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5 ‘Elevated’ Horrors Every Film Buff Needs To See

Mother! (2017). Photo: Shutterstock

This year’s 93rd annual Academy Awards included some historic, barrier-busting firsts: Chloé Zhao’s win for Nomadland made her the first woman of colour to take home the Best Director trophy, two actors of Asian descent received Best Actor nods, and Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson were the first Black women to beat the competition in the Best Makeup and Hairstyling category for their work on the Viola Davis-fronted Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. 

One Oscar curse, however, remains unbroken. After a decade of thought-provoking, technically accomplished and unabashedly unique ’elevated horror’ gems, the Academy has once again snubbed the genre in its entirety. To date, merely six horror films have been graced with nominations since the Oscars’ inception in 1929, with only one taking home the coveted Best Picture statue (The Silence of the Lambs in 1992).

But don’t let the Academy’s surprising lack of recognition for some of Hollywood’s most well-received films fool you. This overlooked genre has produced more than a handful of cerebral, touching and, at times, deeply existential stories that will undoubtedly leave their mark on you. 

Here are our top five elevated horror films to watch now.

1. The Babadook (2014)

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Often credited as being one of the first entries in the ‘elevated horror’ genre, Australian director Jennifer Kent’s exceptional feature debut is an exceedingly original, crowd-pleasing rumination on the impact trauma and loss can have on us. Six years after the car crash that killed her husband, single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) finds herself battling not only grief, but a malevolent entity — a fairytale monster called the Babadook — which has begun terrorising her young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). The film walks a fine line between the supernatural and the psychological, revealing that there’s nothing more frightening than the most universal of truths. 

2. Goodnight Mommy (2014)

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This Austrian chiller by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala examines the unbreakable bond between a mother and her children. Ten-year-old twins Elias and Lukas anxiously await the return of their mother (Susanne Wuest) after her mysterious facial surgery. When she finally does arrive, her head is completely covered in bandages, and it soon becomes clear that the woman in their house bears no resemblance to the mother they remember. With stellar performances, a script that effortlessly walks a tricky tightrope and a twist that made audiences audibly gasp during the film’s premiere, Goodnight Mommy is a modern cult classic.

3. Mother! (2017)

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By far the most divisive film on this list, Darren Aronofsky’s (Requiem for a Dream [2000], Black Swan [2010], The Wrestler [2008]) allegorical nightmare split critics and audiences down the middle. Mother! tells the story of a couple (played by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem) living a tranquil, undisturbed existence in the middle of nowhere. This tranquillity is unceremoniously interrupted by two strangers who bring chaos and violence into the couple’s home. To give anything more away would be doing the story a disservice, especially given the film’s gonzo crescendo, and Aronofsky’s vision isn’t for everyone. But one thing can’t be denied: Mother! is unlike any film you’ve ever seen.

4. Saint Maud (2019)

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British director Rose Glass’s claustrophobic debut follows titular Maud (Morfydd Clark), a hospice worker and recent convert to Catholicism, who is sent to take care of terminal cancer patient Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). While Amanda’s deterioration is physical, Maud finds herself unraveling in ways far more sinuous. Are there malevolent forces at work? Is it something more experiential? Glass’s vision — part character study, part possession story — is devilishly ambiguous, leaving us hanging until the final frames. The hell that breaks loose just before the film cuts to black will sink its claws into you.

5. Relic (2020)

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The scariest tales are those rooted in real emotion — stories that have something meaningful to say about the human condition, rather than rattling us with cheap jump-scares and jarring soundtracks. Director Natalie Erika James’s stirring feature debut centres on three generations of women, gradually confronting those truths we all try to keep at arm’s length. Rich in metaphorical storytelling, Relic is a mediation on life, love and identity. The moving denouement will break your heart as much as it will rattle your bones. This is one not to be missed.

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