What makes a good horror movie? A Brief Meditation.
A quick list for "what makes a good horror movie"
- Strong Metaphor
- Resourceful Characters
- Solid Jumpscares
- Engrossing Effects
- Surprising Plot Turns
- Interesting Visuals
- Suspenseful Sound Design
Strong Metaphor: What is the boat that the story stays afloat within? Vampires are stand-ins for human depravity and unchecked carnal lust; werewolves are man's animalistic side; Hereditary is family trauma and Freddy Krueger is youth suffering for the sins of the past.
A good horror film needs to be working with something underneath. That metaphor doesn't necessarily need to be profound or revolutionary, it just needs to be the adhesive keeping everything together. And yes, there were three inconsistent metaphors in one four sentence contemplation on strong metaphors - kill me with a machete or get off my back.
Resourceful Characters: What defines a resourceful character is up for interpretation. It flies by the "I know it when I see it" ruling. Here's some examples of non-resourceful characters: sleeping in the house one more night, believing your SO has gone crazy when they've never shown previous symptoms of mental imbalance, not killing the stupid killer when they have the chance (Looking at you Beck, You Season 1... oh yeah, spoilers.).
There are a million examples of characters who are idiots past the point of reason. And that's why resourceful characters make or break the movie for me. If the characters act pathetically ignorant to basic survival skills then the screenwriter doesn't take their audience seriously and, therefore, I don't need to take the film seriously. It doesn't mean I can't enjoy it - I love rage watching as much as the next person - but it does mean that I'm watching the movie with an asterisk.
Movies like 10 Cloverfield Lane, Get Out, Lights Out, and every other movie with "out" in the name present smart, independent characters that fight like hell to survive. When those characters eventually fail or succeed, their struggle makes the journey that much more impactful.
Filmic Language: As the sixth love language I break this category into three categories - Visual Effects, Cinematography, and Sound Design (Bet you can't guess which one I think is the most important).
Visual Effects: A horror movie's legacy is built upon what choices it makes with its VFX. The difference between Trolls 2 and The Thing or Wicker Man and Midsommar jumps to mind immediately. Trolls 2 and Wicker Man have been made immortal by their infamously bad effects. For Trolls 2, it's the dodgy, hilarious practical effects and with Wicker Man, it's "THE BEES! NOT THE BEES! AAAAAHHHHH! OH, THEY'RE IN MY EYES!"
The Thing sits flatly on the opposite side of the spectrum. Its practical effects hold up decades after the film's release, still haunting, horrifying, gruesome, and beautiful. Additionally, in contrast to Wicker Man's "bee scene", Midsommar's floral visual effects accent and amplify the hallucinogenic, drugged out status of the movie's lead protagonist. Whether the effects help or hinder the film's intentions, VFX establish how the movie will be remembered.
Cinematography: A good horror movie needs great visuals. I don't care if those visuals are captured on an iPhone 6S, they just need to be purposeful and story driven. And they need to service the scares.
In this section I'll also include editing. Should these two very distinct storytelling mediums be stuffed together? No. Is this article getting to be too long? Yes. Great cinematography and editing working in tandem have given us some of the most incredible sequences in horror film history: the cramped, isolating survival of Alien and the painfully unsettling (And objectively not sexy) opening sex scene of Antichrist.
Editing in a horror film forces the director to choose between letting an audience off the hook or bludgeoning them into submission. I've seen it raise audiences into a joyous uproar (Ending of Get Out) and stunned agony (Parasite).
For its medal, I think Creep is a perfect example of great cinematography choices. Its classic found footage, tape recorder aesthetic makes Aaron's death all the more shocking. In one sustained, primarily silent sequence the audience helplessly watches Josef (Mark Duplass) kill Aaron (Patrick Brice) with an axe.
Sound Design: The most important aspect to horror movies bar none. BAR NONE. Don't believe me, go watch any horror movie you want tonight, but turn off the sound. I'm guessing you get on alright with very few, if any, jumps or screams.
Yes, watching arms get chopped off is scary. But just as scary is seeing an arm, seeing a knife, and then a wall as the sounds of tearing tendons, shattering bones, and blood curdling screams erupt from your speakers. Sound is king. It can make and eviscerate the quality of any film. There are tricks and cheats to make something look scary. There are no tricks to making something sound scary. Sure, you're not actually hearing someone die, but you need to believe, even if just for a moment, that you are hearing someone die. That's the responsibility of a sound designer. And it's led to every great moment you've ever experienced in film. Even if the visuals are absolutely incredible, it's the sound design that makes it.
And this cannot be said the other way around. No one has ever left a theatre and gone, "well I had no idea what the actors said and the train sounded like a soccer whistle, but it looked gorgeous so I understood exactly what was going on!". Never has that been said (Exception to the rule: You will hear this at every stupid short film festival).
Okay, let's move on from this rant. Just do yourself a favor and go watch your favorite horror movie of all time and really listen to those monster noises, chainsaws, and all the rest. They're incredible.
Bold Plot: Oh hell, this article is way too long to go into this last point. I'll make an article about this sometime down the line. Essentially, plot is more important than story, characters don't need to grow, Aristotle is fine, but should be challenged, and if the audience isn't surprised by where the film ends up, they certainly won't be scared.
This was supposed to be a brief meditation, so it got a little away from me. I'll circle back on each of these and dive a bit deeper into my own biases that shape these categories and my enjoyment of the horror genre in future articles.