Horror movies reside on a goddamn tightrope of judgement and expectation; If a film is done slightly wrong, it can plummet, hard and fast to the ground. If done right it can turn out to be a full-house performance, ending in a standing ovation.
Films – particularly in the horror genre are constantly a notch or two away from either being laughable or being the next ‘good one.’
Hey reader, I’m Jack Fitzpatrick and this is my rough guide on;
What Makes A Good Horror Film?
Keep in mind; I’m not a filmmaker! I’m just a writer with a strong love for film. In the end, these are all just my opinions and observations based on an abundance of horror movies that I’ve seen over the years.
Rule / Tip 1.
This begins with the blatantly obvious. Keep the tone/dread consistent and the intensity raising. The viewer has to be put in an uncomfortable state and it’s the films’ job to keep them there. The beauty of something like a horror film is that unlike any other genres, these films can be both feared and loved. What other movies are ‘feared?’ It’s sort of a strange power for a movie to possess; The ability to frighten real people despite its inherent and obvious flaws of being pieces of fiction. And it’s a power to appreciate; and to use effectively.
A horror film - A good one, should be able to build to something. A good horror film doesn’t begin with the bat-shit crazy from the get go, but consistently raises the bar throughout; It remains a ‘slow burner’ throughout, constantly raising temperature. A good horror film has the responsibility to slow down, It should ‘Set up’ and ‘Pay off’ within a timely manner
And the key to all this is patience; The movie shouldn’t blow it all on cheap jump scare after cheap jump scare. It should sacrifice being scary for a moment to efficiently screw with its own audience.
Message to the hypothetical horror film; Don’t be too ‘confident.’ The moment you begin to ’show off’ too much is the moment that the arrogance has made its way in; and instead of being scary, you’ve just become predictable. The audience has been desensitized to your way of working and unfortunately soon you’ll be forgotten. Put simply, don’t be scared of a slow burn and don’t blow it all for a cheap jump scare.
I guess to dumb the argument down this tip can also be read as simply;
KEEP THE TONE CONSISTENT AND SPARE YOUR SCARES.
THE EFFECTIVE –
A good example of film following this effectively is The Conjuring. The Conjuring is one of my favorite horror movies of all time. What makes a film like this worth experiencing? One of my favorite Directors; James Wan is behind this movie and he uses everything he has to make The Conjuring feel exactly how it is supposed to and keeps it paced exactly how it is supposed to be. The unique camera direction to the exceptional acting that the film almost has no right to even possess, The Conjuring is an example of fantastic horror.
The film begins with small things; films characters doubt anything suspicious. However, as the film builds, as do the reactions of its’ characters. We go from a parent telling their child that they were having a bad dream to the parent wishing they themselves were just having a bad dream.
Example from The Conjuring;
Set up – Early in the film, the children in the family are playing a game of Hide and clap. (This is a game of Hide and seek, the difference being that the ‘seeker’ is blindfolded however gets to ask for three audible claps to guide their way to the ‘hiders.’) This is introduced early on in the film and already the audience is left in just a slight form of suspense despite the scene actually coming off as quite light-hearted and doesn’t result in a major scare.
The Pay off - Later in the film we are now acquainted with the layout of the house that the film is set and due to the earlier scene we are familiar with how their game works. Thanks to the patience of the film we, as an audience now know what’s going on, however aren’t particularly sure what to expect. What follows is one of the most intense sequences in the film and easily the most memorable; even if it does come off as sort of a gimmick.
Rule / Tip 2.
Horror plays among the same structure as comedies; It’s all about a rhythm. The filmmakers are forever in charge of the tempo, and thus our expectations. To be effective in something such as this, a film should understand it’s beat; 1, 2, 3. It should understand it, but most importantly it should exploit it too. The ‘offbeat’ and the ‘unexpected’ are the key factors to any of the most chilling cinematic moments in film.
A film should play with misdirection, patterns and above all else avoid the ‘generic.’ Horror must have the ability to manipulate its’ audience. To make an effective scare is to intentionally play with those expectations. Take for instance a simple pattern. Hypothetically; throughout this fictional film I’m making up right now, let’s say throughout the movie an ‘un-spoken rule’ has been set;
The spooky ghost out for revenge or whatever often knocks two objects off of the table (Or whatever is close by) before killing their next victim. This has happened two times now in the film and we are approaching a third; The first object is thrown off the table. The Second. The Third. The Fourth. The audience has been caught off guard and suspense has been created. Now is the time to strike. This is when the ghost attacks. Like a good joke, a scare is all about unpredictability. However not all attempts such as this will be successful. If you hold on for too long, the audience may soon get bored and lose interest and thus suspense. Release too quick and you’re back to losing your patience in jump-scare syndrome.
Dumbed Down Tip / Rule - DO THE UNEXPECTED.
THE EFFECTIVE -
Despite my inherent hate for the Paranormal Activity series, part three performed a rather great example of this; As I’m assuming you know by now, the series is famous for its ‘found footage,’ style of film making. This basically meaning that the entire film can be shot with one camera exclusively using ’point of view’ shots and thus being a very cheap way to make a movie. However, in part 3 the protagonist sets up the camera on to a rotating fan – you know, one of the ones that stand up and turn left and right – Gimmick or not, the scene leaves the audience in a somewhat haunting curiosity; You don’t want to look but you can’t look away. The scene pans from left to right, omitting the other side of the room each time it turns. The scene is a constant reminder to the audience that we are not in control of what we are seeing, that is all in the hands of the film makers and the suspense remains strong throughout the entirety of the scene. In this scene, the ’Rhythm’ is based on the fans’ rotating cycle, and the expectation is that the film is going to scare you fairly soon. The beauty of the scene however is that the movie holds this scene for an excruciatingly long time. This is an exceptional example of horror keeping its’ patience and presenting the ability to hold its audience in a seemingly eternal moment. The scene is original, creative and most importantly creepy and intense.
I still hate Paranormal Activity as a series though…
More like Paranormal CRAP-tivity…
More like Para-STUPID Activity…
Right guys? …Guys?
Rule / Tip 3.
It’s all in the sound. Score can often be one of the most overlooked features of a film, even by yours-truly. Sometimes I forget to really pay attention and appreciate such a thing and sometimes I just simply do not notice it at all, however when it comes to horror films, the music is easily one of the most notable, powerful and memorable aspect.
Going back to Tips one and two, music is also one of the best ways to set up an emotion in an audience and bring them down to the films level. It is also extraordinarily useful in setting up that aforementioned rhythm; The score holds its audience in place, waiting. This is where the misdirection comes in; A good horror film will have the ability to look at their sound and visuals as two separate things. Match it all up and you become predictable, follow the same traits as every other horror movie and you become cliché, however slide back and forth and you keep the audience guessing.
Music can obviously also make moments much more cinematic and intense, once the ball is rolling and a scene has truly started getting into the more intense side of things score is often used as an accomplice. But you know that, it is fairly obvious.
Rule / Tip Dumbed down - MUSIC CAN MAKE IT SCARY.
THE EFFECTIVE –
Bringing it back to James Wan, the ‘Insidious‘ series is honestly the first movie that I ever watched where I really, really paid attention to the score. I was a 14-year-old at the time of its release and as soon as the strong and harsh violins began, orchestrating its sound loudly throughout the cinema – Well let’s just say it scared the hell out of me.
The score in Insidious is one of the most effective I’ve ever heard in horror; I don’t know how you could hear it without getting chills down your spine. But the best part of it is the fact that it sets its audience up for what they’re getting themselves in to. It’s undeniably haunting and accompanies the film in form of intensifying it when it needs to as well as holding back when necessary. Film is a combination and music is more effective than one might think. Have you ever watched a trailer for a horror movie without the sound? Much less effective right? It’s all in the sound.
Rule / Tip 4.
In the end the most important thing about a film – horror or not – is its story and characters. Is the story interesting and / or original? If not, you better hope you have some damn charming leads. Are you characters likable? What are the films best assets? Is the film using them? My point here is basically that; You can have the scariest looking monster ever seen on film in your movie and you can follow the tips / rules that I’ve listed so far but if your movie isn’t a good movie by itself, none of that will matter. If your movie was rushed through the writing process, if it possesses no real direction and if your characters are all one-note nobodies, the movie will fail. Your film must have purpose, and must be interesting regardless of anything else. Scary or not, part of the horror genre or not, if you’re movie isn’t interesting, little of your film will be appreciated. This is because your audience will not care, and If the audience doesn’t care – The film doesn’t scare.
‘EXTREMELY’ Dumbed down Tip / Rule - WRITE GOOD.
THE EFFECTIVE –
Now as I mentioned I don’t particularly love found footage films, but 2015’s The Visit is an exception to the rule. It’s an intriguing film that keeps you guessing as well as having likable characters. The protagonists in the film are two children so perhaps this is sort of emotionally manipulative (You sympathize with children - duh) however they come off as intelligent and competent people who you want to see succeed. The Visit manages to be creepy, mysterious and darkly funny all at the same time and so consistently remains interesting. The characters and general premise has its audience absorbed in its world; The audience cares.
In the end film is an art form, and there will always be new ways to tell a story. There will always be a different combination and its every filmmakers’ responsibility to experiment. We will always get some bad ones, but (hopefully) we will always get some good ones too.