Modern horror fans will often complain about the preponderance and predictability of jump-scares in modern film-making – and the idea of the cookie-cutter horror film haunts the genre. Part of what makes contemporary greats such as Get Out, It Follows and The Babadook instant classics is their intelligent use of the terrifying climax. Like a good comedian, the effective horror director knows that success is all about the build-up.
Tired and Alone in The Babadook
The Babadook makes particularly exceptional use of emotional manipulation to build tension – rather than simply placing its characters in terrifying environments, or manipulating the senses with an amazing soundtrack, The Babadook builds the emotional core of its story around frustration and emotional exhaustion. The viewer is exposed to six-year-old Samuel’s long and merciless tantrums as well as his consistently delinquent behaviour, and as a result our patience begins to fray at the edges – just like his mother Amelia. Samuel takes a crossbow to school, and breaks his cousin’s nose by launching her out of a tree. Amelia (hauntingly portrayed by Essie Davies) becomes increasingly gaunt and irritable throughout the film, and her interactions begin to take on a sinister, threatening tone, even with her son. The real magic of The Babadook is the viewer’s own frustration – by empathising with Amelia’s exasperation and helplessness it’s possible to truly understand how dangerous her relationship with Samuel is becoming, which makes the film’s climactic scenes feel hazardous in the extreme – the viewer is lured in to believing that she’s a real threat to her son. The Babadook succeeds where many mother-horror films have failed before.
The Babadook is almost entirely about building tension, and even the jump-scares throughout build toward a larger narrative, unlike serial killer flicks or body horror where the climax is the payoff, and the challenge is maintaining adrenaline levels. Genuinely uncomfortable to watch at times, it’s an effective thriller with a horror movie built in.
In M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 movie Signs, the mercurial director makes effective use of this, and shows the potential for tension-building through audience investment. Baseball player Merrill awakes from a nap to a news story about an alien sighting, and proceeds to watch the shaky footage, desperate for an answer. The audience, who at this point are equally desperate for an answer, join in Merrill’s eagerness. “Out of the way, vamanos” He says to children blocking the shot, and we join in. When the Alien is revealed, it’s a much scarier moment than the brightly-lit, grainy footage allows. Part of this w effected by the soundtrack, which morphs in to a rising whine as the reveal approaches, but most of the legwork is done by the preceding half of the movie, and the tension build by our investment in the characters.
Together in the Dark – [•REC]
On the other end of the spectrum, Paco Plaza and Jaume Balagueró’s [•REC] is a masterclass in building tension through imminent danger, while understanding the effects of a limited perspective for the viewer – and the for the characters. In the film’s closing sequence, an infected child swipes at Pablo (Pablo Rosso), damaging his only light source. Switching to night vision, the viewer is treated to minutes of heavy breathing and narrow IR close-ups of Pablo and Angela (Manuela Velasco) assuring each other that they’re going to be okay. When the gangling, emaciated and horribly deformed Tristana (Javier Botet) emerges looking for food, it makes for one of the finest pieces of hide-and-seek cinema in recent years. The directors tease the characters by bringing Tristana within touching distance, only to have her move away again. The darkness seems to close in throughout the scene, until only the monster is visible, and everyone is holding their breath. When things finally go haywire, there’s enough built-up tension to keep the adrenaline pumping for hours.
You don’t have to be a veteran horror fan to understand the power of darkness and the unknown. Allowing the viewer’s imagination to run rampant can achieve easily (and cheaply) what elaborate effects and plot contrivances cannot. In Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror Alien, the spectre of the eponymous monster scares you more when it’s off-screen than it does when you can see it. Anyone who remembers the death of Dallas (Tom Skerritt) can attest to that. Intending to force the alien in to the Nostromo’s airlock, Dallas enters the ship’s air-ducts in order to flush it out. The ship’s navigator, Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) monitors his movements through the ship with a simple personnel tracking device. Dallas is represented by a small white dot on a vector screen. “Oh God, it’s moving right towards you” she exclaims as another dot – this one representing the alien- begins tracking towards her shipmate. The characters and viewers alike watch helplessly as the two dots converge, and we’re treated to a shot of the fully-grown alien as it attacks him. As scary as the monster may be, the real horror of the scene is watching two little dots converge slowly.
It’s Behind You! – It Follows
It Follows released to critical acclaim and wide applause in 2014, and is widely regarded as an instant classic of horror cinema and a magnificent writer/director effort from David Robert Mitchell. The film’s insanely simple premise –there’s something coming for you and it won’t stop- gives way to a tense, paranoid film filled with human malfeasance and sexual anxiety. It Follows takes notes from horror classics like John Carpenters Halloween, bringing an uneasy viral element to sexual horror and dragging it in to the modern day. The film’s soundtrack devised by Rich Vreeland and filled with intense percussion and meandering, nervous synths keep up the paranoid beat of the film, which is where much of the tension comes from. As anxiety=inducing as being followed is, it’s the sheer alienness of everything in the film which makes you apprehensive. Everything in Mitchell’s film is divorced and disparate, and the sheer listlessness-cum-hopelessness of everything brings with it an emotional toll. You’re drawn in to the unending chase, and it’s great horror cinema.
As much as we may lament jump scares – it’s important to understand that they’re a useful and necessary part of the horror director’s repertoire. The rhythm of a horror movie is often dictated by the ebb and flow of build-up and climax, and while it’s often true that modern horror overuses the same tropes and cheap scares, many of the best and brightest in the genre make use of the same techniques – they just do it better. As redundant as it may sound, tension is critical, and paying attention to what comes before the scares will enhance your scary-movie experience.