In the age of the blockbuster, at a time when cinema tickets are getting more expensive, audiences often demand more bang for their buck. These days, tentpole films frequently run to more than two hours. While it’s nice to get your money’s worth, let’s face it: we’re all busy people. There’s nothing like a brief, 90-minute chiller to scare the pants off you and then let you get on with your day.
Horror particularly lends itself to a short runtime. Often dealing in heightened tension with few characters and limited locations, horror is a genre that often does great things on a low budget, too, so ‘quick and dirty’ can make for some of the most efficient scary movies.
Here are 13 compact and excellent horror films under an hour and a half:
This taut, economical French home invasion chiller from directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud is very light on plot: couple Clémentine and Lucas are terrorized in their remote house by a bunch of faceless youths for no reason whatsoever – though it really doesn’t matter. This is pure, visceral, experiential horror that knocks the breath out of you and leaves you gripping the arms of your seat for the duration, as we follow the couple in real time seeing only what they see. Thank goodness this one is short. Feeling this tense for too much longer would be pretty unbearable.
A TV reporter follows emergency services into an apartment building which is quickly put in quarantine with no escape for the people in the building. This Spanish found footage movie from Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza is packed with shocks, as an infection breaks out and spreads quickly through the building, ramping up the tension until a WTF ending that is one of the most notorious shocks in horror.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
James Whale’s 1930 film Frankenstein is even shorter at a brisk 70 minutes – both are wonderful – but we slightly prefer the sequel starring Elsa Lanchester as both Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and the mate created to appease Victor Frankenstein’s poor abandoned creature. Iconic, moving, and pacey.
The Evil Dead (1981)
Sam Raimi’s rough and ready cabin in the woods movie was a genre game changer that established Bruce Campbell as a cult icon and took leaps in low budget filmmaking. Though some of the effects look a bit fake these days, The Evil Dead still holds up as a creepy classic – and at 85 minutes it doesn’t hang about.
What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
Four vampires share a flat in New Zealand in this good-natured and very funny mockumentary-style horror-comedy from Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement. Clement stars alongside Waititi, with fellow Flight of the Conchords favorite Rhys Derby co-starring as Anton, the Werewolf alpha with impeccable manners (“We’re werewolves, not swearwolves!”).
Paranormal Activity (2007)
The multiple sequels, spin-offs, and rip-offs have diluted the brand somewhat but the original film still holds up as a very effective and economic shriek-fest. The premise is simple: weird things are happening in the suburban house of Katie and Micah, so Micah sets up cameras to film them during the day and while they sleep. The home video release has several alternative endings, but the theatrical version is a serious jolty jump scare that works every time.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Arguably the greatest horror movie ever made, Tobe Hooper’s grueling slasher sees a group of kids brutalized by a cannibal family. The whole film is a masterclass in dread from the odd, slow build, to the uncanny, disgusting design of the house – including furniture made from skin and bones – to the horrific final act which is 30 minutes of solid screaming. Yeah, it’s only 83 minutes long, but each of those minutes is used to the max.
This brutal chiller from directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury was at the forefront of the ‘New French Extremity’ movement. It’s shocking, gory, and harsh as hell as a recently bereaved pregnant woman is stalked in her own home by a mysterious stranger who wants to steal her unborn baby from inside her. Eeps.
Ben Wheatley’s most palatable horror is this black comedy, which plays like Natural Born Killers with caravans. Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, who also co-wrote the screenplay, play lovers who travel the English countryside knocking off strangers who are generally rude or annoying. Funny, sweet, and violent.
Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010)
Loveable rednecks run into paranoid college kids in the woods in this good-natured satire on ‘cabin in the woods’ tropes. Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk play the titular heroes who are just trying to do up their holiday home and have a peaceful time, but people keep accidentally getting killed. A whole lot more sophisticated than the title implies.
Under the Shadow (2016)
Here’s a creepy chiller set in post-revolutionary Tehran in the ‘80s that follows a mother and daughter who live in the war-torn city and find themselves haunted by a Djinn. It’s a very effective frightener with political subtext and was the directorial debut of Iranian-born Babak Anvari. The film won the BAFTA for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer.
Lights Out (2016)
Developed from his very scary short of the same name, David F. Sandberg’s directorial debut is about a family haunted by an apparition that only exists in the dark. With subtexts relating to mental health issues and some clever set pieces involving intermittent light effects (camera flash, light from a gunshot, etc), Lights Out is an original horror which has already been earmarked for a sequel.
Lake Mungo (2008)
This underappreciated Aussie mock-doc follows a family in the aftermath of the daughter’s death. We quickly discover that the deceased daughter might actually be haunting the family. Far more twisty than that sounds, it’s reminiscent of Twin Peaks in its small-town quirks and comes with a gut punch ending that’s not only very scary but also soaked in grief.