How do we define “cosmic horror?” To start, we’ll have to travel back to the 1920s, when a prominent figure in the horror community was churning out tales like The Call of Cthulhu and The Dunwich Horror. H P Lovecraft was known for mind-bending fiction, which called upon horrors beyond human comprehension.
Cthulhu, the fish people of Innsmouth, the titular Hound – they’re impossibilities that force us to consider our place in the universe.
That, in an essence, is cosmic horror. It confronts us with monstrosities beyond our comprehension and intends to make us feel cosmically insignificant. For the best cosmic horror movies, you’ll want to work your way through this list of the mind-melting works inspired by Lovecraft’s work, as well as where you can watch them online.
Not only do they best represent cosmic horror, they’re also incredible horror movies worth watching.
Director: David Cronenberg Where To Watch: CBS All Access, Shudder
If you want to watch something uncanny, something that will bend your mind and maybe leave you uncomfortable in your own skin, you go for a Cronenberg movie. While many of his films deal with body horror and a mingling of the psychological and the physical, his 1999 sci-fi horror film, Existenz, creeps closer into cosmic horror territory.
In a future that nobody wants, video games have become biological in nature, requiring ports within our bodies to immerse us into reality-bending games. Think The Matrix, but a bit more grotesque thanks to bioweapons, and I don’t mean a deadly virus. I mean a gun, made from biological material, that shoots teeth.
Existenz features Cronenberg’s signature body horror, but the film will have you looking at your own reality.
In 2000, Akihiro Higuchi released his feature film debut under the alias of Higuchinsky and brought to the screen an adaptation of the manga series Uzumaki.
Just as in the manga, the movie is set in a small town that becomes overrun by mysterious spirals. Since the movie was released as the manga was still being written, it deviates greatly from the source material. If you read Uzumaki, you’re in for a surprise as the movie veers onto its own path.
Uzumaki has some surprisingly unsettling imagery as the townspeople succumb to the spirals. Though it seems to play out as a zombie apocalypse movie, there are elements of cosmic horror as the deadly spirals seem extraterrestrial in nature and are certainly beyond human comprehension.
13. Absentia (2011)
Director: Mike Flanagan Where To Watch: Shudder, AMC+
Have you ever wondered what happens to the people that vanish and are never heard from again? We always assume the worst, but what if they’re trapped with a creature from the unknown with a chance of returning? That’s the question that Absentia explores as it follows a pregnant woman finally coming to terms with the disappearance of her husband seven years earlier.
He’s far from the only person to go missing in Glendale, CA, and it’s clear that there is something that defies reality afoot. When Tricia invites her former drug-addict sister to live with her, the truth behind the tunnel in front of her home and the vanishing citizens of Glendale starts to take shape.
Unfortunately, it’s a shape that was better left in the shadows.
12. The Mist (2007)
Director: Frank Darabont Where To Watch: Netflix
What lies within the mist? Is it nothing, like so many seemed to think, or is there unspeakable horrors from different dimensions lurking and waiting for hapless victims? Thankfully for the viewer, it’s the latter in Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novella from 1980.
Darabont took a few liberties with the short piece, specifically with the movie’s ending. Typically, this can be a death knell for a production, but Darabont’s direction winds up working particularly well. Especially more-so than Christian Torpe’s television adaptation.
The acting is a bit corny, even with a pretty notable cast that includes Thomas Jane and Marcia Gay Harden attached, but the creature horror keeps it entertaining. The Mist puts us at the bottom of the food chain as other-worldly spiders and tentacled beasts emerge from the thick mist.
11. The Void (2016)
Director: Steven Kostanski, Jeremy Gillespie Where To Watch: Netflix, Shudder
Part Hellraiser, part The Thing, and part Prince of Darkness, The Void is all horror and sure to leave you untrusting of hospitals and white hooded figures. Well, maybe you should already be weary of that last one.
There’s a lot going on in The Void, from nurses skinning themselves to tentacled monsters and creepy cultists. As it all starts to come together, you’ll realize that there is something much bigger unfolding behind the scenes. And it’s pretty bloody and weird.
To bring this strange and unnerving tale to life, Kostanski and Gillespie rely on practical effects. There’s a bit of a b-horror quality to it and the story takes a bit to pick up, but that doesn’t take away from The Void’s success as a horror movie, let alone one of the best cosmic horror movies you’ll find.
10. Pulse (2001)
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa Where To Watch: Shudder
Sorry, American remake, but we have to go with the original Pulse, which came out of Japan in 2001.
If you’ve ever wondered what the greatest dangers of the Internet are, Pulse throws an unexpected answer into the mix as spirits utilize the information superhighway to enter the world of the living.
It’s not just a Ghostbusters-level haunt, either. These specters intend to invade, killing everyone just for the sake of doing so. The ghostly epidemic gets so bad that Tokyo is forced to evacuate its citizens. Pulse handles the global-scale invasion quite well, though much of the movie takes place in Tokyo.
It’s not the ghost story you may expect, but Pulse is a unique and horrifying concept sure to scare you into disconnecting your router.
9. Hellraiser (1987)
Director: Clive Barker Where To Watch: Shudder
What lies beyond our own dimension? There is a good chance we don’t want to know, especially if it’s anything like what’s represented in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser.
In true Barker fashion, Hellraiser presents a gruesome hellscape filled with terrifying beings known as Cenobites. The leader of them, identified as Pinhead in later sequels, has a penchant for sadomasochism and harvesting the souls of the living. It’s simply not something you want to be real, especially since all it takes to unleash these interdimensional beings is a little puzzle box.
Hellraiser’s Pinhead has become an iconic villain and the 1987 film represents the gory side of cosmic horror. After watching Barker’s vision come to life on the screen, be sure to carve out some time for The Hellbound Heart, the novella responsible for launching the ten-film franchise.
8. Event Horizon (1997)
Director: Paul W. S. Anderson Where To Watch: Netflix
Before Paul Anderson took beloved franchises like Resident Evil and Alien vs. Predator and turned them into abysmal movies, he was twisting reality and sending us into hellish dimensions.
Event Horizon isn’t a movie that everyone will love, but if you’re looking for a freaky cosmic horror movie, it’s a great place to start.
After the Event Horizon starship reappears outside of Neptune’s orbit, her seven-year disappearance answers the question of what lies beyond our dimension. As the crew of the Lewis and Clarke rescue vessel quickly find, it’s nothing we want to voluntarily explore.
Sam Neill helps sell the horror of Event Horizon in a role that’s a far cry from Dr. Alan Grant.
Typically, when it’s a question of choosing an original or its remake, the original always wins. For The Blob, it’s not as clear cut. The 1988 remake modernized the concept in all the right ways. It was infinitely gorier and more capable of capturing the true horror of being dissolved by a gelatinous blob.
From the moments the titular alien glob falls from the sky to the film’s ridiculous climax, The Blob (1988) did a better job of depicting the cosmic threat of the alien lifeform. Especially as it grew in size and displayed sentience.
It’s also worth noting that The Blob’s remake was Shawnee Smith’s first starring role and earned her a second nomination for the Young Artist Awards.
6. The Call of Cthulhu (2005)
Director: Andrew Leman Where To Watch: Not Available
No, no. Don’t try to adjust your television set and don’t bother with the volume. The 2005 film based on H. P. Lovecraft’s short story, The Call of Cthulhu, is a black-and-white silent film produced to look like a 1920s-era movie. It’s a fitting film style for Lovecraft’s classic tale, which follows a mysterious cult and the fabled Great Old One.
As with much of Lovecraft’s work, The Call of Cthulhu deals heavily with sanity and how easily we break when faced with real horrors beyond our comprehension. When a young man is given a collection of research on the cult of Cthulhu by his great-uncle, he embarks on a mission to finish the dying professor’s work.
Running only 47 minutes long, The Call of Cthulhu doesn’t need a lot of time to be effective. From 2006 through 2008, the short film earned four awards, including the Best Feature at Eerie Horror Film Festival (2006) and Vuze Audience Favorites Winner (2007/2008).
5. Re-Animator (1985)
Director: Stuart Gordon Where To Watch: Shudder
You don’t have to be a story derived from H. P. Lovecraft to fall into cosmic horror, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
Based on Lovecraft’s Herbert West-Reanimator series, Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator puts Jeffrey Combs in one of his most iconic roles as the brilliant scientist Herbert West responsible for bringing the dead back to life.
Re-Animator isn’t simply a zombie movie. It’s a tale of morality, the horrors of science and discovery, and how far we’re willing to go to “cure” death. Bruce Abbott and Barbara Crampton join Combs in this comedic Lovecraftian creation, which was originally intended to be a stage production and a television series.
Should you need a break from the typical depiction of the undead, Re-Animator is a fantastic movie to turn to.
Can you trust those around you? Even the people you know best, living under the same roof as you? Watch Invasion of the Body Snatchers and then answer that question. Chances are it will be quite different than before you watched the classic movie.
The 1956 horror movie takes place in the town of Santa Mira, when a mysterious event starts changing the townspeople. Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) believes it’s an invasion of pod people, who have replaced the human inhabitants of Santa Mira.
You may know what to expect going into Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but you have to watch it from the character’s perspective. The notion that everyone around you has been replaced by something incomprehensible is enough to drive anyone mad.
3. The Evil Dead (1981)
Director: Sam Raimi Where To Watch: Netflix
When Sam Raimi brought The Evil Dead to the big screen, building upon the short film Within the Woods, he lay the groundwork for what would become a massive franchise. Though the series went on to become more comedic in tone, The Evil Dead remained a true horror film hell bent on disturbing its viewers with the taunting Deadites.
The Evil Dead introduces an interdimensional horror, brought to our world through the Naturan Demanto. You read that right! The name Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, conceptualized by H. P. Lovecraft, wasn’t used in the series until Evil Dead II, though the two movies are essentially one-in-the-same.
We don’t get many of the popular catchphrases until after The Evil Dead, but there’s no denying the importance (and quality) of Sam Raimi’s entry title and introduction to Ashley “Ash” Williams.
2. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
Director: John Carpenter Where To Watch: Shudder
Consider In the Mouth of Madness a love letter to the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Beyond having a similar title to At the Mountains of Madness, Carpenter’s film deals heavily with themes of insanity and even includes references to some Lovecraft characters.
In the Mouth of Madness stars Sam Neill as John Trent, a psychiatric hospital patient with one hell of a story to tell. It all revolves around the works of horror novelist Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), who’s tales of terror have an unexpected side effect.
It’s not unlike reading a Lovecraft story, which is bound to toy with your sanity. In the Mouth of Madness is full of monsters, disturbing imagery, and plenty of twists and turns. All of the necessary ingredients to a Lovecraft tribute.
1. The Thing (1982)
Director: John Carpenter Where To Watch: Hulu
Based on John W. Campbell, Jr.’s 1938 sci-fi novella, Who Goes There?, John Carpenter’s The Thing is a gory, horrifying display of the insignificance of man.
When an Antarctica research outpost uncovers an extraterrestrial being and inadvertently unleashes the malevolent creature, it’s very clear that human beings are on the bottom of the cosmic food chain.
Capable of copying organic material on a molecular level, the “thing” sparks paranoia and fear among Outpost 31. Even the audience is left wondering about the potential for world domination by such a life form as it perfectly replicates members of the research team. Helping sell the concept is a stellar cast that includes Kurt Russel, Keith David, Donald Moffat, A. Wilford Brimley, and T. K. Carter.
If the plot doesn’t leave you uneasy, then maybe knowing The Thing bombed at the box office will. Clearly, it was a movie well ahead of its time.
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