“What Makes for a Good Horror Film?”
While mad scientists may seem to create monsters and potions with ease, filmmakers may find there is no easy formula for a good horror film. Or is there? Like any genre, a horror film has defining characteristics but are they as easy to assemble as Frankenstein’s monster, guaranteeing the audience will pay to see it and be scared? Graves and Engle define the horror genre’s characteristics as exotic settings, deformity and makeup, pity, “beauty and the beast,” outraged populace, horror laws, stars, and comedy. While these characteristics are consistent over time, they are shaped by changing societal attitudes, requiring new takes on old monsters, resulting in continued life for a genre that has never fallen out of favor with filmgoers.
As Graves and Engle note “Horror films explore transformation. Nature and established order are tricked or outraged to produce deadly results…This subversion of the normal outrages our sensibilities and demands restoration of the common order” (Graves and Engle 120). Horror films create a sense of unease as the audience sees reality shifted so terribly that they long to see things righted. This is seen in the horror genre’s characteristics and the way filmmakers have tweaked these characteristics to entertain new audiences.
Horror’s first characteristic is an exotic setting. Since horror movies were influenced by Gothic novels, it’s no surprise that horror films had gothic settings such as strange lands and haunted castles or mansions. For example, Dracula begins in the Count’s mysterious home in distant Transylvania. Likewise, Frankenstein takes place in a village that is anything but a metropolis. This characteristic remains but has been tweaked over time. As Graves and Engle mention, Rosemary’s Baby is set in New York City but it takes place in a gothic apartment complex, the Dakota, which creates an eerie mood. The original Dawn of the Dead was set in an abandoned shopping mall, creating a bizarre mix of the familiar (a mall) with the otherworldly (zombies). More recent films such as Quarantine begin in what seems like a normal setting (a tenement) but which quickly becomes exotic (as seen in the film when its residents are locked inside with an unknown menace).
Horror films typically feature some sort of misshapen creature whose hideous look is attained through elaborate make-up. Whether it’s zombies, vampires, creatures from black lagoons, or werewolves, a make-up artist takes special care to create a special look for a monster. Thanks to CGI and special effects advances, contemporary audiences have seen new takes on familiar monsters such as vampires in the Blade trilogy or foreign films reimagined in America such as The Ring or The Grudge. In some cases, the monster is kept out of sight. In the 1942 film, Cat People, the filmmakers use imagination to keep the audience on the edge of their seat, “Lewton and Touneur build suspense and play with the audience’s imagination by means of clever editing and chiaroscuro lighting effects” (Graves and Engle 129). In others, horror is achieved more by a character’s reaction to a horror than showing the horror, a rare instance where “show don’t tell” is replaced by “tell, don’t show.” Rosemary’s Baby never shows Rosemary’s demon seed but we see Rosemary’s shocked face when she looks at the child and she asks what has happened to the child’s eyes. Sometimes, the audience’s imagination can be more terrifying than what is shown.
What can be remarkable about horror films is that oftentimes, the audience takes pity on what is presented as a monster. Sometimes, it is because we know the monster is cursed, such as a man who cannot help his change into the werewolf. Others, like the Frankenstein Monster did not ask to be created and are mistreated by their creator, even though they are not inherently evil. This pity can add an extra layer of drama to the story.
A recurring theme in contemporary horror is the idea that there are worst dangers than the so-called “monsters” in the film. This dates to the original Night of the Living Dead series and continues in films where a society unbalanced by monsters sees citizens behaving in more monstrous ways than the creatures surrounding it.
There is also the characteristic of beauty and the beast. The monster is somehow drawn to a character, often a woman. The woman may remind the monster of a past lover (such as in The Mummy or Bram Stoker’s Dracula) or the monster may see the woman as someone who can bring them happiness (such as in The Phantom of the Opera). In some cases, the woman may sympathize with the monster, even if they are not willing to give in to their demands.
An outraged populace is a common characteristic in the horror genre. When there is someone strange creeping around, people get frightened. When that creature begins killing, the populace ultimately gets organized, attacking the source of their problem. This was seen so often in Universal’s Frankenstein films that it was parodied in the film Young Frankenstein.
The horror genre has laws regarding how things operate in their imaginary world. Horror laws are important to horror films because the audience needs to understand the rules of the supernatural world they are entering. Whether it’s Dracula being killed by a wooden stake or a zombie being destroyed by a head wound, a filmmaker must be consistent with their audience. Laws can be changed if the audience is given a plausible explanation. For example, vampires have often been shown as vulnerable to sunlight but some films have changed this with explanations such as vampires using sunblock or magic to protect themselves.
Like other genres, horror films often attract stars who become associated with the genre. In the past, actors such as Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Vincent Price were associated with horror films. While they have not limited themselves to horror films, stars such as Bruce Campbell, Jamie Lee Curtis, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Danielle Harris are all well-known for their horror roles.
Comedy is found in horror films, sometimes sparingly but usually in some amount. A light moment can be a good way to help the audience catch its breath. A clever director can also use a comic moment to keep a filmgoer confused, not knowing when to expect the next chilling moment. In some cases, filmmakers make a hybrid film known as a horror-comedy. This is certainly not new, dating back to films like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and continuing with more recent outings like Zombieland and Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse.
What makes a good horror film is more than throwing together a bunch of characteristics or randomly changing things up. A good horror film must contain its traditional characteristics, reflect audience sensibilities, and maintain internal consistency if it is going to try a different direction such as breaking a long-established horror law. A filmmaker not only has to know what has worked before in entertaining filmgoers but what they are looking for now. Work Cited
Graves, Mark and F. Bruce Engle. Blockbusters: A Reference Guide to Film Genres. Greenwood, 2006.