What’s one of the great things about horror? It tends to translate pretty well no matter what language you’re watching it in because fear—haunting tension, harrowing imagery, and high pitched screams—is universal. And though America has perfected the blockbuster scary movie, France has a long history of making tasteful and deliciously creepy films. Here are 9 French horror movies from the early 20th century until today.
1. The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)
The term folie à deux was coined in the 19th century by French psychiatrists Charles Lasègue and Jean-Pierre Falret, but it has been conceptualized in few stories as dynamically as in Jean Epstein’s 1928 silent film, The Fall of the House of Usher. Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s story of the same name, the 65-minute movie follows Charles Lamy as he visits the estate of his friend, Roderick Usher, whose delusions about his dying wife turn out to be surprisingly infectious. A dreamy atmosphere punctuated by uncomfortable closeups and rapid cutting between scenes made it an experimental film for the age. The film is also public domain, so there are many versions available online.
2. Les Diaboliques (1955)
At an all-boys boarding school, two women conspire to murder the headmaster: his wife, and his mistress. A thriller ensues when the body goes missing, and results in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterpiece, Les Diaboliques. This classic horror film inspired a generation of psychological thrillers, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
3. Les Yeux Sans Visage (1960)
When it comes to iconic horror costumes, the face-like mask Édith Scob wears in Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face) takes the cake in this Georges Franju adaptation of Jean Redon’s novel. A mad scientist and his devoted assistant will go to any lengths to perform a successful face graft onto the doctor’s daughter, Christiane, who wears the chilling mask to hide her disfigurement after a car accident.
4. The Living Dead Girl (1982)
Director Jean Rollin is the unrivaled king of the French vampire movie, and La Morte Vivante is one of his best. Rollin moonlighted as an adult filmmaker for much of 70s, and his work maintains elements of the pornographic: dark fantasies about beautiful women with dangerous appetites. In this one, she comes back from the dead only to discover a taste for blood as a result of being contaminated by a toxic chemical spill. It’s eerie and beautiful, as long as you can get past a plot that is, admittedly, somewhat silly.
5. Ils (2006)
Often compared to movies like The Blair Witch Project, Ils is about a couple who move to a mysterious house in a remote part of Romania, which turns out to be already occupied… A good pick for those who like horror but can’t handle gore, as much of the action happens offscreen while still creating an eerie and unnerving feeling.
6. Martyrs (2008)
Written and directed by Pascal Laugier, Martyrs brings the term “torture porn” to a new level. It follows a young woman, Lucie, who was kidnapped and tortured as a child, and 15 years later decides to track down those responsible and kill them. Her friend, Anna, gets dragged into the plot, and the things she discovers along the way, finding herself on the edge between life and death, are as thought-provoking as they are horrifying.
7. Raw (2016)
Not for the faint of heart, Raw (Grave is the French title) follows a vegetarian vet-in-training as she develops disturbing cravings for human flesh. It’s about as much body horror as even the most seasoned gore fanatic can stomach, and might make you reconsider veganism, but it’s erotic and compelling nonetheless. Director Julia Ducournau will have you thinking long and hard on primal desires, and the unpleasant hungers we all try to hide, every time you order a burger.
8. Revenge (2017)
If you’re in the mood to stab the patriarchy’s eyes out and leave it bleeding in the middle of the desert, then cue up Revenge, a feminist-exploitation fusion directed by Coralie Fargeat. After being assaulted and left for dead, a young woman (played by Matilda Lutz) struggles for survival and vengeance in this brutal, bloody, and surprisingly stylish horror-action flick.
9. La Révolution (2020)
This Netflix show reimagines the French Revolution through the eyes of Joseph Guillotin, a doctor and the inventor after whom the guillotine was named. But it’s about more than just a different perspective: part historical fiction, part thriller, part science fiction/fantasy, La Révolution transforms the phrase “blue blood” from a social position into an actual disease. Assisted by royal rebels and spying servants, Guillotin sets out to learn more about this mysterious ailment, and correct years of social injustice in France.
Featured Image: Stock Photos from Thongden Studio / Shutterstock