What Makes A Great Horror Film

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It is October and that means The Halloween Season is upon us! It’s a perfect time to celebrate all that is fun within the macabre. It’s a celebration of everything spooky and it’s impossible for me to think of Halloween without thinking of the incredible film genre that is Horror. Horror film encapsulates the escapism present in this spooky Holiday. It’s a fun and safe way to feel thrills and the adrenaline of being scared without actual repercussions of danger in a similar manner to that of being on a roller coaster. A great horror film can allow an audience to understand the fears we all have, but also deliver a fun experience. Horror is an incredibly difficult genre to master. It’s not easy to create something that is both artistically interesting, but also utterly terrifying and there are many things that have to come together to create a great horror film. While many films don’t reach greatness there are a few through a combination of different traits  that have been able to craft something truly special. There are a lot of things that can make a horror film, but there are certain specifics that I feel are crucial to making a great horror film and seeing as it is the Halloween season it’s no better time to dive into this hair-raising analysis.

Atmosphere

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One of the most important and crucial elements to making horror work is in its atmosphere. Atmosphere is a term that is often thrown around without thought, but in horror it is incredibly important to being successful. In film it ties into the visual elements of production, but it also has crucial part to play. One of the easiest methods in which you see it used is in the time of day. While films have used daylight to a brilliant effect in a lot of horror the go to for setting would be at night. I’m certain when most people think of the genre the first thing that comes to mind is an image of someone alone at night while something is stalking them. This is a common trait often utilized and while some films just fail at this, others succeed. The main reason that this trait persists is because it’s an innate fear, but atmosphere takes more than a dark night to generate something truly creepy. Atmosphere takes into account the ability of the filmmaker to create a sense of uneasiness at almost all times. The sense of foreboding can come in the way a character talks about something, the subtle changes in environment, the drastic changes in a characters arc, the environment they reside in, the accompanying music,, and the knowledge that the audience has that something is going to occur. Atmosphere can refer to all of these elements and they often work off of each other to create an intense and scary tone that can carry a film.

There are a plethora of examples of great films that have used their atmosphere to its benefit. The original Halloween from 1978 is a great example. The film sets up at the beginning that Michael Myers is a dangerous killer and his escape from the mental hospital sets up the tension that the rest of the film follows as the music and his stalking of the characters builds upon. The atmosphere is one of foreboding because we know the dangers of Michael. We know how dangerous he is much more so than the lead characters and their deaths don’t happen immediately, but after the atmosphere has built so that you never know when Michael will appear and where he will appear. In another example the original Exorcist  the demonic force is intentionally left vague in the early parts of the film. It takes it’s time to slowly but surely build to the demonic possession. It sets up plot points and uses the cinematography, music and all the other elements to build up to the scares so that when they happen they hit hard. A film’s atmosphere is important in general, but it’s downright crucial in horror because its atmosphere determines how it makes the audience feels when it eventually and impactfully delivers on its promise of scaring the viewer, which in essence is the ultimate goal.

Unique Characters, Plot, and Filmmaking Techniques

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While Atmosphere is important in building up tension and mood, the film itself cannot sustain it’s great quality without interesting characters, a unique  plot, and the talents of the filmmakers putting it all together. The characters are arguably the most important element to crafting a good narrative. They are the vessels and often times the reason why the story is even taking place. They need to be someone who is interesting or relatable in some ways so that the audience has someone to root for or against.

Great examples include Ash from the Evil Dead franchisewho began his journey scared, but was able to develop into a multifaceted and reluctant hero, but a villain can be just as fascinating. The greatest slasher films worked on having their villains or monsters be the star of their films including Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Chucky, and plenty of others. Without these characters their films would have easily been forgotten. Some of the greatest horror villains also reflect something different and comment on a specific topic. An example that’s unique in the slasher genre is Candyman. The film touches upon the past of racism and in doing so creates a villain who is sympathetic seeing as he was a man who was murdered by white people for being in relationship with a white woman. This character’s strength is his sympathetic nature, while also being a force of evil . On the flipside of character traits The first two Conjuring films told their stories with Ed and Lorraine Warren. While they were real people the films took some liberty in the events of the true stories to give these characters more depth and more terrifying things to deal with. Great horror films use the characters to give a window into the world or someone to fear and this ties deeply into the plot.

 

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The plot is the driving element of every film. It’s what keeps the audience engaged into the experience and it moves the characters along their designated paths. A lot of the cheaper horror films use the plot as a basic outline and fill it with uninteresting characters hoping that their slightly different take on a tired plot is enough to be engaging or entertaining. Great horror often uses its plot in conjunction with the characters to tell something deeper about ourselves, our fears, and sometimes even comment on society. Take Jordan Peele’s, Get Out. The film dives into the tricky category of racism that persists as a common issue to this day. It uses its horror story and somewhat familiar trappings to subvert expectations and deliver a satirical look on the reality that people of color face. This film brilliantly used it’s horror film genre to subvert expectations and while this film is certainly a unique entry many other great horror films use similar plot structures to do unique and great things. The 1987 film, Hellraiser brilliantly had interesting and often despicable characters at the forefront of it’s story with the demonic characters feeling more understandable than the despicable human characters. It’s narrative used the visceral nature of gore to explore a story where someone’s desire for purely pleasure led them to discover that pain and pleasure are often intertwined. These films are just some examples of the plethora of great horror films that use their narrative to do something interesting. Their unique qualities speak to the creative mind and talent behind these projects.

The craft of filmmaking is crucial to making any great film and a knowledge of what works and what does not work is so important especially in the horror genre. The problem with a lot of horror is an often amateurish approach and while sometimes that can create interesting results the best films understand how to make something visually interesting. They understand how to adapt their wild concepts to the screen and how to build said atmosphere for the audience to feel certain ways. Some of the more gory or visually exploitative films need some talent to make them great as well including the ability to use visual effects to make everything believable. The 1982 film, The Thing brilliantly used it’s puppet and makeup effects to deliver one incredibly visceral and tense ride with some of the most interesting effects ever brought to the screen. Films like this are what make the genre special. The talent it takes to make something effectively terrifying is special and their knowledge of how to do so is crucial in making something great.

Earned Scares

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There is a steady stream of horror films constantly being produced whether they are made by a big studio or they are the product of an independent effort. They certainly have different approaches to the genre, but what is agreed upon is that they both work to terrify the viewer. They want to deliver scares, but there is often a misunderstood notion as to what makes a good scare and how they are earned. Some of the worst examples of the genre often employ cheap and easy tricks to startle the audience. A jump scare is one that seemingly comes out of nowhere to make the viewer jump. A jump scare is an easy task to do, but it’s difficult to master. Many horror films use that in place of building atmosphere, which in turn means that the scare isn’t earned.The best examples of horror often take their time to build up to the level of uncomfortableness needed so that a jump scare isn’t even needed and when it is used it’s used extremely effectively. A great horror film subverts jump scare expectations and delivers scares through other means whether it be through the plot, the atmosphere, the interesting characters, or even a more deeper understanding of what is universally terrifying, A scare is something that needs to be earned and while a jump scare is an easy way of getting a reaction it often is used as a way to cover up a shortcoming. While jump scares are a tool and can be used to great effect they also need to not be used as a crutch. Some of the best horror films take their time and deliver just the right amount of information to keep the audience on the edge of their seats the entire way through. A scare needs to be earned and not expected from the part of the filmmaker, which is a very difficult but inevitably more rewarding task. It keeps said horror film from fading into the plethora of bad films.

Conclusion

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Horror is a genre that is often looked down upon as inferior. So much so that it is often lost in the conversation of great filmmaking. It’s incredibly difficult to create great horror, but it’s a genre with the potential to reveal so much about ourselves. It works as a valid piece of art and when done right it can really speak to people. Great horror is something to be respected and analyzed with the same level of care that classic films are done. There is no better time than Halloween to indulge in as much great horror as possible. While this may be a fun activity you may find yourself looking deeper into what scares you and what means the most to you. You may also want to watch out behind you because you never know what could be lurking.

 

Keep an eye on Up Your Geek for more spooky content all throughout October!

 

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