Effective Horror Films

Michael Lee Simpson explores numerous horror film classics and flops and everything in between. Some heavyweights in the industry offered their insight on what truly defines the horror genre.
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The Exorcist, novel and screenplay by William Peter Blatty and directed William Friedkin, stunned the world upon its release in 1973, hailed as a masterpiece by some and repulsive to many. The MPAA ratings board defended its R-rating when a new diagnosis called “cinematic neurosis” made headlines. Audiences suffered heart attacks, miscarriages and seizures at the theater—an outcome unparalleled by any other film in history—and has made over $441.3 million in the last four decades, the highest-grossing R-rated horror film of all time until It in 2017. Setting a precedent, the bar was undoubtedly raised. Numerous classics and flops followed and everything in between. Some heavyweights in the industry offered their insight on what truly defines the horror genre.

Steven Bratter, Partner at SAEC Ventures, Visiting Lecturer in Film Studies at Copenhagen University and Executive Producer of Demolition Man, described Jaws as “The greatest ‘creature feature’ of all time. Steven Spielberg took Peter Benchley’s international bestseller and he didn’t just hit the audience’s nerve, he went for their jugular! With The Shining, Kubrick elevated the genre to big-budget studio, high art, A-list talent—none of which was previously associated with horror, just as he did with the sci-fi genre. Before: A Space Odyssey, that genre was considered for B movies only. After 2001, it was cinematic high art. He broke the mold and combined his vision for The Shining with great source material from Stephen King. In Alien, Ridley Scott is telling a gothic horror story in outer space. In Aliens, James Cameron is writing and directing a combat sci-fi horror films…The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity—those two films are the twin pillars of the ‘Found Footage’ genre. The Walking Dead is my favorite TV series. Gale Ann Hurd brought home the zombie genre of horror (Dawn of the Dead) to the TV series format.”

Roots of the genre can be traced back to eighteenth century literature. Gothic fiction legends like Stoker, Poe and Shelley introduced worlds of haunting folklore. Their works inspired French pioneer Georges Méliès to direct a short called Le Manoir du diable in 1896—the first horror film of all time, also known as The House of the Devil. The three-minute silent sketch opens with a bat flying inside a fortress corridor, and within seconds morphs into a phantom wearing a cape. He performs what appears to be black magic. Skeletons and caldrons burst into plumes of smoke, flickering next to bizarre props and images. In three minutes, the screen fades but that was only the beginning.

[Script Extra: TV Writer Podcast 057 - Horror Icon Adam Green (Hatchet, Holliston)]

“The element of madness takes center stage,” said Actress/Writer/Entrepreneur Jacqueline Doll. “It appears that the human psyche has been struggling with this villain for centuries to understand the boundaries of the human condition… Before committing to a project, I assess if the project is something I value and support, what is the commitment, how do I deal with change and how do I handle disagreements rationally and professionally. I put a great deal of emphasis on creativity and passion and enjoy working with those who can share insight and offer solutions to challenges.”

Cinema evolved into Japanese horror until German Expressionism surfaced, notably The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu. By the 1930s and 1940s, stars like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and Lon Chaney Jr. rose to fame as Universal Studios began their long run of monster movies. Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stoker’s Dracula came to life, along with The Mummy and The Invisible Man, peaking in 1941 with Chaney prowling through a forest in The Wolf Man. After years of sequels and crossover films like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and Bride of Frankenstein, the blood spatter got thicker, forming bigger pools of red, pushing the envelope further through various eras—the Golden Age, the Atomic and Gimmicky Years, Creature Features—until the shower curtain ripped open in Psycho. Janet Leigh’s scream echoed over Hollywood and sliced through barriers that changed the silver screen forever.

“Hitchcock’s Psycho is of course such a classic,” said Screenwriter/Producer Reem Kadem, who has various projects in development with top tier producers, with one of her latest films to be directed by an Oscar Winner. “I grew up loving the Scream movies. They really put a scare in me and I felt they were quite effective in their storylines and twists overall—especially part 1 and 2. I loved Hocus Pocus as a kid, and I think I saw that at least thirty times. Let The Right One In is an amazing Swedish horror which I highly recommend…We all get that horrors do the best overall on all fronts, but I still look for big universal themes, and I want it to have colors. Humor, heart, scare, and characters that really draw you in, in a world that is unique and hopefully a little different than the many you’ve seen before.”

Gifted directors have come and gone. George A. Romero made Night of the Living Dead. Tobe Hooper rented minimal equipment and shot The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in just a few weeks. Sam Raimi filmed The Evil Dead on weekends with his friends. Wes Craven crossed the line with The Last House on the Left, and again with A Nightmare on Elm Street. James Wan came along with his grisly body of work; Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring films, which spawned a shared universe with The Nun and Annabelle series. These groundbreaking franchises—most embarking on their journeys with extremely low budgets—have cashed in over $1 billion. Moving on from the 1970s and 1980s, slasher films like Candyman, Craven’s Scream movies and I Know What You Did Last Summer resurrected horror cinema in a fresh way.

scream horror film

“The idea for Final Destination came from an article I read about a woman whose mother told her to change flights because she had a bad feeling,” said Jeffrey Reddick, writer/producer of the Final Destination franchise, Tamara, Dead Awake, 2008’s Dawn of the Dead and Don’t Look Back. “The woman switched planes, and the flight she was scheduled to be on crashed. I wrote a detailed treatment with the guidance of producers Craig Perry and Warren Zide. It started off being all adults, but when Scream came out, the studio had us change it to teenagers. New Line couldn't get their head around not having a physical killer. They were like, ‘Death, you can't see it, you can't fight it.’ We're like, ‘That's the point!’ Finally, we threatened to take it to Miramax and the studio bought it. I wrote the first draft in a few months, which was easy since we’d developed the treatment for so long. They hired James Wong and Glen Morgan, a great team, who really took the movie into a fresh direction.”

[Script Extra: Hitchcock and the Ticking Time Bomb: Are We Doing It Wrong?]

“Both Winchester and The Haunting in Connecticut were based in part on true stories,” said Andrew Trapani, producer of those films and founder/producer at Nine/8 Entertainment. “Whatever her reason for constructing the oddity that is the Winchester Mystery House over so many years, Sarah Winchester was undeniably a tragic and historical figure…The veracity of that story has been heavily debated since the film’s release, and there’s no doubt that we, as filmmakers, took some dramatic liberties for effect…and yet, as wide and tangled as the supernatural yarn, there was an undeniable measure of credibility in the palpable human response. Something had happened to those people, and it had happened in that house.” Trapani has partnered with Skybound Productions to remake An American Werewolf in London, to be released in 2022 by Universal Studios. “[The remake] ​presents a completely different challenge. Landis fused horror and comedy like no prior American filmmaker, and he did so at a time when his stature was on par with Spielberg’s. The mandate, as with all remakes from my vantage, is to remain faithful to the spirit of the original while still justifying the redo. We’re not making widgets and the original means a great deal to me personally. Fortunately, The Walking Dead​ creator Robert Kirkman is also producing and we have a faithful yet inventively worthy take on the original.”

“All a horror film really needs is effective scares and catharsis,” said Gary Susman, a former film critic whose work has appeared in Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Time, People, the Village Voice, Moviefone, and the Boston Phoenix. “That’s it. They don’t follow the laws of physics, so they don’t really need to follow narrative rules either, except maybe the rules they make up for their monsters and villains to adhere to. Novelty and unpredictability help; it’s harder to be scared by the familiar and the clichéd... Elements a horror film surprisingly does not need: jump scares, gore (as the recent wave of more atmospheric horror films attests), or a high body count. No one dies in Poltergeist.”

“The development of even the most basic parts is a telling component in any of the stories,” said Sarah Ashley of Artistic View Productions. “Any good horror movie has the element of something different or new. Too often, we rely on cheap scares rather than a true substance. Even if we know the story in and out, adding something new and real and possible can move us into a completely terrifying realization.”

“The first time I remember myself being terrified by a horror film was when I watched A Nightmare on Elm Street 5,” reflected Olia Oparina, director/producer at Infilmity Productions. “I started having nightmares of my family forcefully feeding me raw meat, ‘till I choked and died just like Greta did in that spine-chilling dining scene. Terror, helplessness and pain from being hurt by my loved ones—all those feelings made an unforgettable impact on me… My choices were mostly dictated by my upbringing. Born a Soviet, I saw the power of those who understood human psychology. I try to find stories that have a unique perspective as a filmmaker. Divination is a feature screenplay that I am currently writing. It's based on Slavic rituals. A short film that I made along with my producing partner Anya Bay, I Am Normal, has just been completed, inspired by a psychiatric experiment (The Rosenhan Experiment) that happened in the U.S. in 1973. My only wish is to continue my legacy and that is to entice people with truly unique petrifying stories.”

Nightmare-on-Elm-Street-reboot

“I like a good series. It is a way to extend the storyline of a film,” said Jeff Meyer, creator/producer/director at Salt City Horror Fest. “My projects pertain to film programming of events and festivals. I like to put together a theme and then choose films that go along with said theme. Ie. crazy maniacs. I'll find films with crazy maniacs in them. Ie. Maniac, American Psycho, etc. “A horror film should have some twists that will set the viewer's guard off. A film that has a slight message with mostly good entertainment elements. It should scare, entertain and sometimes leave us with an afterthought or a feeling of dread after watching it.”

Good or bad, the thousands of movies and shows over the years have undoubtedly influenced the Halloween holiday. Crowds flood Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights every year, themes ranging from Beetlejuice to Chucky. Stores get stocked with masks—Hellraiser, Michael Myers and Jason—on racks above Grim Reaper costumes, plastic axes and chainsaws, Freddy Kruger finger knives and Pennywise the Clown outfits. Somewhere along the way, horror started to become associated with gore and shock value, spilling into our culture.

“I am a huge fan of what is now known as ‘elevated horror,’ which to me is (and has always been) ‘story/character-driven’ horror like the more recent Relic, The Witch and Hereditary,” said Encounter (starring Luke Hemsworth) director Paul. J. Salamoff, also a screenwriting professor at The New York Film Academy who has developed projects with Mosaic Media Group and Blumhouse. “In regard to TV, we have been recently blessed with some really handsomely made productions most exceptionally with Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House and now Bly Manor…The number one thing that makes a horror (or ANY genre) film work for me is engaging and relatable characters with a truthful emotional life. If you don’t care about the characters that inhabit the story, then no amount of blood or gore is going to make it work.”

“My favorite film of all time is I Saw the Devil,” stated iHorror staff writer Kelly McNeely. “Some might say it’s more of a thriller than a horror, but I think the distinction between the two genres is such a thin and often blurred line, so I’m not splitting hairs. You can do a whole lot with a good sense of dread, I think. In any serious horror film, the goal is to scare—whether that’s a jump scare or a sense of anxious unease—so build-up is very important. It’s like fear foreplay; you can’t just jump straight to screaming. That said, there’s something to be said for the out-of-left-field shocking surprise. Those “oh shit” moments that flip the whole script. They’re hard to execute well, but can be so incredibly effective.”

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John Carpenter brought terror out of Victorian castles and into the suburbs with his revolutionary Halloween, where he shadowed Psycho by casting Jamie Lee Curtis, the daughter of Janet Leigh. The victims were teenage girls, stalked by a slow-walking psychopath in a white mask. Scoring the film with a simple piano melody, Carpenter utilized the Steadicam, gliding across lawns and residential streets from the killer’s point-of-view.

Robert Zappia, writer of Halloween H20 and the upcoming Lionsgate film, The Devil’s Light starring Virginia Madsen, said, “In 1888, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote ‘Aus der Kriegsschule des Lebens—Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker,’ which can be translated as ‘Out of life’s school of war—what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.’ Horror films are the cinematic embodiment of the aphorism. In the Halloween films, Laurie Strode emerges from each encounter with her psycho brother stronger than before. And in many ways, the same truth can be applied to the writing process. In the war of words, with each draft conquered a stronger writer emerges.”

betaal horror films

“Throughout their journey, characters have to face scary situations and fight off evil,” said Elaine Roberts of Chase Your Dreams Productions. “No matter what genre, my projects have to have a silver lining, and even if that means things don’t work out well in the end for our protagonist, fighting for what’s right and our loved ones will always send that positive message, that silver lining. Stranger Things and Betaal have shown that we can get scared in our living rooms rather than only the big screen. For me personally, I love creating an atmosphere that’s full of mystery and tie that atmosphere (world) the characters find themselves in, into the suspense element. Using the atmosphere as the source of mystery creates that curiosity where even though it’s scary, the characters and even the audience will still want to venture in to see what they find... which is usually trouble. Young kids that see an old spooky abandoned house that is rumored to be haunted... they’ll always want to go in no matter what!”

“I look at a horror movie as a ride,” said producer Richard Potter (Scream 2, Mimic, Phantoms, Allied Forces, The Prophecy and former Dimension Films/Miramax executive. “If you don’t get off the ride thinking you had fun, then it wasn’t effective. Even the scares have to be fun. You have the build-up, the tension leading up to the scare. Then you have that moment where the scare happens, and as much as it terrifies you, it relieves the tension of the build-up… It must have characters you want to take the ride with. You don’t have to like them; you just have to believe them. If they seem fake or consistently make stupid choices it ruins the ride. They have to feel real in the world created by the writer and the director… Finally, the rules of the world have to be clear enough that the audience can understand the stakes, understand what it is necessary for the characters to ‘win,’ and believe that whatever ‘winning’ is in the story, is worth what they are going through… If the ending is not satisfying, it doesn’t matter how scary the movie was. The audience will walk out disappointed and that means the movie was not effective. If you got off a ride and thought the ending was lame, you didn’t enjoy the ride.”

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