Seven Horror Films That Defy Their Genre

After seeing Cabin in the Woods this past weekend, I was reminded of how great a horror film can be when it steps outside the confines of its genre. This isn’t to say that “traditional” horror movies can’t be good – horror as a genre is built on a foundation of unspoken rules and pitfalls.

Of course films like The Shining and Alien will always hold a rightful share of the throne. Still, there is something entirely refreshing about seeing a horror movie that bucks the trend and does something truly original. Below are seven films that accomplished this rare feat.

1. From Dusk Til Dawn (1996)

This movie also features Selma Hayek as a stripper. Just sayin.

What makes it genre-defying:
Perhaps the best trick From Dusk Til Dawn plays is deceiving its viewers about what kind of film they are truly in for. At the outset, we watch a violent robbery go down, which in turn escalates into a kidnapping. Desperate to get off the road, the gang retreats to a dingy motel. From there, a meeting is arranged at a bar on the outskirts of  town. It is nearly an hour into the  movie before we learn that the crew and patrons of the elegantly named Titty Twister are actually crazy vampire beasts. Add to that the genuinely humorous elements of the script, Quentin Tarantino playing a guy who might be creepier than any bloodsucker and some supersoakers filled with holy water, and you’ve got the makings of a film that won’t fit neatly in any section of a Blockbuster.

Best scene:
This is tough, but I’ve got to go with the opening scene where George Clooney and Tarantino rob a gas station. Instant classic and a perfect decoy for what’s to come later.

2. Red State (2011)

What makes it genre-defying:
Who knew Kevin Smith, the man behind Clerks and Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, had a horror film in him? Well, probably  anyone who’s looked at the guy’s Twitter feed in the past two years. In all seriousness though, I went into Red State thinking it would be some dialogue-driven homage to horror films past. Smith is a major film buff, and combined with his extensive knowledge of the comic book world, I guess I just expected something derivative. Not the case. Red State is a film in three parts: the first part subverts the “I found someone on the internet who wants to meet” plot and includes a few vintage Smith moments courtesy of the main characters (three teenage boys); part two is the horror film, of which I will say only that I was totally shocked and enthralled by what transpired; finally part three is in many ways a war film. If horror movies are defined by having an “evil” antagonist, someone who legitimately scares you the viewer,  few if any will match the dark depths of Pastor Abin Cooper.

Best scene:
Nothing compares with Abin Cooper’s nine minute sermon as the film begins its descent into the second act.

3. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)

What makes it genre-defying:
The concept of this film is the epitome of meta-horror. Heather Langenkamp, who played Nancy in the first Nightmare on Elm Street, stars as herself. Wes Craven also appears under his own name, hard at work on a new installment of the Nightmare franchise. Where things get very, very weird is when Freddy (not to be confused with actor Robert Englund, who plays himself) “breaks through” into the real world. So, in essence, Freddy is terrorizing the cast from the original Nightmare on Elm Street film with a particular focus on Heather’s son. I haven’t seen this movie in quite a while, but I remember being impressed with a number of scenes, especially in terms of set design and script prowess. Even if the movie comes off as corny or dated, it’s worth watching to see Craven execute the idea of recharging a stale horror franchise by having the infamous bad guy attack the filmmakers who made the original.

Best scene:
Heather goes to visit Wes in his office as he works on a new draft of the upcoming Nightmare script. After Heather finishes explaining to Wes that her life is somehow mirroring the screenplay he is working on, it is revealed that Wes has written everything they just said to one another on the most recent page of his screenplay.

4. The Faculty (1998)

Robert Patrick doesn’t know how to play normal people, and for that we love him.

What makes it genre-defying:
In essence, The Faculty is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, except in The Faculty, the characters have seen Invasion and can therefore use it as a survival guide of sorts. The Faculty marks the second film on this list by Robert Rodriguez, and also features a screenplay by Scream scribe Kevin Williamson. The story follows a group of high school kids including the nerd (Elijah Wood), the bad boy (Josh Hartnett), the loner (Clea DuVall) and the new girl (Laura Harris). In a matter of days, their high school becomes a breeding ground for an alien takeover. Armed only with Hartnett’s homegrown synthetic uppers and a healthy distrust for one another, they are forced to grapple with a town that has been turned. I love how this movie takes multiple expectations and disembowls them. The viewer gets a Breakfast Club vibe, and then one sharp twist later and that perception is ruined. One thinks the film is plausibly a hip re-imagining of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, until DuVall’s character explicitly references the film and they use it as a basis for how to defeat the extraterrestrial baddies. As with Williamson’s Scream, the movie also adopts the “everybody is a suspect” element, given that the aliens inhabit the bodies of familiar faces.

Best scene:
Pretty hard to argue with Jon Stewart getting his hand cut off with a paper cutter before being stabbed in the eye and melting. Shout-out to the retractable bleachers in the finale as well.

  • Johnny D

    Great article! I love when Unreality recommends horror films.

    I would like to suggest the spanish horror film [rec] (and [rec]2) as a somewhat original take on the found footage film. Very spooky.

  • Grand Wazoo

    good article. I’m going to haveto watch New Nightmare and The Faculty. However, I do have to say I didn’t like Pan’s Labyrinth one bit. I understand that many people did, but it just didn’t work for me.

  • trashcanman

    Excellent list. I haven’t seen The Faculty in years. I really need to watch that one again. Also, I’m really surprised that people don’t revere New Nightmare more. It’s literally the only Krueger flick aside from the original that has any designation whatsoever as a decent horror flick. Every other sequel was unwatchable except for Dream Warriors and that one was cheesy fun rather than scary.

  • E. Lee Zimmerman

    Good grief. You’ve got to be kidding …


    Was that story filmed to serve as a natural sedative?

  • I’m gonna have to throw in Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon.

    It starts as a documentry, played compeltely straight, about the preperations that a slasher goes through before the rampage and progresses from there.

  • Andy

    Very good choices.

    Sadly, I’ve seen them all already, so I don’t get the fun of checking out films that flew under my radar, but you can’t win ’em all.

    Nice to see Event Horizon getting the nod. That movie was great, I’m not sure what E. Lee Zimmerman is talking about.

  • MurderBot

    I remember first going to see Event Horizon and thinking “Ooh look, sci-fi space movie with that lovable Sam Neill from Jurassic Park!”

    Who woulda guessed that dear ol’ Dr. Grant could give you nightmares?!

  • VikingIrishman

    Come on, Cabin in the Woods is a Joss Whedon flick. You had to go in knowing it was going to be awesome.

  • Kandice

    Event Horizon was a terrible movie. I did like that it was psychological horror and not like Pandorum, but at moments it just seemed too stupid and too silly to be taken seriously. There are much better psychological space horror movies out there (like Solaris and Solarum, or whatever that one with the psychologist was called)

    But I agree with everything else on the list.

  • Bri

    Dude I saw Cabin in the Woods on Saturday. Truly loved the Truth or Dare seen. Marty is so freakin’ awesome XD

  • Thanks for all the comments folks! I knew Event Horizon would divide people, but it’s like one of those staples of my childhood. Weird movies hold that place for all of us. For example, another in my arsenal is Jumanji , which I’m certainly not about to defend. Van Pelt!!

  • BrainySmurf

    I loved Event Horizon. It creeped me the hell out, right up until the end when it got all Nine Inch Nails-y, but I still think it’s one of the better horror films that I’ve seen.

  • Jordan

    BEHIND THE MASK! That movie was the most genre defying movie since Scream. Why isn’t it on there?

  • JonG

    While i dont exactly have fond memories of The faculity, Ill have to check it out again because its been a long time. But Im very surprised to see someone actually enjoyed the mess that was Red State. I was very excited to watch it and couldnt believe how bad it was at times. Yes, the preacher was great in his role and most of the early scenes in the church worked, but the rest of the movie was a joke (especially the 3rd act/ending). Everything else on the list was fun though. I especially enjoyed Event Horizon for a good scare. A few friends and I still try and trick people who havent scene it by describing it as a love story in space. Their afterwards reaction is always priceless.

  • Zopi

    I totally agree about Cabin in the Woods. Just saw it and my mind was blown! It’s nothing like I have seen before- totally original. That scene you described as the best scene was pure sensory overload and F’n AWESOME! My boyfriend and I were both going crazy during that scene. That horror flick has it all. Super gore and agreed, it is legitimately funny too!

  • #THoag

    Seen all but Red State. Don’t go pillaging just yet, but what about “House on Haunted Hill”? Although, it didn’t careen off of any genre cliffs, it did have some scenes where I would have issues walking through dark, cold, musty basement hallways. Some real terrifying scenes, for sure.

    Event Horizon was such a fantastic film. Not that many people know about it, suprisingly. I was also surpised that RR did “The Faculty.” I didn’t know that. Welp, learn something new everyday.

  • Capt. Obv.

    This was painful to read. I like how Pan’s Labyrinth is about as close as you get to listing a non-US made horror film, probably because it was force fed to you via a wider distribution.

  • “Also, I’m really surprised that people don’t revere New Nightmare more. It’s literally the only Krueger flick aside from the original that has any designation whatsoever as a decent horror flick.”

    Yeeeeah no. Boring the audience to death with cliched-to-death horror tropes from “The Omen” and “The Exorcist” only with all tension removed due to repetitiveness, horrific child acting and a lack of a proper plot structure does not make something a “decent horror flick”.

    Three ridiculous elements of “New Nightmare”: A doctor whose diagnosis for the child is “schizophrenia brought on by underage viewing of horror movies and best treated with an oxygen tent” (seriously!). Secondly, the child deciding to climb a climbing frame (set to cheesy “ominous horror” music) in order to ask God to take him to heaven (eh???). Finally, perhaps the most stupid thing ever, the director deciding that the only way to convey the plot is to explain it straight on to the main character personally, making sure to include snark at the movie franchise’s fan base. (Making me wonder why, if the in-the-movie director can make anything happen that he wants, why does he decide to kill off Heather’s husband? After all, he wrote it, right? Also, if the real-life director hates the Nightmare On Elm Street franchise so much why is he making the worst sequel yet?)

    P.S. Even Horizon is effing AWESOME!

  • Rachel

    Just watched Red State, wow that was chilling! Thanks for the recommendation!

  • Septic Death

    How Jaws isn’t #1 on this list is beyond me. I don’t know many people who consider it a horror movie, but in all fairness it should be. Is there a single person out there that has seen Jaws that hasn’t thought about sharks when they’re at the beach?

  • Soeursourire

    Might not technically be all horror but:
    Antichrist, starts out like a poetic melodrama on child loss and goes from there.
    Funny Games, the original version. (the remote control and questions to the public aka everyone participating in the movie is f*cked)
    The Kingdom (the one by Von Trier!) though it’s ‘technically’ a tv series. Works like a hospital soap opera with loads of comedy but integrates the scary stuff oh-so-well.
    And ehm… C’est Arrivé Près de Chez Vous anyone? It’s not really horror or gore, but it’s probably one of the best movies you’ll see in your life (though not for the faint of heart)
    Ofcourse there’s loads and loads more to be discovered..
    I think what you listed is a good start, but I’m missing stuff that goes a bit ‘beyond’ typical Hollywood.

  • Federico

    not even close. nightmare on el street, yes – but that’s the exeption

  • Scoobs

    I’m on team ‘I’m glad you included Event Horizon”. I don’t know about Solaris – I liked it, but it’s pretty slow for the average viewer – both versions. If you’re gonna go that route, I’d recommend Sunshine or Moon. Both are odd stories, but they’re a little faster. There’s also an old movie, Jacob’s Ladder, that is disturbing as h**l.

  • Segashredder88

    Red State was a terrible movie. Kevin Smith is one of the biggest let down could have beens in the past twenty years. He had so much potential…..