Non-linearity comes in a range of tasty flavours, some that lends themselves better to certain genres over others. For this list, I’ve featured the forms that seem to appear most often in horror.
For a closer look at non-linear storytelling as a framing device check out my earlier post, Unstuck in Time: Why Fragmented Storytelling is Superior to Linear Storytelling.
Flashbacks and Flashforwards
10. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)
Oz Perkins‘s atmospheric boarding school horror is separated into three chapters: “Rose”, “Joan”, and “Kat”. The way that the film is intercut between Joan (Emma Roberts)’s suspicious conversations with the couple that took her on as a hitchhiker, and Rose (Lucy Boynton) and Kat ‘s (Kiernan Shipka) disturbing winter break left behind at school, throws haziness over the events. Despite Joan‘s desire to return to the school, the two timelines seem hopelessly unconnected until a third timeline (“Kat”) sends us far enough back in time to realize that there is only one story after all.
9. Oculus (2013)
Oculus expertly weaves between Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites)’s present, trying to thwart the mirror, and the trauma of their childhood, when the mirror destroyed their parents’ minds. The structure is meant to throw Tim and Kaylie‘s sanity into question from the beginning, showing us glimpses into the past that might be revealing the actions of an evil mirror, or might simply be events interpreted from a child’s perspective. Sometimes the puzzle pieces of their memories snap together with present events, and sometimes they just don’t seem to fit at all.
8. Ju-on: The Grudge (2002)
Most iterations of The Grudge, original and American remakes, follow a non-linear format to some degree. Ju-on: The Grudge works in short and isolated vignettes showing us victims touched by Kayako (Takako Fuji)’s curse. The apparent lack of connection between the victims might take some audience members multiple viewings to piece everything together into something coherent.
7. The Wind (2018)
The Wind‘s fragmented storytelling is the perfect vehicle for showing Lizzy (Caitlin Gerard)’s isolation and unraveling psyche as she tends to her homestead. Is Lizzy going stir-crazy, or is something supernatural involved? What is real and what is only happening in her imagination? How does Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) become the corpse that we see at the beginning of the film? Flashbacks fill in the gaps and show us the trauma that set Lizzy on her path.
6. Happy Death Day (2017)
Coming in with the most obviously looping structure is Happy Death Day, AKA Groundhog Day but make it a slasher. Even though we follow Tree‘s story in a linear fashion, her time loop situation forces us to double, triple, quadruple back on the same scenes alongside her as she works to figure out why she keeps dying and reliving her birthday. The fact that Tree is aware of the looping nature of her situation ironically keeps us moving forward because she’s not bound to act out the exact same moments every time.
5. Memento (2000)
Every day is a bad day for Lenny (Guy Pearce). His anterograde amnesia prevents him from making new memories, and his working (short term) memory is also limited. All of this makes solving the attack that left him injured and his wife dead very, very challenging. As an audience, experience Lenny‘s story in two separate timelines: one in colour, and one in black-and-white; the former depicting scenes in reverse chronological order, the latter in chronologically. Even though we see the scenes arranged as alternating between the colour and black-and-white timelines, the black-and-white scenes all exist chronologically before the colour ones.
Unlike Tree in Happy Death Day, Lenny is aware of his memory condition, but otherwise is oblivious of his personal loop, leaving us with a sense of futility knowing that variations on the same events will continue to happen beyond the events of the film.
4. Lost Highway (1997)
Representing David Lynch (Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks) on this list is Lost Highway, a movie that has been likened to a Möbius strip in structure. Lost Highway begins and ends with the phrase “Dick Laurent is dead.” By the end of the movie, we understand that statement, but its repetition sets us right back at the events of the first scene, implying that the world of Lost Highway, and the Lynchian deconstructions of time and identity within it, is infinitely looping and insular.
3. Saw II (2005)
The first follow-up to Saw (2004) was adapted from a script called The Desperate penned by Darren Lynn Bousman (you’ll know his work from Repo! The Genetic Opera, and the upcoming Spiral). Future installments of the series love to play with chronology, with many of the films’ timelines overlapping in unexpected ways, but Saw II‘s misdirection is more self-contained. The movie is framed with former dirty detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) being led straight to a game with John Kramer (Tobin Bell). Eric spends most of the movie engaged in conversation with John as a way to buy time to isolate the signal to John’s camera feeds, which show a group of hostages, including Eric’s estranged son Daniel (Erik Knudsen), navigating games in a rigged house. We’re tricked into thinking that the scenes playing out inside the trapped house are happening concurrently with Eric and John‘s scenes, but in reality, Eric was too late from the beginning.
2. Identity (2003)
Ten strangers, all with U.S.-State inspired names and the same Birthday, arrive at a motel during a rainstorm. Flooding has cut them off from the rest of the world, and someone is picking them off one by one. The literal unreality of the strangers’ situation aside, what at first seems like a simple-enough whodunnit cribbed from an Agatha Christie mystery quickly gets turned on its head. Only the first few scenes of this thriller are told in reverse chronological order, but the technique is used to great effect when it comes to making sense of everything later.
1. Irréversible (2002)
Irréversible is a harrowing viewing experience. Initially shot in chronological order, the final product is shown with the scenes laid out in reverse order, which means that the audience has to sit through scene after scene of graphic violence without apparent cause. In a 2009 interview with Indiewire, director Gaspar Noé suggested that order of events would provide better catharsis: “I suppose in my movie a lot of people suspect that the end of my movie is going to be worse than the beginning because that’s how the climax of the movie works. The fact is if they stay they will get something that will erase these first images.”
While the technique of reversing the film’s structure is effective, I’m sure most people who’ve seen Irréversible will argue that images have yet to be erased from their minds.