Having almost 40 years of experience watching horror films (I’m 41 and have been watching some form of horror films since I was like 5) I grew up on what are now considered ‘slow burners’: horror films that have about an hour or so of characterization, plot development, and a snail’s pace building of tension, headed for some sort of horrific climax, most often only hinted at in the promos. In essence, this was pretty much the norm for a majority of horror films for decades. This formula not only drew you in while causing your fear to mount, it also prevented an early climax—the premature delivery of the money shot, be it the reveal of the horrific monster previously hidden in shadow or the first drop of bloodshed. Many movies fit into this mold, including Psycho, 2000 Maniacs, The House on Haunted Hill (original), Homicidal, Black Christmas, Night of the Living Dead… I could go on and on.
Naturally, many of these movies gave you short spurts of thrills early on to grab your attention, but after that, it was just little dribbles of fear that carried you along. Not knowing when something was going to happen is what kept you watching. The anticipation of seeing what all the hype was about while actually being tentative about finding out was what created the intense horror movie experience. I mean, after being told that people were puking all over their popcorn while watching The Exorcist, when you sat down to see it for yourself, you definitely weren’t glancing at the clock every five minutes wondering when things were going to get exciting. There was actually a sense of relief that things were somewhat calm, because you were dreading the worst. But that calm was a false calm. You knew it was just the calm before the storm, so you welcomed the dialogue and level of sanity as you were supplied with exposition and character development. When you were finally slammed with the true level of repulsive moments the film had to offer, you were pretty much left damaged for life.
That all began to change, I guess in the 80s after the slasher phenomenon took hold and movie studios began calling for higher body counts and more blood, as if that were a substitute for chills, atmospher and suspense. Take, for instance, the Friday the 13th series. The original film, released in 1980, had a body count of 9 (four more bodies than in the original slow burning slasher Halloween two years earlier). In 1989, when Jason took Manhattan, the body count was 19…almost double. And let’s face it. In 1980, Friday the 13th was considered a ‘shocker’ and was actually a scary experience for filmgoers (despite it just being on old lady doing all the killings). By the time Jason took to the streets of New York, it was all a big joke, and he was even facing off against smart-mouthed street hoods with boom boxes. Ooh! Scary! This was pretty much the dark period of horror, which had become a farce, a joke; the audience was in on it, cheering for the evil rather than the well-being of the disposable characters. Then came Scream, which initially celebrated the dawning of the age of the slasher. While predictable and formulaic in terms of slashers (because it was mocking them), Scream was also suspenseful, heart-pounding, and loaded with likeable characters. A barrage of copycat films soon followed, and horror quickly promised to lose its foothold again.
Unfortunately, in most cases, the conclusion studios looking to make money off horror movies came to was that what ‘scared’ people was brutality, extreme violence, and body counts. It was a logical theory based on the success of the resurgence of slasher films. It’s what the latest generation was growing up on. And it’s the reason why we are about to witness the seventh sequel of the Saw series, why kids in the theaters were laughing at even the most grotesque moments of The Exorcist when it was re-released, and why The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is now called out as being ‘overrated,’ ‘laughable,’ and ‘boring’ on message boards.
The real saving grace for the horror genre in the past decade was the infusion of foreign horror films into the American mainstream, beginning with Asian horror. Other countries explored new horror devices rather than recycling the formula that had become so popular in the U.S. The impact of these films on the horror conscience was so strong that they started getting English version remakes, the most successful being The Ring, followed by The Grudge. The funny thing is, what you’ll notice if you watch The Ring is that, in essence, it is a major slow burner. After a fantastic shocker of an opening (in true Scream style), The Ring really turns into much more of a suspense/mystery film, and it is not until the end that we get the most pay off from a horror perspective—but that one taste of it at the beginning is what keeps us glued to the screen. Unfortunately, the whole girl in a white dress with her long black hair combed over her face thing was exploited like slashers had been, and before long, the string of films with this theme were throwing her in your face, all up in the camera so often that she was no longer frightening.
But we have definitely seen somewhat of a revisiting of the slow burner. Eli Roth did it with Cabin Fever, and wouldn’t you know, many people say the film is crap. Rather than being about people getting stripped, tortured and killed for exploitative purposes (as his follow-up, Hostel¸ was) it is an exploration of morality and humanity as friends turn against each other when faced with catching a spreading disease…slowly but surely. And of course, I’ve posted a whole blog about him, but director Ti West is mastering the old school art of slow burners, with mixed reviews from current horror lovers. The Roost and The House of the Devil are two of the creepiest films I’ve seen in years. The characters are slowly immersed in something horrific and unexplained, and we’re right there with them, our hearts in our throats as we wonder What the fuck is going on here?
And that question pretty much sums up the slow burner. It’s the “what the fuck is going on here” question begging to be answered that keeps you watching…if you have patience and relish the prolonging of the terror. If you prefer immediate gratification without any variation of ups, down, slow, fast, you’ll be satiated by modern films that start you right at the highest frenetic peak, providing you with a “this is exactly what the fuck is going on and is going to continue to go on non-stop for the next hour and a half.”