Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Where Most Horror Films Go Wrong

Horror is an interesting genre. It’s the one that’s most accessible to new talent because it doesn’t rely upon specific formulas, established actors, or huge budgets. It also seems the easiest in which to make a decent film. After all, we all know what scares us, right? Well, not quite. A lot of horror films just fall flat. And where I think they go wrong is that they fail in one specific regard: they don’t understand human psychology.

The reason people like horror films is because they want to be able to face their fears in a safe environment. By watching a movie that triggers their fears, they get a chance to experience their fears without subjecting themselves to the danger that would normally entail, and they are afforded an opportunity to try to master their fears. In a way, this is a survival skill in that it prepares us to handle the moment when our fears suddenly appear in response to something real. This is the same instinct why kids test their fears by standing on a high, unstable place, by venturing into a darkened abandoned building, or by seeking to touch an animal that can easily bring them down in the wild. It’s our way of testing ourselves and learning to tame instincts that could one day undo us if left unmastered.

Knowing this, it should be obvious how to make an effective horror story. Essentially, you consider the things that scare us on an instinctual level and you find ways to let people experience those while they are watching the movie. Indeed, I would argue that with rare exceptions, most of what scares us in horror films has little to do with the plot itself. It is, instead, the presentation.

For example, people are afraid of the dark. . . of the unknown. . . of being alone. . . of cramped spaces. . . of confinement. . . of spaces that are too large to monitor effectively. . . of things that creep up upon us when we are vulnerable or from our blind sides. These are all instinctual fears that can be put to use in any film. Yet, too often, filmmakers seem to ignore these, or they take one and use it to the point of abuse.

Kubrick was genius in his use of space in The Shining. He presented rooms that were so small the characters could barely move their arms. Then he would suddenly throw you into a vast room that was so large that anything could be standing in a corner and you just wouldn’t see it because the room was too big to notice. Or consider the maze-like hallways where anything could be around the corner and how scary that is, or how terrified you feel as Jack enters Room 237 where anything could be waiting for him. Those are brilliant choices. Yet, so many horror movies have their characters run across fields or parks or down city streets, areas that are familiar and feel safe to us.

And don’t forget that humans have any number of fears, such as snakes, insects, and disease, but their fears require more than just showing these things. What terrifies us is the danger they represent to us. So a smart filmmaker will find ways to approximate that danger. Yet, again, so many bad filmmakers use these things in a cartoony fashion or show you a spider climb a wall and them move on with their scene... as if that somehow scares us.

Consider also that the fear of the unknown in this context can be your most powerful aid in making a horror film. The less you show the audience, the more they imagine, and their imagination will by its very nature find the things that terrify them. This is the accidental lesson of Jaws and all the smart films do this: less is more! Yet, so many horror films completely lose their audiences early on because the director can't wait to proudly show off his big toy. It’s sad.

There’s more too. Beyond simple presentation, you have to examine the audience’s other real fears to get to that next level in a horror movie. That requires understanding what really scares people compared to what the conventional wisdom thinks scares people. For example, soldiers have long reported that one of the greatest fears in war is not the fear of death, but the fear of permanent maiming and disability. Some of the best Twilight Zone episodes dealt with this fear, just as some of the best horror films have dealt with a form of this through the damaging of the human soul either as ghosts or possession. Yet, most horror films revel in the kill because that's what the conventional wisdom says is the worst thing that can happen to you. But the problem with the kill is that once it happens, the horror ends for us and we forget that character.

Other common fears include making a disastrous choice, facing an impossible choice, having our failings exposed and not being up to the moment when it finally comes. There is much to exploit here, especially among secondary characters. Yet, the temptation in modern horror films is to have several throwaway moronbeciles to use as cannon fodder. That is a totally wasted opportunity. Rather than warming up the audience to their insecurities, these characters become comic relief. Ask yourself: do you think The Exorcist would have been better if Father Karras was comic relief to warm up the audience for the main match with Father Merrin?

Finally, when it comes to plot, remember that humans are creatures of habit and patterns. We find comfort in those things. And when you give them what they expect, you reduce the horror. A horror film should always shatter their comfort level and keep them tense. Do you think it’s a coincidence that The Exorcist and The Shining are two of the greatest horror movies ever made, and that both involve jarringly unexpected moments to the normal patterns you see in films. . . such as when Father Merrin dies suddenly in The Exorcist or when Hallorann dies the moment he appears to be starting his heroic moment in the sun in The Shining? How about Gregory Peck dying before he finishes his task in The Omen? How about the alien NOT attacking when Brett looks up into the water? Take away the comforting formula, and you tap into that fear of the unknown.

The point is this. Most modern horror movies are made the wrong way: they try to scare you with the stakes contained in the storyline and the outcome of the film, when they should be focusing on the journey itself. The great horror films take advantage of all of our fears to discomfort us, to bring us to the edge of our seats, and to make us close our eyes whether the hero ultimate wins or loses. Watching Danny ride his Big Wheel, or Tom Skerritt panic in the ventilator shaft of the Nostromo, or Linda Blair sitting quietly next to the body of Father Merrin, or Gregory Peck too terrified to speak to his son Damien is where these movies paid off... not in the stakes, not in the outcome. Those are the moments that made you shiver later at night. And notice that everything I discuss above are the things you do apart from the story itself, i.e. they can be done regardless of what the plot maybe. This is how horror films need to be built.

So tell, me what do you think? What other things scare you on film? What doesn't?

36 comments:

Kenn Christenson said...

Let's face it - some people view film making as a sort of factory exercise, while others choose to use the medium, to explore its' story telling possibilities. Unfortunately, the former seems to be increasing in numbers.

AndrewPrice said...

Kenn, Agreed. What amazes me is how so much of "the love" is missing from films these days. So few people seem to really want to go all out and bring a vision they are dying to see brought to life. Instead, so much of what is made today feels like it was made with computer models and profit projections and no one cares about anything except getting it finished... no one goes that extra mile.

Horror is a good example of this where so many people are just copying famous films and then throwing their own twists on the end, and they barely think through anything along the way. They miss amazing opportunities and they produce largely flat films.

Great films are made in the details, not the broad strokes.

AndrewPrice said...

Kenn, I miss the craftsmanship, where you know the guy spent days if not weeks trying to get something minor just right. These days, attention to detail seems to be lost.

Kit said...

I think Doctor Who is the best at making the familiar scary. Of course, that usually involves a jarring twist on the familiar: Such as the weeping angels, statues that can come alive and attack you the moment you are not looking at them.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Doctor Who is not horror. It's aimed at kids, it has a ridiculous hero, and it requires a happy ending... BUT, they have produced some of the best horror stories I've seen in years. The weeping angels, Silence in the Library, the Pit. Very, very impressive.

Tohokari-Steel said...

I found this article to be very interesting. My favorite horror film is John Carpenter's The Thing because it makes a rather scary atmosphere, never shows the monster's actual form, and has characters who are ACTUALLY smart.

ScottDS said...

Yet, so many horror movies have their characters run across fields or parks or down city streets, areas that are familiar and feel safe to us.

I don't know... a good filmmaker could make any environment scary. After all, The Shining still takes place in a hotel. Kubrick just shoots the hell out of it. :-)

And one of the most iconic horror scenes of all time takes place in a shower, an environment that we're all familiar with.

tryanmax said...

Scott, There is something to be said for making the comfortable uncomfortable. But it requires more than just setting the scene there. Furthermore, the shower scene you reference wasn't the character's familiar home shower. It was a strange motel shower. So there was a unique mix of a place that normally feels comfortable, except it was within another place that feels strange. Plus, up to that point in the movie, the audience expects the victim to be the main character, only to have that ripped away. When you step back, you realize there is a lot more going on than a simple shower murder.

Also, there are a lot of us who are not particularly comfortable in hotels or motels. Heck, I moved into a new apartment two weeks ago and I haven't had a good night sleep yet because all the light switches are in the wrong place and I have to turn left instead of right to get into the kitchen! Unfamiliar surroundings are maybe not a fear, but the are a common source of discomfort.

ScottDS said...

Hmm... perhaps it's worth noting a difference between "familiar" and common." To use Psycho as the example, a shower is common for all of us, but THAT shower wasn't familiar to Marion.

To the best of my knowledge. I've never had a comfort problem with hotels, but it's always weird to see local news anchors who aren't your own when you turn on the TV. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Tohokari-Steel, Thanks! I totally agree about The Thing. Carpenter is excellent at creating a creepy environment centered around isolation, the unknown and suffering rather than just a clean death. It is a terrifying film in many ways. And he's smart enough not to try to wave the monster in your face because he knows that won't work. And you are right, the characters are very smart, which gives the film a real feel which so many horror films don't have because their characters spend their time doing stupid things to set up the next kill.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think you've missed my point. Would you feel safer running away from something down the middle of a street or through an open park OR racing through a labyrinth where you can't see what's ahead of you?

As for the shower, we are familiar with showers, but you don't feel super safe in a shower either. Everyone has at times felt that fear that someone was just beyond the curtain. The issue is finding things that trigger fears people already feel and putting them on film.

As for The Shining being "just a hotel," that not at all correct. Kubrick picked a hotel that is hardly common and hardly comforting... it's creepy, and he made it worse through very clever camera work. He made the big rooms seem vast and made the edges fuzzy so you can't see what might be lurking, then he would flip you into a tiny room to make you claustrophobic, then he would send you down mazes. He uses space, perception and the unknown brilliantly. He did not just shoot a hotel.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott and tryanmax, The issue is finding things that make people uncomfortable or which scare them. Take the shower example. Who hasn't been in the shower, home alone, when they thought they heard something. The natural human reaction at that point is a fear reaction because you don't know who or what it is and you are in a very vulnerable position as you can't run away or defend yourself if it turns out to be a threat.

If you are standing in the middle of the street and the monster appears, you can see it, you can run in 360 degrees to choose your escape route, you can hide behind parked cars, escape into a house, hope someone comes to your rescue. You are well-prepared to protect yourself on a street because human nature makes us more alert in those situations. People are not prepared to escape something like a shower or from the couch if a creature walks up behind them. The idea is to catch people in a state where they would panic rather than knowing how they would respond... that is what creates terror.

PikeBishop said...

Kubrick' "Shining" sucks!

AndrewPrice said...

Pike, LOL! You're one of those, are you? ;-P

PikeBishop said...

As a fan of the book I hate Jack Nicholson's over the top, served with a slice of pineapple, interpretation of the character with blazing fury of a 1,000 suns.

AndrewPrice said...

I enjoy both actually.

El Gordo said...

To me, horror at its most abstract is order being subverted by chaos. Order is fragile, precious and often taken for granted. Horror is when we feel chaos tearing down the ramparts. Chaos is death, sickness, monsters, the devil, irrational and senseless.

How a horror movie handles the "order" aspect is just as important as how it handles the monster. The Exorcist is absolutely perfect in that regard.

But too many filmmakers today side with chaos. They seem to be fascinated by the evil, the monster. It´s where all the fun is. They have no love for order. They are cynical about normality and innocence. They don´t care about the victims. It may be entertaining but it is not true horror. If you feel that the filmmakers are cheering the monster on ... not horror.

As much as I love The Thing or The Shining, they would be even stronger if they established a sense of normalcy first. In The Thing, the characters are already somewhat dysfunctional. There is no authority, no sense of purpose, no friendship, no feelings. Typical 1970s cynicism. Very different from Hawks´ classic. In The Shining, Jack Torrance is creepy Jack Nicholson from the start. When we first see him, he is ready to submit to the Overlook. Again, very different from the book.

Carpenter later did Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness. These are very scary to me because they give us a great sense of the normal being subverted.

AndrewPrice said...

El Gordo, Very insightful! I'm a huge believer that good is order and evil is chaos. Evil is a disruption of a constructive state of being where people go about their lives happily and are free to build their futures. And I absolutely agree that this is key to a horror movie, and that movies that side with the breakdown tend to fail as horror movies.

The Exorcist is a great example of this on several levels. Not only do you get to see the normal state of being long before the demon appears (so you understand what is at stake and you come to like the characters), but the goal of the demon is to disrupt and destroy these lives. It has a classic purpose that we recognize as evil and it doesn't become silly because it's not over the top. Moreover, it is Father Merrin's own lack of faith, i.e. his own momentary surrender to evil, which opens the door to the demon getting a foothold on him, and it's his regaining of that faith, i.e. his triumph, which gives him the strength to defeat the demon. This is brilliantly handled.

By comparison, a lot of the later exorcism films that followed end up repeating the Merrin story pro forma without depth or substance (it becomes filler) and then they revel in making the demon the lead character. And rather than having a chilling story about evil, you get a goofy story about some actor overacting as he spits out curse words in Latin and clings to the ceiling.

On Carpenter, I don't mind the dysfunction in The Thing because I think it helps to explain why they aren't more trusting and cohesive. I also think it fits with the sense of cabin fever that you can imagine occurring.

As for Prince of Darkness, that is my favorite horror film ever. The idea is phenomenal and it's so well executed. Again, Carpenter uses space perfectly, he uses things like silence and unnatural behaviors like staring to creep you out. He uses isolation and fear of things worse than death. And all of that surrounds the plot itself and raises it to a higher level. Add to that an original and very strong idea -- evil is real and we have wrongly assumed it was just a theoretical idea -- and you get a brilliant, terrifying film.

I do agree on The Shining that it would have been stronger if Jack had been more normal in the opening.

Critch said...

You hit on most of my favorites, The Exorcist, Jaws and Alien. All are prime examples of how to do it. Horror is intersting that sometimes horroris a sideline. The Stalking Moon, starring Gregory Peck may be a western, but it shares many of the attributes of a horror film; excellent suspense and never knowing what is about to happen...sometimes nothing happens,,right away. Alien and Jaws both also work because the characters, victims if you will, are not only battling something but they have a very hostile environemnt waitng for them, even if they do survive. The Exorcist is a good example of minimalist movie-making, sparse special effects and lots of good buildup of the characters...you really identify with the mother, daughter and the priest who isn't sure he believes. From a personal viewpoint I do believe in Satan and demons as entities...it's in my realm of possibility.

ScottDS said...

In response to El Gordo's comment, that's also why Poltergeist works so damn well. I think we spend nearly an entire day with the family before weird things happen (the opening with the snow on the TV notwithstanding).

AndrewPrice said...

Critch, I agree. These are prime examples of how to do it, it's just too bad that more people don't really think through why these work. For example, people know from Jaws that you don't show the shark until later. Ok, that's good. But they miss all the build up. They miss the way you are pulled into the people's lives and then how little by little the danger ratchets up... you have several scares, you see the drawing of the shark eating the boat, you get the Indianapolis moment. Moments like that story of the Indianapolis just freak you out because it plays on our worst fears of what can happen at sea and it leaves it all in your head to imagine the worst. Only then, when you are primed and the audience has scared itself, does the film kick into high gear.

I totally agree about The Stalking Moon. There is so much tension because the filmmakers realize that tension is what keeps the audience engaged in an action film. You can either do that with constant chases and fights or you can do it more subtly putting the audience into suspense. And one of the most effective ways to do that is to never give the audience quite what they expect. It's like the water scene in Alien. You are on the edge of your seat because you KNOW that the moment he closes his eyes as he looks up into the water, the alien will attack... because that's what always happens. Then it doesn't happen and you actually let your guard down... and then the alien strikes. Brilliant.

In terms of belief, I think that most of us do believe that on some level, whether we admit it or not. And that is what makes them some of the most effective characters to use in horror... you just have to use them right.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, True! And that's why I love that film. You spend the first half of the film just getting to know and really like the family. You laugh with them, you sympathize. You even see the ghost as kind of playful, except that you've been warned a couple times that it's not... so you have this creeping feeling that you can't warn the family of things they haven't seen.

Then it all blows up. Beautifully done.

Critch said...

Many years ago when I was in the Jaycees I helped design and run many haunted houses as a fundraiser for our chapter. One thing we all noticed; spooks, zombies, monsters etc are scary; but, come at someone with a chainsaw or an axe and watch them run. Corral them into a small space and watch them when a switch activated by their weight turns on a lite in a rate cage not 3 inches from their face...(that was my favorite gag). To set up the mood and get the marks uncomfortable we would hang the smallest monofilament line we could from the ceiling, it really made them uncomfortable because in the dark they thought it was spider webs. A good horror movie does this, it builds on little things and sets the audience up. BTW, I was stationed in SoCal when Jaws came out, it really did cause deserted beaches, no one would go in the water.

AndrewPrice said...

Critch, I'm not at all surprised. Things like vampires and werewolves are fantasy dangers, things like rats and snakes and psychos and injuries are real dangers. We intellectually feel the fantasy dangers, but we viscerally feel the real dangers. And you're right, a good horror movie does both. Some of the best horror movies have you terrified long before they even reveal the point of the story to you.

On Jaws, I've heard stories of that, but I never witnessed it as I was too young.

PikeBishop said...

I like that idea of real versus fantasy dangers. I remember feeling it druing Jurassic Park. There was only one scene that really terrified me or made me feel dread?

Guess which one? No not any of the "running from giant dinasaurs" scenes, as my modern brain felt that was ridiculous. There was no way I had to fear being eaten by a 12 to 20 foot tall predator.

Answer: When Wayne Knight comes in contact with that small dinasour, who turns out to be the acid spitter. I could relate to that. To me that was the equivalent of coming face to face with a cougar or a bear in the woods, a much more likely (if still remote) possibility than being chased by a raptor.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, That is probably the most visceral moment in the whole film precisely because, as you note, it feels like it really could happen. All the rest is kind of cartoony and hard to "feel".

AndrewPrice said...

BTW, There won't be a James Bond tonight do to a heavy work schedule at the moment.

T-Rav said...

Well, this would have been fun if my Internet had been working at all today. However, I was watching Paranormal Activity and its sequel earlier this evening, and while I know those movies annoy a lot of people, I think they make good use of the same things you're talking about. There's long pauses where literally nothing is happening on camera, but you know something's coming and you can hear noises approaching, and so your suspense builds and builds, until it comes out of nowhere and AAAH! They didn't really make me jump (okay, maybe once or twice....), but I could see how they freak a lot of people out.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I agree. I've been watching the same thing and it does an excellent job of playing on the kinds of things that scare us and then playing with our expectations to keep you on the edge of your seat. It's a very well done movie.

Rustbelt said...

First, I've got to jump on the bandwagon with PikeBishop and El Gordo when it comes to 'The Shining.' Nicholson's complete lack of character development makes it impossible to sympathize or care about him. You just spend the entire movie shaking your head at the wife and son and repeating the tagline from 'Amityville Horror,' "for God's sake, get out!" You know, I think you could 'George Lucas' the film, replacing Nicholson with another psycho, say Freddy or Jason, and the feel of the film wouldn't change at all.

And second, I must also bow before the greatness of 'the Thing.' I side with Andrew over El Gordo on the early setup because the relationships between men who don't really trust each other is already set and effective. Just because they got hired doesn't mean they're going to like each other.
Now, is it just me, or is Carpenter at his best when he's using material than his own? -such as "The Thing" (based on John Campbell's "Who Goes there?") or "Prince of Darkness" and "In the Mouth of Madness" (both inspired by H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulu Mythos). These days, the man just seems to be out of ideas. I think he'd make a pretty good director for hire, though.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, That is true, it certainly makes you scream at his wife: what are you thinking?!!

Agreed on The Thing. I agree about Carpenter. He was at his best early on when he was working with Debra Hill, under studio supervision (The Fog), and working with more clear ideas. When he started doing things like Vampires and Ghosts of Mars, he really became dull and ineffective.

Backthrow said...

I can't guarantee that it will actually frighten, in the way THE EXORCIST or ALIEN can, but I'd like to take this opportunity to pimp the relatively-unknown, but excellent, BURN WITCH BURN (1962), which TCM is airing this Friday night at 8 pm (EST). Compelling and suspenseful, the film is very well-acted and directed, with a smart script by Richard Matheson (I AM LEGEND, REAL STEEL, DUEL, STIR OF ECHOES, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN) and Charles Beaumont (many classic TWILIGHT ZONE episodes, including "The Howling Man", "Long Distance Call" and "Living Doll"). Anyway, a perfect film for Halloween.

El Gordo said...

Not that I´m down on The Thing. I must have seen it ten times. The Shining, only about five times.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, Matheson is everywhere and I've usually liked films that came from his stories.

AndrewPrice said...

El Gordo, Only 10 times? And you call yourself a fan! ;-P

Backthrow said...

Andrew,

Actually Matheson and Beaumont adapted BURN WITCH BURN from the original story, 'Conjure Wife', by noted sci-fi author Fritz Leiber, but the they did quite well by it. It was also adapted, badly, as a comedy misfire in 1980, WITCHES BREW, with Teri Gar and Richard Benjamin, and earlier as a quickie B movie, WEIRD WOMAN (1944), in the 'Inner Sanctum' series starring Lon Chaney, Jr. The latter isn't bad, but still pales next to the 1962 version.

And then, getting back to horror movies in general, there's this...

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