The Scariest Things Podcast Episode 162: Slow-Burn Horror!

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Behold, the Horror Movie Mullet: Slow-Burn Horror!

You read that right: The Scariest Things is branding slow-burn horror as the mullet of horror movies. It’s business (plot building) in the front and a party (big third-act finish). You can thank Liz Williams for that analogy! The concept of the slow-burn horror movie is not new, but it is a prominent description for many contemporary horror movies. We often refer to the new golden age of horror. This Golden Age has rewarded horror fans by investing in story arcs and character development, instead of the kill count and jump scares.

Slow burn isn’t just about the pace (though they often do exhibit a more deliberate and quieter condition). It’s about how much is revealed about the story.  At its best, a slow-burn movie will slowly turn up that burner gradually and make the anxiety and pressure reach a boiling point that will need a release. Think… Audition. Think… Babadook. Think… The Shining. The endings are nearly cathartic and necessary after all the preparation for the finale.

Defining Slow-Burn Horror

One of the better descriptions of the style is by Jourdan Aldredge at Premium Beat who notes: “A slow burn is a filmmaking style usually in narrative productions wherein plot, action, and scenes develop slowly, methodically toward a (usually) explosive ending.”

Aldredge points out the following elements that make the style powerful:

  • Minimal Exposition
  • Let Scenes Develop
  • Slowly (But Steadily) Raise the Stakes
  • Boiling Point Climax
  • Wrap up to Linger

My add-on to Aldredge’s description is that it extends the traditional three-story arc. It fills out and adds detail to the story and allows texture and nuance to build. And, when executed at its best will, in the end, be more satisfying. That’s not to say these films are devoid of dramatic peaks (or gory fun), but the intent is to build your story, layer by layer, each layer providing more meaning and consequence. Consider the use of Charlie and the telephone pole in Hereditary. That shocking scene would seem like a climax, but it is a halfway point upping the story’s stakes and a major diversion of your expectations. It’s all about the pressure.

It isn’t just horror movies either.  Most Romance films are slow burners.  Don’t kiss until the final scene.  In comedy, it’s the joke’s construction and the punch line’s delayed gratification. Mystery films are dependent upon the slow burn.  There can be peaks and spikes to the plot, but you need to hold on until the very end; otherwise, it’s a film that peaks too soon. Action movies are almost never slow burners.  Batman doesn’t exactly burn slowly.

Slow Burn films layer new plot elements and add new characters to deploy wrinkles and complications (challenges) into the plot.  For example, it makes sense that ghost movies typically are the most common slow-burn for horror movies. Psychological horror films are also almost always slow burns. These types of films are builders. Hillbilly horror? Not so much. Conversely, sometimes horror wants a direct approach. Bring out your chainsaws!

Set up the pins, one by one, and then knock them down.  But don’t be hasty! If you it too early, too many of the pins will remain standing. Instead, ratchet up the burner slowly, and gradually ramp it up to achieve maximum impact.

Elevated Horror?

This is also the home to what has been called “Elevated Horror. “So-called, for the trend of plot-heavy and character-arc-heavy horror films of the last twenty years. We recognize that the more deliberate pacing of these films can be a bit frustrating and off-putting to some, but for those with the patience, the rewards pay off in powerful, more emotionally forceful, and intellectually stimulating fare. That said, you may want to get some coffee first.

So get some rest. Grab that coffee. Listen to the Scariest Things and ponder the power of the horror movie Mullet.

This Podcast and Post is a Patreon request special for our contributor, Kelleigh Ledgerwood! We would love to thank Kelleigh again for her generosity, and the least we could do is take a request from the Bandstand. If you, too would like a podcast or a post dedicated to a topic of your fancy, please go to our Patreon Page, and join our family! (One of Us! One of US!)

As always, we have provided a broad roster of slow-burn films for your consideration, in addition to our official podcast discussion topics. Forty films in all, worth watching and absorbing… slowly. Like the Blob. Which is not a slow burner.

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