It’s become a cliché for jaded movie reviewers and bloggers to slag off current horror movies as crass, franchise-driven, everything-spelled-out, CGI-infected crap, especially when compared to classics like Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Shining and The Sixth Sense. And while they might have a point, classics-to-be are out there. You just need to slog past stuff like those Paranormal Activity and Purge sequels and seek out deeply weird indie-minded flicks like The Babadook, The Witch, It Follows and Lights Out—movies that, once you set aside any expectation of seeing big budgets burned away on screen like so much Freddie Krueger flesh, feel fresh and smart while bowing deeply to tropes laid down by vintage moviemakers.
So what links a supernatural classic like, say, the 1963 version of The Haunting and a later counterpart like 2013’s The Conjuring? And what makes both of those movies invade our psyches so much more powerfully than many other recent shockers?
Rule No. 1: The best horror movies respect the audience
That means their makers—like The Haunting director Robert Wise and The Conjuring director James Wan and their screenwriters—made sure that their movies boasted grabby, first-rate screenplays, that they created films that immerse us in convincingly specific worlds and that they take their sweet time laying booby traps for us and for characters we get to know and care about. Both The Haunting and The Conjuring offer relatable but quirky and distinct characters with whom we spend time navigating creepy, challenging new environments. We empathize. Brilliant writing and moviemaking also gives those characters a shot at uttering indelible dialogue. There’s the fragile, neurotic Eleanor in The Haunting raising gooseflesh when she says about the evil house on the hill, “Can’t you feel it? It’s alive … watching.” In The Conjuring, the worried wife and mother confesses to a pair of parapsychologists, “There is something horrible happening in my house.” In Psycho, Norman Bates, the inhabitant of a different kind of haunted house, explains why he can’t leave his elderly mother alone: “Who would look after her? The fire would go out. It would be cold and damp up there, like a grave.” Chills.
Rule No. 2: The best horror movies torture us with suspense, not with cheesy jump scares
What really twists we moviegoers into knots is watching a likeable character slowly reaching for the doorknob to the forbidden room, climbing a shadowy staircase or venturing down a dark hall where something wicked might be lying in wait. We’ll take that kind of slow-burn thrill any day over easy stuff like the sudden screech of tacky music “sting” cue, or the shriek of a caged bird or the yowl of a cat hurled at the camera. Moviemaking know-how and restraint can easily separate the chaff like Halloween: Resurrection from the wheat of the original Halloween, in which director John Carpenter sends us up the wall with relentless, voyeuristic “floating” tracking shots and that spookily repetitive score. The sequel loads up the action with pointless celebrity cameos and death scenes that generate zero empathy, let alone shock or suspense.
Rule No. 3: The best horror movies don’t show too much
Savvy moviemakers know that for any spooky, scary, terrifying thing a special effects wiz can put up there on screen, we in the audience can imagine far worse. Shrewd directors not only keep blood and gore to a minimum (gross is gross, not scary) they also keep the nastiest stuff half-hidden, shadowy, suggested but not spelled out. How much more terrifying is Rosemary screaming about her devil baby—“What have you done to its eyes?”—than a lingering close-up of the Devil’s spawn staring out with fake red peepers? It’s frightening to imagine exactly what is stalking the kids in It Follows without knowing precisely its shape, form or even purpose.
Horror junkies have proven that they’ll turn out in force to watch market-tested weak tea like The Purge: Election Year but not get behind the good stuff. Audiences actually complained to theater owners that there wasn’t enough visible babadook action in the film of that name. Last year, L.A. hipster audiences disrupted a revival screening of the elegant and deeply twisted 1961 ghost classic The Innocents by howling with laughter throughout. Are modern audiences too numb and distracted to recognize a good shocker when it’s looking right them in the eye? That may be the biggest horror of them all.