Some people like their horror fast and bang-on; like a haunted house, you enter knowing right away that something’s off, that the spooks are coming in to make you jump and shout in terror. Others may prefer their horror to simmer, with flavours of character-building and exposition added in slowly. The scares may not pack a punch, but long afterwards you’re still left with an unpleasant taste in your mouth.
There is no right or wrong way to experience horror, of course, just different ones. If your thing is slow burn movies, or if you just find yourself in the mood for one, then draw the curtains, tuck yourself into your favourite chair, and give these six films a chance.
1. Lake Mungo
Oh, how I love this movie. After sixteen-year-old Alice Palmer drowns on a family holiday, her grief-stricken family is left to pick up the pieces. It takes a while to get there, but strange things start to happen that entangle the family in the supernatural, chiefly that Alice begins to appear in photographs taken in their home. The Palmers soon learn that Alice is a lot more secretive than they thought, and as her life is unravelled thread by thread, they ironically learn more about her after her death, rather than when she was alive.
Set in the town of Ararat in Western Australia, there are many moody shots of grey skies and rocky open plains, interspersed with voiceovers from the Palmers. Shot in the style of a documentary, we hear how Alice’s friends and family have worked through their emotions following the aftermath, as well as their building realisation that something otherworldly is happening. We learn about Alice’s childhood, and how her friends and family perceive her. Shots linger on the interviewees as they speak, who leave realistic pauses and stumble over their words.
The photographs are also given much attention, letting you see for yourself the oddities they captured. It is actually somewhat unsettling, especially with the low ambient music playing as the pictures are zoomed in on. There is quite literally only one jump scare in the entire film, and it is well-earned.
So, check this one out if you want a taste of what the Australian horror film industry has to offer, which is very rich and very underrated.
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2. Starry Eyes
Sarah Walker just wants to be an actress, that’s all she wants. Following yet another lousy audition, she tries out for a leading role in a horror movie by the enigmatic production company Astraeus Productions. When that fails too, she is presented with a second chance – one that she has to make sacrifices for. Those sacrifices grow larger, and Sarah soon finds herself in a downward spiral fuelled by hungry ambition and heady desire.
Sarah is immediately likeable and relatable – you root for her, sympathise with her and understand why she does what she does. It is easy to follow her on her journey, and by the time things become horrifically intense, it is too late for either you or Sarah to do anything about it. Along the way, you see her innocence become stained, and corruption and boy is it one hell of a journey. The atmosphere of the movie is soft and sensual, with lots of shots idling on Sarah as she reacts to what is happening to her, and many scenes with striking visuals and hardly any dialogue. Dream sequences are aplenty, lending to the hazy feel of the film.
Although things get violent in the final act, a creeping sense of dread and wrongness carry you there, so that you cannot see how it would have turned out any other way. Speaking of the final scenes, they are beautiful; once again containing very little dialogue and lots of devilish, lascivious imagery.
Give this movie a shot if you’re in the mood for watching innocent people sell their soul for the price of fame, and if you have the stomach for gore.
3. It Follows
You might have heard of this one – it has garnered quite a bit of attention, and deservedly so. After nineteen-year-old Jay sleeps with her date, she finds herself the victim of a most unusual STD; that of a being that slowly stalks her no matter where she goes, intending to kill her. Although her friends think she is traumatised and over-reacting at first, they realise that things are amiss, and together they have to find a way to deal what…whatever It is.
The premise is so interesting, and the fact that this creature can only walk at a certain pace yet cannot be stopped is wonderfully terrifying. We spend some time at the beginning of the film getting a glimpse of Jay’s home life, and into her psyche – she is a quiet, reserved girl from a troubled background. We see her silently react to this creature, to the realisation that it will not stop until it has killed her, and her terror is palpable. There is only one scene in which the lore is explained, and even then it is not entirely set in stone. There are many shots of the creature – which takes the form of ordinary people – walking in the background towards Jay and her friends, which is incredibly nail-biting.
We learn about It this way; not with heaps of verbal exposition, but from the way the camera lingers on a seemingly regular person walking straight towards our protagonists, trusting your paranoia to kick in. Indeed, by the time the final act rolls around, you will be continually looking over your shoulder despite being in the safety of your home.
If you check this movie out though, you will see that not even your home stands in the way of this creature.
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4. Let the Right One In
Oskar Erikkson is a sweet, introverted boy who, when is not being ferried between his divorced parents, is cruelly bullied by his classmates. He meets a curiously strange girl one night; Eli, and they strike up a deep friendship. He soon discovers that his new friend is not at all what she seems, and he has to decide how far he will go to keep being friends with her.
This movie is a true beauty; the wintry Swedish landscape permeates the entire atmosphere, chilling you while the interactions between Oskar and Eli warm you. There are many lovely shots of overcast skies, snowy woods, stolen glances, and people moving about silently. As with the previous five films, an underlying layer of dread and creepiness get under your skin and builds up slowly. Together with Oskar, you get the feeling that something is terribly wrong with Eli, but things are not immediately explicit. There is a romantic layer in this film as well, with less emphasis placed on the supernatural aspects and more on the human drama.
The two leads – Oskar and Eli, are complex and three-dimensional, despite being familiar archetypes as the “shy bullied boy” and the “mysterious newcomer” respectively. Their friendship is borne out of loneliness and a craving for human connection, and it is endearing to watch. When the horrific final act comes, the sweetness of their relationship almost softens the shocking violence.
This movie is perfect if you are in a dreamy sort of mood and want to get lost in snowy Swedish lands. (Might I also add that this is a wonderful adaptation of the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist – one that is done right. Hurrah!)
5. The Transfiguration
Another movie about a kid who just is not at all right. Teenager Eric Ruffin lives with his older brother in a rough inner-city American neighbourhood and is struggling to come to terms with his mother’s sudden death. This appears to manifest in a fixation on the vampire mythos, chiefly on how to become an actual vampire. What follows is a harrowing look at his transformation into one.
Right off the bat you know that there is something off with Eric, and he does reveal his obsession with vampirism reasonably quickly, but the journey to the final events of the film is fraught with tension and subtle terror. Eric is nearly mute, only responding to his brother’s concerned questions about his wellbeing, and info-dumping vampire lore to a lonely girl he befriends, Sophie. The rest of the time we see how he awkwardly interacts with the world around him; standing at a urinal and full-on staring at a man while he relieves himself, taking naps under bridges, watching animal slaughter videos on Youtube. All of this happens silently and with only ambient background noise. You feel like a fly on the wall, seeing something you should not be seeing.
Despite his peculiarities, there is something sorrowful about watching Eric, the way you would feel for an obviously eccentric outsider on the fringes of society. Because of this, you cannot help but get drawn into his world, and although his actions grow increasingly disturbing, you have still swept along. There are a few moments of outright violence, but they are yet muted, in a quietly horrific way.
The film is also quite intelligent, with threads tying together neatly at the end that makes you want to re-watch it just so you can see how it all connects. If you would like to watch something that will make you ponder exactly what the hell you just saw for hours afterwards, this is the film for you.
6. The Blair Witch Project
One of the earliest found footage movies, The Blair Witch Project follows three aspiring documentary filmmakers – Heather, Mike, and Josh, as they trek through the woods of Maryland to explore the legendary Blair Witch mythos. They intend to make a documentary about this witch but find themselves turned around in the woods, and soon become very lost. Strange things start happening, and it becomes increasingly unclear whether or not the urban legend of the Blair Witch is just made-up or actually real.
This is another one of my favourite films, just because it is such a minimalistic and straightforward premise – three college kids getting lost in the woods with nary a sight of the titular Witch – that drums up so much suspense and terror. The acting is very believable and the frustration, confusion, and fear these three feels are all very realistic (if you want to read up on how the movie was made, you will see how they got the actors to emote so realistically).
As mentioned, you do not ever actually see the Witch; not even a shadow of her, but you know her indirect actions and how they affect the trio. Strange stick figures are left outside their tents, a child’s laughter is heard in the middle of the night, they come to a house that should not be there. Since you are viewing their experience through their camera, you are right there on their journey; you are crossing rivers, walking in circles, fighting and screaming at one another, running away in sheer terror, all of these things you do as a fourth member of the group. It makes for an immersive experience, and you always get a sense that the Witch is always around, but because you never get to see her, there is an enormous amount of tension and discomfort.
All of these odd disturbances and the group inexplicably getting lost come to a head in the third act, which is just dripping with a sense of foreboding doom. The little things – like the stories told by the townsfolk interviewed by Heather at the beginning of the film, the throwaway lines, the disembodied voices – all fit together perfectly to finally give you a glimpse of what the trio has been dealing with all along.
Here we are, at the end of the list. I do hope these are movies you have not heard about a thousand times before, and I hope they disturb you as much as they did to me. Cheers!
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