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How to Make a Modern Horror Movie

So you’ve decided to try your hand at cinema’s most derided yet beloved genre of death-dealing terror, good for you!  Yes, horror is timeless and primal and appeals to all of us on some level because fear is such a basic emotion.  Good thing most horror movie producers bend it over and destroy it so thoroughly to teach it a lesson.

If you want to make a modern horror movie (please don’t make the mistake of thinking we mean a good horror movie) you’ll need to follow a few important steps.  Jot these down or watch literally any horror movie from the last 12 years or so.  You’ll pick it up.

Showboat Ghosts/Monsters

Picture it – you’re in a dark, ominous house in the middle of nowhere.  It’s been abandoned since the owner died under mysterious circumstances years earlier.  Locals will not speak of it and no one goes near the old, overgrown property.  But it’s your house now and you’re determined to clean it out and make it a home for your family.  And n your first night, you catch a movement outside as you’re cleaning out the master bedroom.  Something in the yard.  You look out the window and slowly, painfully slowly, something creeps down the hall behind you and before you can turn, it’s gone!

That was an asshole.

If ghosts were real, they’d never creep down the hall behind you and I’ll tell you why – you wouldn’t see them.  The reason for this is that you can’t see behind you.  But in a movie, everything has to happen where the audience sees it and not the characters because if they were sane they’d run away in the first reel.  So the audience gets the scares that, technically, make no sense whatsoever.  It’s like dancing behind your friend when they’re talking to someone because you think it’s funny, only now we’re presuming ghosts think that’s funny.  Or something.

So make sure your ghost or monster likes to stand behind people, or in windows, or appear in mirrors all the time where no one but the audience can see them.

Undernourished Child

Modern horror has made quite a big deal out of decrepit children.  The Ring, Woman in Black, Silent Hill, Orphan, the Grudge, Case 39, pick a recent horror movie and there’s a good chance the kid in it looks like he or she needs a nap.  Of course kids have been used to creep people out for years because kids are creepy, just watch the Bad Seed or some such, but after the year 2000 or so it became necessary to make your child pale and kind of distant, like maybe they need to eat a steak or up their dosage.

If you can get a child actor with eyes like Steve Buscemi who also has spindly, spider arms and a bowl haircut, you just won the horror movie child actor lottery.  Seriously, are you picturing that?  You’re creeped out, aren’t you?

Might as Well Jump

Not so long ago filmed makers realized the magic of film was not what it used to be.  Did you ever hear stories about cinemas when they were first introduced?  The story about a film that was literally just a train coming towards the camera, nothing else.  People in the theatre were so scared that the train would it them, they ran off screaming.  That’s horror.

Nowadays we’re all too aware that movies are just stories put together by Hollywood magicians.  We know it’s not real.  We’ll never believe it’s real again.  So to make a modern horror movie you have to not want to actually scare people anymore, just shock or startle them.  What’s the difference?  Here’s a handy guide.

Scary – the unshakeable feeling that something awful is about to befall you, some terrible thing has you in its sights and you are completely powerless to escape.

Shocking – someone’s dick exploding so violently it decapitates everyone else in the room in a fountain of blood and gore.

Startling – shit that jumps at the camera.

Modern horror likes those last two.  Go Eli Roth and you can rely a lot on shock to get your point across.  Go anyone else and you need to startle the audience.  Hell, if you’re good (bad) you don’t even need to have stuff jump at the camera, you can just make the music jump and the audience will do the same thing.  It’s a lot like thinking you’re alone in a room and hearing a fart that suddenly alerts you to your grandpa behind you.  It’s not scary exactly, but it was unexpected.

What a Twist!

Never give people the ending you’ve been leading them to believe they’re going to get since 30 minutes in.  Of course no one believes they’re getting that ending anyway, but keep steering them in that direction.

Do you need to find the unburied body of the malevolent spirit so you can put it to rest and thus have a happy ending?  Ha ha, of course you do, make sure that happens 10 minutes before the end of the film so there’s enough time to tack on an ending when we get to see how that didn’t work and the malevolent spirit is just as big an asshole as ever, because at the end of the day, it’s just a jerk.  That’s literally going to be what your twist ending boils the entire antagonist’s motivation down to – jerkiness.

Is your killer obviously the main character’s best friend, only at the last minute that character gets murdered and it turns out the real killer is actually a character who had literally not been introduced in the movie yet?  That’s terrible!  But definitely no one saw it coming.  You just made the perfectly unpredictable ending by breaking the rules.  Good job.

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