When creating your horror story, there are several paths you can take when it comes to delivering the goods. You could either go with what we know works play it safe or scare your audience in the traditional manner sticking to the generic horror formula or you could venture into darker waters with something unique and more innovative.
Randy hits the pause button on the remote and stands in front of the television, explaining.
There are certain rules that one
must abide by in order to successfully
survive a horror movie. For instance:
1. You can never have sex. The minute
you get a little nookie — you’re as
good as gone. Sex always equals death.
2. Never drink or do drugs. The sin
factor. It’s an extension of number
one. And 3. Never, ever, ever, under
any circumstances, say “I’ll be right
Wanna another beer?
I’ll be right back.
There he goes folks — a dead man. Wave bye-bye.
Let us start by examining the generic horror formula, a formula that we know off by heart, with movies like Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy vs. Jason, Halloween, Hellraiser, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Scream and an amazing amount of sequels , to name a few of them. Successful franchises with a main goal of bringing back investments, keeping the studio execs happy and entertaining the kids. Traditional horror movies tailored made for young people out on dates, so that they have something to scream, laugh and talk about. This does not mean that generic horror formula only applies to franchises and serials, but also to your common horror movie dealing with the themes of death and survival. These movies all run down their familiar paths and at some point you start to loose track of which film has what scenes as the sequels mostly try to rehash previous ideas and thrills to re-create the innovation of the original titles. A movie like Wes Craven’s smash hit Scream from 1996 walks the generic path but also adds a healthy dose of innovation with the self-criticism and ironic approach of the movies. The characters make fun of the generic formula, but at the same time prove that the generic rules are to be taken very seriously if you want to be part of the surviving cast at the end of the movie.
Most of these movies are based on what you could call the Generic Horror Formula, a formula designed to entertain us and scare us, but never to threaten us. It becomes quite visual when you break it down to a few reoccurring elements:
• Shallow characters;
You will rarely find generic horror formula spending much time on setting up the history and everyday life of the main characters you will more than likely have an initial scare and then introductions to the cast in rapid succession. Finally you will have a gallery of characters where one stands out as an obvious protagonist, probably the one who won’t do recreational drugs, won’t have pre-marital sex, didn’t really want to go on the trip. More than often it will be a female protagonist who has deeper personal issues than the rest of the gang. Interestingly enough within the generic horror formula there are a few movies which, possibly due to the poor character development, took it so far that the protagonists fighting for their lives became secondary players to the antagonist. Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween and Hellraiser spawned modern classic Anti-heroes, which each evolved into the protagonist of their franchises, as viewers mainly wanted to see Jason, Freddy, Michael and Pinhead come up with new ways to butcher their victims instead of investing in the insignificant characters trekking out to Crystal Lake, drinking way too much coffee, spending a night in Haddonfield or messing around with that wretched Lament Box.
• Illogical events & predictability;
Commonly reoccurring elements within the generic horror formula are the scenes where you react to the “stupidity” onscreen. Scenes that don’t really play true against the threat of the Antagonist. For an instance taking a sudden shower when being chased by a serial killer or taking separate paths when you know that there’s something waiting to slash you to bits just around the corner might be incredibly illogical things to do, but these scenes on the other hand are very obvious signs to the viewers that something is just about to happen. You don’t have to be a psychic to predict what is going to happen, and playing true to the rules of generic horror formula, the character that makes illogical decisions is going to be the next person in a body bag. But this all works in favor of the generic horror formula and their prime target audiences as these scenes work as indicators signaling very clearly that it’s time to snuggle up closer and wrap your arm around your date because the shit is just about to hit the fan. These scenes also serve to build up a tension within the audience as they get ready for the next big scare.
• Cheap Laughs & Goofy Characters;
To add leverage to the claim that generic horror tries to push us out of the screen and it’s events I chose to point to the frequent reoccurrence of goofball characters and the comforting flow of witty one-liners that work as comic relief, hence breaking the tension. Almost every film in the formula has the comedic side kick, a goofy character that spends the initial half of the movie trying to “scare” the other characters with silly little practical jokes or just stands out as the nerdy sore thumb in the “cool” gang. Almost all movies in the generic horror formula will have that character or characters to crack a tension shattering one-liner or sexual innuendo just before or after the antagonist strikes. Obviously this is to release tension and to keep the lethal threat on screen and not among us as an intimidating entity. In the * Nightmare on Elm Street* series even Freddy Krueger in a routine way cracks a gag or two before or just after slaughtering his victims. One of my all time favorite goofball characters is Shelly (Larry Zerner) in Steve Miner’s 1982* Friday the 13th part III*. I’m sure that they didn’t know what an iconic impact the little gag with the hockey mask would have on the rest of the franchise. After pulling a few practical jokes and sporting his hockey mask to scare the chicks at the camp, he eventually gets what we know is coming his way, and psycho killer Jason Voorhees finally straps on that piece of horror movie iconography you still today, twenty-six years later, can identify in a blink of the eye.
• Exaggerated special effects;
No Generic Horror Formula film is complete without a few gallons of fake blood and guts. You know that you will see dismemberment, mutilation, gouging and fountains of blood when walking in to see one of these movies; it’s almost part of the premise, and a perfect opportunity to squeeze the hand of your date once more as you squirm at the exaggerated carnage on screen. At the same time staying true to the thesis that the formula doesn’t want to threaten its audience, the blood and carnage is often exaggerated to such a unrealistic level that blood will spray like Icelandic geysers, making the viewers turn their heads and go “Awwhhh that was gross!” and laugh once again at the mayhem unfolding on screen.
As you realize, movies within the Generic Horror Formula, can with ease stick to the path and spawn a number of sequels that rely on the formula, but at the same time it’s worth pointing out that many of the franchises mentioned above, started with one very innovative initial movie. The dream stalking ghoul of A Nightmare on Elm Street was rather unique and held much darker in tone than the sequels, the cenobites of Hellraiser had far less screen time and almost no explanatory rasion d’être in the original 1986 movie compared to their follow-ups which also watered down the mystique behind the iconic pinhead portrayed by Doug Bradley. John Carpenter’s Halloween was one of the first movies to end with the now traditional “open ending” as the corpse of Michael Myers was mysteriously absent when the surviving characters took one last look at the spot where his body should have been. And who could ever guess that it was the mother of Jason Voorhees responsible for the violent killings of the youth councilors at Camp Blood in Friday the 13th?
Movies like Hostel, SAW, Captivity, Turistas, etc, commonly referred to as Torture Porn , may at a first glimpse seem like movies in the innovative realm, but they are most definitely within the generic field as they stay very close to the formula. The exaggerated effects, the goofy side kicks and illogical events even if the main ideas presented are quite creative.
At the same time it is important to indicate that even though these movies are generic, weak narrative or even just the plain fact that you simply find them nauseating, they do generate amazing revenues at the box office . So rest assured that these movies will continue to spawn sequels as they are the new “Generic Formula”, and a large part of the Generic Formula (well, the horror genre as a whole to be honest) is about rebelling against family values. As long as your parents tell you to stay clear of those bad influences (Heavy Metal, horror movies, and scary comics) the kids will be drawn to it like moths to a naked flame in their search for adrenaline rushes.
So you could argue that the Generic Horror Formula is tailor made to keep us shifting our focus from the terror on screen and checking in with reality, almost to make us think to ourselves “That’s silly! I wouldn’t do that”, hence dropping us out of the illusionary world created by the movie. Or having us laughing at the absurdities on screen when a character makes a joke about the events happening around them, sure the audience gets scared, but at the same time they can with ease laugh at the scares looking back on them. The formula did its job, it entertained us, it scared us, but it didn’t threaten us. In all fairness you could say that the generic horror formula feeds our need for escapism. To take us away from the real horrors of everyday life, and help us unwind with things we know are not real and pose no threat to us in reality.
This is possibly why the movies you remember, and the ones that stand out, are the ones that are more realistic in their approach, where the friends didn’t go down separate paths and still met their death, there are no tension releases, no obvious spots for practical jokes or gags, just a simple sensible scenario that could happen to you. Those movies where you get to know the characters before they start their decent into hell. The ones that don’t play it safe by sticking to Generic Horror Formula. The movies that bring something new with them to the screen, and draw you in by showing you something that you haven’t seen before, opening doors to worlds we never could have imagined.
Every year a few of these films turn up and scare us so hard that they become milestones in Horror movie history. Movies that set out to threaten us, be it the social commentary of George Romero’s 1968 masterpiece Night of the Living Dead, the gritty no holds barred realism of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 stunner The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or the realistic loss and re-finding of ones faith and a mothers despair as her daughter is tormented by an unseen entity of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. The bureaucracy and its fatal effects in Spielberg’s Jaws, the unseen “witch” responsible for the abductions of the children of Burkittsville in The Blair Witch Project. The off-screen monster, feeding on the crew of the Nostromo all because of co-operate corruptness and greed in Ridley Scott’s Alien. The damp, dead, dark haired Asian girls erupting out of wells, TV-screens and plastered walls of Ju-On, Ringu, The Phone and The Eye to name but a few. All those movies threatened us. They kept us in the loop and didn’t give us any space to laugh at the on-screen terrors unfolding before our eyes, and they also threatened us for real.
Here’s a break down of the Innovative Formula.
• Realistic special effects;
Sure, innovative movies do contain realistic special effects but you will rarely have a protagonist or antagonist crack a joke in the same scene. Also a fair amount of innovative horror films will keep the violence off-screen as long as they can to have you make up the disgusting deaths in your own head instead. And even in those situations where it is lingered on it will be realistic and nothing like the geysers of blood you grew accustomed to in the golden age of gore.
• Character development;
To make the deaths and impending doom of the protagonists more impact full, movies in the innovative field will spend time setting up the characters. You will be see one or more of them go about their everyday life until the terrors kick in. More than often you will be presented to the back-story and spend a fair amount of time investing in the protagonists so that you will share their fear as death approaches. 
• Logic and persuasive reality;
This is probably one of the most significant differences between Generic and Innovative horror. Where generic sets out to entertain you and not threaten you, innovative tries the complete opposite. It wants to disturb you and force you to take the onscreen terror outside the theatre with you. To have you looking over your shoulder as you walk home. You will rarely see a character take an unmotivated shower in a haunted house or have your protagonists split up and go separate ways unless there is a very obvious reason for this, such as an inhibiting wound or something else that forces them immobile.
You can never really relax when watching a movie of the innovative realm, because their abundance of small common elements you will never quite sure know what will happen next. Movies like Cloverfield, and The Blair Witch Project which avoid using a soundtrack to trigger off emotions just let the shocks play out in real time, hence creating a documentary real time feeling. Breaking the norm is a frequent tool used in these movies. Or as in Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On where the protagonist does what we have been taught to do when the ghosts get to close, put your head under the covers. I’m sure that not too many viewers saw it coming when the ghosts where right there under the covers too. And if you can’t hide under the covers of own your bed, where are you going to hide?
Films and scenes like these are what I refer to when I claim that the innovative formula threatens us, it takes away the elements we take for granted and leaves us uncertain of what we can trust in. The killer didn’t die at the end, the ghosts are under the blankets with us, the murderers where never caught, there is no quick fix to end the zombie plague. Our need for escapism is inhibited by the questions still un-answered as the end credits finish rolling, and as in real life, we have to adapt and accept that there may not be a happy solution to the bigger issue. They challenge us and dare us to imagine antagonists far beyond the father of the girl next door, the randomly bullied kid from school, or the washed out Modus Operandi of franchise vehicles. They pack a punch which will keep you looking over your shoulder as you leave the theatre, reshelf the DVD or walk back from turning of the TV in the dark.
All fans of the horror genre have at least one movie that scared them so profoundly that they spent all night with the lights on, or didn’t take a shower for weeks, or didn’t dare answer their phone late at night. And most often you will find that title belonging to the Innovative Horror Formula. For me it was the first time I saw Phillip Kaufman’s 1978 re-make of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers on video some twenty five years ago. That movie disturbed me so intensely that I didn’t sleep for several nights. That’s what you get for testing the limits and breaking the rules that your parents set for you.
But now the challenge is in your hands, which path will you venture down, Generic or Innovative?
1 Friday the 13th, 1980, Sean S. Cunningham / Friday the 13th Part2, 1981, Steve Miner / Friday the 13th Part 3, 1982, Steve Miner / Friday the 13th The Final Chapter, 1984, Joseph Zito / Friday the 13th A New Beginning, 1985, Danny Steinman / Friday the 13th Part VI Jason Lives, 1986, Tom McLoughlin / Friday the 13th VII The New Blood, 1988, John Carl Buechler / Friday the 13th Part VIII Jason Takes Manhattan, 1989, Rob Hedden / Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, 1993, Adam Marcus / Jason X, 2001, James Isaac / A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984, Wes Craven / A Nightmare on Elm Street part 2: Freddy’s Revenge, 1985, Jack Sholder / A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, 1987, Chuck Russell / A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, 1988, Renny Harlin / A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child, 1989, Stephen Hopkins / Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, 1991, Rachel Talalay / Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, 1994, Wes Craven / Freddy vs Jason, 2003, Ronny Yu / Halloween, 1978, John Carpenter / Halloween II, 1981, Rick Rosenthal / Halloween III: Season of the Witch, 1982, Tommy Lee Wallace / Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, 1988, Dwight H. Little / Halloween 5, 1989, Dominique Othenin-Girard & Arhtur Speer / Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, 1995, Joe Chapelle / Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later, 1998, Steve Miner / Halloween Resurrection, 2002, Rick Rosenthal / Hellraiser, 1987, Clive Barker / Hellbound: Hellraiser II, 1988, Tony Randel / Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, 1992, Anthony Hickox / Hellraiser: Bloodline, 1996, Kevin Yeager (Joe Chapelle uncredited) / The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, 1974, Tobe Hooper / The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, 1986, Tobe Hooper / Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, 1990, Jeff Burr / The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1994, Kim Henkel / Scream, 1996, Wes Craven / Scream 2, 1997, Wes Craven / Scream 3, 2000, Wes Craven.
As you see, the word “Final”or “Last” means nothing in the title of a franchise, if there are enough kids coming to see the movie, there will be sequels. Not included in this listing are the recent remakes, their follow ups or the Hellraiser straight to video sequels. It is interesting to point out that Tommy Lee Wallace Halloween III: The Season of the Witch is one of the few movies in a franchise serial that actually stepped away from the themes and antagonist of the prequels. As the writers and producers decided that Michael Myers was dead at the end of Halloween2, they wanted to ignite a new series of movies with their stories set around Halloween instead of the masked killer. The movie also paid heavily for this bold step away from the formula and is often cited as a bomb, although the movie it’s self is an underrated addition to the genre. Needless to say the masked Michael Myers was back with a vengeance in the sequel.
2 A term which I feel is an insult as these movies themselves only are trying to re-create the golden age of splatter, and should be seen as homage’s to a fantastic time period for genre fans. It’s no big secret that Eli Roth is an avid fan of European gore and horror movies, so obviously he’s going to push the boundaries with tributes to movies he’s seen and enjoyed in his childhood. This may also be one of the reasons why older fans of the genre (i.e. me) don’t get too excited about “torture porn” as it isn’t new to them; we enjoyed the original golden age and saw it watered down until it became a parody of itself.
3 After the initial success of SAW made for a $1, 2 million, with a world wide gross of $100 million and Hostel, made for a modest $5 million with a gross of $80million the figures speak their clear language. And if it’s realistic violence that bring the kids in, then that’s what we’re going to be seeing for some while until something shifts the focus once again.
4 A few perfect examples are; the ending of French shocker THEM, you feel that the directors at least could have let Clementine survive. You believe in the journey that Father Karras makes when he re finds his faith at the climax of The Exorcist, you understand the frustration of Chief Brody in JAWS as he is overrun by the mayor and has to sit by passively as the gigantic shark eats it’s way through the holiday makers in Amity beach. The same goes for his fear of the water, we honestly believe that he is terrified of the water and we don’t want him to end up in the shark’s gullet, as we have invested valuable time in believing this character.