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 ranking the best daytime horror movies is part of our ongoing series, 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Horror lives in the dark, and the movies tend to follow suit more often than not. It’s easy to scare audiences when there are shadows hiding terrors within, and if we’re being honest, some filmmakers also find it better to hide shoddy effects under the cover of night as well. Of course, it helps that human beings are just inherently fearful of the dark in the first place, so horror movies unsurprisingly tend to take advantage of that truth. It’s commonplace, it’s the norm, it’s to be expected.
Which is why it stands out when a film/filmmaker takes the opportunity to deliver scares, terrors, and unsettling beats beneath a blanket of bright sunlight. It’s more difficult to squeeze scares from brightly lit scenes and sequences, so it’s worth celebrating the movies that nail that daytime horror aesthetic. The films below don’t necessarily take place entirely during the day, but the bulk of their running times do with memorable scenes looking for and finding things to unnerve us far from the darkness.
Keep reading for a look at ten of the best daytime horror movies as ranked by Chris “The Phoenix Suns” Coffel, Brad “Empire of the Sun” Gullickson, Meg “Evil Under the Sun” Shields, Jacob “Tears of the Sun” Trussell, and me,
10. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)
Further proof that the imperative mood is the coolest way to title a movie, Let’s Scare Jessica To Death is a genre-defying indie curio that will crawl under your skin and never leave. Co-written and directed by John Hancock (no, not that one), the 1971 film follows a fragile young woman named Jessica (Zohra Lampert), who has been released, somewhat prematurely, from a psychiatric facility. What can we say? Maybe moving into a dilapidated and definitely haunted hippie farmhouse wasn’t the best aftercare for a paranoid schizophrenic. Increasingly convinced that she is being stalked and toyed with by a mute vampire, Jessica’s already tenuous grasp on reality begins to relax fully. Because the horrific elements of Let’s Scare Jessica To Death play out in our heroine’s mind rather than in the shadows, the film is able to exert its queasy, reality-blurring power out in the open with nothing to hide. Jessica’s visions (if they are visions) aren’t tricks of the eye. We see them, too. (Meg Shields)
9. Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)
While it’s true that most horror movies, ie the ones made by studios or that hope to get some kind of wide release, see certain elements as taboo, others openly embrace the grim, dark, and truly blasphemous things that make normies squirm. One of the beats that most viewers abhor is the onscreen death of a child, and while some friends suggested my taste for seeing movie children slaughtered would wane after the birth of my own first child — surprise, I still love it. My enjoyment stems from how uncommon it is in movies, even in horror, and how effective it can set a tone of uncertainty about any character’s survival. All of that said, Narciso Ibáñez Serrador‘s Who Can Kill a Child? doubles down on the concept in various ways, resulting in a thrilling and uncomfortable delight.
A young couple expecting their own child boat to a small island for a relaxing afternoon only to discover something unsettling. The adults are all dead, the kids have all killed them, and this young couple is next on their list. If they want any hope of survival… they’re gonna have to be okay murdering some kiddos. Serrador isn’t just seeking out dangerous thrills here, he’s making a statement. The film opens with clips from documentaries highlighting children victimized by the ravages of war, and the idea at play here is that they’re no longer willing to be fodder for the violent whims of adults. It’s a terrific setup leading to an even better conclusion, and watching these horrors and realizations unfold beneath the bright Spanish sun just drives home the sad truth of it all. (Rob Hunter)
8. The Wicker Man (1973)
Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodard) thinks he’s boss. He struts around Summerisle like the cock of the walk, demanding answers and getting none. The bright sun above reveals his impotence. The power he thinks he wields has no strength here. He’s bluster, a small man wearing weakness like a uniform: easy pickings and a perfect sacrifice. The light that wraps The Wicker Man provides no cover for its protagonist or viewer. The Summerisle citizens hold onto their secrets, and their silence operates like traditional horror movie shadows. Within it, our imagination runs wild until all is revealed and Howie is cooking. (Brad Gullickson)
7. The Host (2006)
A beautiful day. Families and friends hanging out by the river, enjoying the sun and relaxing views. Suddenly, a large monster breaks the surface and begins killing, maiming, and eating as many people as its fast-running form can catch. Bong Joon-ho‘s breakthrough feature brings the monster into the light and pits its carnivorous advances against a family desperate to protect its own. While far too many creature features hide their monsters in the dark and in the shadows, Bong introduces his in the bright sunlight. It makes a statement that the monster feels no need to hide and that the movie wants you to know that no one is safe. The monster itself is revealed as the unintentional creation of a certain Western power, but for the family, it represents uncertainty and challenge, the likes of which they’ve never faced before. (Rob Hunter)
6. Cujo (1983)
While the rest of the films on this list take place in daylight for mostly arbitrary reasons, Lewis Teague‘s adaptation of Stephen King‘s devastating and draining novel sees it as a requirement, making it one of the most relevant daytime horror movies. A young mother takes her son along for a ride to visit a remote mechanic only to discover that the man has been mauled by his pet St. Bernard — himself the victim of a bite from a rabid bat. Trapped in the confines of their car overnight by a pacing, drooly, and uncontrollably violent dog, mother and son awake the next morning and begin to bake in the warm sun. The sun adds an additional threat with heat exhaustion, but it’s also used to show young Thad that not all monsters hide in the shadows of dark closets. As with a much later adaptation of King’s The Mist, the filmmaker takes a big swing with an ending that differs from the source material. Where Frank Darabont goes dark, though, Teague finds the light. As an avowed fan of kids biting the dust on screen, you’d think this altered ending wouldn’t work for me, but that’s not the case. The payoff for Donna — woman, mother, unfaithful partner in an otherwise loving marriage who’s now fighting for survival — is a success, and it’s earned by both the writing and the fantastic performance from Dee Wallace. (Rob Hunter)
5. Revenge (2017)
Few of horror’s subgenres are as typically grim, ugly, and mean as rape/revenge films, and even fewer fit the bill as daytime horror movies. The very concept kicks off with an act of violent brutality that is rarely erased with the catharsis that follows. Writer/director Coralie Fargeat‘s stab at it, though, knows that the genre thrills aren’t found in the assault and wisely pulls us out of the room before it really begins. We hear part of it, enough to feel the terror even as the bright sun pours in through the windows, and soon, three men have left Jen (a terrific Matilda Lutz) for dead after tossing her from a cliff to be impaled by a branch. She won’t be making it that easy for them, though, and after dispatching with one of them overnight, she hunts down the remaining two in the stark light of day. Blood spills, splashes, and smears, and the blistering sun is indifferent. (Rob Hunter)
4. Predator (1987)
John McTiernan‘s Predator is more than just a popular internet meme of two jacked arms embracing, signifying unity and coming together. It’s also a great daytime horror movie about dudes being dudes. Okay, so maybe it’s really about a military rescue team working on a secret mission in South America when they are attacked by an alien creature visiting Earth in hopes of finding a more challenging hunt. Making this movie take place during the day was a big swing. There are no shortcuts here. No using dark scenes to cover up imperfections and shoddy effects work. McTiernan wants us to be part of the action, he wants us to feel. He wants to make sure we can see every little detail, save for those moments when Predator goes invisible, because that’s one of his advantages over humans. Now, take my hand in yours, and let’s flex while agreeing to unify over our shared love of Predator. (Chris Coffel)
3. Tremors (1990)
It’s easy to forget just how fantastic Ron Underwood‘s unlikely creature feature is, and part of the reason why is its effortless “aww shucks” charm that can sometimes distract from the monster movie within. A small desert town is under attack by a trio of giant sandworms with sharp beaks and hydra-like tongues, and only two fed-up handymen can save the day in one of the most rewatchable daytime horror movies out there. Fred Ward and Kevin Bacon are ridiculously good here, and the script finds fun between the ensemble and their attempts at survival, but the value of seeing practically created creatures wreaking havoc beneath the bright desert sun cannot be understated. A combination of brilliant FX, miniatures, and puppeteering bring the beasts to life, and it’s a hell of a sight for viewers used to CG monsters and effects hiding their flaws in the dark of night. (Rob Hunter)
2. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
In the early days of The IFC channel, when it predominantly played, you know, independent films, they had bumpers between movies that showed short clips from cinema’s most famous scenes, like the closing jump scare in the original Friday the 13th. However, the bumper clip that was immediately seared into my brain and likely cultivated my future love affair with the franchise was the shocking moment when Leatherface makes his Grand Guignol first appearance in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The horror I felt didn’t come from the character (as a Texas boy, Leatherface has always been a lowkey mascot for us) but rather that this brutal moment takes place in the bright light of day. That something so awful could happen in the safety of the noonday sun stood out to me; the terrifying dichotomy of a lovely day that, in the blink of an eye — or more accurately, the swing of a hammer — could turn dark as night. (Jacob Trussell)
1. Jaws (1975)
Was there ever any doubt which film would reign supreme when it comes to daytime horror movies? Steven Spielberg‘s masterpiece features a handful of scenes unfolding at night, but the bulk of it sees the very believable horror of a shark attack playing out beneath a welcoming summer sun. The hungry Great White picks off a young boy while beachgoers frolic and enjoy their fun in the sun nearby, and it glides casually through the water, allowing anyone with eyes the opportunity to see its impressive size. The film’s third act takes us out to open water, where three men face off with the beast with the deep blue beneath them and the clear blue above. The terror comes from characters/performances we’ve become attached to, the atmosphere and tension that Spielberg has been building, and the reality that as scary as monsters, ghosts, and serial killers might be, sometimes Mother Nature’s creations — like a big, methodically murderous shark on a bright summer day — beats them all for a spot in our collective nightmares. (Rob Hunter)
Is it daytime where you are? Or has the sunset, leaving you cloaked in darkness? Either way, trust more 31 Days of Horror Lists to keep you safe.