As a human race, our history is absolutely brimming with stories of the paranormal and unknown, and it has long been a source of not only terror, but of great interest to many. These historical settings provide a rich background to explore both modern and ancient horrors, and typically elevate a film far beyond the normal trappings of present-day-set horror.
While there are a number of great films by acclaimed directors that could have made it onto this list – including A Field in England, The Awakening, and The Devil’s Backbone – these films were selected for their incredible ability to not only keep us up at night, but transport us to a time that is vastly different from our own. If you’re looking for a break from the modern-day slashers and ghost pics, here are ten of the best historical fiction horror movies for you to check out.
10 Crimson Peak
Guillermo del Toro is the master of gothic fantasy and horror (his name will be popping up again on this list). One of his more recent offerings was the period horror film Crimson Peak, which has gone criminally under seen in the years since its release.
The film has an all-star cast, including Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessican Chastain, and Charlie Hunnam. The story is set in early 20th century England, and follows aspiring author Edith Cushing (Wasikowska), who travels to a mysterious and remote gothic estate in Cumberland with her new husband Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Chastain). But after moving into this new mansion, Edith begins to experience a number of ghostly visions, leading her on a winding and deadly investigation into the mansion’s horrific past.
One of del Toro’s biggest strengths as a director is his lavish set design and impeccable control of atmosphere, and Crimson Peak has no shortage of both. While the film’s story has been criticized for being weaker than some of his other movies, Crimson Peak is absolutely gorgeous and a trip worth taking.
9 Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a wonderfully lush gothic horror drama, and is perhaps one of the best adaptations of the classic novel ever to hit the big screen.
The 1897-set tale is as old as time, and follows London solicitor Jonathon Harker (Keanu Reeves) as he leaves his young fiancée Mina (Winona Ryder) and he travels to Transylvania to arrange the mysterious Count Dracula’s real estate acquisitions. However, upon arriving at the ancient manor, the Count (portrayed by Gary Oldman in one of his best performances) finds a picture of Mina, and becomes convinced that she is the reincarnation of his past love, Elisabetha. He traps Jonathon in his castle, and travels to England to find his believed long-lost love.
While Keanu Reeves’ performance is often mocked and ridiculed (and to an extent, it’s justified – that accent is rough), the film is nevertheless an impactful and resoundingly beautiful watch. The notoriously-meticulous Coppola impeccably recreated Victorian-era London, resulting in a truly beautiful movie.
8 Sleepy Hollow
Another gothic supernatural horror film from the mind of Tim Burton, Sleepy Hollow is loosely based on the famous Washington Irving short story from 1820. The movie, set in 1799, stars Johnny Depp as police constable Ichabod Crane, who is sent from New York City to the small township of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of brutal decapitations. The locals believe the mysterious culprit to be the undead apparition of a headless mercenary from the Revolutionary War who rides at night on his eponymous black horse in search of his forever-missing head. While these claims seem far-fetched at first, Crane comes to find there may be more truth to the legend than he initially believed.
Burton’s knack for the macabre really shines in Sleepy Hollow. Originally designed to be a low-budget slasher film, Burton boarded the project and brought with him a much larger budget and fanciful production design. The film ended up being a wonderful success, and it’s easy to see why; its atmosphere is impeccably crafted, and makes for perfect viewing any time of the year, but especially during the chilly Halloween season.
Gareth Evans – the action director behind The Raid and its explosive sequel – stepped a bit out of his comfort zone in 2018 with the release of the period folk horror film Apostle.
The film takes place in 1905, and follows Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens), a British man who travels to a remote Welsh island inhabited by a mysterious cult to rescue his sister, who has been kidnaped and held for ransom by the leader, Malcolm Howe (Michael Sheen). Posing as a potential convert, Richardson quickly becomes entangled in the convoluted politics of the secretive cult, learning the island is overseen by a mysterious woman known only as The Goddess, who possesses supernatural abilities that protect the island and its inhabitants.
Taking a lot of inspiration from films like Silent Hill and The Wicker Man, Apostle is a compulsively-watchable trip to a terrifying past that gradually builds to an explosive (and satisfyingly gruesome) third act that’s one for the books. The set design, cinematography, evocative music and sound design, and strong acting from all players involved make for a positively wild horror adventure.
6 Brotherhood of the Wolf
Christophe Gans’ French historical action horror movie Brotherhood of the Wolf has largely gone overlooked here in the United States in the years since its release in 2001, but it’s more than worthy of your attention.
The film is set in 1764 during the French Revolution and is loosely inspired by the famous legend of the Beast of Gevaudan. The story is focused around knight Gregoire de Fronsac and his Iroquois companion Mani, who have been dispatched by the King to investigate the vicious – and possibly supernatural – murder of hundreds of innocent people by an unknown creature in the county of Gevaudan.
While the “real” monster at the heart of this story is most likely a wolf (or pack of wolves), Brotherhood of the Wolf goes wild with the mythos to create a really fun, genre-bending movie, combining horror, historical drama, and both martial arts and swash-buckling action. While the movie may be on the bloated side (144 minutes!), this trip to historical France is certainly one worth taking.
When Antonia Bird’s historical cannibal film Ravenous was released into theaters in 1999, it failed to make back much of its admittedly modest $12 million budget. But in the decades following its failed theater run, the film has developed a…well, ravenous cult following. (Sorry).
The movie takes place in California during the Mexican-American war, and follows Second Lieutenant John Boyd (Guy Pierce), a soldier whose cowardice in action results in his exile to Fort Spencer, an isolated military post deep in the heart of the Sierra Nevada. Shortly after his arrival, a stranger by name of Colqhoun arrives at the fort looking for help. He tells the horrific story of how his traveling party became trapped in the snow for three months, and resorted to cannibalism to survive. Boyd and Private Reich – another unfortunate soul stationed at the fort – organize a search party to investigate Colqhoun’s claims, and come face-to-face with previously unimaginable horrors.
Ravenous combines cannibalism and Wendigo mythos to make a bloody commentary on Manifest Destiny and America’s propensity for brutal expansionist policies. But more than that, it’s just a hell of a lot of fun. The film, which features some stellar production design and special effects, is perhaps most well-known for its unique score, which is unusually quirky for an otherwise grim picture. The film’s clashing tone is one of its most polarizing aspects, but give it a shot, and it may become your new favorite cult film.
4 The Lighthouse
How does one begin to describe The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers’ incredible follow-up to his equally impressive debut feature? It’s a horror pic, a psychological thriller, a survival film, and even a comedy. You wouldn’t be wrong to think those genres sound at odds with each other, but Eggers’ masterful direction somehow manages to bring together all of those disparate elements into a feature that is wholly unique.
The Lighthouse takes places exclusively on a small island home to a lighthouse, set sometime during the close of the 19th century. The film centers around two lighthouse keepers (aka wickies); there’s the old, hardened captain (Dafoe) and the mysterious rookie (Pattinson). When the two men – who are already at odds with each other – become trapped on the island by a nasty, seemingly never-ending storm, tensions escalate to explosive and violent levels as they both lose control of their sanity.
Shot in stark black-and-white and filmed in a 1.19:1 Academy aspect ratio, The Lighthouse is visually sumptuous. Coupled with the great performances from both Pattinson and Dafoe, who carry the film on their shoulders, and an incredible score by Mark Korven (who also composed The Witch), Eggers’ second feature cemented him as a genre auteur to watch.
3 Bone Tomahawk
Director S. Craig Zahler is a director worth watching. His last two films, Brawl in Cell Block 99 and Dragged Across Concrete are tough-as-nails crime thrillers that feel ripped straight out of the 1970s. But his debut film, Bone Tomahawk, is a gritty, no-frills horror western that’s worth checking out.
Set in the 1890s, Bone Tomahawk kicks into gear following the abduction of three people from a small township by supposed “troglodytes,” inbred cannibals that hide out in the most desolate, barren region of the desert. Sheriff Franklin Hunt (played impressively by Kurt Russell) forms a small posse of men – including Deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), hot shot John Brooder (Matthew Fox), and the husband of one of the abducted townspeople, Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) – to hunt the monsters responsible for the crime.
What follows is a grim journey into the darkest recesses of the American West, tinged with an undercurrent of pitch-black comedy that Zahler has become known for. The filmculminates in a truly shocking third act, which features perhaps one of the gnarliest on-screen kills to ever be committed to celluloid. While Bone Tomahawk may not be for the faint of heart, this is a horror picture worth watching.
2 Pan’s Labyrinth
We all knew that Guillermo del Toro’s beautifully-crafted and equally-terrifying Pan’s Labyrinth was going to make it on this list. Not only is it perhaps del Toro’s best movie, it’s also one of the best period fantasy-horror movies released…well, ever.
Pan’s Labyrinth takes place during the summer of 1944 in the years following the Spanish American War, during the “Francoist” period, when the country was ruled over by the brutal fascist dictator Francisco Franco. The story centers around Ofelia, a ten-year old girl whose pregnant but ill mother marries Captain Vidal, a sadistic man who has been assigned by the government to hunt down critics and dissenters of the regime. To escape the brutality of her real world and seek a cure for her mother’s illness, Ofelia escapes into a mysterious fantasy world overseen by an equally-mysterious faun, who promises her the gift of immortality if she completes three tasks.
There’s a beauty inherent to this film that just needs to be seen to be believed. Everything from its lush cinematography, grim but beautiful special effects, and sensitive direction elevate it above anything else in the genre or del Toro’s expansive film catalog.
1 The Witch
Robert Egger’s debut feature The Witch (or if you prefer, The VVitch) is a folk horror movie released by A24 in 2015. The “New England Folktale” was a massive get for A24 out of the Sundance Film Festival, and arguably heralded in the wave of so-called “elevated horror” that the indie film company has become well known for.
The movie is set in 1630s New England – the dawn of America as we know it. The story centers around a family of English settlers expelled from their Puritan settlement over a religious dispute. There’s the patriarch William (Ralph Ineson), his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their four children; Thomasin (Anya-Taylor Joy), Caleb, twins Mercy and Jonas, and newborn Samuel. The scruffy family make a home on the outskirts of the New England woods, which hosts an unsettling evil presence. When baby Samuel abruptly and unexplainably disappears under Thomasin’s watch, she becomes a pariah, and suspected of being a witch who sold her baby brother to the Devil himself. From there, things descend into madness.
The Witch is arguably one of the most meticulously researched – and flat-out entertaining – historical horror movies released in a very long time. There’s so much to admire about the film, from the luscious cinematography to the fantastic acting (especially from Taylor-Joy, who broke out in a big way after this movie). Not to mention the meticulously-recreated period setting and dialogue, which is nothing short of transportive. If you haven’t checked this movie out yet, then what are you waiting for?