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Scary Movies for When the World Is a Fright

In “Reel Terror,” David Konow’s knife-sharp history of scary movies, the “Psycho” screenwriter Joseph Stefano talked about why fright matters.

“Fear is something we must feel,” Stefano said. “When you’re watching ‘Psycho,’ you don’t think about the real things that are frightening you. You’re allowing yourself to be frightened by fantasy, and that’s more bearable.”

Science sides with the scary. A new study found that people who like horror movies tend to cope better with crises, feel less stressed by possible outcomes and are more resilient when preparing for tough times.

If the choice these days is between bearable fantasy or unbearable reality, for horror fans like me — and scientists, apparently — the pick is easy. Since I began isolating at home in late March, I’ve been glued to the seemingly infinite streaming options for lovers of the macabre. I’ve devoured everything from Italian giallo films on Shudder to absurdly gory work by the ’60s exploitation master Herschell Gordon Lewis on Criterion. I have a date with strangers Sunday afternoons on the livestreaming platform Twitch for Spectacle Theater’s Blood Brunch, a terrific surprise horror movie series that’s heavy on ’80s splatter. When the world looks like hell, the bearable fantasy of a lunatic in the basement is as comforting to me as a caftan is to others, and not just because I don’t have a basement.

I’ve especially enjoyed the new genre offerings that have surfaced over the past few months as major studios lay low until they figure out what the new moviegoing normal looks like. Curious to see what all the fuss over horror is about? Whether you’re a novice or an authority, there’s a movie (or TV series) this summer with your name on it. Here’s my guide to some of the season’s top scares.

Stream it on Shudder.

I’ve been in some ghastly Zoom meetings. But they were gifts from heaven compared to what happens in Rob Savage’s hellish film, set at a Zoom séance. Since it began streaming in July, “Host” has become perhaps the most buzzed-about horror film of the summer, especially among discerning scary movie fans in love with how it taps into our pandemic-minded fears about solitude and the unknown. (My skin now crawls when I’m on a Zoom call and glimpse a door ajar in an empty room.) It’s also a smart evolution of the found footage genre, using screen glitches and severe close-ups in Zoomtastic ways. Watch “Host” on a computer with headphones in and lights out for an authentically diabolical experience. The film runs under an hour, as every Zoom meeting should.

Stream it on HBO.

Horror movies by and about Black people are absent this summer — most summers, shamefully — which is why HBO’s new series, created by Misha Green, is so welcome. A big-budget layer cake of strange, “Lovecraft Country” stars Jonathan Majors as Atticus Freeman, a Black man sets off from the Jim Crow South on a trek to find his father, and leads family and friends on a sci-fi battle against monsters of both the supernatural and racist variety. The series smartly reckons with race relations and social justice through an old-school creature-feature sensibility. It will be catnip for horror geeks and fans of the out-there (and problematic) writer H.P. Lovecraft, whose bizarro work courses through the veins of each episode I saw. I really fell for how the show anachronistically positions sound — including Gil Scott-Heron’s poem “Whitey on the Moon” and the theme song from the ’70s sitcom “The Jeffersons” — to propel the story.

I’m rarely moved by a horror movie. Yet that’s what happened at the end of this nightmarish but heartfelt family drama about dementia, directed with unexpected tenderness by the Australian director Natalie Erika James in her acclaimed feature debut. “Relic” begins as an ordinary haunted house picture. A mother and daughter move into the decaying family home when it becomes clear that grandma needs round-the-clock care. But something’s amiss. Strange sounds bleed through walls. A secret passage reveals eerie enigmas. Grandma really isn’t herself. But James is too much of a compassionate director to fall back on horror movie expectations. Keep tissues nearby for the final moments, which are as chilling as they are heartbreaking.

Stream it on Shudder.

Who needs made-up monsters in a world of man-made atrocities? That’s the question at the heart of this creepy, politically-themed film from Guatemala. Based on true events connected to the Guatemalan ruling elite, “La Llorona” is about a retired general on trial for the genocide of the Maya Ixil, one of the country’s Indigenous groups, in the early ’80s. When a court overturns the dictator’s war crimes conviction, he and his family are met with protests — and a demure young domestic worker named Alma (María Mercedes Coroy) — at their door.

The Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante is an expert at isolating chills in stillness; Alma’s fixed stares are like shivs. In one of the film’s most effective scenes, a veiled Indigenous woman quietly testifies against the general, speaking in the Kaqchikel language. Behind her sits a rapt audience in a room that recesses to black. It’s bloodcurdling.

If Rosemary had her baby at Melrose Place, it would look something like this unnerving indie psychodrama. Released in April but arriving on Netflix Aug. 23, David Marmor’s cautionary tale is about a young woman who moves to a Los Angeles apartment complex where something sinister rots behind the smiles of her motley neighbors. It’s no spoiler to say that these folks are sectarian fanatics into mind control and murder. (Marmor, who also wrote the film, has said he was inspired by Los Angeles’s history as a hatchery for cults.) Horror fans — but definitely not cat lovers — will dig the gore, and will get a kick out of the nail-biting race to the good-or-evil finish line.

Rent or buy it on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu and Google Play.

You know times are tough when August 2019 is the destination I’d want a time machine to take me to in August 2020. I couldn’t help but think about that chimera as I watched this gritty time-travel thriller, directed with intense drive by Tony Dean Smith. More sci-fi neo-noir than straight-up horror, “Volition” is a clever puzzle of a story about James, a young man who experiences flashes of clairvoyance, including what looks like his murder. When a shady deal involving $10 million in diamonds gets botched and James’s identity starts to unravel, so do space and time. Mysterious leaps between past and present make “Volition” a trim, low-budget cousin to time-warping films like “Memento” and “Timecrimes.”

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