Horror classics – How do they work?

Have you ever wondered what it is that sets good and bad horror movies apart?

It’s a common misconception that horror was easy to pull off. Actually nothing could be further from the truth. Where other genres can solely rely on the acting, horror also has to work on a technical level. That means the camerawork, sound design, lighting, and especially the editing, everything has to be spot on. One second more or less can decide whether a scene works or doesn’t. It’s safe to assume that one of the reasons why so much garbage is flooding the horror market is that the director either didn’t know, or care, how to do it properly.

One typical mistake many b-grade horror movies tend to make is showing the ghost or entity way too often, often relying on tacky CG or make-up, until it ceases to be scary. You have probably heard of the “law of diminishing return”. Each time you see something, it will have less effect than the last time. That’s why successful horror films usually wait for the right moment, they’ll only show glimpses of the entity here and there, while building up anxiety for the ultimate scare.

Another common complaint with horror is that the endings often suck. A lot of horror movies seem to stumble at that last hurdle, ruining all the tension built up previously. Some endings are lame and predictable, others don’t make sense in the context of the story, or they might be otherwise unsatisfying. Since horror movies very much rely on suspense, buildup and payoff, failing to deliver the latter will leave the audience in a state of dissatisfaction.

I could go on about this for hours, but let’s instead look at what good horror movie scenes are doing right, and what techniques they use to scare the sh*t out of you. There will be spoilers, so read at your own risk!

Horror in real life

For starters, let’s look at what makes Hideo Nakata’s “Dark Water” such a great horror film. It’s a very good example of how tension is slowly built up throughout the movie, and how real-world and supernatural conflict can reinforce each other. You’re practically waiting for something bad to happen. So when it finally does, it hits you all the harder. We immediately sympathize with single mom Yoshimi, and her dire living situation, custody battle and all, only adds to the anxiety. A general feeling of helplessness and gloom pervades the movie. At the same time, it’s also very much clear how much Yoshimi loves her little girl. And so do we. Not long after Yoshimi and her daughter Ikuko move into the run-down apartment (the only one they could afford), we immediately get the sense that something ain’t right. It starts with little things: a stain on the ceiling that keeps getting bigger, hair coming out of the tap, a children’s bag that keeps reappearing. The decrepit building is the icing on the cake. All these things raise our anxiety level little by little. Then we catch a glimpse of the ghost girl. Strange things keep happening around the building. We learn about the missing girl’s case, which is creepy enough by itself. Ikuko starts talking to imaginary friends, shortly before falling sick. Then she disappears from home, and Yoshimi has to fear the worst.At this point we realize there is more at stake than just Yoshimi’s legal problems. Because what could be more terrifying for a parent than something happening to their child?

Only at the end do we get a clear look at the ghoulish Mitsuko, and even though she may not be Sadako, she still looks pretty creepy to me. Just how you’d imagine a drowned corpse, except that she’ll cling to you with superhuman strength. The element of surprise in that moment adds to the shock value, as does the context of the situation. Because Yoshimi’s decision to sacrifice herself in order to save her daughter has very strong implications on the real world. It’s a somewhat tragic ending that, for Yoshimi, carries both a sense of redemption (trying to be a better mother), as well as bitter irony (her daughter now has to suffer the same fate she did before). Thanks to Hitomi Kuroki’s acting, Yoshimi has been drawing our sympathy, and we really want mother and daughter to pull through… But a happy ending just wouldn’t have had the same impact. Of course, for all the well-written plot, it would all be for nought if the technical execution wasn’t flawless, but luckily “Dark Water” also delivers in that regard.

Ghostly Mitsuko in “Dark Water”

Building up tension

Let’s looks at one of the most iconic scenes in the history of horror: Sadako crawling out of the TV. I still remember my first time watching it. I absolutely wasn’t prepared for what I was about to see. So what makes Sadako’s appearance so effective? Needless to say, the scene is done extremely well technically. Sadako herself looks just plain creepy with her unkempt hair, white gown, and crawling movements. I’m not so sure about the creepy eye, but of course that’s a reference to the Japanese legend of Oiwa. Next, the creepy string music accentuates the situation perfectly. Actually it’s a perfect example of how important the score is in horror. The scene would only be half as effective with the sound off. Anyway, so much about the technical side of things.

But that’s only one half the story. More importantly, the scene is the culmination of 1 1/2 hours of buildup. Part of what I think makes Ring such an outstanding horror piece is the simplicity of its plot, and the clear rules it establishes – that the curse kills you within one week. It follows a certain logic, like all great ghost stories. Right from the start of the movie, we get to see how dangerous the curse is (we won’t forget the victim’s distorted faced anytime soon). Even though we don’t get to see her directly, Sadako is established as a dangerous presence throughout the story. In addition, the occasional jump scare helps in setting our nerves on edge. While the mystery is slowly unraveled, the time limit caused by the curse adds a sense of urgency. Of course none of that would matter if we didn’t care for the characters. Because they are well written and acted, we sympathize with them and share their fears and anxieties. We know what’s at stake for them. In other words, the more we care for the characters on screen, the more immersed in the movie we get. And as the stakes are getting higher, so does our heart rate. By the time Sadako appears, we’ll be so on edge and in a state of hyper-anxiety that even a jumping cat could give us a heart attack.

If you see this it’s already too late.

Jump Scares

Next I’ll give you an example from the Korean horror classic A Tale of Two Sisters. Just like in the previous two, the scares are used very sparsely, which makes them all the more effective. Probably the single most effective scene in the movie is the one with the ghost under the sink. It probably knocked you out of your chair if you’ve seen it. As a classic jump scare, there really isn’t much to it. But it wouldn’t be as effective if your nerves weren’t already on edge. Apart from the general story and mood of the movie, we know from the previous scene that Mi-Hee (the girls’ aunt) saw something under the sink during her seizure. And why did she have one in the first place? We know something ain’t right here.

Next we see Mi-Hee and the uncle talking in the car, when she tells him about what she saw, looking genuinely freaked out. Someone recounting a scary experience can be very effective in building up suspense or tension. The scene is also accompanied by an eerie wind sound effect. Soon after she mentions the “girl under the sink”, the flashback of what she saw suddenly pops up. The timing is imperative here, because we don’t expect it to appear right there and then. And not only does the girl (probably Su-Yeon) look pretty creepy visually, you can also hear also a loud screaming sound effect. Loud noises are absolutely essential for jump scares and probably play an even larger part than the visuals. In any case… jump scares typically have to be used with caution, but this is one example that totally works. Just in case you missed it:

I’m never doing the dishes again.

This page is still a work in progress and will be updated in the future.

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