For many people, French cinema is associated with romance and the famous art films of the French New Wave such as Breathless (1960) and Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). But as one of the oldest and biggest film industries in the world, France has also produced a great amount of horror movies.
In fact, many film historians say the French invented horror movies. Many people consider the three-minute short film Le Manoir du Diable (AKA The House of the Devil or The Haunted Castle), made in 1896 and directed by Georges Méliès, to be the first scary movie ever made.
Despite the long history of French horror films, some directors claim it’s still almost impossible to fund them. According to Pascal Laugier, director of Martyrs (2008):
The fact is that we are much more successful in foreign countries….It’s still a hell to find the money, a hell to convince people that we are legitimate to make this kind of movie in France.
So while France has a long history of making horror films, it would be wrong to think of French horror movies as mainstream. It’s a small blip on the cultural radar of France. Even in the 2020s, French horror is on the fringe. This list covers all types of horror movies from classic chillers, to the transgressive era of New French Extremity, to the movies on the verge of the next big wave of French horror as a way of exposing the world to the rich and vibrant history of horror in France.
Old French Horror Movies: 1800s – 1960s
The Astronomer’s Dream is an extremely odd short film that is chock-full of special effects, which is a dazzling feat considering it was made in the 1800s. Despite its brevity, famed director Georges Méliès packs the short with action. It starts in an astronomer’s observatory where a humble scientist is suddenly greeted by Satan himself. Without spoiling the entire plot, let’s just say it continues being supremely strange until the very end where we see the astronomer sleeping and realize it was all just a disturbing nightmare. The original French title is La Lune à un Mètre (in English: The Moon at One Meter).
This adaptation of The Fall of the House (released in France as La Chute de la Maison Usher) is a beautiful new twist on American author Edgar Allan Poe’s classic tale. This silent film is just over an hour long, and it faithfully recreates the haunting nature of the original story with its expressionistic visuals and experimental editing. Widely considered one of the best Poe adaptations of all time, the script was originally cowritten by surrealist genius Luis Buñuel. Director Jean Epstein didn’t agree with Buñuel on how to interpret Poe’s work, which led to the writer leaving the production. It is unclear how much of Buñuel’s original script is present in the final film.
While this movie was made by two Spaniards, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, it was made in France (filmed in Le Havre and Paris) and premiered at Studio des Ursulines in Paris. A silent film, Un Chien Andalou is considered an early surreal masterpiece. It’s still a shocking and unusual film to watch today, but don’t assume everything will make sense the first time you watch this arthouse movie. The movie’s plot is bizarre to say the least, and it follows logic that can only be described as dream-like. Also, if you blink at the beginning you might miss the film’s most famous and unnerving scene where a straight razor slices through an eyeball.
Titled Le Golem in French, this French/Czech coproduction is a retelling of the classic Jewish folk tale about a monster made of stone who sleeps during peaceful times but is awakened by carving the Hebrew word for “truth” on his forehead whenever the Jewish community is threatened. Set in Prague, where the Holy Roman Emperor is severely oppressing members of the Jewish ghetto, the Golem is awakened, only to be arrested and kept chained in a jail cell. The sound of lions roaring enrages him to the point where he breaks his chains. He is only put safely to sleep again once a single Hebrew letter on his forehead is erased, changing the word to “dead” instead of “truth.”
Carnival of Sinners is a fantasy-horror film that tells the story of a frustrated artist. Roland Brissot (Pierre Fresnay) is a painter whose lack of talent and ambition lead him to accepting a dangerous offer involving a mysterious and grotesque talisman. The talisman (a severed hand) works for Brissot, but the price he must pay may be his eternal soul. The film was inspired by the French story La Main Enchantée by author Gérard de Nerval, and the visual style is inspired by German expressionism.
A landmark in modern horror, Les Diaboliques was released in the US under three different titles: Diabolique, The Devils, and The Fiends. It’s a blend of horror and psychological thriller in which a woman and her husband’s mistress team up to kill the husband. The film was based on a novel called She Who Was No More, and director Henri-Georges Clouzot reportedly snapped up the screenplay rights to block Alfred Hitchcock from obtaining them. The vengeful women carry out their evil plot and sedate the husband, drown him in a bathtub, and then dump him in a swimming pool, figuring he’ll float to the top and his murder will be mistaken as a drowning. But he never floats to the top, and when they drain the pool, there’s no sign of his corpse. Robert Bloch, who wrote the novel Psycho on which the Hitchcock film was based, said Les Diaboliques was his favorite horror movie of all time.
Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans Visage) is based on the novel of the same name by Jean Redon about a plastic surgeon who becomes obsessed with the idea of giving his daughter — who became horribly scarred in a crash — a face transplant. There is kidnapping and corpse-dumping, but it turns out that all the pain and drama was in vain, because the face-transplant surgery backfired. The mask the daughter is forced to wear to cover her disfigurement is ultra-creepy in that “uncanny valley” way that it’s almost human-looking, but not quite. The film’s American title later became the title of a 1984 song by new wave artist Billy Idol.
[The main character is] like an undead Audrey Hepburn. It influenced me a lot with the contrast between beauty and brutality…The clash of haunting and enchanting imagery has seldom been more powerful. Eyes Without a Face boasts an extraordinary soundtrack [by Maurice Jarre] too!Guillermo del Toro on his favorite horror movie
While this odd movie from Jean-Luc Godard might not fit the traditional definition of a horror film, its dark, dystopian tone make it a hit with fans of classic horror cinema. Eddie Constantine stars as Lemmy Caution, a secret agent who is sent on a mission to bring down the futuristic city of Alphaville. In Alphaville, individualism is outlawed, and expressing emotions is seen as suspicious behavior. Though the delivery of its messages may seem quaint to modern viewers, Alphaville is still a highly entertaining, influential, and poignant film.
Directed by Jean Rollin, Le Viol du Vampire is an erotic vampire movie split into two segments: ‘The Rape of the Vampire’ and ‘The Vampire Woman/Queen of the Vampires.’ The first story is about four sisters who believe they are vampires, but are challenged in that belief by three strangers. The second story is involves a convoluted plot about a vampire queen and a doctor seeking to cure vampirism. The film marks Jean Rollin’s directorial debut. Rollin would go on to make a major mark on French vampire film history.
Newer French Horror Movies: 1970s – 2020s
During summer break at a Catholic boarding school, two upper-class teenage French girls who derive great joy from tormenting everyone around them with increasingly vicious pranks and crimes. They work their way up to killing animals before forming a blood pact with Satan. When they finally go too far with their horrific deeds, they become convinced that the Devil will reward them in the afterlife, culminating in a wild finale. The film’s original French title was Mais Ne Nous Delivrez Pas Du Mal.
Countess Perverse is a lurid exploitation movie about humans hunting humans, sex, and cannibalism (though not necessarily in that order). A rich Count (Howard Vernon) and Countess (Alice Arno) welcome a young woman named Silvia (Lina Romay) to their remote island, but Silvia’s vacation is about to turn into a fight for survival. This movie is marketed under several names: La Comtesse Perverse, Sexy Nature, Female Vampire, and The Swallowers. The movie is a highly sexual take on vampires/cannibalism and their relationship to sex. As you might expect, this one has a lot of nudity.
Les Démoniaques is an erotic Satanic horror film directed by famous French auteur Jean Rollin. It concerns a group criminals who cause shipwrecks in order to loot the wreckage. One night they end up raping two women caught up in their crimes. Seeking revenge, the women are led by a woman made up like a clown to ruins which are rumored to be haunted. This is where they have sex with the Devil in exchange for being granted superpowers that enable them to exact revenge against their rapists. Les Démoniaques is quite odd and filled with graphic nudity.
38-year-old Hélène Masson (Annie Girardot) checks into a private clinic that promises a special treatment that defies the aging process. It seems too good to be true, and when Hélène begins to notice people disappearing or ending up dead, it’s clear something is wrong. She then investigates the clinic, but her on the bad side of the charming yet devious Dr. Devilers (Alain Delon). Shock Treatment is more thriller than horror for most of its run time, but there is plenty of nudity to be seen prior to the more gruesome scenes later in the movie.
The Grapes or Death is a zombie movie from director Jean Rollin. The tagline of the film is “when the wine flows, the terror begins,” which is a perfect description of this movie. Elizabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal) travels to a village to live with her fiancé on his vineyard, but on her way she discovers a horrible infection that turns people into hideous, murderous zombies. Unknown to her, her destination is ground zero for the zombie infection. The Grapes of Death is a fun, gory zombie movie from France, a country not known for creating many movies about the living dead.
Sam Niell and Isabelle Adjani star as a husband and wife going through a horrific divorce in Possession, one of the best psychological horror films of all time. After Mark (Neill) returns home from time away, he notices his wife Anna’s (Adjani) increasingly erratic behavior. Mark is no better, and their doomed marriage takes some bizarre and terrifying turns as the days go by. Possession is a must-watch for horror fans, not the least of which for the award-winning performance of Isabelle Adjani.
Frankenstein 90 is a comedic take on Marry Shelley’s classic 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. The movie involves a computer whiz who makes an ugly monster who falls in love with a female monster who’s composed of various body parts from murdered strippers. Reviews and commentary about the film vary wildly, but it’s a fun flick for fans of spoofs. Plus, Academy Award winning director Bong Joon-ho says it’s his guilty pleasure, and you can’t ask for a better recommendation than that.
Baxter is likely the best animal-attack movie to ever come out of France. The film stars a white bull terrier named Baxter who is highly intelligent and dangerously sociopathic (if a dog can be a sociopath). Baxter is initially given to an old woman, but he’d rather be with the young couple across the street. So Baxter kills the old woman to get his way. The movie plays out as a series of incidents like this where Baxter sets his mind on something he wants, and he is perfectly fine with murder if that’s what it takes.
36.15 Code Père Noël is a French horror thriller involving a young boy, Thomas (Alain Lalanne) who is alone in his mother’s mansion on Christmas Eve. Thomas attempts to contact Santa Claus using the Minitel—a device that was called “the most successful online service prior to the World Wide Web”—but instead contacts a local bum who simply looks like Santa Claus. The bum finds a Santa outfit just to make it more believable and murders two people and the young boy’s dog upon reaching the mansion. Thomas then sets up booby traps around the house to try to stop the deranged killer. It was released in English with several different titles: Game Over, Hide and Freak, Dial Code Santa Claus, and Deadly Games.
Delicatessen is a French comedy/horror movie directed by frequent collaborators Jean Pierre Jeunet (famous in America for Amélie) and Marc Caro. This bizarre and slightly surreal sci-fi fantasy film takes place in a post-apocalyptic France where food is scarce. A butcher, Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) puts out ads for workers in the apartment building he also runs, just so he can kill whoever applies and sell their meat as food. The newest applicant, a former circus clown, falls in love with the butcher’s daughter, and they conspire to lead a group of “vegetarian rebels” who seek to save her lover before her father inevitably murders him like he’d murdered all the rest.
The Crimson Rivers (French: Les Rivières Pourpres) is a creepy psychological thriller based on a French novel Blood Red Rivers by Jean-Christophe Grangé. The movie follows the trail of a detective who is called to investigate the brutal murder of a college professor in which the victim’s eyes were removed. Meanwhile, another detective is investigating crimes in a town near the isolated university where the murder occurred. Their investigations eventually cross as the dead bodies continue to pile up. If you liked the American movie Se7en or are looking for similar movies, The Crimson Rivers is a good fit.
Directed and written by Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi, the film is based on the novel of the same name by Despentes. Manu (Raffaëla Anderson) is a woman with no direction in life. After being sexually assaulted and then belittled for the very same act, Manu has had enough. Manu meets a prostitute, Nadine (Karen Lancaume), who has had a similarly horrific life, and the two of them join forces on a spree of sex and violence, giving back some of the pain they are forced to endure. Baise-moi is kind of like a dark and depressing version of Thelma & Louise (1991), but with ultra-violence and real sex.
A young group of attractive actors is invited to perform at the mansion of Axel de Fersen. Isolated in this remote chateau, the actors are supposed to put on a performance of “Little Red Riding Hood” — but they don’t realize a murderer is on the loose. Deep in The Woods (French: Promenons-nous dans les Bois) is directed by Lionel Delplanque and stars Alexia Stresi, Clement Sibony, and Clotilde Courau.
From respected French Filmmaker Claire Denis, Trouble Every Day is an erotic arthouse horror movie that mixes sex, obsession, and cannibalism. The story contains a bit of science fiction involving some sort of past experimentation that leads those infected to becoming murderously violent when sexually aroused. Shane (Vincent Gallo) is in Paris on his honeymoon with June (Tricia Vessey), but he is also there to find Coré (Béatrice Dalle) who he knows is infected. While the infection serves as the reasons for the action, the real focus of the movie is on Shane’s strained relationships with the June and Coré, and Coré’s horrific obsessions. Trouble Every Day received a cold response from audiences when it screened at the Cannes film festival, with audience walkouts and at least a couple of people fainting.
Notable for the fact that the story begins with the end and ends with the beginning and is told in reverse order throughout, the main story involves two men who roam through Paris seeking vengeance for a girl who was savagely raped. The rape scene itself goes on for an unbearable 10 minutes. Another scene, in which a man gets beaten to death with a fire extinguisher, is uncomfortably realistic. Director Gaspar Noé used a skeletal three-page script outlining the film’s twelve scenes told in reverse, meaning every word spoken is improvised. The film is so unpleasant that when it premiered at Cannes, the audience sat silent after it ended, nervously waiting for the next film to air. Newsweek called it the most walked-out film of 2002.
In My Skin was written by, directed by, and stars Marina de Van. It is a terribly gruesome movie that crescendos with a series of unwatchable acts of self-mutilation. It’s a horror movie, but one that derives all its horror from mental illness. Esther is a successful woman living a happy life until an injury to her leg signals a change. Esther doesn’t even really notice the wound at first, but once she does, she becomes increasingly fascinated with her body and the harm she can inflict on it.
High Tension is a violent slasher movie that starts with a home invasion before moving on to a becoming a kidnapping film. Marie (Cécile de France) sneaks into the truck of a serial killer where her best friend Alex (Maïwenn) is being held after the rest of Alex’s family was butchered. The body count rises as Marie tries to find the right time to save her friend from a nameless killer played by Philippe Nahon (who previously starred as the nameless butcher in Gaspar Noé’s I Stand Alone). High Tension is filled with blood and gore, and the movie’s twists make it one that is worth watching multiple times.
In Calvaire, a struggling singer named Marc (Laurent Lucas) becomes stranded in an isolated area of Belgium while traveling to his next gig. Marc stays at an inn run by a lonely old man, Bartel (Jackie Berroyer), who promises to fix his van, but the proprietor of this inn has some very unpleasant things in store for Marc. To make matters worse, the creepy locals aren’t any better than Bartel. Calvaire is an intensely uncomfortable backwoods horror movie in the style of films like Deliverance (1972) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).
Ostensibly based on a true story, Them (Ils in French) is a suspenseful French-Romanian home-invasion movie similar in premise to the American movie The Strangers (2008). One night, Clémentine (Olivia Bonamy) and Lucas (Michaël Cohen) are woken in their home by music playing outside. As they cautiously begin to investigate, mysterious close in on them, breaking into their house and forcing the couple to fight for their lives. Them stands out from a lot of other French horror movies released during its time, with the frights in Them being based more on tension than on blood and gore.
Titled À l’intérieur in French, Inside is a horror thriller involving a mysterious female stranger (Béatrice Dalle) who invades a house intending to take a pregnant woman’s unborn baby from her. The victim of the sadistic home invasion is Sarah (Alysson Paradis), an expectant mother who lost her husband in a horrific car accident just months prior. The two women find themselves in an extended standoff as Sarah attempts to outlast her attacker by hiding in a bathroom, but further conflict is inevitable. Inside, from directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, is a shockingly brutal entry in the New French Extremity movement, and it is often cited as one of the best movies of that transgressive cycle of films.
A far-right candidate gets elected President of France, leading to riots in Paris. A group of criminals performs a robbery in the turmoil. The thieves attempt to escape to the countryside, but unfortunately for them, the lodge the choose to hide out in is run by murderous neo-Nazis. The lodgers are subjected to horrendous torture, but by using extreme violence—so violent that the film was banned in Thailand—they manage to turn the tables on the Nazis.
Martyrs begins as a movie about revenge, but it turns into a bizarre and gory film about torture and a secret society. Fifteen years after surviving imprisonment and torture, Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) seeks revenge on her tormentors. Lucie is accompanied on her quest for revenge by her friend Anna (Morjana Alaoui), but Anna isn’t so sure about Lucie’s state of mind. As events unfold, Anna finds herself in a horrific scenario where death would likely be preferable to what she is forced to endure. Screenwriter Pascal Laugier says he was clinically depressed while writing the script. Along with Inside, Martyrs is considered one of the finest accomplishments of the New French Extremity movement.
Breaking away from the (mostly) human horrors of New French Extremity, Livid is a creepy horror movie that focuses on the supernatural. The plot follows a trio of would-be burglars who break into a sickly old woman’s home after learning that there may a treasure hidden inside. The treasure is a trap though, and the three young thieves find themselves locked inside the giant house with a family of vampires. Livid is quite a departure from the directors’ previous film, Inside (2007), but the spooky imagery and fun story make it a solid entry in the canon of French horror.
Titled Grave in French, Raw is a collaboration between French and Belgian filmmakers that tells the tale of a veterinary student named Justine (Garance Marillier). Justine, a vegan, is forced to eat a rabbit kidney as part of a hazing ritual. The event unlocks a craving within Justine, and even though she is ashamed of her feelings, she starts secretly eating raw meat. As her cravings progress, she eventually discovers a taste for human flesh. While the premise may sound like a typical exploitation film, writer/director Julia Ducournau’s handling of the subject instills great depth and meaning into the unsettling proceedings. Rolling Stone called Raw “a contender for best horror movie of the decade.”
Revenge is a brutal and stylish thriller that wonderfully delivers exactly what its title promises. The movie stars Matilda Lutz as Jen, a woman who is involved with an affair with a married man named Richard (Kevin Janssens). While on a secret trip together, two of Richard’s friends show up. Jen is assaulted, and a botched attempt at escape has the trio of men leaving Jen for dead. Jen isn’t dead though, and she makes it her immediate mission to make sure her attackers pay for what they did.
An experimental horror movie by Paris-based Argentine filmmaker Gaspar Noé of Irreversible infamy, Climax won the Art Cinema Award at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It took only six weeks from conception to completion and was shot in only 15 days. Even more remarkably, the script was only five pages long, and almost all of the dialogue was improvised. The plot involves an after-party for a dance troupe held in a remote school building where everyone’s increasingly odd behavior leads them to suspecting that the party wine was spiked with LSD. The night leads to an unsettling mix of sex, violence, and dancing, all rendered in surreal and hallucinatory fashion. Noé compared the first half of the movie to a roller coaster and the second half to a ghost train. While perhaps not a traditional horror movie, it is a good hybrid of dance film and crazy drug trip.
Titane, Julia Ducournau’s follow-up to Raw (2016), is a difficult movie to classify. Most reviewers focus on the bizarre body horror spread throughout the movie and climaxing in a wild finale, but the Titane is about so much more than that. The movie follows the messed-up life of Alexia (Agathe Rousselle). Audiences first see Alexia as a little girl when she has a titanium plate implanted in her head after a car accident. As an adult, Alexia has an unhealthy relationship with automobiles, and she has a secret, murderous life that forces her to go on the run. Titane gets more intense and outlandish from there, and the movie is best experienced with as little prior knowledge as possible. In the end, Titane is a surprisingly touching movie about family, identity, and acceptance.