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Horror Filmmaking: Reasons You Should And Reasons You Shouldn’t Dive In

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Horror filmmaking is a great path into the industry of movie making. Plenty of today’s top filmmakers got their start in horror, including Sam Raimi, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and so on and so on. It’s arguably the most accessible genre, with a large, hungry audience that never seems to be satisfied with the quantity of films that gets put out. But just because it’s convenient for your hopeful horror-creating career, doesn’t mean you should dive in head first. Here are some reasons you should, and some reasons you shouldn’t create horror films.

No One Wants to Watch Your Boring Melodramatic Movie

The Babadook is melodramatic horror filmmaking
The Babadook was a pretty melodramatic movie

Why are beginning filmmakers always so melodramatic? In film school, everyone wrote these ridiculously melodramatic screenplays about dysfunctional families and drug addict fathers and everyone cries and sobs and says very deep things and there’s always a note in the script about the timing of a very somber piano piece that should be included. I recorded sound for one project about a woman in an abusive relationship, and it was just five minutes of a guy beating his girlfriend and another five of her crying and then black frames with “A film by so and so”.

Who cares? No one wants to watch that crap–especially a feature-length version of that crap. There’s a reason that all of those movies that go to Sundance don’t end up in theatres or even on DVD half of the time. Sure, some of them are good films with something interesting to say, but even still, it’s not entertaining. There’s no effort to create something entertaining. The filmmaker’s goal, nine times out of ten, is to make the viewer feel like they watched something intelligent and sensitive. Who cares? A movie should be entertaining. I have using the word film when referring to my own movies because it reminds me of all those melodramatic filmmakers that wear scarves and say the word “film”.

So instead of making that melodramatic crap, consider a career in horror filmmaking.

Horror Sells

The Asylum is terrible horror filmmaking
The losers over at The Asylum make their living exploiting horror fans

Horror has a very large and passionate audience. Distributors are always looking for horror flicks to fill up their rosters. Just look up a few random distributors and then look into their film catalogue. I can almost guarantee it is loaded with horror films–maybe even more than half. There’s a reason distributors stack their catalogues with horror. Because they sell. Unfortunately, they even sell when the quality is terrible and the budget is next to non-existent. I’m not advocating making terrible movies, but it helps back up my argument.

Last year I was approached by a company looking for directors to attach to a slate of projects they hoped to shoot in 2016. After meeting with them, I discovered this small production company shot about ten feature films every year. I asked how long their shoots were and what kind of budgets they dealt with. Each film had a budget of $10,000 each, with a three-day shoot. Can you believe that? I turned the offer down for a number of reasons, but that company is still going strong, and all of their movies sell.

You Don’t Need Name Actors With Horror Filmmaking

horror filmmaking without name actors
The actors from the original Paranormal Activity are still no-names!

Dramas don’t sell unless you have A-list actors. Comedies don’t sell unless you have at least B-listers. Science fiction will sell if the production value is very high, which means you need a good budget. The same goes for fantasy and action.

I suppose with comedy, you might be able to get away with having no big names if you have an incredibly funny screenplay. But you don’t. I’ve read so many unfunny comedy screenplays by writers who are convinced their work is the crux of hilarity. Half of the comedies that make it to theatres don’t even have hilarious scripts, but they do have the comedy talent to make the film work. For example, I read the script for Funny People (Judd Apatow) before it was produced. It wasn’t very funny. I think there were maybe a dozen mediocre jokes and the plot was mediocre.

The film, however, was hilarious, because it had the comedy talent to bring it to life. As you set out to make your first or second or third indie film, you don’t have the comedic genius that Apatow has at his disposal, so do yourself a favour and put your comedy on the back-burner for when you have the money/resources to do it properly.

Good horror filmmaking, on the other hand, is a combination of concept, plot, characters, and an array of editing/filming techniques used to create suspense. Those things, while hard to master, are available to anyone who wants to make a film. There’s no price on a solid concept (unless you’re not writing your own script, in which case there is a price on a solid concept), and there’s no price on good characters. But hey, if your characters, concept, and plot all suck, there’s (unfortunately) still a good chance your horror movie will sell (see above).

If You Don’t Love and Respect Horror, Don’t Waste Your Time

More bad horror filmmaking in The Last Exorcism Part II
The Last Exorcism Part II: More cliches and more garbage. Written by a guy who didn’t want to be writing horror (He went on to write Whiplash)

There are enough losers trying to exploit the genre and the fanbase. We really don’t need one more jumping in on the action. If you’re looking for a quick buck, consider a career in finance or look up courses offered by your local trade schools. A real frustration has been growing inside of film fans over the past decade as more and more crap is being squirted into their faces. Lazy filmmakers see vets like Sam Raimi and Spielberg and thing, “Hey, that’s how he did it, so that’s how I should do it!”. These idiots don’t realize that Raimi and Spielberg and Scott and all the others loved the horror genre when they were starting out (and I can only image they still do, Raimi especially).

They will watch anything, but they’re a tough crowd

Sure, you can fake your way through some pile of garbage that will probably sell to one of the many distributors looking to snatch up anything remotely horror-related, but it won’t do anything for your career. At the end of the day, the horror fans who go out of their way to give your film a chance have eyes and ears and they’re actually really good at telling the difference between what’s genuine and what’s crap. They can see through you’re guise and they won’t give you another chance–and neither will the investors and distributors who end up losing out on your bid.

Apparently, Horror Filmmaking Is Just Too Convenient To Pass Up

horror filmmaking the witch robert eggers hates horror
Don’t get me wrong, The Witch looked stunning and had a great score, but if you ask me, Eggers should have stayed away from horror filmmaking.

I was really disappointed recently when I heard that Robert Eggers, the fellow who directed The Witch, said he didn’t like the horror genre. He only made a horror because no one wanted to make what he called his “genre-less” movies. In other words, he wanted to create pretentious crap and no one cared so he decided to make a horror movie. Like I said, this disappointed me, but it really didn’t surprise me. I wasn’t a fan of The Witch. As someone who went to film school and subsequently worked at a film school helping film hundreds of student films, I couldn’t help but see a pretentious student film trapped in a big budget feature’s body, another film student who wanted to give Andrei Tarkovsky a blowjob. Eggers even said that he’s glad now that the film is out because it means he never has to watch it again.

Maybe it’s my big ego, but I love watching my own work, even the not-so-good stuff (sorry Kankered). I’m able to find elements I like about everything I’ve ever done and watching my old work fills me with pride.

Horror Forces You To Understand And Learn The Art Of Filmmaking

the evil dead horror filmmaking at its finest
The original Evil Dead scared the living hell out of people

Big-league Hollywood producers only look for one thing when deciding whether a filmmaker will make the cut: can he coherently tell a story? It sounds so simple, but it’s really not so simple. How to coherently tell a story is a topic for another post (another slew of posts, really) so I won’t get into it here.

Your goal with horror filmmaking is to scare your audience (and no, that doesn’t mean making them jump). In order to effectively scare your audience, you need to utilize filming and editing techniques that force your audience to focus on the right things at the right time, playing with their expectations, stripping down their defences. You need to create tension and you need to build tension and you need to maintain tension and you also need to release tension so that you can build it up again, even higher.

It Requires Practice

There is a science to it, but it’s also an art, which takes lots and lots of practice and careful analysis to get right. You need to understand editing and pacing and your actors need to be believable in order for the audience to sympathize and care about them.

Horror is a genre that completely relies on your audience’s state of mind, their emotions, their feelings, and their expectations. All of those famous filmmakers I mentioned earlier didn’t just use horror as an easy door into their filmmaking careers. The reason they’re so good at what they do now is because they honed their skills in what might just be the most technically demanding genre.


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