Today: June 21, 2024

Horror Film Formula

To celebrate the release of Adam Wingard’s new horror film You’re Next (Main Picture), FilmJuice takes a look at what makes a truly great horror movie. Is there really a ‘formula’? Can a great movie be distilled down to a handful of ‘winning’ ideas? Or is every great horror film the one that breaks the mould? You decide…

First and foremost, the hero or heroine of a great horror story has got to be likeable – if you don’t care about them then their story is not going to engage you at all. In terms of their character, they will generally be quite resourceful and levelheaded, otherwise they won’t last long enough to justify being called the hero/heroine. The more normal and realistic they seem, the more relatable they are and so the scarier their situation becomes. Of course sometimes the protagonist and the antagonist are one and the same.

It’s more difficult to identify a generic villain, because there is such a great variety. For example, human antagonists are frightening because they are – or were – once like you. But then that also means that they are mortal, and potentially less frightening than a supernatural threat. Freddy Kruger or Norman Bates … it’s all a matter of perspective. Perhaps all we can really say is that the best villains are those with believable motives – whether that’s revenge or sadism or everything in between. After all, there’s nothing worse than getting to the end of a horror film and finding an overly complicated, tenuous explanation for the killer’s actions.

Plot Twist
Leading on from that, surprise plot twists can make or break a horror film. The best twists are shocking, but without being completely farfetched. They should shed new light on the situation rather than completely undermine the whole story. A good plot twist – done really well will make you immediately want to re-watch the film to find all the subtle clues.

Sometimes the scariest location for a horror movie is the place you’d normally consider the safest (hence our morbid fascination with home invasion films). That’s not to say that ‘traditionally’ scary places don’t do the trick, too – just think of The Blair Witch Project. It seems that the best setting is one from which there is no escape; either because you are in the middle of nowhere in an area you don’t know that well, or because the threat has already invaded the very place you would want to escape to.

The music should complement the action. Done well, the soundtrack can create the perfect atmosphere in every scene, it can reinforce the shocking make-you-jump moments and it can help to maintain the tension even when the audience can’t actually see the threat. Take Jaws as a prime example; the iconic theme music is used to suggest the shark’s presence – you don’t actually see the titular character all that often. While this was in part due to faulty mechanics, it is now hailed as a masterful horror/suspense trick.

Special Effects
Obviously you need blood – and lots of it. And if you’re going to have aliens, or zombies, or any sort of supernatural beings, they should look as realistic as possible. Anything that is clearly a man in a suit, or a man wearing prosthetics, is just poor form these days. This probably comes back to the point about realism – ultimately the best horrors are the ones that are so realistic and take place in such normal settings, that you can’t help but wonder…

Catch You’re Next in cinemas from 28th August!

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