Most horror movies want to scare, unsettle, or disturb, but some set their sights even higher. These are the most heartbreaking horror films.
October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the most heartbreaking horror films is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
While comedies want you to laugh and dramas want you to care, the horror genre isn’t so easily pigeonholed. Horror movies often aim for some combination of intentions — they want to scare, unsettle, and/or entertain with shocks and thrills — and some mix other elements in from the funny to the disgusting. A small handful, though, aim even higher. They want to break your goddamn heart along the way.
It’s a difficult line to walk, delivering genre thrills while also crafting characters whose circumstances grip our hearts, but when it works the result can be magical. A simple film about cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers can become a heart-wrenching look at loss and grief. A story about twin doctors fueled by addiction and ego turns a corner to explore the painful side of human connection. A descent into comical terror involving undead beavers shifts to become — okay, sometimes a Zombeaver is just a Zombeaver. But other examples await below!
FSR’s Boo Crew is a squad well known for our oversized hearts and love of jellies, so heartbreaking horror is precisely our jam. Now keep reading to see what tears our hearts in two, as collectively conceived by Chris Coffel, Brad Gullickson, Mary Beth McAndrews, Meg Shields, Anna Swanson, Jacob Trussell, and myself.
10. Candyman (1992)
No matter how you slice it, the story of Candyman is a tragic one, grounded in the horrific racial violence faced by Black people both in the past and still today. The film starts with graduate students Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) and Bernadette Walsh (Kasi Lemmons) doing research for their dissertation about urban legends in Cabrini Green, a Chicago housing project. They think Candyman is just another story used as a coping mechanism for their socioeconomic position in the world. Candyman (Tony Todd) is the ghost of Daniel Robitaille, the son of a slave who made a living painting wealthy white families in Chicago. But when it’s discovered he and a white woman were in love, a lynch mob cut off his hand, replaced it with a hook and smeared him with honey.
Robitaille was stung to death by bees and his body was unceremoniously burnt. Now his spirit is said to haunt Cabrini Green, and can be summoned by saying his name five times into a mirror. Candyman may be the film’s villain, killing and maiming with reckless abandon, but he is still a tragic figure. He is the victim of a deeply racist system that perpetuates cycles of violence and abuse of power. And that’s what makes this film so damn heartbreaking. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
9. Audition (1999)
You can’t talk J-horror without Takashi Miike, and 1999’s Audition may very well be the director’s most important piece of work. Seven years after the death of his wife, Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi) is ready to remarry. With the help of a friend, he sets up a casting call for a sham movie to meet the perfect woman. Here he meets the meek Asami (Eihi Shiina) and immediately becomes infatuated. The two begin to date and seemingly hit it off, but soon, deep, dark secrets from Asami’s past rise to the surface.
Audition inspired a generation of imitators, but none could reach the truly terrifying heights achieved by Miike. The last fifteen minutes represent true horror, including an “acupuncture” scene that is nearly impossible to watch without partially covering your eyes. It’s truly heartbreaking horror. (Chris Coffel)
8. The Descent (2005)
Neil Marshall‘s The Descent opens right out of the gate with tragedy as Sarah, her husband, and their daughter are in a horrific car crash. One year later, and still reeling from the loss of her family, Sarah joins her girlfriends for a spelunking adventure. It goes immediately awry, though, as a cave-in, poor preparation, and pale humanoids all bite them on the ass. It’s a thrilling, grueling horror/thriller with grief at its heart, and the hits keep coming — especially if you’re watching the UK cut.
Spoilers for those who haven’t seen it yet… but the film’s US release ends with Sarah escaping the cave, just barely and with blood lost by everyone and everything in her vicinity, driving away, and breaking down at all that’s transpired. A hallucination closes out the movie on a jump scare. The UK release puts that to shame by twisting the knife in a deep, dark, and depressing way. Sarah still escapes, but her freedom is short-lived as it’s revealed that her successful climb out of the monsters’ den was itself a dream. She’s still in the pit, imagining her little girl sitting across from her, and as the child fades we pull back to see (and hear) dozens of crawlers moving towards her. It’s a devastating blow for audiences and Sarah alike, especially after both the fierce fight for physical survival and the past year of grief. (Rob Hunter)
7. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
At the center of everything in The Devil’s Backbone is a gargantuan unexploded bomb. As far as dreadful metaphors go, it’s a mighty fine one. You spend most of the film waiting for hell to explode, and when it does, it’s absolutely satisfying in the most utterly painful way. We live in a haunted world, populated by terrors of our own making, and it’s a perfect ingredient for heartbreaking horror. The ghosts that slink through these shadowy corridors are not deadly antagonists but horrible reminders of the hurt we thrust upon each other. Guillermo del Toro’s phantasms are sorrowful observers, hoping the next generation achieve what they could not: escape from the hate ingrained in our nature. The film’s final image of one such spirit hanging back as the living limp into an unknown future grips your heart. You hope the horizon offers relief, but you worry that more of the same is all that remains. The Devil’s Backbone grinds you down, mixing ache and faith into one tangled emotion. It hurts so good. (Brad Gullickson)
6. Let the Right One In (2004)
I should preface this blurb by saying that heartbreaking movies straight up bum me out. They’re not necessarily a subgenre I seek out, and yet when it interlaces with horror, we get disquieting stories that immerse you in bleak moods that, again, bum me the fuck. But I think that’s the point, right? Let The Right One In is a film that consistently one-ups itself in how bummed it makes you feel. The rural loneliness of a bullied kid? Oof, I feel that. Compared to the torturous, never-ending life of a listless child vampire, though? Well, shit, that’s pretty bad too.
But what if we make them star-crossed lovers who meet at just the moment their two worlds are set ablaze? God damnit John Ajvide Lindqvist! People have emotional limits you know! Fortunately, with dual wise-beyond-their-years performances from Kåre Hedebrant as Oskar and Lina Leandersson as Eli, as well as a fine blend of shocking violence beneath the layers of sadness, the melancholy at the core of Let The Right One In grips you without choking you to death. (Jacob Trussell)
Related Topics: 31 Days of Horror Lists