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Jim Schembri's principles of horror films

Posted by: Jim Schembri | 22 October, 2012 - 10:15 AM

The fabulous new scare-fest Paranormal Activity 4 employs a huge range of nail-biting horror-movie techniques - some new, nearly a century old. Here are 22 principles the film faithfully obeys and effectively deploys. 

Teenagers: Trouble magnets since long before Carrie (1976), they make the best investigators. Also, they scream good.
A Cast of Unknowns: That way you just don't know who's gonna buy it.

Cute Little Kids: What's more disturbing than evil taking up residence inside the innocent? Nothing. (See: The Omen; Children of the Corn; The Innocents; The Bad Seed.)  
And Their Imaginary Friends: They're creepy, invisible but, thankfully, not real. Or are they? (See: The Shining.)
Negative Space: Alfred Hitchcock was the master at taking the empty part of the frame and electrifying it with the potential that something awful can happen at any moment. (See: Psycho.)
Misdirection: Lead the audience down the garden path, give them a false sense of security - then pull the rug out from under them. (See: Carrie; Friday the 13th; Misery.)
Stairs: A common feature of most horror-filled homes, chiefly because it keeps the audience off-balance knowing there's a whole floor they can't see. (See: The Exorcist; Black Christmas; The Last Wave.)
Humour: Making light in spook-filled film makes the audience feel all the more engrossed when the jokes dry up and the serious scares hit the fan. (See: Nightmare on Elm Street III.)
Denial: Having at least one person dismiss all the weird goings on serves to raise the stakes when they, too, become embroiled in the proceedings. (See: Paranormal Activity 1.)
Silence: The quieter things are, the more on-edge the audience gets. Because they know it won't last. (See: Creepshow.)
Stillness: Ditto.
Sudden Movement: It doesn't have to be more than a blur, it just has to be fast. (See: Exorcist III.)
Natural Light: Bad things are supposed to happen in the dark, not in broad daylight. (See: Poltergeist.)
The Haunted House: Big, small, on Earth or in space, home is where the spooks are - and always have been. (See: Event Horizon; The House on Haunted Hill.)
Night Vision: The only thing scarier than what you can't see in the dark is what you can. (See: Silence of the Lambs; 28 Weeks Later; Cloverfield)
Video Verite: Since The Blair Witch Project the ubiquity of video cameras means everything can be recorded from a first-person perspective. So what does that mean? No comfort zone.
Pseudo Scares: A prank by an on-screen jokester still scares the audience, provides a laugh of relief and heightens the tension for when the real ones arrive.
Unseen Activity: What you can't see can be as scary as what you can. Today's hip young filmmakers understand and respect the very same principle those of yore did - that no on-screen depiction of horror can terrify as much as what can be conjured up by the imagination. (See: Rosemary's Baby.) 
Bumps in the Night: Sure it's old-fashioned, but nothing jolts like a good, sudden thud. (See: Alien.)
Doors: Just a piece of wood on hinges, but few things generate tension so effectively, especially when opened nice and slowly. Or smashed through with an axe by Jack Nicholson. 

Furniture: Can't be trusted ever since that door-slamming chair in The Exorcist. Or that dining set in Poltergeist.
Knives: The one item from the cutlery drawer that deserves a special lifetime achievement award for services to the genre.

Movies with Jim Schembri

Jimmy S Jim Schembri is one of Australia's most respected film critics. Click here for all your Jim Schembri film reviews, top ten lists, interviews with Australian and Hollywood talent and much much more.



Blog comments Your Say

  • I am a gauci
    we are family through a connection in canada.
    a schembri married my maternal grandfather's sister Lola.
    I am sure they are all long gone now; however, I did travel to canada to attend Lola's daughter's wedding to some guy from Gozo (goats according to those from the mainland)
    If any of this makes sense to you then you are Maltese, which, depending who you talk to is either a blessing or a curse.
    let me know.
    And as far as UFOs are concerned, I like Terence McKenna's sentiment:
    Looking for intelligent life in the universe by way of SETI is so culture bound that it is like looking for a good italian restaurant on the moon.

    mark urban Monday 22 October, 2012 - 11:02 PM

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