The following is a list of guidelines that one should look at when trying to make a successful horror movie. I thought this was a pretty solid list with a lot of good ideas for independent horror filmmakers. The following list is a combination of Mary Hallberg’s list from the Hattiesburg Horror Movie Examiner and Screen Crave.com for the second half of the list. A big thank you to both websites for sharing! While the list does seem basic, I do think that this is going to help out some filmmakers working on their first scripts. Are there any others that you feel is missing from the list?
*Have interesting characters. Movies (and stories in general) are about people, not events. Sure, picking stupid teenagers off one by one works, but only for awhile. If you want to do something revolutionary in modern filmmaking, convince your audience to actually (gasp) care about the characters.
The interesting characters rule does not apply to villains. When introducing us to the villain, less is more. Did he suffer a terrible childhood filled with abuse and poverty? Leave it out. The less your audience knows about the villain, the less likely they are to sympathize with them. Sympathy isn’t very scary.
*Create suspense. Even if you plan to show the monster in the end, make the audience wait for it. Sometimes not seeing something is even creepier than actually seeing it.
*Don’t stress about budget. Some of the most well-known horror films have been low budget sleeper hits. Unless you’re remaking Lord of the Rings, you can make do with a smaller budget. See: Insidious, Saw, Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project, John Carpenter’s Halloween
*Don’t take your movie too seriously. Some of the best horror movies are the ones that try to be scary but end up being campy. You’re in the business of entertainment and if you’re not entertained yourself, your audience probably won’t be either. Have fun with it! Plenty of people would kill to be in your position. Well, not literally.
*Have a great score. A good horror movie isn’t a good horror movie without a good original score. We’re talking about music that adds depth of feeling, and by depth of feeling we of course mean depth of terror in this case. Classic horror movies like Halloween and Jaws wouldn’t have had near the effect that they did without their music being every bit as scary as what was happening on camera. Sadly, the art of making an original score for a horror movie is being lost as the years go by and the trends change.
*An unstoppable killer. Horror movie killers/slashers must be remorseless. They generally can’t feel sorry for anybody. A killer who feels sorrow humanizes himself, and leaves the audience open to empathize with him, take pity on him, and possibly even understand him. And as we know, the more we understand something, the less we fear it. You want to tell a story about a guy who goes on a murder rampage to avenge the death of his wife? Fine, go for it. But don’t expect people to be frightened by a guy who’s simply standing up for his wife. You want to tell a story about a guy who goes on a murder rampage because his dead grandmother came to him in a dream and ordered him to do so with a sling blade? Now that’s a tad bit creepier.
*Fear. A good horror film takes common fears, exploits them, and acts upon them. So what do people fear? Easy. They fear the dark—create visual imagery that’s ill-defined and shadowy. They fear the unknown—keep certain psychological and physical components hidden. They fear death—keep the body count unpredictable as to who might be next. Knowing what people are afraid of isn’t rocket science, and fears aren’t always rational. Would we have a horror movie (Stephen King’s It) with an alien killer dressed as a clown if a lot of people weren’t at least a little afraid of clowns?
*Blood and gore! Above all, people must die in a horror movie. Remember what we said about exploiting the universal fear of death? And as far as dying goes, a horror movie doesn’t necessarily have to be gory, or gratuitously violent, but a little blood must be split in order to remind the audience that the shit is real, and the stakes are as high as they can be. A character vanishing out of thin air is out of sight, out of mind. We might know he’s dead, but as long as we don’t see him hanging from a tree with his guts spilling out, some part of our brain is still subconsciously suggesting to us that there’s a chance he’s just chilling on a beach in Maui or something.