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10 Most Heartbreaking Horror Films

Most horror movies want to scare, unsettle, or disturb, but some set their sights even higher. These are the most heartbreaking horror films.
Heartbreaking Horror Films
By  · Published on October 30th, 2021

5. The Changeling (1980)

The Changeling

Ghostly horrors typically see malicious spirits taunting and terrorizing homeowners, and while it’s usually because they’re assholes, sometimes it’s because they’re rightfully pissed off. Peter Medak‘s The Changeling sees one of the latter instances as a grieving composer — his wife and child died recently in a car crash — moves into an old house and begins to notice strange occurrences. A ghost is making its presence known, and it has unfinished business. It’s the specifics of both the ghost and that business that lends the film its heartbreak. George C. Scott is an intense actor, and he brings both grief and rage to the widower whose discovery of a senseless and cruel murder sets him on a path towards conflagration. We care about the man’s irredeemable loss, and we care even more about the justice he’s hoping to find for a different lost soul. It’s heartbreaking horror that’s also pretty damn spooky. (Rob Hunter)

4. Don’t Look Now (1973)

Don't Look Now

You can’t talk about heartbreaking horror without talking about Don’t Look Now. I mean, this movie starts with the death of a child. And it gets sadder from there. After the sudden loss of their daughter, English couple John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) head to Venice for his work. And the feeling of sorrow that permeates the film is as murky as the water in the canals. With inklings of the supernatural lurking around each corner, grieving becomes an even messier process. Director Nicolas Roeg masterfully allows his mystery to linger without a clear indication of what, if anything, is persistently haunting John. With some genuinely unnerving images, narrative developments that hit you like a punch to the gut, and outstanding performances from Sutherland and Christie, Don’t Look Now is an emotionally powerful and terrifying movie like no other. (Anna Swanson)

3. Lake Mungo (2008)

Lake Mungo

As has been the case with my prior picks above, Lake Mungo is a heartbreaking horror movie that opens with a death. A teenager has accidentally drowned, and as her family grieves, they begin to notice some strange happenings. They set up video cameras and capture the girl’s ghostly image — or do they? I’ll avoid saying more as this is a movie that too few of you have seen, and it’s well worth seeking out and discovering. The only spoiler here is there’s heartbreak associated with the revelations. It’s present in the characters and narrative, but it hits hardest with the film’s final reveal as we’re forced to look back for things we missed and memories forgotten. Faux-docs are rarely the realm of emotion, but writer/director Joel Anderson ensures that his chilling tale also packs a punch to the heart. (Rob Hunter)

2. Dead Ringers (1988)

Dead Ringers
Twentieth Century Fox

Arguably David Cronenberg’s finest film, Dead Ringers tells the tragedy of the Mantle twins: identical gynecologists (both played by Jeremy Irons) whose incrementally diverging lives push the pair into malpractice, madness, and eventually murder. Separation can be a… terrifying thing. Don’t let the sensational psychosexual premise (or all those hellish surgical instruments) fool you: Dead Ringers boasts far more drama than deviancy. Partially based on a real-life story, Dead Ringers’ suggestive thesis, that psychological bonds can have physiological consequences, is less skin-crawling than it is tragic. The Mantles need each other more than most. And when one breaks free, the other deteriorates. Steeped in pain and paranoia, Dead Ringers hinges on the devastating fallout of two individuals who, when together, form one whole person. An identity tragedy about the self-destructive, malicious side of unconditional intimacy, Dead Ringers is a tear-jerking tour-de-force. (Meg Shields)

1. The Fly (1986)

The Fly

David Cronenberg is a very precise filmmaker, and one of his callings cards is a coldly observant intensity — his films are typically methodical in their pacing and more clinical than warm or emotional. That’s a truth, but you’ll notice that it hasn’t stopped him from landing both of the top spots on this list of heartbreaking horror movies. The Fly remains, for my money at least, Cronenberg’s best film and the reasons are legion. It’s a phenomenal remake, Chris Walas’ practical effects work is incredible, the performances by Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, and John Getz are impactful, and… it’s absolutely heartbreaking.

Goldblum’s scientist is a good man whose brilliant experiment is upended by tragedy and happenstance when a housefly gets into the mix. The man’s transformation goes through degrees of cool, exhilarating, and frightening before settling on the horrifically sad. The genius has become a monster, and the woman who loves him knows there’s only one way things are going to end. You feel for him, you feel for them, and you feel for it. (Rob Hunter)

Don’t cry, we have more cheerful reading ahead as you check out more 31 Days of Horror Lists!

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.