Happy Halloween from your friends at BOO-nacy Productions! In the spirit of the holiday, today we’ll be talking about the filmmaking techniques that make your favorite horror films so scary. For more Halloween fun, check out our LunaTips video series on ghost stories with Allison Ross and our spoooky interview with makeup artist Allie Shehorn!
But before we get started, a warning. Many of the clips linked and embedded below are
NOT SAFE FOR WORK
and a few also contain
*** SPOILERS *** SPOILERS *** SPOILERS ***
Proceed with caution!
1. Long Takes
One of the keys to a making a good horror film is being able to build tension, and an easy way to do that is through the use of long takes. The audience knows that something terrifying is coming, but by extending a single shot for a long period of time, the filmmaker gives no hint as to when. The long take creates a sense of dread, like something bad could happen at any moment.
The limited perspective of a single unbroken shot forces the audience to scan the frame for clues where danger may be hiding. Every camera movement could reveal a horrific surprise and the longer the shot continues without that release the more the tension builds. The opening scenes of Get Out and It Follows both use long, unbroken takes to this effect. The original Halloween combines a long take with handheld camerawork, replicating the killer’s point of view and forcing the audience into a disturbing, voyeuristic role.
In The Shining Stanley Kubrick uses long takes and tracking shots to help create a creeping feeling of unease. These shots establish the cavernous Overlook Hotel as a silent and empty place, so when our protagonists do cross paths with someone who doesn’t belong there, it is as unexpected and shocking for us as it is for them.
I could watch this movie forever and ever and ever…
In our day-to-day life, we don’t usually notice all the noise that surrounds us. Stop what you’re doing right now and listen. Even if you are alone in an empty room, you surely hear many noises. The hum of a refrigerator or a fluorescent light; the distant rumble of traffic; birds chirping outside. We normally just tune out these everyday sounds, so on the rare occasions when we are alone in the dead of night and find ourselves surrounded by real silence, it can be jarring!
The effect is the same at the movies. Film is primarily a visual medium, but usually those visuals are accompanied by a healthy dose of noise. Sound effects, dialogue, and music cues can all contribute to the thrills and chills of a scary movie. But silence can be much more frightening. We’ve grown so accustomed to the cacophony of sound design in every movie we watch, that simply taking it away can be very off-putting.
Like the long take, silence depends heavily on anticipation. The longer your silence is, the more tension you build to an eventual payoff. Recent films such as A Quiet Place, Hush, and Don’t Breathe have made great use of prolonged silence to make audiences squirm. But this isn’t a recent innovation. In this scene from the 1961 film The Innocents, a governess who is looking after the children of a wealthy bachelor hears a noise in the night and begins searching the estate.
They just don’t turn the screw like they used to.
3. Creepy Cues
When you think of Jaws, what comes to mind first? The shark? The “vertigo shot” of Roy Scheider on the beach? Or is it that famous music cue:
The right music cue or sound effect can make or break a scary moment. Don’t believe me? Just watch this scene from The Sixth Sense without sound. When the jump scare comes, you barely notice it. But when you add the slow crescendo of the score, and the big stinger at the pivotal moment, it can give you a jolt even when you know it’s coming. From Psycho‘s terrifying strings to the rumbling synth of It Follows, memorable music cues are a staple of the genre.
Many movies also have a signature sound design element that sends shivers down our collective spines. There’s Samara’s drippy creaking in The Ring, The Babadook’s cicada-like purr, and whatever this throaty sound is from The Grudge. And then there are the more mundane sounds that only become creepy in context, like the tongue “cluck” from Hereditary, or this double clap scene from The Conjuring:
…Clap On, Clap Off, The Clapper!
4. Don’t Show It
In 1942 director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton teamed up to make the low budget horror film Cat People, about a woman who believes she turns into a jungle cat to commit acts of violence. They had little money for makeup or special effects, and very limited time with a trained panther. Their workaround was to set most of the action off-camera. It worked. In an age where horror movies like Dracula and Frankenstein were placing their creatures in the spotlight, Cat People relied on the imagination of the audience. It created a sensation and is still regarded as a landmark horror film today.
When shooting Jaws, Steven Spielberg famously employed a similar strategy when the expensive animatronic shark he had commissioned wasn’t up to his standards. The xenomorph in Ridley Scott’s original Alien, is seen sparingly. The Blair Witch Project, The Descent, Monsters, Cloverfield and countless other horror films have also kept their big baddies off screen for as long as possible.
The lesson here is that what we don’t see is often much scarier than what we do. The key to pulling this off is having the actors act as an audience surrogate. It’s their reactions to seeing what we cannot that sets our imaginations running wild.
Hail Satan indeed.
We’re all a little bit afraid of the dark. For most of human history, every night would bring a terrifying darkness that masked potential predators. It’s hardwired into our brain to fear what dangers may lie in the shadows, and great horror movies know that! From the birth of cinema, filmmakers have been carefully lighting their scenes to cloak their monsters in the dark.
We could give myriad examples of this, from Nosferatu to Alien, but one recent film has provided us with all the chilling clips we need to demonstrate how to use darkness effectively. Ari Aster’s Heredity was masterfully lit to reveal only what the audience needed to see, when they needed to see it.
Witness this early scene where Toni Collette’s Annie thinks she sees her deceased mother in the shadows. The outline of the old woman is almost invisible in the darkness. It’s only after the shot holds for a moment (combined with Annie’s reaction and a building music cue) that we realize there’s someone there.
In this next scene, Alex Wolff’s Peter wakes in the night and thinks he sees his recently decapitated sister Charlie standing in his bedroom. This time the filmmakers combine low lighting with a subtle focus pull to draw the ghostly figure from the shadows.
There are plenty of other great examples we could show you, but we’ll skip to the big finish, where Peter is chased by a possessed Annie. The filmmakers employ every tool in their kit here, using sound design, long takes, lighting, focus pulls, and clever editing to keep the shocks coming.
This movie is nightmare fuel. It’s been months since I turned the lights off.