When Americans think of French films, they often think of romantic and dreamy movies or the famous art films of the French New Wave such as Breathless and Hiroshima mon amour. But France has also produced a lot of scary movies, or horreur films, from slasher films to old silent movies, plus a great deal of awesome psychological thrillers and science-fiction movies.
In fact, many film historians say the French invented horror movies, as many 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.
French cinematic history, then, is a rich cultural repository for horror-movie lovers. In this top list we’ll survey and summarize the whole library of French scary movies from early classics from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Then we’ll cover more modern horror films from the 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s — the latter years are when we see the emergence of New French Extremism, which produced some of the most violent and gory films the world has ever seen.
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) [reviewed below]:
The fact is that we are much more successful in foreign countries and in our homeland it’s always the same stuff where you’re never a prophet…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 vibrant 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.
The list will cover all types of horror movies and some thrillers, but our focus will be on traditional horror tropes such as zombies, vampires, paranormal experiences, gore, ghosts, and, yes, even French movies that blend the erotic and violent together.
Almost all the films featured here are written and performed in French, and some are available with English subtitles. Since all of these movies have French titles, we’ll sometimes use the original French title or an English translation based on editorial judgment. This archive/collection is arranged in chronological order and represents an introduction to the surreal world of French horror movies. When relevant, we link to where you can watch the movies online at Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.
An extremely oddball short film—it’s only three and a half minutes long start to finish—that is chock-full of special effects, which is a dazzling feat in itself because it was made way, way back in the 1800s by pioneering sci-fi director Georges Méliès. Despite its brevity, it’s packed with as much action as a regular 90-minute film. It starts in an astronomer’s observatory, where our humble scientist is suddenly greeted by Satan himself. Then a woman materializes and banishes Satan. Then the astronomer draws planet Earth on a blackboard; the globe sprouts arms and legs and starts wriggling around. Suddenly the moon appears as a giant, maniacally grinning face and eats the astronomer’s telescope. Then children fall out of the moon’s mouth. Without needing to spoil 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 a disturbing nightmare. The original French title was La lune à un mètre (The Moon at One Meter), but it was released in America as A Trip to the Moon, which makes things super-confusing because that’s actually the name of Méliès’s most famous film, which is an entirely different movie and was released in 1902.
In French, this movie is called La chute de la maison Usher, and it is one of those rare cases where the French pay homage to American culture. This is a take on the Edgar Allan Poe short story that is widely considered Poe’s best. Roderick Usher is a wealthy man living in a remote, decaying mansion. He’s been spending his wife’s dying months obsessively painting a picture of her. When she dies, he buries her in the family tomb. But it turns out there’s an Usher family curse—she was actually buried alive, and she escapes her coffin to terrify her husband.
The script was originally cowritten by surrealist genius Luis Buñuel, but he got into a fight with the director, and it’s unclear if any of his lines were used in the final product. Roger Ebert included this film on his “Great Movies” list.
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 on YouTube, though don’t assume it will make sense the first time you watch this old-school arthouse movie. If you blink at the beginning you might miss the film’s most famous scene, where a straight razor slices through an eyeball for no apparent reason.
Titled Le Golem in French, this 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.” This is a remaking of the classic 1920 German horror film Der Golem. Austrian character actor Ferdinand Hart played The Man of Stone.
The original French title of this film was La Main du liable (The Devil’s Hand). At a remote hotel that’s been stranded by an avalanche, a man shows up carrying a small casket. Oh, and he’s also missing a hand. After shots mysteriously ring out, the police show up, looking for a man who’s been toting around a coffin.
Cut to flashback: The man who showed up in the motel missing a hand is a frustrated Parisian artist who has no luck with women. A chef comes and offers him a magical talisman that will bring him good fortune. It just so happens that the talisman is a severed left hand. He buys it anyway, and it works…for a while. It turns out he’s made a deal with the Devil. And he turns out to be the latest in a string of men who lose their hands because of this deal.
A landmark in modern horror, this 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.
The film is based on a novel 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, as well as the time-tested horror trope of someone falling out a window to their death. But it turns out that all the this 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 French title is Les Yeux sans visage.
While this odd movie from Jean-Luc Godard might not fit the traditional definition of a horror film, it is still an uncanny blend of surreal and freaky and worth a watch for the devout horror-movie fan. It’s also a famous piece in cinematic history — so give this classic a stream.
Directed by Jean Rollin, this is an erotic vampire movie that takes place in the countryside. The movie is split into two segments: ‘The Rape of the Vampire’ and ‘The Vampire Woman/Queen of the Vampires.’ The plot doesn’t make much sense, but it marks Jean Rollin’s directorial debut. Rollin would go on to make a major mark on French vampire film history — and the cinematography is arresting.
This Satan-themed horror movie preceded The Exorcist by two years. During summer break at a Catholic boarding school, two upper-class teenage French girls become obsessed with death. They vow to worship Satan—going so far as to cut their fingers and mix their blood together in an evil pact. The girls become lovers and begin a series of cruel pranks including arson, killing birds, and defiling the eucharist. It culminates in a school recital where the girls douse themselves with gasoline and set themselves ablaze. The flames spread and the film fades out with the viewer unsure over whether anyone in the school auditorium survives. The film’s original French title was Mais Ne Nous Delivrez Pas Du Mal.
French vampire films truly carved the way for modern Hollywood vampire movies. Directed by Jess Franco, this movie is marketed under several names: La Comtesse Perverse, Sexy Nature, Female Vampire, and The Swallowers. The movie doesn’t have much drama, but it’s a highly sexual original take on vampires/cannibalism and their relationship to sex. A good watch to experience a sexy gothic nightmare — all in French, of course. As you might expect, this one has a lot of nudity.
Released in America as The Demoniacs, this is an erotic/satanic/horror film directed by famous French auteur Jean Rollin. It concerns a group of sailors who get shipwrecked and rape two women. The girls are rescued by a clown on an island that is 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. But in the end, everyone dies and no one is saved. That’s what happens when you make a deal with the Devil.
In French, this film is called Traitement De Choc. It’s a movie about fighting natural biological processes by finding a cure to aging. Directed by Alain Jessua, it’s a thrilling movie for people that want a hybrid of science fiction and horror in their cinematic experience.
The Grapes or Death, or Les Raisins de la Mort, is a 1970s 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. Should you watch it? Well, this one review from IMDb sure makes the case that you should: “This [is] a neglected cult classic….Leisurely paced, atmospheric, and with liberal dollops of gore and mayhem to boot, this is late 70’s horror at its best.” Go for the wine and stay for the gory scenes.
Perhaps one of the most famous horror/drama films in French cinema, director Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession is, as one reviewer put it, “a spiral staircase movie, a never-ending metaphysical game of cat-and-mouse, a moral aspiration to the Heavens, a spotlight on God, a scornful detective movie, a horror movie and frightful, high-octane baroque work — Possession is all of that at once.” Now doesn’t that sound like a great trip of a movie?
This is a comedic take on Marry Shelley’s classic 1818 novel Frankenstein and 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. Or let’s say it’s an attempted comedic take—it’s hard to make murdered strippers funny, and this film received almost universally bad reviews, despite the fact that Academy Award-winning director Bong Joon Ho says it’s his guilty pleasure.
Very similar to the American blockbuster Home Alone—which it preceded by a year—this French horror thriller involves a young boy who is alone in his mother’s mansion on Christmas Eve and attempts to contact Santa Claus using a 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. What follows is a game of cat and mouse between the derelict and the boy that ends in “Santa’s” death on Christmas Eve. It was released in English with several different titles: Game Over, Hide and Freak, Dial Code Santa Claus, and Deadly Games.
This is a French comedy/horror movie directed by Jean Pierre Jeunet (famous in America for Amélie). This bizarre and depressingly lit post-apocalypse sci-fi fantasy involves a butcher who owns an apartment building where he keeps murdering his own maintenance men. After murdering them, he sells them as food to the other tenants. The newest maintenance man, 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. Without spoiling the end, let’s just say that the butcher accidentally butchers himself. Janet Maslin of The New York Times called it “studiously zany.”
The Crimson Rivers (French: Les Rivières Pourpres) is a creepy psychological thriller based on a French book called Blood Red Rivers (French: Les Rivières pourpres). The movie is based on tracking a series of terrible murders. If you liked the American movie Se7en or are looking for similar movies, The Crimson Rivers is a good fit.
This is an extremely controversial film because of how violent it is as well as how explicit and disturbing the sexual imagery is. Directed and written by Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi, the film is based on a novel by Despentes. The movie was censored by many countries worldwide. The storyline? A slacker and prostitute go out on a killing-and-sex spree to get back at a society that has messed with them for too long.
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.
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. The director 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, or Dans Ma Peau, is written by, directed by, and stars Marina de Van. It is a terribly gruesome movie that crescendos with increasingly more unwatchable acts of self-mutilation. It’s a horror movie, but one that derives all its horror from mental illness. This movie is certainly part of the New French Extremity movement, a series of transgressive films that show us violence and sex with almost unwatchable intensity. A reviewer on IMDb said that when he saw the film in theaters, “Three people left the theater and one girl looked to be crying. I got light-headed, my forehead felt hot, my stomach wanted to void its contents, and my brain wanted me to flee.” Are you sure you want to watch this one?
Titled À l’intérieur in French, this horror thriller involves a mysterious female stranger who invades a house intending to take a pregnant woman’s unborn baby from her. Several horror-movie tropes—such as mistaken identity and developing a photo that suddenly reveals something shocking—are employed as the women’s conflict escalates to the point where the female burglar performs a caesarean on the woman with scissors and without anesthesia. The website Bloody Disgusting called this “One of the most audacious, brutal, unrelenting horror films ever made, Inside is perhaps the crown jewel of the new wave of extreme French horror films.”
Ten-year-old Lucie is found beaten and wandering confused in the streets. She is taken to a hospital, where she meets another young abused girl. Fifteen years later, the girls vow to team up and wreak vengeance on their abusers. When Lucie finds what she believes is the couple that tortured her, she is met with more horror than she expected. Screenwriter Pascal Lauger says he was clinically depressed while writing the script. Along with Inside, this is considered one of the finest accomplishments of the New French Extremity genre. It was remade in America in 2015 with the same title. (The 2008 French version is called Martyrs in both French and English.)
It isn’t often you get a Nazi-themed horror movie, but that’s exactly what Frontière(s) is. A far-right candidate gets elected President of France, leading to riots in Paris. A group of young Arab criminals escapes to the countryside and boards at a lodge that, as luck would have it, is run by neo-Nazis. Using extreme violence—so violent that the film was banned in Thailand—they manage to turn the tables on the Nazis. This film is often cited as the finest example of the New French Extremity horror movement.
Titled Grave in French, this collaboration between French and Belgian filmmakers tells the sick tale of a vegan veterinary student named Justine (Garance Marillier), who tries a taste of meat and decides that she likes it…way too much. She starts visiting restaurants at night to eat chicken and beef where no one can see her. Then, when an associate loses a finger in an accident, she takes a taste and realizes she likes it. Things get even queasier from there. At a screening in Sweden, multiple audience members reportedly vomited and fainted. Rolling Stone called Raw “a contender for best horror movie of the decade.”
An experimental horror movie by Paris-based Argentine filmmaker Gaspar Noé of Irreversible infamy, this 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 mostly using dancers with no acting experience. 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 suspect that the party wine was spiked with LSD. There is sex, violence, dancing, and speaking in tongues, 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. Mimicking the everything-is-backwards style of Irreversible, the ending credits appear only two minutes into the film, whereas the title isn’t revealed until the last ten seconds. While perhaps not a traditional horror movie, it is a good hybrid of dance film and crazy drug trip.
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