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Top ten medical horror films

Check in for some killer treatment with these cult films specialising in hospital terror

In the lead-up to Halloween, Dazed Digital is running a Dark Arts season inspired by our November Dark Arts issue. Among other things, we've walked the path of darkness via the Hollywood Walk of Death and talked to Chucky creator Don Mancini. Check our Dark Arts section for a journey to hell and back. 

Ever since the lunatic asylum-set The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, hospitals and mental institutions have occupied a hallowed place in the horror canon. As gateways between life and death, sanity and insanity, they’re rich in dramatic potential – and they're also a means to uncover and interrogate our fear of mortality and death. Surgery, mental illness, organ transplants and biomedical research are all mined for gory detail in these cult picks. 

Session 9 (2001)

A cleaning crew hired to remove asbestos from an old insane asylum – what could go wrong? The real star of the show in Brad Anderson’s sleeper hit is its location: Danvers State Hospital, a terrifying real-life mental institution that birthed the prefrontal lobotomy and provided the inspiration for Arkham Asylum in the Batman mythology. By the time the credits roll, you’ll be glad the place burned down in 2007. 

Kyofu (2010)

Also known as The Sylvian Experiments, this is a queasily effective J-horror film designed to linger in your subconscious. Directed by Ringu scriptwriter Takahashi Hiroshi, the film follows a rogue scientist (Katahira Nagisa) who kidnaps victims to experiment on their brains to trigger hallucinations of the afterlife. As is typical for most Japanese horror movies, the jump-out-your-seat scares are few and far between – expect disquieting, grotesque imagery instead. 

American Mary (2013) 

This indie sleeper is a proto-feminist horror tour de force: wannabe surgeon Mary (Katherine Isabelle) drops out of med school and joins an exploitative strip club, only to dive into the grotesque world of extreme body modification. It’s a transgressive, female-friendly take on the otherwise schlocky rape-revenge genre – and Isabelle, with her icy demeanour and bright red lipstick, is a horror heroine to die for.  

Infection (2004)

This J-Horror classic functions as a gruesome warning against hospital budget cuts (Jeremy Hunt, are you listening?). Doctors at a Tokyo hospital are forced to turn away a patient due to cuts, only to find that their unit becomes infected with a mysterious disease. Think viral thrillers like Outbreak, crossed with the skin-crawling visuals and evil nurses from the Silent Hill franchise. 

Patrick (1978)

The list of cult medical films wouldn’t be complete without Patrick, this Australian B-horror with the irresistibly ridiculous tagline: “He’s in a coma… Yet, he can kill”, featuring a supine psychopath with telekinetic powers. Made after Australia introduced the R rating, Patrick instead gets its thrills by creepily ratching up the tension. Watch out for a young Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) playing the resident mad scientist. 

Flatliners (1990)

Most sci-fi horrors have one message: don’t tamper with the beyond. Flatliners follows five medical students as they attempt to induce momentary brain death before pulling back, all in the name of science. Boasting an all-star 80s cast of Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon and Julia Roberts, it’s a magnificently schlocky medical blockbuster, with a surprisingly heartfelt message.  

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

Fatal Attraction director Adrian Lyne delivers one of the most mind-bending horror films committed to celluloid, and also one of the most politically engaged. Tim Robbins plays a Vietnam War veteran trying to uncover the source of his nightmarish hallucinations An intelligent, surreal take on the trauma of PTSD and the military industrial complex. 

Shock Corridor (1963)

For socially-conscious directors like Sam Fuller, lunatic asylums aren’t handy horror fodder – they’re also microcosms of society. Ambitious reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) gets committed to a mental hospital for a story, only to begin losing his grip on reality. His compatriots? A black student from an all-white university, driven mad by racism and a former nuclear scientist who’s lost his grip. It sounds like an artificial set-up, but it makes for a smart, engaging take on race relations and Cold War hysteria. 

Lunacy (2005)

Surrealist filmmaker Jan Švankmajer described his 2005 film as a “philosophical horror”, more concerned with interrogating notions of freedom and oppression than jump-out-of-your-seat fright. Loosely based on two Edgar Allan Poe stories, a young, troubled lad is carted off to a madhouse where the inmates run the show and a man claiming to be the Marquis de Sade presides over the fun. 

Re-Animator (1985) 

Stuart Gordon (From Beyond, Dagon) is king of the horror comedy genre, and announced his arrival with Re-Animator, his delightfully crazed debut feature. Adapted from a short story by H.P. Lovecraft, the movie tells the tale of a deranged med student (Jeffrey Combs) and his sidekick as they try to re-animate the dead. There are moments of glorious bad taste (a sexual act involving a headless corpse springs to mind), but Re-Animator is madcap fun. 

This feature is the final part of a series examining tropes in horror movies. For the first part, on body horror, click here. The second part, on women in horror, is here, the third on techno horror is here, and you can read the fourth installment on horror in the woods here

You can also turn yourself into a horror story with these #DARKARTS overlays.