When’s the last time you were shocked to your core? Can you remember the last time you sat there in silence, in awe of what you just experienced? I can name a few, but what causes us to feel that way? How do storytellers and filmmakers create such compelling films that we all love to see again and again? Let’s figure it out together, and maybe you’ll be next in line to make something that’ll scare us all.
Something that’s vital to understand before we discuss films is separating opinions from fundamental quality. You can hate The Godfather, but you cannot deny that it is a quality film. It is important to understand that because opinions can alter your perspective on judging a film for its fundamentals. Think of it like “substance over style.” While style is and always will be important, what the movies are truly about are the most critical.
A really important facet to understand as well is the “fight or flight” feeling you get when a movie really pushes you to your edge. This is what every horror filmmaker strives to push you into, that dark corner that makes you want out. It helps connect you emotionally as well as keep you on your toes as the adrenaline pumps through your veins. In either a big or small way, every great horror film relies on this and it may take a long or short amount of time to get there. In the end, it’s always what we’re aiming for---to horrify you, deep into your core.
Let’s talk about two excellent films, The Exorcist and Hereditary. What makes these films so compelling? (Without spoiling too much!)
The Exorcist came out in 1973, and at the time this movie was pulling out tricks that no other filmmaker had done before. It was pushing the envelope for the type of horror that would blossom soon after. What it did was show the true psychological breakdown of a family, a daughter, and the priests attempting to rescue a young girl from a mad demon.
It unveiled some horrible truths that humans tend to cling to when it comes to gut punches, one of which is “always preserve the innocent.” What that means is if you watch a film about a young boy and his puppy---who do you immediately think has some basic will power to get out of a tough situation?
The boy. Why is this? Because while he is still young, humans are clever, and they can come up with solutions in short amounts of time. They’re also analytical, so it’s very hard to come up with a compelling character that is also going to be completely vulnerable to the barriers you place in front of them. They must compete with conflict, but you know they stand a chance. Now what about the puppy?
Young puppies are completely vulnerable, typically acting like young children. They could walk up to the killer and lick its boots, thinking it’s a friend. Or bark at the monster to try and scare it off before being eaten. When you witness this innocence being corrupted or destroyed, a piece of you inside dies. Why does this happen? Because you feel compelled to protect the puppy and preserve its innocence. Sorta like how we protect our children from seeing scary movies or telling them to go outside before you start a fight.
Witnessing the downfall of a young girl being corrupted and visibly breaking down causes a hopeless and deeply saddening experience. What makes a big facet of the story work is that you feel for the young girl and the family. Without that “hook” or the interest in these characters, the horrors do not apply in a primal fashion. Primal feelings are absolute. Everyone has these feelings and a clever filmmaker can piece together a story to pull the right strings so you feel gut wrenched each time.
What about Hereditary? What makes that film so scary? It’s a two part answer. 1. We witness a vulnerable character break down over time, but you know something sinister is happening inside them. You feel like something is developing, like a virus or monster growing inside. When we finally witness them dying, the family breaks down and the structure inside their household crumbles. What happens is that metaphorically, this death was also the death of their family but also literally unleashed a demon, which causes havoc on the family. Experiencing all of this makes you feel like you too are tangled in this mess.
What’s the other part? Why is this element not enough? Well, it is. Ari Aster is a clever director and this is how he took it further. With the realization that a demon has been unleashed, the family has been breaking down. Why has the demon not been able to cause any more harm to these people? Because it needs to break them mentally to “open the door.” To take control over one’s body, the demon must break their spirit to get inside. He slowly draws in some “worshipers" or “followers” to convince the family to try and rekindle their relationship, as the character’s spirit still lives on inside their home. They promise that they can speak to this spirit as long as they open up a gateway, and they do just that.
The fallout of this situation is...it was a lie. It opened the door for the demon, and now it’s ready for its host. When you realize all of this, it’s already too late. The family has crumbled, and your heart has too.
It’s important to understand why these elements matter because it helps us judge what makes a movie quality or not---and that enables artists to do better and strive for it, so we audience members can have an even better experience. Does that make sense? If you have any questions about this, I’d love to spark a conversation and dive deeper.
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