Some horror movie trends come and go (horny teenagers and torture porn regularly crop up and wear out their welcome rather quickly), but few genre-specific tendencies are as appreciated and abiding as the unease of existential dread, and the intensity of a slow burning, utterly atmospheric journey into the abyss and (hopefully) back.
Slow-burn horror classics like Psycho (1960), Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Don’t Look Now (1974) are so revered by genre fans and cineastes alike for the mounting mental panic and airy shocks they provide the viewer. Richly rewarding, and hard to shake off, the slow-burn approach is amongst the most rewarding genre fare that horror has to offer.
The following list looks at the 10 best slow-burn horror offerings of the 21st century, though it should be noted that this list could easily be double that length (sadly such excellent films as
Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, Ti West’s The House of the Devil, and David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows were omitted). Please join the conversation by adding your favorites in the comment section at the end of the article (be nice), but above all, treat yourself to some genuine scares and try to have a good time while you’re at it.
10. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)
Written and directed by Oz Perkins (son of Norman Bates himself, legendary actor Anthony Perkins), this nerve-jangling atmospheric freakout slowly ratchets the ample tensions amidst the dead of winter at the Catholic Bramford Academy, an isolated prep school in upstate New York. It is here that Joan (Emma Roberts), a secretive young woman embarks on a cryptic and furtive journey, somehow connected to Katherine (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton), two luckless students stranded at the school.
Ably assisted by an eerie score from Elvis Perkins (the director’s prodigiously talented brother), we gradually come to understand that devil worship, decapitations, and possession court the Judas kiss while smartly out maneuvering all the girls-in-peril tropes in this thoroughly engrossing, ill-tempered, and utterly chilling tale of the supernatural and superbly unfortunate. Highly recommended.
9. The Wailing (2016)
Cleverly constructed and incredibly atmospheric, this South Korean horror film from director Na Hong-jin (The Yellow Sea ) is a disturbing journey deep into the heart of darkness. Uncertainty and unhealthy suspicion decays into hysteria when rural Goksung villagers connect a string of ferocious murders to the arrival of a mysterious Japanese visitor (Kunimura Jun).
Investigating Officer Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) soon finds himself in the center of a savage and genuinely formidable fright film with shamans, femme fatales, demonic possession and other assorted nightmares. This brief descriptor is deliberately vague so not to give away anymore of this surprising genre mashup in what’s one of the most surprising, powerful, and ominously imaginative chillers in recent memory. This is a film that moves along at an unhurried clip but with all the inevitability of a freight train docking the half-emptied rail yards in the dead of night. Not to be missed.
8. Bone Tomahawk (2015)
Bone Tomahawk marks the dazzling directorial debut of a new cinematic storyteller in writer/director S. Craig Zahler (Brawl in Cell Block 99 , Dragged Across Concrete ). A disturbing revisionist Western with a heart for horror and a mind for the strange, the 1890s frontier presented here at first feels like the familiar terrain of John Ford –– The Searchers (1956) springs to mind –– before running a nail-biting detour down a thoroughfare of shock-addled circumstance, jet black humor, and an ending you’ll be shaking off for days afterward.
Kurt Russell is great as gunslinging sheriff Franklin Hunt, leading a doomed rabble out for revenge against a band of cannibalistic savages who’ve kidnapped members of their settlement, the ironically named Bright Hope. The risky business that ensues is never less than riveting, and the lackadaisical pace smartly wrong foots the audience into an idea of security, making for a skilled fusion of nightmare fuel and Old West visage that will shock and richly reward the patient and courageous seer.
Make no mistake, Bone Tomahawk is a modern genre classic destined for cult status and midnight viewings for years to come, and it is not at all for the squeamish. You’ve been warned, now giddy up, partner.
7. Hereditary (2018)
As prestige horror, writer-director Ari Aster makes a stirring and unforgettable debut with Hereditary, which also makes for one of the most discomfiting portrayals of family dysfunction you’re likely to ever see.
After the death of her reclusive grandmother, Annie Graham (Toni Collette) starts to see her family unravel as their mysterious past meshes with their chaotic and ever-fracturing present. Aster offers an unpredictable horror film that begins like a familiar haunted house movie before spiralling into the underworld; a vision so bleak, bloody, and compelling that fans of Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011) will be pumping their fists, when not cowering behind their popcorn, of course.
Shot with a meditative pace, one punctuated with deliberate camera movements and several, standout long takes, not to mention an absolutely chilling score from Colin Stetson, Hereditary builds and builds to the kind of Grand Guignol go-for-broke climax fright fans often ask for but so rarely receive. Not only does this film deliver genuine chills and thrills, it’s all done in a languid, artful measure that will have you crawling out of the theater afterwards in an awed daze. It’s the real deal and you’ll probably never look at dioramas the same way ever again.
6. I Saw the Devil (2010)
South Korean director Kim Jee-woon and writer Park Hoon-jung know a thing or two about crafting an alternately shocking, knee-slapping, viscerally engaging, and rewardingly easy-paced revenge-addled horror odyssey, and their audacious 2010 genre mashup, I Saw the Devil illustrates this with ghoulish glee while piling on a number of truly scary set pieces.
And speaking of pieces, after pieces of his missing fiancé, Jang Joo-yun (Oh San-ha) are found strewn near a local river, trained secret agent for the National Intelligence Service Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee) becomes obsessed with tracking down her killer. And it’s not long before he does just that, and he lays one hell of a smackdown on the sick shit sack (Choi Min-sik), too. But Kim has bigger designs for the killer, and after he brutally beats the snot out of him (complete with some upsetting Achilles tendon slashing action) he maliciously lets him go “free” so that a twisted cat and mouse game will ensue.
You’d think that I Saw the Devil’s cottoning to then trendy torture porn, OTT violence (cannibalism features prominently), depraved sexual violence, and extreme gore would render the film unwatchable and yet it’s a shockingly effective, artfully and even gorgeously photographed affair, complete with characters that are utterly emotionally compelling. For all it’s awful, stomach-churning content and nightmare fuel, I Saw the Devil is never less than compelling, and near impossible to look away from.