When Reality Is Scary Enough, These Movies Are Safe Nightmares

When Reality Is Scary Enough, These Movies Are Safe Nightmares

It may sound counterintuitive, but watching horror films isn’t just about feeling scared. It’s also about feeling safe. Scary movies assure our brains that the terror is happening there, not here. They’re chilling security blankets.

A few weeks ago, the pandemic film “Contagion” was terrifying and cautionary but also a work of fiction. Now many of its fictions are facts, and the fear is real. (For some people, “Contagion” is still entertaining; streams of the film and other virus-themed disaster movies have surged.)

Besides pandemics, horror movies about isolation (“It Comes at Night”), home invasions (“Hush”) and the apocalypse (“The Road”) also come too close for comfort these days.

But what if I told you I had a motley list of films that are so far-fetched and improbable that there’s no way they could come true? That you can safely and sanely enjoy dread, mayhem and fear of the unknown? That each one carries a promise that this will never happen?

Please, please, please let me be right.

Like That Would Happen: Giant killer ants

Atomic Age creature features — about mutant people, animals and insects gone wild — are escapist nostalgia trips that make up in fun what they lack in quality. With run times around 90 minutes or less, they’re perfect for double or triple features. You can choose from a universe of attackers, including crabs, scorpions, she-creatures and The Manster. (CreatureFeatures.tv is a terrific resource.) One of the best is “Them!,” directed by Gordon Douglas, about massive man-crushing ants. The movie is more goofy than scary; one critic said the ants “look ridiculous and as threatening as … well, the Care Bears.” This one’s especially good for restless kids who might enjoy a retro scare.

Available on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, iTunes

Like That Would Happen: Mind control

For something more highbrow, try Jean-Luc Godard’s sci-fi/film noir mash-up set in the dismal world of Alphaville, where emotions are outlawed. The film follows the intergalactic detective Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) on his mission to hunt down the evil scientist behind a mind-control supercomputer that rules the citizenry. Lemmy gets help from the scientist’s daughter Natacha (Anna Karina), who ultimately discovers love herself. Godard’s pulpy homage to American B-movies and hard-boiled gumshoe dramas exists in a world where technology and totalitarianism partner for evil. (We’re not there — yet.) But Godard also stylishly delivers a dystopian love story with a poetic, utopian heart.

Available on Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Kanopy

Like That Would Happen: Everything

Perfect for adventurous film freaks, David Lynch’s first feature is a wacko, surreal, black-and-white nightmare-scape about — how do I put this? — an unnerved man with frightful hair (Jack Nance) and a monstrous infant. Writing in The New York Times, Manohla Dargis said the film “disturbs, seduces and even shocks,” but it “also amuses, in its own weird way, with scenes of preposterous, macabre comedy.” I vote this the Film Least Likely to Become a Documentary.

Available on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, iTunes, Criterion Channel

Like That Would Happen: Killer clowns from outer space

In this outlandish comedy-horror hybrid, clownlike aliens infiltrate a small town with plans to terrorize humanity. To the rescue come the teenagers Mike (Grant Cramer) and Debbie (Suzanne Snyder), who try to convince disbelieving authorities that the murderous bozos aren’t joking. Directed by Stephen Chiodo, the film is a fun-house nod to B-movie fare like “The Blob,” and now has a cult following. This one is great for families with children who can handle creepy clowns harvesting people in cotton-candy cocoons, or death by pie in the face.

Available on Roku, Tubi, Pluto TV

Like That Would Happen: Bigfoot

Until Bigfoot is captured, Bobcat Goldthwait’s unsettling found-footage horror movie remains a frightening work of pure imagination. It’s about a couple (Bryce Johnson and Alexie Gilmore) who travel deep into the woods to document where Sasquatch was said to have been seen in 1967. An almost 20-minute scene shot entirely inside a tent is one of the most nail-biting moments I’ve ever watched through my fingers. Because it feels like a documentary, this one is best for folks with a strong constitution for realistic horror.

Available on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, iTunes, Kanopy

Like That Would Happen: Zombies

The most memorable zombie films upend the genre with surprises like musical-comedy zombies (“Anna and the Apocalypse”) and Nazi zombies (“Dead Snow”). This Japanese comedy, directed by Shinichiro Ueda, adds a delightful twist: meta zombies. In the zombie film within the film, a director keeps rolling as his cast and crew are attacked by actual zombies. But about a third of the way in, we suddenly switch gears and “One Cut of the Dead” delightfully transforms into a slapstick backstage farce — think “Noises Off” with blood. I’m cheating a little by including this film, since it could actually happen. (The reason it could is a spoiler.) But if it did, that would be splendid.

Available on Shudder, Amazon, Google Play, iTunes

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