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The Techniques of Horror

by on April 29, 2010
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I’m a very odd moviegoer when it comes to horror. I’ve never really been scared during a movie. As a kid I went searching through classic horror movies to find one, but alas. Even though I don’t get scared, I still find the genre to be a lot of fun. Just like comedies, it’s a genre that is using clever techniques to try and get a specific reaction out of their audience. Unlike comedies, I can still really like a horror movie if I’m not screaming.

One thing that really works for me in a horror movie is a great plot. I really like it when they act like mysteries. Movies like The Ring, The Orphanage, and even Saw have the audience try to figure out what’s happening along with the main character. This doesn’t mean: “Oh I think Character A is the killer but—Oh no, it’s Character B!” I like it when the plots are more twisting and unconventional. This allows for a lot of repeat viewings that hold up even if specific frights fade.

Sometimes the environment alone can make for a successful horror movie. This is a very delicate thing, because it’s not just about adding a few creaks in the haunted house. One of my favorite approaches is to create a sense of hopelessness. We naturally expect the hero to prevail, but if the situation is too overwhelming then it makes for a more suspenseful show. This can be done if the villain is too powerful. This isn’t like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers this time, because there’s not enough sympathy towards the protagonists. Everybody knows they are all damned aside from one or two lucky few. I’m talking about situations like The Exorcist where everything seems intangible. Having an enemy like the devil has certain connotations next to it, but not knowing the enemy is just as powerful. There is a Mexican Spanish film called REC where a TV crew are initially filming a fluff piece and then become trapped in an apartment complex where something is there…The whole film is shot through the crew’s camera a la Cloverfield. It’s wonderfully creepy.

It is techniques like this that become more effective to me. I’ll take the subtle creepy images over the bombastic gory ones any day. For me, grossing out the audience doesn’t work in scaring them. Violence should be used to establish the threat and certain ramifications but it doesn’t spook anyone. It just makes them uneasy and enough of that can remove the audience from the movie.

I like more subtle ways of making the audience chilled.  Like when the vampire climbs up the hospital wall in Let the Right One In or half of the imagery in The Shining. I love this. It allows the filmmaker to really play with new clever ideas. Usually the images are able to stand on their own. There’s no score telling you how to feel or a dramatic camera shot to point the focus. It’s more unnerving if you find it on your own.

It’s hard to find a horror movie nowadays that focuses on these things that I like. Too many are made for the cheap thrills instead of the long-term effects. I have not seen it, but the new Nightmare on Elm Street seems to be guilty of that. I find that to be really disappointing because the original was a rather clever movie that had care put into it. Aside from this one’s cool casting of Jackie Earl Haley, I fear this will be forgotten like most studio horror movies. Alas.


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