Horror is a film genre which has been quite hit-or-miss in the history of filmmaking. For every masterpiece such as Psycho, and Halloween (1978), there are the likes of Halloween: Resurrection, Jason X or Ouija. When it is good, it leaves you checking under the bed and in the wardrobe before going to bed. When it is bad, it is hilarious, but what makes good horror?
The beauty of any horror movie is to leave the viewers as vulnerable and powerless as the characters on the screen. The icons of horror directing such as Alfred Hitchcock, James Wan and Wes Craven knew this. Who didn’t have nightmares of Michael Meyers? Or were afraid to fall asleep in fear of Freddy Krueger? Both of those great characters are synonymous in the world of horror and hold a special place in the history of filmmaking overall.
My favourite horror film of all-time is the 1978 classic Halloween. While I love the likes of The Shining, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream, not only was Halloween the first horror film I ever watched, but it also had the longest lasting effect on me. For the goods of 2 weeks after watching it, I checked under my bed and in the wardrobe before I went to bed. Not only that but, as with any horror film worthy of the genre, it gave me nightmares, and the image of THAT mask still sticks in my brain to this day.
That’s what good horror should be; scarring. It should leave you on edge for the entire film, giving you the desire to look away while being so compelling that you can’t take your eyes away. The best way for any film to achieve this is through the gradual escalation of tension right up until the film’s climax, rather than through a common Hollywood trait; the cheap jumpscare.
The problem with immediate and sudden scares that come from jumpscares is that it releases any tension which has been built up over the course of the movie. While they may be frightening, the problem is that it is for but a second and often turn out to be false-scares such as a character turning the corner only for a friend to pop out and laugh, there is nothing really scary about it. Unless the jumpscare equates to a threat to the characters or contributes to the story, as seen in Insidious, and The Ring, then they are entirely unnecessary.
The escalation of tension is what is truly scary. Take The Blair Witch Project as an example. Throughout the film, the 3 protagonists are toyed with by the titular witch (which we don’t get to see whatsoever which is part of the beauty of the film). As the tension builds approaching the climax, the isolation and mental strain on the characters drives them apart and the ultimate payoff in the dilapidated house is truly terrifying. The film is unnerving and the ending is very scary. That build-up of tension keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat while the ultimate payoff send the viewer behind their couch in hiding. That’s the stuff that stays with you, not the cheap jumpscares that have become far too prevalent in horror films today.
Of course, very little of this matters if you do not have characters that the viewer can sympathise with. A lack of such is a major issue with slasher films. I recently watched Halloween: Resurrection and the lack of meaningful characters was frightening. Essentially, the characters in the film equated to uninteresting statues for Michael Meyers to kill off. What makes it all worse is that BUSTA-FREAKING-RHYME gets the better of MICHAEL FREAKING MEYERS which is a big no-no!
Essentially, there was absolutely no reason to care about any of the characters and, therefore, there was no reason to feel the fear that they felt when being picked apart by Meyers. Contrast this to, for example. The Shining. The film, in case you don’t know, focuses on a father, mother, and son. As the film progresses, isolation slows drives the father insane as his relationship with his wife and son becomes more and more unstable until he finally tries to kill them. Not only do we get to know the characters well thanks to the small-scale, intimate setting of the film but, as a result, we understand and feel their fear when it all goes to hell. That sort of stuff in a film is scary, and is also why The Shining is an all-time classic, regardless of genre.
There is no magic formula for horror movies, just like there is no specific kind of horror film. There are slashers, found footage, supernatural, satirical (Scream), horror-thrillers, and many, many more. Ultimately, however, what gives classics such as Halloween, Psycho, and The Shining the edge is the level of character and escalated tension which separates decent horror from nightmare level horror.