With every Halloween season comes an expectation for movie fans to prioritize their viewings around the horror genre. Classics like Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Shining are shown in regular circulation, and the characters of Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger and Jack Torrance remain just as popular as they’ve ever been.
Horror films are an important part of film history, and many of them are essential viewing for cinephiles. It’s a broad genre that contains films as emotionally taxing as Rosemary’s Baby or Suspiria, but also films that are as fun and playful as An American Werewolf in London and Evil Dead II. However, a full month of horror movies may leave viewers looking for something outside of the genre that can still fulfill their desire to be unnerved, disturbed and even scared.
There are films that fall just outside of the “horror” label that we think should still be part of your slate of Halloween picks — whether these are films that wrestle with conspiracy theories, reveal the repugnant nature of their characters, or torment viewers through suspense, we can guarantee that these Texas-themed non-horror movies will still leave you spooked.
Killer Joe (2011)
Based on a play by the legendary Tracy Letts and directed by the great William Friedkin (no stranger to horror or thriller films, as he directed The Exorcist and The French Connection), the controversial Killer Joe was the rare mainstream American film to receive the dreaded NC-17 rating. It’s not hard to see why; Killer Joe relishes, and even satirizes, the lengths people will go to fulfill their own greed through the twisted story of the drug dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch) who persuades his family to put a hit on their mother in order to obtain her inheritance. Fulfilling the job is the titular lawman Killer Joe, played by Matthew McConaughey in the role that just preempted his major comeback.
What makes Killer Joe so frightening is the ways in which this bickering family is so easily persuaded to fall in line with their darkest impulses. The arguments between Chris and his father, Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church), sister (Juno Temple), and Sharla (Gina Gershon) begin as a series of sitcom-esque squabbles, but the film lingers just long enough to show their complacency to the primal evil that Joe represents. McConaughey’s acidic bounty hunter may be the most chilling character in the film, but his larger-than-life ferocity is mixed in with characters that feel painfully real in their ambivalence to evil.
Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Austin’s very own Tom Ford isn’t just a fashion designer whose brand has become instantly recognizable, but an established filmmaker who has made challenging, insightful films about the human experience. Ford’s second film, Nocturnal Animals, questions the very nature of revenge fiction by showing the immediate impact it has on the victim. Ford’s audacious film begins with a strained correspondence between art gallery owner Susan Marrow (Amy Adams) and her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), an author who sends her a copy of his latest work. As she begins reading, Susan discovers similarities between fact and fiction.
Edward’s book tells the story of a well-intentioned family man who is helpless watching as his wife and daughter are kidnapped and tortured by a sadistic criminal (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) on a Texas road trip. The twist, of course, is that these characters are also played by Gyllenhaal and Adams, making Edward’s intentions for writing the novel and sending it to Susan even murkier. As Susan’s real life collapses around her, the world of the novel begins to occupy more of her headspace; Nocturnal Animals may not strictly be a “horror” film, but it says a lot about our fascination with scary stories.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone popularized the “Spaghetti Western” subgenre through his "Man With No Name” trilogy that starred Clint Eastwood and concluded with 1966’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, but he returned to the genre two years later with the masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West. As Hollywood itself began transitioning away from traditional Western stories, Leone explored the end of the American Far West through a story of how the railroad system eroded the need for cowboys.
Fighting for relevance in these fleeting days are a mysterious outlaw known as “Harmonica” (Charles Bronson) and the hired gun Frank (Henry Fonda), whose paths cross as they battle over the fictional Old West town of Flagstone. Fonda had been known as one of Hollywood’s most iconic friendly faces, and seeing him weaponize his charisma and become a sociopath capable of murdering entire families is chilling. Leone was a master of tension who liked letting the audience’s anxiety grow through moments of silence; the film’s iconic opening scene, in which three assassins confront Harmonica at a train station, is a nearly wordless masterclass in slowly raising the stakes before a shootout.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)
Often, the scariest films aren’t the ones that show us frightening images, but the ones that call us to question our own priorities, values and standards. An exterior evil is never quite as chilling as the evil that exists within, and Ang Lee’s quasi-satire Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk calls into question the motivations of everyone involved in a horrible tragedy. After saving his squad during a firefight in Iraq, 19-year-old U.S. Army Spc. Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) becomes a viral sensation and is dispatched on a nationwide tour celebrating his bravery. As the tour culminates in Lynn’s hometown of Dallas, where he’s set to make an appearance at the Dallas Cowboys' Thanksgiving home game, Lynn wonders why he is a sensation and what he represents.
Lynn’s anxieties are understandable, as the film shows his experiences with intimate violence up close and how they continue to haunt him. When he agrees to be a part of this traveling show, he doesn’t realize that he’ll be at the mercy of media, political and social influences that seek to exploit his tragedy for the sake of their own advantage. Characters like Cowboys owner Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin) and film producer Albert Brown (Chris Tucker) are willing to dehumanize Billy with smiles on their faces, and over the course of the film, Billy watches as the nuances of his story are replaced with corporate truisms and empty promises. Cutting through notions of idealism with razor-sharp wit and savage satire, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk raises some frightening questions about humanity’s tendency to pat itself on the back.
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