My favorite genre-mixing has to be that in which horror and mystery are blended together, particularly when the supernatural is involved in a series of murders. Movies in which we know from the beginning what the menace is can be a lot of fun, but when you add in that element of the weird and the mystifying, of a puzzle to be solved, you’ll have much more of my attention. After all, as HPL famously argued, “the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
Some of my favorite horror movies (several are on this list) exploit that uncertainty, as well as a nagging sense that we as the audience should be able to solve these riddles. Sometimes this can look like a regular mystery story just turned up to 11 and doesn’t have to include the supernatural. The Hannibal Lecter series of films and a TV series stand out in this regard, as does the Scream franchise and the movie Se7en. The mood of these stories as well as the extremity of the crimes involved lift them out of conventional mystery territory and into the horrifically sublime. Two of the movies on this list certainly fall in that category. But the addition of some unnatural element, be it the forces of the demonic or the monstrous, psychic powers or psychological aberrations that won’t stay in just one head, can make a story that much more interesting. Don’t just freak me out: make me think, make me solve a riddle. Here are some excellent horror-mystery movies.
This is one of my favorite comfort movies, though I’d have a hard time explaining why. Maybe it’s the dreamy atmosphere Dario Argento creates out of eerie music, hallucinatory shots, and the beautiful Swiss scenery. Maybe it’s Jennifer Connelly’s acting in this, her first starring role: she’s Alice in Wonderland thrown instead into a serial killer/Giallo mystery, concerned and active but a sleepwalker and somehow a great stand-in for a dreaming self. Or maybe it’s the way Argento mixes so many surreal images and situations with an overriding fairy tale vibe. Whatever the reasons, Phenomena is one more people should see.
Set in a girls’ school in the Swiss Alps, the movie follows Jennifer Corvino, American daughter of what seems to be an Italian director. Jennifer has been sent to the prestigious Richard Wagner Academy for Girls at possibly the worst time imaginable: some psychopath has begun killing teenage girls in the region. Jennifer is beset by smaller yet significant troubles even before she crosses paths with this killer. She’s gentle and intelligent and funny, but she’s also an outcast from almost the moment she enters the school. But Jennifer has talents that no one in her path could even imagine, talents that will help her unravel this bloody mystery and just possibly save herself.
Angel Heart (1987)
Based on Falling Angel, a novel by William Hjortsberg, this movie is an intense, sweaty, and ultimately pitch-black combination of noir mystery conventions and supernatural horror. I’m afraid to say too much for fear of spoiling some of the film’s many dark twists, so I’ll be a little vague. Harry Angel is a private investigator in New York during the 1950’s. When he’s hired by a mysterious man to track down a missing crooner, Harry thinks he’s on the path to an easy paycheck. Unfortunately, this case will soon take him to horrific places he may never come back from.
This movie blends its primary genres with finesse and deadly seriousness. While the noir-horror combo has become more popular in the intervening years, none (that I’ve seen or read) mixes them in such a potent, artsy-but-enjoyable way that Angel Heart does. The movie can get quite grim, but it has an involving and fascinating mystery at its core. This was Lisa Bonet’s first film role and also features Mickey Rourke, Charlotte Rampling, and a few iconic appearances by Robert De Niro. Just skip the trailers, as they give away too much in my opinion.
Mute Witness (1995)
This Russian-British-German co-production may be the least well-known movie on this list, but ideally that’ll change with time. I guess if you’re being all “Well, actually” about it, Mute Witness isn’t a mystery movie so much as it is a thriller, but it’s working a vein Alfred Hitchcock mined very well, and he’s often considered a director of mysteries. Set in Moscow soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, Billy Hughes is a mute FX artist on a cheap slasher film. When she gets locked in the studio overnight, Billy witnesses what seems to be a graphic killing and is chased by several violent men. After she manages to reach the authorities and bring them back to the studio, though, it begins to look like she just misunderstood what she saw. If that’s the case, then why is someone still intent on stealing a piece of evidence she found, and why are these same creeps trying to kill her?
This one is a lot of fun so long as that initial killing doesn’t turn you off (and it is pretty upsetting), a perfect entry in that subgenre Hitchcock is best known for, the “person who knows too much and is on the run,” but it’s here given an even sharper dose of terror both by the viciousness of Billy’s persecutors and her inability to speak.
If Angel Heart was one of the first movies to successfully merge noir and horror conventions, I think this has to be one of the earliest to combine supernatural horror and a police procedural serial killer story in a winning way. It also features a hell of a cast, from Denzel Washington and John Goodman, to Donald Sutherland, Elias Koteas, and Embeth Davidtz. Washington plays John Hobbs, a detective who has recently caught a serial killer now due to face execution. Before dying, the killer threatens Hobbs, hinting that their involvement is just beginning.
And just beginning it is, as other killings soon begin taking place, all bearing the hallmarks of Hobbs’s original nemesis. Hobbs and his fellow police think they are facing yet more human evil, but they have no idea what darkness they’ve touched. Fallen features a particularly fun metaphysical trope, one that the trailers (but not I) spoil. Even when you’ve figured out what’s happening, rest assured that this smart and well-filmed movie still has tricks up its sleeve.
8mm isn’t a supernatural movie, but it explores a topic so disturbing and in such a gritty way that the movie easily lands in horror territory. When private investigator Tom Welles is summoned to the estate of a recently-deceased rich man, the man’s widow shows him a film she found in her husband’s safe. It seems to be a snuff film in which a young woman is brutally killed, and the widow asks Welles to determine whether it is real or not. The case plunges Welles into a world of sexual exploitation, sadomasochism, and profit-driven cruelty.
I like that the movie doesn’t set out to characterize all kink as evil or depraved, but it certainly focuses on the grimiest, most intense corner of the world of sexual exploration. As should be clear from the synopsis, this is probably not a good movie for those particularly affected by the subject of sexual violence, though the film is actually pretty sparing on scenes that depict it. But the mood of the movie is pretty damn grim, and if any characters survive this trip into hell, they will be no doubt scarred for life.
Mulholland Drive (2001)
And now, as the Monty Python boys would’ve said, time for something completely different. And if you don’t watch Lynch’s movies (or other surrealist fare) regularly, this movie will be very different not only from the others on this list, but from most any movie you’ve seen before. After being briefly menaced by a gunman, a dark-haired woman survives an accident that kills everyone else involved and ends up wandering dazed down into Hollywood. Meanwhile, sweet-natured Betty Elms has agreed to look after her aunt’s apartment. When Betty finds this woman hiding inside, the stranger reveals she is suffering from complete amnesia. Betty decides in best Nancy Drew fashion that she can help solve this mystery, and thus begins a journey into Hollywood weirdness and metaphysical puzzles.
If you go into this mystery expecting a neat summing-up of its enigmas, you will not just be disappointed: you will likely be pissed off. But if you let this dream unspool at its own pace and remain open to its surprising and unreal twists, you may have your mind blown. This is psychological/supernatural horror at its finest (and most frustrating), and Mulholland Drive is one of my favorite movies period. I will say this: with repeated viewings, at least a few plausible solutions to this movie may suggest themselves to you. You can find many of those theories all over the Internet as well, but a mystery is so much more fun when you solve it yourself, isn’t it?
Session 9 (2001)
Another movie that would land squarely in my list of top movies ever, Session 9 is a creepy and naturalistically-filmed story about a crew of asbestos removers who agree to work on an abandoned mental asylum. This institute, the very real Danvers Asylum, is a massive building with a seemingly endless series of basements, holding cells, and torture-chamber like treatment rooms. Once on the job, the crew discovers that their leader, desperate for money, gave a ridiculously short estimate of how long it would take them to clean out the place.
Despite this time-crunch, however, the members of the crew start getting seriously distracted by the building’s contents, including jewelry, personal effects of the former inhabitants, and an eerie set of recordings of interviews with a troubled woman. Something is stirring in these ruins, and before the ninth session of those interviews reveals part of the truth, this crew will have to face their own demons as well as those abandoned in Danvers. This is just superior horror filmmaking, and those sessions in particular, as well as the way they fit into the broader mystery, still haunt my imagination.
A Cure for Wellness (2016)
What a strange movie this is. Gore Verbinski, director of the excellent remake The Ring, blends comedy, supernatural and psychological horror, science fiction, and paranoiac mystery into a strange brew topped off by an atmosphere equal parts fairy tale and Gothic melodrama. Add to this some gorgeous cinematography and you have a movie I’m puzzled more people don’t love to its bonkers bones. Maybe it’s the length, as the movie is almost two and a half hours long. Anyways, I think it’s an intriguing and dreamlike blast.
Lockhart is an efficient, cold, somewhat snotty executive in New York who is given a strange task: he is supposed to go to a remote wellness center in the Swiss Alps and retrieve his company’s CEO. When he gets there, though, the CEO proves hard to find, and Lockhart is drawn into strange events in and around the center. The center’s weirdly spacey inhabitants have been through more than just a spa cure, something Lockhart might discover to his misfortune. If you are in the mood for something like epic horror-mystery, this might scratch that itch. Not epic in the sense of going all over the world or featuring a cast of hundreds, but in that it tells a complex and multilayered story at its own sly and careful pace.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2017)
In the dead of winter, two young women are stuck at their Catholic boarding school as the rest of their peers head off to vacation. Rose, the older of the two, fears she may be pregnant and has lied to her parents about winter vacation in order to avoid their attention while she decides what to do about her condition. Kat, the younger girl, is having an even tougher time. After a semester in which she’s faced some serious issues, she has now been struck by a premonition that her parents have died in a car accident while on their way to pick her up. And they are worryingly late. The two are stuck here, in a place reportedly the site of Satanic rituals, trying to cope with their respective fears. Meanwhile, another young woman, recently escaped from a mental institution, is picked up by an older couple on their way to the town near the boarding school. How these stories intertwine, and the creepy truth behind the various stories these characters are caught in, is ultimately horrific.
I won’t say more rather than spoil the plot of the film, but this was an intriguing and steadily darkening experience, one augmented by the serious, wounded performances of its three lead actresses, as well as by the directorial chops of Osgood “Oz” Perkins, who wrote this film and directed I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. This movie isn’t quite as slow and dreamy as the latter, but it packs a powerful punch, particularly in its last moments when the mysteries we’ve been watching unfold are solved in a way that still leaves haunting questions unanswered.
I’ve only just watched this movie for a second time, and it has quickly risen to one of my favorite mystery-horror movies in years. It blends elements taken from Giallo movies, monster stories, serial killer thrillers, and science fiction into a giddy confection. I’ll say this: the first time I watched it, I wasn’t that impressed by the first third of the movie, but I think I was both reacting to the hype (both negative and positive) already surrounding the movie. Thank god I didn’t stop it halfway through, because I would’ve missed out on a lot. And re-watching it, those early scenes make more sense in terms of both plot and style.
Briefly, Malignant is about Madison Lake, an abused pregnant woman. After a particularly vicious attack by her husband, a mysterious figure violently slaughters the man. No loss there, but then the same figure keeps killing, and Madison unfortunately sees the murders through some sort of psychic link with the strange psychopath. James Wan pays homage to Dario Argento as well as some of the other stylists in the Giallo subgenre, and his movie’s central conceit (only revealed at the end, so beware of spoilers) could certainly be compared to one or two cult horror movies, but I thought the combination of these elements alongside Wan’s visual flourishes throughout the movie make it stand out.
Some may guess the twisted truth behind the mystery before Wan springs it on us, but I was caught almost completely off guard and spent the last twenty minutes of the movie alternately laughing at its beautifully weird left turn and cheering it on. Let the haters hate, but Malignant is something special.