FROM THE GARDEN ISLAND…
When I was a kid, my parents packed my four brothers and me into a tiny truck and took us across the border to Mexico for a month. My unlucky aunt had to house sit our dilapidated, run-down home on Howard Drive.
The rumor was that two elderly people had died in our house and were found days, maybe weeks later. That was before we moved in. My parents weren’t superstitious, so it didn’t bother them much, but my aunt was terrified of ghosts. She had no idea about the dead old people in our home.
One night, as she was sitting in our living room, she saw an old man rocking in a chair. She panicked and ran to the bathroom, where she found the same old man dead in the bathtub, full of water. That was enough for her.
When we returned from Mexico, our house was empty and our aunt said she would never visit us again.
It doesn’t take a lot to startle me, but surprisingly I was never frightened of being alone in that home.
I wasn’t scared of a lot of things growing up. As the second-to-youngest child in a family of seven, I was always being forced to do things I didn’t want to do or watch things I didn’t want to see. I’ve seen a lot of horror movies and a lot of disturbing things in my life.
The more horrible of the things I’ve seen I’ll call torture. Fortunately, it didn’t leave a lasting negative impact on my psyche. But what it did do was make me love thrillers and horror movies and make me aware of what makes a great one.
I’m not much into slashers, though. Sorry “Scream” and “Saw” fans. But I will say this, I love me some “Psycho.” “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is a decent film and if you have to make a revival of a 1980s masterpiece slasher, you have already failed.
Those movies were amazing for a reason. Today’s generation can appreciate yesterday’s classic slashers. Case and point: “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.” No one is remaking that because it’s still amazing by today’s standards. Don’t touch it.
Aside from slashers, there are psychological horrors, science fiction horrors and zombie films, to name a few. Each of these subgenres contain a variety of ghoulish movies that will fill just about anyone’s appetite for all things disgusting. More on that later.
To make a great horror film, you need more than just blood, guts and gore. You’ll need suspense and you’ll need to build up the tension using fear, surprise and mystery.
A horror film introduces us to a number of protagonist characters, such as an up-and-coming writer moving to a new town, a loner boy or girl who doesn’t fit in with the cool crowd at school, the mother of a strange adopted child … the list goes on.
Often female, many of these protagonist characters are vulnerable and easy to manipulate.
The protagonist has some undeniable fear, such as spiders, for instance. Or, in Stephen King’s masterpiece, “It,” Pennywise the Clown. Even if you aren’t afraid of spiders or clowns, a great storyteller or director can create enough suspense and build up enough mystery to make you deathly afraid of that character’s fear.
It’s the storyteller’s job to build a connection between the audience and the characters onscreen. The audience is often shown a scene where the protagonist experiences an extreme injustice or an awful trauma. You can then immediately relate with them.
In a horror film, the same is true when building fear or suspense. The storyteller shows you the character’s fear through a flashback, or a disturbing scene in which the character has no control over the situation. If the protagonist has no control, likewise the audience has no control and the fear is then transferred. You now fear what the protagonist fears.
Often times, amateur storytellers will use surprise as a cheap trick to get audiences scared. Movies such as “Paranormal Activity” will have menacing scenes with pop-ups meant to get audiences to jump out of their seats and scream. That’s a temporary jolt, but it doesn’t build character development.
But if used correctly, surprise can really have a lasting impression on an audience. Do you remember how you felt after watching the end of, “The Sixth Sense,” especially after having made that connection with Bruce Willis’ character?
Without spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it (seriously, go watch it on Netflix), the level of empathy the audience felt with the psychiatrist went from zero to 60 in five seconds. You felt his emotional pain. Everything from the beginning of the movie came rushing back.
Although “The Sixth Sense” was not necessarily a horror movie, there were ominous elements that made it scary, terrifying and thrilling, proving again that you don’t need blood, guts and gore in a movie to make it great.
Mystery and intrigue
Audiences love being able to solve problems.
In “Sinister,” the protagonist — a crime writer depicted by Ethan Hawke — discovers a box of creepy snuff films in his attic that lead him to try to figure out how the murders are connected.
If the audience was immediately told how they were connected, why would they continue to watch the movie?
I once took a theater class in college and my one takeaway from it is this: Great storytellers will often introduce elements in act one that they will reintroduce later on in act three. That’s a principle known to theater nerds as “Chekhov’s gun.” Basically, don’t add an element to a story that is irrelevant.
When you’re watching a movie, pay close attention to everything the characters say or do. You’ll be better equipped at predicting future events or following the narrative.
So, now you know you know how to tell a good horror movie from a bad horror movie.
A final note on horror movies: Masterpieces from the 80’s are old and classic. Often that means they are visually a little dated. Some may refer to that as “cheesy” and dismiss the movie in its entirety. Don’t do that.
Just because a movie was made in a different generation than you, doesn’t make it unworthy of your time. Give it a chance. See beyond the “cheesiness” and enjoy that classic.
So, what’s my favorite scary movie, you ask? “Event Horizon,” because it’s a little bit science fiction mixed in with absolute terror and death. What’s worse than spending all eternity in the grasps of outer space? Oh right. Being in alternate hellish universe.
What’s your favorite horror movie or horror movie genre and why?