We horror fans are aficionados of fictional films. It’s one of horror’s most enduring tropes, whether it’s weird found-footage stories, fake film essays and capsule reviews, books about cursed films and demonic directors, or just a story about a movie that makes people go berserk. There’s just something so engaging and unnerving about film, a medium whose history already has so many weird things happen in it on almost a daily basis. But while stories about fictional films and filming are excellent, movies and TV shows about fictional films are in a class all their own. After all, it’s a lot more difficult when you have to show at least glimpses of the thing driving everyone insane and making them murderous enough to kill each other. There are a few, though, that manage to walk that line. Here are seven movies and TV shows about fictional films that make people freak out.
Archive 81 (2022)
Film archivist, historian, and film restorer Dan Turner is asked to restore and digitize a series of tapes, a grad-school project by a young woman named Melody Pendras about an apartment building called the Visser Arms. The tapes were burned in a mysterious fire, and Dan’s temporary employer, LMG, wants to know what’s on them. But as Melody and Dan’s investigations reveal more about the Visser Arms, it becomes very clear that something strange is going on. The outside of the building is covered in occult symbols, the building’s superintendent tells Melody to avoid the sixth floor, Dan seems connected to Melody in some way, and a strange song starts appearing to both Dan and Melody across the decades. The series is a slow burn, but the use of repeated images–masks, tapes, the weird song that even shows up on the non-diegetic soundtrack–builds the eerie sense of something bigger lurking behind the scenes, and the way all the in-universe recordings seem to add up to something sinister also push the mystery forward in a satisfying way.
Available on: Netflix
Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
A mild-mannered British foley artist named Gilderoy (the wonderful Toby Jones) comes to an Italian film studio to work on a new movie. He is soon blindsided by the fact that rather than the gentle nature documentaries he’s used to, he’s working on a brutal, surreal giallo film called The Equestrian Vortex. As he is forced to put sounds to the twisted, torturous images the sleazy director adds to his movie, Gilderoy finds his reality unraveling more and more. The crew around him becomes hostile, he begins hallucinating that he’s dubbed in Italian, and the studio’s higher-ups become increasingly Kafkaesque as things spiral further into insanity. The movie is an excellent throwback to ’60s and ’70s European suspense flicks, but what really makes the film pop is its intense atmosphere, eliciting dread from things like people chopping up vegetables or trying to get the proper scream out of an actress, the process of filmmaking becoming every bit as disturbing as the images projected onscreen.
Available on: IFC Films, Amazon
Evil Ed (1995)
A cartoonish Norwegian horror-comedy, Evil Ed stars Johan Rudebeck as Ed, a mild-mannered and high-strung editor who’s reassigned from his quiet life in a film distributor to the “splatter and gore” department under Sam Campbell. Forced to edit the wildly gruesome Loose Limbs film for European censors, Ed loses his sanity, first hallucinating and then embarking on a murder spree through Norway, murdering everyone involved in Loose Limbs as he’s urged by his hallucinations to “correct the world.” Within the first five minutes of the movie you know what you’re in for, as Ed’s predecessor goes berserk and splatters himself all over his boss with a hand grenade, but the movie delivers on weirdness and goes just enough over the top with its gore, creature effects, and some excellent sight gags as well as Rudebeck’s remarkable physicality as Ed. On the whole, it might not be terrifying, but if you’re looking for something wild, silly, and enjoyably gory, Evil Ed will give you all that and so much more.
Available on: Tubi
At the height of the “Video Nasty” era, when increased pressure from moral guardians like Mary Whitehouse forced stronger film censorship guidelines for horror and exploitation movies, a young censor named Enid Baines finds herself under increased stress when a film she certified is responsible for a gruesome real-life murder. In this already precarious position, Enid is pushed to re-screen an occult horror movie where a scene reminds her of childhood trauma and the disappearance of her sister. From there, her obsession with the film leads to Enid’s grip on reality loosening as she tries to uncover more about the movie and its director. The film is a love letter to older European horror movies, from the long takes and dialogue-free moments and folk-horror influences to a tunnel scene that mirrors an infamous Isabelle Adjani scene in Possession. But the way it blends psychological thriller, the “sinister film” plot, and a certain strain of Lynchian surrealism gives it a nightmarish level of ambience and allows Censor to become something truly original.
Available on: Hulu
Cigarette Burns (2005)
A standout from the first season of Masters of Horror, Cigarette Burns is John Carpenter’s riff on cursed-film stories and art-noir movies like The Ninth Gate. Norman Reedus plays Kirby Sweetman, a cinema owner and art retriever who is tasked with finding La Fin Absolute du Monde. Rumored to cause insanity and death at every screening, La Fin‘s presence is felt throughout the movie, as even searching for it or seeing it at a distance causes hallucinations, nightmares, disfigurement, and death. Carpenter’s always been good at making things seem ominous and sinister even at the best of times, and the way the film alters anyone who’s ever heard of it–from the crazy fan who directs snuff movies to the film critic who’s writing a House of Leaves-style review to correct a perceived mistake–plays on this wonderfully, giving La Fin a sense of doom even before the movie shows up. Cigarette Burns also seems at times like a sendup, playing with the art/horror-noir touches while pushing them just far enough (blood sacrifices being an important ingredient in filmmaking, some effects that seem to blur the line between film artifice and “reality”) that it plays on the border of the absurd. However you interpret it, it’s a tight, twisty suspense film from one of the best genre directors out there, and worth the short time it takes to watch.
Available on: Tubi
More grounded in the “messed up films” genre but no less surreal than anything else on the list, 8MM makes it on here because it’s pulpy ’90s noir trash that knows exactly what it is and does it with immense style to spare. Featuring Joel Shumacher delivering a grimy, hyperstylized take on then-contemporary detective novels, Joachim Phoenix as a streetwise adult video store clerk, and Nicolas Cage delivering an excellent performance as the slowly unraveling PI, the movie follows a private investigator tasked with determining the authenticity of a snuff film found in a dead millionaire’s personal effects. From there, the movie winds through what seems like a moral guardian’s fever dream of shady adult filmmakers, hardcore underground film traders, and kinksters as Cage works his way through a twisted conspiracy surrounding a shadowy fetish-video director and his brutish star performer. It’s weird that something can be slick and seedy, stylized and grimy all at once, but despite the unnervingly disapproving tone the movie occasionally takes towards kink, it walks a weird line and delivers a memorable late ’90s horror-noir.
Available on: Tubi
Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made (2018)
Antrum is an odd entry, in that it’s structured as a documentary around a cult movie that seems to cause murder and mayhem wherever it’s screened. It even had a grassroots campaign before it was released, with people purportedly trying to track down the “real” movie and talking about it as if it were a real lost film. Despite committing the cardinal sin of actually showing the film-within-a-film, there’s just enough weirdness in Antrum‘s strange 1970s folk-horror fever dream (the subliminal messaging, the opening credits in a combination of Cyrillic and English) to make it a compelling watch, a kind of filmed version of found-document horror. While the cracks occasionally do show, it’s weird enough and has the right atmosphere with its weird ’70s plot of two kids digging a hole to Hell in the woods and encountering demons and cannibal cults that it’s still worth watching, if mainly as a curious artifact and a definite labor of love to a certain era of horror filmmaking.