In honor of spooky season, it never hurts to talk about what key elements should be in your horror film. As a script consultant, I've read various thrillers/horror films and sometimes, there's something missing and with this blog, I'm here to provide a few tips!
When it comes to having a great horror film, it's always important to have an original story that audiences will find interesting. For example, if you're going to write a slasher film, like Halloween, the main focus should not be focused on the brutal deaths scattered throughout.
In the 1978 classic, the film obviously begins with a young Michael Myers, dressed as a clown, and ends up murdering his sister on Halloween night. The police show up at his house and he ends up being sent to the mental institution. Fifteen years later, he escapes and returns to Haddonfield, IL, now wearing a mutilated William Shatner mask, only to terrorize Laurie Strode, a virginal babysitter.
So, what makes the story work? Despite the low body count of 6 kills, the overall goal is clear, Michael's goal is to not only traumatize Laurie, but to murder her too, yet he has a few people standing between her he has to slice through. Throughout the franchise, his goal doesn't change and each time it's a life/death situation.
Perhaps another clever example of a good horror film would be, The Ring. The overall concept is simple. Watch a video tape. Get a phone call saying you're going to die in seven days. But what would happen if a journalist discovered her son watching the cursed tape?
Not only is the story clever, but from the inciting incident, the audience knows what is at stake and they become immediately hooked.
Just like with any film, it's important to have compelling characters who are interesting to the audience. It's important early on, we get a sense of who the protagonist is and why we should care about them prior to the inciting incident.
In the Stephen King classic "Carrie", audiences are likely to relate to Carrie, especially if they've been bullied or harassed in school growing up. Once we reach the One Hour Turning Point, the tables turn as Carrie takes her revenge on the girls who bullied her, and although it's slightly frightening, audience's can't help but to stay immersed in the film.
When it comes to horror films, it's important to have a strong antagonist with a motive. For example, Freddy Kruger's motive for murdering teenagers in their dreams is because they are the descendants of the parents who burned him alive when he avoided prison due to a technicality.
Somewhere within the first ten pages, the tone should be set and have an suspenseful vibe, something that's going to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Once the tone is set in place, the tone should be able to flow throughout the scenes. Of course, sometimes there can be humorous moments that throws the audience off, and it's okay if it happens once in a while, but after all, if you want a great horror film, it should feel suspenseful and not humorous.
The Scream franchise does a great job setting the tone in each of the films, although the characters are self aware they're in a horror movie. The opening scene contains suspense and leaves the audience on the edge of their seats curious about what's going to happen.
Just like any genre, there should be a message for the audience to walk away with and it should be somewhat clear or at least hinted prior to the inciting incident. For example, "The Babadook" teaches the lesson of processing grief and how we should face it. "Drag Me to Hell" teaches us not to be greedy or selfish.
So when you're working on your spine tingling horror film, remember to keep these elements in mind, because without all of them, you're not going to scare your audience. If you have any questions, feel free to let me know!