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10 Slow-Burn Horror Movies: Subtle Scares

Want creepy movies that rely on subtle effects instead of gore and violence? Check these horror films out.

The horror genre has produced some excellent violent and soul-crushing movies, the sort of things I’ve sometimes literally watched through my fingers, unsure if I want these images imprinted on my brain-meat. There are, however, many rooms in the house of horror, and quite a few of the genre’s most powerful pieces save their more explicit material for short segments or even avoid them altogether. Thus, this list for weenies more sensitive viewers.

I recommend these movies for people who maybe don’t get into all the blood and bombast of a slasher, for instance, but who still want to be spooked. Some of these films do explore dark psychological and metaphysical territory, and they are probably not ideal for viewers who dislike tension, as that is much of what they rely upon. Some of my absolute favorite films of the genre are here, so please do not mistake these movies for runner-ups, ho-hums, or, as the kids once definitely used to say but probably don’t any longer, weak sauce.

The Innocents: Jack Clayton. A classic adaptation of Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw" and a quiet, creepy horror film.

The Innocents (1961)

Jack Clayton

Based on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and directed by the man who would go on to make the cinematic adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, a movie that gave little Matt quite a few nightmares, The Innocents is up there with The Haunting as a classic of haunted house cinema. The movie is about a young governess who agrees to take care of two cute but somewhat unnerving children in their father’s massive estate, Bly Manor. As she starts learning the odd games and fantasies of these kids, Miss Giddens begins to fear they are both under the influence of some malevolent force, a force she suspects may have to do with a scandal in the estate’s recent past.

Mike Flanagan adapted this same story as The Haunting of Bly Manor, which is a great show but which also collapses the source material’s ambiguities into an unmistakably supernatural tale. In The Innocents, the original ambiguity is preserved. Bly Manor is creepy and shadow-haunted, and there does seem to be something wrong with those kids, but could the haunting all be in Miss Giddens neurotic head?

Don't Look Now: Nicolas Roeg. An eerie and subtle horror movie about a bereaved couple on vacation in Venice.

Don’t Look Now (1973)

Nicolas Roeg

Inspired by a short story by Daphne du Maurier, who also wrote the piece The Birds was based on as well as the novel Rebecca, which Alfred Hitchcock also filmed, Don’t Look Now is about a couple, John and Laura Baxter, who lose their daughter in a tragic accident at the beginning of the movie. Grieving, haunted by their loss, the two take a trip to Venice where John can do some restoration work on an old church and Laura can hopefully do some healing. Shortly after arriving, they meet another pair of tourists, elderly sisters, one of whom is both blind and convinced she is psychic. When this woman claims to see a vision of their lost girl, the couple’s fragile peace is shattered and they begin experiencing what may be paranormal experiences, including the sight of a little figure in a red raincoat.

This movie is a great slice of seventies art-house horror, with creative montages, beautiful use of music, and eerie shots. It also includes what was at the time considered to be a pretty explicit sex scene (and was rumored to be real intercourse), but which looks a little tame now. The film is eerie and leisurely paced and although it has a little violence, it should be a safe bet for anyone trying to avoid the excesses of the genre while still wanting to get their spook on.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

Peter Weir

This movie is so low on the explicit horror scale that there are probably at least a few people reading this list who are scoffing at its inclusion. Well, scoff away, bucko: the movie creeped me out, for one, and has had a lasting influence on the literature and cinema of the inexplicable. Set in and around Appleyard College, a private girls’ school in Australia, Picnic at Hanging Rock first focuses on Sara, an orphan student who has a strong bond with her roommate Miranda. When most of the girls are taken to a picnic at the eponymous rock formation, Sara is held back and thus can only learn about what happened from other girls who were there.

The picnic starts off well enough despite the fact that several watches suddenly stop working. But when four girls (including Miranda) and a mathematics teacher go off on a hike of their own, a strange tragedy strikes. We see these five explore the region, one of those beautiful but eerie places in nature that seem part of an alien landscape, until the girls seem to fall under a trance. One of them, upon awakening, is struck with fear and flees, and then after she returns to the main picnic ground, the rest of the school members realize the teacher and three students have vanished.

The rest of the movie is a patchwork quilt of weird suggestions and fragmented memories as everyone tries piecing together what happened. Don’t expect any answers, as neither the film nor the novel it was based on (in its published form) give them. Instead, try enjoying the atmosphere of eeriness and the unexplained, remembering that many of the mysteries of the world, while leaving behind tantalizing clues, will never be resolved.

The Changeling: Peter Medak. An eerie ghost movie about a grieving man who moves into a dilapidated old house with a secret.

The Changeling (1980)

Peter Medak

This ghost story, while it does involve an act of violence or two, otherwise depends on a carefully built atmosphere of tension and dread, as well as a classic haunted house setting. George C. Scott plays John Russell, a composer who is grief-stricken following the deaths of the rest of his family in a horrible accident. When he rents a large and long-unoccupied Victorian mansion, John thinks he may have found a space for both healing and creative work, but it isn’t long before small strange experiences disrupt this fragile calm. Thumping sounds, suddenly running faucets, and other eerie manifestations soon lead him to a hidden room where he discovers clues to a dark secret linked to big money, politics, and possibly murder.

It’s not hard to see why this movie is a favorite for so many viewers who prefer their horror spooky and suggestive rather than bloody and explicit. The Changeling can make a bouncing ball an object of terror, and it builds its scares on the concern it creates for its very human characters, particularly John, who has gone through so much sorrow and who may not survive this encounter with the mysterious.

The Others: Alejandro Amenabar. A subtle horror movie in which a young mother tries figuring out who or what is haunting her mansion.

The Others (2001)

Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar

In this hit movie, Nicole Kidman plays Grace Stewart, a woman living in a large house on a remote island with her children, both of whom suffer from a disorder that makes them painfully sensitive to light. After hiring new servants, Grace finds that her house has a more disturbing history than she’d thought. Soon enough, odd sounds and sights around this mansion convince her she and her family may be living in a haunted house. But things get stranger than the typical ghost story. Why are the servants being so cagey? Why do some of these spirits claim a closer connection with her than should be possible?

If you’ve somehow avoided having this movie spoiled for you in the years since it was released and you want a good creepy and thought-provoking experience, check it out. It has the atmosphere and style of older movies like The Innocents, and is far more concerned with generating unease than terror.

Lake Mungo (2008)

Joel Anderson

This Australian mockumentary centers on the Palmer family, recently devastated by the drowning death of daughter Alice. After her brother Matthew seems to capture ghostly images of her around the house, the family consults a psychic, hoping they can get in contact with her. The story, though, gets more complicated as lies, misdeeds, and creepy dreams are uncovered.

Lake Mungo plays its game slowly and suggestively, sprinkling in more overt scares here and there, but creating much more unease in the background, sometimes quite literally. Like an odd number of movies on this list, this one is very much about grief and the inability to let go of the inexplicable. When we do discover Alice’s darkest secret, we are given a jump-scare that has to go on the list of all-time greats, but it too only works because it has been built on a foundation of real emotion and character-building. This one really haunted me.

Absentia (2011)

Mike Flanagan

Director Mike Flanagan has done some incredible work in the last decade, including the Haunting of Hill House series and the adaptations of both Gerald’s Game and Doctor Sleep. My favorite of his, though, is this, his first feature film. Absentia is a memorable and sly mixture of heartfelt drama and supernatural horror, one buttressed by fine and naturalistic acting from the primary stars of the movie. Callie, a young former addict, travels to a quiet suburb in California to help her sister Tricia pack her things and find a new home.

Seven years ago, Tricia’s husband Daniel inexplicably vanished, and after such a long time of clinging to the hope that he may return, she is finally ready to let him go. Or at least she thinks so until she begins having dreams and hallucinations of the man, visions that Flanagan springs on us in simple but disturbing ways. After Callie sees an emaciated stranger in a nearby tunnel, the plot takes a truly surprising turn, one that is somewhat spoiled by trailers for the movie, so I’d advise skipping them. This movie is yet more proof that a film doesn’t have to throw in a lot of explicit violence in order to give you nightmares.

The Woman in Black (2012)

James Watkins

Based on Susan Hill’s slim gothic novel of the same name, this movie is a throwback to earlier horror movies that used atmosphere and suggestion more than extremity in order to put the frighteners on viewers. Set in in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the movie begins with a kids’ tea party suddenly interrupted by tragedy. Fifteen years later, a widowed lawyer played by Daniel Radcliffe is tasked with retrieving important papers from Eel Marsh House, an undeniably spooky house located on an island in remote marshlands. The house’s elderly owner has just died, and when Arthur Kipp arrives at the nearby village of Crythin Gifford, he finds her house has a terrible reputation amongst the locals. Why are so many local children dying in terrible accidents, and what does that have to do with the strange experiences Arthur soon has out at that isolated and moldering house?

The Babadook (2014)

Jennifer Kent

In this emotionally-searing yet almost bloodless movie, a widow and her troubled son are plagued by a hideous presence after they read from a weird pop-up storybook that shows up at their house one day. Amelia Vakan is already worn-out from keeping up with her manic son Samuel when the film starts, but her anxieties turn up a notch when the boy claims to be haunted by the titular monster, the same evil creature featured in that kids’ book.

What follows is a spiral into mental instability and possibly supernatural manifestations as the Babadook proves to be aa tenacious visitor in this unfortunate little family’s crummy home. I will give a warning that despite avoiding bloody violence (except for one very brief moment), this film deals with some pretty heavy topics and will give most viewers some strong feels. The Babadook is, among other things, an example of horror that explores very real emotional problems through the lens of supernatural terror. Unless it’s all in someone’s head…

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House: Oz Perkins. A nurse caring for an aging horror writer begins to suspect the author's house is haunted.

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016)

Osgood Perkins

Rounding out this list is a movie that impressed the hell out of me with its eerie visuals and dreamlike atmosphere. It is an arthouse movie and will no doubt frustrate viewers looking for a fast-paced spook-fest, but it is rewarding for those patient and open to its peculiar brand of scares. Directed by son of Norman Bates’s actor Anthony Perkins, I Am the Pretty Thing accompanies nurse Lily Saylor (most famous for her portrayal of the malevolent and amusing Alison Lockhart in Luther) as she cares for elderly horror writer Iris Blum (someone like a cross between Shirley Jackson and Iris Murdoch).

Blum’s old house steadily becomes a place of unseen threats as Lily’s stay with the old woman lengthens. A black mold and glimpses of a figure in white soon leads her to look more deeply into the house’s history, as well as Blum’s novels. What she finds there may illuminate these strange terrors, but at what cost? Again, this is a deliberately-paced movie that is more Kubrickian or Lynchian than the other titles on this list, but it sure has stuck with me. Much darker, but still very worth seeing, is Perkins’ next feature, The Blackcoat’s Daughter.

SEE ALSO: The House with Laughing Windows, The Lodge, Faults, The Endless, Session 9, Daughters of Darkness, Shadow of the Vampire, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, It Follows, Scare Me, Enemy, The Orphanage, The Haunting, Night of the Demon, Last Year at Marienbad, Hour of the Wolf, Resolution, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, I Can See You

By Matthew Pridham

I write horror stories as well as film and book reviews. I've been published in Weird Tales Magazine, Tor.com, weirdfictionreview.com, and thethoughterotic.com. My primary interests are modernist fiction, world domination, the horror genre (classic, avant-garde, modern), polyamory, and philosophy of every stripe. Favorite authors include (but are far from limited) to Marcel Proust, Ramsey Campbell, Martin Amis, Thomas Ligotti, Ruth Rendell, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, and Clive Barker. I grew up in Bergen, Norway as well as Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I've attended the University of New Mexico and CU Boulder.

3 replies on “10 Slow-Burn Horror Movies: Subtle Scares”

Great List of movies. But the couple from “Don’t Look Now” visit Venice, not Vienna. You may probably correct that.
Greetings and keep up your work.
Stefan

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