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Tricks of the Trade (part 1 of 2)


A question I always get about my filmmaking is "How can you create something so scary?"  You FEEL it. That's how.

In Horror, the great filmmakers are always scaredy cats. And think about it, who better to communicate fear than someone who felt it all the time as a kid? Wes Craven's Freddy is based on a scary old man that peeked in Wes' window when Wes was a kid. Hitchcock was pathologically scared of police because when he was naughty as a boy, his dad took him to the police station to teach him a lesson. And I have it on good authority that Rob Zombie was scared to sit on the toilet after seeing Jaws when he was little. You get the picture.

As for me, well, a lot of you already know this about me, but I was crazy-fearful as a kid. My mom was an overly cautious Registered Nurse who worried (and voiced) every possible violent end I could ever conceivably meet. I was addicted to old horror films which I'd watch religiously with my brothers. Oh, and there was the fact that I grew up in a pre-civil war haunted house. So yeah. I was scared shitless.

What's that mean? Growing up a fearful kid? It means I have a predisposition to scare myself. To paint worst case scenarios... to fill in the inky black of night with all the monsters my imagination can summon and fit into the darkness.

So that's where the ideas come from, an ability to summon a worst case "what if?" That's the easy part though. You know what's hard? Communicating the horror visually.

Every trade has its tools, and in the case of the horror filmmaker, there are some tried and true tools that you should have in your mental scare kit. So here are the FIRST FIVE of Drew Daywalt's unpatented Top Ten camera tactics used by fearmasters to communicate fear and otherwise scare the beejeezus out of you.

10) I'll start with the easiest one. This works every time, and makes us all jump, and you either love or hate it. I call it THE JACK IN THE BOX. You know it well. It's the cat suddenly jumping out of the cupboard, the phone ringing loudly in the silence, a sudden jump cut from a quiet, tense scene to a loud location.  A lot of people pass judgment on this one and call it hackish, but I prefer to think of it as a really strong, really common spice. Like Garlic. Too much and it makes you sick. Just enough and it MAKES the dish. My favorite current example of this tactic is in Drag Me to Hell.  Raimi uses this tactic approximately every 4 seconds throughout the entire film. So much so that it's hilarious. If you thought Drag Me to Hell was funny, but you weren't sure why, well this is why.

Here's a double whammy. Bedfellows is an example of The Silent Lurker (discussed next), followed by The Jack in the Box.

9) Next up is THE SILENT LURKER. This one goes back to the original Nosferatu film. Creepy guy creeping around all creepy like, and you get to see him in all his creepy glory, often behind the protagonist. But here's the important part: the protagonist is unaware that it's there, while you, painfully and horribly are aware. Other notable uses of the Silent Lurker are in John Carpenter's first Halloween, and most recently in The Strangers. Hell, The Strangers was an entire film based on this scare tool.

8) Another tried and true method to ratchet up the tension is THE TOO-TIGHT CLOSE UP. This one’s as simple as a close up while our victim is searching for someone or something, preferably in a dark place. The heroine wanders down the dark corridor. Her friends are all dead, her flashlight is dying, and we’re so close on her that all we see is her face. Suddenly she turns and THERE’S THE FUCKING MONSTER RIGHT IN HER FACE, ZOMGHEARTATTACKDIE!

7) THE BLACK VOID. This one's as old as The Hills Have Eyes, but  if used correctly, it works.  This is a camera shot that's all about empty dark space. Imagine a medium shot of your main character. She's standing next to a huge dark doorway that's behind her. The framing tells us (nay, it telegraphs us) that the monster will jump from the big empty dark space. What I like to do is create this shot like 5 times in a row and never have the monster pop out at all, so each successive shot brings on more tension as the audience is SURE I'm gonna release the hounds THIS time. But I don't. Another crafty trick with this shot is to create the big black space, then have the monster appear not from the darkness, but RIGHT NEXT TO THE CHARACTER ON SCREEN! YAAAHHHHRRRHGGHH!!!

The Black Void shot happens at 2:04 in this trailer:

6) THE OMINOUS HALLWAY SHOT. We come into this life through a portal with light at the end, and we exit the same way.  And in both cases, it's the most terrifying experience of our lives. So what, then, could be more frightening than a slow dolly shot down a long scary hallway toward a door that leads to the unknown? Don't believe me? Go watch The Shining and The Exorcist again, and tell me that's not terrifying.

That's all I got time for this week, but come back for next week's lesson as I go into the TOP FIVE horror filmmakers at the School of Fear.

Gaudium Per Atrox.