Friday, June 25, 2010

Question of the Day: What Makes a Good Horror Film?

Wow, I haven't done one of these in a long time. Since I've been thinking about horror films all summer (and will continue to do so) I was thinking about what makes a horror movie great.  So, what is it that makes a horror movie great for you?  Is it the comfortableness of the genre (i.e. the gore, the violence, the gratuitous nudity, teens in peril, etc.) that gives the viewer the kind of nostalgia that a lot of people opine about when they speak of horror films (specifically the slasher films of the 80's)?  Does it need to obey those rules or the tropes of the genre? Should it be sprinkled with humor, or have its tongue in its cheek? Does a good horror movie need atmosphere?  Does it successfully displace you and make you feel uneasy about what's going on?  Does it have to be realistic? For me there are a few examples of what I think make up a great horror movie (keep in mind I'm not saying these are the best horror movies, I'm just using them as examples):

Halloween: We'll start with the slasher film, and the obvious example at that, but it takes one of the primary hindrances for any horror movie (a limited budget) and creates one of the best looking horror films with its minimalistic and haunting score, and impressive use of the widescreen format.  Evil creeps up on you in the peripheries, and not only that, but John Carpenter places a lot of the initial stalking scenes in plain daylight in a seemingly safe suburban neighborhood.  Everything that screams normal and safe is inverted here, and it's all because of Carpenter's reliance on a classic mise-en-scene rather than ratchetiung up his film with false scares and buckets of blood.

The Beyond/City of the Living Dead: These two Italian horror films are the greatest, but they're perfect examples of what I like in a supernatural horror film. Characters come and go without any explanation, there is no sense of time or place, and the set pieces seem constructed out of Lucio Fulci's deranged nightmares.  Buildings are almost always abandoned, towns deserted, and people do inexplicably evil and nasty things thanks to ancient books being unearthed or curses caused by priests hanging themselves.  These two films are perfect examples of what it is to have an ethereal horror experience.  The plot's are nonsensical mishmashes of ideas, and the threads that connect them are razor thin; however, you don't watch Italian horror for its riveting's all about atmosphere, and Fulci's films (I'll throw Argento's Suspiria and Pupi Avati's The House with Laughing Windows in there as well) are dripping with it.

The Descent: Here you have just enough realism (the opening spelunking scenes) that it gives me the willies just thinking about it (I'm claustrophobic); however, you also have a crazy-as-hell monster movie in its second half. Neil Marshall's brilliant horror film is a perfect example of how to do the monster movie right (have fun), while still maintaining an appropriate tone (something he couldn't do in his follow-up Doomsday) throughout the film.  You also have smart, strong female characters inahbiting this film, the "woman in peril" trope isn't as lame as it normally is because these women fight back, especially Juno, and they're give some time to create their charatcers so they don't just become props to be gnawed on by the crawlers.  Sarah, the main character, is given some heartbreaking context, and her past hovers over the entrie length of the film until we're treated to one a heartbreaking and poignant final shot...something you almost never get in a horror movie.  Marshall's film is also super referential, which makes for tons of geekout moments for nerdy horror fans such as myself.

There ya have it.  That's what I think makes a good horror movie: either play it classically the way Carpenter did, play is ethereal and nonsensical where it's all about atmosphere like Fulci did, or play it referential and have fun like Marshall. I'll be interested to hear what you all have to say.  Discuss in the comments. 


  1. Personally, I like my horror challenging and difficult to watch. Sure, there's fun in watching the 80s slashers and the usual ilk, but if I genuinely want to watch a good horror movie, I want it to be thought-provoking and, most importantly, DIFFICULT. I don't want a movie that's easy to sit through and doesn't make me assess what is happening on screen and my responses to it.

    With that in mind, for horror movies that I find genuinely good and not just fun (such a fine line between the two) we enter a dark side of cinema. Movies such as Irreversible, or Antichrist, are challenging and sickening, but gosh are they good. They're not the sort of movies you just watch vapidly - they're movies you experience. It's rare to find a movie that, while genuinely challenging, can also provide a good plot and raise interesting issues, but it's what I continue to look for in horror movies.

  2. Boy when you have a project at hand you really run with it Kevin. Again you've collared a vital issue when discussing this enternally satisfying genre. Well, for me it comes down to how much it scares you. It can be a plain ordinary low-budget film that leaves you disturbed for weeks and months, like 1958's I BURY THE LIVING or 1961's B movie witchcraft classic CITY OF THE DEAD (HORROR HOTEL). Some Bava features like BLACK SABBATH contained one segment that is one of the scariest individual episodes ever filmed. (A DROPOF WATER, based on Chekov) Val Lewton's horror films scare by suggestion. The Universal horrors are more visual. The giallos use shock and bombast.

    For me, there must be some artistry in the proceedings as well. We think of PSYCHO, DEAD OF NIGHT, CURSE OF THE DEMON and CARNIVAL OF SOULS for starters. And then there are the Corman Poe adaptations.

    You've framed everything perfectly here, and your excitement is really infectious!!

  3. Liam:

    You get at something that intrigues me: what is horror? You list two films that most would consider horrifying, but situate themselves outside of the genre. I think that's the great thing about horror films is that they can be overt like slashers, monster movies, or gialli; however, they can also exist in the subconscious and be me more subtle affairs like the two examples you mention (I would also add something like Roeg's Don't Look Now).

    Switching to something that is clearly defined as a horror film, Wolf Creek strikes me as the kind of film Irreversible and Antichrist strive to be. It's sickening and hard to watch, but damn is it effective in what it's trying to do.

    Thanks for the great comment, Liam, and for stopping by and checking this out.

  4. Sam:

    Well, let's just say I'm honored to be one of the fine people who will be "running" this horror countdown, so I'm just trying to live up to my end of the deal here.

    I agree with you about artistry...I think that is why I am so drawn to the Italians. Their stories weren't always the greatest, but they understood the horror aesthetic perhaps better than anyone else. I also adore Lewton's stuff and the power of suggestion I think is a key factor into what makes a good horror film.

    I guess I don't factor in the "scare factor" as much as some. I get scared every so often with a film (Alien, Halloween, The Blair Witch Project), but rarely does a film REALLY scare me. So I never consider it a factor. Perhaps I'm too cynical and jaded with this particular genre, and that's probably why moreso than any other genre I look more heavily at the aesthetic of the film than the narrative.

    Thanks for stopping by, Sam, and for such a wonderful response.

  5. Great question here. I'll spend some more time really looking into what it is about my favorite horror films that makes them great...but for now, here's some stuff off the top of my head.

    The atmosphere you describe, the kind that Fulci and Argento excelled in, is definitely something that helps make a great horror film. There's is an atmosphere of unexplainable things happening and that lack of coherence, when done with a lot of style, can be horrific.

    But there's another kind of atmosphere, the kind that films like THE HAUNTING or NIGHT OF THE DEMON or really, HALLOWEEN and ALIEN, provide. It's a sense of underlying dread and the fear of the unknown and the unstoppable nature of these things that makes these films powerful.

    I also love a good heart-pounding film that is mostly wall-to-wall action like THE DESCENT and 28 WEEKS LATER.

    Finally, there's the films that truly cause some kind of genuinely horrific reactions. These are rare, as most movies that try to attain this usually fall flat on their face, but in watching something like HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER you can't help but have a horrific feeling at the proceedings.

    I could go on further -- so many aspects of horror entertain me (I didn't even get in to the unintentional comedy or creativity aspects), but I'll have to think about it more and write about it later.

  6. Ah, the question 'what is horror?' is one I have given much thought over - and still struggle to answer. It really is such a versatile genre, completely unlike any other, and tackles so many different themes and interesting ideas. Take the social commentary from Romero's zombie movies, for example, or the political messages hidden in the Korean monster movie The Host. It's such a wonderful genre that caters to such a wide range.

    Wolf Creek is actually a very good example, when I first saw that movie it really affected me. The sleazy despicable characterisation of Mick Taylor situated in a grim realistic setting is handled superbly. I guess, at the end of the day when it comes to horror, and movies in general, I'm looking for something that will affect me in one way or another. While it's always nice to get a laugh out of comedies, or the satisafactory sweet climax from romance, very rarely do other genres offer themes that really allow you to consider interesting and sometimes important issues. While the fun horror films are always immensely enjoyable, it's the ones that push me out of my comfort zone and shock or horrify me that I really get excited about. I think, as a horror fan, it's easy to get desensitized to the genre after a while, but the great thing about being a horror fan is you never know where the next scare is going to come from.

  7. Atmosphere is a big factor for me. Two examples I can think of are Carpenter's "The Thing" and Argento's "Suspiria." They both have atmospheres that will make you forget where you are in my opinion. This is important, you don't want to know that you're watching a horror movie, you want to be immersed in it.

    The soundtrack in Supsiria helps a lot too.

  8. (I hesitated to post this, but I figure you guys are about to see/read this anyways for the horror countdown coming up, so here goes)

    All horror films that try and scare-- not all try to scare-- all have one thing in common: the sickest, most vile, scariest, strangest thing in the proceedings is the persons brain behind the lens. This person must, and I mean must establish early in the proceedings that no social, societal, or traditional moray is to be respected. Then from this point the viewer has no bearings of what to expect (this idea is seen most clearly in something like the original THE HILLS HAVE EYES, Craven slaughters a baby early, so after that the affect becomes 'anything goes'.)

    Then at this point how this director further unsettles us is how that person sees the world in terms of horror, it's one of: psychologically crazy, undeniably bizarre, horrific, vile, or sadistic (and any combination of these). Which of these that we react to the most as 'favorites' then show us about what it is we are (perversely) attracted to, repulsed, and scared by.

    For me? The first half of the AFTERMATH/GENESIS duel shorts feature (the first 30 minute feature called AFTERMATH specifically) by Nacho Cerdà does it most accurately right now I think-- horror that shocks in its sexual depravity (hinting at human inability for connection and thus the twisting of sexual taste), savagery (all this 'alone time' is socially affecting in the negative), lack of respect for a norm (complete defiling of a one beautiful corpse), and then it's symbolic outcome/degradation of respected iconography (a heart as a symbol of love taken literally and feed to a organism on all fours). Horror that shows that humans are, yes, still animals. We don't need the fake, the phony, or the supernatural to scare us. We merely need to show what we do and think when we are alone. The beauty that then comes with the second 30 minute GENESIS just makes the initial AFTERMATH that much unshakable.

    Oh and as a primer you can watch the dialogue-less 30 minute or so AFTERMATH on youtube (it's also available on dvd).

  9. continued (seriously fuck character limits):

    (this is purely the answer I'd give if I really wanted to think why I like horror so much, I think it can also be contemplated in terms of just its form. The way it can be camp, or artistic for just the sake of the form. This is how I'd explain the importance of the slasher, the giallo, or any subgenre for that matter-- it's just like any form of art that's evolved, meaning pushing a boundary just to push a boundary is as important as anything else (as is staying within and playing with genre rules). GUINEA PIG isn't good, but it is because it's a landmark gore film, THE BURNING isn't good but it is because it slid a marker for the slasher in the positive direction. Horror more then any other genre is one that exists in a vacuum. A vacuum where 'bad' films turn into good ones because a director or a film is honest and original to the form. A non-horror fan can, and will, never understand this. Horror fans are generally people that liked Horror films become they liked Film.

    And then this becomes another reason its important: horror, like no other film genre becomes a cult. A cult that has conventions, movies made to exist just for the drive in, and fans that have 24 hour horror marathons with beers. It's a genre that is artistic but lack pretension, the lowliest member can become a creator. Perhaps the original, and still only, DIY film genre. It's the 'punk' of film. VIDEO VIOLENCE and the films Troma makes become 'classics' on these grounds.)

    _ _ _

    Or to describe 'Horror' could be listening to the Fantômas 'Investigation Of A Citizen Above Suspicion' on repeat for 2 hours (or just the last minute once with headphones). Or one could just consider the lyrics to the Pixies 'I Bleed':
    it's loud as hell
    a ringing bell
    behind my smile
    it shakes my teeth
    and all the while
    as vampires feed
    i bleed

    prithee, my dear,
    why are we here
    nobody knows
    we go to sleep
    as breathing flows
    my mind secedes
    i bleed

    there's a place
    in the buried west
    in a cave
    with a house in it
    in the clay
    the holes of hands
    you can place
    a hand in hand
    i bleed

  10. Great post as always Kevin, and I couldn't help but join in the discussion though I'm no connoisseur where horror movies go. Ok, one thing is clear though, I'm no big fan of slasher & splatter films, and gore doesn't really turn me on as it does for a lot of lovers of such films. I did like Evil Dead, but that's a rather one-off thing.

    A good horror film for me should spend a lot of time & effort in building atmosphere in terms of being brooding, moody & disconcerting. They need not be thrill-a-minute rides and not everything should happen on-screen. A sense of psychological unsettlement and unease, and a sense of imminent doom are more important for me than copious quantities of chills & scares, though the latter aren't necessarily not unwelcome to me.

    Some of the horror films that I've really liked (and I'm including psychological terror as well) are, in no particular order:

    Let the Right One In
    28 Days Later
    Dumpling & Cut (part of Three... Extremes)
    Devil's Backbone, etc.

    If 2001: A Space Odyssey & Pan's Labyrinth can also be considered as belonging to this genre, then they too.

    I also remember having loved Manihar, which was part of Satyajit Ray's Teen Kanya (Three Daughters). There was also this Hindi movie called Raat that I saw a long time back and remember having liked.

  11. Shubhajit: 'Three... Extremes' is a terrific film(s). I really like the one you cite as well 'Dumpling & Cut'.

  12. All of these are great responses, everyone. I'll respond more specifically tomorrow when I have some time. Thanks to everyone for contributing to the conversation.

  13. Shubhajit:

    Damn. I still need to see 3 Extremes. I never much got into the Japanese horror movement, but I've heard good things about that one. Thanks for leaving such a great comment. I like your picks for your favorite horror films. Something I noticed about that list is that they all definitely fall into the "arty" horror of my favorites, too. I love love love Let the Right One In and the under-appreciated Spider.

  14. Jamie:

    Wow. That's some comment. Thanks for leaving something of such value in the comments section. I like what you say here:

    Horror more then any other genre is one that exists in a vacuum. A vacuum where 'bad' films turn into good ones because a director or a film is honest and original to the form.

    I couldn't agree more. It really is a unique genre in that so-so movies turn out to pretty decent all things considered. I would never claim that Sleepaway Camp is even worth watching were it not a slasher. It had an original concept and a shocker of an ending that shed a whole new light on what came before it. BUT it is horrible and hacky, and some of the worst direction of the slasher subgenre; however, all things considered its one of the most memorable slasher films because that particular subgenre is primarily known for not being memorable.

    That's why it's been hell for me constructing my initial horror list. There's a lot of films that I would place highly above so-called "classic" horror films (or better made horror films), but I don't know if they work better as horror. Does Bride of Frankenstein really work better as a horror film than something like A Nightmare on Elm Street? No. But I don't think you would find too many people who are willing to call the latter a better film than the former.

  15. Liam:

    You say: While the fun horror films are always immensely enjoyable, it's the ones that push me out of my comfort zone and shock or horrify me that I really get excited about. I think, as a horror fan, it's easy to get desensitized to the genre after a while, but the great thing about being a horror fan is you never know where the next scare is going to come from.

    I like that. I too liked being pushed out of my comfort zone. That's why psychological horror films really resonate with me. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a perfect example of that. Also, I like what you say about horror films being "fun" that can be fun like Sam Raimi fun, or it could just be a good jolt to the ticker like something like [Rec].

    Thanks for checking back in with another comment.

  16. Troy:

    If you want a good, heart-pounding film you need to [Rec] as soon as possible. I watched parts of it again the other night, and was just as thrilled by it, clutching onto whatever was closest to me. It's an intense experience.

  17. "That's why it's been hell for me constructing my initial horror list. There's a lot of films that I would place highly above so-called "classic" horror films (or better made horror films), but I don't know if they work better as horror. Does Bride of Frankenstein really work better as a horror film than something like A Nightmare on Elm Street? No. But I don't think you would find too many people who are willing to call the latter a better film than the former."

    Yes Kevin exactly. And when you stretch this idea even further you start getting films like PIECES over BLOODY SUNDAY, or 'Friday the 13th: Part 7: The New Blood' over 'Masque of the Red Death' as I rate them.

  18. Too ... many ... comments ... to ... read ... them ... all ... carefully.

    Let's hope no one's already mentioned having your mind taken to a new place of imagining the grotesque. I found THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE to be particularly effective in that sense. Like you, Kevin, I am usually not "scared" during horror movies, so I like to see what other emotions they can bring up -- like repulsion and despair. CENTIPEDE did both of those for me, without even being as graphic about it as you would think.

    Also, just want to second the vote for SUSPIRIA and its soundtrack. Scariest movie of all time, for my money, even if most of what's scary about it is packed into the first 15 minutes.

  19. Jamie:

    I just watched Slugs! I know what you mean now, hehe. I will have to find a place for that movie on my list somewhere. Thanks for recommending it to me.

  20. Vancetastic:

    I'm glad you brought up The Human Centipede, a film I have no desire to see...however, I am intrigued by it (in a perversely curious way) enough to perhaps give it a go one of these days. I've heard that it's like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the sense that the description of the film's story is more graphic than what's actually shown in the film. So, I might be able to stomach it if that's the case. It just sounds too grotesque that I'm not sure I would be able to see its effectiveness, but I have heard positive things from horror buffs.

    I've also heard that the film was intended as a comedy. Who is an interesting example though, and is probably like the exploitation films of the 70's that challenge the viewer and the social mores of the time by showing us something so grotesque that we either think it's horrifying because of what's happening to the characters, or it's horrifying because we're being entertained by it.

    Challenging is the right word for it.

    Oh, and I agree with you about Suspiria's soundtrack. Thanks for the comment!