There are horror films that ask you to unravel mysteries, sometimes truly twisted ones, as the film progresses. These films also fall under the psychological banner, but today I wanted to look at some that truly give us a real mystery that can leave viewers second-guessing their thoughts. By now, you should all have realized that I have a very high standard when it comes to Horror, so take this list for what it is and check these gems out. Some you may have seen before, some you may have not.
So who’s tired of seeing me ramble, huh? I know you are, don’t lie to me. Let’s dive into today’s list which is in no particular order, just films that are truly mysterious and amazing.
#8. Noriko’s Dinner Table | 2005 | Japan
A teenager called Noriko Shimabara runs away from her family in Tokoyama, to meet Kumiko, the leader of an Internet BBS, Haikyo.com. She becomes involved with Kumiko’s “family circle”, which grows darker after the mass suicide of 54 high school girls.
Noriko’s Dinner Table is a film that serves as a concurrent/sequel film to one of my personal favourite Japanese Horror Films in Suicide Circle. While NDT isn’t a truly in-your-face horror film, the psychological impact it has on viewers cannot be denied.
It’s a story of two sisters Noriko and Yuka, who live with their parents in Toyokawa, a sleepy seaside town. Mousy Noriko is unhappy with this existence and runs away to Tokyo. There she meets Kumiko, who runs a fantasy service in which young ladies act as daughters for lonely men, amongst other things. Yuka eventually runs away and does the same thing. Their father pieces together clues as to their whereabouts and doing and goes to Tokyo to find them.
First of all, the settings are excellent. Like New York City and London, you see Tokyo in all its glory, neon etc. The story itself is also great, flowing & unfolding slowly until it reaches an explosive climax. However, that would only make a good film if the acting was merely adequate. The acting is uniformly superb. Kasue Fukiishi plays Noriko so well, you don’t realize she’s acting. Likewise, Yuka (Yuriko Yoshitaka) and Kumiko (Tsugumi) also give great performances.
This film is much more psychological than “Suicide Club”, and for that, it shines. The “Family Rental” aspect of this film adds so much to the psychological element. You see how far lonely people are willing to go to find a sense of belonging, of family.
If you’re a fan of psychological horror, add Noriko’s Dinner Table to your list. The film is incredibly powerful and will keep you guessing throughout the entire runtime. Yes, it is a very long movie at almost 3 hours, but it is so worth the view.
#7. A Tale of Two Sisters | 2003 | South Korea
After spending time in a mental hospital, a girl is reunited with her sister and returns home, only to see some truly strange events start to happen.
A Tale of Two Sisters goes the furthest of any Asian horror film in proving that Asian horror films are the only horror films you really need to watch. As someone who has grown to love Asian chillers, and as someone who lives for those precious moments when a film actually surprises with a twist ending that I didn’t see coming, I was totally blindsided by this film’s intricate plotting.
Where Tale shines is its ability to subvert expectations and change directions. This film truly keeps you on your toes and keeps you guessing with every decision the film makes. I can totally see where anyone reviewing this film has to remain frustratingly vague in regard to its psychological underpinnings. It is so solid in its construction, so consistent in its tone and is so beautifully paranoid and disorienting in the atmosphere this film creates.
A Tale of Two Sisters is so much more than a film. It’s an artistic masterpiece. It is so masterful that the US even tried to recreate its magic with a film called The Uninvited. However, that film failed to capture the sheer tension and unease that this film crafts. At twenty years old, this Korean masterpiece is still spooky and unsettling in the most pleasant of ways. For those who love a great film that keeps you guessing, I cannot recommend this piece of art highly enough.
#6. Shutter | 2004 | Thailand
A young photographer and his girlfriend discover mysterious shadows in their photographs after a tragic accident. They soon learn that you can not escape your past.
Shutter follows a pretty standard formula in terms of plot. A photographer is haunted by the ghost of a woman and as the story unfolds we understand the reason why. Not the most original work, but it’s solid in terms of writing and dialogue. The final conclusion is a very ironic yet satisfying experience, in touch with the atmosphere and tension built up to this point. Characters are likeable enough so it gets very nerve-wracking when they find themselves in danger.
In fact, it’s safe to say that the entire movie is nerve-wracking, psychologically painful and outright scary. This is all done with no small thanks to directors Pisanthanakun and Wongpoom through great camera work, intimidating make-up effects and careful use of digital effects to enhance the horror elements. It is this careful balance that makes Shutter brilliant, it didn’t allow itself to be dominated by CGI instead it used a combination of classic horror effects with modern computer-generated ones.
Shutter shows that you must have a certain amount of skill, and understanding of the human psyche, what makes us tick, what makes us afraid and then exploit that. It’s a Thai master class of what horror should be, and what Hollywood wishes it could do with horror. I keep raving about Asian horror films and it’s movies like this that just drives my points home. Forget the Hollywood remake, watch the original film from 2004 and enjoy this nearly 20-year-old masterpiece.
#5. The Eye | 2002 | Hong Kong/Singapore
A blind girl gets a cornea transplant so that she will be able to see again. She gets more than she bargained for upon realizing she can also see ghosts.
No matter what source of reference you use for film reviews, one thing that can be guaranteed in regards to Gin Gwai aka The Eye is how divided people are on it. One of the few things that most tend to agree on though is that its visual flourishes are nothing short of fantastic. And they are. Blended with the editing, music, sound, camera-work and effects, it therefore fuels the fire of those calling it style over substance. It’s also fair to drop onside with those folk decrying the over-familiarity with its central themes.
If you have seen Irvin Kershner’s The Eyes Of Laura Mars, Michael Apted’s Blink and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, well you won’t be watching anything thematically new here. But the Pang brothers have crafted a thoroughly engrossing, menacing and nerve-gnawer of a film, one that delivers chills and scares for the discerning horror sub-genre fan.
This is pure and simple for those not in need of murder death kills to fulfil their horror needs. I was creeped out immensely by this film because the ghost and supernatural side of horror is what really works for me, as long as it is done effectively. To which Gin Gwai most assuredly is. The various scenes shift from ethereal unease to hold-your-breath terror, from classrooms to lifts, to hospital wards, the brothers Pang, with beautiful technical expertise, held me over a precipice of dread. Even the opening credits are inventive and have the ability to send a cautionary shiver down one’s spine.
#4. Ringu | 1998 | Japan
A reporter and her ex-husband investigate a cursed videotape that is rumoured to kill the viewer seven days after watching it.
One of the best horror films to come from Japan is Ringu. This masterpiece has spawned so many sequels and reboots that it’s almost hard to keep track of. For what it’s worth, the original film is the peak of the series. It’s hard for me to really compare this film to most others on this list because it has had such a significant presence in horror since its inception. Director Hideo Nakata knew what he was doing when he crafted Ringu though I’m not sure he quite envisioned how this film would impact horror cinema for decades after its release.
Ringu was such a sensation on release that it led to a cycle of Japanese horror films. This Japanese invasion became known as J-Horror and they had quite an impact. The Ring is a perfect example of why these movies were so effective. The cultural difference between the West and Japan meant that these films seemed somewhat unpredictable; some of the horror concepts and imagery were genuinely unsettling. We in the West could never have conceived of these ideas, they grew organically from Japanese culture. The unknown is often the scariest thing of all and the success of J-Horror is a perfect illustration of this.
#3. Whispering Corridors | 1998 | South Korea
In a Korean school, students are regularly beaten and mistreated by their teachers. However, the spirit of one pupil, who died ten years ago, periodically returns in the guise of a new girl, thus able to gain revenge on the culprits.
The 1998 masterpiece Whispering Corridors has spawned an entire series of films that all tell truly terrifying tales set in Korean High Schools. Rather than really being a flashy story about hauntings and killings, it turns out more to be an exploration of the impact of the brutal South Korean high school system on the youth that attends it, using the horror genre as the medium. I was hooked on the mystery and dramatic elements that were at play. The way that the story is spun, there’s no question as to who the ghost is or why it’s doing the haunting, but rather, what the ghost’s secret is.
Another interesting aspect of the story is that there are three stories going on. One is about an artistic student trying to express herself in a system that cares little for her expression, another is about a former student who returns as a teacher trying to make peace with her memories and the last is about a student rivalry between a model student and the second-rank peer. The strength of this approach is that we anticipate the collision of the separate storylines and are rewarded when they do collide. The weakness of the approach is that the story has to juggle three protagonists and sometimes seems to suffer from a lack of focus.
With that said, Whispering Corridors is one of my all-time favourite Korean Horror films and it spawned what is probably my favourite series of movies ever created. If you like this film, I highly recommend watching the other five films in the saga. They are all truly worth the watch
#2. The Medium | 2021 | Thailand/South Korea
A horrifying story of a shaman’s inheritance in the Isan region of Thailand. What could be possessing a family member might not be the Goddess they make it out to be.
The ONLY film on my list today in the Found Footage genre, The Medium stands alone as a shining example of what modern horror should be. This film starts with a documentary being filmed in the northeast part of Thailand to show what happens in the life of a local medium named Nim.
She’s possessed by the god Bayan and just the latest in a long line of women in her family who have given their existence over to this deity. Yet as the movie continues, her daughter presents herself as perhaps the next in line, but it turns out that the spirits that want to enter her body are something…else. I mean, when you cook and eat the family dog, perhaps you aren’t the shaman that will protect your village, you know?
What I really loved about this movie was that it goes from found footage – expected – to something quite unexpected, a movie that transcends where others have been before. Banjong Pisanthanakun also made Shutter and producer and writer Na Hong-Jin made the serial killer movie The Chaser. That means that this has a pedigree and why it won best feature film during the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival.
#1. Ab-normal Beauty | 2004 | Hong Kong
A troubled young woman dealing with something horrible that happened in her past witnesses a fatal accident and then becomes obsessed with taking photos associated with death. Things go from bad to worse for her when a mysterious person sends her a snuff film featuring the brutal death of a young woman. Is she the killer’s next target and if so will she be able to figure out his or her identity and stop them before it’s too late?
Ab-normal Beauty centres around a troubled photographer and it shows her descent into the perverse and macabre after shooting at a vehicle crash scene. Much of the film is a dark psychological drama rather than horror, the whole visual scheme mirroring Jin’s descent. Shots are still, sparsely composed and sometimes richly tinted, an imagery of bleak yearning, of the camera’s power to make beauty from from death, to bring something from nothing and yet in the freezing of image eternally condemn, forever sequester from reality.
All this is perhaps the highlight of the film, its thoughts internalised speaking with so much more eloquence than the occasional fragments of exposition. It’s powerfully acted stuff too, Race Wong subtly moving, quietly pained, and she does well in suggesting the characters’ shadow.
The heart of this film is everything is beautiful. It can be a purple skyscraper. An overpass. Someone died in the middle of the street from a car accident. This movie shows the beauty of the latter, which is good until the character becomes obsessive about these pictures. Then it becomes a nice little thriller. Not jumpy, but it is wince-worthy.