Horror films have a unique cinematic language that you need to know.
I know it’s still July, but I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking of Halloween. It’s the next big holiday, after all. I spent the weekend watching Scream, Beautiful Molly, Jean Rollins fascination, and Cottage in the forest. It was a great scary time. (Send me horror movie recordings on twitter if you’ve seen something great lately!)
But it also got me thinking about how horror stories are told. Of course, many of them have similar beats and structures, and that’s important. But what about their visual narrative language? How does the camera help create terror and tension in each of our favorite horror films?
In the deep cine has put together a video essay on exactly this topic. Let’s enjoy together and then dive into the most important takeaways!
The three phases of horror
There is no such thing as a horror film that is simply scary. This would only desensitize the audience and reduce the impact of any story you want to tell. (Or it would be just too scary to experience which was a complaint about the game Resident Evil 7.)
You need hills and valleys. This is sometimes written as “Scene and continuation. “You have an event, then give the character time to think about that event. Then another event, and so on.
In horror, it should be a continuous pattern of downtime, buildup, and fear. In the downtime, give the characters (and the audience) a breath. Let them think about what is happening. Develop your characters based on what they share and how they react. But then slowly start building tension until you land on horror and hopefully surprise your audience.
This table scene from Insidious is a great example of all three phases. You know the one.
The horror is fun, but the real terror lies in the construction. You know something is coming, but you don’t know what it is or when it will appear.
The art of construction
There are a few camera techniques that are used during the setup phase to postpone scary moments just before horror. Let’s look at all of them.
The POV push-in
This shot mimics the character’s experience by putting the audience in their perspective. This can be a slow dolly, steadicam, or gimbal shot from any height including eye level, over the shoulder, and at ground level.
There are many techniques at play in this clip of It follows, but part of the horror of this calm, slow scene is seeing what the main character sees. This distant woman who is getting closer and closer.
Large spaces are often equated with vulnerability. You can do this with the set design, using large spaces with little to separate the character from danger, or by placing the camera to create negative space around the character. It’s disturbing because the character feels so exposed.
Remove anything your character could use to protect themselves and your scenes will become all the more terrifying.
The invisible threat
We all know that Spielberg is known to have used the “less is more” rule when creating jaw, not only for practical reasons, but also as a more effective way to create horror. I remember having to cover my eyes playing scary movie roles as a kid because my parents didn’t want me to have nightmares. I was having nightmares anyway because what burned my brain down for what I couldn’t see was far worse.
There are a few things you can do to get these types of shots. You can point the camera at your character and never show what he sees. You can also reveal the danger in the recording, but in such a way that the character does not notice it at first. It’s like the scene in Scream where Randy Laurie yells, “Turn around!”
Beautiful Molly also does the invisible very well. We never really see the demonic force that torments the main character in the film. We hear him and see suggestions for his action. We as viewers always wonder if we’ll catch a glimpse, and that scares the whole film. Part of this is done through Molly’s POV.
At the end of the higher budget, you can do what you do The invisible man did with a literally invisible threat. The filmmakers used a robotic camera to duplicate the camera movements in each scene, shot once with a stunt performer they could fade out, and re-filmed to photograph the blank panel.
If you are a horror filmmaker, especially on a budget, this idea should not be neglected. You can get away with a lot if you just let the audience fill in the blanks.
Can you think of other examples of your favorite horror camera movements? Leave them in the comments!