How to Make a Good Horror Movie: 9 Lessons From the Genre’s Latest Triumphs

  1. 1.
    Use space and technique to your advantage (It Follows)
    Working with a gloriously simple premise, director David Robert Mitchell frequently uses space and composition to elicit dread. Oftentimes that means employing deep focus photography, so the background of each shot becomes a source of suspense. Mitchell will also draw the audience’s eyes to an approaching figure in the distance, creating unease from what we can see but the characters can’t. Even off-screen space becomes a danger zone, the great unknown from which something awful might emerge.
  2. 2.
    Gamble on performance (The Babadook)
    The Babadook, could have easily skirted by on the otherworldly creepiness of its premise, which makes it all the more impressive that it gambles so much of the movie on Essie Davis’ performance as Amelia. The Babadook is a surefooted example of a movie that maintains a strong sense of style while leaving room for performance, giving the horror a human dimension that makes it stick all the harder.
  3. 3.
    Relocate to an interesting time or place (The Witch)
    The intense Sundance period piece The Witch gains much of its spooky power from its precise sense of time and place. Set in the backward backwoods of 17th-century New England, the film subjects a family of exiled pilgrims to lots of supernatural torments, some of which have been borrowed from other unholy thrillers. By placing these old tropes in an even older world—one archaic in speech, dress, and philosophy—director Robert Eggers somehow makes them feel new again.
  4. 4.
    Borrow whatever you need (Resolution)
    if all horror premises have been exhausted, maybe the solution is just to embrace the familiarity. When faced with your list of horrifying possibilities, why not check “All of the above?” That was the decision arrived upon by Resolution, one of the most thought-provoking and inventive horror films of the past several years. Resolution refuses to engage in any such straightforward way, and in so doing, turns using everything and the kitchen sink into a kind of masterstroke.
  5. 5.
    Take your time (We Are What We Are)
    We Are What We Are manages to build a consistent sense of dread despite a near-absence of conventional scares; heck, it doesn’t even look like a contemporary horror flick, let alone move like one. It holds back on the horror until near the end, instead focusing on the cast and building up the claustrophobic, lived-in atmosphere until the whole thing slides into gruesome violence. This means that the gore isn’t just shocking, but comes across as genuinely horrifying and unnerving.
  6. 6.
    Steep your fake horror in real horror (Honeymoon)
    The film raises that all-too-common question for young people who just made a lifelong commitment: Did I make a mistake? Director Leigh Janiak suffuses her film with slowly building tension, based on the inescapable feeling that the person you love just isn’t telling you the truth. Few things are scarier.
  7. 7.
    Be self-aware without resorting to self-parody (You’re Next and The Guest)
    In a post-Troma world, simple parody of established horror-movie tropes is no longer enough to qualify as a “fresh take” on the genre. Today’s filmmakers have to be a little more creative, and the writer-director team of Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard do this sort of meta-commentary especially well. You’re Next effectively manages to convey both humor and suspense, and the duo’s next film, The Guest, shows a similar mastery of tone.
  8. 8.
    Go classical (The Conjuring)
    The Conjuring is legitimately terrifying—“Rated R for sequences of disturbing violence and terror” terrifying—which is a testament to the film’s old-school craftsmanship. Director James Wan uses abrupt sounds and visual cues—a handclap, a flashbulb—to jolt viewers into alertness. He then builds on those shocks, elevating them beyond mere jump-scares with a relentless, rapid escalation of suspense that has viewers holding their breath in anticipation of the big reveal.
  9. 9.
    When in doubt, just ratchet up the intensity (Goodnight Mommy)
    The Austrian shocker Goodnight Mommy, which premiered at Toronto last year and opens in the States this year, demonstrates the brutal effectiveness of putting horror in the red and keeping it there. Goodnight Mommy is more blunt object than elegant thriller, but it sustains a level of sheer, white-knuckle intensity for which its “torture porn” brethren would kill—or maybe mutilate, as it were.