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What makes a good horror movie
October 17, 2018
“I am…Dracula. I bid you… welcome.” These seven words uttered in 1931 by Bela Lugosi in Universal’s Dracula undoubtedly changed the way horror movies were produced. One of the first large-scale horror movies made in the United States, it delivered a substantial paycheck to Universal, and is now credited with starting the first multi-film cinematic universe when, a few months later, the company also released an adaptation of another popular story, Frankenstein.
87 years later, both Dracula and Frankenstein are ranked on Rotten Tomatoes’ list of the top 100 Horror Movies, sitting at 45 and 10, respectively. Many other beloved horror movies have a spot on this list, such as the pioneer of the slasher genre, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Some movies that were inspired by the events at the Bates Motel like John Carpenter’s Halloween, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs are also present. But why are these films considered classics? What elements do these films and others have to make them the genre’s best, and do these elements still appear in modern horror movies?
“The story is the most important,” SENIOR Alex Nicole said. “Definitely not the jump scare. I think today horror movies lack originality and they are becoming repetitive. So the story should be well thought out and it should include some psychological elements that make the audience feel uncomfortable and make a great impact on them through their senses.”
A good example of this idea is present in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Released in 1974, the story is easy enough to follow: five friends are driving on the open roads of Texas when they accidentally come across a family of cannibals led by a masked killer with a chainsaw known as Leatherface, and the five must survive one of the least massacre-y massacres of all time. The movie is filled with morbid imagery and a grainy, documentary feel that most definitely adds to the scare factor.
“The music and the lighting definitely help a movie become scary, as well as the acting and special effects,” Brando Donaldson, ‘22, said.
The fact that this movie, as well as Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs, are based on true events leads to an even more shocking feel than a movie like Andy Muschietti It (2017), which, based on Stephen King’s novel, is entirely fictional. It adds the realization that there are real life horrors out there, and there are people whose lives were changed or ended by what happened.
Another way you can tell if a horror movie has reached the status of classic is if a remake of that movie has been released. And, while some remakes are loved sometimes more than the original (1986’s Little Shop of Horrors as an example), in many cases the remake is panned by audiences and critics who wholeheartedly defend the original.
Take the 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, for instance. A remake is supposed to, in theory, breathe new life into an older movie in order to try and update it for changing audiences. But the Psycho remake, directed by Gus van Sant, is a virtually shot for shot clone that doesn’t add anything new to the story.
A horror movie remake, especially that of an all-time classic like Psycho, should only exist for one purpose, and that is to put a modern Hollywood spin on an older classic. Just redoing something that was already successful doesn’t mean it’s going to be successful again, and even the less fervent admirers of the original will most likely defend the original over the new one.
Roger Ebert from the Chicago Sun Times said in his review ‘The movie is an invaluable experiment in the theory of cinema, because it demonstrates that a shot-by-shot remake is pointless; genius apparently resides between or beneath the shots, or in chemistry that cannot be timed or counted.”
But the question still remains: What has been shown to make a good horror movie in the past, and do those techniques maybe not work nowadays?
One of the things that has worked in the past is a memorable and foreboding score. Out of a student survey of 86 WHHS students who watch horror movies, 63 have heard John Williams’s famous warning signal in Jaws, and 29 have heard John Carpenter’s chilling mix of synthesizers in 1978’s Halloween. An unsettling score is essential for a horror movie to work, as it gives the audience an eerie feeling without having to show the monster or villain.
Steven Spielberg didn’t need to show the shark from Jaws for the first hour of the film, because Williams’s theme gave the audience the foreboding feeling that something was coming. The unknown is another huge factor that delivers the biggest scares in horror movies.
Many of the students surveyed said that one of their favorite horror movies is the 2017 version of It. While this film does rely on many jump-scares, which quite a few of the students object to, the audience never really knew what shape Pennywise the clown would take next to scare one of the children on screen.
Jump-scares are a relatively new technique in horror movies that weren’t used in older horror movies. A viewer can see the shadow of a killer walking towards the shower curtain in Psycho. A viewer could see that Michael Myers is right behind Laurie Strode in Halloween. And this seems to be the main difference between classic horror movies and new horror movies. The element of suspense.
“There is no terror in the bang, only the anticipation of it,” Alfred Hitchcock famously said.Squeezing every last ounce of hope out of an audience as slowly as possible is something that is clearly prevalent in movies like Frankenstein and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and clearly missing from a movie like It. While audiences are changing and pushing away from slow terror, there are only so many jump-scares a movie can deliver before they get old.
What makes a good horror movie is a general and opinionated question, but it seems as if many people think that the movies that are considered classics deserve their title due to their element of suspense, their chilling soundtracks and their compelling stories. But audiences are changing, and there is no doubt that many newer horror movies will be considered classics in years to come.