In the age of DIY digital filmmaking, the glut of horror films on the market is at an all-time high. Peruse the horror section on Netflix and you’ll see countless films, some of which are very good, some which are okay, and most of which are downright dreadful.
I guess when George Romero made Night of the Living Dead and Sam Raimi made The Evil Dead for pittances, the horror genre became the default zero-budget film genre. There’s no reason why other film genres can’t be zero-budget affairs (Shane Carruth made the brilliant sci-fi film Primer for $7,000), but when one thinks of doing a zero-budget movie, horror seems to be the go-to genre.
This is likely because horror films are much easier sells, so the likelihood of your making your money back on a nonsense horror film is pretty favorable. And if the film is exceptional then there’s the potential for explosive profits. Paranormal Activity and The Blair With Project are cases in point.
So why don’t we see more Paranormal Activity and The Blair With Project type horror films? Well, in actuality, we do. All the time. There are scores of imitators of said films, all hoping to cash in and find that kind of phenomenal success. Blumhouse Productions, who are behind franchises like Paranormal Activity and Insidious have turned the $3-5m horror film into one of the most profitable film ventures in modern history. Blumhouse knows there’s an insatiable thirst for horror, and they’re giving us just the bare-minimum scares to whet that appetite.
But even Blumhouse’s films fail to reach the astronomical success of those original horror films, they’re playing the margin game, and not the horror game. I’ve watched the Blumhouse films and while there are jump scares galore, the films are far from scary, horrifying or chillingly disturbing. They’re exercises in atmosphere and cheap parlor tricks, and rarely scratch the surface of what is truly scary.
There are many horror imitators but few innovators, which can be said for almost all the genres, but horror especially. This is because writing anything original takes a lot of hard work, and original ideas are a significantly bigger risk.
But with horror, is it really such a big risk? If you’re going at it with zero-budget, why not just go all-out and try something really bold? That was my mindset on Lilith, and truthfully I did make a very different kind of horror film, I took insane risks, and we’ll see if it pays off. (It actually has, and I’ll get into that once my distributor gives me the green light to write about it.)
Being risky in horror doesn’t mean you have to go and reinvent the wheel. There’s been dissertations about the cliches of horror movies (sex = death, cabin in the forest, students making a documentary, etc.) and before you go about writing your horror story, become familiar with what is out there. Watch as many horror films as you can, and make notes about characters, location and setup. See the overwrought cliches and find out what you think is tired, and what resonates with you.
I’ve always felt the key to great horror is centers around a singular concept, which is the loss of control. What is most terrifying is that we have no ability to control what happens to us, and that we have no sense of what is out there, meaning we have no idea what to prepare for.
Think of a common horror trope, which is walking down a dark hallway towards a door that has a light emanating from underneath it. Your character walks towards the door - she says “hello” but nobody responds.
"Momma is that you?"
No response. She pushes closer, looking back over her shoulder.
As she gets closer to the door, she hears something - a woman crying and a young child giggling.
She presses her ear to the door. Beyond the giggling and crying, the sound of high tension wires being stretched to their limit.
She puts her hand on the doorknob, and turns it slightly. Everything goes silent.
She hears the pitter-pat of a child’s footsteps on the floor above her, running to the other end of the house.
She turns around and-
We have several places we can go from here. Everything before that was the buildup, which is essential to a good, proper horror scare. Cliches give us some options. She can open the door and:
a) No one is there.
b) No one is there, she sighs, turns around and comes face to face with a ghostly child / cat jumping out
c) No one is there, she sighs, but a friend (who somehow managed to make no noise walking up to her) grabs her by the arm and asks where’s she’s been.
d) He sees the disemboweled corpse of an older woman, she puts her hand on her mouth, and quietly behind her two kids, each holding butcher knives, slowly walk up to her.
Each choice can deliver a chill, a well-tested chill, a fail safe chill. But let’s push it forward, let’s try to make it truly uncomfortable and macabre.
e) She enters the room which has a singular light bulb. Below the bulb is a length of razor wire that has fresh blood on it. The girl crouches and picks up the wire. She hears a whisper and her eyes roll into the back of her head. She places the wire across her open mouth and begins to apply pressure, cutting the corners of her mouth. She’s on her way to severing her lower jaw when her friend finds her and yanks the wire away, and the girl turns and speaks in the voice of a tortured older woman, screaming “Let her die!”
That gives us something really macabre to work on. It’s not a great example but it’s something far more original, and it lends to the idea of not only an outside threat, but something that can take control of our faculties, that can make us do things against our will. It’s why the notion of possession, a common thread throughout the truly great horror films, is an interesting path to tread. Possession is an interesting notion because it makes an enemy of those things we trust the most - ourselves and our loved ones - and truthfully that’s terrifying for me.
Doesn’t mean that to write great horror you have to go the route of possession. But know this - possession is fiscally economical. It’s all acting and directing, there’s no special effects involved. Give Jack a wicked grin, demented motivation, and an axe and that’s all it takes for him to become a monster in The Shining. Add in sound effects and music in post and you’ve got someone truly terrifying.
But if you want to go creature feature, know that less is more. Alien comes to mind, where hints of the creature make it all the more dreadful than seeing the full monty. Same with The Blair Witch Project, where we never once see the titular character. But they’re always there, always seeing, always getting closer, and that’s what makes them terrifying. Once again, our protagonists have control snatched away from them in the form of an unpredictable and shrouded monster. Hiding your creature also makes for a chilling reveal in your final climax.
It’s important to note that the core of horror is not people dying gruesome deaths. That’s why torture porn is so ineffective as a horror medium, it’s just a gross-out show. The core of horror is loss - loss of control, loss of sanity, loss of humanity, all of which amounts to destruction of the soul. A homicidal maniac is not the true evil, the true darkness is what the maniac makes us do in the name of survival. In current horror we’re obsessed with outside terror, and where the real meat is what happens within us. It’s why The Walking Dead is so effective. That series is not about the evil of zombies, it’s about the evils that people commit when there is no law, no civility, no humanity left. The zombies are just the catalyst.
Ultimately horror today is a physical medium, and the psychological medium has been lost. Let’s bring that back and write good psychological horror again, and combine that with the best of today’s physical terror. Do that, and your zero-budget horror will feel massive in scope, it will be important and it will resonate with audiences. Let’s do it!