It’s pretty easy to identify a horror movie. Usually there’s someone or something evil – a murderous murderer, or a soul-eating monster, or someone who doesn’t write and just calls. It’s a genre beloved by many for this reason: it’s dependable, and in the right hands it can be truly transcendent.

However, sometimes the horror isn’t “banging on the head with a rubber mallet,” but more like “tickling your foot with a feather.” Something is wrong, but you don’t know exactly what, and then all hell breaks loose. That’s how surreal horror works.

It’s not a bloody killer chasing a victim with a knife, it’s normal, except obviously something hellish is going on and people keep disappearing in the meantime. Sometimes it’s not even really clear what’s going on.

Surreal horror is a genre all of its own. Let’s go through some of the best surreal movies of all time, starting with a classic of the genre.

Mulholland Drive

This David Lynch classic is absolutely one of the weirdest movies of all time for a number of reasons. It has all the touchstones of surreal horror and is a standout film in the genre. It starts out harmlessly with Naomi Watts playing the wide-eyed Hollywood newcomer, but things quickly evolve into something else entirely.

Released in 2001, the film starred Watts and Laura Harring as a woman who completely loses her memory after a brutal car accident. They decide to solve the puzzle together and end up finding some money and a strange blue key. The plot is complicated and, like any Lynch film, requires a few viewings, but it’s Lynch’s personal genius that really makes this surreal mystery sing.

The film seems to exist in that world between the waking world and the unconscious world, and Lynch uses non-sequiturs, close-ups, comparisons of seemingly normal, mundane objects with the absurd, and the contrast between beauty and horror. Just don’t try to understand it.

The cell

One of the weirder movies in Jennifer Lopez filmography, mostly because it’s not about her being a working class person who meets a rich guy and falls in love. It’s one of those films that still holds up because of its premise and really impressive visuals.

The film came out in 2000 and starred Lopez as a child psychologist named Catherine who works for an agency that puts her inside people’s minds to help them. A serial killer named Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio) kidnaps women and slowly murders them in quite terrifying ways.

He kidnaps a woman and hides her somewhere before falling into a coma, and Lopez is tasked with delving into his brain and finding out where she is. The film is a pretty standard beat-the-clock thriller, but it really shines during Lopez’s journey through the killer’s psyche.

His subconscious is a hellscape with chained female bodies and tortured animals. The costumes are iconic and everyday objects are blown up or horribly mutilated. At one point, Lopez is in Mother Teresa-esque nun garb trying to help the child version of the killer. Finally we go into her mind and it’s full of jewels and white peacocks.


This 2017 film starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem can be viewed in a number of ways. One as a statement of what we as a race are doing to the earth, another as an interpretation of human creation myths, and finally as just a crazy movie with a lot of weird things happening.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky, purveyor of other surreal classics such as pi and Black Swan (more on that later). If David Lynch is the king of surrealism, then Aronofsky is the clown prince waiting to snap up the crown. The idea that this movie is “about” something honestly kind of ruins the mood. It’s so almost ordinary, but also so outlandish that you almost have to experience it to really describe it faithfully.

Basic plot points are that a man and woman live in a mansion that they are fixing up and things are pretty peaceful. Then the guests arrive and things only get more intense and stranger. It’s a masterful approach to surrealism, because on the surface everything is sort of normal (aside from the violence), but there’s certainly something spooky going on here.

Aronofsky is a master of tone and suspense, and this film is no different. Truly one of the weirdest films of modern times.

Naked lunch

One of the weirdest movies on a list of really weird movies. The log line for this 1991 film was “Destroy All Rational Thoughts”. The film, directed by surrealist master David Cronenberg, is an adaptation of sorts from author William Burroughs’ 1959 novel of the same name.

The book was widely considered unsuitable for film due to the variety of locations and the prohibitive cost to produce. Cronenberg instead chose to fit a fictionalized version of Burroughs’ life and Pepper plot points from the book into the film.

The film revolves around exterminator William Lee as he deals with typewriters-turned-bugs, aliens with juices that cause hallucinations, and people you don’t know if you can trust them. While not necessarily gory, it’s haunting in its own way and really has a way of changing a worldview, or at least making it easier to see the world from a different perspective.

Much of the making of a good surreal horror film is in the hands of the director, and like Lynch and Aronofsky, Cronenberg is a master. Peter Weller, hot from heels robo cop 2, also smashes the ballpark with his attitude as the film’s protagonist, who becomes addicted to extermination fumes and kills his wife.

american psycho

american psycho it’s all in the details. This 2000 film with a prequelBatman Christian Bale is bloody, gory and psychologically scarring. Bale plays a bank manager named Patrick Bateman in New York who poses as a person to hide the murderous man he is inside.

There are so many classic scenes to draw from, but Bale’s character setting up plastic before bludgeoning a victim to death really resonates for his casual morbidity. The contrast between the waking world and the world Bateman lives in really makes for a psychological story that’s as sharp as a bloody knife.

It’s a brilliant satirical cultural commentary enhanced only by its otherworldly gore. There are also little flourishes that slowly paint Bateman’s character. He drops a chainsaw directly on a victim; he is directed by an ATM to feed a cat; He shoots at a police car and it explodes.

There’s a lot of debate online about whether things in the film are really happening in reality or just in Bateman’s head, and if that’s not at the core of a surreal nightmare then I don’t know what is.

Black Swan

Black Swan is one of those weird surreal movies that eventually went mainstream and won a lot of awards (including an Oscar for star Natalie Portman). This 2010 film is a loose take on the disentanglement that accompanies mental illness. Where Mother! was loose and flowing Black Swan is tight and tense.

The premise is pretty simple and easy to digest: Nina Sayers gets the lead Swan Lake and the pressure from everyone around her makes her crack like an egg. She hallucinates things happening to her body and cannot fully decipher reality and fiction. She kills a rival, but then doesn’t do it as it turns out she hurt herself.

Mila Kunis plays Sayer’s rival and provides the perfect contrast to Sayer’s prickly perfectionism. It’s about the human mind and how far it can be bent before it shatters into a million pieces, destroying any semblance of reality that even existed.

It’s a tightly wound film that, again, is almost more of an experience than anything else. It takes you on a ride, and Aronofsky masterfully uses all his skills as a director in this one. The idea of ​​”Is This Real” is explored through the lens of breakneck competition and mental illness, but it never feels preachy or ordinary.


It’s impossible to start a conversation about surrealist horror without mentioning director Ari Aster. His previous film Hereditarywas so scary and surreal that it practically invented a new genre. midsummer does that too – introducing the daytime horror movie.

midsummer is a study in Slow Reveal. Things are bubbling beneath the surface, terrifying things, but they don’t become apparent until, in particular, a scene where people are jumping off cliffs to their deaths on purpose. Even then it’s sunny and kind and bright. It unfolds so slowly that when things happen it’s all the more frightening.

Aster is a master of contrasts. The mundane becomes psychologically pretentious in his hands. There’s always something brewing beneath the surface that everyone seems to know but no one talks about. Florence Pugh delivers a starring role in the lead role and has the greatest character arc from your average suburban girl to something else entirely. This has to be seen to be believed.

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