How To Make A Good Horror Movie
I decided to start with a blog post about horror movies I do like and how to make a good horror movie so people don’t think that I’m a total bitch. I mean, I am kind of a bitch but it’s really not that bad, I just know what I like.
Alright, so there are a bunch of things you need in a horror movie to make it good and effective. That is if you are going for actual scares and not some kind of dark humor or parody like Cabin In The Woods which was a surprisingly good movie but I guess I wouldn’t put it in the realm of scary. For these examples I’ll be using horror movies I do like to prove a point. There also might be spoilers but a lot of these movies are old so I assume that most people have already seen them if you haven’t then well…just read with caution.
First of all to make an effective horror movie you need not only well written characters (as in people who are more than tropes or one dimensional pieces of garbage) and they need to behave realistically. If you don’t have these two things then people can’t relate to your characters and don’t really give a shit about what happens to them. This isn’t a hard and fast rule either because some great horror movies pretty much only exist to kill pretty and dumb teenagers, but, even at the heart of those movies there’s usually a protagonist you can root for.
Take a movie like The Ruins, which was an amazingly well done movie with some great acting, writing, cinematography, and special effects. It was based on the book of the same name which was also an amazing book. I’d actually recommend both, highly recommend. In any case, the characters were not only well written and more than just one dimensional tropes but they were well acted and they behaved in a manner that was pretty realistic to the incredibly bizarre situation that they were facing. For those of you who haven’t seen this movie, it’s about some collage aged kids who get trapped on some ancient Mayan ruins with man eating vines that seem to also be sentient. Now, a premise like this can easily be ridiculous and even humorous if not done correctly but this movie was done perfectly because they knew exactly how to portray it. Then there’s a movie like Hostel and I did discuss before in a video why that worked, one of the reasons being that there is character development and you can relate to the characters journey, feelings, and sense of isolation. If you take, by comparison a terrible movie like Touristas which is literally just Hostel in Brazil and way worse you can see how the same exact concept can be terrible if not executed or written correctly.
Next you need to consider what type of movie you want to do because there’s all sorts of movies that fit into the horror genre. If you are doing some sort of creature feature then you should probably make it similar to The Ring or Ju-On: The Grudge (and I mean the Japanese version not the shitty American remake). These are just examples because there are many different types of creatures and things from other worlds in other movies that I would still consider very well done like Hellraiser (the first one at least). Still, all of them pretty much follow the same basic pattern to make these creatures good.
When you do a creature feature or scary monster movie or whatever you want to call it, the most effective way to make it scary is to not overly explain the creature, where it came from, or its motivations. You don’t want to have too little explanation cause then the movie makes no sense and you can’t get past how stupid and fake the situation is. You have to give the monster just enough reason to exist and just enough motivation to be killing people without trying to overly explain it because once you get into that realm it’s super easy to poke holes in it. That’s why The Ring falls apart once you get into the sequels. That’s why things like The Bye Bye Man and Lights Out completely failed. Don’t give your damn creature an origin story and if you absolutely have to, make sure it’s an airtight and solid story or at least solid enough that people can suspend disbelief for 90 minutes without questioning why the fuck any of this makes sense in the middle of the movie.
If you are doing a realistic horror scenario like people trapped on an island, on a boat lost in the woods, where there’s no serious supernatural element other than the danger of something that actually exists (Animal predator, Actual serial killer that’s non supernatural, maybe just exposure to the elements and starvation) then you absolutely have to have the characters behave realistic to the situation. Nothing takes me (or anyone else) out of a survival horror movie faster than when the characters behave in the exact opposite of how humans would behave if in that situation. Now, I will admit that in some cases if written correctly a person panicking and behaving stupidly can be effective but you can’t use this explanation to dismiss all of the behavior because if you do then it’s just a bad horror movie. Have one or two characters panic and do something stupid, that’s realistic, but there’s always going to be at least one level headed person in the group and others that listen to that person. Not everyone is going to be a panicky moron.
Now as much as people hate The Blair Witch Project for unnecessarily bad reasons, this is a good example of what I’m talking about. Though there were elements of extremely stupid behavior among the three of them, they all did behave pretty realistic to a scenario of being lost in the woods, running out of food, and freezing. Yes, I get this is cheating a bit because there may or may not have been a supernatural element of a witch (which I think is debatable if you only look at the first movie and view it merely as three people being lost in the woods) but that movie works because the characters behave like you’d expect college students to behave in that situation. Conversely, a movie like Escape Room which is so fucking awful I could literally rant on it for a damn hour, no one behaves like anyone should behave and none of the characters are developed beyond basic tropes like “Gamer nerd” and “Soldier girl” and “Douche Stock Broker” an “Stoner Guy” then to top that off none of them act like they are supposed to act or any normal human would act in those situations. Even in the Saw movies the characters (as poorly as some of them were acted) behaved within the realm of realism that was offered to the scenario of being put in a weird ass jigsaw trap which is once again why those movies worked so well.
Another huge thing that makes a horror movie effective and can literal make or break it is the use of special effects. Now, the best horror movies that will always be the best used either all practical effects, practical effects with minimal CGI, or a decent mix of practical and CGI. Any horror movie with an overuse of CGI or total reliance on CGI for one looks incredibly fake and will be dated incredibly quickly, and for two…well it just become humorous.
I remember going to see the movie Boogeyman whatever the most recent one was, early 2000s I’m too lazy to look it up. That movie was actually pretty okay (not great) until they showed what The Boogeyman looked like. Literally the audience burst out laughing because he was a CGI nightmare mess of garbage and it was damn hilarious. That’s why basically no one remembers this movie. If you take a movie like The Ring they had practical effects done by Rick Baker (who literally won an Oscar for his horror movie effects) and they mixed this with CGI but they didn’t rely on CGI. You can also look at a movie like The Ruins which was 99% practical effects, they only used CGI minimally to digitally remove some wires/strings and to animate the plants. Every single vine and leaf in that movie was made and painted by hand. They moved those props on ropes. CGI was only used to touch up what they already had. That’s why everything looks so fucking real and gross. That’s why that movie is never going to be outdated because it looks so gritty and real.
If you absolutely have to use jump scares in your movie, make them count. If it’s a good horror movie you shouldn’t need them at all and/or need very minimal use of them to scare the audience. A horror movie, a good one, uses atmosphere, scoring, acting, camera angles, effects and other things to induce a feeling of terror in the audience. Jump scares are by no means entirely off limits or cheating but man should you not have to rely on them to make your movie scary because when you do, you get crap like Paranormal Activity (actually the entire franchise) and shit like every Annabelle movie ever made. Practical effects will always be superior to CGI given how quickly CGI goes out of date these days.
The last thing I would say makes a good horror movie is minimal use of gore. This isn’t because I can’t stomach gore I’ve actually seen what people would consider exploitation movies where there’s overuse of gore and I’ve seen a lot of them. Gore doesn’t bother me in horror, I just don’t see what the point of it is unless there’s a reason for it. I agree that violence and death is certainly horrific but if you don’t have a connection to the characters or the plot makes no sense then all you have is gore and who gives a shit. The first Saw movie handles this really well at the end when you don’t see Gordon sawing through his entire foot and they only focus on Adam’s reaction to watching him to do it. In Hostel the first torture scene with Josh there’s also a lot more implied than shown, it focuses on Josh’s reaction rather than showing you everything that’s being done to him. This is far more effective than showing gore without any sort of substance, backstory, or bothering to develop your characters. The problem is that these also aren’t hard and fast rules because movies like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street are fucking awesome with an over abundance of teenage victims so…yeah just go by context.
Anyway, These are all elements to making a good horror movie. No matter what type you want to make. As I previously mentioned I have written to horror screenplays, and I’m not bringing this up because I think I’m some great writer as I said before I really don’t expect them to ever take off and go anywhere. However, both screenplays are of two different genres of horror one is a psychological thriller and the other is horror/dark humor and includes a lot of demons. However, even I follow my own rules in writing my screenplays. I try hard to develop the characters and give them proper motivations, and in the one case where I do have demons as the antagonists I don’t try to overly explain why they are there without explaining their existence at all. I walk a good line of vague but specific. All of this can be done and it can be done really well but we run into this problem of people not liking that anymore? I actually don’t know. Some of the best movies that have come out as of late have been panned as terrible and some of the worst movies that have come out as of late have been praised as awesome so in the end I don’t know what people want anymore. Remember: just because something is TRENDY doesn’t automatically make it good. Use common sense here and judge for yourself don’t let anyone tell you something is good because it was LOUD or it “Looked scary”. We need to get back to traditional horror elements before the genre is completely destroyed by morons.