What Makes a Good Horror Movie?
People have been experimenting with the genre of horror on the big screen more or less as long we've been able to make movies. George Melies is largely credited with being the first filmmaker to make a genuine attempt at a horror film, way back in 1896 (just 8 years after the first filmed sequence) and, ever since, audiences have been cueing up and paying money in order to be shocked or scared. So, why do we do it and what makes a good horror film?
The genre has changed a lot over the years and, while there have been trends and movements across the decades, many of the themes and devices that made a good horror movie 40, 50, or 80 years ago, still remain relevant today.
Keeping Things Hidden...
Our most heavily used sense is our vision. We will question or even actively try to ignore inputs and warnings from our other senses if we can absolutely detect no danger with our eyes. Knowing this, horror writers and directors use our extreme reliance on sight to their advantage by not showing us what's going on, a technique regularly put to good use when turning the camera away from a potentially gory or violent scene about to take place to better allow the viewer to imagine a plausibly much more unpleasant series of events for themselves. This lack of visual information can even mean neglecting to show the entire villain, menace or antagonist for the duration of the film.
Some movies, like Ridley Scott's sci-fi horror Alien (1979) have a very long build up to a reveal, often showing us the aftermath, havoc and gore but leaving our all-too-vivid imaginations to run wild, conjuring up implausible abominations that no special FX budget could possibly compete with. Another classic example appears in horror/thriller Jaws (1975). Again, throughout the majority of the movie we see precious little except for the results of the aquatic assailant's efforts, until the shocking reveal that coined one of the best phrases in movie history.
It turns out that being deceptive visually has other advantages, too. Horror still remains one of the few film genres in which something truly effective can be produced with minimal equipment and minimal funds. If you want to make a superhero movie for an audience today then you're going to need a massive budget for on-screen effects, but you could film an effective horror-movie with a mobile phone (or a camcorder, a la The Blair Witch project, which cost $60,000 to produce). Horror is about unease, shock and the fear of death; principles that don't require a big-budget or a convoluted plot to convey, and when it works, it really works (a la, The Blair Witch Project, which made nearly $250,000,000 at the box-office).
A Slow Build
In order for a horror film to be really good, the scene needs to be set and tension needs to mount. Time spent building up to events is also important time the audience needs in order to create a bond with the key characters, because it's very hard to scare an audience if they don't feel a degree of honest empathy for the individual dealing with the situation they're witnessing on-screen. Good characters, dialogue and direction lead to an instinctive level of empathy; when someone's getting chased by an axe-wielding guy in a mask we need to be on the edge of our seats, fingernails bare, desperately willing the ill-fated character to stop stumbling about the place and run away properly.
Because so much is often kept hidden from view in the early stages of a horror film, sound is used a lot to instil unease. We've all watched films where the creaking of a door or the suggestion of a footstep in a quiet scene can raise the hairs on the back of our necks as we tense, half in fear and half in excitement, for any potential scare that may occur. It goes without saying that the musical score itself often plays a huge role in supporting what we're seeing on-screen. Films like Halloween and The Exorcist are classic examples of this, both featuring fantastically unsettling and highly memorable musical motifs that add weight to the tension we feel as an audience.
Now we get to the meat and potatoes of the subject, the defining feature of many movies: the villain. A good performance, good direction and clever writing all go a long way to produce something memorable and frightening. There's a tonne of excellent horror characters to choose from, but here are some of our favourites!
The Trick or Treater
The original terror in a boiler-suit, Michael Myers in John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), is frightening because, despite his terrifying will, he never talks and he never seems to rush or exert any energy (how fast or strong is he?). But a massive component of his fear-factor is that we can't see his face. What's going on behind the mask; is he grimacing? Is he struggling with what he's doing or trying to fight it? Or, more sinister perhaps, like the mask, maybe there's no expression at all. Also scary is his weapon of choice, the kitchen-knife. Most all of us have a similarly innocuous item, stored safely away in a drawer or knife-block in the room most often called 'the heart of the home', ready to chop up some tomatoes... or be wielded against us by a cold, animalistic, psychopathic, home-invading manifestation of pure evil. Yeah, maybe just stick to tinned tomatoes!
The Happy Camper
Jason Voorhees's size and presence make him a formidable and frightening opponent and the ongoing question as to his mortality, or lack of it (like Myers), is a somewhat open subject, although many do choose to believe that Jason is indeed undead. Another character that has seen many sequels, reboots and remakes, Jason's presence and myth seems to evolve over time.
Again, like Myers, Jason's most famous appearances see him making use of a mask, although his signature hockey mask doesn't appear until the third instalment of the film franchise. Famously, Jason's role in the original Friday The 13th is incredibly short and the character is brought more to life by Alice's asking about him at the end of the film than by any on-screen action.
The Dancing Clown
Pennywise is another firm favourite and he's seen a strong resurgence in popularity after Bill Skarsgard's excellent portrayal in the recent 2017 IT remake. There's no doubt that the recent film is a good bit scarier than the 1990 version, but Tim Curry's Pennywise is still recognised as a fantastic horror villain and a genuine example of an actor really taking the effort to try and make a character more three-dimensional. But why is Pennywise so scary? Well, for one thing, he's a clown, and did any normal kid ever find clowns funny or charming? So that's creepy right off the bat. What makes him even freakier is that we come to realise that It isn't a clown at all, we don't even know what It is, just that it chooses to manifest itself as a clown a lot of the time. I guess that's why it's really called It.
Perhaps the scariest horror character concept of them all belongs to Freddy Kreuger. A child-murderer, burned alive for his sins but allowed, through some cruel twisting of time and space, to prey on young people through their dreams. Probably the most recognisable villain in the whole genre, donned in his trademarked striped red and green jumper and wearing a brown fedora, Freddy's most famous prop has to be his home-made, knife fingered glove. This terrifyingly cruel looking device was apparently made prior to his re-incarnation as a dream-haunting monster, though it might be better to not imagine what for.
Freddy isn't a quietly unstoppable force, like the Jason's or the Michael Myers's of the horror genre, choosing instead to revel in what he does, regularly cracking jokes and teasing his victims. His methods of killing are creatively conceived and overly gory -he's a guy that obviously enjoys his work. It's that whole 'dreams' thing that makes him so horrible though, that after you've run, after you've come to terms with the crazy situation you're in and realised you're on your own (because who could possibly believe that a deceased child-murderer is trying to kill you in your dreams?), eventually, no matter what drugs you take, no matter how hard you try, you're going to doze off, and what's waiting for you in sleep is going to be much, much worse than anything you might have had to face in the conscious world; there aren't any rules in dreams...
Nightmare On Elm Street Director, Wes Craven, has said of the glove that he conceived the idea for it while exploring ideas for possible deep-seated fears that could be buried inside the human psyche. One such fear was of early-man being torn out of caves and shelters by the frightful claws of large hunting bears, a situation that he recalled reading about. Further to this point is the instinctive knowledge of just how fragile a shield we possess -our skin- and just how diabolical it can become for us if this shield is cut open. This last, he believes, is why so many classic horror films boil down to a simple cutting tool of one sort or another.
The Unexpected Hero
Occasionally, very occasionally, it isn't the monster or the villain that gets the glitz and the glamour, once in a while the hero gets a piece of the action, as in Sam Raimi's Evil Dead (1981). Ash Williams, is thrown into a hellish situation as a stay in an abandoned cabin with his friends unexpectedly turns into a fight to survive the night. After his hapless pals discover an archaeologist's notes and recordings taken from an alternate version of the Book of the Dead, a truly evil and demonic force is brought into this world. Though overly diplomatic and quite harmless at the film's beginning, Ash has to find within himself the resolve to survive, whatever the cost, in a character journey that continues and expands as the films sequels progress. Ash, played by Bruce Campbell, is probably best known for his chainsaw-clad right hand, and also for his 'Boomstick'.
Interest in the original Evil Dead films has seen a resurgence over the last few years, due to the success of Ash Vs Evil Dead (2015), a series based in the same universe as the movies and largely following on from their events. The series was a horror-comedy and, although eventually cancelled after 3 seasons, managed to build up cult-status within its circle of fans.
We hope you've enjoyed our little trip down horror-memory lane. Don't forget to check out our awesome collection of figures, busts and toys from all of the above movies and characters, plus a lot more we didn't have the space to include here. We've got everything from high-quality cold-cast resin statues and even a few great prop replicas, ready to display, collect and enjoy.
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