Adapted from the Stephen King novel of the same name, Misery is a horror classic. As the story of an author who is saved from a car accident by his biggest fan and nursed back to health, it’s an intriguing two-hander starring a well-matched pair of actors – James Caan as the mild-mannered writer Paul Sheldon and an Oscar-winning Kathy Bates as the sweet-but-sinister Annie Wilkes – whose relationship becomes tenser and tenser throughout the film, slowly building up to a chilling climax. It’s one of the best kinds of horror films.
So, here are 10 slow-burn chillers to watch if you like Misery.
10 The Descent
Neil Marshall’s gory thrill-ride The Descent beautifully builds to a big reveal. For the first hour or so of the movie, there is no terror. We get to know the characters, a group of female friends who are going on a caving trip. Then, they get down in the dark, dank, creepy caves and it collapses in on them, leaving them trapped underground in the pitch-black.
And if that wasn’t terrifying enough, then they discover a nocturnal species of bloodthirsty cave-dwelling mutants living down there. By the nature of this being a horror movie, the audience goes in expecting something to go horribly wrong, and Marshall plays with that expectation, teasing viewers with a deceptively slow-paced first act.
9 The Witch
Robert Eggers has returned to the multiplex this year with the black-and-white drama The Lighthouse, having burst onto the scene a few years ago with the historical horror movie The Witch. Banished from their home due to religious persecution, a New England family moves to a remote farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.
Their baby is abducted by a witch, and one by one, the rest of the family is targeted by the same witch. It takes a while to get going, but it’s suitably unnerving the whole time. Anya Taylor-Joy, modern horror cinema’s foremost “scream queens,” shines in the lead role.
8 The Wicker Man
The setup is pretty familiar now that Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man has influenced almost half a century of horror cinema: a detective arrives on a remote island to investigate the disappearance of a child and finds something much more sinister – and possibly supernatural – than they were expecting.
The Wicker Man is still the best example of this narrative because it’s still the one that hides its twist the best. Sergeant Howie has no idea what’s in store for him, but what makes it all the more petrifying is that we have no idea what’s in store for him either.
7 10 Cloverfield Lane
What makes Misery so great is that Annie is ostensibly helping Paul, but he’s unsure if he can trust her. Mary Elizabeth Winstead wakes up in an underground bunker, and survivalist John Goodman tells her that he saved her from a car wreck and got her into the bunker before the apocalypse began, and she can’t leave. Naturally, she’s unsure if she can trust this guy.
For all intents and purposes, Goodman’s character is a nice guy, but he could easily be hiding a dark side, and Winstead’s character is understandably skeptical about trusting him. In 10 Cloverfield Lane, director Dan Trachtenberg expertly builds tension.
6 The Babadook
The plot of Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut, The Babadook, moves along at a very slow pace. But that’s sort of the point – it’s all about atmosphere. It’s about a widowed mother who is reeling from the horrific death of her husband while her son becomes fearful of a monster that he believes is living in their house.
This is all tied together by the same theme, and it all converges for a really unsettling finale. The Babadook was not a huge box office smash – possibly owing to its long slow-burn build-up – but it was praised almost unanimously by film critics.
Ari Astor triumphantly returned to the silver screen this year with Midsommar, which proved that his directorial debut last year, Hereditary, wasn’t a fluke. When Hereditary hit theaters, it wasn’t long before critics were calling it this generation’s The Exorcist. There are pagan cultists and ominous paranormal incidents, but the real horror here is the harrowing series of tragedies that besets the family at its core.
The coming supernatural threats act as more of a metaphor for the downfall of the family unit. Toni Collette shines heartbreakingly in the lead role, and was robbed of an Oscar nomination in awards season.
Ridley Scott could’ve easily phoned in a servicable B-movie when 20th Century Fox hired him to direct Alien, their haunted house movie set on a space station. But the director wove in Hitchcockian suspense, toying with the audience’s sense of dread. It’s a while before the titular monster shows up, but that adds to the movie’s impact.
We’ve gotten to know the characters and their world by the time a bloodthirsty extraterrestrial bursts out of John Hurt’s chest, so we care more whether or not they survive. Sigourney Weaver is a compelling lead, singlehandedly changing women’s role in action cinema forever, and the finale feels earned after a whole movie of build-up
3 It Comes at Night
In It Comes at Night, the “it” is left vague. There’s a highly contagious disease spreading across America that everyone’s terrified of, but it’s unclear if the disease kills you or turns you into a zombie or mutates you – all that’s clear is that it’s really bad. The focus here is on the characters, a family reluctantly taking in another family, with neither family sure if they can trust each other.
The movie plays with this tension masterfully. The house was deliberately designed and shot in a way that the audience wouldn’t be able to figure out its layout, which adds a layer of disorientation to an already-unsettling movie.
2 The Shining
Stephen King might have been unhappy with Stanley Kubrick’s big-screen adaptation of his bestselling novel The Shining, but there’s no denying that it’s a classic of horror cinema. In the opening scenes, it’s established that Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) has been hired as the winter caretaker at a haunted hotel.
He drives up there with his family, starts working on a new book, and gets writer’s block. Throughout the movie, Jack slowly goes insane. Jack’s mental state, and The Shining as a whole, are like a slow-moving train that we know is headed off a cliff and we can’t stop it.
1 Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski’s masterfully crafted adaptation of Ira Levin’s spooky novel Rosemary’s Baby takes a while to get to the terror. It spends its opening act establishing the characters, their relationship, and the new apartment building that Rosemary and her husband have just moved into.
Throughout the second act, Rosemary starts to suspicious of her husband and the doctor he hired to coach her through her pregnancy. And then in the third act, because Polanski made us wait, the haunting finale has much more impact. As with a lot of Levin’s stories, the theme in Rosemary’s Baby is paranoia, which contributes to the slow-burn.