Gore over suspense or vice versa can often lead filmmakers down very different paths. Luckily there are many intersections where the two beautifully collide and tear apart. For my latest short horror Time Lapse I wanted blend the both together but I think I naturally lean towards the ‘suspense’ side of things; for any filmmaking approaching the horror genre, here’s a few things to consider.
Threaten the audience! Not Literally though…
I’ll start with a little fable – When I was a little boy, my grandmother went to the Sunday car boot and bought me a life size doll which eventually ended up sitting in the corner of my room. The night before by sheer coincidence I’d been quite naughty and crept downstairs to watch ‘Child’s Play’. Now, you can imagine what these two incidents did to my over-active imagination. Even now I can recall the feeling of lying in bed, staring at it and it staring at me! The threat was terrifying and I guess that feeling stayed with me. It was the constant threat that this doll ‘could’ come alive however more often than not, the tension was dissipated by creaky floorboards or some other weird house noises.
A shock doesn’t have to be explicit.
This is actually called the Lewton Bus Effect, first coined by Val Lewton in his fantastic 1942 horror ‘Cat People’. Since then filmmakers have been using this technique enrapture their audiences, most notably for me in William Friedkin’s The Exorsist (1973) where Regan’s mum explore the attic! Watch here – http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xrfltb_the-attic-from-the-exorcist-1973_shortfilms
Understand how to represent your characters!
In Time Lapse I really wanted my monster to personify fear so rather than show him explicitly, I wanted his character to be reflected onto his victims so much so that by the end they’re two completely different characters representing the same thing – ‘fear’ ! Joe Berlinger illustrates how effective this can be, especially for any low budget production in The Blair Witch Project.
Omnipotence is scary
When your heroes start to represent fear as well as your monster/vampire/slasher/zombie/ghost/devil then you get this overwhelming sense of omnipotence. The monster could be anywhere which also creates a sense of claustrophobia. John Carpenter truly gives you that feeling with his portrayal of maniac Micheal Myers in “Halloween“. Omnipotence has been a popular theme throughout horror’s history but really took off in the 70’s. In ‘The Omen’ (SPOILER ALERT) Richard Donner gets Damien to break the 4th wall at the end of film which is really chilling because it lets the audience know that the devil is watching.
Gore works well when the imagination works out the details…
As an independent filmmaker you may feel forced into choosing suspense over gore due to lack of time or budget or whatever but you shouldn’t let that stop you from using gore in your films. Edgar Ulmar in 1934 made a soon-to-be-cult-classic with “The Black Cat”. In it, you see Bela Lugosi flaying Boris Karloff completely in silhouette. It’s an amazing scene because your imagination does all the hard work. Imagine flaying something and hearing the screams… It’s horrible isn’t it? Now back then it may have been a logistical solution to poor SFX but I think if the modern filmmaker does it, it demonstrates fantastic restraint –
Gore doesn’t have to be seen, just suggested.
Peter Cushing will teach you a thing or two!
In the argument for gore vs suspense, neither will matter if you don’t believe the characters, especially the antagonist. In Time Lapse, it was incredibly important to get realism in all of the performances which is why I’m so grateful for my wonderful cast. Peter Cushing was a fantastic actor because however absurd the plot he brought a tremendous amount of gravitas to the performance.
That’s the history lesson over, sorry if I have been a tad bias and not really shown you any gory examples but I hope you’ve enjoy the read. Exploring this genre has been an amazing experience and I would urge any filmmaking to dive deep into Horror drawing from over 100 years of it’s rich history!
If you’d really like to learn more I would watch Mark Gatiss’ History of Horror on Youtube, a three part documentary. Extremely interesting!