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10 Surreal Horror Movies: Nightmare Worlds

The Surrealist movement proper was in large part inspired by the theories and techniques of Sigmund Freud and his students. André Breton, Salvadore Dali, Giorgio de Chirico, Valentine Hugo, Maya Deren, and the rest of their colleagues were all devoted to the idea that the unconscious mind could be explored through art that was deliberately disordered, wrenched away from the tampering of the rational mind. This naturally led them to create nightmare-works as well as lighter or more amusing pieces of art. While none of the following movies were created by that first wave of surrealists, all of them were inspired in one way or another by the movement.

What really gets to me about these films is how dreamlike an atmosphere they create for the viewer. Most of them rely to some degree on a genre-scaffolding, with bits and pieces of mystery, drama, and science fiction floating around inside them. What they all have in common, whatever their official classification, is a disturbing mood as well as plots with frightening implications.

Don’t expect to understand most of these movies. It’s not that there’s some obvious answer that you’re too dumb to understand: these movies are meant to push you out of your comfort zone, out of that little rationalistic bubble we’ve created for ourselves, and into a stranger world more like the one we visit every night of our lives.

Last Year at Marienbad: Alain Resnais. A cryptic and surreal movie set in a mysterious, posh hotel.

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

Alain Resnais

The Shining is one of many movies directly influenced by this shadowy, elegant work directed by Alain Resnais and written by French author and literary theorist Alain Robbe-Grillet. An unnamed man greets an unnamed woman at a soiree thrown in a beautiful and seemingly endless hotel. This man claims he and the woman met the year before in the Czech spa town Marienbad, that they began a love affair she interrupted, and that they’d promised one another they’d wait a year before getting together again. The only problem is that the woman has no memory of this.

In increasingly dreamlike and repetitive sequences, the two argue over their shared past while the other members of the party engage in fragmentary philosophical discussions. Did they really know each other? Is the man a liar? Who is the other guy hovering at the periphery of their encounter? Is it possible they are just characters caught in a movie?

Hour of the Wolf (1968)

Ingmar Bergman

For all his intense character-studies and quiet dramas, the single most famous image from Ingmar Bergman’s long career is horror-adjacent: The Seventh Seal’s scene in which Max von Sydow plays chess with death. Hour of the Wolf, though, is my favorite work of his, a symbolic and surreal film that would go on to inspire cinematic children like David Lynch’s Lost Highway among others. Hour of the Wolf also features von Sydow, as well as Bergman-mainstay Liv Ullmann.

Von Sydow plays Swedish painter Johan Borg, a haunted painter who retreats to an island off the coast of Germany with his wife Alma. Borg suffers from an intense case of insomnia, brought on by visions of nightmare monsters that may have something to do with an act of violence he perpetrated years ago. Borg and Alma’s stay on the island culminates in a phantasmagoric party at a castle in which the painter’s visions prove to be all too real. Bergman plumbed vampire and werewolf legends as well as his own dreams in creating this chilling film. There’s more than meets the eye in this dark allegory about guilt, identity, and the creative process.

Eraserhead (1977)

David Lynch

Before Twin Peaks, before the incredible Mullholland Drive, David Lynch started his feature film career with this hallucination of a movie. Eraserhead is, more or less, about a man struggling with the responsibilities of being a father, but there’s so much more going on here than that. Henry Spencer is a mild-mannered guy who lives in an apartment surrounded by factories. After one of the more uncomfortable dinners in cinematic history, Henry is told that his girlfriend Mary has had his child and that he now needs to become a responsible adult. His child? A mewling, monstrous creature swaddled in cloth.

As he tries coming to grips with this new responsibility, Henry is tempted by the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall and haunted by dreams of a singing, chipmunk-faced woman in an unearthly room. There’s some symbolism throughout this film that can be profitably analyzed, but the best way to enjoy it, at least the first time, is to just let Lynch take you into his world and worry about sense-making later.

Inferno (1980)

Dario Argento

Inferno is Argento’s sequel to his smash hit Suspiria. In that movie, we learn of the “Three Mothers,” evil and enormously powerful creatures who are behind much of the darkness of our world. While Suspiria was set in a German dance academy, Inferno is set in New York and concerns itself with the inhabitants of a bizarre apartment building. Like the previous film, Inferno involves a series of brutal murders as well as hidden occult machinations.

This movie, though, is more fragmentary, deliberately jarring in its willingness to kill off characters you may have thought were protagonists, and filled with beautiful albeit nonsensical set-pieces. The most famous of these involves a submerged ballroom one of our heroes has to swim down into. The movie does have a more legible plot than most of those on this list, but I include it here because every time I watch it, it leaves me feeling like I’ve been caught in a particularly colorful nightmare. Not super gory, but it does have a few gnarly deaths.

Begotten (1989)

E. Elias Merhige

This may be the weirdest movie ever made. I have used and will continue to use the word “nightmarish” as an adjective for most of the movies on this list, but I wonder if I shouldn’t save that description for this intensely strange film. Watching Begotten feels like your TV has somehow started receiving signals from another world, a world where obscure and ritualistic violence is carried out on and by characters like mythological figures filtered through some insane filter.

The whole movie is grainy and distorted as if you are watching a video copied and recopied so many times it’s falling apart. A blurry man disembowels himself only to give birth to a woman who in turn gives birth to another man. They wander. They experience horrors. The movie has been interpreted any number of ways, but it ultimately resists being pinned down like that and just demands you accept it for the hell-vision it is.

Santa Sangre: Alejandro Jodorowsky. A visually impressive and surreal horror mystery movie about a young man dealing with family demons.

Santa Sangre (1989)

Alejandro Jodorowsky

Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky is a legend in the world of avant-garde film, especially for his metaphysical Western El Topo and the all but indescribable The Holy Mountain. My favorite of his, though, remains Sante Sangre, in which his flagrant, gorgeous, and sometimes impenetrable surrealistic tableaux get some grounding in the conventions of the psychological thriller. After a brief visit to a mental asylum, we begin in a circus and follow Fenix, the child of the show’s knife-throwing manager and his wife, a trapeze artist who also runs a blood-cult devoted to the memory of a slaughtered little girl. A love-triangle gone wrong results in tragedy, and we pick up several years later with a soul-wounded Fenix as an adult.

Sante Sangre was produced and co-written by Claudio Argento, brother of the legendary director of Suspiria, and that may account for some of the elements of the giallo subgenre that sneak into this movie. Sante Sangre is, however, Jodorowsky’s baby, and it is filled with incredible sights. This movie is, weirdly enough, the most comprehensible of those on this list.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

Shinya Tsukamoto

Tetsuo was directed by Shinya Tsukamoto, a director who has also appeared in the eye-blistering gangster-horror movie, Ichi the Killer. Tetsuo is a cyberpunk nightmare, a story about a fetishist who enjoys shoving metal into his open wounds. The movie’s primary focus, though, is on an apparently unrelated couple, one that is experiencing some unique relationship problems. These are the sort of problems that arise when you find you’ve contracted an industrial virus that begins transforming your body piecemeal into a machine.

Tsukamoto’s film is an all-out assault on the senses, as if someone had tapped into the unconscious of a very horny and very mad artificial intelligence. This may sound like just the most obscure thing you could imagine, but it has had a radical influence on film, music, and literature across the world. Quentin Tarantino, the Wachowski sisters, and Trent Reznor are but a few of the artists you likely know who were heavily impacted by this shrieking vision of machinic eroticism and violence.

Naked Lunch: David Cronenberg. A surreal, funny, and disturbing adaptation of the novel by William Burroughs.

Naked Lunch (1991)

David Cronenberg

Exterminate all rational thought! When David Cronenberg announced he was turning William Burroughs’s seminal (in more ways than one) experimental novel Naked Lunch into a movie, many thought the director had gone insane. As Cronenberg himself said, a truly faithful adaptation of the novel would cost several hundreds of millions of dollars to make and it would be banned in every country on the planet. What Cronenberg did instead was fictionalize the author’s life, particularly a tragic incident involving his wife, and mash it together with the insane plot elements of the novel.

The movie is about an exterminator named William Lee who gets sucked into a conspiracy involving insectoid typewriters, aliens who secrete hallucinogenic bodily fluids, and double agents. Technically speaking, Naked Lunch is science fiction, but it so relentlessly weird and cruel that I find it at least horror-adjacent. It isn’t all that gory, but there are sequences that may burrow their way into your psyche.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

Panos Cosmatos

Years after making this movie, Panos Cosmatos directed the batshit crazy movie Mandy, a film I highly recommend. But this is the one that really has lodged itself in my imagination. Beyond the Black Rainbow is about a young woman trapped in a huge and eerie building by a scientist intent on wringing something out of her. This place she’s grown up in is the Arboria Institute, a New Age facility originally devoted to finding the key to spiritual happiness. After a terrible experience involving hallucinogenic drugs that make LSD look tame (filmed in a gorgeous and horrifying sequence), the Institute turned toward darker plans.

This movie is colorful and has a memorable score by Sinoia Caves. The whole thing feels like a throwback to the slower, eerier films of the seventies but informed by a darker aesthetic. This is a movie where I don’t think you have to understand everything in it to be entertained and even awed by it.

mother! (2017)

Darren Aronofsky

Man, did this movie provoke a lot of different responses. Some people think it’s garbage or at very least willfully obscure, but I loved it. Directed by the man who brought us Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream, mother! starts off in a deceptively calm way. A woman and a man live in a mansion they’ve been restoring for some time. Their idyllic lives are interrupted by the arrival of unexpected guests and when these guests violate the peace of the couple, a series of events unfold that get wilder, bloodier, and stranger. mother! shares some mythological DNA with Begotten, but it plays like that particular nightmare has been mashed together with a Henrik Ibsen drama.

If you pay close attention to what’s happening in this increasingly crowded house and if you have some knowledge of the myths underlying much of our history, you may “decode” some of what’s happening here. Even if you don’t, though, if you are in for a wild and thought-provoking ride, you may enjoy this movie.

SEE ALSO: Censor, In the Mouth of Madness, Funny Games, The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, Silent Hill, The Lords of Salem, Mandy, The Company of Wolves, Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom, Dogtooth, Mulholland Drive, A Cure for Wellness, Dark Waters, Lost Highway, eXistenZ, Enemy, Tomie, Possession, I am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, Delicatessen, Vivarium, Resolution, I Can See You, Under the Skin, Hausu/House, Relic, PG: Psycho Goreman, Dellamorte, Dellamore

By Matthew Pridham

I write horror stories as well as film and book reviews. I've been published in Weird Tales Magazine, Tor.com, weirdfictionreview.com, and thethoughterotic.com. My primary interests are modernist fiction, world domination, the horror genre (classic, avant-garde, modern), polyamory, and philosophy of every stripe. Favorite authors include (but are far from limited) to Marcel Proust, Ramsey Campbell, Martin Amis, Thomas Ligotti, Ruth Rendell, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, and Clive Barker. I grew up in Bergen, Norway as well as Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I've attended the University of New Mexico and CU Boulder.

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