11 truly scary movies that aren't horror movies

With Halloween just around the corner, we've got scary movies on the brain. But who says that only horror movies have the capacity to terrify? What about those non-horror films that scared us in a variety of different ways?

Here is our Cineworld blog list of non-horrors that offer a traditional alternative to ghosts, vampires, zombies and the like. These are movies that, more often than not, derived fear from scenarios that are far more plausible and relatable...



1. Night of the Hunter (1955)

Robert Mitchum is famously terrifying in this dreamlike fable from director Charles Laughton. It was the solo directorial feature from Laughton – the reception to Night of the Hunter was so vitriolic that he was put off helming another project again. However, time has been kind to the film, and it's now been recognised as one of the eeriest and strangest movies to emerge from the Hollywood studio system. Mitchum is the psychotic preacher in search of hidden treasure, complete with 'love' and 'hate' tattooed on his knuckles. Two innocent young kids are the key to his discovery of the treasure, and the film's imagery, particularly its emphasis on nature vs human corruption, resonate with all manner of allegorical significance.

2. Deliverance (1972)

An all-male, white water rafting trip goes horribly wrong in this unbearably tense thriller from director John Boorman. Adapted by James Dickey from his novel of the same name, Deliverance contrasts its central ensemble of city slickers with the rampaging hillbillys who stalk them through the forests of remote Georgia. Male pride and macho weakness are key themes in this iconic seventies movie, which unleashed the classic 'Duelling Banjos' piece onto the world. In the lead roles, Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty resonate strongly as the men at odds with themselves, each other, the natural landscape and the local inhabitants.

3. Marathon Man (1976)

Paranoia reigns supreme in this conspiracy thriller from director John Schlesinger and screenwriter William Goldman. The latter adapts his own novel, bringing to the screen a story of priceless jewels, Nazi tyranny and the unassuming American college student who gets in the way. Dustin Hoffman is on nervy form as Babe, the hapless guy who is tortured in the dentist's chair by evil SS dentist Schell (a fiendish Laurence Olivier) in the film's most notorious scene. Throughout, the movie radiates a feel of menace, which often erupts in bloody violence. In preparation for the role, Hoffman stayed up all night to convey a sense of sweaty desparation. Olivier's legendary response: "Why don't you try acting, dear boy?"

4. Watership Down (1978)

Not all allegedly family-friendly movies play it soft and cuddly. This adaptation of Richard Adams' classic novel is bathed in blood and nightmarish imagery, as a group of displaced rabbits, voiced by John Hurt, Richard Briers and others, must seek a new home. Their journey involves countless threats at every turn, most notably from the ruthless Efrafan rabbit overlord General Woundwort. Scares and tears are in equal abundance in this grown-up animated offering, with Simon and Garfunkel's 'Bright Eyes' famously reducing viewers of all ages to a blubbering mess. 

5. Return to Oz (1985)

If you thought Watership Down pushed family-friendly adventure to the extreme, along comes Return to Oz. Unlike the sweeter, more sugar-coated 1939 masterpiece The Wizard of Oz, this hews closer to the darker, more twisted tone of L. Frank Baum's original stories – and it's genuinely scary to boot. When Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) finds herself transpored back to the wondrous land of Oz, she discovers it's now populated by some less-than-savoury individuals. And they don't come creepier than the Wheelers, cackling lunatics with wheels where their feet and hands should be. And then there's Princess Mombi who has a selection of heads that she rotates between. Yikes – Over the Rainbow this ain't.

6. Come and See (1985)

No war movie is bleaker or more terrifying than Come and See, the final movie from Russian director Elem Klimov. The movie depicts the atrocities committed by the Nazis on the Belorussian front in 1944, and is a disquieting reminder that human depravity always outstrips any notion of fantasy. Casting traditional narrative to the wind, Come and See is instead a dreamlike depiction of war through a child's eyes, with senseless, surreal imagery and an emphasis on subjective sound. In this landscape, there is no adherence to any comforting tradition of narrative or reason; just a despairing depiction of humanity at its very worst.

7. Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Darren Aronofsky's punishing depiction of drug addiction is still a gruelling watch, even 20 years later. Ellen Burstyn gives a remarkable performance as an ordinary women who becomes addicted to prescription medication, Aronfsky's increasingly overwrought visuals and sound putting us, uncomfortably, in her headspace. But Burstyn's story is just one part of a bleak ensemble of tales, with Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly also giving strong performances as people grappling with other notions of addiction. Clint Mansell's escalatingly intense music theme 'Lux Aeterna' (heard in the trailer for Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) embodies the essence of this horrific non-horror movie.

8. No Country for Old Men (2008)

In this Oscar-winning thriller, the Coen brothers transform the dusty hinterland of the Texas/Mexico border into a lawless hell. Cormac McCarthy's terse and blood-soaked novel alternates drum-tight suspense with dry-as-a-bone humour, which synergises brilliantly with the Coens' usual approach. Few movie characters in recent years are as intimdating as Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh, a seemingly unstoppable assassin who is less human and more a force of relentless evil. Stalking the screen with his bad haircut, captive bolt pistol and tendency to flip a coin for someone's life, Chirgurh is a truly chilling presence. Little wonder Bardem walked his way towards an Oscar.

9. Coraline (2009)

In the tradition of Watership Down and Return to Oz, stop-motion animation Coraline recognises that being scared is an enlivening experience. Neil Gaiman's off-kilter fary tale comes to the screen via director Henry Selick, a twisted approximation of human reality that readily gives way to otherworldly terror. Dakota Fanning voices the eponymous Coraline, a girl seeking more attention from her dull parents. When she opens a portal into another realm, she's greeted by 'another mother' (Teri Hatcher) who seemingly offers Coraline everything she wants. The fact that she's got buttons for eyes should alert Coraline that all is not well in this fantasy world, driving home the film's message of being careful what you wish for.

10. Contagion (2011)

Back in 2011, Steven Soderbergh's pandemic movie Contagion emerged as a pacy, gripping experience, but one that nevertheless dwelt in the realm of fantasy. There was no way that we would ever experience such a scenario in our lifetime, right? Fast-forward to 2020, and Contagion is the most topical, terrifying movie of its day, scarily prescient in its look at viral reproduction, R-numbers and societal collapse. Scientists have praised the accuracy of Scott Z. Burns's script while Soderbergh's multi-stranded direction calmly stitches together a portrait of mankind on its last legs. Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow and others lend A-list clout, but the real star of the movie is that endless sense of gnawing paranoia.

11. Nightcrawler (2014)

Jake Gyllenhaal has played many edgy characters, from Donnie Darko to the strung-out detective in Prisoners. But few of his portrayals are as creepy as the one in Nightcrawler. Dan Gilroy's tense thriller/satire is the story of Gyllenhaal's power-hungry 'ambulance chaser' journalist, who is told by prospective news stations, "if it bleeds, it leads". Morality is left by the side of the road as Gyllenhaal's deeply unnerving, insect-like Lou Bloom escalates his taboo-breaking tactics, possessed of a single-minded desire to get ahead in the world. Gyllenhaal's emaciated look, and wide-eyed, crazed visage remind us that we don't need fantastical horror to craft profoundly off-putting monsters.

What is your favourite non-horror scary movie? Let us know @Cineworld. And happy Halloween!