I watch a lot of movies. Like, a lot. More specifically, I watch a lot of horror movies. The majority of my 26 years on this planet has been spent observing teenagers being decapitated, children being possessed and an ungodly amount of innocent dogs getting slaughtered. Because of my strange obsession, I get to write about movies, hang out with directors, and tell you what piece of subjective art is better than another piece of subjective art — for money.
In my writing career, I’ve had the chance to do a lot of great things and a lot of not so great things. From visiting Hollywood and production sets, to watching a movie premiere at 2 in the afternoon in the basement of a club — I’m not joking, that was literally the first premiere I went to. But in the words of the Herculean Steven Spielberg:
“Every time I go to a movie, it's magic, no matter what the movie's about.”
However, the world of cinema isn’t always brimming with the dazzling lights of club basements. It can be a cruel, nasty business. With that in mind, instead of boring you with three-act structures, inciting incidents or character archetypes, here's five things to know before creating your own horror movie, courtesy of the auteurs themselves.
5. Sam Raimi: Prepare To Die
Because there’s no such thing as health and safety when you’re trying to make a feature-length movie for $350,000, you’re going to need to take risks while creating said movie. Hollywood heavyweight Sam Raimi cut his teeth with numerous Super 8 films, but you’ll probably best know him for #EvilDead, the half horror, half comedy gore-fest about five friends who travel to a cabin in the woods, only to unknowingly release flesh-possessing demons.
As you would expect, the paltry budget on The Evil Dead didn’t allow for any cast affluence. What you might not know is that The Evil Dead damn near maimed, killed or blinded their cast and crew throughout the hellacious shoot.
In the film's commentary Raimi repeatedly states, “Oh God, we were so irresponsible,” and he wasn’t joking. Among the many barbarisms the cast and crew dealt with were Raimi getting chased by a bull and being submerged in glacial marshlands. On top of that, the crew slept in near subzero conditions during the 70-day shoot while enduring countless DIY horror scenarios.
The contact lenses used for the possessed could only be worn for 15 minutes at a time, for a maximum of five times a day. Of course, being the young, invincible go-getters they were, this recommendation was ignored, resulting in the near blinding of cast member Ellen Sandweiss.
“The illegal substance known as marijuana was somehow forced upon us in Tennessee ... I was forced to ingest this marijuana by a local reprobate and I therefore became, let’s just say, affected by THC ... I therefore lost any sense of time and where I was, and that’s the time that Sam Raimi decided that he needed to shoot Ash having a breakdown.”
Whilst all of this sounds horrific, it takes us nicely on to our next lesson.
4. Jason Lei Howden: Be Resourceful
There's nothing easy about crafting a well-made found-footage horror; it's an incredibly difficult task. But if throwing a plate across a room or making stick figures — as in the respective Paranormal Activity or The Blair Witch Project — doesn't wax lyrical about incredibly resourceful achievements, the real problems come when you want to create a more visual style of horror. Speaking to Jump Scare, Deathgasm director Jason Lei Howden stated:
"Trying to achieve the ambitious script with such limited resources (is the biggest challenge). I can see why the horror market is bloated with found-footage movies and single location ghost horror. We have heaps of characters, many different locations and some extreme gore. But I’m glad I stuck to my vision. Movies like this don’t get made very often and I’m very proud of what we achieved. It was definitely time for a heavy metal and horror fusion."
This from a man who has spent years in the industry, working on visual effects for the likes of The Hobbit, The Avengers and Prometheus. So you can imagine how arduous it was for a young Tobe Hooper in 1974 to create The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
While working seven days a week, 16 hours a day in one of Texas's infamously inhumane summer heatwaves, the Texas cast and crew were extremely limited by their micro-budget. Due to copyright issues, the soundtrack contained no music (with the exception of music they already had the rights to), forcing Hooper to get creative. The score was comprised of the sounds of a slaughterhouse. Additionally, according to actor John Larroquette, his payment for reciting the opening narration was nothing more than a marijuana joint.
Of course, CGI is often maligned by horror fans, such is the genre's love affair with practical effects. But these days, gore can be created to a relatively high standard with easily obtainable computer software. Which brings us to today's technological advances, meaning any kid with a Mac can be the next John Carpenter. While this might be the case...
3. David Robert Mitchell: You'll Probably Fail. A Lot
Nearly 10,000 movies were released in 2015. That's an average of 192 films per week. While your movie about a flesh-eating demon virus was never going to appeal to mainstream audiences, back in 1999, when we had just 470 movies throughout the whole year, you may have lucked out. The independent film industry is growing at an exponential rate, so while you might now be able to create a feature-length movie on your iPhone, remember that there's 9,999 other people thinking the same way.
When it comes to relatively recent "luck of the draw" stories, look no further than David Robert Mitchell. The 42-year-old director struck gold on the festival circuit with his arthouse STI horror It Follows in 2014. But make no mistake, it was still a long, hard road to get there.
Moonlighting in a plethora of industry jobs — from editor for the 82nd Academy Awards, to production manager, editor and writer for short movies — Mitchell undoubtedly sussed out the inner workings of Hollywood and made great contacts before diving into his first full-length feature, The Myth of the American Sleepover. Never heard of it, right? That's because it wasn't until four years after that movie grossed a paltry $41,000 that It Follows was released, and Mitchell finally achieved success with his sophomore attempt.
Met with rapturous critical acclaim upon its release, It Follows is a hyper-stylistic movie that appealed to old-school horror fans, without sacrificing it's vision of saying something about teenage culture. Your ultraviolent movie may be entertaining, but getting press attention and acclaim from mainstream critics is another topic altogether. Because above all...
2. Wes Craven: Hollywood Is A Business
If you aspire to do it the old way and get your oeuvre championed by a studio, you're best sticking to the trends. You know the way every horror movie since 2013's The Conjuring has been about an idilic suburban family being terrorized by Lucifer and all his buddies? That's because it's a safe bet in an industry increasingly terrified of taking risks.
So if you hate "Director X" for releasing "Remake 3000," remember that it's nothing more than a business transaction, allowing the director to get his foot in the door. In the '90s there was glossy slashers, the early 2000s saw wave upon wave of Japanese horror. But all it takes is for another James Wan to win the Hollywood lottery, and we'll be right back to watching people cut each other's limbs off in order to escape a warehouse.
Remember, making a movie and getting it noticed is a big step up. So do your homework before you go jumping in. As touched upon with David Robert Mitchell, networking is key. The dichotomy of artists and businesspeople always risks an artist's vision being compromised. How many times have you heard of studios forcing a great idea to become a hatchet job of a movie? Unfortunately, the money men have the stranglehold. As late horror legend Wes Craven put it:
"Everybody's making horror films and, to me, not especially well. I don't know if it's [due to] the corporations taking over studios or what it is. But it really calls for some young filmmakers to come in and just do something from their hearts."
Which brings us to my final point. You might be the greatest director to never be discovered if you can't get the right people to see your movie. Unless you...
1. John Carpenter: Build A Fanbase
Horror is a curious beast. I've always thought of it as a cathartic genre, a classification built upon the public paying their hard-earned money to be scared or grossed out. But when the closing credits roll, they're safe and craving more. Sure, there's always a passive audience, but the majority of horror buffs are junkies, scrounging around cinemas and streaming sites, totally disregarding their most basic of human instincts in order to get their next hit of cruor and gore. As They Live director John Carpenter once said:
"What scares me is what scares you. We're all afraid of the same things. That's why horror is such a powerful genre. All you have to do is ask yourself what frightens you and you'll know what frightens me.
I'm assuming if you've read this far, you're a horror fan, you know horror fans, and you probably breathe horror movies. So if you already know your fanbase and what it wants, of course you have to pay attention to the finest intricacies of filmmaking, and of course you need to know how to use a camera, how to compose your shots and have an interesting hook. But if you build a fanbase, and give them what they want, chances are you'll be off to a good start.
Famously, Friday the 13th began its life as nothing more than a name. Initially A Long Night at Camp Blood was the working title during the film's scripting, but director Sean S. Cunningham believed in his Friday the 13th moniker and quickly rushed out to place an advertisement for it in Variety. Worried that someone else owned the rights to the title and wanting to avoid potential lawsuits, Cunningham thought it would be best to find out immediately.
He commissioned a New York advertising agency to develop his concept of the Friday the 13th logo, which consisted of big block letters bursting through a pane of glass, and studios rushed to him in order to gain rights to the movie, before he'd even finished the script. In a stroke of marketing genius, Cunningham knew the industry and made the studios a fanbase before he'd even fleshed out his film pitch. The hype for the movie was through the roof, and the rest is history.
This is perhaps the most important of the point's I've made, that passion and art go hand in hand. In many ways it's much more difficult to get a movie made today than it was in the '70s. Be buccaneering and remember to play ball. Be inventive and take note of the trends. But above all, pick up a camera and start filming. I'll be here to nitpick it for you afterward.
What are your thoughts on the state of modern horror movies? Sound off in the comments section below.