WTF Did I Just Watch? 10 of Horror’s Most Perplexing Films

Mysteries wrapped in riddles—soaked in blood.

There’s a common misconception out there that horror movies are easy on the mind: Murder on a person’s nerves, absolutely, but ultimately easy to understand and relatively straightforward. Folks expect science fiction to be complicated, but horror is the genre of boobs, blood, and guts with a sizable audience of adolescents. While it’s true there are abundant horror movies that offer very little in the way mental challenges (I affectionately refer to such films as “Horror Bubblegum”) some films are downright perplexing—as complicated and nuanced as they come. These films appeal to a more intelligent breed of horror aficionado, those who enjoy flexing their brainpower and delving deep into subtext and symbolism like a detective.

The films on this list represent some of the most perplexing and challenging examples of horror. So strap on your Thinking Caps and get ready to stretch those synapses!

 

Donnie Darko (2001)

Director: Richard Kelly

Writer: Richard Kelly

Stars: Jake GyllenhaalJena MaloneMary McDonnell |

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I know some people don’t consider Donnie Darko a horror movie, but there are plenty of deeply disturbing elements in this film about a schizophrenic teenager and his giant rabbit friend: Insanity, vengeance, domestic violence, child pornography, and murder are examples. But what makes this movie a real head-scratcher are concepts like: The Tangent Universe, Artifacts & Time Portals, The Living Receiver, The Manipulated Living, The Manipulated Dead, and Ensurance Traps. There are literally dozens of websites dedicated to examining every facet of this film in excruciating detail, but I actually like the fact that Donnie Darko is tricky to get one’s mind around. It keeps me invested. The longer, more involved Director’s Cut is much easier to understand, taking time to explain concepts that were never even discussed in the theatrical release. You can also refer to the nonexistent book, The Philosophy of Time Travel: HERE.

 

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

Director: Panos Cosmatos

Writer: Panos Cosmatos

Stars: Eva BourneMichael RogersScott Hylands |

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Critics and supporters both liken Beyond the Black Rainbow to “a bad acid trip”. The story (if you can even call it that) unfolds at the Arboria Institute, a facility dedicated to reconciling science and spirituality as a means of achieving perpetual happiness. It’s a process that involves complete submersion into a vat of thick black liquid where hellish visions precede unsettling transcendental transformations. There’s a teenage girl being held as a slave, tormented and provoked by a cold scientist; she’s attended to by a nurse and a crew of red robots with syringes for fingers. Beyond the Black Rainbow will appeal to fans of 2001 A Space Odyssey (especially the Third Act) but the sparse dialog and extreme slow burn pacing will drive some viewers to the brink. A single 10-second shot after the credits will have you second guessing everything.

 

A Field in England (2013)

Director: Ben Wheatley

Writer: Amy Jump

Stars: Julian BarrattPeter FerdinandoRichard Glover |

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While anyone unfamiliar with the English Civil War will find aspects of A Field in England perplexing, what really makes this film a mindbender is its nightmare surrealism and disturbing symbolism: A thick rope with a man tied to the end, a small tent containing the tortures of hell, a certain character’s inability to stay dead, the regurgitation of ruin stones…  These moments and others will have viewers scratching their heads in contemplation long after the film’s conclusion.  In addition to the films stylistic complexities, A Field in England employs experimental techniques to approximate the sensation of tripping on hallucinogenic mushrooms that might, literally, blow your mind; the movie kicks off with a warning to viewers prone to seizures.

 

Mr. Jones (2013)

Director: Karl Mueller

Writer: Karl Mueller

Stars: Jon FosterSarah JonesMark Steger |

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A couple of documentary filmmakers decide to pursue an extreme recluse and outsider artist known only as Mr. Jones. They discover his studio in an isolated forest, a place where the laws of time and physics seems to hold little sway.   Is Mr. Jones’s ritualistic artwork the key to an inter-dimensional landscape, one containing menacing entities? Could be. The film’s protagonists are plunged into a world of perpetual midnight where they struggle to understand the scope of their predicament. Deciphering messages buried in the subtext and attempting to figure out Mr. Jones’s agenda will challenge even the most learned of horror fans.

 

YellowBrickRoad (2010)

Directors: Jesse HollandAndy Mitton

Writers: Jesse HollandAndy Mitton

Stars: Cassidy FreemanAnessa RamseyLee Wilkof |

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The fact that YellowBrickRoad has two directors may explain why it feels like 2 different movies. The first half is rural gothic horror in the vein of The Blair Witch Project: A team of researchers hopes to solve the mystery behind the disappearance of 572 people in the wilderness of New Hampshire back in 1940. The team gets hopelessly lost, equipment fails, and the darker aspects of human nature emerge. The Third Act, however, plays out like homage to David Lynch; it’s set almost entirely in a movie theater that could easily reside within the Black Lodge, a place steeped in haunting, evocative, and sometimes frustrating imagery. The conclusion of YellowBrickRoad is a real stumper that will have horror fans hypothesizing and theorizing at length.

 

Lost Highway (1997)

Director: David Lynch

Writers: David LynchBarry Gifford

Stars: Bill PullmanPatricia ArquetteJohn Roselius |

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While any one of David Lynch’s films could probably make this list, I choose Lost Highway because of its enigmatic surrealism and space-time anomalies. While it appears that the film moves in a complete circle, certain elements just never add up. Does each character in the film have a second identity? Is the protagonist a murderer or the victim of someone’s evil design? While the film gives few concrete answers (and Lynch himself is adamantly mum when it comes to explaining his work) there are enough viable connections to keep an audience invested, while inspiring hardcore Lynch fans to give the film multiple viewings. (I think I’ve watched it 5 time myself.)

David Lynch’s bio and works can be viewed HERE.

 

Suicide Club (2001)

Director: Shion Sono

Writer: Shion Sono

Stars: Ryo IshibashiMasatoshi NagaseMai Hosho |

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While some of my confusion about Suicide Club no doubt stems from cultural differences between Western and Eastern cultures, this movie is still one hell of an enigma. No concrete explanation is ever given for a plague of mass suicides affecting teenagers in Japan. Somehow, these occurrences are connected to a pop song, a ribbon made of human skin, and a tribunal of extremely intelligent (and spooky) children. Suicide Club plays out like an episode of The X-Files that descends into a twisted fever dream: Haunting, ominous, and extremely perplexing.

 

The Corridor (2010)

Director: Evan Kelly

Writer: Josh MacDonald

Stars: Stephen ChambersJames GilbertDavid Patrick Flemming |

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A group of friends with a sordid past convene at a remote forest cabin during the heart of winter. A metaphysical occurrence outside creates a translucent corridor that lines up with a lonely radio antenna on a distant mountaintop.   After entering the corridor, the men experience a variety of changes, mental and physical, resulting in paranoia and violent confrontations. Is this some kind of mind-meld run horribly amuck? Is the corridor growing in size proportionally to the men’s insanity? The corridor’s origins and purpose are never explained, though the film’s conclusion hints at something otherworldly.

 

Resolution (2012)

Directors: Justin BensonAaron Moorhead

Writer: Justin Benson

Stars: Peter CilellaVinny CurranZahn McClarnon |

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Something utterly bizarre is happening in a run-down cabin on the edge of an Indian reservation. As Michael (Peter Cilella) attempts to help his buddy Chris (Vinny Curra) kick his amphetamine addiction, the duo is descended upon by all manner of potentially evil forces: A UFO cult, an insane stalker, a posse of drug dealers, a con man; phantom video tapes left at their door each morning suggest that they are being watched. A former professor from France lives in a nearby trailer where he smokes red marijuana and speaks in riddles. I took over 5 pages of notes the first time I watched Resolution, but ultimately, the filmmakers get the last laugh with a conclusion that is both stunning and perplexing—an ending that practically demands repeat viewings.

 

Borgman (2013)

Director: Alex van Warmerdam

Writer: Alex van Warmerdam

Stars: Jan BijvoetHadewych MinisJeroen Perceval |

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Before watching the Dutch film Borgman, it helps to know something about “Alps” from German folklore. An Alp is a mischievous creature that causes bad dreams by sitting on a person’s chest as they sleep; they can also change into animals and seem to hold an almost hypnotic sway over humans. This is where the English word “Elf” comes from. Camile Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) is a modern reimagining of an Alp who interjects himself into the lives of a suburban family living at the edge of the woods. But even with advanced knowledge of Alp mythology, Borgman is a film overflowing with riddles including: A crew of strange cohorts, dangerous seduction, and unexplained surgeries. The Alp’s motivations and ultimate goals are never explained, but there’s plenty to chew on.

 

What’s your favorite mind-bending horror movie? What films had you asking, “WTF did I just watch?” Sound off in the comments section!

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8 Comments on this post.

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  • Jason Thorson
    18 December 2014 at 3:00 pm - Reply

    This is a well-written article, but your list seems culled from an insufficient pool of movies.  I mean, horror flicks have been around for nearly 100 years and have been and continue to be a global phenomenon.  The majority of the movies here are less than 5 years old and the oldest on the list is from 1997. 
     
    It would have been impressive to see included any number of films by people like Jess Franco, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and several others whose film cannon are stuffed with movies far weirder/puzzling/abstract/cognitive than most of the movies on this list (though many of these are cool flicks, no doubt).
     
    Even newer movies such as Martyrs and, to a lesser extent, The Cube fit this mold.  Early David Cronenberg? How about Jacob’s Ladder? 
     
    Anyway, such is the nature of lists, I suppose.  But your list, while well-written and full of interesting movies, seems a little narrow regarding weird, mind-rending horror cinema.
     
    Respectfully,
    Jason Thorson
     

  • Josh Millican
    18 December 2014 at 3:33 pm - Reply

    Jason, you’ve discovered that my area of expertise is 21st Century horror; it’s rare to find any film pre-1990 on my lists. And, as you stated, the nature of lists always seems to exclude worthy additions. I loved Martyrs, but (except for Anna’s final words to Mademoiselle) nothing about it felt unknown or unknowable. Same with Jacob’s Ladder: While initially perplexing, I eventually saw the film as a re-imagining of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Cube was a contender, as was Dead Ringers. I appreciate all your input. Thanks for some great suggestions!

    • Jason Thorson
      18 December 2014 at 8:48 pm - Reply

      Fair enough. Although, I’d argue that An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and Jacob’s Ladder (the movie) will always be linked because they share the “dying man’s dream trope” from the idea of Jacob’s Ladder as described in the Old Testament.

      I’d also argue that Cube, while high-concept, is far more conventional, less ambiguous, and less allegorical than Martyrs is, Cube’s final shot notwithstanding.

      Anyway, different strokes and all that. Good work and here’s hoping you dive past that 1990 firewall sometime. 🙂

  • Evan A. Baker
    18 December 2014 at 4:37 pm - Reply

    Nice one, Josh!

    I’ve been meaning to watch Beyond the Black Rainbow for awhile now. Hopefully, with a week and a half off work coming up, I’ll be able to fit it in.

    • Josh Millican
      18 December 2014 at 4:45 pm - Reply

      Be sure to watch Beyond the Black Rainbow all the way through the credits for a final “stinger”!

  • Evan A. Baker
    18 December 2014 at 4:51 pm - Reply

    Oh, and I wanted to say, in general I find that the type of person who flat-out dismisses the horror genre as lacking depth tends to be the kind of person who has little to no real ability to look below the surface of a text, and rely instead on superficial indicators. I mean, thinking that literal statements of theme constitute “depth” fundamentally misunderstands what the word “depth” means.

    When people say that they only like things that make them think, I have to wonder, why do they need to be MADE to think? Most people are perfectly capable of CHOOSING to think.

  • Maija M.
    18 December 2014 at 8:05 pm - Reply

    Though technically not a horror film, Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy should be on the list.

    • Josh Millican
      18 December 2014 at 9:47 pm - Reply

      I have Enemy, just haven’t watched it yet. I’ll give it a spin!

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