Horror is my all-time favorite film genre, but not necessarily for the same reasons that other moviegoers might also call it their favorite, which is part of what makes it such a wonderfully versatile style of storytelling. People can either love horror movies for having a “stab-stab, kill-kill, roll credits” structure, or rely mostly on jump scares throughout, or (my personal favorite method) developing a suspenseful story at a steady pace before curdling into a relentless nightmare by the final act, much like The Witch does.
That is just one of many great examples of slow-burn horror movies you can find now on streaming, digital rental, or on physical media if you are into that sort of thing. If so, enter if you dare…
The Witch (2015)
A family moves to a secured area near the woods after they're banished from their church, where their faith in religion and one another are put to the test as they begin to fall prey to an elusive evil in 1630 New England.
Why it’s a great slow-burn horror movie: You are never quite sure who to put your own faith into or what is truly causing Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her family to fall apart in The Witch - writer and director Robert Eggers’ feature-length debut - from the gruesome beginning to the shocking final reveal of the third act, in this arresting, uniquely symbolic folk tale.
The Lighthouse (2019)
In the 1890s, a man (Robert Pattinson) recently hired to work at a lighthouse on a remote island becomes stranded with his experienced mentor (Willem Dafoe), who suggests the younger man’s mistake could be the cause of their predicament.
Why it’s a great slow-burn horror movie: You are never quite sure what the hell is ever really going on between Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe’s odd couple in The Lighthouse - yet another unique experiment in old school storytelling of a far more ambitious and ambiguous sort from writer and director Robert Eggers - but their impending fate is clear from the get-go, and to watch them slowly succumb to their reluctant isolation is a truly maddening experience.
In the wake of a loved one’s death, a miniature artist (Toni Collette) and her family begin to experience a series of increasingly tragic and bizarre occurrences that threaten to tear them apart.
Why it’s a great slow-burn horror movie: What seemingly begins as a melodrama of exceptional bleakness becomes an unmercifully intense mind trip of paralyzing fright in Hereditary - the striking debut from writer and director Ari Aster, which could have been marketed with the typically frivolous, William Castle-style tagline and would have been telling the truth.
In the wake of a loved one’s death, a young woman (Florence Pugh) travels to Sweden for a seemingly idyllic cultural festival in Sweden hoping to mend the current disconnect in her relationship with her boyfriend (Jack Reynor), only for them to grow further apart amid the strange practices the event honors.
Why it’s a great slow-burn horror movie: For his sophomore effort, writer and director Ari Aster takes a lighter approach to his disturbing, subversive twist on melodramatic tone with Midsommar - and by “lighter” I mean aesthetically, because there is certainly nothing light about what our main characters suffer through one-by-one in the otherwise serene, brightly colored setting.
The Wicker Man (1973)
While searching for a young girl reported missing, a devoutly Christian police sergeant (Edward Woodward) clashes with the citizens of a village on a remote Scottish island and their Pagan philosophies.
Why it’s a great slow-burn horror movie: Ari Aster clearly took inspiration for Midsommar from director Robin Hardy’s original adaptation of David Winner’s novel, Ritual, called The Wicker Man, which starts off as a seemingly simple mystery thriller elevated by religious commentary, until it explodes into one of cinema’s most terrifying interpretations of occultism with its famous twist ending.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
A woman (Mia Farrow) and her husband (John Cassavettes) move into an adorned apartment building where their hopes to have a child finally come true, only to be hindered by strange neighbors who invite themselves into their lives and become too close for comfort.
Why it’s a great slow-burn horror movie: You could argue, however, that the all-time most iconic and horrifying depiction of occultist practices comes in the final moments of Rosemary’s Baby, which also initially acts as a more grounded meditation on commons fears first-time parents experience before that uncertainty grows into raw, indisputable terror when all is revealed.
The Wailing (2016)
In the wake of several local deaths connected to a mysterious illness, a police officer’s (Kwak Do-won) investigations lead him to suspect that these tragedies could be the work of a demon.
Why it’s a great slow-burn horror movie: Switching gears back to another horror/crime thriller hybrid, the acclaimed South Korean horror film, The Wailing, from writer and director Na Hong-jin also incorporates strong and heartbreaking themes of parenthood, as well as paranoia-fueled mob mentality, into a disturbing fable that will keep you guessing until the ending.
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The House Of The Devil (2010)
Desperate for money, a college student (Jocelin Donahue) takes an offer to babysit for an older couple, only to question if she made the right decision when the job turns out to be a stranger task than she assumed, and signs show that she is not alone.
Why it’s a great slow-burn horror movie: Switching gears back to ominous cult thrillers, it is easy to see how Rosemary’s Baby likely inspired the 1980s-set The House of the Devil, which made an indie horror hero out of writer and director Ti West for keeping you in the dark about what's at stake for most of its runtime, allowing the suspense to build like a pressure cooker before serving up one thoroughly unsettling feast.
Stream The House Of The Devil on Shudder.
Stream The House Of The Devil on Tubi.
Stream The House Of The Devil on Peacock.
Stream The House Of The Devil on Vudu.
Rent/buy The House Of The Devil digitally on Amazon.
Buy The House Of The Devil on DVD/Blu-ray on Amazon.
The Invitation (2016)
Already fearing the worst when he accepts an invitation to a dinner party from his ex-wife (Tammy Blanchard) and her new lover (Michel Huisman), a man (Logan Marshall-Green) causes a stir when he cannot help but suspect that there is a more sinister purpose to this gathering.
Why it’s a great slow-burn horror movie: Director Karyn Kusama constructs a brilliant hire-wire act with The Invitation, which depicts grief in such an alarmingly real way that, while you remain empathetic toward Logan Marshall-Green’s protagonist, you cannot help but wonder if he is the one worth trusting as the suspense grows deeper.
Saint Maud (2020)
A Welsh former nurse (Morfydd Clark) becomes convinced that she must act as a spiritual savior to the terminally ill dancer she cares for (Jennifer Ehle) in order to achieve her own desperate need for redemption.
Why it’s a great slow-burn horror movie: Speaking of not knowing who to trust, writer and director Rose Glass does a phenomenal job at playing with your expectations and never being entirely clear if our heroine is experiencing a descent into madness or an ascent into enlightenment before Saint Maud - one of the best horror movies released in 2020 - shows its hand with with startling results in literally its last few frames.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
A trio of young, aspiring documentarians find themselves hopelessly lost in a wooded area outside Burkittville, Maryland, where increasingly discomforting circumstances lead them to wonder if the strange urban legend they are investigating is true.
Why it’s a great slow-burn horror movie: Other than incorporating a documentary-style narrative structure before found footage thrillers became a trend, what made The Blair Witch Project so astonishingly unique for its time was its a remarkable achievement in keeping the audience in complete, unrelenting fear without ever showing you who (or what) is taunting our protagonists.
It Comes At Night (2017)
A family of three (Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, and Kelvin Harrison Jr.) rigidly follow their own set of rules in order to keep themselves safe and stable in the midst of a deadly pandemic, until they decide to make an exception that seems to work out in their favor… at first.
Why it’s a great slow-burn horror movie: Writer and director Trey Edward Shults also proved that he was master of minimalist mayhem with his sophomore feature, It Comes at Night, by making the psychological and behavioral results of tragedy more important that the tangible threat that led to the post-apocalyptic setting in this devastating tale.
The Haunting (1963)
An insecure loner (Julie Harris), a provocative clairvoyant (Claire Bloom), and a young skeptic (Russ Tamblyn) accept a therapist’s (Richard Johnson) invitation to stay inside a luxurious New England mansion to see if they can prove whether or not it does have spirits.
Why it’s a great slow-burn horror movie: To adapt Shirley Jackson’s iconic novel (which would later inspire Mike Flanagan’s acclaimed Netflix miniseries The Haunting of Hill House), writer Nelson Gidding and director Robert Wise took a more psychological approach to the horror of The Haunting, telling the story in a way that suggests the spirits could be in the characters’ heads all along.
I hope you were satisfied by our choices in this list of slow-burn horror and, if so, that getting through the list wasn't too much of a slow-burn for you.
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Jason Wiese writes feature stories for CinemaBlend. His occupation results from years dreaming of a filmmaking career, settling on a "professional film fan" career, studying journalism at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO (where he served as Culture Editor for its student-run print and online publications), and a brief stint of reviewing movies for fun. He would later continue that side-hustle of film criticism on TikTok (@wiesewisdom), where he posts videos on a semi-weekly basis. Look for his name in almost any article about Batman.