You’ve seen so many horror flicks, rolled your eyes at the countless jumpscares, and fled when the masked killer creeps around the corner every time.
Did you ever get the idea that you could do that, but even better?
I’m always on board for a good challenge, and I challenge you to do just that. Make a horror film that exceeds the rest. Let’s figure out how to get started.
When I decided to jump into the horror genre, let alone the film world for the first time, I wanted something big, adventurous, scary, and intense. Once I saw what the bill would look like, I said, maybe not.
You should focus on telling a story, and if this is your first film, focus on telling a story in five minutes. That's the challenge.
Short films are also inexpensive and quick to produce. By creating so many short stories, it helps you focus on the essentials and cut away the rest. Once you nail that down, you can expand further. Maintaining this once you jump into the feature film realm will enable you to tell focused, compelling stories that wastes no time at all.
Build Up A Scare... But Don’t Make It Obvious
Just about every horror film builds up to something, the most common trope being something that’ll scare or traumatize the audience. But in order to do that effectively, you need to build up to it and create some level of risk or danger with the dangling interest of an answer by the end.
Let’s use a basic formula to create a concept scene. Let’s say we’re writing a scene and our protagonist, Bill, and his partner are looking for a pill that could turn a zombie into a normal human again. But here’s the twist -- he doesn’t know which pill it is and a zombie is loose in the building.
We all know they will eventually bump into each other, but it doesn’t tell the audience when it will happen. The unknowing is more scary than the knowing. It’s like skimming through a scary video online to numb the senses and ready yourself for the surprise.
Once you get to the place of resolution, always try to come up with a twist. Here’s a predictable answer -- maybe he finds the zombie, but it’s not moving. Let's say the pill is in the zombie’s hand, and you know it will eventually move or grab him.
This is where everyone in the audience either hides or rolls their eyes. How can we change this? Let’s say they’re in a large room, and he finds the zombie but it looks… dead! It must’ve been shot. You confirm that it is, and the audience eases up. He finds the pill and… BAM! His partner attacks him and reveals the fact that he is infected.
Just an idea. Think you can do it better? Show me! That's the challenge.
Story Is King
In any film, a strong story really drives home whether or not it’s a quality movie. If you’re concerned about making a good first impression, focus on the story.
The Exorcist is an excellent example. It’s a film about a young girl becoming possessed. It’s a simple premise, yet terrifying and outright traumatizing.
A really good place to start when deciding how you’ll focus on your audience’s fears is to think of one key word: primal. Primal fears and feelings are raw, built into you to protect you from danger.
Think of things that you always will be afraid of, or hit up Google and hunt down some great ideas. Always watch films and read books because these will help you build up a toolbox of concepts. I make a daily effort, even on a workday, to watch at least one feature film. If you’re serious about filmmaking, do the same.
Sound Design Sells It
Fifty percent of the experience of a movie is sound. What you see is only heightened by what you can hear. But sometimes, in horror especially, the most terrifying things are the unknown. But how do you let your audience know that something is lurking in the darkness?
Use sound. Get creative. If it's not a monster or a ghost, use the surrounding area as a reference point. If you’re in a forest, a loud tree branch snapping can scare. Who could be over there?
Unknown sounds are even better, where you mix and distort sounds or voices to make creepy results. Think of some ways to brainstorm some other wordly sounds and experiment. Record yourself saying a scary one-liner and distort your voice either on your phone or editing software like Final Cut Pro X.
If you really came up with something scary, send it my way and let’s talk about your process.
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