran and Iraq in the ’80s. Shideh (Narges Rashidi), a former medical student who had to abandon her career after the theocratic government took power in the Iranian revolution, became a housewife, living with her husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), and their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) in an apartment in Tehran. When Iraj, a doctor, is sent to the field as part of the war effort, Shideh must care for Doras alone. After a missile strikes their building, Dorsa begins behaving strangely, convinced that a spirit is haunting the building, and as strange events unfold, Shideh must confront the possibility that something supernatural is happening. Under the Shadow is a moody movie, as much a study of Rashidi’s disenchanted housewife as it is an exercise in terror.
‘Boys in the Trees’
Nicholas Verso’s Boys in the Trees is a surreal coming-of-age story that follows two teenage boys on a journey through a world of strange, sometimes nightmarish sights. The protagonist is Corey (Toby Wallace), who ditched his childhood friend, Jonah (Gulliver McGrath), to hang out with the “cool kids.” On Halloween night, Corey runs into Jonah, who convinces him to take a walk through their old haunts. As they reminisce, they wander into a world of phantasms. Boys in the Trees isn’t a perfect film — the dialogue sometimes veers into shallow platitudes — but Verso’s knack for unsettling, dreamlike imagery makes it an odyssey worth watching.
They say you never forget your first time, but Jay (Maika Monroe) might be happy just to survive it. After she loses her virginity to her oddly preoccupied new boyfriend, Hugh (Jake Weary), he ties her up and takes her to an abandoned building to show her something truly terrifying. Hugh carried a curse, one that can only be passed on through sex, and now Jay must flee from a nameless creature that will always be after her. It can take on any form, and if it catches her, she’ll die instantly. Director David Robert Mitchell builds this horror flick around the unique premise of its creature, constantly framing scenes and moving the camera in such a way as to leave the audience guessing along with the characters as to whether each person walking in the background could be the entity.
The South Korean horror film The Wailing draws on folklore for a lengthy tale of terror, but one needn’t be an expert on Korean mythology to appreciate the film’s effective scares. In a remote village in South Korea, an enigmatic Japanese man moves into a house by himself, and a strange plague spreads through the town, turning the villagers into crazed killers. A cop named Jong-goo (Do-won Kwak) investigates the case, which takes an eerie turn as he encounters a strange woman and has ominous dreams. The Wailing is a surreal horror movie that wisely builds an emotional investment in Jong-goo before leading him into the darkness.
James Wan built a reputation as a talented horror director with film franchises like Saw and Insidious, but 2013’s The Conjuring is where he truly established himself as a modern master of horror. Set in 1971, the film follows Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), a married pair of paranormal investigators. After a tense prologue in which they investigate a cursed doll, they get a visit from a woman named Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor). Carolyn and her family recently moved into an old farmhouse, and they’ve been experiencing signs of a haunting. The Warrens come out to investigate, walking into what might be their most disturbing case. The Conjuring is a masterful film, with unsettling atmosphere and great direction that builds up to every scare.
Paco Plaza made a name for himself with REC, a Spanish found-footage movie that showed the start of a zombie outbreak through the lens of a news cameraman. His film Veronica is a more traditional horror movie, but its strong execution makes up for the lack of new tricks. The film follows a teenager named Veronica (Sandra Escacena), whose father recently died. While her school assembles to watch a solar eclipse, Veronica and her friends play with a Ouija board. As expected in a horror movie, they make contact with something from beyond. Veronica isn’t a radical departure from the usual ghost stories, but Plaza’s taut direction and taste for creepy imagery make it an effective horror movie.
Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the novel The Shining may not have impressed author Stephen King, but it did lodge itself in the canon of great horror films. The film follows the Torrance family: Jack (Jack Nicholson), Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd). Jack is a writer trying to put his alcoholism behind him after he injured Danny in a rage, and so he takes a job as the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, which becomes isolated from the world during the harsh winter snow season. Although the previous caretaker went mad and killed his family, Jack hopes to find peace of mind, and a chance to write his novel. As time drags on, however, Jack bashes his head against writer’s block, and Danny — who has latent psychic powers — sees strange and terrifying figures within the halls of the Overlook. The Shining is a tense ghost story, with Kubrick slowly turning the screw. Witness the famous scene in which Danny rides his tricycle around the Overlook, the camera chasing him as he rides through the cavernous halls, a sense of danger lurking around every corner; it’s a superb use of camerawork to create tension.
Maddie Young (Kate Siegel) is a deaf author who prefers to live out in the woods, where she can write free from the distractions of the city. Her isolation proves to be a hazard, however, when a masked man (John Gallagher Jr.) appears, kills her neighbor, and then ses his sights on Maddie. Alone with the killer, far from help, Maddie must use her wits to survive. Director Mike Flanagan has established himself as a horror director willing to experiment with the boundaries of horror — with films like Oculus and the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House — but Hush is a master class in the basics, a film with a tight script, a small cast, and a heaping helping of tension. It’s a lean beast, but a frightening one.