In France, the idea of horror is a little different than in Hollywood. In the past, French horror directors generally eschewed jump scares in favor of a feeling of creeping death. Cameras were distant, characters were blank and horror was imposing, if not a natural part of life. More recently, the French Extremist movement has plumbed the depths of gore and human nature, pillaging the worst of human behavior for chills. That aching dread one feels at the end of films by Wes Craven and John Carpenter—that not everything is going to be all right—is prevalent in many such films.
While there are a slew of issues with treating cinema as nationalistic, I do think it is a far greater binding agent than just language, so the entries on this list of the 20 best French horror films are ones that were produced at least in part in France. For those wondering why such popular films as High Tension (2003) and Inside (2007) didn’t make the cut: It’s not because I haven’t seen them, but because I dislike them. Part of the fun of horror films is the dividing lines they reveal between what scares one person and elicits barely a reaction in another, so don’t be afraid to call me out on what you think is a masterpiece that I might think is trash.
20.) The Living Dead Girl (Jean Rollin, 1982)
The ethereal nature of white skin against a dark background is at the heart of The Living Dead Girl’s appeal. Strangling beauty is at the heart of much of Jean Rollin’s work, as his creatures of the night who prey on unsuspecting victims are usually impossibly beautiful. These women, though, like Rollin’s films in general, are cold—unable, because of personal trauma or nature, to relate to the world and show warmth or empathy. This film is one of the few examples of environmental vampirism, as the cause of the characters’ craving for blood is not venereal but a toxic spill. The plot may be silly, but the eeriness of the atmosphere and the beauty of its leads offers easy compensation. There is a pervading fetishism in Rollin’s work that I find endlessly appealing, as the women are both powerful and terribly frail.
19.) Les Revenants (Robin Campillo, 2004)
A chilly and restrained view of zombies, Les Revenants is set in a small French town where, inexplicably, the dead return. Biologically they are completely healthy (and very much alive), they retain their memories, and they want to return to a normal life. The film doesn’t have gore or violence, but it gets under your skin nevertheless. The unease of dealing with death, especially under such fantastic circumstances, creates an atmosphere of aching uncertainty. The film uses the tropes of horror through misdirection, avoiding giving the audience the satisfaction of answers and the titillation of scares. Campillo puts his audience in the shoes of characters who are avoiding facing a new reality. The film would inspire a far more successful TV show of the same name.
18.) Don’t Deliver Us From Evil (Joël Séria, 1971)
Don’t Deliver Us from Evil is an underrated and underseen film about female emancipation. Centered around the friendship of two teenage girls who embrace Satan and wreak havoc during their summer vacation, the film is ultimately about the liberating power of evil. It’s not exactly an exploitation film, but it does touch on the sexuality, violence and heresy emblematic of the genre. It’s also formally adventurous, using both visual effects and inventive camera tricks to create a sense of danger. The intensity of its female friendship is in the same league with films like Heavenly Creatures (1994) and shares a fair dose of whimsy with its brutal visions of an idealized hell on earth.
17.) The Iron Rose (Jean Rollin, 1973)
In my mind, the cinema of Jean Rollin is the stereotypical image of French horror: reticent, bleak, and full of beautiful women in various states of undress. But The Iron Rose is one of his more offbeat films. A young couple is wandering around a large cemetery, but as night falls, they can’t seem to find a way out. A sort of low-brow version of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, the psychological implications of their predicament send them into a tailspin of sex, loss, and terror. The film’s unusual narrative device is its biggest selling point, evoking all kinds of childhood nightmares of being lost and unable to find your way home. The effect the situation has on this relationship is equally poignant, weighted with dread of the impermanence of romance.
16.) “Toby Dammit,” from Spirits of the Dead (Federico Fellini, 1968)
Neither of the first two entries in the Edgar Allan Poe-based anthology film Spirits of the Dead, directed by Louis Malle and Roger Vadim respectively, are particularly good, both abandoning any sense of style or anxiety. But then there’s Federico Fellini’s masterful final segment, “Toby Dammit.” Based on Poe’s “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” the film is a dystopian tale of a superstar actor losing grip with reality. Swathed in blue tones, the film blends the aesthetics of Victorian fashion with a very 1960s vision of the future. While not scary per se, the film is a disturbing indictment of the cult of celebrity and the changing face of temptation in the modern world. Many Fellini fans go so far as to rank “Toby Dammit” as among his greatest films.
15.) Amer (Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, 2009)
This experimental horror film is a mood piece inspired by Italian giallo. As a genre, giallo is ever-so-slightly left of the horror film, often drawing more heavily on crime and thriller genres with a hint of the slasher genre, usually without any supernatural elements. The enduring appeal of the genre has always lied in its beautiful women and sensual use of image and sound. In the films of giallo masters Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento and Mario Bava, the murders were heated with sexual frenzy and out-of-control desire. In their first collaboration, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani draw on these influences to create a tryptic study on the textures, movements, and sounds of giallo. Their command of atmosphere is so strong that they barely need to rely on plotting to get under viewers’ skins.
14.) Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932)
Shot in multiple languages at once, Vampyr was once only known through weird hybrids of different editions cut together (at least until its Criterion Collection home-video release). And yet, even these rough-and-tumble versions still had their own air of mystery and lent the phantasmagorical film another layer of dreaminess. Some of its effectiveness has to do with the unique nature of its production: The film was shot with a cast of non-professional actors exclusively on real locations in France instead of on sound studios, in order to make the horror feel as authentic as possible. But even more important is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s indebtedness to German expressionism, with the film’s environment reflecting the inner world of its characters. The richness of Rudolph Maté’s black-and-white cinematography and the poetry of Dreyer’s craft makes the film’s treatment of death transcendent, though it remains firmly gripped by the fear of the unknown.
13.) The Fall of the House of Usher (Jean Epstein, 1928)
The only silent film on the list, Jean Epstein’s interpretation of the classic Poe tale ranks among the most poetic horror films ever made. At a brisk 63 minutes, Epstein relies especially on editing—alternating crank speeds and superimposition—to evoke a powerfully unrestful dream universe. As psychological horror, the film is effective, with Roderick Usher’s gradual descent into madness vividly suggested through the film’s dreamy setting. The film emphasizes sadness above scares, but the deep sense of longing for the dead makes for a disconcerting experience. Among the most effective of all silent horror, The Fall of the House of Usher channels Poe’s own overwhelming melancholy.
12.) Ils (David Moreau and Xavier Palud, 2006)
Later remade as The Strangers (2009), Ils is reportedly based on a true story of some pesky kids in the woods. Updating the home-invasion narrative for the modern era, the film taps into the untold fears of being trapped in the middle of nowhere at the mercy of an unknown force. The film inspires a sense of growing helplessness and a sense of discomfort in familiar spaces. Much of the film’s effectiveness lies in how the filmmakers keep the aggressors out of sight, lending them a much more awe-inspiring power. The film’s best scare is ocular and plays up the untrustworthy eeriness of keyholes.
11.) The Beast (Walerian Borowczyk, 1975)
Opening with the graphic image of two horses being bred, The Beast is an unflinching portrait of animal instincts and unbridled sexuality. The story of an arranged marriage (of sorts), the film’s primary focus is on the sexual awakening of Lucy (Lisbeth Hummel), who finds herself drawn into a world of depravity and deformity. The film connects the false virtues of Catholicism with thought control and restrictive ideas of purity. The film’s most infamous sequence is a half-dream where Lucy runs through the woods pursued by an enormous beast. The creature finally catches her, they have sex and a giant prosthetic penis is affectionately (and comically) prodded until it ejaculates. Though more unnerving than scary, The Beast is still a must-see for those who are interested in euro-sex-horror from the era.