What Makes a Good Horror Movie Great

“Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice, and discipline.” Jim Collins

As I sit here at my desk on the eve of our second full cast table read I am elbow deep in our script with a full page of notes for possible changes and ideas to implement. The past couple days I have thought a lot of what really makes a horror movie great to the hardcore horror audience. As a member of that audience I obviously have an insider’s view and with the inspiration from some recent twitter conversations with fellow hardcore horror fans I came up with the list that follows for the bases of a great horror film.

Have Something to Say

There is a fine tradition in the great horror films of the past of having a deeper message and/or social commentary interwoven in the story. Think about it Psycho is about the long term effects of child abuse of a son by his mother (how often is that discussed?), Repulsion is about the more commonly discussed impact of child abuse on a girl by her father, Texas Chainsaw Massacre had some commentary on the Vietnam war, Night of the Living Dead dealt with race relations when that topic was red hot, Dawn of the Dead painted a picture of America’s consumerism culture, The Hills Have Eyes is about the effects of a government acting irresponsibly then walking away from the mess they create. Even modern horror often has deeper messages within their story: American Mary comments on the impact of the for profit higher education system on those trying to get that education and Saw covers the gatekeeper like healthcare system as well as the to often seen life being about existing rather than lived to the fullest. Horror is a great platform to say something to an audience and the best typically have a message and something they want to say to and about the greater society as a whole.

Take Big Risks

The studio business model really doesn’t allow them to take big risks; they need to bring in a big audience to recoup their big expenditures. However on the indie front we can take giant risks that may or may not pay off because our expenditures are less and usually as is our case, it’s our own money making the movie. This is the realm where risk taking should be encouraged, do something different, something new. Of course there is always a chance that the risk won’t pay off but that is no reason not to take them. As indie filmmakers we owe it to our audience to give them something they can’t get from the big studio tent pole type of productions, so nut up and roll the dice.

Tighten that Shit Up

A great horror movie should feel like a tension packed ride through a new world. We don’t need endless exposition and repeated shots of sweeping vistas. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is so effective in part because it is 83 minutes long. A perfectly told outstanding story that wastes not a second of the audience’s time. Every frame ought to be considered precious since every frame requires the audience to give you 1/24th of a second of their life. Think about it when a movie starts to wonder your mind does as well which pulls you out of the movie and then what the hell was the point of putting it on in the first place. So always work to make the story as tight as possible to honor the time your audience is willing to give you.

Mine the Mind Gap

The difference between a great horror movie that stands up to the test of time and a good horror movie that offered some good but forgettable scenes is often found in the filmmaker’s ability to find the mind gap. Think about the shower scene is Psycho the greatest impact isn’t in what you see it is what you don’t see that you then create in your head. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is so much better than the reboot because it leads you to a place and your mind fills the gap between where you been lead and the after effects of the horror versus the reboot which shows you someone being cut in half with a chainsaw in graphic CGI detail. What an audience creates in their own head from where you lead them is so much more impactful than a visual CGI orgy of graphic detail. That said this is one of the hardest things to do in a film, so as a filmmaker you have to be prepared to fuck it up and miss the mark. But considering the reward if you do it right the risk is well worth it and besides aren’t we here to take giant risks anyways?

Always Be Improving

ABI stands for Always Be Improving a mantra I have carried throughout my professional career. I am a big believer that everyday you should work to get better at what you do and everything you are working on currently should be improved upon every day. This requires the ability to remove your ego from the process and to be able to take a critical eye to what you have created and the willingness to hack it the fuck up to make it better. This is no small task in any field or endeavor but the end result is often well worth it. On our current project Agnation every week I produce typically a full typed page single spaced of ideas and changes to consider and will continue to do so until we shoot. Some of these ideas are small detail issues and others are big changes that require a lot of reworking. Going through the pain of this process should make our end product much better and it is all about that end product.

Sweat the Details

Attention to detail is often what separates a great horror movie from a good one. The effort put into every little detail of a movie like Hellraiser is what helps it stand up to the test of time once technology has moved well beyond what they were capable of when it was made. The devil really is in the details so dig into them find that devil and give him a big ass bear hug.

Know Your Audience

What studios and way to often indie filmmakers forget is that the hardcore horror audience is in fact the smartest film audience there is. We have a different way of looking at the world, can comprehend abstracts better, and deal with a greater deal of introspectiveness, which allows us to appreciate horror films. They are not for everyone, a lot of people question me as to why I would make a horror movie rather than say a comedy. Well horror is my first love, in fact I would say it is my only film love so in my mind making a horror film didn’t just seem like the natural choice it really is my only choice. Since the audience is smarter they don’t need things spoon-fed to them like a TV soap opera, we can put the puzzle together ourselves so don’t bore us! Bottom line when you are dealing with a smart audience make a smart fucking movie otherwise make a PG 13 action or comedy that tend to be built to a lower denominator.

AGNATION UPDATE: Our IMDB page is up and here. We are working on first poster art currently, and will begin looking for location, crew and music shortly. We are also working on a real cool promotion so make sure you follow me on twitter to stay up to date. Oh and feel free to chat at me when you tweet, filmmaking can have many lonely moments and that really is me responding to you.