Hello, my name is Nick and I know more about horror movies than you do. If you want to debate who’s a better Dracula: Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee, or what’s more brutal: ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ or ‘Let them Die slowly’, or who’s better? Argento or Fulci’? then let me know. But keep in mind that if you disagree with me, you’re wrong.
I’m writing this to talk about what makes a horror movie work, and what makes it fail. A horror movie doesn’t have to cost a lot to get made and get noticed. A horror fan’s DVD collection is full of classics that were made by unknowns for very little money. ‘The Evil Dead’, ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, ‘Phantasm’, are all American films made by folks like you and I with the help of some trusted friends.
But, for every ‘Night of the Living Dead’ there are dozens of unwatchable stinkfests that the world can’t wait to forget. Hopefully the following notes will help you avoid being one of them.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE!
We horror fans are crazy. We’ll passionately debate for hours why ‘The Haunting’ is the scariest movie ever, or how ‘Maniac’ is more depraved than ‘Don’t go into the house’. We love to be scared, shocked, grossed out, to laugh, and we all hate M. Night Shyamalan, PG-13 re-makes, and ‘sci-fi channel original movies’. We’ve seen it all and you’re not going to fool us. Give us something good and we’ll treasure it all our lives, give us a ‘Prom Night’ remake and we’ll rally outside your house like the angry villagers at the end of ‘Frankenstein’.
WHAT SCARES YOU?
Everyone is scared of something, and your best bet is to exploit your own uneasy obsessions on the screen for maximum success. Cronenberg has channeled the fear of defilement and decay of the flesh into several classics [‘The Fly’, ‘videodrome’], Jose Mojica Marins came up with his classic ‘Coffin Joe’ after a series of haunting nightmares. Eli Roth’s childhood illness eventually gave the world ‘Cabin Fever’. Spend some time thinking about what makes you uneasy…and start writing it down.
INFLUENCE VS. PLAGURISM
I love ‘Ichi the Killer’, Friday the 13th’, and ‘The New York Ripper’ as much as the next guy, but I don’t need to see you try to remake them (and no, putting a bunny mask on the killer doesn’t make you’re slasher movie any different in the long run). There’s nothing wrong with influence or even homage, but make sure you’re doing something original. The German silent expressionistic horror films influenced the look and feel of the later Universal horror movies, which in turn influenced the great Mexican horror films of the fifties. These in turn influenced the British Hammer films in the sixties and seventies, and all of this had influence on the great horror films of Spain made by Paul Naschy, Amando de Ossorio, and Carlos Aured. Each and every one of these movements had their own unique voice. Make sure you have yours when the camera starts rolling.
IS IT NEW? IS IT INTERESTING?
Like I said, make sure you know where your influences end and where you begin. If you want to make a slasher movie, go right ahead. Just make sure you’ve watched every similar movie out there. I once made the mistake of thinking I was using a clever edit throughout a movie (a fade to white! How novel!) until I started watching ‘Six feet under’ and realized (as my blood pressure dropped) that they’d been doing it for four years, and that I just looked like a jerk in the end. So before you think ‘huh, a zombie western! It’s never been done before!’ Do some research to find that it’s been done several times before and that they all sucked.
OR HAS IT BEEN DONE TO DEATH?
No artist likes to think in terms of marketing, but the reality is that certain trends come and go in film. Should you try to follow a trend? Heck no, but be aware that some sub-genres are done to death and are essentially a dry well. Did you have a great idea for a zombie movie? Then you better be willing to wait a few years until it passes. Danny Boyle brought back the zombie movie (despite ’28 Days Later’ not really being a zombie movie.) and we’ve seen some great stuff in the last few years: ‘Shawn of the Dead’, ‘Land of the Dead’, ‘Fido’….and unfortunately enough crap to clog a hundred toilets. ‘Saw’ (despite being a terrible movie) and the great ‘Hostel’ gave birth to the ‘torture porn’ trend. Were ‘Saw’ and ‘Hostel’ torture porn? No, torture porn was the glut of studio produced movies that came spilling out of the floodgate afterwards by people who didn’t know what horror fans wanted, but wanted to make money off of them. Also, if you’re thinking ‘but I came up with my idea, or even shot my movie before that similar movie came out!’ Well, too bad. That well has been poisoned, or that movie blew yours out of the water. Either way, you’re going to have to either A: sit on your film for a few years, or B: accept the fact that you’re now shooting for distribution based on your movie being a knock off.
WHAT DO DISTRIBUTORS WANT?
Distributors will say that they want vampire movies, or monster movies, or gore movies, or that gore movies are dead, but they want funny horror, or, as they’ve said time and time again, that ‘Horror is dead!’ Here’s the thing: distributors have no idea what they’re looking for until they find it. They just want it to be good. Is it scary? (think ‘the Others’), is it gory? (Rob Zombie, Eli Roth anyone?), is it gross, but funny? (the great James Gunn’s ‘Slither’). No one could have predicted the success of ‘Cabin Fever’, which Eli Roth spent years soliciting to studios…..but once it was independently financed and seen, the distributors went to war over it. Make it and make it good and they’ll buy it.
WHAT IS THE FILMS INTENTION?
Do you want to scare or do you want to shock? Do you want to horrify or do you want to amuse? You need to decide these things before you get past the first draft of a script. Are you going for a truly scary movie? Do you want to creep out your audience and send shivers up their spine? Do you want to present a Troma style horror comedy? Or do you want to go for a blood-soaked gorefest? Then there are some things you need to plan ahead of time.
ATMOSPHERE: MORE THAN JUST A SMOKE MACHINE
What is atmosphere? It’s not just the thing you’re helping destroy with your gas guzzling SUV, it’s also the look and feel of the movie. For a great lesson on atmosphere, watch ‘Night of the Werewolves’ (or ‘El noche de Hombre Lobo’ for our Spanish speakers) you could almost cut the atmosphere with a knife. The combination of the art design, lighting, and location must mesh to create the feeling of loneliness and isolation in the field that’s ten feet away from a busy highway if needed.
KEEP THE CAMERA OPERATOR WORKING!
I couldn’t begin to count the number of awful horror movies that I’ve seen that look like they were lit with a flashlight and shot by a retard. Just because it’s dark and the killer is going to jump out at the sorority girls, that doesn’t give the DP the day off because you think content alone creates scare. Watch any great horror movie and pay attention to the way the camera moves; Kubrick’s slow push-in/push outs in ‘The Shining’, the tracking shots in ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, or the crazy visuals in ‘The Evil Dead’. Just because you’re making a shock film, don’t think you can get away with being visually boring.
ACTING: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE GARY BUSSEY
If you’re going for a serious feel where an actor needs to convince us that there are ghosts scratching at the bathroom door while they’re on the toilet, then you’re going to need good actors. Heck, good enough that you may end up having to actually pay them. If you can only get your cousin Gary and the kid with the lazy eye who keeps showing up in your backyard to be in your movie, then you may want to skip making your adaptation of ‘The Tell-tale Heart’. If you’re making your over the top monster fighter movie, make sure you’ve got a charismatic Bruce Campbell or Jeffery Combs (or if you can’t get them, I’m always available!) or if all else fails, can you afford Gary Bussey for a day? Put him in one scene then put his name on the poster and DVD case. Can’t afford Gary Bussey? How about his cousin? It was a longstanding tradition in the seventies and eighties to use a big name actor’s untalented relatives to upsell a movie. Lucio Fulci’s ‘Zombie’ (aka ‘Zombi 2’, aka ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’) features Tisa Farrow, Mia’s sister; and Dario Argento and Michel Soavi’s ‘The Sect’ features Jamie Lee Curtis’s less skilled sister, Kelly!
SPECIAL FX: THE LOWER INTESTINE MONEY SHOT.
What motivates the FX shots? Does it work to continue the emotional core of the story? Does it simply come out of nowhere to make up for the lack of story? Are guts and blood all there is? Is it just gore porn, or does it have a point? Watch any movie made by Dario Argento before 1990 to see how it should be done. Or do you plan on making it scary, not gory? Robert Wise’s ‘The Haunting’ was made of pure atmosphere and tension. ‘Alien’ never really showed the monster until the end, and we never, ever got a good look at the werewolf in the criminally underrated ‘Howling V’. Just remember that FX are like the green chili on a Mexican dish. Very important and terrible if done wrong….and they never make up for the dish itself being bad.
BOOBIES, HUMPING, AND OTHER VERY GROWN UP THINGS
Let’s be honest, sex sells. Going to have the witch chained to the wall while being judged by the inquisition? Why not have her top torn off by the grand inquisitor? To be repetitious with the food metaphors, topless and sex scenes are the ketchup and mustard to horrors hamburger…..and lesbianism is it’s hot sauce. They should be used to A: sell DVDs, and B: add flavor to the overall look, feel, and rhythm of the movie. It shouldn’t be gratuitous and out of nowhere. Are you setting up sex scenes that disrupt the narrative? Is the narrative so terrible that you need the boobs and gore to distract from the fact that the script was written over a weekend while huffing paint?
GO FORTH AND DIE!
To sum up this long, long rant (should anyone still be reading) it’s important to remember that no one ever wants to make a mediocre movie. Every horror fan remembers watching ‘Nosferatu’ when they were ten and couldn’t sleep for a week. They remember sneaking the copy of ‘Evil Dead II’ or ‘Re-Animator’ to the sleep over when you were twelve and drinking a case of Jolt Cola while watching them until dawn. What a horror film maker needs to remember is that nothing is safe, there are no rules, and that you must make your movie with the same intention as you would when throwing a rock through the Principal’s window. You’re taking on the world and you’ve got to have the courage to come out swinging if you’re going to win.