My horror editorial yesterday was greeted with two requests: One, to stop being such a Negative Nancy, and two, to write out what makes a great horror movie.
I think I can cater to both. Every horror movie I’ve ever loved really has five things in common that they’ve at least tried.
Step 1: Making Us Care
Good horror movies are, at root, good interpersonal dramas. When this goes wrong, it’s called Twenty Minutes With Jerks, but when it goes right, it can take just a minute to set something up and pay off through the whole movie. The Descent is a good example: It opens with a husband and wife having a tense, unpleasant argument that anybody who’s been in a relationship will recognize instantly, and then something goes horribly wrong. It’s the linchpin of much of the plot, that sadness and regret our protagonist is feeling, and it makes the rest of the movie just that much more tense.
Step 2: Remember That Horror and Humor Sit Fairly Close Together
There’s nothing wrong with a horror movie being funny. Videodrome is full of puns, even in the middle of some of its bloodiest sequences, and opens with a hilarious meeting where three men argue the merits of a Skinemax movie from Japan. The original Nightmare on Elm Street has Nancy tuck her mother in with a bottle of vodka.
This both works for a filmmaker and against them: Both humor and horror are about crossing lines and getting a visceral reaction, so it’s pretty easy to aim for one and hit the other. But properly mixed, it can keep audiences going and make both the humor and the horror more intensely. The Evil Dead is absolutely hilarious in places, but your knuckles go white when Ash has to go into that basement.
Step 3: Horror Movies Can Be About More Than Splat
I’ve talked about this before, but the great thing about horror movies is how flexible they are as metaphors for the practical things we’re scared about. The Fly is a much different movie for those who’ve lost somebody they love to cancer. Larry Fessenden’s Habit turns vampires into a musing on addiction, and Fessenden’s horror movies in general are about more than the monster. The Exorcist is as much a movie about doubt and self-recrimination as it is about demonic possession.
This isn’t a hard requirement, but it’s a lot harder to make a genuinely good movie when it’s just about the gore. Even a movie like Street Trash has a bit more to it than just bums being dissolved by vile wine. There’s a reason that there’s only a handful of guys, like Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi, have pulled it off… and there’s also a reason they’re now working Hollywood directors.
Step 4: Realism Is Better Than Style
I’m not talking about using found footage here, necessarily: I’m talking about cinematography. Part of the reason so many horror movies don’t work is because the cinematography fails them. Pick a horror movie from recent years that got a bad review and you’ll see one of two things: Heavy blue filters on pretty much every shot, or excessive grays and thick shadows. It’s basically telling the audience “Be scared now”, which is like telling somebody a joke is very funny.
Not that I’m against atmospherics, but the atmospherics have to make sense in terms of the movie. When Halloween, for example, goes into its final act, it also carefully establishes why people don’t turn on the lights. I’m not a fan of Saw, for various reasons, but its lighting and set design make absolute sense in terms of the script and really create a gritty, nauseous atmosphere that admirably suits what the movie is trying to achieve.
Step 5: Genre Awareness Is Crucial
There’s nothing quite as bad as a horror movie that takes place in a world where horror movies don’t exist. A movie works best when its characters make sensible decisions, and the horror comes in when those decisions either backfire or are anticipated by the villain. For example, Vacancy is an extremely tight movie that works because the two main characters actually are consistently intelligent throughout. They don’t make Hitchcock references, but they do realize that it might be a good idea to sneak up on the guys trying to stab them.
As I’ve noted, horror is a deceptive genre. But there are many, many great horror movies out there. What can I say, I’m greedy. I want more of them.