ByZoë Z. Dean/
Nietzsche said, "If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you." But if you're willing to risk a little darkness looking back at you,we have the perfect set of film recommendations. These movies — all located on Netflix — venture down to the bottom of that pitch-black abyss ... and some of them even decide to stay there.
Darkness isn't a genre but a state of mind, so we've rounded up a list that includes horror, crime, science fiction, fantasy, and drama. All of them will leave you with chills and fill you with dread. Movies like this let us live out our worst fears in blow-by-blow detail, and we get a sense of catharsis. They let us see the gritty, bloody underbelly of the world, and we get a new sense of truth. And sometimes, of course, they just scare us — and for whatever reason, we've always liked being scared.
So if terror, cynicism, or catharsis might appeal to you, check out the movies below. We know you'll find the darkness worth gazing into.
The Blair Witch Project is one of the scariest movies ever
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The early screenings of "The Blair Witch Project" got an extra boost in scaring the daylights out of the audience, as it was easy to believe everything was real. The marketing behind the film pushed it as a genuine recovered documentary, and before the found-footage horror boom, it was easy to get confused. Especially if you secretly wanted to be confused ... and terrified.
But even once you know for sure that it's all fiction, "The Blair Witch Project" is still a dark, eerie horror movie that's well-worth watching if you want to sink into some ice-cold dread. The story is simple. Three film students walk into the woods in Maryland, hoping to film a documentary on the local legend of the Blair Witch, which binds together a bloody history of ritual murder, child killings, and disappearances. But the aspiring filmmakers get lost. They start traveling in circles. They hear strange noises in the night and find cryptic figures made out of sticks. "Hungry and cold and hunted," as one of them puts it, they start to fall apart. And whatever is out in the woods is getting closer....
Effective and chilling, the film excels at scaring you with what you never quite see. It's the consummate low-budget supernatural horror movie, one that doesn't need any effects to make its point. In fact, even all these years later, many still hail it as one of the scariest movies ever made.
There Will Be Blood is a dark historical epic
There's a lot more to Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" than milkshake memes. The film is a dark, atmospheric, rich historical epic following the career of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a cutthroat oilman who voraciously snatches up all the power he can. And he winds up in a decades-long feud with young pastor (Paul Dano) whose veneer of staunch morality can't cover up how much he craves his own kind of power and influence. Grim and grand at the same time, "There Will Be Blood" is an experience as brutal as it is thrilling. It's a kind of 21st-century sequel to "Citizen Kane," and if you want a staggeringly great cinematic experience that hits as hard as a bowling pin to the head, this is the movie for you.
The film gathered up a whole host of Oscar nominations — including two wins, for Best Cinematography and Best Actor — and received nearly universal acclaim. AsThe New York Times' Manohla Dargis said,"The film is above all a consummate work of art. ... It reveals, excites, disturbs, provokes, but the window it opens is to human consciousness itself." If you haven't seen it yet, seek it out immediately, and be prepared to have your world rocked.
1922 is a Netflix film about murder, horror, and guilt
Based on a story by Stephen King, "1922" is a trip into a very human heart of darkness. It's hard to sit down and commit to spending 101 minutes watching a man steadily destroy both his soul and his son's life, but if you can come to grips with it, it's a powerful tour de force.
The film stars Thomas Jane as Wilf, a man obsessed with holding onto his farm despite his wife's desire to sell it and move to the city. He hatches a plan to kill her and keep the land, and to do it, he enlists the reluctant help of his teenage son, Henry (Dylan Schmid). The murder corrupts their lives, leaving a long and twisted legacy of trauma and horror. No one involved can escape the nightmares or the destruction, and as Wilf ultimately says, "In the end, we all get caught."
The movie received considerable praise, with its simplicity and tragedy hitting the mark for critics and viewers alike. IndieWire's Erich Kohn deemed it"a study in pure psychological dread" that "amplifies what it means to experience that inevitability [of getting caught] as a chilling slow-burn descent."
The Invitation is about the world's most messed-up dinner party
"The Invitation" perfectly captures the feeling of an awkward, stilted dinner party, and it heaps on additional unease, taking the experience beyond "awkward" and into "unsettling and horrifying."
Will (Logan Marshall-Green) has reluctantly agreed to go to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard). Their marriage fell apart after the death of their young son, and seeing each other again won't be easy. Nothing about the night will be easy for Will's girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), who's agreed to accompany him. Fun evening, right? No amount of wine and determination can prepare them for the strange swerves the party ultimately takes. Eden has fallen under the sway of a cult with a lot of out-there ideas about how to live and how to die. For Will and Kira, it's almost impossible to determine when they should run. When does something cross the line between uncomfortable and disturbing?
"The Invitation" is a dark, streamlined experience that works by grounding all of its horror in real-life social difficulties we've all felt from time to time. Heather Wixon with Daily Dead called it "one of the more realistically raw portrayals of loss that the genre world has seen in some time" and added that it's "one of the most devastating horror films I've seen in years."
Nightcrawler is a dark thriller about a man who'll stop at nothing
A lot of the nightly news is grim enough on its own. "Nightcrawler" gives you the people who bring you that news, and somehow, that's even grimmer.
An intense blend of "American Psycho" and "Network," "Nightcrawler" is the story of Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), an ambitious, inventive, and completely conscience-free man who wants to get ahead in life at any cost. He begins filming accidents, murders, robberies — everything violent and disturbing and perfect for the local news. But all too quickly, he goes from capturing violence to manipulating it to committing it, all for the sake of higher ratings.
The film's visually striking neo-noir look at the media inspired rave reviews, especially for Gyllenhaal's performance. As The Atlantic's Christopher Orr wrote, "[Gyllenhaal channels] an eerie, inner charisma, offering it up in glimpses and glimmers rather than all at once." Gyllenhaal lost weight to better give Bloom the vibe of a coyote, another nocturnal scavenger, and Orr praised the results, writing, "The effect is most visible in his face, in the sunken pools of his eye sockets and the tight, Joker-rictus of his jaw when he grins. Everything about him says hungry." Bloom is a predator, and everyone else in the world is prey.
The Devil All the Time is a Netflix noir with some truly disturbing characters
Nothing in "The Devil All the Time" is likely to inspire anyone to move to its rural Ohio setting. This country gothic noir is almost unrelievedly bleak and grotesque. If you're used to snake-handling preachers, try a spider-handling one who dumps them all over his face ... and who's eventually convinced that he can murder his wife and then resurrect her. Have another reverend — this one uses his position to groom and abuse teenage girls. Of course, the darkness of the story's world isn't limited to the church. We also have a pair of husband-and-wife serial killers, a corrupt sheriff, and a father who sacrifices his son's dog. The one ray of light is the love Arvin (Tom Holland) has for his adopted stepsister, Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), and it's all too easy to imagine one or both of them being snuffed out.
Whew. That can be a draining viewing experience, but "The Devil All the Time" makes it all bearable by assembling a terrific cast who turn in some remarkably charismatic performances. Robert Pattinson's slimy preacher alone is worth tuning in for, with the actor's sense of horrible glee giving the movie enough energy to power through all the sorrow and pain. And Tom Holland provides a much-needed bend of grit and goodness. You might come for the noir, but you'll stay for the performances.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is everything the title promises
Netflix has produced a number of stellar true crime documentaries, and with the excellently titled "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile," it gives the world a memorable bit of fictionalized true crime.
Ted Bundy is one of the real-life serial killers who's made a striking impression on crime and horror, with his good looks and charm acting as both a protective veneer and an uncomfortable way to lure in victims and defenders. Here, he's embodied by Zac Efron, whose performance won considerable praise, with Variety calling him "startlingly good: controlled, magnetic, audacious, committed, and eerily right."
The story follows not just Bundy but also Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), his sweet and innocent girlfriend who's stunned by his arrest and desperately wants to believe in his innocence. The connection between them and the psychological effect of Bundy's crimes and lies on Liz makes the movie pack a distinctive punch. This is more than just a recapping of one serial killer's heinous crimes. It's a deep dive into what happens when someone capable of this kind of evil is also entirely capable of looking and acting normal — even likable and loveable.
The Blackcoat's Daughter is a demonic look at loneliness
A powerful cocktail of demonic possession and depression, "The Blackcoat's Daughter" follows three separate, interlocked storylines. Kat (Kiernan Shipka) is a lonely freshman at a Catholic boarding school. When her parents mysteriously fail to pick her up for a vacation, her sense of isolation deepens, and she becomes obsessed with the idea that they've died. Her only real companion is senior Rose (Lucy Boynton), who's understandably more concerned with her own possible pregnancy. Meanwhile, we see a young woman named Joan (Emma Roberts) hitchhiking towards the school. The way all these stories connect is clever, fascinating, and disquieting.
The darkest aspect of "The Blackcoat's Daughter" is its gradual revelation of how profound loneliness and trauma have shaped its characters' lives. What happens when someone feels like even a demonic presence is better than no company at all?
"The Blackcoat's Daughter" is moody, atmospheric, and well-crafted. It might be too slow for some viewers, but if you're patient, it has a lot to offer when it comes to the weird pleasures of existential dread. As The New York Times put it, "Slow and seductive and deliberately vague, this deeply unsettling tale of lost parents and troubled daughters exudes atmosphere while hoarding facts. Yet the movie is so perfectly acted and gorgeously filmed ... that we don't mind its coyness; the twanging notes of trepidation make us almost grateful for the leisurely build."
In Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, you're responsible for the on-screen horrors
"Black Mirror," a sci-fi/horror anthology series all about exploring the dark sides of technology, was never anyone's idea of a cheerful, lighthearted show. But few episodes can top the series' interactive movie, "Black Mirror: Bandersnatch." After all, in "Bandersnatch," when bad things happen, it's because of you. And bad things happen a lot.
You get to choose certain paths through the story of amateur video game designer Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), who's working on a game that will adapt his favorite novel. Unfortunately for Stefan, his life is crumbling around the edges, with the stress of the game design magnifying his mental illness and his struggles with past trauma. And there may be something even more sinister going on as well.
"Bandersnatch" is clever and inventive, and it makes great use of its format, but there's no way around how bleak it is. Depending on the choices you make to guide Stefan — who may eventually notice that someone is controlling him, if you want an added dose of guilt — the story could include murder, psychological manipulation, crushing failure, and a horror that lives across generations. So choose carefully.
His House is a ghost story with a lot going on
In "His House," all the ghosts in the world — and the film has some truly terrifying ghost action — are nothing compared to the grinding day-to-day horror and bleakness of trying to scrape by as Sudanese refugees in contemporary Britain. Director Remi Weekes does an excellent job wringing terror out of both the real and the unreal as he follows the story of Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku), a husband and wife who, after a tortuous journey to safety and the death of their daughter, finally arrive in Britain.
However, they soon discover nothing about their new sanctuaryis going to be easy. They're assigned to a shabby, miserable house in a neighborhood full of people who fear and resent them, and their situation has endless strings and draconian restrictions attached. And while they're struggling to figure out how to survive and belong in their new country, they quickly suspect they're haunted and maybe even cursed.
"His House" is an unusual, thoughtful, and viscerally effective movie, and it received rave reviews. Don't think it lacks for scary payoff either. As Bloody Disgusting said, "It's a strong debut by Weekes and nails the essential part of a horror movie: the horror. For all the existential terror that Bol and Rial face in their new lives, the director keeps a firm grip on the supernatural, too. It's clear 'His House' aims to scare you, and it succeeds."
Apostle gets really gory
Folk horror specializes in scenarios where a stranger comes to an isolated community and risks getting devoured by it, and 2018's "Apostle" is a particularly grim example. This historical horror movie stars Dan Stevens as Thomas Richardson, a man trying to rescue his sister from a cult. He travels to the cult's island base and enters a world of sacrifices, torture, blood-drinking, and a religion that even the island's goddess may want to escape.
"Apostle" is brooding and moody, taking its time to build up dread and unsettling implications while immersing you in the story's world. But when things really get going, they blow up. As The A.V. Club's Katie Rife said, the film goes on "a careening folk-horror joyride that's part 'The Wicker Man' and part 'Hostel.'" The film's imperfections, Rife suggests, don't really matter at that point. "Only the strong of stomach will really notice the plot holes during so much bloodletting and screaming."
Pan's Labyrinth is a fairy tale that's both dark and beautiful
Few fantasy movies are as effective as "Pan's Labyrinth," and few horror movies have the same amount of visual imagination. Leave it to Guillermo del Toro to give viewers the best of both genres with a film that combines an unbearably close look at Franco's Spain with an enormous monster, the Pale Man, who places his eyes in the palms of his hands. We admire del Toro's imagination, but we'd probably sleep better at night for not having it.
The movie is a dark fairy tale where Ofelia's (Ivana Baquero) fantasy quest — undertaken at the behest of the Faun (Doug Jones), who tells her she's the secret princess of the underworld — blends with the banally brutal and relentlessly violent real-world story of her stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi López), with each tale supporting and magnifying the horror of the other.
Roger Ebert dubbed "Pan's Labyrinth"the best movie of 2006 and said, "The special effects are nightmarish and effective, including the faun and a giant toad, and it takes courage to go into that labyrinth — and also to emerge again into a world of politics and cruelty.Del Toro doesn't compromise on the fantasy or the reality." Both sides of the story are bound to have a lasting impact on you.
You'll never guess where The Perfection goes
"The Perfection" is a movie that has to be seen to be believed. Visually stunning and full of gasp-inducing moments, it's a wild, gothic ride that repeatedly changes genre. And while it covers some intense territory, it does it with such liveliness and verve that no matter how dark it gets, it stays fun. Rolling Stone's David Fear describes itvery aptly, saying it's "a thriller marinating in a potent blend of high art gloss and gloriously low grindhouse-lite sleaze."
The movie starts with Charlotte (Allison Williams), a former cello prodigy who left her prestigious musical academy years ago to tend to her terminally ill mother. Now, Charlotte needs to restart her life after years on hold. She contacts the directors of her old academy and gets an invitation to meet up with them and their new star, Lizzie (Logan Browning), who was only a few years behind Charlotte at school. Lizzie has the life Charlotte was "supposed" to have. But the dynamic between them isn't the simple jealousy you might expect. Lizzie still remembers and admires Charlotte, and the two have sizzling chemistry that quickly leads to a romantic night. Lizzie invites Charlotte to travel with her through the Chinese countryside. Despite rumors of spreading sickness, it'll all be fine, right?
It's hard to predict where "The Perfection" will go, and it's the kind of masterfully constructed film that it's a joy to rewatch ... as long as you can handle it.
The Platform is a Netflix original that'll leave you nauseous
Hungry? Don't watch "The Platform," the emotionally grueling Netflix original. One way or another, it'll make you feel worse.
A great, weird bit of Spanish sci-fi horror, "The Platform" takes place in a close-to-home future with one big change: There's an ominous concrete facility called the Pit, which contains over 200 levels of two-person cell blocks. People can be sent there for crimes — or, like protagonist Goreng (Iván Massagué), they can enter voluntarily, to get some time to themselves. Except Goreng's plan is a horrible mistake. The Pit runs on a cruel system. An elaborate banquet is loaded onto a moveable platform at the top of the tower, and as it descends the length of the Pit, every floor has a chance to eat — or gorge themselves. By the time the platform reaches the lower floors, there's nothing left, forcing some inmates to cannibalize each other or risk starvation.
The film puts Goreng through a physical and emotional wringer. None of the dilemmas he faces are easy, and the movie's view of humanity is pretty hard to stomach — as are some of the more grotesque (and slobbery) images. But it's impossible to look away. As Now Toronto said, "It has everything: low comedy, political allegory, left-field twists, crowd-pleasing surprises, spectacular violence, sadism, altruism and yet more spectacular violence, all wrapped up in a high-concept horror movie." All you can do is sit back while its horrors beat you into stunned submission.
Unfriended is one mean horror movie
Ghostly revenge is a common horror movie trope, but it's rarely as bleak as it is in 2014's "Unfriended." The movie's claim to fame is taking place entirely on a computer screen, and it does make good use of its gimmick. Director Leo Gabriadze understands how internet communication works — not just video-chatting but the way people privately look things up during conversations and send separate, individual DMs. Making the technology convincing sells the increasingly creepy ghost action.
And what goes better with internet savviness than a heaping helping of cynicism? "Unfriended" sets up a situation where it's hard to feel too good about anything that happens. The circle of friends on the haunted chat are guilty of filming a horrifically humiliating video of a girl named Laura (Heather Sossaman) and helping it go viral, which led to her death. Old-school slasher morality dictates that they must be punished, and we're mostly fine with that. But Laura's revenge from beyond the grave is so relentlessly cruel (and the other characters' terror so obvious) that it's just as hard to root for her as it is to hope her victims get the upper hand. The result is a lean, mean-spirited movie that's as bleak as it is effective.
Gerald's Game is a truly grueling Stephen King flick
We're going to do you a favor here — don't choose "Gerald's Game" as a date night movie.
One of the very best Stephen King adaptations, the film — a spectacularly tense and gory psychological survival thriller — focuses on Jessie (Carla Gugino), a woman who's reluctantly agreed to go along with her husband's plan for some kinky plans at their vacation cabin. But once she's handcuffed to the bed and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) is ready to go, Jessie realizes that this isn't even close to what she wants. In fact, for reasons she can't completely think about yet, it's nightmarish for her. Making things worse, that's when Gerald kicks the bucket, leaving his wife still chained to the bed.
The setup is hellish, and as the hours go on and Jessie's situation worsens, it gets even harder for viewers to watch. Luckily, the film is anchored by Carla Gugino's charismatic performance, and she makes Jessie's quest for escape and survival as riveting as it is grueling. The Daily Beast also sings her praise, noting, "Her eyes alive with anxiety, fear, and resolve, often at the same time, Gugino is a marvel, capturing a piercing sense of Jessie's beaten-down brokenness as well as her underlying strength."
The Ritual is a hike into the heart of darkness
If "The Ritual" were just about getting lost in a primordial Swedish forest and coming across an immense and ancient horror, it would be grim enough. But what makes it one of the darkest movies on this list is what goes along with all its shiver-inducing terror.
The men in the middle of the worst hike of their lives are, after all, there for a reason. It's a memorial for another one of their friends, who was brutally killed in a convenience store robbery — a robbery that one of them, Luke (Rafe Spall), witnessed. Now haunted and deeply shaken, Luke blames himself for not somehow fighting back ... and what's worse is that it becomes increasingly clear that some of his friends blame him too. He's carrying a heavy load of survivor's guilt into these dark woods, and the pressure of it is relentless. That fear and shame makes "The Ritual" pitch-black in tone. Katie Walsh of the Los Angeles Times sums up the movie's devastating appeal when she says, "[It's] efficient and highly effective in its style, relying on sound, creepy production design, and the men's own fear and misjudgment to create the sense of pervasive doom."
As a bonus, if you have a soft spot for movie monsters, "The Ritual" features one of the best ones we've seen lately — a real triumph of unusual and creepy creature design. If you can figure out how to make a Halloween costume version of it, let us know.
Cam is a creative, creepy thriller
"Cam" is the inventive and engrossing story of camgirl Alice (Madeline Brewer) — or "Lola," if you ask her fans — who finds that her online persona has escaped her control. Alice is smart, ambitious, and playfully weird, and the shows she puts on for her channel include provocative burlesque bits and explosions of fake violence. Her hard work is paying off, and her channel is slowly creeping upwards in the site's rankings. But then everything starts going horribly wrong.
Soon, she finds herself locked out of her account, but the video is still streaming. Someone who looks and sounds just like her is live and interacting with her fans just like always. Her identity has been stolen in a more visceral way than most of us can imagine, and to add insult to injury, the new Lola is incredibly successful. Alice's quest to solve the mystery and get her life back makes for a fascinating, eerie film with a lot to say about sex work, identity, capitalism, sexism, and survival.
Brewer's performance is a particular highlight, but everything here works. Reviewers almost universally recognized "Cam" as an unusual, creative horror film. As Brian Tallerico, writing for RogerEbert.com, commented, "This is the kind of clever jolt to the system we want from horror thrillers — an unexpected commentary on today's society burrowing its way through an intense story."
A Clockwork Orange is ultraviolent and super upsetting
Ready for a bit of the old ultraviolence? Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" is an iconic, visually stunning sci-fi film, and it's absolutely vicious. If you like your elaborate worldbuilding with a little bit of a bite — and if you want an unreal landscape that makes "Game of Thrones" seem tame — go ahead and cue up "A Clockwork Orange."
Set in a dystopian but all too ordinary future, the film follows Alex (Malcolm McDowell), a young man whose confidential narration is cheerfully poisonous and utterly convincing. Alex and his friends (aka his "droogs") get their thrills from fights, break-ins, and all sorts of assaults. What makes the movie especially hard to watch, and especially memorable, is the queasy combination of sociopathic violence and manic good humor. And if you thought Mr. Blonde from "Reservoir Dogs" cutting off a cop's ear to the tune of "Stuck in the Middle of You" was the height of this kind of thing, then you haven't seen Alex do his horrible deeds while belting out "Singin' in the Rain." You don't want to see it, but you can't look away.
And the film's darkness isn't limited to Alex and his friends, as their world is equally vile. The system's answer to Alex's violence is to forcibly brainwash him, and as soon as his victims can get the upper hand, they're happy for the chance to turn the tables.