In the opening sequence of 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie, Dan Aykroyd famously asks Albert Brooks, “Do you wanna see something really scary?”
Actually, Dan, yes. We would like to see something really scary.
Aykroyd then morphs into a withered ghoul and strangles Brooks to death. It was ridiculous and cheesy, yet somehow also quite frightening. Was it because we saw the movie as kids? Or because 30 years ago our tolerance for fear was much lower than it is today?
With Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones opening in theatres this weekend, the future of horror has never been shakier. The original Paranormal Activity was a revelation: ultra low-budget, yet surprisingly spooky. But now it’s been serialized and spun-off with ever-diminishing returns, and there’s no exciting new fright-du-jour to take its place.
Paranormal Activity will soldier on for a while – expect to see Paranormal Activity 5 this Halloween – but something needs to come along to make us quiver with terror once more. Here are five tips that filmmakers might want to take to heart.
Enough with the found footage
Blame 1999’s The Blair Witch Project for the found footage horror craze, in which movies are presented as though they were filmed by the characters themselves and the footage somehow recovered later. Blair Witch was scary as hell, in part because the movie’s actors really were shooting the entire thing on a shoestring budget. But like any film effect that gets endlessly overused, it’s lost its impact.
No more remakes
Hollywood is lazy, we get that. But surely they see that remaking or rebooting horror movies almost never works? Whether it’s essentially a shot-for-shot do-over (like Gus Van Sant’s Psycho) or a modern reimagining of a classic film (like last year’s boring Carrie), audiences rarely react. And no wonder: being surprised is a key part of being scared.
Ditch the CGI effects
Nothing yanks us out of a horror movie faster than flashy special effects that obliterate the rules of physics and make us aware we’re watching a movie. One recent example: Mama, last year’s Guillermo del Toro-produced horror tale, had some very creepy moments early on. But when the titular CGI apparition was revealed, our eyes couldn’t stop rolling.
Make us relate to the heroes
It’s true that horror is a genre that clings to certain tropes, like the promiscuous girl being the first to die at the hands of the axe murderer. But savvy audiences in 2014 are very aware of these conventions, and unless they’re deliberately turned on their heads (as in 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods), they have very little impact. Give us characters we can believe in. It’s hard to find fear without first having empathy.
Then make us relate to the monsters
Perhaps ironically, it was also Guillermo del Toro who said, “A good monster is a monster you can imagine in repose.” For a horror movie antagonist to be truly frightening, we have to be able to understand its needs and wants and motivations, right down to being able to picture what it does when it’s not dismembering the movie’s heroes. Like, say, a ghoul that spends its off hours masquerading as Dan Aykroyd.