I saw “Friday the 13th” (1980) for the first time at an isolated drive-in theater in Maine.
One of those weed-infested lots clear-cut from a pine and hemlock forest. There was nothing but deep woods on three sides. The fourth side was the entrance – a rutted dirt road that led to a two-lane blacktop highway.
Needless to say, the movie scared the shit out of me.
When people started to die, I locked the car doors. When Jason popped out the lake at the end? I didn’t want to drive back to our cottage – on the damn lake. But my terror at “Friday the 13th” had more to do with setting than the actual quality of the movie. The film isn’t that good – in fact it nearly dips into “suck” range. It will be interesting to see if the remake will be better.
Horror continues to be a hot commodity in Hollywood. Yet they keep making gag-inducing horror movies. As a horror movie aficionado, DaRK PaRTY cringes at movies like “Saw IV” (2006) and “Hostel” (2005) - can someone please stop Eli Roth from making anymore movies?
So in our quest to help (we’re nothing if not educational), we present our five crucial components to making great horror movies.
The reason why “Psycho” (1960) is so damn scary was Alfred Hitchcock’s ability to prolong the suspense – building on the creepiness and the sense of foreboding throughout the film. Everything leads to the shower scene and then the ending. By the time the film in half over, the viewer is already tense and nervous. We are pudding in Hitchcock’s hands.
Modern filmmakers are obsessed with getting to the payoff, but it’s the journey that’s really scary. Build up to it. Foreshadow. Tease. Take the viewers down dead ends. Backtrack. Keep the mystery and the suspense going. That’s artistry.
Ease Up on the Gore
This equation doesn’t add up anymore: Gore + Blood = Scary. People forget that there’s little blood in the original “Halloween” (1979). But don’t misunderstand me. “Halloween” is violent, really violent. The relentless and unmerciful murders by Michael Myers instill terror. But Director John Carpenter leaves the gore to our imaginations – where it is probably worse.
Gore is a crutch – a lazy or uncreative directors’ attempt to make his movie memorable. I’m not a fan of the torture chic now popular in many horror movies. Believe it or not, I don’t want to watch a man have his leg twisted off or cannibals devour a victim whole. Scare me – don’t make me throw up my popcorn.
Character, Not Cliché
An underrated horror gem is “Wolf Creek” (2005). The movie is so effective because it spends the first half as a travel movie – establishing the characters, spending time with them to get the viewers to understand and sympathize with them. So when the movie suddenly shifts into a full-throttle horror fest, we feel for the victims because we care for them.
Another great recent horror movie is “The Descent” (2006). The movie is about a group of women who go spelunking in an ancient cave and things go horrible wrong. The movie does an excellent job of creating a compelling back-story and gives each of the characters a history with each other. Here is a group of women enmeshed emotionally. The characters feel genuine – not a stereotype in the lot. Don’t you wish you could say that about every horror movie?
Add Some Mystery
The unknown is frightening. There’s a trend these days to S-P-E-L-L it all out. The reason John Carpenter’s remake of “The Thing” (1986) is so scary is because the audience is never quite sure who has been infected by the creature. Is him? Or maybe him! That element of the unknown – that mystery – adds to the terror. The movie even ends with a question mark. Are the two survivors infected? Or just one? Or maybe both? It’s up to us to decide.
The same hold true for "The Exorcist" (1973), probably the most frightening film ever made. What would the film be like without the aura of mystery about the church and exorcisms in general? There is so much darkness that the film feels like its been plunged into a deep, dark pit of the unknown.
Creative, Not Formula
The movie “Dog Soldiers” (2002) is so effective as a horror movie because it gives viewers a completely fresh look at werewolves. Director Neil Marshall provides us with a type of werewolf with an original look and feel. It’s as if he’s reinvented the genre.
Don’t you wish we could say that about the plethora of vampire movies in theaters these days? They all feel stale – retreads. Good horror movies give us twists and turns and make us think twice about the genre. That’s why “The Ring” (2002) and “The Others” (2001) worked so well. Both films bended the genre of ghost movies and gave us two films that were original, creative and scary. This is why slasher flicks often fail – it’s the tired, old story of the serial killer. Was anyone scared by “My Bloody Valentine” (1981) or by “I Know What You Did Last Summer” (1997)? I wasn’t. They were formula films. But “Seven” (1995) turned serial killer films on its head and it was extremely frightening. Being creative and original produces that effect.