While it’s fun to experience a good old-fashioned gore fest, true fans of horror know that the best frights are in the tension and buildup which is why slow burn horror films are often among the greatest horror pictures Hollywood churns out. Over the year’s I’ve thrown a lot of praise behind films that take their time to develop a scary story rather than taking the easy way out through jump scares and cheep thrills. While it’s perfectly fine to enjoy a horror film that goes right for the jugular, pun intended, the true art of horror can be found most in the films I will be discussing today which focus more on the natural fear evoked from their concepts and explore horror from a more realistic, relatable, and even surreal point of view. This is a list I’ve wanted to do for a long time and now seems like the perfect chance seeing as the release of the apparently slow and patient “The Lighthouse” is just around the corner. These are my picks for the Top 10 Slow Burn Horror Films.
For this list I’m looking at horror films that ditch the traditional horror clichés like jump scares in favor of more patient storytelling techniques relying more on building effective suspense and tension to get the job done. For a lot of people these films might seem boring, but more often than not these are among the best horror pictures of their given years due to their ability to capture the more visceral and human elements of the genre that send chills down our spines. These movies don’t have to be completely free of cliched horror scare tactics, but they seldom rely on them to get the job done. They may not always be the most fun or thrilling, but in the end these movies are often creative, thought provoking and terrifying in all the right ways.
What slow burn horror film is your favorite? Let me know in the comments below and look for my review of “The Lighthouse” coming later this month.
10. “The Babadook”
This film contains more traditional scares than many of the features on this list, but it’s still a delightful hour and a half to behold. The 2014 Australian film puts the “psychological” in psychological horror as a widow and her son are tormented by a dark entity spoken of in a story that may or may not be a heavy allegory for the terrors and lasting effect of grief. While the finale kicks things up a notch as the mother becomes possessed by the titular being, “The Babadook” slowly builds to its end showing us the dark decent into madness the mother faces while also showcasing the child’s struggles to cope with his own terror. It’s a perfectly crafted experience that actually feels longer than its pretty standard run time due to its careful pacing and character focused story that keeps viewers guessing from start to finish whether the haunting is truly happening or if it’s all a side effect of the mother’s mental state. Even at the end where things feel much clearer, the film’s deeper meaning is still veiled in shadows for the viewer to interpret on their own.
9. “It Comes at Night”
Sometimes a slow burn horror film will underwhelm general audiences who feel like they were promised something more intense. That was the case with this underrated 2017 horror film about a family trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world plagued by an unknown illness. Many went into this movie expecting something akin to a zombie film. However, the true monster is not anything supernatural. Rather the fear and suspense comes from the survivors’ struggle with claustrophobia, isolation, and paranoia as the family welcomes a new group that joins their secluded home. Few productions, film or otherwise, have ever tackled the true madness that would likely result from a post apocalyptic reality like this film did. It captures the darkest sides of human nature utilizing few, if any, traditional scares and relies more on the concept, setting and excellent performances to drive home the true terror of the story.
8. “The Invitation”
You may not have ever heard of this 2015 thriller film, but if you get the chance to experience it I highly recommend you do. “The Invitation” sees a man attending a gathering of old friends at his old home where his ex-wife still resides. Still scarred by the loss of their child, the man becomes more and more paranoid about his ex’s intentions over the course of the evening leaving the viewer as ignorant of the truth as the characters to create an edge-of-your-seat experience that saves its biggest revelations for the final half hour. There’s so much buildup in this movie that at times you wonder if it will ever evolve into the horror movie it claims to be, but trust me when I say it gets crazy real quick and when it does it makes all the waiting, all the suspense and all the questioning super satisfying. Along the way “The Invitation” addresses real human struggles like grief and paranoia through impressive acting and a fun set up and tops it all off with plenty of sleight of hand to keep you unsure of what’s really going on even when you think you’ve figured it out.
I was not as impressed with this film as many others were, and I’d argue that the movies that appeared before it on this list are actually better overall experiences, but when it comes to the slow burn approach to storytelling “Hereditary” utilizes the method spectacularly. Ari Aster’s 2018 horror debut “Hereditary” is a 2.5-hour slog on the surface but once it gets to its epic conclusion all the pieces fit into place. The story focuses on a damaged family that becomes even more splintered after a tragic event. The family eventually delves into spiritual territory to cope, but soon realizes they have become pawns in a much bigger game leading to what is destined to be one of the most iconic horror finales of the decade. “Hereditary” spends quite literally almost its entire first two hours building up to its satisfying end and while that might be too long for some, the journey is well worth the trip for the sake of the destination. Filled with tremendous and very human performances, a few neat twists and a genuinely creepy atmosphere “Hereditary” isn’t for everyone but it’s a slow burn horror experience that should be appreciated.
From one Ari Aster film to another. In my opinion “Midsommar” is the superior of the two debut pictures in Aster’s filmography taking the slow burn approach he implemented for “Hereditary” and perfecting it in a “Wicker Man” style mind bender. Focusing on a group of friends who visit a commune during a seasonal celebration and discover they may play bigger roles in the festivities than they could have ever imagined, “Midsommar” is a fearless horror masterpiece that puts the spotlight on the terrors of mental illness and despair as well as the consequences of ignorance, dishonesty and how we treat each other. Not only does this movie contain one of the most effective and brutal depictions of depression ever put to film, the overall experience is delightfully uncomfortable and unsettling despite rarely being set in the dark or at night and keeps the viewer guessing constantly what’s going to happen next. Like its sister film, “Midsommar” is a long, drawn out movie that’s not for everyone but it’s a rare horror feature that’s driven heavily by human emotion making it that much more rewarding an experience.
5. “It Follows”
One thing that makes slow burn horror movies so much fun is their willingness to explore some very creative concepts. “It Follows” is arguably one of the best examples of that. Fun fact, this film is THE movie that helped me earn an appreciation for the bulk of the films on this list as it gave me a new perspetice for how effective this slow burn approach to horror can be. This 2014 film focuses on a teenage woman who, after having sex, finds herself endlessly pursued by an entity that takes numerous frightful forms. The only way to escape it is to pass it on to someone else through, you guessed it, sex, but if it catches its new victim it returns to the prior victim and on down the line. As you can probably tell the film is an allegory for sexually transmitted diseases. Relentlessly creepy and surprisingly uncomfortable, “It Follows” takes its time establishing its lore while also giving the viewer time to appreciate the characters and how we would react in such a scenario. It’s a delightful concept filled with creative scares and a little old school flair to top things off.
4. “The Witch”
Few horror movies have ever replicated the fear of witchcraft quite like this 2015 period piece by “The Lighthouse” director Robert Eggers. Focusing on a banished family in 1630s New England who find themselves tortured by a witch that lives in the nearby woods, “The Witch” is a classic example of perfect slow burn cinema that scares you more by what it shows of human nature as well as what it refuses to show of the titular villain rather than through traditional horror cliches. As we see members of the family becomes unhinged one by one they are forced to question their faith, sanity, and trust for each other all thanks to the influence of a witch whose true form we never even see. Sporting committed performances by the likes of Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Ineson “The Witch” is unafraid to tackle some pretty dark subjects and flawlessly embraces the fear, hysteria and paranoia that stained colonial times leading to such terrible atrocities as the Salem Witch Trials and may not be too far from representing many real world fears and perceived threats many face in the world even today.
3. “The Shining”
Stanley Kubrick’s immortal interpretation of Stephen King’s classic horror novel of the same name needs no introduction, but for those who still have yet to see this movie prepare yourselves for a lengthy look into the deterioration of a man’s sanity. Stanley Kubrick is known for his precise storytelling and filming style and “The Shining” is one of his most patient works ever slowly building to a terrifying finale that has become legendary. Jack Torrance’s journey into madness gives us a fantastic look at the effects of solitude, isolation and the pressures of the creative mind while also mixing in some fantastic, often ambiguous and unexplained horror imagery to keep us guessing and pondering even beyond the credits as to what it all means. Even decades later “The Shining” is a lasting example of patient, slow building and effective horror storytelling at its best and continues to age like a fine wine, so much so that a sequel based on King’s follow up novel “Doctor Sleep” is scheduled for released next month.
2. “Rosemary’s Baby”
While Roman Polanski might have stained his fantastic filmography with his questionable life choices it’s hard not to recognize this fantastic piece of horror cinema that is considered among the greatest films the genre ever produced. Based on the novel of the same name, this 1968 psychological horror film follows the titular Rosemary, played expertly by Mia Farrow, as she goes through her pregnancy only to realize that her doctor, neighbors and even her own husband may have darker plans for her offspring. Feeding off of her paranoia and telling the story in a way that causes both the viewer and Rosemary to question what is real and what is simply a product of her mind “Rosemary’s Baby” is a slow, over two-hour build up to one of the most famous moments in horror cinema where everything comes together fantastically in only minutes of screen time. It’s the absolute definition of a slow burn done right, taking its time while teasing the audience that bigger horrors await as the story rolls on.
1. “The Blair Witch Project”
While it wasn’t the original found footage movie, “The Blair Witch Project” sparked the popularity of the genre when it was released in 1999 leading to countless imitators. Ironically “The Blair Witch Project” is the shortest film on this list, clocking in at around 80 minutes with credits, but to the uninitiated this classic can feel like it takes forever as we watch a group of three filmmakers experience real terror as they find themselves lost in a forest allegedly haunted by the titular witch. We’re shown very little in this film, leaving a lot of the experience to the imagination and giving “The Blair Witch Project” a brutally realistic presentation that allows the viewer to step right into the shoes of its terrified subjects. The cast was kept ignorant of some of the things they were to experience to give the movie extra realism. There’s no jump scares and no gimmicks (although it would give birth to a few clichés) just raw human terror that everyone can understand. It’s a prime example of how the scariest experiences are often the most simple making it my pick for the best slow burn horror movie experience around.