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How to make a good horror movie: 9 lessons from the genre’s latest triumphs

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Horror never goes out of fashion. Trends may shift, box-office prospects may vary, and crazes may come and go, but there’s always a market for films designed to scare the bejeezus out of people. That said, the genre has had its artistic low and high periods—and right now, we’re living through the latter, a quiet horror renaissance. With the excellent It Follows opening this week, we’ve singled out nine highlights of the last three years, identifying the lessons that could be taken from each. In other words, let’s keep this winning streak going, young horror hopefuls.

1. Use space and technique to your advantage (It Follows)

Horror, like action, is a genre that relies heavily on the manipulation of formal elements—the control of perspective, for example, or the way editing can be used to create stretches of pregnant tension or sudden, expertly timed jolts. So why are so many modern horror films so perfunctorily directed, their makers relying on a tired collection of old shock tactics? (So help us Lucifer if we see one more shot of a person standing in front of a mirror, ducking out of sight, and returning to find the monster waiting for them in the reflection.) It Follows, which begins creeping and crawling into U.S. theaters this Friday, is an exception to that trend. Working with a gloriously simple premise—a specter that relentlessly pursues its target, always taking the form of a person—director David Robert Mitchell frequently uses space and composition to elicit dread. Oftentimes that means employing deep focus photography, so the background of each shot becomes a source of suspense. Mitchell will also draw the audience’s eyes to an approaching figure in the distance, creating unease from what we can see but the characters can’t. Even off-screen space becomes a danger zone, the great unknown from which something awful might emerge. It’s a master class in terror through technique. [A.A. Dowd]


2. Gamble on performance (The Babadook)

For a genre that relies so heavily on audience identification, horror tends to be indifferent to acting, at least as far as protagonists—too often it’s just “pretty people looking scared”—are concerned. It’s not as though the world has a shortage of good actors; it’s that staking scares on performances rather than effects always involves an element of risk. Jennifer Kent’s much ballyhooed first feature, The Babadook, could have easily skirted by on the otherworldly creepiness of its premise, which makes it all the more impressive that Kent gambles so much of the movie on Essie Davis’ performance as Amelia, a widowed nursing home orderly who is being tormented by a storybook monster. Kent actually began her career as an actor—she studied at Australia’s National Institute Of Dramatic Art, where her classmates included Davis and Cate Blanchett—and her directorial debut is a surefooted example of a movie that maintains a strong sense of style while leaving room for performance, giving the horror a human dimension that makes it stick all the harder. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


3. Relocate to an interesting time or place (The Witch)

There isn’t much point in trying to come up with a wholly original idea for a new horror film; by now, just about every species of monster imaginable has been unleashed on audiences. But if the well of what has been drained dry, there’s still plenty of room to play with the where and the when. The intense Sundance period piece The Witch gains much of its spooky power from its precise sense of time and place. Set in the backward backwoods of 17th-century New England, the film subjects a family of exiled pilgrims to lots of supernatural torments, some of which have been borrowed from other unholy thrillers. By placing these old tropes in an even older world—one archaic in speech, dress, and philosophy—director Robert Eggers somehow makes them feel new again. It’s the familiar becoming chillingly unfamiliar; the principle could be applied to any number of untapped backdrops. In other words, even a cabin in the woods can look scary again, depending on the decade or region it occupies. [A.A. Dowd]

4. Borrow whatever you need (Resolution)

On the other hand, if all horror premises have been exhausted, maybe the solution is just to embrace the familiarity. When faced with your list of horrifying possibilities, why not check “All of the above?” That was the decision arrived upon by Resolution, one of the most thought-provoking and inventive horror films of the past several years. When a man locks up his former best friend in an effort to force him through withdrawal from meth addiction, things quickly get weird… until they don’t. In rapid-fire succession, our protagonist encounters some oddball religious types, Native Americans warning him of the dangers of the land, a box of old photographs, an eerie scientist, and more—all of whom would make for a perfectly acceptable evil in a normal horror film. But Resolution refuses to engage in any such straightforward way, and in so doing, turns using everything and the kitchen sink into a kind of masterstroke. Rather than avoiding what’s been done before, the movie works it all in—and unlike Cabin In The Woods, there’s no ready explanation. Resolution has everything but. [Alex McCown]


5. Take your time (We Are What We Are)

Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Area burnished, backwoods Gothic reimagining of the Mexican film of the same title—is a rare example of a remake that drastically improves on the original. It’s also a movie that manages to build a consistent sense of dread despite a near-absence of conventional scares; heck, it doesn’t even look like a contemporary horror flick, let alone move like one. As in his follow-up feature, the thriller Cold In July, Mickle holds back on the horror until near the end, instead focusing on his cast and building up the claustrophobic, lived-in atmosphere until the whole thing slides into gruesome violence. This means that the gore isn’t just shocking, but comes across as genuinely horrifying and unnerving—not just a scare, but something the viewer can’t easily shake off once the credits roll. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


6. Steep your fake horror in real horror (Honeymoon)

It’s not clear for almost the entire running time of Honeymoon who the antagonist is supposed to be, and that’s not just because we don’t get a clear look at what’s causing those mysterious lights emitting from the forest. The 2014 film uses an archetypal setting—a cabin in the woods—to tell a very different sort of horror story, one that deals with the all-too-real possibility that we can never really know another person. In this case, newlyweds Paul and Bea arrive at their honeymoon getaway in a less-than-populous lakefront village, and Paul almost immediately begins to wonder if there’s something terribly wrong—not with the locals or even the surroundings, but with the person he just married. The film raises that all-too-common question for young people who just made a lifelong commitment: Did I make a mistake? Director Leigh Janiak suffuses her film with slowly building tension, based on the inescapable feeling that the person you love just isn’t telling you the truth. Few things are scarier. [Alex McCown]


7. Be self-aware without resorting to self-parody (You’re Next and The Guest)

In a post-Troma world, simple parody of established horror-movie tropes is no longer enough to qualify as a “fresh take” on the genre. Today’s filmmakers have to be a little more creative, and the writer-director team of Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard do this sort of meta-commentary especially well. You’re Next skewered (literally, in Ti West’s case) the duo’s micro-budget background by casting their mumblecore buddies as fodder for the movie’s masked killers, as well as providing clever twists on the “final girl” and home-invasion concepts. You’re Next effectively manages to convey both humor and suspense, and the duo’s next film, The Guest, shows a similar mastery of tone. Although not as reliant on twists as You’re Next—most genre fans could call the movie’s ending very early on in the film—The Guest takes a similar pleasure in anticipating and playing with the audience’s expectations. Packed with crowd-pleasing details like the John Carpenter-esque score and the classic Halloween decorations littering the background of nearly every scene, The Guest caters to horror fans without pandering to them. [Katie Rife]


8. Go classical (The Conjuring)

From its opening title card, The Conjuring announced itself as a throwback. There’s nothing particularly unique about the story, an exorcism/haunted house hybrid based on the case files of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. And despite director James Wan’s background as “the Saw guy,” the movie has very little gore. Yet The Conjuring is legitimately terrifying—“Rated R for sequences of disturbing violence and terror” terrifying—which is a testament to the film’s old-school craftsmanship. Wan uses abrupt sounds and visual cues—a handclap, a flashbulb—to jolt viewers into alertness. He then builds on those shocks, elevating them beyond mere jump-scares with a relentless, rapid escalation of suspense that has viewers holding their breath in anticipation of the big reveal. But Wan’s too smart to give that away easily, either—he knows that it’s the moment just before the ghost appears that’s the scariest part. [Katie Rife]


9. When in doubt, just ratchet up the intensity (Goodnight Mommy)

Many contemporary fright flicks take an ebb-and-flow approach to mayhem, puncturing their pockets of calm with sudden bursts of violence. It can be a winning strategy, but there’s also something to be said for creating flow without ebb. The Austrian shocker Goodnight Mommy, which premiered at Toronto last year and will likely open in the States before the end of this one, demonstrates the brutal effectiveness of putting horror in the red and keeping it there. A chamber piece about twin boys creating trouble for their disfigured mother in a secluded suburban house, the film starts slow enough, immersing viewers in a vaguely unsettling atmosphere of childhood mischief and suspicion. Then out come the pet insects, the rope, and the sharp objects, and away we go into waking-nightmare territory. Goodnight Mommy is more blunt object than elegant thriller, but it sustains a level of sheer, white-knuckle intensity for which its “torture porn” brethren would kill—or maybe mutilate, as it were. [A.A. Dowd]