What Makes A Horror Movie Good
I realize that on Twitter and to some extent on my Instagram account I talk about horror, a lot. Movies mostly but also books and games. I have decided that as such it might make sense to talk a bit about horror on my blog. I will start with what I think makes a horror movie a good movie while giving a bit of background on myself and how I got into the genre in the first place.
All of this started with the Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark books (anyone remember those?) from there it went to Goosebumps, Christopher Pike stuff, and anything else that was teen and young adult. I remember being 11 years old and begging my parents to let me read Stephen King. Eventually, they did, thinking that I would get bored/not understand it. As it turns out, I was so devoted to horror that if I ever came across anything I didn’t understand I’d just go look it up. Over time, I devoured every Stephen King book I could find then I went onto his movies. When I was 13 my parents finally agreed I could start watching rated R films as long as they approved them first (which was never an issue). By the time I was 15 every summer, I would go to the movie store as much as possible and methodically I rented every horror movie in the horror section.
I don’t know why I’ve been into horror this much for so long, but I am. In fact, since I want to write and make horror movies I think by now I’m a bit jaded and far too nitpicky. I am particular on what makes a good horror movie because I know what I want in a horror movie. I know what I would write. I’m also aware of special effects, editing, directing, and all the elements that should be in horror to make it good. Some of this is opinion but some of it is pretty objectively bad or good. My favorite sub-genre of the horror realm would be psychological thrillers. Where you’ll find movies like Dread. Pretty sure that one is never heard of or spoken of. Other than the guy who recommended it to me I’ve never seen anyone else bring it up. It’s highly underrated for what it is, I’d totally tell people to check it out. I also like movies like Unsane which deal with very plausible, could happen situations that are horrific as well.
One of my huge weaknesses would have to be the found footage genre and I don’t even deny that a ton of it is absolute crap. This is due to the fact that it’s easy to make and anyone with a smartphone and 15 minutes thinks they will produce the next Blair Witch. When it misses it really misses but when it’s a hit it’s good and because it’s so easy and cheap to make it opens doors for a lot of creators. Take a movie like RWD for instance. It was all made just by two guys. Two. That’s it. It’s not perfect or as clean as a big budget movie but it’s compelling enough for multiple watches and if you consider that only two people were ever involved in production it becomes more amazing.
I also really like demon possession movies. Basically anything with a person getting possessed by a demon, I’m there. I have no idea why either. I don’t actually believe in real life demonic possession but I am fascinated by the prospect of it. Have read real cases (the book Taken Hostage By The Devil was amazing) so when it’s fictionalized I’m always there. The only problem is that I’d say, these days, 90% of horror is just bad. There are reasons for this and I’ll get into them another day because right now I’m focusing on what makes a good horror movie, so let’s pull out some main points. This is just my opinion ultimately and no one has to agree with me. I do try to base this on objective and measurable so that it isn’t biased but, I’m only human.
Implied Concepts: This is one I’m very fond of, whether it’s implied gore or just brief glimpses of the so called monster. Things are better when you don’t see them straight on. Most of the time. I’m not against gore being in horror (or showing the monster entirely if it’s very scary) but I’m also a fan of ‘less is more’ in a lot of ways. If you’ll notice, with the IT movies (both the TV miniseries from the 90s and the newer adaptation) there were implied scares and allusions to horror more than everything being throw in your face at once. Yes, you did see Pennywise in his full clown glory but there were other elements which were not fully shown, leaving everything else up to the imagination. The trick is to give the audience enough of an idea what’s going on so they can imagine it but not show them everything. That’s why movies like The Ring/Ringu are so great.
Realistic Characters: I’m not talking about relatable characters (though this is never a bad thing). What I mean by this is when the characters behave exactly how you would think real life people would behave. Doesn’t matter if you like them or not but it’s more along the lines of “is this plausible and would a real person actually react this way?”. A good example of a movie with incredibly good and realistic human behavior and interactions in a fucked up situation is The Ruins. A very underrated movie (and book) for how well it nails the behavior of humans who happen to be in that specific situation.
Practical Effects over CGI: One of the things that will age any movie very fast is CGI. It will age horror even worse than that (and faster). When you rely entirely on computer technology to make your monster it might look cool for the time period but even as quickly as one or two years later it will be laughably bad. Back in the day the Cloverfield monster looked fucking sweet but by today’s standards it’s like “meh”. This is why, when at all possible, you want to go with practical effects. As many as you possibly can. The best approach is to use up all the practical effects and costuming you can and then touch things up with CGI (to get rid of wires/seems/whatever else). Practical effects almost never age badly and even when they kind of do, they are still practical and far more creepy than if someone had tried to pump a whole bunch of computer images in to make a monster.
Fresh Ideas: I am someone who is super against remakes, reboots, and sequels. To be completely fair sometimes movies cannot be told in one part. If an original idea or concept needs 3 or so movies to tell a complete story and it’s a real trilogy, I’m not complaining about that. For example, I love the Saw franchise (but only the first six movies). These movies all go together as one story though. I’m sure that is not what anyone intended when making the first one but they did at least try to make it one giant story instead of mindless torture porn sequels every year. This sets it apart from random slasher flicks that have no real rhyme or reason and are just banking off the franchise name. Are all sequels bad? No. Are all reboots bad? No. The thing is that if you are coming at me with a rehashed concept like a reboot or a sequel there better be something fresh and innovative in there and not the same story I just saw in the previous movie.
When it comes to horror movies, good horror movies, it’s been proven time and again you don’t need a huge budget, star-studded cast, or even complete professionals working on it. Some of the best horror movies I’ve ever seen are low-budget and indie productions. I’ve also seen amazing huge budget and cinematic horror movies but that’s the thing about horror. If it’s done right you can work with any budget and any medium and still produce something of quality. Even with my own scripts, I have a high-concept big-budget feature and smaller more indie things that can be done on a tiny budget. Horror as a genre has so many sub-genres as well as possibilities that if you already enjoy the overall concept of being scared (or conversely: scaring other people) there will always be a way to do it and enjoy it. Hopefully, this explains what I look for when it comes to horror and how I decide what is good or not. I am aware that I’m very, very picky so I don’t really get too bent out of shape if someone likes a horror movie that I don’t like but I do tend to ask them why. Mostly so I can learn for myself even if I doubt I’ll ever agree that certain horror movies are anywhere near good.