As English-speaking fans of Japanese horror have known for decades, the genre exports itself particularly well. Scary movies are often built on shocking visuals, which means when done well, horror loses little power when it travels. And, just as often, horrifying tales unique to the residents of a particular country are just nightmares the rest of us haven’t had yet. (Before The Grudge and The Ring made their way to America, I thought long, black, wet hair was terrifying only in the sense that it might clog my drains. Now, however…)
Horror movies remind us that no matter what language we speak or the country of our origin, we’re all the same on the inside: red, squishy, and oh so vulnerable. But if you’re looking to explore new types of terror, you may need to look outside your cultural experience. Here are 30 great horror movies that don’t happen to have been filmed in English.
Director Takashi Miike made a name for himself as one the 21st century’s foremost horror directors, and Audition offers a perfect example of his squirmy, deeply disturbing style. Here, he follows widower Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi, who later appeared in the first two American Grudge movies) as he re-enters the dating world by concocting a fake film production and setting up auditions for the role of his new flame. Hitting it off with the quiet Asami, he pursues a relationship. It doesn’t go very well for him. At all.
Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017)
Blending fantasy with horror, Mexican writer/director Issa López’s story of children displaced and orphaned by the Mexican Drug War deftly tells a story that’s heartbreakingly believable, even in our world, where the supernatural is less terrifying than the actions of greedy and heedless adults. Tenoch Huerta, soon appearing as Namor in Wakanda Forever, plays an insidious crime boss.
Horror hasn’t traditionally been a big draw for Bollywood/Tollywood studios, but that’s begun to change over the past couple of decades, partly inspired by the success of Raaz, which by itself launched two sequels and a reboot. It was inspired by the late’90s American film What Lies Beneath, and follows a troubled couple, Sanjana (Bipasha Basu) and Aditya (Dino Morea), as they return to the cosy bungalow where they fell in love in order to try to save their marriage. The spirit that winds up haunting Sanjana turns out to have a connection to her husband’s past. The movie never quite settles on a tone, and the romantic musical numbers throw off the vibe, but it’s still an experiment in spooky fun.
A Take of Two Sisters (2003)
Part of a wave of South Korean horror that terrified the world in the early 2000s, this Kim Jee-woon shocker is a visual stunner, even if the plot is a bit opaque. It’s the somber, Shakespearean tale of a South Korean teenager who reunites with her beloved sister following a stay in a mental hospital. Their father has a new wife, which creates an uncomfortable situation in the house, but not nearly so uncomfortable as the strange, horrific, and sometimes absurd events that plague the family. As with some of the best horror movies, it all comes back to the cruel family secrets that saw the sisters separated in the first place.
Eyes Without a Face (1960)
The producers were eager to make a move into the horror market, but wanting to dodge problems with European and local censors, director Georges Franju was cautioned away from including all the blood and gore that the story might have otherwise called for. It’s just as well. The sly, suggestive tone of Eyes Without a Face stands in stark contrast to its lurid synopsis: Following his daughter’s disfiguring accident, a plastic surgeon is determined to provide her with a face transplant that will restore her to his idea of beauty. The problem, as you can imagine, is where to get the face. This could’ve been a schlocky Bela Lugosi movie, but Franju injects it with a poetic style that turns it into a work of art (it’s even a part of the Criterion Collection).
Languages: French and Wolof
At the start, Congolese director Jean Luc Herbulot seems to be seting up an action movie; the story of mercenaries fleeing a coup looks for all the world like an American military thriller of the 1980s. Soon, however, it is revealed to be something distinctive, effortlessly blending genres and styles as things take a turn for the horrific when the band crash lands in a remote and eerie part of Senegal. The hunters become the hunted, but undergirding it all are interesting questions about power and possibility of redemption.
Dario Argento’s giallo masterpieces are almost all vibes, blending glossy filmmaking with buckets of blood until there’s not much different between beautiful and gruesome. Suspiria, likely the director’s masterwork, follows talented dancer Susie Bannion (Jessica Harper) who signs up as a student at a prestigious dance academy in Berlin, where she does great, at least until the accusations of witchcraft begin to flow… (The English remake, starring Tilda Swinton, is also worth a watch, but not until after you’ve digested the original.)
Funny Games (1997)
Language: German and French
Austrian and German directors developed a reputation for extreme horror during the 1980s and 1990s (see movies like Nekromantik, or Violent Shit), which I’m sure says something about European cultural upheaval in the wake of the fall of the iron curtain. Maybe. Here, director Michael Haneke tells the story of a couple on a lakeside holiday who are terrorised and sadistically tortured by a couple of thoroughly deranged young men, one of whom winks at the camera and occasionally narrates the film as a way of reminding us, the audience, that we’re here to witness the depravity, not the quiet holiday.
The Dead Lands (2017)
Heavy on the action, New Zealand-born director Toa Fraser’s film depicts pre-colonial Māori in the story of a teenager who pursues the chief responsible for the slaughter of his tribe into the titular “dead lands,” an area believed to be protected by a Taniwha that will kill anyone who ventures into the area.
The Lure (2015)
Agnieszka Smoczyńska directs this thoroughly bizarre and wildly entertaining rock opera about a couple of mermaids who leave the water and get jobs at a Warsaw nightclub. If someone in your life is mad about Disney’s new racebent Little Mermaid, show them this bloody, sexually charged version.
With old-school Italian-style giallo flair, Turkish writer-director Can Evrenol builds to a surreal, nightmarish, and bloody third act from a sly and deliberately paced opening. A group of police officers are drawn to a small town (full of locals who try to warn them off), and to a building in the middle of nowhere, where things get truly weird. The movie’s gradual shift in tone is so subtle that we hardly realise that we’ve been drawn into a bloody, gory trap.
It’s a foreign film! From Canada! Director Robin Aubert does the zombie genre proud by injecting a fair bit of George Romero-style social commentary into his story of a small Quebec town under siege. Here, the zombies have a society and culture of their own, and the threat they pose speaks to regional history and a variety of cross-cultural issues. Even without that specific context, it’s a smart and effective survival thriller.
Loosely based on purportedly true events, the import from Spain is all spooky atmosphere and old-school chills in its story of a young woman who conjures up evil demons following some ill-conceived Ouija-play. Nothing here reinvents the wheel, but the creepy fundamentals are sound, and there are plenty of solid scares.
A thoroughly effective found footage film (one of the best, really), Rec follows a reporter doing a by-the-numbers ride-along with a Barcelona fire crew as they respond to a call that takes them to an apartment building where odd things are happening. It’s a zombie-style movie involving demonic possession, but the real draw here is the deft camerawork and the sense of geography and place that draws us into this building and leaves us feeling as trapped and frightened as the residents.
Noroi: The Curse (2005)
What looks like a found footage horror movie is more precisely a faux-documentary dealing with a paranormal researcher and her investigation into a series of supernatural occurrences in different parts of Japan. The movie proceeds methodically through the investigation, weaving a tapestry of curses, ghosts, and demons that could compete with The X-Files for complexity. That’s part of the trick, though: by the final act, it feels like a trap has been sprung that we never really had a way out of.
High Tension (2003)
The big bang in what came to be called the “New French Extremity,” High Tension absolutely delivers in terms of slasher-movie-style gore. Many viewers found it a bit much, and a largely nonsensical final twist undermines some of what came before (and calls into question what was looking, for a while, like solid queer rep), but it’s all still gruesomely memorable, which is sometimes exactly what you’re looking for in a horror movie.
A horrific and eerie story sees two women, a mother and her daughter-in-law, raped and murdered by a troop of samurai, only to rise from the dead (with the help of a black cat) with the goal of taking brutal revenge on any samurai foolish enough to be taken in by their charms. Catching on, a young warrior is assigned the task of destroying the spirits: a man who, as fate would have it, is the son and husband of the two murdered women.
Bloody torture-fest or meditation on the inescapable scars of trauma and abuse? Almost any film in what’s been called the New French Extremity movement (see also: High Tension) invite those kinds of questions. Here, a young woman who was tortured by an apparently normal family seeks revenge as an adult, joined by her friend, Anna, who discovers that the Belfond family are using torture to discover the true nature of the afterlife (or something). Not for the faint of heart or stomach, it’s still a classic of extreme violence.
Train to Busan (2016)
South Korean director Yeon Sang-ho’s zombies-on-an-unstoppable-train story never misses an emotional beat in its central story of a workaholic father and his daughter attempting to reconnect following a divorce while also staying alive amid a flesh-munching apocalypse. The movie also never forgets that it’s a bloody action movie, and it would work just fine on that level if that’s all it were. Instead, it’s a horror/action masterpiece.
Let the Right One In (2008)
This Swedish film, based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, was instantly a classic unpon its release in 2006, when it made clear that there are still new stories to tell when it comes to cinematic vampires. Here, bullied kid Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) forms a friendship with neighbour Eli (Lina Leandersson), whose connection to a string of local murders quickly becomes obvious. Disturbing, but somehow impressively heartfelt.
I love a good horror anthology, and this is a sensuous and atmospheric classic of that sub-genre. Director Masaki Kobayashi weaves colour into each of the stories, whether it’s blood on snow, the earth tones of a haunted tea house, or the jet black hair that never portends anything good in a Japanese tale.
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
An early triumph from Guillermo del Toro, and a taste of things to come, this Spanish/Mexican co-production tells a story of childhood shattered by conflict (it’s set during the Spanish Civil War — but that’s a sadly evergreen story), while also being an effectively chilling ghost story set in an orphanage.
Blending horror elements and Hitchcock-style thrills (director Henri-Georges Clouzot was inspired by Hitch, who, in turn, made Psycho to top this film), Diabolique involves a married woman and her husband’s mistress, who both conspire to murder the man and to conceal his death. He’d been headmaster of a gossipy boarding school, and the two are pressed to keep things on the down low through a deliciously twisty-turny plot.
Vikram Bhatt, who directed Raaz, made another defining Hindi horror movie with 1920, an extravagant haunted-house/exorcism movie set during the British Raj. There’s plenty of lush period detail, and some effective scares as well, but the movie also manages to weave in themes relating to the racial and political struggles of the era. It was successful enough to spawn four mostly-not-as-good sequels.
Beginning as a Seven-esque serial killer procedural, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure builds patiently into something far more ambiguous and disturbing. Cinematically directed and intelligently scripted, the movie crystallised the J-horror boom that was to come.
One of the only horror films to come out of the Soviet Union, Viy is all atmosphere, an unnerving and disorienting experience that blends moments of quiet creepiness with some genuinely nightmarish imagery and impressive practical effects. Several seminary students go drunkenly wandering the countryside, only to stumble upon and murder someone they believe to be a witch. Khoma, who did the deed, is warned of dire consequences if he refuses to make amends by guarding the body from evil spirits for three nights. It goes about as smoothly as you’d expect.
Tumbbad feels like it represents a coming-of-age for Indian horror on film; the movie received broad international attention when it opened at the Venice Film Festival and feels more confident and distinctive than earlier examples on this list. A man and his son go seeking treasure in the titular village during the Raj, where a temple to a forbidden god has produced a constant rainfall. They’re looking for gold, but greed never did anyone much good in a halfway decent horror movie…and this one’s quite good, expanding from the story of a couple of treasure hunters to encompass the birth of the universe.
Dream Home (2010)
What could possibly be more horrific than the housing market? Even among the world’s major cities, Hong Kong is a particularly tough place to buy real estate, and HK director Pang Ho-cheung has some fun with that idea in the story of a young woman, Lai-sheung (Josie Ho) whose dreams of affordable living are thwarted again and again. When she finally gets close to her dream apartment, stock speculators throw the stock market and send prices rising further: at which point she snaps. Can you blame her?
La Llorona (2019)
Not to be confused with the (amusing but unspectacular) Curse of La Llorona, this Guatemalan film places the legendary weeping woman in the context of the family of a barely-fictionalized dictator, the man responsible for the native Mayan genocide of the early 1980s, whose family is haunted by vengeful spirits.
M was director Fritz Lang’s first sound film, and he dives right in. Other early talkie filmmakers dipped their toes in by using sound effects and dialogue sparingly…but Lang isn’t playing around, and it’s effective. There’s not a police procedural nor serial killer drama that doesn’t owe M a bit of a debt, but this one has something that they don’t: Peter Lorre, so brilliant as a killer who’s made more frightening by virtue of his mundane, sometimes pathetic life.