Tag Archives: the rules of horror

31 Days of Spoooktacular: Portrait of a Slasher Movie

The slasher movie is, by far, one of the subgenres of horror that most sticks to a formula. And here is the formula:

Pre-Credits Kill+Character Introduction+Cat Scare*+Minor Character Killed Off+Pointless Drama/Comedic Scene+Secondary Character Killed+Hero(ine) and Killer Meet-Up+Hero(ine) Triumphs+One Last Scare=Slasher Movie

This is, for the most part, how every slasher movie plays out. You have the pre-credit sequence kill, which is either part of the back story or is set in modern day and sets off the chain of events. This is where you’ll see characters defiling graves or having sex when they should have been paying attention or telling stories around a campfire about the killer. If this is a sequel, this is where you’ll most likely see a character from the previous movie get killed off (see Friday the 13th Part 2 or Scream 3).

Then comes the cast introduction. During this point you’ll see a barrage of cliches come at you. Don’t worry! Most will be dead in 90 minutes. This is also the point where you’ll meet an ancillary character. Now, the ancillary character can fulfill numerous roles. They’re the Red Herring: “Who’s that?” “Oh that’s crazy Bob, he lives in the woods where we’ll be camping!” The Red Herring will show up lurking, here and there, through-out the movie and then will end up dead at the three-quarter mark.

There’s the Small Town Sheriff. He will say, in one form or another, “Those damn kids!” before the movie is over. Though he’s going to be an asshole throughout the entire movie, he’ll most likely show up toward the middle or end and seem like he’s going to do something to affect the outcome and give the audience false hope. He’s actually going to be murder fodder and everyone’s hopes are dashed.

There’s the Doomsayer. He (or she) is an old and crusty oldtimer who knows more than everyone else, but will be completely dismissed as being either old, crazy or both. The Doomsayer can also play the part of The Red Herring. It’s a toss-up to whether the Doomsayer will show up beyond the Introduction.

Then there’s the Cat Scare. The Cat Scare is when a character hears a noise, goes to investigate and finds a cat. It is almost ALWAYS a cat. And it’s always a cat that has somehow ended up in a cupboard. I have owned numerous cats, but they rarely ended up in cupboards.

Right after the cat scare, Minor Character death. The Doomsayer is a good choice for this, but sometimes it’s the gas station attendant or the lonely hitchhiker or any person who is not one of the fresh young teens.

Then you have the pointless drama and light-hearted comedy to trick you into thinking that that this movie is more than nubile young people being offed with chainsaws.

This is when the secondary characters start dying, one by one and, depending on how many characters there are, depends on how long this process will take.

After all the non-essential personnel are removed, the hero or, more frequently, the heroine meets up with the monster. If the monster is masked, this is where he’ll be de-masked. If the killer is actually the boyfriend, long lost-brother or the mother of a deformed little boy who drowned in the lake, this is where the shocking twist is revealed.

After the Killer is dispatched, the Hero(ine) and her/his Boyfriend/Girlfriend walk away from the body. Then the body moves, or the little boy comes out of the lake or the second killer steps out of the shadows or the Hero(ine) turns around with a crazy look in her eyes and you know SHE’S the killer now. This is the Final Scare. It can be either followed with a re-assuring shot of the Hero(ine) waking up or a freeze-frame of the Final Scare.

Bam. You don’t ever need to watch a slasher movie ever again. Because you just did. All of them.

-D-

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The Rules of Horror

Horror movies exist primarily to do one thing: scare people. And, for the most part, horror movies fail in that one goal. They shock, they gross out, they startle, but they don’t truly scare. There’s nothing scary about Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger. There’s nothing scary about torture porn like Hostel and the entire Saw series.

Modern horror filmmakers seem to have forgotten the fact that these movies are supposed to terrify us, not make us roll our eyes and gag. The formulaic and tired nature of slasher movies got so bad that Wes Craven wrote Scream to lambaste the tropes he helped to create. So it’s an irony that the Scream series has become a victim to the same rote formula like every other slasher series.

And the slew of viciously violent movies like Hostel and The Human Centipede are just more fuel for the fire that horror movies as a whole are culturally bereft of value and nothing more than cheap intellectual trash.

There was a point when horror movies were actually good, not just as scary movies but as films. Psycho, The Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Phantom of the Opera (the one with Mr. Chaney); these were well-made, well-written and actually scared the audiences at the time.

But after eighty years of scary movies, filmmakers seem to think that the only way to make a relevant scary movie is to get progressively more and more shocking, graphic and violent. And yet, there have been movies released in recent years that have scared the bejesus out of people with a minimum of blood and gore. Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch Project both used similar techniques which were effective in scaring audience members. And there have been other effective thrillers that have a similar reluctance to employ the wet stuff (The Vanishing is a prime example).

So, for all those aspiring filmmakers out there, here are a list of rules that I’ve compiled based on what genuinely scares me when I watch a movie. There are only four, so bear with me here.

1. Keep it Small Keep the cast small. Keep the location small. Keep all the strange happenings located to a house, a small town, a small patch of woods. This serves multiple purposes. If you only have a few characters, then the audience has more of a chance to become invested in the characters, and you want that. The more the audience is invested, the more they’ll care when you start killing the characters off one by one.

You also run less of a chance that the audience will become desensitized. Too much violence and they shut down and tune out. Anticipation of bad things can be as effective as the actual event. Tension is important for a good scary movie.

2. Isolation This is a rule commonly employed by horror movies, which is why so many movies are set around campsites or in that house by the lake or on some deserted stretch of highway. Cut your characters out from the herd and keep them away. Facing the abyss is scary, facing the abyss with no one to help them is terrifying.

Isolate them through geography (woods, island, desert). Isolate them with their own sanity (or lack thereof). Isolate them in the middle of a crowded city (stuck elevator, basement, sewers). Just get them alone so that no one can help them.

3. Minimize suspension of disbelief There are many, many ways to break the illusion. Audiences (generally) go into a movie to be entertained and they’re willing to suspend their disbelief to do it, but you have to help them out. It’s even more important in a horror movie, because scaring someone is about creating a mood and then sustaining it. To truly scare your audience, you can’t keep providing jump scares. You have to build dread. You have to make them fear every shadow and every movement in the corner of the character’s eye. It’s no good to provide an aura of foreboding if it’s immediately ruined by a boom mike in shot or cheesy special effects or an abrasive, obvious score.

Minimize special effects. If you don’t have the technology to pull of an effect, dial it down. Jaws was more effective when the shark was in the water. The alien in Alien and Aliens was most scary when it was in the shadows. Keep your monster in the shadows. And for the love of God, don’t use digital effects to replicate blood and gunshot wounds. Corn syrup and squibs work just fine.

Subtlety is the key here. A subtle soundtrack (or none at all), a monster who stays in the dark and a bare minimum of effects work.

4. Avoid the Tropes There are certain monsters and situations that are no longer scary. Vampires and werewolves stopped being truly scary ages years ago. They’re a fixture in pop-culture, not in the darkest recesses of your audience’s imagination. While I hesitate to say there’s no way to make them scary (Let the Right One In was creepy and unsettling as sin), it will be very hard to do since the audience will be prepared.

And you don’t want the audience to be prepared. You want them to be unsettled. You want them to be on the edge, uncertain about what’s going to happen next. You do not want them to know that silver and crosses can keep the monsters at bay.

Avoid the scary haunted mansion. Avoid the invincible slasher who can only be brought down by the plucky, perky and chaste teenage girl. Avoid the those same tired ways. We all fear the unknown. That is the one thing everyone shares in common: a fear of the lurking unknown that lives in the darkness.

Surprise us. Challenge us. Demand from us our attention. Keep us always guessing. Make us dread the next frame, for the simple reason that we don’t know what’s coming.

That is how to scare the audience. That’s the way to make a truly good horror movie.

Dylan Charles

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