1 – Make sure the theme is understood.
Put in a very simple way, the theme in a film is a statement that you make with the film that should be clear to the audience as the story unfolds or when the whole film ends. Some people reduce the theme to a feeling (this film is about love) or a thing (this is a film about my father). The problem is that while these statements may be true, they are too general (most films are indeed about love, aren’t they?) to be viable themes. Instead, you should think about your theme as the thing that makes your story possible; what makes it move. In THE GODFATHER (1972) the theme is not the mafia, or the mafia family. The theme is one’s impossibility of escaping the destiny that flows in our veins despite one’s attempt to renounce it. That’s Michael Corleone’s story, isn’t it? In a horror film, it is the same thing. Find your theme and make sure it sticks to the audience’s mind. In POLTERGEIST (1982) the theme is the destruction of a happy family due to the impossibility of changing the evil nature of a place just because you built something nice on top of it. ROSEMARY’S BABY plays on two themes. One that develops as the story goes: the fact that Evil completely surrounds you when it wants something from you; and one that only becomes clear in the end: the inescapable love a mother will feel for her child. The clearer your theme is, the easier it becomes an effective guiding post to help you write a great story.
2 – Is this real or not?
It can be a great thing to keep the audience wondering if what’s happening in the story is real or not. Or better yet: if it’s real, how real it really is. You can build interest, drive engagement and empathy as the audience gets caught up in a guessing game. “Could this be really happening?” This happens because, while guessing, we extract some fascination from guessing where will this all go. In GOODNIGHT MOMMY (2014), two brothers are in a house with their disfigured mother. Is she really their mother? Are the boys really her sons? As the story goes, more and more questions will pop up. In HONEYMOON (2014), as two newlyweds arrive at their cabin, the husband starts to suspect that he really does not know his wife. How well do we know the people we think we know? Is the character’s reality real? That’s a fascinating game for your audience’s mind. Explore it.
3 – Do not be afraid of the good ol’ storytelling.
The three-act construction is far from dead. But you can also have two, four or five acts. Classics like THE HAUNTING (1963) and PEEPING TOM (1960) may be old, but newer films like THE CONJURING (2013) and LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008) share the same craftsmanship regarding structure, plot and character. They succeed not because of the gore or the violence, but because of their careful construction that delivers the goods on the right place at the right time. Never underestimate the importance of great execution. Narrative is power!
4 – Select a period or a location we don’t see often.
A guy on a street, running from zombies. That’s everywhere, right? Some films gain extra points by taking us to a time and place we rarely go in the horror genre. THE WITCH (2015) takes us to the 17th century. THE SHINING (1980) takes us to a huge hotel that’s closed for the Winter. CHERNOBYL DIARIES (2012) takes us to Pripyat. Period and location alone do not make a great film. However, they add new space to your canvas. And if you think that most stories are retelling of older stories, that added canvas can be a precious element that will give your film a taste of new.
5 – Do not hurry the story.
ALIEN (1979), THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009), THE OTHERS (2001), THE ORPHANAGE (2007) and many other great films do not seem to be in a hurry. Yes, some people like their splatter before the opening credits end. However, remember that the genre is so wide and filmmakers can get so creative that you can have a great horror film that burns slow. Just make sure you deliver the goods when the time comes. Remember: sometimes the foreplay can make all the difference.
6 – Craft your intensity.
Sometimes some stories will naturally demand that you forget the advice #5 and go straight to the violence. When that happens it is important to measure how much of it you will give your audience as the story goes. If you put it all out there on minute one, you may find yourself struggling to keep up with it or surpassing it. Some directors are professional managers of the intensity. They give us the right amount just in time for the more intense dose ahead. [REC] (2007) does it beautifully. ALIENS (1986) and THE EXORCIST (1973) turned this management into an art form in itself. Recently, THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE: FIRST SEQUENCE (2009) did it so well, that it can be unbearable while showing almost nothing, ever!
7 – Use space to make a difference.
Two different films are great examples of this and they do it in very different ways. BURIED (2010) keeps the character locked in a box for 90 minutes. Is it a problem? No, because the film keeps complicating the character’s problems in unexpected and interesting ways. It never gets boring (or unbelievable). IT FOLLOWS (2014) goes for a totally different strategy. The spaces are wide open. So open that the relentless nature of entities that are coming for the protagonist gives us a tension that is seldom that strong.
8 – Know the history of the genre and acknowledge it.
Horror fans love when they realize they have the same references as the filmmakers. Perhaps this sense of brotherhood is unique to the horror genre. SCREAM (1996) is a great example of this. Yes, it was made by a horror master. But more than that, by being so self-referential, it shows a genuine love for the genre. FUNNY GAMES (1997) and YOU’RE NEXT (2011) do the same. They offer us a slightly different take on elements we know well (like the omniscient murderers or the final girl) and keep us in the new ground that comes with that.
9 – Have good acting.
Good acting does miracles. In many horror films – especially at the micro-budget level – producers and directors are tempted to hire their brothers, girlfriends and friends, assuming that’s the only solution they have. This happens often because there is no money for stars. But that battle is far from lost. Assuming that the stars you would like to have are also great actors, one must realize that the universe is also filled with great actors who are not stars. The road to the stars is long and you will find great actors willing to work with you. THE BABADOOK (2014) is one great example of a film that gets its mileage from great acting. The same thing happens with CHEAP THRILLS (2013) and THE BATTERY (2012). Never give up looking for great actors who have what it takes and will give the role what it needs.
10 – Copy from the best (and never apologize for it!)
Few people know that the axe murder in FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) is a direct copy from Mario Bava’s A BAY OF BLOOD (1971). In the same vein, INNKEEPERS (2011) steals a lot from THE SHINING (1980). And the most beautiful thing is that they do it without ever apologizing for it. And why would they? They are building their own great films upon the masters that came before them. You can do the same! If you love a particular scene, a film, a character or a story, then take something from it and improve it. Or just give your audience your own personal version of it. The great thing about Art is that you can use it to fuel more great Art.
If you like horror films, you should check INNER GHOSTS.