Keep these classic techniques in mind before you set out to make the next great horror film.
Crafting together a memorable horror movie that stands the test of time is a feat not many directors can pull off. It seems in the past decade we’ve gotten some pretty lazy, ineffective horror films to be released that never make a lasting impression on us. However in the past few years, movies such as The Conjuring, The Babadook or Sinister, have tapped into what made us fall in love with the genre years ago. In order for horror movies to garner real scares from its audience, in some shape or form it follows a few stylistic techniques that have made these films what they are today.
When it comes down to it, your movie is only as good as your screenplay. Similarly, your movie is only as scary as the ideas and dialogue you’ve written to support the film. Dreadful inescapable dialogue is a feat to achieve and will payoff in a huge way come shooting time. Just because a character screams doesn’t mean what they are screaming at is scary. There has to be clear motivation and understanding outcomes. 2016’s The Witch is an excellent example of how a screenplay can add even more intensity to the terrifying atmosphere the director has already created.
By having the characters speak in old english, this only further places the audience in their shoes by feeling they as well are momentarily living in this space and time.
Style is something that’s extremely important, but it must grow naturally out of who and what you are and what the material calls for. It cannot be superimposed – William Friedkin, Director of The Exorcist
If a good screenplay is the framework, the meat in between are the techniques and styles to employ once production has begun.
The Jump Scare
The most notable scare tactic in most horror directors arsenal, the jump scare. All a good jump scare requires is a quiet scene interrupted abruptly by a sudden loud action taken by a character or object. Your subject that you’re following is usually the one affected by the scare which in turn leads you to feel as if this is happening to you. One of the original jump scares came from 1976’s Carrie. Compared to films use of the jump scare now, this scene isn’t as abrupt or blood curdling but at the time, people freaked.
Whether you like jump scares or not, the inescapable jolt sent to your heart rate is inevitable. Wether you define this tactic as a worthy scare or not, is entirely up to you.
General associations will always link blood spill with horror. Due to early films from the Godfather of Gore, the late Herschel Gordon Lewis, the horror genre has been dipped in blood aiming for audiences stomachs for decades. Some films in the past have relied heavily on the use of blood and guts to earn their screams and this strategy remains in cinemas even today. What was once an effective technique quickly turned into a banal ploy spilling out of every R-rated horror movie to be released in theaters. That being said, blood and guts are classic horror implements that if used properly can yield fantastic results.
On the other hand, some directors have expressed the necessity in refraining from blood and guts:
I don’t believe in using too much graphic violence, although I’ve done it. It’s better to be suggestive and to allow the viewer to fill in the blanks in their minds. – Tobe Hooper, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
The addition of blood and guts is totally up to you, just make sure it fits with the remainder of your film. Keep in mind also, the more blood and gore you decide to include in your script, the higher the cost of production. Friendly tip, make sure your cleanup crew are top notch or else you’ll be left with unwanted red stains and ruined carpet (I’ve been there and its no fun).
Taking a different direction with your form and style of production, hand-held POV should always be taken into consideration. Though what some might call a worn out gimmick, found footage is still a relevant genre within itself in the horror genre. What originally stuck with viewers was the point of view that stuck the audience smack dab in the terror with the main characters. With their not being smooth, tracking shots carefully composed, the unpredictability leads viewers to constantly be on the edge of their seats. Never forget 2009’s Paranormal Activity’s priceless crowd reactions.
This style of horror burst onto the scene in 1999 with the viral sensation The Blair Witch Project. Whether you think the movie was scary or not, one thing is certain, its financial mega-success was not and should not be overlooked, spawning dozens of found footage films throughout following years. The key aspect to these movies is the versatility and cost. These movies cost nothing to make (with some exceptions) and usually have a high reward for investors and everyone involved with making it.
What should seem obvious is the dark nature of horror films, as in, the majority of memorable horror films and scenes takes place in a house or outside during the nighttime. The absence of light immediately casts a feeling of unsureness and unease upon your senses. Take this scene from John Carpenter’s Halloween, the chase, the dread, the impending doom is only added by the fact that its in the dark.
Come time to shoot, prepare ahead of time for minimal lighting. This may seem awkward and wrong at first but the more shadows and mystery, the better. Though films have been just as effective shot in the daytime, the unknown nature of darkness will always register with the brain as the unknown.
The Power of Sound
Soundtracks might just be the most important part of horror films. A striking soundtrack will stick with viewers long after they’ve left the theatre. Even if its sparse and simple, a dreadful music cue will do wonders for your work as well as sticking with the audience. One of the more memorable soundtracks in recent memory was last years, It Follows by Disasterpeace. The score is an excellent example of how music can fit the story and go hand-in-hand creating a flawlessly effective experience for us, the viewer.
On top of a memorable soundtrack, including specific sounds that add suspense is a big plus. Ticks, creaks, groans, and growls are a handful of sound effects to consider when adding tense elements to the project. As for finding useable SFX, try PremiumBeats ginormous library. A perfect use of sound effect can make your audience squirm and trigger reactions they’ve never felt, expanding their imagination and immersing them completely.
There Are No Rules
One of the most liberating aspects of horror filmmaking is the lack of rules. There’s no set way or clear rulebook to follow in order to make a good horror movie. Tell the story you want to tell and if its scary, people will respond. If you’re packing up your gear and hitting the road with your closest friends to make a horror film, one of the most cost effective ways to study up on how to make one, is by simply watching horror movies. Start with the classics like The Mummy, Frankenstein, Dracula, move through the 80’s slasher era and stay up to date with the wicked resurgence in horror that has been taking place over the last few years.
What are some of your favorite horror films of all time? Share in the comments below.