Horror movies people still don't understand

When done right, horror movies can appeal to our basest id—giving audiences a platform to safely face their fears in the confines of a controlled environment. In many cases, a compelling story is only half of what makes a horror film entertaining, though. If you ask us, the best horror films are usually the ones that keep audiences talking—picking apart that odd story twist, bloody kill sequence or jaw-dropping third act. 

For every straightforward slasher or found-footage ghost story, there are unusual pickings perfect for a midnight viewing at that indie arthouse theater you love so much. These are the films that broke your brain, that raised your eyebrow, that took the more esoteric route in their execution. From the subversive to the straight-up bonkers, here are some horror movies that many audiences still haven't completely wrapped their heads around.

Jacob's Ladder (1990)

A key detail that ties everything together in Jacob's Ladder is the Vietnam War. You see, Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) is a war vet who is seriously injured on the battlefield in the beginning of the movie. Throughout the duration of the film, we're given a glimpse into Jacob's past as a married father of three. However, the timeline bounces around a bit, from his joyful past life to the dreary reality of his present. Add in some faceless demonic killers and you've got yourself one heck of a story.

Through the surreal imagery and psychological tension of it all, the story presents a resolution in its third act: Jacob's actually been dead this entire time. War is hell, you guys, and the chemical warfare the film alludes to finds the blurring realities of a soldier on the battlefield. Jacob was killed by someone in his own squad.

What begins as a psychological thriller steeped heavily in demonic symbolism quickly turns a corner into an allegory of heaven, hell, and the place troubled souls can get stuck in between. Shout out to Danny Aiello's angelic chiropractor! If we're ever unlucky enough to find ourselves in purgatory, you best believe we'll do our best to track him down.

Triangle (2009)

Christopher Smith's Triangle is an odd movie, for sure. The story here sort of feels like it would work better as an episode of Black Mirror.

Smith's 2009 film centers on Jess (Melissa George), a troubled mother who goes on a yacht trip with a group of friends. From the very beginning of the story, she's under the impression that something is wrong. After a storm hits the boat, her crew finds rescue in a passing ocean liner—and yet, that foreboding feeling only gets worse for Jess. And for good reason: there's a psycho killer on the boat!

That reveal is the first in a long line of twists which throws Jess face-to-face with—wait for it—herself. While the film relies heavily on the trope of a horror film time loop, it's an intriguing thing to watch Jess attempt to murder every version of herself and her friends she comes across, all with the goal of breaking the cycle. Yet no matter how hard she tries, she never breaks free.

Triangle's ending may not provide audiences the clear-cut closure they expected, but it's definitely one of those films that gets you thinking about the hidden impact of habitual behaviors and the everyday minutiae we all endure.

High Tension (2003)

The story of Alexandre Aja's High Tension is simple enough: college friends Marie (Cécile De France) and Alex (Maïwenn) head to a secluded farmhouse to study without any annoying distractions. That plan doesn't work out, though, as a man breaks into the farmhouse murdering every member of Alex's family. Brutal in its depiction of these murders, High Tension builds on the bond between Marie and Alex, while piecing together the killer's identity and motives.

Unfortunately the whole thing falls apart in the third act, revealing that the mysterious killer is actually Alex herself. Tortured by the trauma of her childhood, it seems she's manifested multiple personalities, one being this madman out to destroy. While it's an intriguing detail, this reveal sort of undermines the first two acts—because the plausibility of certain horror story components simply doesn't hold up when faced with basic logic.

Suspiria (1977)

Easily considered a horror classic, Dario Argento's Suspiria takes on the occult in a manner that has inspired countless copycats since the film's 1977 release. The film is a prime example of style over substance—and that's not a bad thing.

Told in Argento's signature Grand Guignol style—which relies more on the ultra-violent production value and brooding tone than one clear-cut cohesive story—Suspiria explores the story of a dancer, Suzy Bannion, who travels to Germany's Tanz Dance Academy to perfect her ballet abilities.

The audience is quickly drawn into Suzy's experience in this surreal new world as strange things begin happening around her. She gets sick, the school suffers a maggot infestation, the pianist dies at the hands (paws?) of his own dog … needless to say, it comes as no shock when Suzy discovers that this illustrious dance school once was—and still is—a witches' coven.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

When ABC canceled Twin Peaks in 1991, David Lynch took it upon himself to continue the story of Laura Palmer's (Sheryl Lee) murder by taking a trip back in time. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me tells the story of Laura's life during the week leading up to her untimely death, and in the process, takes audiences deeper into Lynch's bizarre story world.

Showtime's 2017 Twin Peaks revival series regularly revisited plot points introduced in the movie prequel: the Black Lodge, that delicious Garmonbozia, the Arm, two Agent Coopers, and David Bowie's Philip Jeffries are out in full force here. If ever there was a horror movie that defies conventional explanation, this would most definitely be it.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

When it comes to style over substance, Beyond the Black Rainbow is chock full of visuals to keep audiences looking to zone out on pretty lights happy. But when it comes to story, that's where Panos Cosmatos' 2010 film quickly falls apart. The film follows Elena (Eva Allan), a mute girl with psychic powers, who is being kept prisoner in an institution by a crazed doctor who obviously gets off on watching her beg and weep on his many security monitors. But she's also dangerous and shows she can pull off some Stranger Things-style murder with her mind.

Overall, the story of the film boils down to the conflict between doctor and patient, using this surreal futuristic-looking hospital as its backdrop. As surreal as the Kubrick-y imagery is, though, nailing down an actual plot becomes quite difficult when pressed, leaving us fully convinced that Cosmatos' stylistic slow burn was meant to appeal to audiences on a more subconscious level. When viewing Beyond the Black Rainbow with those expectations in mind, one may finish viewing the movie in an altered mindset. But if you're out to find a clear-cut first, second and third act, you've got another thing coming.

Phantasm (1979)

At 23, director Don Coscarelli really kicked off his filmmaking career with a head-scratcher that's equally imaginative and horrific. Phantasm follows a boy named Mike (Michael Baldwin) who witnesses some odd Jawa-looking minions stealing bodies from the local cemetery. This leads Mike and brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) on an investigative mission to check out the mausoleum, where they happen upon an evil mortician—better known as the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm)—who has apparently found a portal to another dimension and uses dead flesh to keep this netherworld happy.  

This discovery sends the Tall Man on a mission to capture Mike and Jody, birthing his iconic horror movie phrase, "Boy!" Oh, let's not forget that murderous silver ball that flies into people's skulls with the sole purpose of retrieving brain meat…

For the late '70s, Phantasm was definitely a horror film that left audiences wanting more. But the third act falls apart a bit, leaving audiences wanting to know exactly why the Tall Man is doing what he's doing. Thankfully, Coscarelli returned to the world and characters he created nine years later with 1988's Phantasm II, kicking off a quirky (and gory) little franchise beloved by many diehard horror fans.

Dead Alive (1992)

Long before Peter Jackson made a name for himself with the Lord of the Rings movies, he brought 1992's bonkers horror goodie Dead Alive (originally titled Braindead) to the world. What you've got in Dead Alive is a simple New Zealand love story buried deep inside a zany undead apocalypse.

The film follows hapless hero Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme) who struggles to keep his cookie-cutter suburban family together as a rat bite turns normal folks into crazed flesh-eating zombies. But because they're family, Lionel does his best to keep them hidden in his basement. As you can imagine, things don't go according to plan and it's not long before he takes on things into his own hands—shedding tons of zombie blood along the way—to save Paquita (Diana Peñalver), his one true love.  

You can easily bypass any confusion by looking at Dead Alive as a story of love and redemption. But there's a whole lot of family drama included in Jackson's tale that gives the story some weird, uncomfortable layers. The gory combination of humor and horror puts this movie in a category all its own.

The Shining (1980)

Stephen King may have gone on record many times regarding his disdain for Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaptation of his classic story—and it does deviate a lot from the source material—but the Jack Nicholson/Shelley Duvall-starring film is a classic for a reason. Intense performances, disturbing imagery, epic camera work, and twists galore put this movie in a class all its own—and have fed into so many conspiracy theories that it'll make your head spin.

On the surface, King's tale explores the story of a fractured family on a descent into madness. Jack Torrance (Nicholson) and his son Danny (Danny Lloyd) share telepathic abilities—Danny's aware of it, Jack is not—which brings things to a chaotic and bloody crescendo as the family takes root in the haunted Overlook Hotel. As a horrific ghost story, The Shining works wonders. But if you go deeper into the theories, many of which are outlined in the documentary Room 237, you'll start seeing odd narrative layers you may not have recognized before.

Was Kubrick involved in faking the moon landing? Is the movie really about the Native American genocide? Or is it about the Holocaust? These are just a few questions that have floated around since Kubrick released The Shining. There's a lot to mull over, for sure. And don't get us started on that creepy dude in the dog/bear costume…

mother! (2017)

Darren Aronofsky isn't the type of director who goes the commercial route, and 2017's mother! is a prime example. What exactly is this movie about!?

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem star as a married couple looking to rebuild their lives after a tragic fire that left Bardem's life in ruins. But as we watch Lawrence resurrect the home from the ground up, odd events begin to happen that seem to link her own health with that of the house. After an odd encounter with a couple of strangers, Bardem's poet impregnates Lawrence's muse and as the couple prepare for the birth of their boy, a work of art is born from Bardem's psyche.

This is where things go full-on batty in the movie, bringing looters, cult members, riot police and all-out war into the house that mother built. In the end, audiences are left with a visual onslaught that's anxiety-inducing, upsetting, and downright confusing.

Was Jennifer Lawrence's character the symbol of mother nature? Is Bardem's poet really a look at the power of humanity in relation to Earth's slow destruction? Or could this simply be Aronofsky's visceral take on the artist's struggle to find inspiration and the many muses that die under the guise of creativity and art? There's a lot to unpack here for sure. But in a world of formulaic pop culture, mother! keeps the conversation going. And sometimes, a little thought-provoking is all one needs to make a movie feel worthwhile.