Horror is a genre that, as a whole, doesn't get a lot of respect. That seems a little unfair when you consider that the misses in that genre probably aren't significantly greater than the misses in any genre. Maybe the disdain has to do with the fact that slasher films have frequently been less highbrow and less polished efforts, while the respectable successes always get gerrymandered into more highbrow categories. Thus, we get the notion that PSYCHO isn't a horror film, it's a "Hitchcockian thriller." SILENCE OF THE LAMBS isn't a horror film, it's a "psychological thriller."
The success of DON'T BREATHE this past weekend should be a reminder of all the virtues of this much maligned genre. Here, in the waning dog days of summer, a new film opened up with $26.1 million. According to Box Office Mojo, that's up 43.5% from the same weekend last year. That fact alone would probably be reason to celebrate, but it gets even better. It was made for less than $10 million, which means it has a FAR shorter road to travel before its in the black and starts making money. And guess what? All of this was achieved with any big name stars.
That's the thing about horror - it's perhaps the one genre left where it's understood the concept is king. The box office proves that audiences don't need that extra nudge to go see something that looks interesting to them. I've always felt that same philosophy was transferable to other genres, but there remains this conviction that a project needs "marketable" names to earn a green light. (And if any of you have ever dealt with foreign financing, you understand how insane it can often be to try to put together a cast that the money men deem worth their investment.)
When I was still working as a reader, horror was probably one of the more frequent genres I read. Sadly, it was probably also the genre where I detected the most laziness on the part of the writers. Too many were seemingly satisfied with being generic. Perhaps it's that old snobbery at work again, it's "just" horror, so why work to make it good, right? Since DON'T BREATHE is likely to provoke another wave of horror writers, I want to pontificate about what I think makes a great horror film.
I took a look at many of the horror releases of the past several years and when you see the profit margin on the low-budget entries, it might inspire you to see how strong your affinity is for that genre. Blumhouse's success with PARANORMAL ACTIVITY has been talked to death at this point. Of the six films in the series, five of them were made for less than $5 million, and until the penultimate release, THE MARKED ONES, worldwide gross was always well over $100 million. Then again, the final film cost $10 million to make and it only made $18 domestically. ($59 million was taken in overseas.)
When you look at the PA numbers, you can see the first dip happened with PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4, which is probably not coincidentally the first film in the series where the story really seemed to be treading water. The lack of payoff likely discouraged attendance at the next entry, and by the time the final film rolled around most viewers who had cared were long gone.
Blumhouse's other franchise THE PURGE seems to be holding strong. The first film grossed $64.5 million domestically and each sequel's domestic take has risen. The films keep getting gradually more expensive, but both sequels have taken in over $100 million worldwide. I didn't like the original film at all, but something about this hook really seems to appeal to people.
The INSIDIOUS films are also a huge success with regard to
the budget to box office ratio. The first one cost $1.5 million and
earned $97 million, and it's the lowest grossing of the three.
Lesson: in a franchise, keep finding new angles within the framework of the concept. Making a horror film cheap isn't enough; having an inventive story and scares matters.
So what kind of horror story do you want to tell? My own interests lean more towards the Hitchcockian end of the spectrum. I like character-driven horror stories. For me, it's always more unsettling when the evil is relatable to something in the real world. This is part of the reason that THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was so effective - getting lost in the woods felt like something any of us could have done and the lack of any on-screen visual effects meant that viewers weren't immediately triggered to feel, "Okay, that's clearly fake so I'm now very aware I'm watching a construct.
Great horror stories start with primal emotions and fears. LIGHTS OUT had a supernatural killer, but the film cleverly reveals that her power is that she is strong in darkness and is invisible in the light. She might not be able to hurt you in the light, but you can't stay out of the dark forever. And when that moment comes, she's ready to kill you. It's a smart primal fear to build off of because studies show that fear of darkness is an evolutionary trait, not a learned one. On a visceral, gut level, the average person is likely incapable of NOT being triggered by this film.
A NIGHTMARE OF ELM STREET uses a variation of this, giving the killer power in his victim's nightmares. Everyone has nightmares and surely there are few people who haven't woken from a terrifying dream at some point. Those emotions are what makes Freddy Krueger such an effective bad guy. It also makes for a strong thematic through-line to hang a feature on. This will have to be a story about the heroine confronting her worst fears and surviving.
You can't neglect theme in horror films. Like the primal fears, these will be the elements that resonate with your audience on more than just a superficial way. LIGHTS OUT plays as an allegory for depression, and perhaps specifically trying to deal with a loved one who suffers from it. Any idiot can write a monster leaping out of the darkness and get a momentary scare from the audience. The REAL scare you want is the kind that lingers for days, that becomes a dull buzz in the viewers head even long after the end credits have rolled. You'll find these factors present in both supernatural and non-supernatural films, so no matter the horror subgenre you're working in, you want to be thinking about these questions.
Lesson: Theme matters, so have one. (And it should probably be in your mind as you're breaking the story, not tacked on after everything else is figured out.)
Let's take a look at some recent horror films that were either standalones, or the first in their series:
Insidious - $97M worldwide on a $3 million budget.
Sinister - $77M worldwide on a $3 million budget.
Lights Out - $126M worldwide on a $4.9 million budget.
Ouija - $103.5M worldwide on a $5 million budget.
Unfriended - $64M worldwide on a $1 million budget.
For me, Unfriended is the one of the bunch I wish I wrote because it had the most inventive high concept premise (the entire film is told via laptop screen, through Skype calls and chatrooms.) It's a much smaller story than the others, but it understands how to use its limitations to reveal things about the characters. That said, Sinister's pitch-dark ending is the rare horror finale that really, deeply chilled me. It absolutely earns that visceral punch from everything building up to it.
The Purge - $89M worldwide on a $3 million budget.
The Gift - $58.9M worldwide on a $5 million budget.
The Visit - $98.5M worldwide on a $5 million budget.
THE PURGE goes for a less repeatable concept and casts itself in the near future, where the laws have established The Purge, a yearly free-for-all where all laws are suspended and anything goes, including murder. I didn't particularly like this film, nor did I find the premise credible at all. However, that same hook is what drew people into the theaters, wondering, "How will they pull this off?"
Lesson: Sometimes audiences will go for something wildly original even if it's implausible.
THE VISIT, however, is far better at drawing on real-world fears. There are themes of aging and dementia, even invoking our pity for the elder folks and seemingly kindly grandparents, who seem to be succumbing to senility. Seeing that visited upon adults can be very hard on children, though by this point, it's likely a part of most childhoods. There's a twist near the end that's inventive, but might be too clever for its own good. It's something of a knife to the gut, but it's also the point where the film trades any poignant identification for visceral thrills. To be honest, sometimes that can work. It's like when Spielberg was told that blowing up the shark in JAWS was a ludicrous twist. His reply was some version of: "If I've got them in my hand for two hours, they'll believe anything I show them in the last five minutes."
Lesson: Take an experience that one might find unsettling or uncomfortable and amp it up to its possible worst case scenario. The old folks' deterioration lingers far more than the twist the film pulls in its third act.
It's THE GIFT that casts its spell by being grounded from minute one. Simon and his wife Robyn meet Gorod, an old classmate of Simon's who is instantly a little TOO friendly. Simon remembers him as "Gordo the Weirdo," an awkward kid in high school. It's archetypical enough that every viewer will either identify with Gordo, or think of their own "weirdo" they knew in high school. Simon doesn't like Gordo's efforts at becoming a friend, but Simon's wife is more receptive. It's a neat writing trick that makes Robyn empathetic, gets the audience feeling a little bad for Gordo, and makes us wonder if Simon's just being protective, a jerk, or if he's right to be wary of Gordo.
Every twist in this movie comes from pure character, even as it escalates into a stalker thriller. Having written a stalker thriller, I learned that a key rule is to keep the stalker relate-able. In the case of my script, several people said they found themselves on the stalker's side and were hoping he could just explain himself in the end and make everything okay. I like a movie where it's possible to empathize with the bad guy because it usually means the writer has done a good job of making that person a fleshed-out character.
Lesson: Character is king. A good tip is to plot only the character stuff first on its own and see if it holds together without the scares goosing the excitement every 15 minutes.
With supernatural films, when you're using paranormal creatures to personify abstract ideas or fears, you can sometimes get away with a lighter touch on the character work. If your story takes place in the real world, everything MUST have depth to it. That's what makes Hannibal Lector so scary and fascinating at the same time. It's what draws us into Clarice Starling's crusade to capture Buffalo Bill and be taken seriously as a woman in a man's world. Those are Academy Award-winning roles because so much effort was made to make them more than just "the cop" and "the psychopath." If you're writing a movie like this, your standards must be higher
One of my favorite horror films of all time, SCREAM, would not work if there wasn't recognizable human emotion driving the killers' plan. You can argue that their motivations are taken to a severe extreme - people have killed for revenge and notoriety before, but few have probably gone after as many bystanders just to serve the narrative they plan on selling to the cops. Also, the film plays fair with all of its cheats. Every misdirection is clearly motivated and directed so that it makes sense in hindsight.
SCREAM's other strength is that its heroine is at least as interesting as her adversary. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET got this right in the first installment, then forgot it for several subsequent entries. Write the kind of role that could stay interesting across several films. The horror films that get a bad rap tend to have weak, barely developed characters.
Lesson: from a character standpoint, there's really no great distinction between writing a horror film and writing any other genre. Characters shouldn't be two-dimension just because they're eventually canon fodder for the slasher or supernatural threat.
This year has seen a lot of strong horror and thrillers, some low-budget, some not. 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, THE SHALLOWS, and THE INVITATION are three that spring to mind with one thing in common - they're all limited locations. Two of them are confined not just in setting, but in time span too. 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is the exception, spreading its story out over several months, but that also uses the claustrophobia well, like a pressure cooker for inter-character tension. The situations are more extreme, but the intensity can work as a trigger for the viewers own emotions.
Also, I'm a sucker for these sorts of locked-room or limited location thrillers. If you can come up with an original hook to confine a story to a few sets, you might find yourself with some buzz around your story.
Lesson: containing your locations doesn't just have to be a limitation of budget, but can be an asset in forcing tension to a heightened and extreme level. This can be useful with a more heightened premise that doesn't immediately conform to some of the relatability issues I discussed above.
This obviously isn't everything you need to know about writing horror, but give it some thought when working on your next horror script. Do it right and you'll have created the sort of film that critics will keep finding reasons to label as "elevated genre" or "thriller" or whatever "respectable" term they're using for horror that week.