21 Amazing Psychedelic Horror Films

Brattle Theatre Film Notes

Stuff to Blow Your Mind is all about the journey to the edge of human understanding, and there are a number of paths to that terrifyingly awesome precipice. We can get there through science, science-fiction, music, visual art, mythology, meditation and psychotropic substances.

But we can also get there through horror. As a horror fan and your humble Stuff to Blow Your Mind co-host, I particularly love it when a work of horror delivers me into the unknown or unknowable. So here are 21 psychedelic horror films permanently burned into my mind.

MacBeth (1971)

Oh, you don't think Shakespeare belongs on a list of psychedelic horror? Well then treat yourself with a viewing of Roman Polanski's 1971 adaption of the Scottish Play, his first film following his pregnant wife's death at the hands of the Manson family. His take on this classic tale of witchcraft, prophesy and murder channels some wonderfully mind-warping imagery -- from Macbeth's vision of the future to his post-decapitation POV shot. "What, will the line stretch out to th' crack of doom?"

God Told Me To (1976)
Plan 9

There's a lot to love in Larry Cohen's "God Told Me To." We follow a troubled detective (Tony Lo Bianco) as he investigates a string of bizarre murders in a gritty 1970s, blacksploitationy New York City. In each case, the murderer claimed that God told them to kill.

Ah, but what's really going on here? The detective soon stumbles across an account of alien abductions and follows the string of murders to a glowing, hermaphroditic, messianic alien/human hybrid (Richard Lynch) with a vagina in the place of Christ's spear wound.* And then things get even crazier.

It's one of my favorite b-movies of all time. As a plus, it also features a cameo from Andy Kaufman.

* If you find that nutty and maybe a little offensive, know that the spear-wound-as-vagina motif goes back centuries as part of a larger trend toward the feminization of Christ in medieval and Renaissance art -- an effort to symbolically convey the feminine aspects of Christ.

Eraserhead (1977)

David Lynch's 1977 surrealist nightmare "Eraserhead" demands a place on this list, and with good reason. This dark, Kafkaesque film encloses the viewer in a black-and-white maze of riddles and horrors -- and the central, disturbing enigma in this maze happens to be a deformed, vaguely-avian infant/thing. The soundtrack also served as a precursor to the dark ambient musical genre, so it's highly disturbing even with your eyes shut.

Suspiria (1977)
Diabolique Magazine

There's nothing particularly psychedelic about the plot to Dario Argento's 1977 masterpiece. We follow an American ballet student who enters a mysterious German dance academy. Amid a rising tide of murder and paranoia, she learns the academy is just a cover for an ancient witch's coven.

That's all well and good, but it's "Suspiria's" look and sound that firmly place it in the realm of mind-bending horror. The film's vibrant color scheme (due to a three-strip Technicolor printing process) transports the viewer to an unsettling, unreal world where all the reds bleed with otherworldly menace, all while Goblin's legendary, ethereal soundtrack gives everything the air of dream.

House (1977)

Nobuhiko Obayashi's 1977 film "House" is rather legendary as cinema's preeminent psychedelic haunted house movie. Pianos and haunted light fixtures eat people. Blood flows, blood squirts and a crazy demon cat flashes across the screen. An absurd energy runs throughout the film and Obayashi actually demanded the special effects seem amateur and childlike. View the trailer. There's nothing else like it.

Blue Sunshine (1978)
Alamo Draft House

We've all heard urban legends about acid flashbacks, and "Blue Sunshine" taps right into those fears. The film takes place a decade after the Summer of Love and the flower children have all grown up and moved on. They've become husbands, mothers, professionals and politicians -- but then a bizarre strain of LSD called "Blue Sunshine" begins to rear its ugly head again. The symptoms pop up a decade after initial consumption: sudden baldness, intense homicidal mania, the ultimate bad trip.

Directed by Jeff Lieberman of "Squirm" fame, "Blue Sunshine" taps into a familiar anxiety among psychotropic psychonauts: Has this substance harmed my mind as well as expanded it? Will I pay for it down the road? The film doesn't pack much in the way of psychedelic imagery, but in a way that works to its advantage. It's not about the exploding skies of yesteryear but the dry reality of here-and-now. The terror holds up well, as does the lead performance by the late Zalman King, better known for his work as an erotic film director.

Phantasm (1979)
Post-Mortem Depression

Don Coscarelli's "Phantasm" is not without its flaws, but at the end of the day you have a crazy sci-fi/horror/fantasy plot about an extraterrestrial being who commands a squadron of flying, silver death balls and crunches down human corpses into off-world slave-labor on high-gravity planets. Whew! Now if that doesn't sound like some 4-in-the-morning LSD freakout talk, I don't know what does. It's a bit slow and goofy in places, but the creepy sequences tend to deliver.

Altered States (1980)

Ken Russel's "Altered States" (1980) is based in part on the real-life LSD isolation tank experiments of John C. Lilly. While Lilly sought astral communication with dolphin kind, the fictional Dr. Edward Jessup (William Hurt) seeks to understand the link between altered states of consciousness and physical reality. So he takes psychoactive mushrooms, climbs into an isolation tank and experiences wild, cinematic hallucinations full of explosions and a seven-eyed goat-Christ. Most notably, however, Jessup also experiences physical changes, first into a caveman and finally into some manner of glowing primordial goo-man.

The Shining (1980)
Mage Design

Stephen King has a point: Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaption of the psychic-boy-meets-haunted-hotel yarn really drops the ball on character development. Jack Nicholson never once resembles a likeable human character, so it's hard to care all that much when he goes crazy. But there's no mistaking the visual terror of "The Shining," a world in which elevators vomit blood, ghost twins walk the halls and bear suits factor into unguessable carnal appatites. Plus, factor in a cryptic conspiracy theory and there's more than enough for a rabid mind to feast on here.

Videodrome (1983)
Alamo Drafthouse

There was a time, children, when David Cronenberg existed solely to blow minds and introduce you to the New Flesh. His later films stick closer to the real world, but 1983's "Videodrome" took us on a reality-warping trip full of fetishism, media nihilism and body horror. The television screen itself becomes a portal into hallucination, mutation, madness and death.

The Boxer's Omen (1983)
Club Silencio

Yeah, you better believe a Hong-Kong boxing film made the list. This 1983 production from Chih-Hung Kuei (director of "Corpse Mania" ) tells the story of an injured Thai boxer (played by the legendary Bolo Yeung) who joins his brother on a quest to vanquish the family curse. Not that crazy-sounding, right? Well from here "The Boxer's Omen" erupts into a phantasmagorical body-horror storm of flying heads, masochistic sorcerers and clawed sex zombies. I mean, you tell me what's happening in that screenshot. View the trailer to get a proper taste.

Tetsuo the Iron Man (1989)
Genkinahito's Blog

If you think "cyberpunk" is all about William Gibson novels and "The Matrix," then consider this 1989 film your gateway into the bizarro world of Japanese cyberpunk. Filmed in gloomy black-and-white, "Tetsuo, the Iron Man" revolves around two characters: the metal fetishist and our titular iron man. Believe me, he's no Tony Stark. A great deal of surreal nonsense ensures, but it all culminates in these two twisted, metal junk abominations battling it out and merging together for world destruction. Good times!

Santa Sangre (1989)
Spectacular Cinema

Director Alejandro Jodorowsky's name is synonymous with psychedelic cinema, from his LSD-fueled "Holy Mountain" and surreal western "El Topo" to his failed plans for a "Dune" film staring Salvador Dali. You'll find moments of terror in most of his films, but 1989's "Santa Sangre" remains his only proper entry in the horror genre.

It's a film saturated by carnival and Catholic imagery, hitting the viewer with everything from Mexican wrestlers and dismembered saints to elephant funerals and psychopathic murder. Co-written and produced by Dario Argento, "Santa Sangre" stands out as one of Jodorowsky's more linear and story-driven films. Even film critics had a lot of great things to say about this one, including Roger Ebert, who distinguished it as one of the 10 best films of 1990.

Dr. Caligari (1989)

I know, I could have probably included the classic 1920 silent film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," but instead I'm picking Stephen Sayadian's 1989 cult art/sleeze sensation "Dr. Caligari." Warped in the neon palette of the time, the film takes us to a surreal insane asylum where a vamping, hedonistic mad scientist swaps the brain fluids of cannibals and nymphomaniacs. In one of the film's crazier sequences, our heroine makes out with a giant tongue as it lolls from a flesh door. Or something.

Begotten (1990)

E. Elias Merhige's experimental horror film is not designed for your enjoyment. It's a 72-minute symbolic nightmare devoid of dialog, traditional narrative or -- if we're being honest -- entertainment value. Still, "Begotten" rolls with a hypnotic power that makes you feel like you're peering through a peephole into a universe of mythic insanity -- from the moment "God" disembowels himself till a pack of faceless nomads bury dismembered body parts and grow some flowers.

Jacob's Ladder (1990)
The Wolfman Cometh

It's possible you've never seen "Jacob's Ladder" (1990), so I'm not about to spoil it for you. Suffice to say that Vietnam veteran Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) suffers a series of demonic hallucinations (or are they?) stemming from post traumatic stress or possibly a secret Army drug program. Whatever the reason, reality keeps breaking down for both Jacob and the viewer, as night clubs and hospitals bleed into Hellish vistas of pain and suffering.

Dust Devil (1993)
Dead Donkey

In its better moments, Richard Stanley's 1993 film "Dust Devil" transports viewers to a supernatural no man's land. We find ourselves in the desert wastes of Namibia, where a supernatural serial killer dabbles magic symbols in blood, summons sandstorms and stares through the fabric of reality into mythic time. Still other stretches of the picture feel like lost scraps of late-night 90s cinema, meandering and stained by the era of their making. Still, when "Dust Devil" is firing on all cylinders, swirling in African mythology and phantasmagorical wonder, there's nothing else like it.

Dark City (1998)

If you want to get specific, I suppose 1998's "Dark City" is more of a neo-noir sci-fi film, but there's more than enough horror to score it a place on the list. Reality isn't want it seems. Time isn't what it seems. A spiral murderer is on the loose and strange men in dark coats stalk the streets at night. Oh yes, and Lovecraftian parasites hijack the bodies of the dead in order to carryout a metaphysical investigation. There's more than enough here to blow the mind, plus relish in Richard O'Brian's fantastically creepy performance as Mr. Hand.

Ring (1998) & The Ring (2002)
Lothar's Lair

Much like "Videodrome," the 1998 Japanese horror sensation "Ring" immerses us in a cinematic experience about haunted media, where a simple video tape serves as a portal to supernatural horror and death. Perhaps it's a bit different now with digital downloads and Blu-ray discs, but watching this on a bootleged VHS was an exceedingly creepy experience. The 2002 American remake has its merits too, but bottom line: Modernity suddenly feels less like a barrier to supernatural threat and more like a highway for its transit.

Lords of Salem (2012)

As I discussed in my review, Rob Zombie's "Lords of Salem" partially breaks free from the mold of his previous films. Sure, he hits some of the all-too-familiar beats here and there, but a genuinely mysterious and creepy vibe resonates through the film -- and we fall head-first into some wonderfully trippy scenes of phantasmagorical horror featuring a bestial Satan and a holy meat dwarf.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2012)
Chewable Newt

Based on my 2012 review of Panos Cosmatos's "Beyond the Black Rainbow," you might think I didn't like it all that much. But two years later, I actually think I'm a bit obsessed with it. Visually, the film is vibrantly psychedelic and the score by Jeremy Schmidt (AKA Sinoia Caves) absolutely transports you. But to where, right? You might criticize the film for being slow and abstract (I did, at the time) but that's also one of its strengths as it places the viewer inside a tantalizing maze of uncertainty, dread and otherworldly wonder. It's kind of becoming one of my favorite movies and I don't know how I feel about that. I implore you to see it. Join Barry. Take the trip and bring back the mother load.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.