First, let’s address the elephant in the room: What exactly is survival horror? Aren’t all horror movies about survival?
Indeed, the parameters of this particular subgenre are more nebulous than most, but survival horror films share certain characteristic. They feature protagonists who face dangerous, potentially fatal situations in locations far off the beaten path (away from societal safety-nets). While survival is a common goal, not just in horror, but cinema in general, the primary goals here are finding escape and/or awaiting rescue. There’s definitely a lot of overlap with natural horror, but survival horror isn’t limited to purely natural phenomenon; it may incorporate supernatural elements, fantastic creatures, and vicious psychopaths, for example.
These are the kind of movies that make you want to stay home and board up the windows! Below, in no particular order, are some of the best examples of 21st Century survival horror you’re likely to find. Enjoy!
If you have seen all of these survival horror films or looking for a new release we recommend checking out Refuge. You can read our review here. Matt gave it a 4 out of 5 saying “There isn’t a big budget or a slew of a-listers in Refuge, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a great flick, appropriately bleak and beautifully acted.” You can get it right here on iTunes!.
It’s In the Blood (2012)
Survival horror becomes a surrealist nightmare for a father and son on a camping trip. Pursued by a shadowy entity, they must face past demons if they hope to escape with their lives. Lance Henricksen stars as Russell in perhaps his most under appreciated role. For drama, suspense, and thrills, It’s in the Blood is an absolute winner.
Into the Grizzly Maze (2015)
Family estrangement is exasperated when two brothers are mercilessly pursued by a grizzly bear while trekking through the wilds of Alaska. Canadian director David Hackl (Saw V) helms this chiller, which stars James Marsden, Thomas Jane, Billy Bob Thornton, Piper Perabo, and Scott Glenn. The film also features Bart the Bear 2, an Alaskan brown bear who also had runs in Into the Wild and Game of Thrones.
Loosely based on events that transpired in the back country of Missinaibi Lake Provincial Park, North of Chapleau, Ontario back in 2005, Backcountry follows a couple of urbanites who cross paths with a territorial black bear while on a weekend camping trip. Like several other movies in this subgenre, the trial becomes a metaphor for the pitfalls of romance/commitment and all the vulnerabilities that come with it. Still, this is a particularly vicious example of survival horror, one that illustrates nature’s brutality and indifference.
High Lane (2009)
High Lane is an excellent example of survival horror in the same vein as The Most Dangerous Game. It’s yet another example of city-slickers getting in way over their heads, this time while on a rock climbing excursion in the Swiss Alps. Dizzying cliffs are only part of the dangers they will have to maneuver; a love-triangle and a violent feral human also feature prominently.
Part of what makes Adam Green’s Frozen so devastating is that the protagonists/victims aren’t miles off the grid, just out of town on a weekend ski trip. The tension builds slowly but powerfully as what first seems like a troubling inconvenience becomes a desperate fight for survival for a trio stuck on a ski lift. But it’s the banality of this premise that makes the film’s ultimate moments of horror so extreme.
The Reef (2010)
When their sailboat capsizes along the Great Barrier Reef, the crew is forced to make a terrifying choice: Stay with the sinking boat and pray for rescue, or swim over 12 miles through shark infested waters. Those who decide to risk the swim are ruthlessly dogged by a hungry great white shark as they push forward. The tension and suspense are relentless, and the ending is absolutely unforgettable.
The Canyon (2009)
“We should have gone to Hawaii.” A honeymoon trek through the Grand Canyon goes horribly awry for a young couple when their guide succumbs to mortal injuries. What makes matters worse is that the couple is illegally hiking miles away from their assumed location; nobody has any idea where they are. Hunger, dehydration, and venomous snakes are only a few of the obstacles they face. The strength of their love is also put to the test.
A Lonely Place to Die (2011)
A challenging hike through the Scottish Highlands takes a bizarre turn when a group of skilled mountaineers discover an Eastern European girl buried alive in the wilderness. Suddenly engulfed in a political kidnapping and ransom plot, A Lonely Place to Die adds elements of gangster mumble-core to standard survival horror tropes. A nearby village doesn’t offer the shelter or protection they’re desperately hoping for.
The Ruins (2008)
A group of 20-somethings on a beach vacation in Mexico venture inland to explore Mayan pyramids in the dense jungle. While they do run afoul of aggressive locals, the real villain of The Ruins is an exceptionally insidious carnivorous plant that can burrow through flesh. Elements of body horror add intensity to this outstanding survival horror.
Eden Lake (2008)
A British couple on holiday at remote and idyllic Eden Lake find themselves relentlessly pursued by a gang of teen hooligans after accidentally killing their dog. Often regarded as one of the most brutal genre offerings ever produced in the UK, Eden Lake becomes a metaphor for blistering tensions between urbanites and country folk. The perpetrators are exceptionally cruel; the onscreen violence is shocking and extreme.
Wind Chill (2007)
A young college student (Emily Blunt) comes to regret accepting a ride home for Christmas from a secretive (and potentially manipulative) young man when they become stranded on twisted backroads during a blizzard. If freezing temperatures don’t kill her, he just might. Then there are those damn pesky ghosts they also have to deal with.
A war veteran on an extended bicycle journey crosses paths with a couple of backwoods yokels who take pleasure in hunting him down like an animal. They’re forced into an uneasy alliance, however, when they’re all abducted by a sadistic hermit with a secret torture chamber hidden in the woods. In addition to being an amazing example of survival horror, Shadow is a poignant examination of the lingering after-effects of war.
Cold Prey (2006)
A snowboarding excursion becomes an unrelenting nightmare for a group of friends seeking shelter at an abandoned, burned out ski resort after a serious injury. While it appears completely uninhabited, they soon learn they aren’t alone. Cold Prey mixes survival horror with slasher tropes for an experience that feels fresh and immensely suspenseful.
Bigfoot: The Lost Coast Tapes (2011)
An investigative documentarian on a mission to prove Bigfoot is a hoax leads his film crew into the most remote forests of Northern California. After meeting an isolated huntsman who claims to have indisputable proof, they find themselves stalked by, not one, but a gang of extremely strong, shadowy humanoids. The found footage presentation adds a Blair Witch Project feel to this distinctive example of survival horror.
The only film on this list that proves harrowing survival horror and horror comedy aren’t mutually exclusive, Severance follows a group of office workers on a mandatory team-building retreat in the Hungarian wilderness. Bear traps and meat pies collide with psychedelic mushroom, hookers, and a squadron of paramilitary psychopaths. This grotesquely hilarious film is one of a kind!
When venturing into the unknown, preparation can only take you so far; survival horror is about being pushed to your limits and beyond. Stay safe, horror fans!
Editors note: A additional film you might want to check out is Refuge, you can see the trailer below: