Netflix offers thousands of movies to choose from, and while it’s good to have options, sometimes sifting through all of the films for some spooky thrills can be rather laborious. Luckily, we’ve done the digital grunt work on your behalf and combed the service for the best offerings currently available in the world of screams. From gruesome throwbacks to new cult favorites, here are our picks for the best horror movies on Netflix.
On the island where Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Evolution takes place, there are only two groups of people: Young boys and the women who oversee them. It’s an eerie setting, and it only grows more so after Nicolas, the young protagonist, sees a body while swimming in the ocean. His mother dives in to investigate, but finds nothing, nor do the other boys when they hear Nicolas’ story. Nicolas can’t shake the memory of what he saw, though, and when his mother takes him to the hospital for a mysterious operation, his worries intensify. Evolution opens with a series of shots under the surface of the ocean, an alien world filled with wiggling, colorful plants, and it sets the tone well. This is a film of creeping dread, of terror that lurks just out of sight, and fans of atmospheric horror (or luscious cinematography) will find it here.
The horror anthology XX features four short stories of the grotesque and the macabre, each from a different female director. The segments include The Box, a creepy tale of a young boy who sees something horrifying that changes him; Don’t Fall, about a group of campers who run afoul of a monster in the woods; and Her Only Living Son, the story of a woman whose teenage son displays increasingly disturbing and violent behavior. With anthology films, the quality of the various segments tends to vary, and that’s true of XX as well, but the tales are wildly different, and at under 90 minutes in total, it’s a breezy collection of scares.
The Persian film Under the Shadow drew a lot of comparison to The Babadook (see below), and it’s easy to see why. Both films follow mothers caring for troubled children while supernatural forces torment them. Under the Shadow begins during the war between Iran and Iraq in the ’80s. Shideh (Narges Rashidi), a former medical student who had to abandon her career after the theocratic government took power in the Iranian revolution, became a housewife, living with her husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), and their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) in an apartment in Tehran. When Iraj, a doctor, is sent to the field as part of the war effort, Shideh must care for Doras alone. After a missile strikes their building, Dorsa begins behaving strangely, convinced that a spirit is haunting the building, and as strange events unfold, Shideh must confront the possibility that something supernatural is happening. Under the Shadow is a moody movie, as much a study of Rashidi’s disenchanted housewife as it is an exercise in terror.
Nicholas Verso’s Boys in the Trees is a surreal coming-of-age story that follows two teenage boys on a journey through a world of strange, sometimes nightmarish sights. The protagonist is Corey (Toby Wallace), who ditched his childhood friend, Jonah (Gulliver McGrath), to hang out with the “cool kids.” On Halloween night, Corey runs into Jonah, who convinces him to take a walk through their old haunts. As they reminisce, they wander into a world of phantasms. Boys in the Trees isn’t a perfect film — the dialogue sometimes veers into shallow platitudes — but Verso’s knack for unsettling, dreamlike imagery makes it an odyssey worth watching.
Like the best horror stories, Jennifer Kent’s scarefest The Babadook works on two levels. On the one hand, it is a creepy story about a woman facing a supernatural threat; on another, it’s a frightening examination of grief and the stress of raising a child. After the death of her husband, Amelia Vanek (Essie Davis) raises their young son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), by herself. Samuel is a difficult child, however, constantly acting out, and he only gets worse after reading a creepy pop-up book about a ghoulish figure called Mister Babadook. As Samuel’s behavior deteriorates, and Amelia herself starts seeing a shadowy figure in their house, her sanity begins to fray. With tight direction that emphasizes the claustrophobic nature of suburban life, The Babadook is an instant classic.
They say you never forget your first time, but Jay (Maika Monroe) might be happy just to survive it. After she loses her virginity to her oddly preoccupied new boyfriend, Hugh (Jake Weary), he ties her up and takes her to an abandoned building to show her something truly terrifying. Hugh carried a curse, one that can only be passed on through sex, and now Jay must flee from a nameless creature that will always be after her. It can take on any form, and if it catches her, she’ll die instantly. Director David Robert Mitchell builds this horror flick around the unique premise of its creature, constantly framing scenes and moving the camera in such a way as to leave the audience guessing along with the characters as to whether each person walking in the background could be the entity.
The South Korean horror film The Wailing draws on folklore for a lengthy tale of terror, but one needn’t be an expert on Korean mythology to appreciate the film’s effective scares. In a remote village in South Korea, an enigmatic Japanese man moves into a house by himself, and a strange plague spreads through the town, turning the villagers into crazed killers. A cop named Jong-goo (Do-won Kwak) investigates the case, which takes an eerie turn as he encounters a strange woman and has ominous dreams. The Wailing is a surreal horror movie that wisely builds an emotional investment in Jong-goo before leading him into the darkness.
James Wan built a reputation as a talented horror director with film franchises like Saw and Insidious, but 2013’s The Conjuring is where he truly established himself as a modern master of horror. Set in 1971, the film follows Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), a married pair of paranormal investigators. After a tense prologue in which they investigate a cursed doll, they get a visit from a woman named Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor). Carolyn and her family recently moved into an old farmhouse, and they’ve been experiencing signs of a haunting. The Warrens come out to investigate, walking into what might be their most disturbing case. The Conjuring is a masterful film, with unsettling atmosphere and great direction that builds up to every scare.
Paco Plaza made a name for himself with REC, a Spanish found-footage movie that showed the start of a zombie outbreak through the lens of a news cameraman. His film Veronica is a more traditional horror movie, but its strong execution makes up for the lack of new tricks. The film follows a teenager named Veronica (Sandra Escacena), whose father recently died. While her school assembles to watch a solar eclipse, Veronica and her friends play with a Ouija board. As expected in a horror movie, they make contact with something from beyond. Veronica isn’t a radical departure from the usual ghost stories, but Plaza’s taut direction and taste for creepy imagery make it an effective horror movie.
Years after the deaths of his parents, Tim (Brenton Thwaites) completes his stay at a mental hospital and is ready to move on with his life. His sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan), isn’t so eager to put the past behind her, however. She believes that their parents’ deaths were caused by an artifact their father brought home, an antique mirror whose owners have a habit of going insane and dying in horrific fashion. Kaylie has a plan to prove her theory: She’s going to spend the night with the mirror in their childhood home, and she wants Tim to join her. Oculus isn’t without its flaws, but it does show Flanagan’s talent for building atmosphere, without relying too much on jump scares.
Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the novel The Shining may not have impressed author Stephen King, but it did lodge itself in the canon of great horror films. The film follows the Torrance family: Jack (Jack Nicholson), Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd). Jack is a writer trying to put his alcoholism behind him after he injured Danny in a rage, and so he takes a job as the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, which becomes isolated from the world during the harsh winter snow season. Although the previous caretaker went mad and killed his family, Jack hopes to find peace of mind, and a chance to write his novel. As time drags on, however, Jack bashes his head against writer’s block, and Danny — who has latent psychic powers — sees strange and terrifying figures within the halls of the Overlook. The Shining is a tense ghost story, with Kubrick slowly turning the screw. Witness the famous scene in which Danny rides his tricycle around the Overlook, the camera chasing him as he rides through the cavernous halls, a sense of danger lurking around every corner; it’s a superb use of camerawork to create tension.