I haven’t really seen “action-horror” categorized as a sub-genre before, not outside a few classification systems like those used by IMBD. Maybe this is because early instances of the form, like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Aliens, included other elements (slasher violence in the first, science-fictional monstrosities in the second) that overshadowed the action. The following ten movies all use diverse genre tropes, dystopian regimes, neo-Nazis, extraterrestrials, and time loops, to name but a few. They do, though, emphasize the action, the struggle to survive, in a heightened way.
I was curious to see that once I’d made this list, all the movies were from 2000 onward. Is this just a result of me overlooking earlier examples like Strawdogs and Predator? Artifacts of my personal taste? Is it a result of the fading of old-school action flicks like those dominated by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and their ilk? Or has there been something in the air since the turn of the millennium, an intensified interest in groups of people pitted against murderous dangers? Part of the story may be chalked up to our first film, one that set a new standard for horrific stories about survival.
Battle Royale (2000)
This movie was hugely controversial when it came out, so much so that the director more or less kept it from being released in the West for almost a decade. This is particularly amusing in that it obviously helped spawn The Hunger Games, which of course went on to massive mainstream success. Battle Royale‘s set up is even simpler than that of Suzanne Collins’s trilogy. Just a few years from now, the Japanese government has devised a new way to deal with juvenile crime: every year, a class of teenagers is selected for a hideous new tradition. In short, they are released on an island and given three days to kill everyone until only one survivor is left. If they try rebelling in any way, explosive collars they’ve been outfitted with will kill them.
Unlike The Hunger Games, this is a desperate and haphazard fight, as almost none of these kids expected to be put in this situation, nor are they trained fighters. The movie makes things more emotionally complex by factoring in typical teenage issues, everything from snobby cliques to puppy love and unrequited crushes, giving the inevitable violence a disturbing mixture of feelings. The movie’s controversy was exacerbated by the rise (and unfortunate continuation) of real-life school massacres. Quentin Tarantino has often cited this movie as his favorite film, and it went on to help spawn many of the works on this list.
This brutal but stylish movie is sometimes referred to as a sort of “French Chainsaw Massacre,” though the baddies in this one also resemble the psychopaths in Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses series without the make-up and wacky names. It is usually considered part of the French “New Extremity” wave of horror movies, all of which are both bloody and emotionally searing.
In the middle of a politically motivated riot in Paris, a group of Arabic Muslim youths carry out a robbery and flee after it goes south. Out in the wilds of rural France, they come across a cute little family-run inn. Unfortunately, these are neo-Nazis with habits even most fascists would have disapproved of, and the teens are forced to fight for their survival. There is certainly a lot of creeping around and torture in this movie, but I think it gets particularly good in its final third, when something like a small war breaks out amongst these characters. Just be prepared for some intense violence and racism-fueled depravity.
The Midnight Meat Train (2008)
I was so excited to see Clive Barker’s short story of the same name, part of his Books of Blood series, adapted, and I’m happy to say I wasn’t disappointed. Kitamura not only keeps the Grand Guignol violence and supernatural weirdness of the story, he adds relational dynamics and character touches that make you feel for the people caught in this meat-grinder of a tale.
Leon Kaufman is an urban photographer struggling to make his big break. When he descends into the subways one night, he manages to stop an attempted sexual assault, but not before taking some intense photos. Shortly thereafter, the woman he saved goes missing, and Leon gets obsessed with what proves to be a series of killings taking place in the underground, and eventually ends up in a fight to save not only his own life. The killer in this movie is known only as the Butcher, an apt title considering how viciously he takes apart his victims, and anyone looking for good kills in their horror will not be let down. There’s another and deeper level to this story, one that probes in a grisly manner the bloody foundations of this (and most other) nation, but I’m going to leave that for you to discover.
Attack the Block (2011)
Attack the Block is the closest to a “family friendly” movie on this list, and even it has some upsetting deaths. Still, if you’re looking for a less gory example of this subgenre, this is the one to go with. It’s also animated by a sense of humor only Mayhem can rival. Starring the current Doctor Who, Jodie Whittaker, and John Boyega, most famous for his role as Finn in the new Star Wars trilogy, the movie is set in an impoverished council estate in London. Although Whittaker character Samantha is first threatened by Boyega’s group of teenage hoodlums, everyone concerned soon finds themselves facing a common foe. When a meteorite crashes nearby, the kids find an alien creature they easily kill.
The problem is this was just the first in a shower of meteorites, and soon the housing estate is filled with monsters from beyond clearly devoted to destroying anyone in their way. The creature effects are decent, both practical and CGIed, but the real strengths of this movie lie in the dialogue, the characters, and the quickly moving action as they try making it through the night. This movie isn’t out to wound you in the way many of the others on this list are, but don’t count on everyone surviving the onslaught.
I think one of the reasons this movie got lost in the shuffle when it came out is the unfortunately generic title. There are at least three other horror movies with the same title, two of which came out around the same time as this one! Let this be a lesson to any aspiring creators out there: title your work carefully. In Ketai’s Beneath, Sam Marsh is an environmental lawyer who joins her miner father George in what is supposed to be his last descent into a mine before his retirement. Sam, George, and the rest of the crew get stuck down in the darkness when an accident traps them there.
As their air, water, and food run out, the miners begin dying in terrifying ways and most everyone sees what seems to be indications of some inhuman force at work. Are they just going insane from oxygen deprivation? Is there some evil down there with them? The movie plays a somewhat similar game as does Session 9, and while that film is a masterpiece and a rough piece to be held up against, this movie is still a lot of fun. It’s a good one to watch if you enjoyed the excellent The Descent and want some more subterranean terrors.
Let Us Prey (2014)
Let Us Prey caught me completely off-guard with its plot, action, and highly entertaining acting, particularly from its two leads. Rachel Heggie (Pollyanna McIntosh, whom I like more every movie I see her in) is a cop in a small Scottish town who sees a local wastrel run his car into a stranger played by Liam Cunningham (the Onion Knight Davos in Game of Thrones). Heggie hauls the irresponsible driver into the town’s police station, and they are joined by several fellow police and minor criminals. When that stranger shows up again, now locked in a cell, things go wildly off track in a way I certainly didn’t expect.
Everyone in this movie has secrets and those secrets are coming out to play tonight. Even though it deals with some intense subjects and includes pretty bloody violence, this is such a fun movie and one I wish more people would check out. Skip the trailer, as it gives away far too much of the twisty plot.
Green Room (2015)
Green Room is easily the most realistic movie on this list, and its violence feels ugly and natural in a way that heightens your concern for its heroes. It also features a very likable actor as a detestable villain, which is often a fun combination. When a touring smalltime punk band realizes the rural bar they’ve been scheduled to play in is a neo-Nazi hangout, that’s bad enough. But then a member of the band witnesses a murder, and the band is forced to hole themselves up in the titular green room while the fascists decide what to do with them.
This is survival-horror at its most naturalistic and simplest, though that doesn’t keep it from sketching in interesting characters and captivating set-pieces. It is dark and violent, though not as gory as most of the films on this list.
The Belko Experiment (2016)
This movie is essentially Battle Royale played out by the cast of Office Space, as the above poster attests, with some of the humor of the latter and an even larger body count than the former. Belko Industries is an apparently American business housed in a big building in a remote part of Colombia. When its employees show up for work one morning, the buildings exits are shuttered and everyone inside is told they have a short period of time in which to kill two of their fellow workers.
Soon, they are given proof that they can be remotely killed if they disobey the increasingly murderous orders, and the group of 80 people fragments into those willing to kill to survive and those still trying to hold onto their humanity. This movie straddles an uneasy line between satire and horror, and it is particularly disturbing in the light of actual office massacres. It isn’t super gory, though there is plenty of gun violence.
This is a much funnier, quirkier variation on this list’s theme, especially that exemplified by Battle Royale and The Belko Experiment. The chief difference, aside from wittier dialogue, makes this a rather different experience: in Mayhem, everyone involved is having all too much fun killing their co-workers. Set a little in the future, this movie involves ID-7, a virus that the world is desperately trying to contain. The disease, easily transmissible, basically turns its victims into sociopaths until they’ve been exposed to an antidote, and while some mostly act out sexual desires, plenty of other sufferers turn into murderers under its effects.
This isn’t a zombie movie either, in that these viral victims still retain intelligence, memory, and everything else but morality that defines them as a character. Because of a legal case involving the law firm the movie focuses on, anyone caught in the throes of this virus faces no legal responsibility for actions committed while sick. When Derek Cho gets to work one morning, he finds it soon shut down and quarantined as ID-7 has somehow made it into the building. Soon he is brought face-to-face with a client (played by the hilarious and talented Samara Weaving) whom he’d earlier harmed, and the two newly-minted psychopaths are forced into either killing one another or teaming up against their mutual corporate enemies. Mayhem is witty, fast-paced, and a great movie to watch if you’ve ever been screwed by a major corporation.
To Your Last Death (2019)
What if you survived a night of horrifying bloodshed and terrible loss and no one believed your story of what happened? What if an unearthly power offered you the chance to relieve all that horror, only armed now by a knowledge of the future? This is the situation into which our heroine Miriam DeKalb is thrust after her uber-wealthy father (voiced by Ray Wise) spends a night torturing her and her siblings in Saw-like traps. While Miriam starts her re-living of this terrible night with helpful foreknowledge, her new actions force events into new directions she couldn’t have anticipated.
I think this would’ve been a fascinating and grueling experience even if it had been a live-action movie, but the fact that it’s a cartoon somehow makes the violencce and twisted psychology at work here darker. I haven’t seen anything quite like it before, and I hope it serves as a guide for future creators of animated horror movies and TV series.
SEE ALSO: Train to Busan, The Horde, Mandy, Near Dark, Splinter, The Void, They Live, Demons, Rec, Severance, Rabies, Shadow in the Cloud, Ready or Not, Ichi the Killer, The Devil’s Rejects, Inside, Baskin