W hat makes a good horror ﬁlm? For decades now, the general public has viewed and loved horror, searching for an adrenaline rush akin to that of going on a rollercoaster. A range of subgenres like slasher ﬁlms, psychological, action horror, comedy horror and splatter horror have formed since the ﬁrst horror ﬁlm (rumored to be the German expressionist ﬁlm The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) came about, each appealing to diﬀerent aspects of what an audience would want to see.
The best way to gauge a horror ﬁlm’s excellence is to sneak a peek at your reactions when you watch it – a ‘good’ one should make your extremities go cold and your heart drop into your stomach. On top of that, the story should be engaging and convincing, such as having a jumpscare when the audience most expects is likely to bore them. So what makes the ‘good’ horror ﬁlms scary and engaging? Can this explain why some niches are more popular than others? In fact, the very reason that the horror ﬁlm industry has been stagnant for some years now is because people keep asking these very questions.
Imagine you are watching Psycho directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The famous shower scene comes on: the lady gets into the shower, closes the shower curtain. The shadow of the man appears, the music spikes both in volume and pitch before the man stabs her to death the own bathroom. All the while, the audience sits shaking in their chairs with hands over their mouths. This scene is one of the greatest horror scenes in history, the main reason being its skillful use of the technical aspects of ﬁlmmaking.
Take the soundtrack for example. It is a quintessential aspect of a ‘good’ horror ﬁlm. Everything from instrumentation and pitch to timing and volume can make or break a jump scare scene. Insidious also makes good use of jump scares, all backed by augmented chords and minor keys. In some cases, directors have chosen to blend real human and animal screams into the soundtrack, subconsciously unsettling the audience further.
Good cinematography is another aspect of horror ﬁlm that contributes greatly to the success of the eerie atmosphere. Techniques like the Dutch tilt, where the camera is tilted to the side slightly portrays how something within the scene isn’t quite right. It’s a technique that is perfect to use in unsettling and essentially creeping out an audience before coming out with a jump scare. A handheld-found-footage style of cinematography has proven to be quite successful in the past, with ﬁlms like The Blair Witch Project relying heavily on it and then going onto become a huge horror classic. The great thing about this technique is its ability to create a POV for the audience, making the story all the more realistic.
Storylines are just as essential to the success of a horror ﬁlm. In particular, the ‘monster in the house’ sub-genre is popular, and for good reason. Think – the protagonist and the ‘monster’ or evil force in the ﬁlm are stuck in a place that the protagonist cannot escape from. The fear arises from the fact that there’s no safe place for the protagonist to go, thus heightening the tension that something is about to happen.
These techniques are just a few examples of the vast array that directors like to use to create that essential atmosphere. Though they are timeless and will forever be prevalent in ﬁlm, we have to ask ourselves – if these techniques are so essential to make a successful horror ﬁlm, why are old movies that employ them not as ‘scary’ as modern ﬁlm?
Take Nosferatu (ed. the Murnau version) for example, a highly inﬂuential horror ﬁlm adapted from Dracula, was one of the scariest ﬁlms of the time. I think it’s fair to say that for a modern audience though, it’s just not as scary as say, Paranormal Activity. That’s because horror ﬁlms are a product of their time. What’s scary at one point in time, may be overused and thus desensitised to an audience. The Dracula back then for example, was a creature with pointy ears and black makeup smudged all over his face. To an audience of the 1920s this was terrifying. To an audience of the 2010s however, even the most gruesome looking of villains aren’t scary, because computer eﬀects are so overdone. Vampires were, once upon a time, the scariest villains in ﬁlm. These days, they’ve had to improve upon them, giving them special powers in order for them to be successful in scaring a modern audience.
For a horror movie to be successful there needs to be something new, something the audience has never thought about being a threat before. Take Alien from 1979, directed by Ridley Scott. People were rumoured to be leaving the theatre halfway through because it was so scary. One of the main reasons for this was because it was nothing like that audience had ever seen before – the originality allowed for the ﬁlm to shape and mould its new villain in any way it wanted to. No matter how they did it, the audience would not be expecting it.
So, what is the future like for horror ﬁlms? The problem with horror these days is that it’s all too similar and expected. Producers look at ﬁlms like franchises and money making mediums rather than an artform. They like to take ﬁlms like Paranormal Activity, see what worked well and then create carbon copy sequels to ensure that money rolls in. They care more about money than the quality of the ﬁlm. This is why the horror ﬁlm genre is becoming stagnant.
Unless we have more pioneering directors that are willing to break conventions and create something unexpected and thus as terrifying as Alien was when it ﬁrst came out, the future of the horror genre will be limited to predictable ﬁlms, which only seek to make money. All great ﬁlms of history are great ﬁlms because of the fact that they broke conventions of their time, coming out with something that surprisingly worked and made the ﬁlms into the legendary pieces they are today.