As the long running popularity of horror films attest, people enjoy a good scare. It can be the shared excitement, the cheap thrill, or the therapeutic release that accounts for at least some of the populism behind getting scared silly, but some films take pains to dig a little deeper and to uncover irrational and pathological frights that deeply affect a particular type of viewer. And so, with phobias at the forefront, the following list looks at some of the best examples of films that rattle at the fight-or-flight impulses in our anxiety-addled brains.
Be sure to add any phobia-heavy films we may have missed and don’t forget to peruse the Honorable Mention section at the end of this list. Now sit back, and enjoy (if you can)!
10. Buried (2010)
Spanish filmmaker Rodrigo Cortés (Red Lights ) channels Alfred Hitchcock in this claustrophobic psyche-out from 2010, Buried. Ryan Reynolds is Paul Conroy, a truck driver in Iraq who has fallen prey to a band of insurgents only to find himself awakening to a living hell inside of a coffin. With only a lighter, a cell phone, and his out-of-control anxiety for company, Paul must content with a dwindling battery for his phone, a limited oxygen supply, and a fading chance of rescue to keep him going.
Sure, it’s a gimmick flick, buy Reynolds has charisma to spare, and Cortés has more than a few narrative and stylish tricks up his sleeve.
Twisted and intense, Buried is a claustrophobic chamber piece like none you’ve experienced before, and the abrupt finish will grab you and give you a good shake. This is one panic-attack you might actually enjoy.
9. Contagion (2011)
Shortly after we’re introduced to Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), who just returned to Minnesota from a business trip in Hong Kong, she coughs, and as anyone knows, a character who coughs in this type of pandemic disaster movie thriller is basically marked for death. And while this beginning sequence is somewhat predictable, the tense and tightly-plotted film that follows is peak Steven Soderbergh (The Limey , Logan Lucky ).
Contagion smartly imagines a global panic when a lethal microbe ignites societal collapse and nothing the large ensemble of players (including Marion Cotillard, Bryan Cranston, Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Kate Winslet) can do can seem to stymie the panic and paranoia that follows.
Playing on fears ranging from mass hysteria, germophobia, contamination OCD, vaccine fear, social phobia, anxiety disorder, and more, Contagion is an experimental yet emotionally enveloping horror story that will have you washing your hands repeatedly for days afterwards. And maybe that’s not so bad a thing?
8. Klute (1971)
Oscar-winning Jane Fonda plays Bree Daniel, a New York City call-girl in this study of claustrophobic anxiety from director Alan J. Pakula (To Kill a Mockingbird , The Parallax View ).
Perversion and paranoia are par for the course in this razor-sharp thriller which also features Donald Sutherland’s titular small-town Pennsylvania cop, Detective John Klute, relocated to the tawdry big city. But it’s Fonda’s film from the word ‘go’, as TIME Magazine’s Jay Cocks so succinctly puts it; “[Fonda] makes all the right choices, from the mechanics of her walk and her voice inflection to the penetration of the girl’s raging psyche. It is a rare performance.”
Check in on Klute, see what all the fuss is about, and afterwards you may want to take a series of cold showers.
7. The Descent (2005)
Some real serious shit goes down in The Descent. That wasn’t even just an excuse for a bad pun (sorry, not sorry). Uneasily dactylic and startling from the get-go, writer/director Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers ) weaves the lives of six friends together in an increasingly tight-knit underground cave system through the Appalachian Mountains. The film is so claustrophobic you’ll be gasping for air by the third act, guaranteed.
For Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and Juno (Natalie Mendoza), their bittersweet past surfaces as the women discover, most grotesquely, that they are not alone in the crumbling, unmapped, dripping, awful, nasty-ass caves. This is what happens when a thoroughly solid drama also happens to be a horror: stirring character development, palpable tension submerging into madness, unforgettably frightening creatures, and it’s just so awesome that it’s an all-woman cast.
Even while bloodily contending with predatory subhuman mutants these dames get catty retribution on each other––so no, not even stabbing gruesome monsters in the face together will smooth things over regarding that time someone maybe slept with someone’s hubby. Water under what damn bridge, sista’?
6. The Parallax View (1974)
Documenting modes of paranoia is obviously a favorite pastime for director Alan J. Pakula, whose perverse 1971 thriller Klute you already read about previously in this very list.
This time around the action moves from the Big Apple to the Emerald City, Seattle, where journalist Joseph Frady (Warren Beatty) is drawn into an increasingly nightmarish world in one of the most inexorably agoraphobic thrillers of the 70s.