What Makes a Horror Movie Good or Bad
A wise and beautiful woman once asked me, “What makes a horror movie good or bad.” At first, that seemed like a simple question, but I had trouble giving her a real answer. There’s something more to it than “it was scary” because some of the best horror movies are not really scary- think anything with Bruce Campbell.
So what makes any movie good or not good? I want to believe what I’m seeing. Rather, I want to forget that I’m watching a movie. A good movie pulls you into itself. You feel for the characters. You become one of the characters. For a moment, what happens to them is happening to you. Of course, it’s got to tell a good story, or at least one that we want to hear, but that’s not enough. It’s got to pull you in.
Ok, so we’ve defined a good movie in a very basic way, but what is a good horror movie? A good horror movie is unsettling. It takes you somewhere that you don’t want to go yourself. But part of you wants to see it. We’ve all got it. Call it the Id, the lizard brain, or whatever you want. It’s the part of you that wants to see the waitress drop a tray of hot soup. The part of you that slows down to look at a car accident. Don’t deny it. You want to see somebody halfway through the windshield. Not all of you. Not the you that holds the door for an old lady, but a deep dark part of you. A good horror movie speaks to that part of you.
You know there’s somebody outside that tent but the slutty girl and the quarterback are still going at it. The babysitter looks through the slats of the closet door praying the killer doesn’t see her as he stalks slowly by. You can hear her breathing. WHY THE FUCK is she breathing so loudly? He’s going to hear her. Now your heart is beating. You might as well be in there with her. But you’re not. You’re safe. And part of you wants him to walk right by, but a smaller, nasty little part of you wants him to open the door and slice her up.
Horror is not about blood; it’s about adrenaline. The scary part isn’t when the knife goes in. It’s everything before that. And everything after. It’s building up and building up pressure. Then the knife is the release. But it’s not the point.
Ok now, that all being said (maybe you buy it, maybe you don’t) I still haven’t really answered the question. How can I objectively rate a horror movie as ‘good’ or ‘bad’? I’ve come up with 5 criteria with which to rate any scary movie as objectively as possible.
- Is it actually scary? What does scary even mean in this case? suspense? shock-moments? an actual feeling of fear? did you have trouble sleeping after? Like I said before, scary is not completely necessary, but it does go a long way. And you won’t get many points for those jump/shock-moments. They’re cheap.
- Originality. We all know hollywood loves to churn out and recycle the same flics over and over, especially in the horror genre. A truly fresh idea in a horror movie goes a long way.
- Blood. I know, I’m contradicting myself (again). But let’s face it. Blood is a staple of the genre and I don’t think the rating system would be complete without it.
- Realistic storytelling. Like I said earlier. If I don’t believe what I’m watching, the effect is lost. Why the hell did she run up the stairs instead of out the front door? Why has nobody called the police after they’ve found a dead body? If the killer hasn’t cut the phone line, then they should have called 911 by now. If there’s no rational reason why the characters have remained in their horrible situation, I’m distracted and I’m not scared.
- Setting. There are some movies that just look scary. There can be no one on screen and nothing really happening but the environment is scary. I’m not talking about the woods in a slasher flick. I’m talking about the run-down sanitarium where the patients went mad and killed each other and the staff 75 years ago. I’m going to include any cinematography or fancy camera work that adds to the feeling of fear.
I think this is a good list to start with. As I run through some movies, I’ll use it and it will likely evolve. I’m going to give movies a score out of 50. Each category is worth 10 points. Also, I’m going to start fresh and only rate movies as I watch them starting now. Even though I’ve seen a million, I’m not going to retroactively rate movies that I havent seen in months or years.
There are a lot of horror movies out there. A lot are good, but a lot are shitty. How are you going to know which ones to watch? I’ll watch them for you and tell you if they’re worth your time. Also don’t be surprised if you see anything else. I’m impulsive and you never know what I’m going to put up here. Consider yourself warned.