"It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means.
...Horror. Horror has a face...And you must make a friend of horror." - Marlon Brando
I'm probably taking this quote out of context, but I've admired #horror for a long time and these lines struck me like Jason's machete. For more than half a century, every year we see hundreds of filmmakers come up with horror films. Some of them succeed at terrifying audiences, some are just blatantly terrible while a few change our perceptions towards them over time. And as Brando says "you must make a friend of horror", how would you succeed at something like horror if you do not embrace it or make it an essential part of your life. To be successful at creating horror, you should have personally experienced it in one way or the other, or else you'll probably fall short on delivering its true potency. Being a horror addict and aspiring film-maker, I've been asked by many people : What are the key ingredients to make a horror film or a concoction, as I like to call it. The most important thing is targeting basic human emotions like tension, anger, sadness, happiness or fear. You can brew different concoctions out of every emotion, this is because a single word doesn't justify an emotion.
But this is just the dust on the Guide to Brew a Horror Concoction. Instead of listing out the key ingredients for the vast genre, I have divided it into 10 important sub-genres that need a wide-ranging approach to each of them. I have listed out what I feel are the key ingredients that need to be a part of the wretched horror concoction you intend on creating. So sit tight and enjoy, because this is surely going to be a bumpy ride.
10. Torture Porn
"The Splatter Film : Making people puke in their popcorn since the sixties."
I have referred to this segment as "torture porn" and not "splatter" because frankly the former is a more relatable term while the latter is now present in only VCRs and memories. Yet I will be focusing on a concoction that constitutes tropes explored in the pre-#Saw era.
Torture : Torture of the body is a driving force behind this category, and tormenting parts that are considered to be very delicate like eyes, genitals, tongue or nails rattles the viewer to a greater extent than slicing larger body parts.
Visuals : Do not go overboard with red. To make it extremely repulsive, try throwing in a blend of colors with the usual red. Since most audiences are aware of red in their bloodstream, multiple colored juices oozing out of human bodies would be shocking to watch.
CGI is a big NO! Stick to practical effects, the genre simply doesn't work the other way. The depiction of gore should be your biggest asset, and the more it travels opposite to the trajectory of biology, the better.
Story : Though most splatters work out as B-grade films, do not disregard the story. The gore shouldn't exist just because you ended up buying 5 extra buckets of paint. In Society, the disgusting visuals are based upon intelligent satirical notions and though it may have thrown the extra buckets, it doesn't seem ridiculously over-the-top because of its relevance to the remainder of the story.
9. Found Footage Horror
Found footage horror films are probably the most realistic set of films, primarily because of their low budget optimization that lends them a real world look. Right from the underwhelming dialogues to the extremely close camera positioning, #foundfootage presents a situation that you can very much relate to.
Visuals : Refrain from using cameras with high resolution and opt for cheaper alternatives. Grain is never a liability in horror. Another approach would be to use a great camera in an extremely dim lit setting like REC or Grave Encounters, so that it captures images in low light.
Using a shaky camera induces realism, you don't have a dolly or a tripod to carry around when you get chased by unnatural creatures, and the hazy visuals combined with the oscillations help in disorienting the viewers. Use these intense moments as build-up to jump scares, because a long frightening sequence leads to the viewer gasping for time to settle down. This situation can then be exploited to rattle them at regular intervals. That way, the viewer barely gets the opportunity to sit still.
Decisions : Abstain from showing the real threat frequently, it may or may not work always. Or follow Creep's example by revealing the seriousness of the "assumed threat" at a later stage, while keeping a tipsy-topsy tone up to that point.
Avoid soundtracks, as you need to focus on every stutter or pause that the characters make. Hysteria should be induced through the body language of the characters. Use plot devices like injuries or deaths to shove them on the verge of madness, and this would shift the movie towards ambiguity. It would evolve from a normal found footage to psychological horror.
"Madness is like gravity, all it takes is a little push" - The Joker
8. Vampire Movies
In 1897, Bram Stoker wrote the Dracula which can be termed the awakening of modern horror fiction. The #vampire is probably the first creature born from the abyss of horror, and his intimidating stature has now evolved from the cause of tragedy to a full fledged apocalypse.
Visuals : Vampire movies require extravagant production design. They have been adapted from #gothic classics that had tragic characters, with grand settings in the backdrop to express a sense of cold irony. In most cases, the audiences have to be made to travel back in time, and the lavish production design along with bright lighting increase the aesthetic value, an important aspect of gothic fiction.
Gore is a luxury in these films, and blood in any form, every drop of it has to be treated like the elixir of life. Splattering blood in a movie that revolves around a character who craves for the very look of it is a big NO!
Story : The focal point of a great vampire movie is and has always been the writing. Unlike the other sub-genres, this one derives its terror from love and relationships. So, the characters have to be well-rounded with their backstories being explored.. Herzog's Nosferatu especially, was a game-changer in its deconstruction of the myth surrounding the vampire. He explored the elements the creature shared with us, and brought it hauntingly closer to our realm.
"To make Michael Myers frightening, I made him walk like a man, not a monster" - John Carpenter
7. Zombie Movies
"I have always liked the monster within idea. I like the zombies being us. Zombies are the blue-collar monsters" - George A.Romero
I had never thought of zombies as the "monsters within" until I came across this quote. To watch a #zombie movie keeping this in mind, the idea that the creature we find so disgusting and horrific, eventually originate from within is discomforting. This is also the reason why I love them, because they are thrilling and fun, and depict a satirical representation of the society within all the guts and brains.
"A zombie film is not fun without a bunch of stupid people running around, and observing how they fail to handle the situation" - George A.Romero
Decisions : Never hold back the gore in a zombie movie. Some movies recently, like Train to Busan and World War Z have opted to play it safe, but that totally sucks the life out of the zombies. They are dead, the only thing they are capable of is eating people and you take that away from them. What else is left?
Another important point to ponder upon would be the role of the protagonists. You've got to get your priorities sorted. In a zombie movie, the most important physical being is a zombie and don't hesitate to get rid of primary characters. Nihilism is appreciated in zombie movies, because this is an epidemic and it would be illogical to end it on a high note.
Origins : The origin story needs to be explored. Though Night of the Living Dead is considered to be the one that started the trend, it fails at building up a satisfying origin story compared to another classic, Zombi 2. The origin could be a ridiculous voodoo practice, but the viewers need to be aware of the epicenter.
Pacing is another important aspect. Apart from a few modern zombie flicks, we have usually seen the undead crouching and walking. It can be excruciating at times to move at their pace, and to overcome this issue background score alongwith different camera techniques prove to be the remedy. Camera techniques like multiple cuts offer you the possibility of not wasting screen-time on a zombie attack, and also distract the viewers, which can be followed by an element of shock.
"I believe that a great horror score should make sure that the viewer is not distracted ever, remain glued to the screen, with no possibility of escape.” - Fabio Frizzi
Practical Effects : Zombie movies also use splatter tropes, and believe me CGI looks awful in a zombie movie. Another interesting critique is the psychological involvement of the cast with materials that are used for creating these effects.
There's a fine line that divides slashers from splatters, and it is foolish to place them in the same basket. Slashers glorify the mystery and tension associated with the act of murder but not murder itself. #Slashers have originated from pulp magazines, that were derived from film noir and a great slasher never forgets its roots.
Opening : The opening should set the tone of the movie while also making a statement about a nihilistic future. A brutal opening makes great use of the existence of a fourth wall. It makes you aware of what's in store for the characters, and you have no option but to watch them get introduced while the idea of their fate lingers in your mind to no avail.
Weapon : The best weapon for a slasher is a knife, because the intensity exponentially rises when something horrendous is carried out with a 8-12 inch object used in every household. The scene in Halloween where a young Michael Myers murders his sister with a knife is horrifying, showing the blade's potential. But the door for innovation is always open, and just make sure you don't get carried away by Leatherface's chainsaw and opt for sophistication over results.
Also, treat the weapon like a character. Though you hear about how weapons make a difference only in the hands of the right user, slashers believe in the both of them. The weapon has relevance to the killer's character and we see a dauntless transformation when the two forces combine. This is very similar to Johnny Blaze turning into the Ghost Rider when he sits on his bike.
Exposition : Giallo, I believe are the best slashers as they are very character oriented and do not expose the killer, until the final act. The killer is camera-shy and we only see bits and pieces like gloves, shoes or eyes, and rarely the mask. This is the perfect approach to a slasher, as in pursuit of a ruthless killer you shouldn't compromise for the mystery that lies at the heart of the film.
Vocabulary : My final point would be the language. Use "murder" instead of "kill", "rape" for "sexual assault", "dead" for "passed away", "crushed" for "run over". Words like these sound cold and harsh, reflecting the tone of the movie. The deaths in a slasher movies aren't seductive bites on your necks, but more like the victims deep-throating a bedpost. In simpler words, they are brutal, and the writing should be too.
5. Supernatural Horror
"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown" - H.P.Lovecraft
Supernatural horror is the oldest form of horror. Let's not discuss about the existence of supernatural entities or it being a result of psychological imbalances, but as a sub-genre. Elaborating Lovecraft's statement, supernatural doesn't have to be ghosts and demons, it can be something that both logic and science cannot present an explanation for.
Warning : First things first, do not follow The Conjuring's example. The movie was a breath of fresh air in a "dying genre". Do not aim for relative excellence, The Conjuring may be an example of an excellent horror film from this decade, but it's an okay film when placed in the 70's, during the boom of horror.
Jump scares : Stay away from the archetypal jump scares. 2-3 minutes of build-ups with a second of terror. Modern horror films have devised a great plan of abusing the human anatomy. The split second after a 2 minute build-up is a cerebral response to sudden change in sound and visuals. Instead something like the elongation of the face in An American Werewolf in London is so effective despite being a long sequence, because of sheer quality and the element of surprise. Usually horror films would just cut at that point and reveal the final transformation.
Relationships : Why is The Exorcist a classic and still so relevant? It is built on the mechanisms of a relationship, in its case, one between a mother and her daughter. The film reached out to such a large audience because of its universal themes, that horrified different age groups in a variety of ways.
Ending : Play it safe because an optimistic ending in horror doesn't always implicate a "happy ending". In Poltergeist, though the family escapes, we are never shown what happens to the portal. The optimism about the ending is relative, it may be a happy ending for the family, but not a happy for the world in general, knowing there's disturbed spirits out there seeking revenge. The shot of the television also hints at a possibility of something unfortunate.
4. Sci-Fi Horror
Sci-fi horror is probably the most entertaining sub-genre of horror. Beginning from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, sci-fi horror has undergone numerous variations depending on the questions every decade poses. For example, B-grade alien movies in the 50' after the UFO sightings, #Godzilla movies in the 60's after the advent of nuclear warfare, obsession with extra-terrestrial life in 70's or the exploration of conscience in this century.
Priorities : It shouldn't lie in tandem with the primary genres, and compromising horror for sci-fi is a big mistake. Imagine a cake, the batter should be made out of horror while the cream and icing out of science fiction.
Scientific justification for any complex concept is necessary, but dwelling on it takes away the pace and time that should have been utilized for the scares. Some sci-fi horror films like #Prometheus and Terminator Salvation have deviated far away from horror and tried to explore themes that were too complex for their own understanding, and lacked the punch their predecessors packed.
Aliens : E.T is a movie for kids, and your extra-terrestrial creature should not "go home". It's instinct must be to devour you and make your habitat its own, make your home its home. Modeling the alien is important, and imagine the worst looking creature you can think of, and for effectiveness give it a humanoid figure.
Transport the audiences into a world of fantasy, and use this state of oblivion against them. Abuse their creative capacity by conjuring the unknown, and this can be exemplified by starting your characters ahead of the audience and then placing them in the audience's shoes somewhere during the second act. For example in Videodrome, we see Max Renn in a successful position but this turns out to be a mirage as he and the audience discover the absurdities of Cronenberg's world.
Technical achievements should be the preference over intellectual ones. Sci-fi horror doesn't need you to explain how a black hole equation can be derived, it needs you to make a terrifying situation out of it and in expressing that you need to apply great visual and sound techniques. Movies like #Alien franchise and The Thing, have clutched the industry in their jaws and roared to make a statement with outstanding production design and practical effects, that have not been replicated since.
Bonus : This is the only category where the use of great #CGI is more than welcome.
3. Expressionist Horror
Expressionism was a movement in Germany that led to the birth of modern horror. Films like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari or Nosferatu continue to exert their influence over every horror film, and though this genre might be extinct we have seen touches of it in Tim Burton and Alfred Hitchcock's works. It also inspired the birth of film noir that eventually lead to the modern mystery film (neo-noir). The inception of expressionism only proves one thing, it was the seed to the tree that we now call cinema.
Template : Expressionist horror is visually black-and-white and not monochrome, or can be presented through highly saturated tints (similar to sepia). It's not monochrome because it makes optimum use of its B/W experience to weave multiple shades of black and grey. Lighting is the crucial feature of the cinematography. The shadows work like the forests we read about in fairy tales, they enclose stories of their own.
Characters : Make-up is another important aspect as expressionist films have the pacing and performances of a play, with attentiveness to facial expressions. Make-up highlights these facial expressions and body language to an exemplary scale. Creating a chiaroscuro only elevates this, and is a trademark technique to convey the sombre mood and the dark world the characters are stuck in.
Score : To compensate for no dialogues, expressionist films opted for an orchestral score throughout the course of the movie that shifted its tone during tense moments. The idea was to create something atmospheric, and horror works at its finest when it becomes a part of the atmosphere and you can hear it, see it and feel it.
2. Surrealist Horror
"Surrealism is a perception of reality over which reason is denied the opportunity to exercise confining restrictions" -John Herbert Matthews
Surrealist horror isn't pure horror, as in it doesn't target your "weak" heart, it targets your inferior mind. It's primary motive is to leave you with a feeling of nothingness, which you later start to dread. The atmosphere they create is serene, almost poetic and this is because they gradually attack your senses, in order to upload into your sub-conscious.
Creativity : Just let it out. Do not hold back, no matter how strange the visuals in your head may seem, just transfer them to the film with a preferable pinch of dark humor. The audience's mind is a 10-by-10 Rubik's Cube and you have to play with it. You have to contort it and whirl it into an assortment of different colors, with every outcome being a successful result. The finished result is a failure though, as that would be comprehensible and you do not want to end a surreal experience with an explanation of any sort.
Visuals : The color palette should be vivid, like Suspiria where Dario Argento uses 3-4 primary colors differing highly in tone, that make up for a rocky visual experience. The experience should be ethereal, something that you do not come across in real life. The use of CGI is appreciated, only to assist in creating a dreamscape with special effects that can not be achieved practically.
Themes : Surrealism associates itself with the thoughts repressed in your subconscious. Nudity and violence are two things a normal person tries to suppress generally, and this is the platform to throw in the both of them like spilled cocktail on a cat's backless gown.
Surrealistic films give you complete creative control, and the central character has to be puppeteered. The flow should be similar to a dream, the character is forced to go on with the story and interact with the simulated environment, no matter how disastrous the consequences may prove out for him.
Narrative : Disjointed narrative and pacing are not mandatory aspects, but they do puzzle the audiences. A conventional movie can be divided into three acts : setup, confrontation. resolution. You have the liberty to abolish the third act and replace it with sub-acts from the second act, since resolution is synonymous with clarity, and our dreams fail at that.
"What scares me is what scares you. We're all afraid of the same things. That's why horror is such a powerful genre. All you have to do is ask yourself what frightens you and you'll know what frightens me" - John Carpenter
Important : Though I do not completely agree with Carpenter, I believe you do possess the opportunity to convert that belief into reality. For surrealism to be successful, you have to express your greatest fears and desires, and then make the audience fear the same.
1. Psychological Horror
Psychological horror is inarguably the most difficult film to pull off and you rarely find a movie that wrecks pure havoc on your mind. Most of them have psychological horror "elements" fitted into them, and are developed as mere consequences, for example the sense of doom in a zombie movie. There's a big difference between the two as those elements are a part of any sub-genre you tackle, even horror-com.
Story : Silence of the Lambs is a marvellous example of psychological horror, and you shouldn't refrain from following its example when necessary. Let's forget the performances and look at the amount of pauses in the movie that create an unsettling atmosphere. The pauses are a tunnel for Lecter to escape his cell and crawl into your skin.
Less dialogues and an opaque script automatically get an eager audience involved in the proceedings of the film. This is a state where they are mentally present in your world, while physically in theirs. The most effective psy-horror lures the viewer into a maze and since it is difficult to completely grab their attention you don't want to let that lose quickly, by ending the act. Stretch the act till they have no flesh on their fingers to bite on.
The central character, an anti-hero or antagonist must be one who thinks differently from the rest and uses a radical approach in enforcing his beliefs on the world. This is a very worn-out approach but the best one, if lent originality. In a world where we come across shocking news about sociopaths, killers, mentally ill people or tragedies inflicted through the closest relationships, this growing doubt about people should be exploited. Make the viewers fear an everyday situation.
Visuals : Use a cold color palette that syncs perfectly with the cold nature of your film, Color palettes hold the prowess to completely change the mood of the story, unless you are Stanley Kubrick of course. In Se7en, David Fincher opts for visual storytelling through his use of shadows and unfavorable situations beside the murders themselves, like the scorching barren land where the finale takes place or the incessant raining for almost the entirety of the movie.
Bonus : Psychological horror also gives you the flexibility to switch across genres. Rosemary's Baby flirts with supernatural horror, while American Psycho with slasher or Mulholland Drive with surrealist.