When people write about the great directors of our modern era, they often inexplicably leave out people who direct horror films. Yet it often takes an incredibly skilled filmmaker to make a great scary movie. All of the elements, such as the cinematography, pacing music, and editing have to come together and work like a well-oiled machine in the best scary movies.
It may have seemed odd that a comedy writer, Carl Gottlieb, was picked to craft the screenplay for Jaws, but as Gottlieb explains, “Comedy, at its most rudimentary level is really a craft, there’s really a technique to it. A shock moment in a horror film is like the punch line of a joke. If it’s not set up properly, it doesn’t work well. If it’s handled clumsily or bobbled, it doesn’t work at all.”
In Danse Macabre, Stephen King’s love letter to horror, he wrote that a filmmaker takes a “great risk” when making a horror movie because if it’s not made with any skill, “it often fails into painful absurdity or squalid porno-violence.”
Indeed, a great horror film doesn’t happen by accident, so here are a few common denominators I’ve noticed in the best of them, some good building blocks to help create a good, scary tale if you will.
Timing is Everything
Most of us know the Alfred Hitchcock rule of suspense. A bomb is under the table, the audience knows it’s going to go off in ten minutes but the people sitting there have no clue. Instead of having the bomb go off immediately and shocking the audience for a moment, now the audience is on the edge of their seat for what feels like an interminable length of time. As the master director himself once said, there’s no terror in a bang, only the anticipation of one.
I’ve always loved the first twenty minutes of When a Stranger Calls, which takes its time building fear, and it also built scares with simple ideas. Fred Walton, the writer/director of Stranger, advises, “Don’t be afraid to slow down and get into the details of what’s happening each moment. The clock is ticking, the wind is blowing outside, the ice cream bar is melting, all these little things flesh out the environment that the protagonist is struggling in. The things that scare me are the most realistic things, and for most people, the realistic things tend to be really small like the phone ringing, a knock at the door.”