It has been a while since we’ve seen prime M. Night Shyamalan. The Sixth Sense Shyamalan. Signs Shyamalan. The filmmaker who managed to conjure a mood of dread and possibility like few before him was lost in the woods for a while, never quite making contact with films like The Happening or The Last Airbender. He’s returning to his roots with The Visit, a straight-up horror movie. A student of cinema, Shyamalan took inspiration from some classics.
“There’s an old Roman Polanski film, Repulsion,” he says. “Oh my God. There’s this scene, this woman is going crazy and she closes her closet, I don’t want to ruin it for you, but there’s a moment when she closes the closet and sees someone in her apartment with her and it comes out of nowhere. It’s just awesome stuff. I just recently rewatched The Omen and when she hangs herself at the kids birthday party… I’m scarred from that, that was fantastic. She’s so joyous: ‘This is all for you, Damian!'”
Given his love for dissecting the way movies work, we decided to ask Shyamalan for his methods to creating movie madness. So here are his five elements for effective cinema scares.
1. DON’T BE CHEAP
I hate gratuitous scares. If a couple is walking and it’s empty and the husband grabs her very aggressively — First of all, I wish he would die at that point. Immediately that feels gratuitous, I hate the filmmakers, I hate the character, so it has to be really earned. You have to care about the characters. There’s an old trope that the slut gets killed, that kind of thing, but I find real fear comes if you really love the character and then there’s a noise in the house so it evokes that feeling of, "Oh my God I need to protect her.”
2. BE A MINIMALIST
The less you know, the less you see, the better. If you can do it without showing it, great, that’s even better; if you can do it with an insinuation. The great example would be Alien. You just see the skin of the thing first, you’re getting so scared as it’s building up and building up. You want to evoke imagination. I believe this in general about filmmaking but especially in this genre, it’s best to keep things slightly incomplete so that [the audience] can finish it.
3. LET YOUR SOUND DESIGN DO THE HEAVY LIFTING
Sound is critical — that’s my favorite way to manipulate people because they can’t feel it. Ironically, music is the opposite. You’re so aware that you’re being manipulated. The Visit has no music in it, it has no score, so already you go, “I don’t know if this scene is supposed to be funny, I don’t know if it’s supposed to be suspenseful or scary,” so the whole time you’re tense. You’re just like, “No one’s telling me where I’m going to I’m scared.” Sound effects are my favorite [tool], raising the air conditioner sound, or the hum in the background, just slightly. You’re not aware I’m doing it but you’re feeling a kind of unease, a growing anxiety and you’re leaning in some more.
I’ve had score in all my movies except for *The Visit. It’s a little like crack cocaine, once you put in a little bit you want more, more, more. Once you’re on that high, the music carries so much of the burden of storytelling. It’s so powerful.
4. PUSH YOUR SCARES AS LATE IN THE MOVIE AS POSSIBLE
I have always the instinct to push the scares, push as late as possible and then I always get in trouble. [The studio will say] “Let’s get to the scares, the audience wants them quicker, get to the thrill a little quicker,” but I love when the audience is at the point where the they’re thinking that this isn’t a scary movie at all and then, you begin. Get their guard down.
5. WORK WITH THE BEST
I feel like I need to tell everybody I’m cheating because I still get such amazing people to come work with me. Skip Lievsay [The Big Lebowski, Fargo] won the [Best Sound Mixing] Academy Award for Gravity and he wanted to come do this little movie for me for no money. During his downtime from big movies we sat together and he designed this. “What if Grandma’s growl is like this?” he would suggest and it was just awesome. It’s only about “Do you like this? Do you want to have fun doing this?” Everybody that’s coming is coming for the exact right reasons, so you’re putting together a hyper-inspired team that are doing it for no other reason than just to tell a great story.