It doesn’t take a psychologist to realise that now might not be the best time for everyone’s mental health. Global pandemics tend not to be the most calming of situations, and the recent state of lockdown that was enforced here in the UK and in many other countries hasn’t helped to soothe anyone’s thoughts. 

As many have been quick to point out though, there are a variety of options to distract you right now – the main antidote being the huge number of streaming platforms and on demand film services that are available. You’ve probably seen a thousand articles in the last few weeks about the best films to get you through quarantine, the best heartwarming watches, the most wholesome rom-coms etc. But one genre that can be an unlikely source for dealing with anxiety, and providing a strong dose of distraction, is horror. 

Okay, hear me out on this one. According to the experts, more specifically Dr Ali Mattu, a clinical psychologist specialising in anxiety, horror films are effective for dealing with stress because they “can activate your body in a similar way as light exercise can… and for a lot of people who struggle with worries, doing something that helps you to get out of your head and get your body active is a great way to tolerate that stress.” 

Aside from that adrenaline boost that scary movies give us, they also provide us with a controlled environment in which we can forget about our Covid anxieties and face up to some rather more entertaining and liberating fears. As Stephen King wrote in his essay “Why We Crave Horror Movies,” “horror movies provide psychic relief… this invitation to lapse into simplicity, irrationality and even outright madness is extended so rarely. We are told we may allow our emotions a free rein.”

So if you’re desiring a hit of unconventional therapeutic viewing or just need to unwind a bit, look no further; here is a rundown of the very best horror films to sample in these stressful times… 


Modern giallo: In Fabric, Knife + Heart and The Love Witch

The term “giallo” originated from the yellow covers of early Italian mystery novels (“giallo” literally meaning yellow in Italian), but in the film world, giallo soon become a whole new sub-genre in itself. Films like The Girl Who Knew Too Much, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key are characterized by explosive colours, splashy, hyper-sexualised murders, psychedelic soundtracks, and crash-zoom heavy filmmaking. 

While the bold stylings of giallo largely faded away in the ’80s, the movement has seen a mini-renaissance recently. Peter Strickland’s In Fabric weaves a gloriously campy story of a cursed dress that wreaks havoc on its owners with gory results, while Yann Gonzalez’s Knife + Heart is a wild dive into the world of ’70s euro gay porn with, again, splashy results. And Anna Biller’s The Love Witch is an outrageously seductive and silky smooth tale of a young witch whose quest for love quickly grows out of hand – while also delivering commentary on the power of sexuality in cinema.

They make for a terrific triple bill, though they make you a little paranoid about stepping into a clothes shop, a ’70s gay porn shoot or a witches’ coven ever again.

In Fabric is available on Now TV, Knife + Heart is available on Shudder, The Love Witch is available to rent on Prime Video.


Universal Classic Monsters

Firstly, let’s all agree to collectively wipe from our brains the existence of 2017’s The Mummy and recognise that Blumhouse should be allowed to remake the entire Dark Universe (go stream The Invisible Man remake on VOD – Elisabeth Moss for an Oscar). That said, this lockdown is the perfect time to return to the original Universal Monsters series in all its early Hollywood, big budget glory. But where to start? 

Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Boris Karloff as Frankenstein and The Mummy are certainly the most well-loved and iconic characters from the collection. But it’s also worth delving deeper for treasures like James Whale’s 1933 adaption of The Invisible Man, starring a heavily bandaged but imposing as ever Claude Rains and some very ahead-of-their-time special effects.

Curt Siodmak’s The Wolf Man and Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon are also well worth seeking out, even if its just to see the charmingly hokey wetsuit that the latter writhes about in. This is the ultimate movie marathon for those needing a dose of old school big budget thrills – starring a whole bevy of big name actors and more horny monsters pursuing helpless women than you can shake a mummified fist at.

The Classic Monsters collection is available to rent on Prime Video or on Blu-Ray


Ghost Stories

Anyone familiar with late ’90s British comedy will know that The League of Gentlemen was the cream of the crop: a deliciously twisted melting pot of gallows humour and filthy characters created by Mark Gattis, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, and Jeremy Dyson. Pemberton and Shearsmith went on to create the excellent Inside No. 9 (available on iPlayer and 100% bingeworthy), while Gattis has a hugely impressive stack of writing and acting credits to his name. Dyson brought a hefty dose of old school horror to the West End with his hit play Ghost Stories, created with (and starring) Andy Nyman. 

The play is hugely imaginative in its staging and gradual drip-feed of dread, and in 2017 was adapted into a feature film. Boasting several big stars in Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse and Alex Lawther, it retains the play’s many twists and turns as well as its frequently hilarious script. The clever staging tricks also translate effortlessly. Be warned, jump scares abound, but this is a hugely entertaining watch with one mighty sucker punch of an ending.

Ghost Stories is available on Netflix



“Pain and pleasure, indivisible.”

Clive Barker’s 1987 Hellraiser is the ultimate exercise in excess and ickiness: hooks piercing bodies, leering monsters, and a whole load of sadomasochistic hedonism (and that’s only the first five minutes). Set in a suburban English house, Barker literally breaks down the walls of comfortable middle-class life to reveal a mess of lust and bloodshed – brought to life by some of the best practical effects work in horror to date.

Clare Higgins is chillingly sinister as Julia, luring men to their doom (though there is definitely a debate to be had about how empowered a character she is). Of course we also have the iconic Pinhead (Doug Bradley) and his minions – though for much of the film they are absent, the action being far more centered on Julia and her gradual destruction of the happy middle England illusion. 

The focus on excessive body horror and fantastical creatures makes this a defining ’80s horror staple, while Christopher Young’s epic score and Barker’s skill for conjuring terror in the most familiar of settings elevate it far above standard genre fodder.  Come for Pinhead, stay for the chains.

Hellraiser is available on Shudder


Troll Hunter

If you’re tired of seeing a million and one news reports and documentaries about the state of the world right now, why not turn to this very silly Norwegian mockumentary about the government trying to cover up a troll outbreak? Before hitting it big with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and The Autopsy of Jane Doe, director André Øvredal decided to honour his home country in a very unusual way, exposing the country’s many woodlands and caves as being home to a whole host of gigantic, many headed trolls.

Though it’s presented as a found footage film (a rather tired sub-genre at this point), a strong dose of wry Norwegian wit and some super creative VFX work make this a refreshing break from your standard po-faced Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity. Øvredal plays around with mythological lore like trolls being able to smell the blood of a Christian and turning to stone in the sunlight. His focus on bureaucratic incompetency in such a fantastical film is also hilarious, so if you need something a tad more goofy, Troll Hunter is a home run.

Troll Hunter is available on Netflix


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari celebrates its hundredth anniversary this year and is widely regarded by many, Roger Ebert included, as “the first true horror film” and an extraordinary historical document. Its wild, jagged art style is the expressionist movement at its radical peak and its all-encompassing mood of dread and suspense must have chimed deeply with a nation emerging from a long bloody nightmare of a war.

Werner Krauss delivers one of the all-time great horror performances as the leering, bulbous eyed Caligari. The town is strikingly designed by art director Hermann Warm, a labyrinthine jumble of jagged, treacherous corridors and towering walls that were highly influenced by the work of the German art collective Der Sturm. Even the title cards are gorgeous to look at, an array of spiky arching letters and swirling lines.

It’s easy to see the many ways in which Wiene’s film has influenced pretty much all of horror cinema, from the slow build up of fear, to the jagged, visually threatening art design and dramatic stabs of light.

On a different note, this Portlandia sketch that revolves around a pretentious fan of the film is a perfect accompaniment (and my attempt at being self aware).

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is available on BFI Player