A grainy camcorder reveals dark corners where ghosts (or worse, people) hide, ready to pounce. A soft, analogue aesthetic creates the intimacy between story and viewer—we are there, behind a veil of chiffon, watching fantasy and horror unfold. Or perhaps we feel like we’re watching something from far away, on a hill above a house, where something we can’t quite see stalks the residents. If any of these descriptors feel familiar, then you’re likely familiar with lo-fi horror movies. But what, exactly, is lo-fi horror? There’s no hard definition for this genre. In fact, it’s hardly a genre at all. It’s more amorphous than that—more of a vibe than anything easy to categorize. You know it when you see it.
“Lo-fi” refers to the way the movie is filmed; usually on a shoestring budget, using the familiarity of a sputtering home video to incite terror. Found footage is often lo-fi, but it’s not the only indicator. Many films of the ’70s, with their dreamy fantasy aesthetic, are similarly low definition. Sometimes, at first glance, the film isn’t just lo-fi, but also low quality. But don’t be fooled. The truly scary lo-fi films prey on your assumptions and comfort. This analogue atmosphere usually reserved for home videos can be a vehicle for the bluntest form of horror—the inescapable and otherwise indescribable.
Skinamarink Is the Latest Lo-Fi Horror Game Changer
The latest lo-fi film to grip the horror community is Skinamarink, Kyle Edward Ball’s nightmarish directorial debut. The movie follows two young children who awake in the middle of the night and find themselves without parents. They are trapped within the walls of their home, the windows and doors disappearing. Ball shot the film—based on videos he once uploaded to YouTube–digitally and for $15,000. IFC Midnight released the film in theaters this January. To date, Skinamarink has grossed more than $1 million at the box office, at least 67 times its own budget.
Such is the power of lo-fi. It doesn’t cost a lot to make a major dent, not just in the box office, but in the history of the genre. Some of the biggest game-changers in the last few decades fit that lo-fi definition.
Skinamarink lands hits Shudder on February 2. And if you’re looking for more movies like Skinamarink to scratch your lo-fi itch, check out our list below. Prepare to be terrified for days.
LandLocked, another brand new lo-fi horror movie, came out this January and is of a piece with Skinamarink in many ways. The film follows a character named Mason, who visits his childhood home on the eve of its destruction and finds a video camera there that can see into the past. He travels through the home, recording all of the memories he can, but soon develops an unhealthy and dangerous obsession with nostalgia. Though not as nightmarishly scary as some of the other films on this list, Paul Owens’ LandLocked serves up plenty to chew on—and, in this case, the implications are where the scares truly rest.
Where to Watch: Rent here on Amazon Prime
It’s hard to describe Valerie and Her Week of Wonders—it’s one of those films you have to really experience to understand. Visually stunning and aesthetically sumptuous, this Czechoslovak surrealist horror fantasy operates fully in dream logic. It follows the eponymous Valerie, trapped in a nightmare where she’s stalked by vampires, freakish men and women, religious figures, and other horrors. The lo-fi-ness comes from that slippery, hallucinogenic quality. Director Jaromil Jireš uses this to his advantage, so that we feel like we’re on Valerie’s shoulder, trapped in the same perpetual hellscape.
Where to Watch: Stream here on Criterion Channel
Lake Mungo (2008)
Joel Anderson’s Australian horror film Lake Mungo is a favorite in the horror community—if you haven’t heard of it yet, you don’t spend enough time on horror subreddits. There’s a reason for its popularity in those niche circles. The film conveys so much emotion and fear without the flashiness of a high-def feature. Told in mockumentary style, the film tells the story of a family attempting to reconcile with their daughter’s drowning death and her subsequent haunting of them. The film relies on effective background scares to create an atmosphere of dread. But is also hauntingly melancholic for what we don’t see.
Where to Watch: Stream here on AMC+
Brandon Cronenberg, son of David, has his dad’s same sick flair for body horror. His debut feature Antiviral is an unflinching, gory spectacle, and fits neatly into the lo-fi genre for its fuzzy camerawork, which feels a bit like eavesdropping on a perverted underworld. The film takes place in the near future, where celebrities sell their illnesses to obsessed fans. It’s a film that took on new relevance in the COVID era, and feels ahead of its time in other ways, too, namely for how accurately and freakishly it examines stan culture. And while it may be lo-fi in look and feel, don’t let that fool you—the body horror in this is not for the faint of heart.
Where to Watch: Steam here on AMC+
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The movie that changed horror forever. The Blair Witch Project isn’t the first found footage film, but it absolutely pioneered a new wave of the genre. Filmed for around $60,000, the movie went on to earn $250 million at the box office, making it one of the most profitable films of all time. Centered on a trio of film students who head into the Maryland woods to film a documentary about a local legend, the movie had a tremendous impact on culture, with scenes we still meme to this day. It’s a prime example of how effective horror can be without special effects or music. The final sequence, filmed in shaky lo-fi cuts, is still one of the scariest horror endings of all time.
Where to Watch: Stream here on Tubi
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)
Another ‘70s movie with a dreamy quality, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is one of those aforementioned movies that feels like you’re watching from afar, let in on some horrifying secret no one else knows. The movie follows a young woman named Jessica, recently released from a mental institution, who moves into a country house with her husband and a close friend. When they arrive, they find a mysterious woman already living there, who may or may not be a vampire. Jessica feels her grip on reality slipping again—is this new woman actually a supernatural being, or is Jessica’s psychosis coming back to haunt her? The lo-fi filmography lends itself to the feelings of confusion and paranoia.
Where to Watch: Rent here on Amazon Prime
Inland Empire (2006)
David Lynch hasn’t made a feature film since this 2006 oddball, which continues to puzzle critics and fans. Lynch filmed the movie himself on a handheld, low-resolution Sony camcorder, without a screenplay or much direction at all. The result? A maddening travail into the mind of an actress losing grip on reality, played by a truly marvelous Laura Dern. The film is also known for its bizarre opening sequence, which portrays a sitcom-style TV show starring surrealist, anthropomorphic rabbits. (It’s also known for its offbeat Oscar campaign.) For years, Inland Empire was almost impossible to see legally, but thanks to the Criterion Collection, Lynch completionists will soon be able to own it on Blu-ray.
Where to Watch: Preorder the Criterion Collection Blu-ray here (available March 21, 2023)
Japanese techno-horror is one of the scariest micro-genres, and lo-fi elements are basically synonymous with it. For example, the 2001 cult film Pulse, about a Tokyo-based college student who commits suicide. setting off a chain of paranormal activity transmitted via the web. The film follows three separate storylines centered on a trio of characters attempting to solve the mystery, which finds malevolent spirits crossing over from computer screens into real life. Part of the J-horror boom started by Ringu in 1998, Pulse will stay with you long after your first viewing. It uses background ghosts to haunting effect and (rightfully) inspires mistrust in all of our tech devices. What’s scarier than the screens we can’t escape?
Where to Watch: Stream here on Vudu
Like Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Viy—a Soviet horror film from the 1960s—uses sumptuous fantasy-scapes to place us in a world outside of our own. The film follows a group of seminary students who vacation in woods and stumble upon a witch, who one of them murders after a scuffle. The witch is actually the beautiful daughter of a local landowner in disguise, and her murderer must stand vigil over her body for three days to protect her spirit—or else. The lo-fi sheen of the movie accentuates its camp elements and makes what would otherwise feel like dated special effects come off intentional and dreamlike.
Where to Watch: Stream here on Shudder
Session 9 (2001)
Brad Anderson’s cult classic horror film Session 9 is one of the scariest entries on this list, with an ending that lingers long after the credits roll. Set in an abandoned insane asylum, the film follows a group of asbestos removal workers who find audiotape recordings of sessions with a former patient. A series of odd events at the hospital coalesce with rising tensions among the crew, leading to violence and psychological terror. Filmed in 24p HD digital video, the movie at times feels like a documentary, creating intimacy between the viewer and the horrors inside the sprawling institution.
Where to Watch: Rent here on Amazon Prime
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