5 Key Ingredients for Making a Horror Movie
How can movies revive the horror genre?
The mystery behind how handsome Rosemary's baby looks is as mind-boggling as the drop in the rate of quality horror movies. With the advancement of technology and social security, film-makers are finding it harder and harder to make movies that will hone into our deepest and innermost fears. On making a small trip to Where's The Jump?, we can see that the best rated movies are from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Since then, there has been a significant shortage of good horror movies. Why? Because the more we knew, the less we feared.
After trudging through years of horror movies, here's my recipe for creating one.
5. Presenting and Maintaining the Tone of the Movie
The first thing that we get to see about a horror movie, or any movie, is the trailer. That helps the audience to decide two things:
- Is the movie scary?
- Do I want to get scared by watching this movie?
Nowadays, most horror movie trailers give away the scares in the trailer itself, and that considerably reduces the scare-factor while watching the movie. One of the best examples of a great horror movie trailer is Alien: we only get to see a strange egg, an oddly shaped ship, and a scared Ripley running through some claustrophobic corridors. That not only increases the intrigue, but also shows enough to make our imaginations go wild.
Moving away from trailers, every horror movie should maintain its tone. The audience doesn't want comedy, action, or romance in a horror movie. The only combination that has worked with horror is drama because drama helps the audience to make a mental connection with their real lives and thus, invest in the fear that the characters are experiencing.
Now, I'll be entirely wrong if I say that the movie should always maintain a somber and morbid tone to sell their movie. Bhool Bhulaiya banked on its star-power and Priyadarshan's history of comedy movies to present itself as a laughter-riot, only to catch the audience off-guard.
4. Using Practical Effects and Makeup
With the advent of Saw, the use of CGI blood increased exponentially. Movies from the 60s had to reside to practical effects because of the lack of technology. The reason it felt realistic is because the blood would gush out of the victim's guts in real-time. It's true that the use of fake blood demands the reduction of the margin of error in a shot but, if done right, it might just turn out to be iconic.
That brings me to the use of makeup. CGI transformation cannot trump over actual make-up because VFX artists have to mimic reality, whereas real make-up is interactive. It's true that if done right, then the results are amazing (Gollum from Lord of the Rings), but horror movie directors usually do not have a budget $93 million. The famous transformation scene from An American Werewolf in London took six 10-hour days to complete, and it created the bench-mark for practical effects.
This begs the question: if someone has the opportunity to create a feature-length horror film, what is stopping them from going all out and creating something memorable?
3. Creating Believable Characters and Situations
One of the major reasons why the ratings for horror movies are dipping is because of the lack of believable, real-life characters in them. Directors treat their characters as a medium for showcasing the level of indecency and repulsion they can achieve. By the third act, the audience just wants the characters to die so that they can get out of the theater. So is there a way to keep the audience captivated throughout the movie? In my opinion, yes! While describing his method of building tension, to the American Film Institute, Hitchcock said,
"Four people were sitting around a table, talking about baseball. 5 minutes after, a bomb goes off...What does the audience have? 10 seconds of shock.Now take the same scene and tell the audience there's a bomb under the table and it'll go off in 5 minutes. The whole emotion of the audience is totally different.Because the audience is saying (to you): Don't be ridiculous, stop talking about baseball, there's a bomb under there!"
This simple notion of introducing the magnanimity of the antagonist (the bomb), and the helplessness of the protagonist(s) gets the audience to mentally communicate with the movie. Then, they're not only watching the movie but are also a part of the ongoing actions.
What makes Alien such an iconic film, apart from the Xenomorph and the mind-blowing set-design, are the conversations that these characters have. In real life, we don't wait for each other to finish our lines and Scott aptly uses that aspect to blur the line between real and reel.
M. Night Shyamalan's Split is a perfect example of presenting the similarities and dissimilarities of the hero (Casey Cook) and the villain (Kevin). The parallels between them are drawn so seamlessly that as we begin to empathize with Casey, we also understand Kevin's past. This approach allows us to understand both sides of the coin, instead of simply rooting for the good guys.
2. Fear in the Mind, Not in the Supernatural
It is safe to say that death is the ultimate antagonist for us mortals and it will come to us, sooner or later. While science was developing, we feared that our death might come via vampires, werewolves, and even birds (sorry, Mr. Hitchcock). With the advent of the internet, our fears have been replaced by social anxiety, depression, climactic apocalypse, distrust, and being bullied on social networking sites, to name a few.
Directors and writers have to realize that even though zombies, monsters, and vampires might make for some action-packed entertainment, they'll never serve as quality horror. Netflix's Black Mirror is the fitting reply to these unrealistic horror tropes because they have embraced the absurdities of the human mind and instilled a more practical sense of fear, while also being relevant.
1. The Final Reveal
This is what the whole movie boils down to. Most horror movies tend to leave their audience with a sense of finality by killing the monster/villain/ghost, only to bring them back without an explanation and cash-in on the success of the previous one. There are multiple examples like Halloween, Friday the 13th, Scream, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the list goes on.
A good horror movie should leave its audience with a sense of fear, confusion, and dilemma, even after they leave the theater. Despite Under The Shadow's thrilling climax, I still find myself going back to see whether the whole event was real or just a hallucination playing in Shideh's mind. The Others managed to invest the audience to such an extent that they never saw the signs that suggested who the actual ghosts were and finally, the cryptic photo from The Shining still baffles viewers since its release 37 years ago.