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Author Topic: What Makes a Truly Scary Movie  (Read 9484 times)
CoreyHeldpen
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« on: February 06, 2007, 04:07:43 PM »

Hey all;

Pretty soon here, I'm going to start working on a homemade fright flick, and even though it's nearly impossible to make an independent no-budget monster flick have any scare factor whatsoever, I want to try to make this one as scary as it can possibly be.

Here's the pitch: A group of hikers find an old, freaky book with all this creepy, foreign writing in it. They recite a verse,  and summon a demon, that kills them. The monster then wanders into a nearby town, and begins killing more people.

So I have two question:
1) What makes a truly scary movie?
and 2) How can I make this super-low-budget creature feature scary?
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« Reply #1 on: February 06, 2007, 04:15:40 PM »

"creepy, foreign writing"

How do they know how to recite a verse.  Even assuming it is using the English alphabet, what about pronunciation.  That's one thing that makes a movie scary, to me.  The closer to reality it can be, the scarier.  Now, I'll give the director a scary demon (or Alien), but make the rest of it as close to "normal" as possible -- have the actors react as people normally would.
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« Reply #2 on: February 06, 2007, 04:30:55 PM »

1.) Scary != big budget.  You don't need $$ for scary.  Scary comes from the writing, not the visuals.  JMO.

2.) I think to hit scary, you've got to play around with human psychology a little bit - and maybe some cultural factors, too.  So, why do YOU think a demon running around a town killing people is scary?  What about that is scary TO YOU?  Answer that and play on it.  In other words, make the movie that would scare YOU.

3.) I once read something about what makes the difference between "horror" and "thriller" or some such.  Basically, in horror, the audience knows something bad is coming.  They anticipate it; they want it to be over.  But, you (as director) make that anticipation last.  This horrifies.  All the cheap-thrill jump scares are just that.  Cheap and forgettable.

Take a look at some of the masters of horror, imo films like HALLOWEEN, THE FOG, BIRDS, etc, and to see this in action.  The essence of what makes them scary is not gore, not jump-scares, but that the character's terror (transmitted to the audience) is prolonged.

4.) I think one tactic that helps is to keep the audience off-kilter just a little bit.  For examples of this, see SESSION 9 and MAY.  The audience does not REALLY know much more of what is going on than the characters (maybe some back story, maybe not).  Personally, in MOST instances, I find a film more enjoyable (and more scary) when I am not more enlightened than the characters (except for knowing that it is just a movie, something THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT tried to play with).

On this note, though, I personally HATE the camera trick of using field of view to artifically limit what the audience sees until the character responds to it.  For example, if a character is looking right at a {insert giant bug or other creature} but it is off-camera, they would still see it.  That sort of thing takes me out of the moment.

I'm sure Dean and some of the others with more formal study can give more technical answers, but summarizes the things I would think about if trying to make a truly scary film.
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« Reply #3 on: February 06, 2007, 04:42:58 PM »

Act as if you really would if it were really happening, make scenes that really would scare you. Make everything seem grim and hopeless almost constantly.

Please don't have anyone act too confidant when trying to slay the monster, it's one of the few things that made Kolchak the Night Stalker scary (Kolchak was never totally sure of himself when fighting his beast), and it usually comes off as annoying.

Please please, PLEASE! Don't use dumbass "quick camera shots" detailing every single move the victim makes. This ain't some Xtreme action-adventure thing, it's supposed to be ominous. Even in chase scenes, try and make it suspenseful, not Xtreme!

Make the demon aesthetically pleasing, but not to the "oh damn that thing is kewl" point. Of course, the more visually interesting the thing is, the less scary, but if it is really boring, then people won't get interested. And remember to make it look powerful, like even if you robbed it of all weapons and powers it could still mangle you with it's bare hands. My favorite movie monster, rawhead rex incorporates all these elements (yes, rawhead still scares me).

God, please use mature dialogue, if you use crappy jokes and or one-liners, it'll probably suck

the final fight, make it suspenseful, VERY suspenseful, take special care to make it the scariest part of the film or else people will leave the theatre, do not give too much power to your hero, make him stay human and stay scared (this is horror, not inspirational). Once your film is over (and your thing may or may not be dead) there are many ways to go, there is no wrong answer depending on personal taste and tone, with the exception of two things...

*And unfounded ending scare, where all logic is defied for the sake of a jump moment.
*An abrupt ending, which is just stupid and uncreative.

Gore isn't that scary, not to say that crappy offscreen deaths are, remember to thrill, even when you don't kill.

Now, about budget, the best way IMO is to have lots of giving friends, and treat the project as a fun project more than just a "movie". Use locations other than friends' houses and public places sparingly. Try to make your picture (especially death scenes) in a few, good, shots, it will save you a lot of time reapplying makeup and gore, not to mention attempting continuity.

Don't be afraid to go small on effects, as long as you maintain the same level of quality throughout.

Of course, this is all considering yours is a straight-faced horror movie, if not, we'll talk about that too. I hope to post again if I think of anymore tips.
« Last Edit: February 06, 2007, 04:45:14 PM by Mr. Briggs Inc. » Logged

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CoreyHeldpen
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« Reply #4 on: February 06, 2007, 05:11:33 PM »

ulther's suggestions:
Right, then, I'll have to check the films you suggested.  Thanks for the tips, I'll make sure to answer why I think a demon running around town killing people is scary and play on it. You gave me some good advice there.

Mr. Biggs suggestions:
Don't worry, there WILL NOT be any confident monster slayers, quick camera shots, immature dialogue, unfounded ending scares, or an abrupt ending, because I friggin' hate those too. I didn't plan on putting much gore, I'm not much of a gore hound. A bit of blood here and there, but I won't have a scene where the monster attacks someone, and the camera cuts away to a shot of blood splattering against a wall. That's silly and uncreative. It is going to be a rather serious film, if that's what you mean by straight-faced, there might be a little comic relief, and if so, any suggestions on that?

Thanks for the help!
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« Reply #5 on: February 06, 2007, 05:22:49 PM »

Quote
It is going to be a rather serious film, if that's what you mean by straight-faced, there might be a little comic relief, and if so, any suggestions on that?

Don't force it and don't just slap it in. Make jokes clever, well-timed, and well spaced! (especially if they are recurring jokes, which can become lame and predictable if used more than two or three times)

Also (not too sure about this one) you may want to give your monster a signature roar. It can be beneficial to the feeling of impending doom, as long as it's used at key points.
« Last Edit: February 06, 2007, 05:25:29 PM by Mr. Briggs Inc. » Logged

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odinn7
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« Reply #6 on: February 06, 2007, 10:16:36 PM »

Let's see...according to Hollywood, apparently movies with quick cuts and harsh, loud noises are scary...oh yes...and don't forget the girl "ghost" (usually wet for some reason) with the pale skin and sunken eyes.  Lookingup
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« Reply #7 on: February 06, 2007, 10:46:02 PM »

Let the viewer's imaginations do the scaring for you, an example, in the original version of The Fog the scene in which the fishing boat is boarded you never really see the ghosts clearly, mostly just shapes in the fog,you know their killing people by the noises, then you sort of see one of them grab the last fisherman by the throat and lift him up, cut to a dead looking hand holding a sharp looking object, knife or spike, the hand moves back and forward, cut to fog, two squish type noises and a gurgle. Imagination on the viewer's part, my daughter went for what scared her most, said the squishing noises were the knife going in the guy's throat and then out , gurgle was him drowning in his own blood. I imagined (and still do) that each squish was an eye being gouged out, the gurgle was his brain finally being pithed by the spike. Stuff like this is not expensive to do and is very effective. The original version of The Haunting is very scary and it's all done with sound effect's and a couple of doors that bow out of shape, you never once see a ghost. This one is much better than the remake, it should give you some good ideas.
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« Reply #8 on: February 06, 2007, 11:22:01 PM »

I think going against the forumla as much as possible is good... Scream did that really well and I think that's why I consider it one of my favorite movies of all time.
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Thorn Is
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« Reply #9 on: February 07, 2007, 12:10:46 AM »

bring the "creep"
getting into the psyche and just creeping someone out is very effective

think of what scares you
think of what sacred you as a child

was it going into the basement?
the creeping of the stairs?
a house on your block?
the forest around your house?

if you could identify with it you should be able to give your audience a chance to identify with it
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« Reply #10 on: February 07, 2007, 12:22:50 AM »

It's tough scaring people these days, but one thing that still holds true is that people are afraid of the unknown. If we can't see/understand something, it bothers and sometimes scares us. For example, even when we get older, we still fear the dark to some extent (and for different reasons). (Maybe) There's no reason to, but we fear it, or rather, we fear what might be waiting for us in the dark. If you can play off of the primal fears that most of us have, then you may be able to create an excellent little horror film. (Note: One thing I really enjoy is when a film builds a growing sense of dread before unleashing hell upon the main characters: THE FOG does this very effectively as does Halloween - both of which were mentioned by ulthar. Other films to check out as well are  "Darm Remains," an independent ghost film, and Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining." Those films start out by tossing out some odd, but minor disturbances before the true horror really kicks into full gear.) Just my two cents.

Hope you keep us in the loop Corey, you've definitely gained my interest in your flick.  TeddyR
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« Reply #11 on: February 07, 2007, 03:21:04 AM »


Yeah, I'm interested too!

I'm not much of a horror expert really, but I'll try and give a few meagre suggestions.  The others have all given some really excellent advice.

First thing with small budget/no budget flicks is to find out what your limitations are and work within that.  Things such as shooting at night can be difficult with a dv camera without the correct lighting for example [it comes out grainy and looks quite terrible].  Of course, you can use this to your advantage, by creating a gritty atmosphere etc.

Well, atmosphere is important in a horror film, and its key trying to lock down your certain style, and that very much is dictated by your abilities and equiptment, so try to be realistic about what you can do.  I can count on two hands the amount of times my friends tell me of an idea they'd like to film, and I have to tell them: "So how do you propose to achieve this shot of burning flames in hell where a zombie hitler is roaming around ripping the heads off dead babies?"  You'd be surprised at how ornate they can be sometimes, and I'd love to do it, but it just seems very hard when all you have is $20 and a mini-dv camera to work with...

Movies like Saw, which although had it's downpoints [read the thread talking about how bad it is] also had certain stylistic elements/story points which worked really well.  Low budget films are forced to be creative, and that's what you'll need to be.

Think about all the elements of a horror/thriller that you found scary, and use that as a springboard for your ideas.  There's no reason why you can't go for a 'jumpy shock' film rather than a slow burning thrill-ride, as long as you achieve that given suspense and in a way that isn't 'oh look at that hack'.

Anyways, I think it's always worth experimenting for a bit before you really launch into it. I'm not sure of what you can/can't do, so I'll leave it to you to judge that part, but just make sure you don't write a really really awesome scene, only to realise you have no way of achieving it without spending more money than you have [a mistake I've made many times]

Personally for me, like some of the others, I tend to prefer the 'sick pyschological' thrills, rather than the jumps.  But combining the two can work wonders.  I guess it's why I found parts of Saw 'scary': you see the anguish on their faces as they try and comprehend their situation.

I suppose it's that old saying 'less is more'.  Sometimes the simplest ideas work the best, and a slow camera shot on a person as they discover something truly horrifying right before we are shown it [if we are shown it at all] is quite often much more effective than just plainly showing someone throw up a bit of blood.

Because you're dealing with no budget, you'll probably need to develop that particular type of moment [the 'slow burn'] unless you decide to go with the cheap thrills [since that's a classic style I suppose]

Definitely, like the others have said, build on a sense of dread.  There's a reason why in most classic horror films, you barely ever see the actual monster until near the end.  Sometimes it's all the more effective just seeing the results.

I'm sure there's loads of advice on style and format etc I could probably give, but my head hurts from a busy day at work, so I'll leave it right now, but I suggest you revisit films a few types of film.

Films that have a similar plot point/story to yours [eg. Monster/demon that goes killing people] It's always good to see how others have covered your same idea, so you can build on that and change/take from it.

Films like Se7en where there isn't a lot of shock horror, but rather a psychological, surreal oddness about it that makes it creepy.  You may not like the film as such, but it's a great example of style.

Other low budget horror films, or films that have inspired you to write this in the first place.

And so on.

You try to watch them with a critical eye: what types of camera shots were effective, what sort of situations made you feel creeped out/scared and how they technically achieved them.  Once you've locked down a certain style of shooting it, you can mould the emotion of the film around it [and vice versa].  No sense in having slow emotional build ups plot-wise, when you are cutting the shot every second!

I also find that when you combine religion with horror, it can really play on some people's superstitions.  I watched End Of Days on Tv the other night, and, whilst being a crappy Arnie films, it did have it's quite good moments, just because killing in a religious way seems kinda freaky to me.

Where the demon comes from is probably an important factor, and above all keep an air of mystery about it!

Anyways, I'd love to hear more details, such as what type of Demon is it [smart, or just ravage-monster] does it have a purpose etc or even some details on the behind the scenes part of it.

Anywho, that's all for now.  I hope that made sense...
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« Reply #12 on: February 07, 2007, 08:05:06 AM »

Also, you only get scared if you feel involved with the people on screen. You need to get some real characters that your viewers can identify with. The audience doesn't need to love them, but it needs to care about what's happening to these people. Once your characters get annoying (comic relief characters are especially risky here), any chance of suspense is lost. As a case in point, halfway through Deep Blue Sea, I found myself shouting encouragements to the shark. (Go on! Eat the ****** cook!!!)

Don't overdo the 'Boo!' factor. Having the monster pop up in unexpected places might work once. If it keeps up appearing out of nowhere, this quickly gets boring.

Finally, do you viewers intelligence a favour: have some coherent idea about what your monster can and cannot do, and stick to it. All too often we have monsters that can rip a car apart, yet have difficulty breaking through a plywood door later on.

To sum up: careful plotting and writing.
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« Reply #13 on: February 07, 2007, 08:45:50 AM »

1) What makes a truly scary movie?
and 2) How can I make this super-low-budget creature feature scary?

i say just do it from the heart man, take what you know ( which should be a decent amount if your hangin around a movie board) and go with it, like they said what scares you? use that. i make independent films myself and since i watch alot of movies i watch for things that worked and what didnt and how i could make things work that didnt ect. idk you kinda just gotta do it. for the most part though its all about the writing of the script and the people you get to act.
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« Reply #14 on: February 07, 2007, 09:49:07 AM »

The problem with making a scary movie is that different things scare different people. Some people get scared from  things suddenly popping out, personally I don't get scared by this because I usually know when somethings going to happen. Other people get scared by gore and torture scenes, make them squirm in there seats. What scares me the most is atmosphere. Nothing gets me creeped out more than a chilling apocalyptic scene. Also I strongly advise avoiding cliche horror movie devices. Use some originality in presenting this movie.
So if you want to make this movie I say start with the atmosphere.  Make the woods as dark and foreboding as possible. Shoot at night and use little light except what the flashlight and nature gives you. Avoid using fog machines, I really hate when these get used because they just scream cliche horror movie. Use sound to bring out the creepiness of the woods, use strange haunting voices barely audible beaconing them with creepy disturbing music. I recommend finding some good doom or black metal. You could also go to the opposite extreme and use no sound except for whats picked up on camera, because sometimes silence is more frightening than anything.
The place that they find this book should be horrific and evil, like an alter covered in guts and blood with maggots and flies all around it with the book in the middle of a messy pile of bloody flesh. The book its self should be the center piece.Use an original idea for its design, please don't make it look like the Necromicon.
As for the monster there is a problem with trying to make it scary and keep a low budget. I recommend keeping it simple. you could have the monster a invisible being which tears its victims apart with unseen claws, or make the monster human in appearance but make the way it kills its victims especially in-human and barbaric, like beating them to death with its bear hands. The invisible monster idea could be cool because people could get ripped apart with out warning.Don't skimp on the gore. The more brutal the deaths the more you will have people squirming in there seats, if you have to get exploitive about it.
But the biggest thing you need to do if keep the movie coherent and logical. Write and re-write this movie until you have something that makes sense, and even if your actors are just your friends good and natural writing will make the actors more comfortable and expressive in there performances. Also if you haven't already find and read some H.P. Lovecraft. He is a master of the unknown and lurking horror.
So I wish you luck in your endeavour, listen to the people on this forum because they have seen more bad monster movies than anyone should.
« Last Edit: February 07, 2007, 09:51:30 AM by Wicked Nick » Logged

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