Wednesday, October 19, 2011


A number of horror movies have been released as of late to panned reviews from critics and low box office numbers.  It has been suggested that mainstream horror has lost its way and it seems as if we're only another remake away from destroying any cinematic credibility we once had.  This is focusing solely on mainstream horror for simplicity's sake.  If I were to open the can of worms and include indie/underground films/films with limited releases, we'd be splitting hairs.  Regardless, mainstream horror has been perpetually insulting not only genre fans, but audiences for far too long and it's gotten a little out of control.  So, I pose this question-what makes a good horror movie?  We sit here and talk about how horror films are going downhill, and yet we aren't making any arguments as to how to fix something.  If you are going to complain about a problem, make sure you have an answer to fix the dilemma.  With help from those that gave input through the Day of the Woman facebook page, here's a base on what it is that makes a good horror film. 
Within five minutes of posing the question on facebook, I was overwhelmed with requests that a good horror film contain "atmosphere".  When a horror film rests on the instant gratification of a jump scare, it doesn't allow the audience member to slip themselves into the world of the film.  Bertolt Brecht made a name for himself creating performances that were made specifically to distance the audience from what was on stage.  While this practice may work for certain art forms, horror films are not one of them.  If you want a horror film to truly invade the consciousness of an audience and show its strength through standing hairs and goosebumps, the atmosphere is going to play a pivotal role in the success of creating fear.
One of the main attributes that horror films appear to be omitting is a strong plot.  It appears that most horror films are being created with the sole purpose to shock or frighten, and the storyline holding the film together seems to receive the least amount of focus.  While a killer, monster, madman, or event can be terrifying, it will be hindered dramatically if there isn't a plot to support the actions.  Thanks to M. Night Shyamalan, horror films have also been placing a greater emphasis on developing an impacting ending, rather than a concise vision throughout the entire duration.  This is leaving the audience without a feeling of fulfillment and irritation caused by the holes left behind.  
As a student finishing up a degree in theatre performance, there is nothing more disappointing than sitting through a horror film and knowing an actor/actress was cast purely on their appearance or their reputation rather than their talent.  Horror films are notorious for giving many well known performers their "big break" or their first chance at a feature film, and yet it has only been as of late that we've been seeing more and more people pop up in horror films that shouldn't have ever made it past an audition reel.  We've focused so much of our energy into their physical appearance which only works in the realm of one-sheets and promotional material.  If you want a successful film, you need talented performers.  I hate to say it, but sometimes...people really are just a pretty face.
Underscoring has been proven to either make or break an experience.  The sounds of screaming violins and breathing in the darkness have haunted the nightmares of movie goers for as long as sound has been implemented into film.  The score of a horror film is one of the most fundamental components of a production and yet one of the most overlooked.  Mainstream horror films have seemed to make it their goal to incorporate popular music into their scenes in order to create a more identifiable experience for audience members seeing it directly after the release, but that unfortunately goes out the window once the film is no longer the flavor of the week.  There have been far too many instances in which I've watched a mainstream film from the 1990's and was completely thrown off by the music choices.  However, the score for a film like Suspiria or Psycho will remain timeless and will continue to frighten audiences regardless of generation. 
If I have to be the one to say it, I will.  Horror films today are moving far too fast.  There's a popular theory that drama moves slowly, comedy moves quickly, and horror movies slowly but finishes quickly.  Insert "that's what she said" jokes as you please.  We has humans have been forced into this hustle and bustle way of life and our horror films have begun to follow suit.  If anything, we need to slow the films down if only to contrast to the way that we function.  If we slow the films down, it will help to create an unusual experience for the audience as it will be a way of moving that we aren't used to.  Filmmakers are often times unsure on how to pace a film and then the payoff hasn't been worth the ride.  You have to pace yourself with everything in this world, (running, relationships, sex, eating)  and this includes films.  
For the love of all things holy, can we PLEASE stop making films with gore for gore's sake?  Seriously.  Just because a filmmaker decides to blow half of the budget on buckets of blood or gets a little trigger happy with CGI, that doesn't mean a good horror film is going to come from it.  Eli Roth and the SAW franchise are perfect examples of how concentrating too hard on gore can cause the overall film quality to suffer.  Seriously.  I'll take a bloodless film over a sixty-five person human centipede any day. 
Now, listen to me with care when I say that believability doesn't necessarily mean realistic.  Many classic horror films with fantastic (meaning fantasy, not "cool") aspects of the world around that are still able to remain believable are frequently the films that appear to be the most chilling.  If an audience member is equipped with the tools to subject themselves to the world of the film, the experience will then become all the more horrifying.  If the film isn't believable, the audience member will no longer be able to relate to the situation at hand, and therefore will more than likely find a way to avoid the intended fear. 

NOTE: I am in no way all knowing, this is purely opinion based.  Feel free to add your suggestions in the comment section of this article

9 comment(s):

Cassie Carnage said...

Thank you so much! This is exactly what I've been thinking for years! I agree with you 100% on all counts. We need more good horror movies! If only the producers could get this list and read it...

Kweeny Todd said...

I think you've covered the main points honestly. I'd probably add good editing also to that list. Sometimes people get lazy with their films and don't take into account that how you edit a scene can change the entire original point. But I think pacing is a part of editing the film.

Dr Blood said...

I think you've pretty much covered everything there. I would have said much the same but maybe in a slightly different order. For me, the story is the most important and the characterisation which creates enough empathy to draw you into it.

The only thing I can add is that filmmakers need to get back to basics. They also need to look up the dictionary definition of "horror" and stick to it.

All the good horror movies were made by people who studied the art of filmmaking first and foremost. Compare that with the filmmakers who are merely fans of the genre with no real training or discipline and you have your problem.

I also believe that no-budget handycam crap has ruined people's tastes so badly that hardly anyone (especially teenagers and hipsters) even notices when a badly made horror movie is released anymore. Letting standards slide is the downfall of the whole movie industry and in the age of straight-to-DVD releases and online streaming, it's unstoppable.

Anonymous said...

It may be opinion, but it's a damn good one. I agree 100% with what you said makes a good horror movie, and I see these things as the major points that are lacking in the unimpressive horror movies today. Still waiting for that perfect horror movie to come along...

TreverT said...

I completely agree with all of these, especially your comments about pacing. As an older guy (40-something), I grew up on 60's and 70's horror films, plus all the classic Universal stuff on the late show, and am continually finding myself wishing that modern films would just find the time to take a breath, actually *develop* the characters, and allow us to invest in a picture instead of rushing along to the next jump scare while the actors shout exposition at each other. Great post!

Aldous said...

Genre is irrelevant: a horror movie has to tell a good story, just like any other movie.

Horror has become one of several genres where enough creators AND audience members have given up on story that it can turn a profit without story. Viewers are content to watch copies of other movies and two-hour music videos, and studios are content to keep making them.

I'm hoping for a pendulum swing back toward smart writing -- not only in horror -- as seems to be happening with a new generation of TV shows.

Gene Phillips said...

Sixth verse, same as the first... Yes, you've definitely covered all the bases here. The only minor point that occured to me while reading "actors who can act" is that on occasion some people got their break because they had a unique look, but proved good actors as well. I'm thinking of Michael Berryman here-- although some viewers might say that Rondo Hatton forms a counter-example.

Another topic worth discussing: why doesn't it seem that the really talented up-and-comers start out in horror films and then move into other genres, as did Monte Hellman, Francis Coppola, etc. What's changed about the way talented writers and directors break in with the major studios? Should we blame it all on the Sundance Festival??

Jenny Krueger said...

It seems that this is a trending topic throughout the horror world. I wrote a similar post about why I think horror has gone down hill.

LJRich said...

Finally, someone how can put into a coherent post all the thoughts I've had in my head the last 4 years of horrible horror movie making.

I love you. Seriously.


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