Fall 2018

Horror's Resurgence

In uncertain times, directors update and elevate a time-tested genre with works that invite audiences to confront their fears


(Photos: (First Row L-R) Universal Pictures, Photofest, Alamy, Universal Pictures, Marcie Revens. (Second Row L-R) Universal Pictures, Getty Images, Ana Lily Amirpour, Getty Images, Photofest, Marcie Revens. (Third Row L-R) Getty Images, Photofest, James Wan, Everett, Alamy, Photofest.)

Don't enter that room. Don't even set foot in that house. But maybe, don't leave your house. If you make a move, it'll know. They'll hear every noise. He's right behind you. Is everyone around me evil? Are those … teeth? Can I really watch anymore?

Well, yes, we all can, because we all do, if recent box office numbers are any indication for directors who love to freak out viewers. Horror films have always been popular, from Lon Chaney's silent heyday and Universal's monster machine through the R-rated era of slashers and aliens and the elevated haunts that have turned James Wan's The Conjuring into its own multi-picture universe of chills.

But 2017 was the genre's biggest year yet with audiences, thanks to the shattering receipts for Andy Muschietti's adaptation of Stephen King's killer-clown novel It—now the all-time U.S. horror box office champ—and an energized critical reception spearheaded by indie gamechanger Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele.

Peele's scary/funny twist on the insidiousness of racism not only earned him a First-Time Feature Film Award from the DGA and a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, it also contributed a symbol of fear as indelible to the horror canon as Alfred Hitchcock's shower scene, William Friedkin's vomit-spewing schoolgirl, and George Romero's zombies: the sunken place, a voice-squelching void Peele's African-American protagonist Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) can't escape from. For Peele, the sunken place acted as both a metaphor for the systemic ostracizing of black people, but also tipped a hat to horror fans like him.

"It wasn't a mistake that the sunken place was like this darkened theater, where no matter how much Chris screams at the screen, he can't affect what's going on," Peele tells the DGA Quarterly. "That to me is what for many years it was like being in a horror theater in a black neighborhood. You can scream, 'Get out of the house!' as much as you want, but the lead character doesn't hear you."

That kind of nerve-jangling but thoughtful engagement with moviegoers has led to a new golden age of horror. Peele, Wan and Muschietti grew up as fans of scarecraft, so for them, the genre has always been a viable form through which to combine fun with dramatic or socially relevant themes, be it a corrosive political climate of inequality as in James DeMonaco's topical Purge movies, or the redemptive bonds of family that underscore the trepidatious silence in John Krasinski's hit, A Quiet Place. It's an expansive approach to frightening people that allows Muschietti to claim Rob Reiner's non-horror King movie Stand by Me to be as much an influence on It as any beloved fright flick, because at heart, they're both stories of childhood's emotional turbulence. "The experience I had of watching Stand by Me, of crying with it, was something I wanted to explore," Muschietti says.

For DeMonaco, whose Purge franchise depicts a yearly night in a future America during which murder is legal, what began as a low-budget home-invasion flick in the first movie evolved over three more (and an upcoming series) into a full-on class-warfare/race-resonant nightmare in the streets. Across the sequels, DeMonaco drew inspiration from '70s-era paranoid thrillers and Walter Hill's street gang saga The Warriors in fashioning his blend of horrific dystopian concept with reality-based anarchy.

"Scorsese called it smugglers' cinema," says DeMonaco of the way contract directors in old Hollywood snuck social commentary into genre pictures. "There's a part of me that always wants to push the political boundaries, until we begin preaching. There's a balance, because you want it to be entertaining. But it's nice when you hear that black and Latino audiences saw something reflective of their world, that they got our metaphor."

Even a white-knuckle thrill ride like Uruguay-born Fede Alvarez's 2016 humdinger Don't Breathe, about three young burglars trapped in a house with a blind, psychotic military veteran, unconsciously seems to reflect themes Alvarez had been thinking about: how a current generation invariably suffers the sins of the previous generation.

"It never starts out that way; it starts with what's the entertaining horror tale I'm going to tell," says Alvarez. "Then it's impossible not to put in things that affect you. These young people are trying to escape Detroit as representation of a decadent America, and then literally a house ruled by this old American man. Uruguay mirrors Detroit on many levels, because it was amazing in the '50s. Our parents never stopped talking about how great it was, and it's what you heard about Detroit all the time. That's why setting it in Detroit was important to me."

Horror's breadth is now roping in filmmakers who might never have considered tackling its power before. Susanne Bier, whose award-winning repertoire is replete with intimate melodramas, was drawn to her new Netflix film Bird Box—an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-like post-apocalyptic tale in which an unseen malevolence turns loved ones suicidal—because of the story's emotions. "I'm not obsessed with horror, but I'm obsessed with stories about human beings, and I find horror an incredibly efficient tool to explore the unexpected and relevant," says Bier. In her case, that's a scenario in which, sure, there's a monster out there, but it's the thought of loved ones and strangers changing for the worst that infuses the dread. "I'm always more terrified of humans, of people I can't trust," she explains.

Krasinski readily confesses that his inner scared 12 year old who avoided horror was unintentionally keeping the eager movie lover in him from an entire genre—that is until prepping for A Quiet Place opened his once well-shut eyes. "I was just blown away by the level and caliber of horror movies," he says of his late education. "Nowadays it's some of the most cutting-edge filmmaking, some of the best filmmaking to learn from, period."

(Clockwise from top left) Actress Lili Taylor in James Wan's The Conjuring; Wan with co-star Vera Farmiga; John Krasinski, in T-shirt, directing Emily Blunt on the set of A Quiet Place; Director Susanne Bier with actress Sarah Paulson on the set of Bird Box. (Photos: (Clockwise from top left) Photofest (2); Everett; Merrick Morton/Netflix)

Monsters, Real and Imagined

One thing hasn't changed much about horror films over the years, though, and that's the need for a powerful pall of evil, whether via an invisible force or a flesh-and-blood monster; whether built by effects teams or created on a computer or performed by a human or a blend of all three.

Forty-five years after Friedkin depicted a devil-possessed child in The Exorcist—using an expertly stitched combination of Linda Blair, body double, Mercedes McCambridge's demonic voice, makeup juju and head-rotatable dummy—Andy Muschietti found similar freedom in the mix of real and fake tools that brought Pennywise the clown to terrifying child-stalking life for It. The starting point, however, was always actor Bill Skarsgård, whom Muschietti encouraged in free-flowing "experimentation" sessions to build a repertoire of weird, off-putting gestures, behaviors and noises that could be incorporated into Pennywise's scenes for unpredictable effect. "Human performance is unbeatable," says Muschietti. "In a scene where brutality and surprise are the main things, nobody can do it like an actor. So I relied on Bill's performance, and then enhanced it."

For the pivotal scare in which the kids, operating a projector, are shocked by an enlarged Pennywise erupting from their projected image, Muschietti merged the practical and digital with the actorly: "We first shot the kids' performances in the garage location, reacting to a giant cardboard cutout of Bill. Then we did a reduced-size mimic of the garage with green screen, with Bill performing out of that so he would look big. We replicated every angle on that tiny set, with eyeline references for each kid using little sticks."

Later, Muschietti enhanced Skarsgård's mouth with CGI, which was also deployed for shots of Pennywise's bared teeth. "It doesn't matter how big an actor's mouth is, there's a limit to how fangs look. You don't want to see an actor with a denture trying to open their mouth as much as possible. And now, the effects houses have reached a level of detail and hyperrealism that is unquestionable."

The sightless, foreleg-stabbing predators in A Quiet Place were all the work of ILM wizards, led by visual effects legend Scott Farrar, but Krasinski knew his Jaws history, and how memorable not seeing the shark was until the audience had built up its mythic presence in their own minds for over half the film. "I tried to take a page out of their book, so even when we did see him, we could tuck him away in the cornfield, the silos, places like that," says Krasinski. "It's true, what Spielberg said, that your imagination is more powerful than anything I can show you consistently."

James Wan finds it funny when he's accused of using CGI when zeroes and ones had nothing to do with an otherworldly effect. Case in point: the spooky Crooked Man's unforgettable appearance in The Conjuring 2, for which Wan went old school with gangly, double-jointed actor Javier Botet and tricks as old as cinema. "I had him walk in reverse doing weird body movements," says Wan, "then I ramped it forward in editing, and jump-cut every frame or two. So the unnatural quality of it makes people think CGI, but it's just reverse camera technique. It's been around forever, so it's just knowing when to use it."

For her low-budget debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Ana Lily Amirpour knew simply the image of a night-stalking, chador-wearing vampire in a rundown Persian town would carry its own unnerving impact, but she also worked extensively with her lead actor Sheila Vand to discover the corporeality and state of mind that would deepen this portrayal of an ancient soul.

"Every single detail of an actor's physicality not only tells the story to the audience, but gives them who that person is," says Amirpour. "To me, vampires are cats, so we watched a lot of big cat videos. Their perception of everything is super-heightened. Even if they look relaxed, they know who's 30 yards behind and to the right. So it was a catlike physicality, and then mentally, we talked about old people, who are economical with their expressions. They don't waste energy. So Sheila spent time with her grandma, and realized, old ladies just take everybody in and look at them like they're fools."

Ultimately, though, Amirpour wanted to make sure she preserved Vand's own unique qualities as her haunted star. "Sheila's got a strangeness—a beautiful, ancient quality to her beauty, and these insane eyes. Hey, I wrote the part for her."

When it came to the orbit of actors around Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out, Jordan Peele recognized he needed a cast adept at outer and inner layers, be they disarming and cagey, or accommodating and hollow. "What I found, for this movie, was that every character has a duality at play," Peele remarked in February at the DGA's 2018 Meet the Nominees symposium. "So the thing I was looking for out of every performer was that they possessed both sides of that duality."

(Top) Jordan Peele says "the sunken place," as experienced by Daniel Kaluuya's character in Get Out, is both a metaphor for the systemic ostracizing of blacks as well as a recognizable trope for horror fans; (Bottom) Director Andy Muschietti, on the set of It, says he encouraged experimentation in Bill Skarsgård's approach to Pennywise the clown: "Human performance is unbeatable," he asserts. (Photos: (Clockwise from top left) Everett; Justin Lubin/Universal Pictures; Photofest; Everett)

Ingenuity on a Budget

Though the scheduling realities of indie filmmaking didn't give Peele much time to get what he needed from his actors, he made sure that wasn't the vibe on set. "We did this movie in 23 days. We had no time. But the whole illusion that I like to present to actors is we have all the time in the world to get this right. And none of this other shit means anything if we don't get this moment right."

That goodwill toward colleagues in the service of securing a vision can often pay dividends for a director in pressurized circumstances. When Krasinski was mere weeks from turning in the final cut of A Quiet Place, he realized how to fix the problem of providing a perspective for his blind, marauding monsters without the kind of POV angle reserved for beings with sight: he needed insert shots of grotesquely oversized, pulsating ear canals. When he called Farrar at ILM and told him his idea, Krasinski was upfront about the fact that there was no money left in the budget.

"Scott said, 'It doesn't matter. It makes it better, so we're gonna do it,'" recalls Krasinski. "I'll never forget that moment. It was very inspiring, because it was about the beauty of people who love film."

Other times, a director's ingenuity can provide a shield against possible creative interference later. Already imagining the resistance he might get from the first scene of It, when a 6 year old crawls away from his first encounter with Pennywise, missing an arm, Muschietti deliberately avoided getting shots that didn't include that graphic element. "If I'd shot that coverage, and someone said, 'Oh it's too violent, we have to edit it a different way,' I'd be in trouble. So I made sure I didn't have the coverage!"

(Top) Ana Lily Amirpour, on the set of The Bad Batch, gained fame for her B&W vampire thriller, A Girl Walks Home at Night; (Bottom) James DeMonaco, on the set of The Purge: Election Year, appreciates the jittery intensity of handheld camera work. (Photos: (Clockwise from top left) Everett; Courtesy of Ana Lily Amirpour; Photofest; Everett)

Maximizing a Sense of Dread

Ultimately, Muschietti wanted the most nakedly violent scene to occur at the beginning, to prep the audience for the tension to follow. "You have to establish the lethal power of this monster, that he can kill a 6-year-old child in a gruesome way, so the weight of that, the dread, lives for the rest of the movie in the audience's mind."

A horror audience may be primed to be scared, but a director's job is to lay the groundwork for what kind of fear is in play. Get Out starts with a fluidly apprehensive Steadicam shot following Lakeith Stanfield walking, lost, in a ritzy suburb, because Peele sought a particular feeling, and a promise that being in the wrong place would be the predominant emotion.

"It became important for the audience to be immersed in the experience of being a black man walking down the street in a white neighborhood," Peele explained at the DGA symposium. "I felt that if we could start there, the audience would receive that promise, and from that point forward know that race is the monster we're fearing." Every scene afterward, he explained, would then be colored with the terror of something lying in wait. Peele added, "You're never going to beat the imagination of the audience."

When Alvarez was shooting Don't Breathe, he also liked the idea of foreshadowing his movie's nail-biting set pieces early on. It's the storytelling adage Hitchcock lived by: Show the bomb under the table, and the audience will anticipate its detonation with relish. Alvarez's idea was a virtuosic tracking shot of the young thieves' hushed break-in that isolates various objects and house features—from a locked door to a gun under a bed—that our tiptoeing protagonists wouldn't be expected to notice.

"You don't know what's going to happen, but you have all the elements," explains Alvarez, who dreamed up the shot over lunch on set, then designed it using his phone before showing it to his Steadicam operator. "It's like one of those cooking shows, where the chef shows all the ingredients on the table. 'We're gonna need a bit of this, some of this, a hammer, a gun, a blind guy and three burglars.' There's a sense of fun in the audience wondering all the time, how will that element come into play?"

In his haunted house oeuvre—which includes the Conjuring and Insidious films—Wan, on the other hand, relies on establishing comfort in order to disturb it. It begins with mundane, relatable daytime scenes, shot with wide lenses, that are intended to familiarize moviegoers with the house's geography. "Create a space we understand as home, then you can bring in the mood, tension and weird things that make it uncomfortable," says Wan. "If you get a sense of how a space flows, then in the evening, during your scare scenes, the audience knows enough that you can twist things around a bit."

If a character is looking around, Wan likes the camera to be behind the actor, so that the viewer is inclined to search the frame, wondering where threats lurk. More often than not, Wan eschews payoffs. "I think getting the tease is more important than whatever jumps out at you," he says. "Not quite knowing what's just beyond your periphery is scary, I think, and when nothing comes out of the darkness, it keeps you on edge."

Early in Bird Box, viewers witness the story's world-defining event on a local level when an entire town of people, after seeing an unknown force, turn into a suicidal mob around two sisters played by Sandra Bullock and Sarah Paulson, starting with a hospital visit and ending with a car crash. Pushing against the usual apocalypse scene in which a protagonist's escape is conveyed with manic intensity, Susanne Bier felt it would be more eerily palpable if Bullock and Paulson tried to be as cool as possible as they drive through chaos. And yet it also sets up the movie's central fear: how to deal with the possibility that someone close to you is going to turn into an extremist?

"The directorial caption for that sequence was 'Let's maintain the illusion that everything is normal as long as possible,'" says Bier, who keeps much of the citizenry's self-destructive insanity—cars darting into traffic, people fighting each other, others running from them—visible through windshields as Bullock and Paulson put on their best nonreactive front. "You cling to that as long as possible because I think it's very real. In a lot of chaos, it's interesting when somebody is quiet, or paralyzed. It's always about contrasts."

(Top) Fede Alvarez, directing Don't Breathe, likes the idea of foreshadowing his movie's nail-biting set pieces early on; (Bottom) For the upcoming Halloween reboot with Jamie Lee Curtis, David Gordon Green channeled the spirit of the franchise's original horror master John Carpenter. (Photos: (Clockwise from top left) Photofest (2); Ryan Green/Universal Pictures; Photofest)

Establishing Tone via Light and Sound

First scenes play their part in horror, but so do key creative choices about a movie's camera style, look or sound design. Amirpour's dreamlike black-and-white cinematography in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was inspired not so much by monochromatic old Hollywood movies but the surreal, smoke-filled vibe of Francis Ford Coppola's Rumble Fish. "In that movie it's trancelike, so I wanted that kind of urban, small-town, weird and grimy fairy tale."

In horror there are arguments for both shooting on film and for going digital. Krasinski chose celluloid to keep with the nostalgic feeling of "anywhere, anytime America" enhanced by his movie's rural, farm-with-a-cornfield setting. "It's more work, lighting perfectly for film," Krasinski says, "but you get more interesting blacks, and we got to play with light on film."

Wan's ghosts-and-gothic movies are no less throwback in tone, but starting with Insidious he opted for digital. "I like it because I can work with really low light," says Wan. "I can shoot dimly rather than flood a shot with light to get a dim look, and that really helps put an actor in the zone. They don't have to pretend it's dark when it's not." Later, in post, he'll darken a space's corners, but never completely to black. "Having the slightest hint of something in the darkness makes your eye reach into it more, and that's far scarier."

David Gordon Green has spent the past year channeling the indie-horror spirit of genre master John Carpenter for the new Halloween sequel, set in the same universe as the 1978 original, but 40 years later. (The legendary director is even collaborating with Green on the new film's score.) He's come to realize that Carpenter's classic style—including a groundbreaking use of POV Steadicam in the original's opening scene—has plenty to teach filmmakers eager to traffic in the disreputably fun simplicity of a bad person with a big knife in a moonlit suburb.

"It's about patience and trust in the audience," says Green, whose game plan was to honor Carpenter's technique wherever possible. "What I like about him is you can sit back in a composition and find the horror, rather than always have it jump out at you. He could be across the street with the camera watching (villain) Michael (Myers) carry a body around a yard, and the camera's just sitting still. He's got a simple musical rhythm that gives you a pace that jump-starts your heartbeat, then carries you into some eerie atmospheres."

James DeMonaco, another Carpenter fan (Escape From New York was a huge influence on him), immersed himself in the jittery intensity of handheld camerawork for the Purge films. "I wanted a vérité, docudrama feel," he says of the films' mix of horror and action—until he reached the bone-chilling church scene in the third film, The Purge: Election Night, in which ritual murder is given a gruesomely religious sheen. The stillness made for an unnerving break in the movies' style.

"We really wanted to play that solemn feeling, something haunting, so we went off the handheld," says DeMonaco. "I looked at the old Hammer films, because I wanted to capture that European gothic. I think it's the most disturbing sequence in any of the movies, because the fun had gone out of the Purge. It was a good place to get to."

In both A Quiet Place and Don't Breathe, sound design fueled the horror by heightening sound's absence, and a noise's dangerous consequences for each film's terrorized-by-the-blind protagonists. "Your body is bracing for impact all the time," says Fede Alvarez about his movie's sound MO, which was to enhance every key sound—stepping on glass, for instance—to make it unbearably loud. "It puts the audience in this ultra-alert state, where your body is bracing for impact all the time. There are probably eight or 10 gunshots in the movie, and each one counts because it's so loud. It represents deafening reality, so it was crucial to that tension."

Horror may never entirely shake its reputation as a disreputable genre—something best left for date nights, hardly suitable for mixed company. That's okay, says Wan, because people trying to scare each other around campfires will never lose its appeal, nor its appeal to directors who want to flex their aesthetic muscles. Wan sees no "hot trend," just belated recognition, and growing popularity.

"I think it's great that the genre that for the longest time has been seen as the bastard stepchild is now getting its moment in the light," says Wan. "It puts a smile on my face."


The Art at the Heart of Friedkin's The Exorcist

Director William Friedkin on set. (Photo: DGA Archive)

When William Friedkin and author/producer William Peter Blatty were making The Exorcist, says the director, their mission was to tell their supernatural-in-the-real-world story as vividly as possible. Genre fealty wasn't even on their minds. "We never spoke about 'a horror film,'" says Friedkin. "Not once. Not ever. Not how we were going to scare them. We knew it was going to be disturbing. I don't tend to label stuff. Psycho is a terrifying piece of filmmaking, as is Alien and Diabolique, but they've got a lot more on their mind than just the scares. And the works that inspired so many [scary] films? Bram Stoker's novel Dracula is literature. As was Frankenstein."

Now, of course, The Exorcist is considered a horror masterpiece, but in its bones is a heartfelt drama of a priest's wavering faith, and a mother's parenting crisis. When Friedkin orchestrated Max von Sydow's iconically silhouetted arrival to the house on Prospect Street in Georgetown—that street lamp was added by the production—the director wasn't thinking about horror lighting. He had in mind a stunning painting by René Magritte, The Empire of Light, in which night and day co-exist, somehow realistically. "Audiences react to that shot: They go 'Aaaah!' But when they do, they're reacting to a work of art."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on feature films.

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The latest DGA Quarterly features a focus on independent film, including our cover story on Horror's Resurgence, the DGA Interview featuring director Richard Linklater, and more!