Tis the season for scary movies, and thinking about scary movies. TCM in October is practically a joygasm of horror classics from Hammer, Val Lewton, Universal and others, and it got me thinking back... way back... In fact, by internet standards I'm engaging in a little palaeontology.
Here is a piece I wrote almost 10 years ago for Film Threat about the ingredients of a good scary movie...
INSTANT SCARY MOVIE... JUST ADD WATER(2003-10-29)Halloween’s around the corner kiddies, time to dust off the old video chestnuts that used to scare the knickers off you when you were a kid. Yep, I’m talking about horror movies. Scary movies are enjoying a bit of a renaissance in popularity. Now, I’ve studied horror films, being a fan my entire life, and I think I’ve hit on what can only be called a recipe for a good scary movie. All you studio suits should take heed; you don’t want to kill the golden goose with lackluster to downright awful sequels the way you did in the 80s.
Here are your ingredients…
1. Low Budget: Don’t spend too much money on making the movie. If you do it will look too slick and slick is fine if you’re a studio exec, bad if you’re supposed to be scaring people. Ditch the digital FX and the oversized sets. Keep it simple, and keep it looking as realistic as possible. That will make the unreality more chilling and disturbing.
2. Unknown Stars: Nobody’s going to believe that a big, overpaid star is going to be in any conceivable danger. Hell, just by looking at the ads for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, I knew that TV vixen Jessica Biel was going to be the survivor, hence, I don’t have to shell out to see it now. Scary movies rely on uncertainty and you aren’t gonna get that if your star just walked off a Maxim cover. Your cast needs to be unknown, without any preconceived image hanging over them. They can be good looking, but don’t push it, or you’ll be doing a Calvin Klein ad with blood-spray rather than a horror movie.
3. Characters: They can’t be too dumb, or you’ll alienate the audience. Having them split up in the dark woods when there’s a maniac on the loose is just lazy writing. It’s more terrifying when they do all the things the audience is yelling at them to do, and they still meet a horrible fate. Now that’ll take some skill and imagination, but the pay-off will be worth it.
4. Style: Don’t just point and shoot like you saw in your film school textbook. Mix it up a little. Be stylish, create atmosphere, and don’t be afraid to try something new. Just don’t go overboard, or you’ll lose your tenuous connection with reality. You’re supposed to be making a scary movie, not a music video.
5. Music: Should be creepy and atmospheric, but don’t go around telegraphing what’s going to happen next. Horror is a combo of dread and surprise and there’s nothing worse than knowing the monster is behind the door because the orchestra’s going nuts.
6. Gore: Allowed, but like in everything, you shouldn’t overdo it. It’s a lot scarier and more disturbing to imply a horrible injury than to actually show it. People see gross and graphic gore every week on "CSI," they’re not scared by it as much anymore, so it’s best to do things just out of sight and let the audience’s imagination run wild. You’ll save money and your audience will be properly freaked out.
7. Story: You need a hook, and not just the one on your killer’s hand. You need to use your imagination and not just rehash what everybody else has done previously, or you might as well be making: "Friday The 13th Part 76: Jason Goes To The Pension Office." Also, don’t pile on those lame-ass scenes where a character hears a noise, goes to check it out, the music builds, there’s a scream, and it’s the damn cat. I see that in a movie and I walk away. If you don’t have the brains to really surprise us, don’t waste our time with the stupid ‘cat take.' Go back to you destined vocation running the take-out window at an Arby’s in Cleveland.
I hope you folks find this little rant educational and illuminating. Hopefully someone will take my advice to heart and make a movie that’ll scare the socks off of its audience. If any of you do, then I deserve 10%, that’s only reasonable isn’t it?
Do any of you have any ingredients to add to this ancient family recipe? Leave them and any other thoughts in the comments.