Sometimes, slow burn horror films are just what the doctor ordered because horror isn’t just horror. There are many different sub-genres in this multi-faceted type of film, and I’m not talking just slasher, home invasion, found footage or body horror.
Horror offers comedy, gore, action and social commentary, but it can also offer something else: a nice, slow burn, creeps-up-on-you buildup. I don’t understand why every fan of scary stories doesn’t love this kind of film.
I am part of many horror groups on social media, and I know from experience that many fans hate slow burn horror; I mean, they despise it. They don’t even refer to it as a slow burn; it’s more commonly referred to as “boring.”
And often, the same people who dislike slow burn horror will post repeatedly begging for film recommendations that will really scare them because nothing does.
While I can’t say that I have loved every horror film I have watched in my lifetime, I do love some films in every sub-genre, and I have a special fondness for a slow and steady burn.
When it’s done right, a slow burn film gets under my skin and fills me with dread.
As an example of the type of film I am referring to, let’s talk about a dark little flick called The Witch. It’s a love it or hate it type of movie, without a doubt, and I am firmly in the “love it” camp. The first time I saw it, I was on edge for the entire 93 minute running time, feeling more and more uneasy throughout.
It’s a very different sort of movie, filmed in black and white, and using only natural light and candles. It’s set in the 1600s, and the dialogue is in Early Modern English, making it sometimes difficult to understand.
But the story of William and Katherine and their children Thomasin, Caleb, Mercy, Jonas and baby Samuel is tense and compelling. When the family is banished from their Puritan colony, they set up a house in the woods, and their lives unravel.
I found myself caught up in the story right away, wondering if Thomasin was really a witch, feeling Katherine’s anguish at the sudden, shocking loss of her child, uneasy every time Black Phillip the goat was onscreen.
There is nothing wrong with a good, old-fashioned slasher flick, loaded with shallow characters that will be sliced into bloody bits by the end of the film, but, really, there is nothing SCARY about that. The creeping dread that The Witch brought upon me by far outweighed the giggly, campy horror of the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels, for instance.
That does not mean I don’t appreciate the Freddy franchise; I saw the original NOES on opening night in a theater and loved it. In fact, I genuinely found the first film to be scary, but the sequels didn’t thrill me. I may watch them for fun, but I don’t turn to them when I am in the mood for something that will give me goosebumps.
Slow burn horror films are the stuff nightmares are made of.
Session 9 is another great, slow-building horror film. Filmed at the Danvers State Asylum in Massachusetts, it tells the story of a group of men hired to clean up asbestos from a crumbling mental hospital. Slowly, each of the men starts to experience strange things, including discovering recorded psychiatric sessions with a patient who exhibits multiple personalities.
During the ninth session, an extremely disturbing personality named Simon brings our story to a horrifying and hair-raising finale. Session 9 is filled with creeping suspense and great acting performances by David Caruso, Larry Fessenden and Paul Guilfoyle.
A few other slow burn horror films I would recommend are Hereditary (featuring a fantastic performance by Toni Collette and a final third that left me stunned and shaken), The Innkeepers, It Follows and Shudder Exclusive The Dark and the Wicked.
I know that there are true horror fans out there who cannot understand how some of us can love these slow-moving films. But I really enjoy the mystery of a film that keeps me guessing. I don’t want all of the answers just handed to me quickly; I don’t even necessarily want all of the answers anyway. The Dark and the Wicked never completely gave away the whys and wherefores, and I loved that.
So, if you are looking for a horror film to watch while hanging out with your best buddies, by all means, check out The Mortuary Collection (a fun, gory offering on Shudder) or enjoy the gorgeously filmed, creepy, clever story-telling of Trick ‘r Treat. But if you really want to be frightened and/or disturbed, give a slow burn horror flick a fair shot.
Are you a lover or hater of slow burn horror films? Please give us your best argument for or against the sub-genre in the comments section.