Atmosphere is a key element of horror (vital for some,) that seemed to taper off around the early 80s when campy slashers took over and gory deaths of half-nude teens grew to be viewers' top priority. This isn't to say a well-shot woodsy slasher doesn't evoke a mood of its own. In fact, some overlooked outdoorsy kill-fests are among the most atmospheric films the horror genre has to offer (The Burning and Just Before Dawn to mind,) but an overacted death in front of heavy synths doesn't leave audiences with the same sense of unease as a slow-burning, unwavering feeling of dread. Horror minds of the 60s and 70s had this drawn out paranoia down to perfection. Admittedly, there's been a slight resurgence of atmosphere playing a major part of the terror in modern horror, as evidenced by Jordan Peele's work in Get Out, but nearly all of the creepiest weird cinema lays in the 60's, 70's, and early 80s.
Unfortunately, folks who stick to modern horror are missing out on authentically disturbing ambience through suspense, score, and skillful shooting. If I may inject some "I" in here - I can't help but be upset when people show no interest in watching a film because it's "old." They may write off anything pre-2000's as "cheesy," solely because of the time period when it was made. By lack of open-mindedness they're left with gimmicky jump scares and mediocre remakes of classics; some barely classics that Hollywood decided were heavily romanticized.
In the interest of putting people onto my favorite skin-crawling flicks, I'm compiling for you a list of the most atmospheric horrors in existence - films with a uniquely anxious tone that unsettle a viewer throughout, whether that be through sight, sound, or a mood those sights and sounds collide to create. There's no specific order within this list, as it would be impossible and just plain goofy to list films from "most atmospheric" to "least atmospheric." The atmosphere in many of these movies isn't perfectly describable, which is a testament to the artful vision of the filmmakers, so quite a few make the countdown simply based on how I felt or feel while watching them. Enough about my rightfully pretentious ass - I present to you The Most Atmospheric Horrors of All Time.
Carnival of Souls (1962)
Synopsis: Mary's the sole survivor in a fatal crash. Following the accident, she takes on a church organist job in Utah, where she finds herself magnetized to an abandoned carnival.
I never tire of including this treasure on any applicable list, or recommending it to fans of the genre. Carnival of Souls moves at a crawling pace, continuously keeps you theorizing about what exactly is going on, and never once strays from weird territory. The plot makes very little sense until the nightmarish climax when it all comes together. Nobody in the film is overly likable, including our hero Mary Henry, who's sweet and naive, but frequently antisocial, spineless, and paranoid to the point of frustrating. The inability to really relate to any character makes this black & white classic all the more disturbing. Plus, carnivals are highly underused in horror, despite being inherently bizarre places.
Messiah of Evil (1973)
Synopsis: Amidst a search for her missing artist father, a young woman ends up in a bizarre seaside town where cold residents speak of a "red moon."
Criminally overlooked gem alert! Messiah of Evil is a moody masterpiece and frighteningly well-done American imitation of Italian zombie flicks by (at the time) fresh out of film school directors Willard Huyck and his wife Gloria Katz. It's overtly artsy, beautiful to look at (in a gritty magenta/maroon Argento sort of style), meandering in the right ways, subtly horrifying, and the perfect amount of odd that contributes to an already macabre aura. Messiah of Evil isn't gory, over-the-top zombie fare, nor is it particularly action-packed, but the aptly slow-moving run keeps an audience curious in pleased discomfort. Additionally, we're given some surprisingly strong character development, a highly 70's horror score, and at least 2 scenes that should be shown in film school classes (namely the grocery store outing.)
Synopsis: Count Orlok summons a real estate agent to his Translyvanian mountain castle to prey upon his wife.
Although many of us only know Nosferatu from Spongebob, it's a dreadful zombie masterpiece from the silent era. With great thanks to Max Schreck for his haunting performance as Count Orlok, Nosferatu never strays from its atmosphere of decay. What further can I say, really?
Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)
Synopsis: After being released from the psych ward, Jessica moves with her husband to a country house, where they find a strange girl living.
Both one of the greatest titles in film, and one of the creepiest slow-burners in horror history, Let's Scare Jessica to Death is drenched in paranoia, ridden with scary sights and sounds, and quintessential 70s weirdness. Due to some masterful sound work, this haunting flick often chills more through the eerie whispers in Jessica's head than it does with shocking visuals. Impressively, the horror subgenre Let's Scare Jessica to Death falls under is almost unpoinpointable until the very end. Throughout viewing you're made to wonder, "Is this paranormal, psychological, a zombie flick, or a vampire movie?" Viewer's can't ultimately distinguish between a legitimate haunting taking place, or a matter of psychosis. This ambiguity is all through atmosphere, making Let's Scare Jessica to Death an absolute must watch, own, or cherish for any lover of atmospheric horror. To this day I can't trust a woman in an old wedding gown, emerging from a lake.
Burnt Offerings (1976)
Synopsis: Ben and Marian acquire a Victorian summer home at an insanely cheap price. Upon moving in, they find themselves suffering personality shifts.
Not your average haunted house movie, and wrongfully not considered a classic, Burnt Offerings is fever dream-like madness. At a glimpse, the plot may seem generic haunted house material, but there are no goofy ghost wails or contorted children crawling. Instead, we're given a couple and child exhibiting personality shifts as they slowly lose their minds. It's as psychological as it is paranormal, on the surface at least, and so carefully crafted for creepiness. Oliver Reed AKA Ben Rolf's dream sequence is perhaps the most unforgettably nightmare-inducing series of shots on film, and for no reason aside from how minimally it's done.
Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things (1972)
Synopsis: Six friends from a theater group dig up a corpse on an abandoned island for their mock satanic ritual.
Bob Clark, Canadian director of my personal favorite horror film ever Black Christmas, and oddly enough also A Christmas Story, kicked off his film career with Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, which doesn't frequently get ranked among the best zombie flicks, and that's simply incorrect. Dryly funny lines from eccentric characters litter this movie, juxtaposing the overall morbidity, although maybe it's not juxtaposition as this could be considered an extremely dark comedy. Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things is certainly dark, though not just in appearance and subject matter. You can't help but feel like a cynic while watching it. We can endlessly debate what makes a perfect zombie look, but Bob Clark shows us how far simple can go.
Synopsis: An American girl, new to a German ballet academy, finds the prestigious school of dance is a front for something darker.
My hope is Suspiria is known enough outside the horror community that I needn't go in-depth about what makes this atmospheric perfection. It's Italian horror legend Dario Argento's finest effort; terror from start to finish, as visually appealing as it is hair-raising, and masterfully scored. The mere setting, a German ballet academy, is enough to give you the creeps.
An innocent young woman being tormented by her own mind and the strange behaviors of those around her seems to be a common trope in old horror, but it always serves its purpose of bringing on second-hand delusion, and it's done arguably the best here in Suspiria (although the following 2 films give it a run for its money.)
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Synopsis: A young couple moves into an apartment with peculiar neighbors. When the becomes mysteriously pregnant, she fears for the safety of her unborn child.
Another flick that demands almost no write-up. Rosemary's Baby is the mother of all slow-burners, an influence for so many films that came after, and that sick bastard Roman Polanski's master work. It's perhaps the finest "wait for the finish" film, although Rosemary's Baby is suspenseful to the point of nauseating throughout. Being it's a staple that has been endlessly referenced and parodied, most of us already know how it concludes, but awareness of the big twist doesn't leave a viewer any less disturbed. I personally find the "conception" scene to be a haunting montage that may never leave your brain (especially while you're getting freak nasty aka havin' sex.)
Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Synopsis: A traumatized, shy young girl goes to summer camp with her cousin. She's endlessly bullied by her fellow camp goers, but those who do wrong receive their due.
That's right, a slasher made the list; a campy 80s one at that, but Sleepaway Camp sets itself apart from all the gory, tit-filled cheese in several ways: It has a feel entirely its own. Despite being set at summer camp, occupied by hormonal preteens and scantily clad counselors, the setting oozes pervasive dread beneath its middle-of-nowhere beauty. The subject matter is purely evil, and any dark shit you can imagine is thrown in - pedophilia, bullying, parentally-inforced brainwashing, and of course a great deal of murder. What gives Sleepaway Camp such a harrowing touch is the lack of anything fun or lighthearted taking place, in an environment designed to be nothing but joyful. Save for one, the kills are all off the beaten path. Topping every great quality of this one is the historically insane ending that I promise will never escape you. It's gut-bustingly funny, and there's no way it should be.
The Sentinel (1977)
Synopsis: A model and her husband move into a New York apartment, where they're surrounded by weird neighbors and something sinister.
Here's a slept-on treasure I'm extremely passionate about, mainly because it's as bizarre as they come, spooky because of it, and not even horror nerds want to rank this among the top anything. Yes, it's a tad derivative of debatably better flicks like The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby, but The Sentinel stands on its own as a slow-building, peculiar nightmare with a hell of a payoff. Director Michael Winner squeezes in zany madness (a cat's birthday party, a pair of sexually aggressive, ethnically ambiguous lesbian neighbors, and a surprisingly horrifying shot of Beverly D'Angelo diddling herself through a leotard) before a paranormal, all the while predictable climax that I would personally label of the most frightening in horror. Winner got in some hot water for using people with actual deformities to play his deformed undead, and while it's unethical, that adds to the terror of it for me. This is not at all reflective of my true character.
The Wicker Man (1973)
Synopsis: A police sergeant heads to a Scottish island village in search of a missing girl, who the townsfolk claim never existed.
Joining in on the seemingly ongoing theme of "wait for the twist end" films is The Wicker Man, the lone British entry on the list. I needn't write much about it, considering the renowned cult status it's gained over the years, but what I will note is the brilliant juxtaposition of cheery songs behind occult imagery. The Wicker Man is a special kind of ethereal hell, and an experience not unlike a caffeine crash nap after a day of work at a draining, mundane job. I'm not speaking from hardened experience. If you haven't seen 1973's The Wicker Man, do yourself a favor and view it before or after you watch the Nicholas Cage remake, which manages to be the most unintentionally hilarious horror of all time (a bold claim but I stand by it for the ages.)
Synopsis: A slimeball cable-tv programmer picks up a new program for his station, through which reality can be horrifyingly altered.
Standing above all others on the list specifically in terms of griminess is sci-fi horror legend David Cronenberg's Videodrome. We needed a break from the spooky, slow-burning 70s flicks for a quick trip to this early 80s visually fascinating grossout. Cronenberg works wonders with the practical effects, which still appear fairly wild today, though some of it transitioned to campy. Despite a slight amount of camp this timelessly-themed illusory treasure still disturbs. Videodrome also entails fine acting work from James Woods, who at some undetectable point transitioned into a far-right Twitter nut.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Synopsis: A pair of siblings and their friends visit the old farmhouse of their deceased grandfather, only to discover a group of psychos live next door.
What can a man say about Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that hasn't been said already? You could make the claim it pioneered slashers, but none could ever quite mimic its' atmospheric dread. In fact, the feel itself is so violent that viewers recall it to be more graphic than it really is. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has very little bloodshed for a film of its kind, but the screams, unforgettable killers, and unceasing sense of hopelessness make people believe they've watched something unbearably disgusting. That's atmosphere, folks.
Truth be told the film is a tad noisy for my liking, but I can overlook that for its greatness.
Don't Look Now (1973)
Synopsis: A couple grieving the death of their young daughter encounter a psychic in Venice who warns of something from beyond.
A melancholy score, some (presumably intentionally) stiff performances, beautiful camerawork, and sickening undertones make Don't Look Now a standout horror classic for ambience fiends. If I'm being honest, Don't Look Now is so heavily reliant on the feeling it wants to evoke that I've never sat through this one at full-attention. As a fairly genuine dude, I can't sincerely sell you on this one with confidence, because I don't believe in it as much as the cult fans out there. It's not the slowest movie on this list, and it certainly isn't the worst, but I've included it mainly due to a sense of obligation. Don't Look Now is impressively well-made, and I'm a big fan of far shittier films, but let it be known this made the list in the knowing fear someone would question its absence. I may speak with off-putting pretentiousness about dated horror films but I'm not dishonest.
Synopsis: A sexually repressed, shut-in young woman descents into horrible visions of rape and violence.
Another sadly well-deserved appearance from Polanski, this time with Repulsion, a painfully slow hallucinatory trip into a schizophrenic woman's breakdown. It's as simple as it sounds - a look into a person's warped world, and no escape from being wrapped up in the descent. Catherine Deneuve's performance is not only powerful; it's the sole reason a film like this can work and be as unsettling as it is. Repulsion isn't for the overly neurotic, and that's why I haven't rewatched this megalomania masterpiece since my first time seeing it many years back.
The Birds (1963)
A wealthy woman travels from San Francisco to a small Northern California town in pursuit of a potential boyfriend. While there, birds of all kinds begin attacking people.
With nightmarish simplicity, Alfred Hitchcock taps into all human psyche and illustrates the vengeful wrath of birds, in history's most aptly titled film The Birds. Hitchcock brings an impeccable narrative that pays detailed attention to all involved, and while it's not Psycho shocking, it's frustratingly suspenseful and possibly the pioneering film of the later wildly popular horror subgenre "gross-out horror." Although The Birds isn't as darkly suspenseful as many of the other flicks here, it has a specific feel I can only think to describe as "charming paranoia." It's a neat experience entirely its own, with a real story behind the horror, and when the horror's present it's memorable.
The Shining (1980)
A writer, his wife, and son stay in an isolated hotel for the winter, where an unseen force propels the father into madness.
Me providing you with an analysis of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is like a social media influencer telling you to drink water - it's unnecessary but we're doing it anyway. The Shining is an enigmatic entity entirely its own - soaked in uneasiness, ridden with grim images, and topped with an unnerving score. Jack Nicholson's performance is, per usual, to be cherished. He hams it up, yet still displays a legendary on-screen descent into madness. Kubrick touches on nearly every element of horror with this one - the horrors of human behavior, grotesque illusions, dropping into the pit of psychosis, and the weird sights we're terrified by but can't quite describe why. I wouldn't call The Shining the scariest movie ever, nor would I mark it the most vibrant in ambiance, but it's in the running for both of those titles.
- The Very Honorable Mentions:
- Cat People (1942)
- The Shout (1978)
- The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976)
- Season of the Witch (1972)
- Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972)
- Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974)
- The Haunting (1963)
- The Changeling (1980)
- The Funhouse (1981)