Eight things every horror movie needs, according to Bruce Kawin
Do you like scary movies? Bruce Kawin, a professor of English and film at the University of Colorado Boulder, likes them so well he's written a book, Horror and the Horror Film, on the topic. Covering hundreds of movies across the history of horror, the book explains what makes a movie scary and offers plenty of viewing suggestions for both newcomers and hardcore fans. It's no dry, academic textbook, either -- Kawin wrote it as a guide for everyone, including film fans who aren't sure whether horror is a genre worth consideration. "At one point in the book I said that we're still sitting around the campfire telling stories," he says. "The fire's become a movie screen and the darkness is still outside us, around our backs. The horror film goes to the heart of that situation."
Kawin will read from and speak about Horror and the Horror Film at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Boulder Bookstore. Before the event, we caught up with Kawin to get this eight-point guide to what makes a horror film tick.
8) It has to be scary
Westword: How do you make it scary? What's involved in that?
Bruce Kawin: Horror directors don't agree on how you do it. The art is trying to do that differently each time. The thing is that the horror film has to be scary the same way a comedy film has to be funny. It's really basic.
As you said, everyone does that in different ways, so that's where the magic comes in.
Well, the magic comes in because horror films are allowed to make up anything they want. You can have really fantastic settings and dream worlds and nightmares and all kinds of things.
7) Values at stake
There has to be a reason for all of this stuff. Stories are usually about something besides a monster, or the monster is about something else. Like, you could say that Last House on the Left is really about how to run a family. Even the remake is, actually. You could say that Godzilla is about nuclear testing, and the effects of nuclear war. The story is about coming up with an ultimate weapon and deciding it does have to be used but it can't ever be repeated.
6) A monster
The monster is the core of the horror film, usually. A lot of them end as soon as the monster is dead. Of course, a lot of them have the monster come back, as a zinger, surprise ending, which hasn't been much of a surprise since Friday the 13th. But they keep doing that. A lot of the endings now are open, on purpose. They try to give you a chill and carry it outside, but people expect it so it doesn't work....I think that horror films, more of them used to have closed endings and they tried to resolve that the monster had fled, so they were more stories of civilization defending itself and healing. But also about closing down its barriers. They had different politics, depending on what film it was.
There are three kinds of monsters. It can be a human being, like Leatherface, or something supernatural like the Mummy, or a conventional monster like Godzilla. The book goes to some trouble to keep those distinct, and to give examples of all of them pretty much down to every kind of horror movie there is.
Where would, say, the zombies of Night of the Living Dead fall under that?
Under supernatural monsters/zombies. The organization is very simple to follow, and it's comprehensive. The books covers like 350 films in just over 200 pages.
With the system you've set up, you can take any movie and figure out where it fits within this framework?
I think it's very helpful.
What's the advantage of understanding horror films through this framework? For the more than casual fan, does it offer new insight into films they've seen before?
It might well do that. It offers a look at what horror is, and then shows how horror shows up in all these movies. Horror in reality, like in a documentary, too. The Holocaust is a horror story, but it's a true one. But sometimes there are horror documentaries like Night and Fog, that are kind of about horror, and how you express it and how you try to get it into a shot, even if that's impossible. So that's where reality comes in. Anyway, the fear and revulsion make up horror and I go into some detail about how they work together. It gives you a groundwork for looking at horror films, so you see the ones you've seen many times in a different way.
You have to show people what they came to see. Things have been getting more violent and more bloody for some time, so you have to kind of top what the previous films did, or what you did earlier in your own film. You need to show somebody meeting the horrible monster in action, or the horror moment, or something like that. You have to show it.
As far as the need to continually top what's come before, is that unsustainable? Is it a cyclical thing, where we're going to see a step back at some point?
I don't know, I've seen a continuous increase, say from the 1930s forward. I don't think it's a problem, I think that's just what they do. I wouldn't say they're going to run into a problem, because they always balance them with suggestion scenes -- scenes in which they're not showing violence or not showing the blood.