In this day and age, we see a trailer for a new horror movie nearly every week. Each time, the trailer looks amazing, but once you shell out the slowly growing cost to see the film in a theater, more often than not, you'll walk away less than impressed. More frequently than not these days, the best horror films tend to be strait to dvd released, and just as low budget at the classics that inspired them. So what makes a great horror movie? Has major studio interference ruined the genre with funding that makes the creative minds less creative in how to scare people, or is it something simpler than that?
In the end, it's not so much the money as the type of horror movie the studio or producer/director decides to make. Horror movies can go in three separate directions. (Four if you count torture porn as a genre of horror, but I really don't.) It can be surprising, catching the viewer with quick and startling scares. It can be suspenseful, leaving the viewer helpless to watch as the protagonists unwittingly sign their own death warrants. Finally, the horror movie can actually create the illusion of involvement from the viewer. After deciding which of these three styles the movie is going to be, it's all up to deciding just what angle within that variety of horror the movie will take.
To best illustrate the difference between the first two approaches, look no further than the words of the original master of horror, Alfred Hitchcock:
There is a distinct difference between "suspense" and "surprise," and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean.
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!" In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.
The first is by far the most clumsy, and sadly, the most prevalent in contemporary horror. Quickly startling the audience with scares seemingly out of the blue. It's the complete example of what Hitchcock describes as suspense. It's a tactic used in nearly every slasher franchise's endless sequels and every (usually) disappointing American adaptation of Asian horror. The scare lasts all of thirty seconds tops, and then it's over. The strategy cultivates a succession of quick adrenaline rushes that quickly dissipate. That said, this strategy can produce a pretty terrifying film with a bit of extra aid. The underlying story of itself can create a backdrop of fear and the illusion of suspense, as is seen in "The Omen." Though yes, any movie has to have an actual story, it's quite rare for that to be all that is needed to legitimately cultivate fear. More often than not, this variety of horror film creates the illusion of suspense through the score and sound effects as is seen best exampled in "The Grudge."
The second approach is without a doubt the strongest. Using the villain of point of conflict in each shot to create legitimate suspense creates the opposite situation of what is found through horror based on surprise. The adrenaline release builds slowly, and by the end of a horror film that does it right has you scared to walk to your car alone after you leave the theater. Films that follow this convention tend to establish the clear and present danger fairly early on to the viewer, though not always to the characters in the film. It's a lot more terrifying to see Michael Meyers watching in the distance, knowing that he will attack at some point than it would be if he were to just constantly pop out of nowhere, stab someone, and then disappear. You just want Laurie to turn around and see him, but then again, why would she? To her, nothing is out of the ordinary. This method also has the potential to create conflicting morals in the viewer. Assuming the film actually has a physical antagonist, when one watches the movie they begin to empathize with the killer's voyeurism. A secret part of each person watching the movie wants the killer to succeed. After all, that is what we paid to see, right? This in and of itself creates a completely uncomfortable feeling within the viewer.
This method works well for bodily horror such as "The Exorcist" and "The Fly" as well. When the initial transformation is initiated, you want Brundle to just walk away. You want the exorcism to happen before the demon inside Regan gets too great of a hold over her. At the same time, you want Brundle to have the accident. You want the demon to take full control. In the end, you want to see how bad it can get.
Though this approach to horror has the highest payoff, it also has the highest margin of error. Many films that go after this variety of horror get lost in the trappings of sympathizing with the killer. They roll in the bodies and ignore the finesse of actually making things frightening. These films lose sight of what makes suspenseful, voyeuristic horror so scary: The voyeurism behind each killing, rather than the killing itself. Look at some of the more frightening horror movies: Nine people died in "Alien," only seven deaths in "Halloween," a puny three in "The Strangers." Take a look at the two cornerstones of the horror genre. "Psycho" and "The Exorcist." In both movies, only two people died. The list goes on and on, but more often than not, the higher the body count, the less often the characters in the film take actions that your average person would in the same situation. The illusion is ruined when you're screaming "don't go in that room!" and the person goes in that room. It's amplified when you scream "don't go in that room!" and they don't. Instead, they grab a gun, carefully enter a different, well-lit room and wait in fear only to accidentally shoot the friend that they call for help. The higher the body count, the less scary the movie becomes.
Finally comes the third method of creating a horror movie. The active involvement of the viewer. This method often employs tropes from one or both of the previous two methods. However, there is one important difference. The viewer is just as clueless as the characters in the film. The first two approaches thrive on the fact that the viewer is helpless in witnessing what is going on. They can't do anything. When the film takes away aspect of omniscience over those being watched, and instead leaves the viewer to figure things out with the character, all initial bets are off. More often than not, this is achieved in the quickly growing trend of the handycam horror film. By viewing the movie through the eye of one of the characters within the film, the viewer is brought in. Sure, they can't press X and punch the monster like in a video game, but they're right with each person in the movie, trying to figure out the mystery of whatever it is that is terrorizing everyone.
This technique is most successfully employed in the first "Paranormal Activity." That movie had a stroke of genius on next to no budget. During the day, the film goes strait-faced with the camera, just like everyone's seen before in "The Blair Witch Project" and "Cloverfield." Night is when that movie really shines. With a couple numbers in the corner literally counting the seconds that someone stays watching the movie, it throws the viewer a bone. It shows a couple hints. It puts anyone watching right in the shoes of Micah the next morning, pouring over the footage recorded the previous night. Even when nothing happens during those periods, it's scary because that time stamp is the signal to really pay attention to every single frame for something to get a clue as to just what is going on.
Most of the time, this approach falls short. Take a look at "REC" or the American adaptation "Quarantine." Sure, the angle works in the last scene, but even in the more artistic "REC," it more comes off as a way to cut costs and get people out to see it than anything else. This isn't to say that every movie that leaves the viewer blind to the situation needs to have a time stamp to cultivate fear, but it does make it easier.
In the end, it doesn't really matter which approach a movie takes. What matters is whether or not that movie is written with an understanding of how the specific convention it decides to employ works. Sure, the approach of capitalizing on voyeurism is the easiest way to achieve this, though not always the best. "Halloween" and "Psycho" are excellent staples of legitimately scary movies, but do they create more fear than movies like "Paranormal Activity" or "The Grudge?