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How-To-Horror, Part One:
Raise Heart Rates, Not Budgets

October 6th 2019

So, I recently decided to make a horror film.

I thought it’d be fairly simple. I’ve watched so many, I know the genre inside-out but when I actually put pen to paper, I quickly realised why horror is one of the hardest film genres to get right. I’ve definitely learned a lot while working on my own film (titled Mimicry for future reference) and, though my word is by no means gospel, I thought I’d share some tips with you. Over a series of blogs I will tackle some of the more common obstacles and how they can perhaps be avoided or overcome. And whilst I work on climbing my own filmmaking mountain, you can learn with me!

A Genre Gone Stale

Often criticised for being clichéd, formulaic, and oversaturated with mediocre remakes, modern horror in particular seems to have been labelled as Hollywood’s way to make a quick buck with minimal effort. At this point there are just too many things you’re supposed to avoid, and I sometimes feel this may have contributed to the genre becoming a little stagnant.

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When you're chasing a teenager through the woods
and she trips over literally nothing

But your inner horror filmmaker shouldn’t feel discouraged by this! If you look hard enough, there are still some real gems out there that might’ve been buried by the stigma. Some notable examples from the past few years (that I enjoyed) include It Follows, A Quiet Place, Raw, Train to Busan, Under the Shadow, The Babadook, Goodnight Mommy, The Wailing and Annihilation.

As a self-professed connoisseur of the creepy, I find it strangely refreshing when I stumble across films that actually get under my skin. I can also acknowledge that it’s not an easy feat to accomplish.

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With that being said, I extend to you a very warm welcome to part one of this spooky series - how to do horror with little to no budget.

So you want to make a scary film but you’re broke. Your rent just came out, your electric bill is weirdly high this month, you’re horribly underpaid and you can’t resist buying expensive coffee on your way to work instead of just bringing your own (totally not speaking from personal experience here, don’t judge…). This situation is probably even scarier than the film you’re going to make. I refer you to Max's recent blog post where he discusses his own experiences of making Overdue with £0, as it’s a great example of using initiative and resourcefulness in the face of setbacks.

Assembling Your Crew

It’s important to remember that everyone has to start somewhere. Let’s face it, your first film probably won’t be a box office hit so do try to look at it as a learning experience, and don’t be afraid of seeking help. Ask your friends, your colleagues, your parents and your dog, or consider reaching out to local talent - you never know who might be interested in getting involved, even if you can only pay them in snacks.

If I were making Mimicry by myself, the end result would likely be laughable. I know not everyone has the luxury of being part of a film production company, but there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t build your own networks.

Social media groups such as the South Yorkshire Filmmakers' Network, Film & TV Production Crew UK and The Film Directory UK are a great place to start. There are plenty of skilled and enthusiastic individuals on there willing to lend a hand, so have a look for groups in your area! I was lucky enough to find a very talented actor for the main role of my film. And an unexpected bonus is that she lives right up the road from me! In short, you never know who might be available.

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Making Your Monster

Mimicry isn’t particularly heavy on make-up or prosthetics, but there are definitely some involved. The problem I faced here? I don’t know anything about either. Fortunately, local groups came through again! I got in contact with some friends from the University of Sheffield Horror Society. We’d previously run a zombie make-up/ filmmaking hybrid workshop together so they were the obvious go-to for me, but if you don’t know anyone who has prosthetics experience, don’t worry! There are YouTube tutorials aplenty to get you started. Our Horror Soc friends recommend the channel Glam&Gore for high quality and entertaining special effects make-up advice. Products from costume shops and your local Superdrug will usually do the trick for this kind of thing, and we recommend using liquid latex for effects such as wounds, scratches and scars. No professional make-up artists needed!

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But what if you’re still struggling? What if your monster ends up looking hilarious instead of creepy? What if make-up just isn’t plausible? In this situation, there is one very obvious technique to employ.

If I were to mention the Blair Witch Project, what immediately comes to mind?

Yep, there’s a good reason Spielberg’s malfunctioning shark sent audiences into terror. It’s the idea of an unseen enemy - that infamous fear of the unknown.

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The Blair Witch Project (1999)

As cliché as that sounds, no amount of make-up, prosthetics or visual effects can contend with the wild span of the human imagination. While scary visuals are a nice touch and shouldn’t be discounted altogether, they aren’t always necessary to make a scary film. A well-executed combination of atmosphere, tension and implied threats will go a hell of a long way. There are a number of ways to do this including, but not limited to, sound, colour and cinematography. We’ll look deeper into all of these in future blog entries in this series, but for now we’ll continue talking about how not to break your bank account.

Using Your Imagination

As an independent filmmaker, you’ll often have to rely on what you already have at your disposal, which might mean getting a little creative. Pick a location that you already have easy access to and try to tailor your story to it. The great thing about horror is that it doesn’t require a fantastical set in order to be effective, but it’s what you choose to do with the location that counts.

Take a look at this shot from Ju-On: The Grudge, a 2002 Japanese ghost flick that infamously induced nightmares in its viewers. On the surface, it’s just a staircase, so what?

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But if you’re able to take something as banal as a staircase and make it scary, you’ve succeeded in creating good horror.

Here, the horror comes from the implication of what might be about to come around that corner. The film tells us that the staircase is significant through its deliberate camera placement and horrifying sound design, then the rest is left up to the imagination. Just add that to the already established presence of a vengeful spirit and a totally normal location has now been transformed into something terrifying.

Throughout the telling of its story, Ju-On takes advantage of its normal locations and characters which allows for a closer connection between the viewer and the narrative. The more your audience is able to relate to your characters, the more they will empathise with the situation. Extra points if you can use a setting that viewers would consider safe (such as a character’s home during the daytime), and then crush every remnant of comfort and security.

It’s amazing what you can do with something as simple as a dark corner, a door cracked open very slightly, or a cleverly placed camera.

Staying within Asia but moving over to South Korea, Train to Busan uses location to a similarly scary effect. The film unfolds almost exclusively within the confines of a train (and yes, it is going to Busan) in the midst of a zombie epidemic. The closed in space creates a claustrophobic feeling, making viewers feel like they’re well and truly trapped in there with the characters and making them dread their next visit back home.

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Finding Your Props

Building on what you already have is key when it comes to props and set design. Local charity shops are a great place to find some aged and creepy trinket that could be the catalyst for a terrifying story idea - an old wooden box, a creepy second-hand doll or, in my case, a bunch of cheap mirrors. After all, one of the most iconic horror movie masks is just a $1.98 Captain Kirk mask painted white.

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Using Your Common Sense

While it might be tempting to find an overtly spooky location such as your local abandoned hospital and just film there, I would generally advise against this commando style of filmmaking unless you’ve somehow managed to get permission. If you have the opportunity to prove your skills by using normal locations cleverly, getting in trouble for trespassing just isn’t worth it. On top of that, abandoned buildings are dangerous and difficult to access (for good reason), so trying to break in, with a tonne of conspicuous filming equipment no less, just seems like an unnecessary performance. Unless your horror film is a POV of someone being chased by a security guard, in which case I guess you’d win points for authenticity…

This concludes the first installment of my spine-chilling terror tour through making your own horror film. To summarise: pester your friends for help, use normality and fear of the unknown to your advantage, get creative and clever with what you already have, and don’t get in trouble for breaking into derelict buildings!

Next time, we’ll be taking a look at the controversial device everyone loves to hate: the jump scare, including how to use it effectively and why it might not necessarily deserve its stigma.


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