What makes a good horror film?

Alien is an exceptional horror film, but it should not be. If you step back and examine what Alien is, in terms of story and narrative, you find a cheesy B-movie. A cast of unsuspecting squidgy humans come across a desolate alien spaceship, within which they find a horrifying mix of slime-covered, goo-filled black latex and an animatronic, which finds its way onto their ship. The humans cannot escape, and so, slowly one by one, they are murdered.

Newline cinema 1974
Newline cinema 1974

Switch out the ship for a decrepit mansion with a spooky past, the alien for a ghost, set it in the 1950s and you can see that, essentially, the film is just the old haunted routine at heart. Yet, it is an amazingly terrifying film

Peel back the layers that any good horror film has and take a good long look at the core of their story and narrative, and what you often find is rarely scary and mostly just silly. The Exorcist still stands as a horror classic, yet it is simply the story of a man in a dress engaging in a metaphorical and occasionally literal pissing contest (well, vomit to be more precise) with the devil, who incidentally has decided that the best possible vessel of destruction he could use is a little girl. So given this, it is a fair question to ask what makes this film so frightening, aside from the fact that tying a young girl down to a bed and locking her in a room with a priest is quite a scary concept already.

A lot must certainly be said for excellent acting, well-written scripts, creating sets, character designs that set the right tone, and soundtracks that set the appropriate atmosphere. However, I will not pretend to be able to write an exhaustive account of these elements, because I will run out of room on this page and patience from you. But one thing can be said without, I hope, doing either: that is that good horror is fundamentally about the slow but complete loss of control. For example, Alien, to borrow an example from above, starts with the characters largely in control of their environment, their ship Nostromo. As the film progresses they are thrust into a hostile world with a monster that forces them back to their ship, their original point of safety. They then have this taken away from them as they are slowly killed off one by one, steadily diminishing their ability to deal with the danger that increasingly comes to encapsulate them.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, another horror classic, effectively does the same thing. Arguably the scariest scene in the movie, the dinner table scene near the end, is so because we have just spent close to an hour and a half watching the now main protagonist have every chance of escape and salvation be brutally ripped from her. After all her friends are steadily butchered with chainsaws, hammers, and meat hooks, she is beaten and broken and trapped in Leather Face’s dinning room. Thus, she is left in a situation where she will almost certainly face a very nasty, bone-crunching, blood-spattered end.For whatever reason, we, as humans, seem to find the idea of losing complete control to be genuinely terrifying. Losing control of our lives is uncomfortable. It is the exploitation of this fear that arguably makes great horror films as scary as they are.

1 Comment

  1. 09 November 2013 - 21:56 BST

    There can also be tremendous pathos, such as for the deformed John Merrick in David Lynch’s THE ELEPHANT MAN, or for the Creature in Frankenstein Do we feel sympathy, or even affinity, for the vampire, doomed to walk, and thrist, undead through eternity?

    The BFI has restored a collection of classic horror which is showing at City Screen, from 10 Novemeber and on subsequent Sundays, starting with THE ELEPHANT MAN, then DRACULA, and THE WOLF MAN, and concluding with THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. :)

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