Horror movies depend on a lot of factors to set them apart from the rest. Like all films, they need a good story, good writing, plot, direction, and one of the most important factors is a strong performance from the actors. While watching a horror film, the audience’s ‘suspension of disbelief’ has to be set high for them to believe a killer can come back from the dead, kill you in your nightmares, etc. So therefore, the actors have to convince us that they believe the situation they find themselves in, and their characters must be portrayed well. What would John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ be if not for Jamie Lee Curtis’s strong and believable portrayal as Laurie Strode? In slasher movies, performances from the actors and character development are crucial to making the story believable and, to making the audience care about the movie. This is why, in movies such as the many ‘Friday the 13th’ sequels; the audience laughs when a character dies instead of empathising with them. If the characters are one dimensional, simply introduced, behave horribly and are then killed – no-one cares.
A character’s death in a horror should be scary and tense. The audience should know that character well enough to want the character to escape and survive the horror. This is where so many recent slasher movies and re-makes are getting it wrong over and over; because the audience has no chance to bond with the actor or character; be that because the acting is poor or because the character simply isn’t likeable or developed, or is developed in a negative light.
After recently watching ‘Final Destination 4’ I got thinking about this subject; the characters in it were flat and boring, most of them couldn’t even act very strongly and the ones that could act, played unlikable characters that the audience were rooting against.
Character development doesn’t have to rely on the amount of screen time that the character owns; the opening sequence in Wes Craven’s ‘Scream’ with Drew Barrymore’s character is proof of this. We are only with Drew’s character, Casey Becker, for just over twelve minutes, but when asked about the movie, the majority of people remember this opening sequence because of how harrowing it was to watch. Not many actresses could have pulled this off, but Barrymore’s performance really pulls at the heart strings – the audience want her to escape and can empathise with her. The same can be said for Janet Leigh’s character, Marion Crane, in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho.’ Even though her character is only in the first half of the movie, she makes the most impact and drives the entire film along, even after her character’s death. The reasons for this in both these cases are due to the actresses’ performances, which are so powerful and believable. Both actresses are extremely talented, their portrayals of their characters are complete. We learn more about Barrymore’s character in twelve minutes of ‘Scream’ than we do in an entire movie with some horror characters. In both these movies, their death scenes are therefore very painful and upsetting to watch because we like the characters, we don't look down on them, we relate to them. This then makes the film far more scary to watch.
In the movie ‘I Know What you did last summer,’ the star actress is Jennifer Love Hewitt, but it’s Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character of Helen which is more tragic and memorable to an audience. This is due to a few factors; firstly, the character of Helen fights for her life for well over fifteen minutes of screen time, the character has been with us from the start of the movie and has been well developed as likeable. Sarah Michelle Geller acts her socks off – and most importantly – we don’t actually see her get murdered, we only see/hear the illusion of it. In recent slasher re-makes such as ‘Rob Zombie’s Halloween’ movies, we are shown unlikeable characters getting stabbed over and over and, thus, they tend to loose their humanity; they become a piece of meat. Kevin Williamson (who also wrote ‘Scream’) knew that by the audience only catching glimpses of Helen’s death through cut away shots, and by us witnessing her fear beforehand, it would be much more unsettling for an audience to watch. What an audience, or person, can imagine is far scarier and disturbing than what we are usually shown in horror films. The mind is a far stronger vehicle for fear than any special effect.
When I went to watch the re-make of ‘Friday the 13th’ there was lots of laughter from the audience whenever a character was killed. A sane person doesn’t usually do that (hopefully); we don’t laugh in ‘Alien’ when John Hurt’s character’s chest bursts open because we like the character, we care about the character. The reason an audience will laugh (unless it’s down to nerves) is, if they care nothing for the character, or if the character is in an embarrassing situation. Several women in the ‘Friday the 13th 2009’ re-make were killed while topless, while nearly every character was represented as being drug users, having promiscuous sex, or simply being annoying – so most of the time the audience was made to feel the characters were “jokes” and that their deaths were meaningless; thus it placed a lot of viewers in the killer’s situation. In horror, the audience usually should not be relating to the killer at all because they are representing evil. Their deaths were also used to just gross us out, but this has been done far too many times previously, and better, to have any effect. It’s far more unsettling to “watch” the illusion of Janet Leigh’s likeable Marion Crane getting stabbed, than to watch a topless, unlikeable character, getting an axe in the head with a daft look on her face.
This was the major difference between the terrible ‘Final Destination 4’ and the original and brilliant, ‘Final Destination.’ The characters in the original, most importantly, could act; but were also well developed and most importantly – relatable. Even the unlikeable characters in the original film felt real as they had a strong sense of realism. The same goes for Wes Craven’s ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street;’ the characters in the film have a large amount of innocence around them; they are also relatable and have the likeability factor. The death scenes are not funny; they’re brutal, scary and haunting when they happen; and that is one of the reasons why ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ is such a seminal horror.
Hollywood has, for the most part, lost its ability to scare. Even when creating re-makes they now strip away the characters so that all they are is a body for the killer to dismember in some comedic or grotesque way. Either that or we’ve seen it before in the original film, but done better; CGI and effects can not create a better sense of character or atmosphere. If a horror is to be taken seriously, you have to take your characters and their lives seriously. After all, there’s nothing funny about death.