Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Can You Make An Animated Horror Film?

I wonder if you can make an animated horror movie? I mean, obviously, you can... but can you make it sufficiently scary that it works as a horror movie? I think so.

At the outset, let’s point out that a great many cartoons do end up scaring kids. There has long been criticism of classic Disney films for scaring children. I don’t accept the criticism because dealing with things which scare you is part of growing up and learning to separate real fears from fake fears and deal with all of our fears appropriately is a necessary part of life. But that is neither here nor there. For while those films may scare children, scaring children is easy as they haven’t yet fully grasped the difference between the real world and make believe. Scaring adults is different and those films don’t scare adults.

So the next question is has there ever been a truly scary cartoon? I can’t honestly think of one. Cartoons are generally aimed at kids and, thus, tend not to really try to scare very much. And those that are aimed at adults tend either to be violent and/or sexual, and aren’t really aimed at producing emotions so much as they are aimed at seeming “cool.”
Anyways, the key word here is emotions. We’ve seen that animated films are very capable of bringing out emotions. Obviously, we know they can make you laugh. But think about the opening of Up and you will see an amazing range of emotion, with the strongest being a deep sadness or sorrow. Bambi produced the same thing, as did the episode “Jurassic Bark” in Futurama. Clearly, happiness and sadness can both be achieved by cartoons. And if we can bring happiness and sadness, then it’s obvious that cartoons are capable of getting people to see these characters as real even though they are obviously just drawings. That suggests that we can achieve fear as well.
Indeed, we have come close at least once that I am aware... at least as far as tension. In 1978, they made Lord of the Rings as an animated film. This film was largely done with live action which was then rotoscoped into appearing animated. Then main characters were hand drawn like normal animation and added to the action. The result was a dark and effective film which gave you a lot of tension and a lot of believability. In fact, in some ways, this film was stronger than the Jackson films (Jackson, by the way, initially denied having ever seen the 1978 film, but later admitted that he had and then claimed that some of the things he stole from that film were an “homage”... an homage to a film he repeatedly denied ever seeing). This again suggests that we can create fear.

So what would it take to make an effective animated horror film? Well, for one thing, I think you would need the animation to be more realistic and life-like and less cartoon-like than normal because you need to strip away the safety that comes with being able to laugh at the characters because of the way they are drawn. I think you also need to avoid anime or the 1950's comic book style, both of which scream “animated.” Similarly, you need to avoid the other excesses that get nerds everywhere to go “cool!”, like splattering blood and strange effects. In effect, you need to avoid anything that screams: “animated!”

Secondly, you would need a strong character-story. This would be essential because that is what pulls you into the story: caring about the characters. It’s no coincidence that most of the best horror movies involve strong character stories.

Third, I think you would need to go for menace and tense rather than outright horror. In effect, you would need to scare the audience throughout as we discussed with Paranormal Activity rather than lining up a complicated plot with a single payoff. It would also be wise to restrain yourself from the desire to draw creepy monsters. Monsters almost always end up looking silly and injuring horror films, and adding a cartoon monster would probably make that doubly so... stick with eyes and shadows.

So what do you think? Do you think it can be done? Any other conditions you would add? Any conditions you would change? Any scary cartoons you can name?


tryanmax said...

Menace, tension, or disturbing, I'd say. A lot of the very early cartoons, especially out of Fleischer studios, have a very unsettling effect. And in those cases, they are extremely cartoony, not realistic at all.

I think #1 is having a good character-story. Something that can really make the viewer question what they think they know. That's how you get into people's heads where the real terror lies.

And, there's nothing that says you can't do a pop-scare in animation. It's cheap, but used right, it's not a cheat.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Agreed. A lot of the early cartoons do have a dark edge to them that is unsettling. Snow White is a great example. So I think you can do menace, tension and disturbing. And that's more than half the battle. If you can unsettle people, then it's just a matter of digging a little deeper.

In that regard, I agree that the character-story is key. You need to get people to stop seeing it as a cartoon and instead become really interested and concerned in what is happening to the characters. Same thing in regular movies.

Agree on the shock factor too. I would just say avoid unreal things like blood splatters or impossible fight scenes.

Backthrow said...

The late Satoshi Kon (TOKYO GODFATHERS, PAPRIKA) made a fairly successful animated suspense/horror film, PERFECT BLUE (1998). Here's one man's opinion (I'm not him). Kon's art style is a great deal more realistic than what's generally thought of as anime.

Another, earlier attempt at a serious/scary cartoon was UPA's adaptation of Poe's THE TELL-TALE HEART (1953). It's reasonably creepy, although potential scares are perhaps blunted by UPA's preoccupation with then-modern design, but it still shows what can be done when Hollywood cartoon-makers put aside cutesy/funny considerations and try to make something serious and disturbing.

Kit said...

Pinocchio. Donkey Transformation.

Kit said...

On creepy monsters, I think Spirited Away's "No-Face" was scary largely because it was so weird. In fact, a lot of the creatures/spirits in that movie were.
I think animation would help you here because you can simply go all out in creating some of the weird as heck creatures unbound by the limitations of live-action.

No Face
No-Face later in movie

JS said...

The computer animated "Final Fantasy" was a very bad movie, plot-wise, but the creatures that invaded Earth were horrifying.

If anyone can make a frightening animated movie, my bet would beon Gullermo del Toro. Hevalreay uses a lotof CGI

Anthony said...

As a gamer I'd say yes. Games like The Last of Us, The Walking Dead and Silent Hill 1-3 and Siren were very good at horror.


For example, in Siren there is a scene where a little girl is seeking to escape monsters. Eventually she gets cornered by one and passes out from fright. Then she wakes up and she's in a different place and monsters are everywhere, but they aren't as attentive to her as they once were. She finds her parents but then you see through her parent's eyes that the little girl is a mutilated corpse, and that something massive has followed her to them.

I could talk about moments like that in a lot of horror games. Visually most horror games opt for the look of Western graphic novels (kind of realistic, though it won't be confused with reality) though The Walking Dead boasted cell shaded graphics.

I haven't seen a good animated horror movie (sorry, Dead Space) perhaps because for Western moviegoers animation tends not to get any more serious than superheroes (there are no mainstream equivalents of Grave of the Fireflies).

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, That's interesting. I've never heard of either, but they are intriguing. From the video, the Poe thing is a bit too stylized, but an excellent attempt. "Perfect Blue" looks intriguing. I'll have to check that one out.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I haven't seen Spirited Away, so I can't comment on that. As for Pinocchio, that's an example of one that disturbs kids, but doesn't do much for adults.

AndrewPrice said...

JS, Final Fantasy had some excellently creepy images and moments. The skeleton in the skyscraper, the creatures, and the idea that these things rip out your soul are all good. It's too bad they turned it into a silly anti-military diatribe.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, On Siren, wow! That's creepy just thinking about!! And I think that would be creepy whether or not it's animated.

I get the feeling that this would be very possible, but no one seems to have done it yet. I'll bet that the first person to do this would probably have a major hit on their hands. I can't speak to the second, but the novelty value would score major points.

KRS said...

Since you used the "Monster House" pic, I get to dump on the movie. What a disappointment. It had a great trailer that suggested a comedic horror and I bought the stupid DVD, expecting to have a good laugh over it with the kids. Problem was that, even with the sight gags, it was genuinelyy trying to be an animated horror flick and they just screwed it up. So you got something that wasn't tense, wasn't funny and wasn't scary. It was, however, torturous, which is probably why it bombed at the box office.

Ugh, what a deuce of a movie.

I think you're right, Andrew, "Up" is not the only animated feature that can wrest powerful emotions within minutes, but it is certainly the best example. This dog can hunt, but the director has to be restrained and methodical in building to the moment. I think that long build up to seeing "the creature" as in "Predator," "Signs," et al, is really critical for an animated horror.

Also, the director should know that horror - or at least a good scare is his objective - what was Spielberg thinking?

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, I only saw part of Monster House, but I had the same reaction -- not funny, not scary, not anything really.

Glad you agree. :) There have been quite a few cartoons that have brought out a nice range of emotions, so I think it's very possible. I think, as you say, the key will be that the director realizes their goal is to scare you. And, of course, it will help if they understand what scares people.

And I totally agree that what you don't show would be critical in making a cartoon horror story work. I think that's true generally, but it's even more true in animation where you are already struggling to maintain the realistic feel. I would suggest glimpses and suggestions of the monster/creature actually... eyes in the darkness, shadows in a crowd, that sort of thing.

I'll tell you, I wish I could make animated films because it would be interesting to see if we could pull this off!

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. On Spielberg, he always goes for cute at some point in his films these days... always. And that ruins any sort of tense mood.

Tennessee Jed said...

Of course they can make a good animated horror story. Honestly, just get a good story, and animate it well. Since you used early Disney, consider "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" ..... maybe an adult is not truly frightened by Brahm Bones with th flaming Pumpkin Head, but you can't tell me the judicious use of animation and music as Ichabod sets out on his fateful ride, doesn't create an appropriate mood. Or, some of the scenes from Fantasia (think the scorcorer's apprentice/night on Bald Mountain sequence.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Disney definitely has created some tense moments and some scary images. To my mind, they have never cross the line into generating adult fear, but I think they could have done it if they had wanted to. It really would be interesting to see someone try.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - I didn't mean to imply Disney had done things to actually scare adults. Rather, they definitely had that capability, and I agree with your premise .... it could be done.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, That's how I understood your comment. :) And I agreed. Disney's done some great work, and certainly would have been capable of it if anyone is.

Kit said...

"As for Pinocchio, that's an example of one that disturbs kids, but doesn't do much for adults."

Well, I'm 23 and it freaks me out. (Shudders)

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, LOL! Ok. Let me rephrase, "most adults." :)

Voz said...

Years ago when I was around 10, we borrowed a set of old animated Sherlock Holmes videos or reel to reels from our local library...watching them when I was young there were some parts that were scary...probably not anymore that I'm an adult but I wish I could find them again to see them. I do remember liking them.

Kit said...


Just watch it. Jesus Christ!

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, LOL! I don't even know how to respond. LOL!

AndrewPrice said...

Voz, I'm not familiar with those, but I'm sure they generated pretty good tension at least. The Holmes stories are never particularly scary, but they are always tense.

Critch said...

Given the right animators and the right storyline and I'm sure you could make an animated movie that scares the Bejezus out of peoples. I'm starting to think that some books could only be animated to bring to the screen everything in the book. My favorite idea is an animated The Stars My Destination. With as much CG as modern films have, it's only a small step to get rid of the human actors.

AndrewPrice said...

Critch, I've downloaded "The Stars My Destination," but I haven't had a chance to read it yet.

I think you might be right that some books really can only be done through animation. There are just some things you can't do with live action. Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy might be one of those as well.

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