Eight things every horror movie needs, according to Bruce Kawin
This is where it gives you a hint as to what's going on, and that's often more scary than direct presentation .They have ways of suggesting things are going on off-screen and they have ways of balancing those with the spectacle scenes to build up a rhythm. That's important, so you don't have a film that's just straight spectacle and gore. Even the gore films are broken up with other scenes.
Like a scene where the characters are trapped in a room and something is trying to get in, but you can't see it?
That's a good suggestion scene. A good example would be in the film Suspiria, where the girl is chased down the hall by a guy with a razor, but she doesn't ever see him until he kills her. So the hallways become brightly colored, they go red and blue, and you get her fear. The scene builds her fear up while she's running from here to there. At one point she's in a room and someone's trying to get the lock open with a straight razor and it's really scary. Finally she gets killed in a vat full of razor wire and the character with the razor shows up but you only see his hand. They get to spectacle eventually, but it's at least five minutes of buildup first.
Another movie that seems to rely more heavily on suggestion than spectacle would be Jaws. You barely see the shark in that movie.
Yeah, they build up to a final [scene], the shark bites the man on camera. They build up to that. Spielberg said that they did that because the mechanical shark didn't work very well. They wanted more spectacle than they had, but it works better by suggestion.
A good story is a good story. People recognize it, they want it, and good films have them. It's interesting, it's unpredictable, and it's involving.
As you said, horror movies can offer the fantastic, so they have the potential for some groundbreaking stories. Are there any horror movies that stand out for their story in particular?
Absolutely. Dead of Night, The Last Wave, Don't Look Now. The Fear. Curse of the Cat People, the original Cat People. More recently, The Cabin in the Woods.
2) Control of atmosphere
As far as this goes, does that play in somewhat with suggestion?
Yes, it usually does. For that, people should see the films of Val Lewton.
I saw a film he produced, I Walked with a Zombie, a couple years ago. It was a very atmospherically effective film.
Terrific, yeah. They don't even nail down whether the woman's a zombie. It's a wonderful film. A lot of these films are becoming available on blu ray, like Isle of the Lost Souls just came out from Criterion. That's a really good restoration. A lot of these films are much more available than they used to be.
Are there universal elements of building up a good atmosphere, or does everyone bring a unique imprint to it?
Well, that's a matter of style. There's a Lewton picture called The Body Snatcher, where there's a blind street singer who walks into the darkness and gets killed. You hear her song stop, but you don't see anybody kill her. You figure out that's what happens, but what you're looking at is the street with a dark area in it. It works.
You need some characters that the audience follows. You don't have to like them. Someone to root for or even to dislike, but you follow the person. Generally they're in the middle of things, and curious. A lot of them are brave. Sometimes they're forced into a situation, like Ripley in Alien, and they're brave and resourceful. We like them, and we want them to win. They think of things and they're clever.
Very often they solve the mystery of what do you do about the monster. That goes back to the films of the '50s, some scientist or doctor or whoever, who figures out what's going on -- why the tarantula is big or whatever. It's good to be intelligent and resourceful and ready to take charge, like Ben in Night of the Living Dead. He gets everyone organized, while Harry is hiding out in the cellar, which makes him a bad character. Ben's a good example of a total hero. He knows what to do under pressure. You need those kinds of characteristics, but the hero doesn't have to be a gung ho hero. It can be a more low-key protagonist and that can be interesting too, like in Shaun of the Dead.