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Compendium of Horror, Fear, and the Grotesque

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How to Write a Horror Movie Review

Introduction

Analyzing a horror movie for review is a rational way of looking at the movie as an art form and an entertainment medium. It’s a horror movie, so for me the entertainment value should be a given; either the movie entertains or it does not. If it fails to entertain, I won’t review the film. That leaves analyzing the movie as an art form; and since analysis is a craft that can be learned, taking a systematic approach to analysis is the most expedient way to develop your writing skills.

 

Preparation

Let’s start with the steps you should take before writing your review. If you follow these steps you will keep focused on the quality of the horror movie and not waste time trying to figure out what you want to say. Once you’ve completed this exercise and have a comfortable understanding of all the possible elements to critique, I’ll show you how to start writing your review.

Good analysis always begins with a clear definition of terms. So just think of a horror movie as consisting of two parts: the “production” and the “film.”  

Step 1: Review the key elements that make up the production


“Production” involves two groups of individuals working as a team; film crew and actors. The film crew generally consists of the following roles and responsibilities:

  • Producer—chief executive officer of the entire production; the “vision” advocate
  • Director—responsible for all creative control of the film; “vision” executor
  • Writer—responsible for writing the screenplay or the story
  • Production Designer—manages art, set, special effects, costumes, and make-up
  • Director of Photography—manages all the visuals (cinematographer)
  • Sound Director—manages all sounds, including foley
  • Film Editor—manages editing and sequencing

Since movie making is a team effort, success of the film depends on how well the actors and film crew work together under the leadership of the Director. Though the Producer is traditionally the individual with the overall “vision” for the film and who maintains absolute control over production, it is the Director who is often featured as the individual with the “creative” control. The rest of the film crew and the actors defer to the Director’s creative vision in exercising their individual crafts.

Step 2: Review the key elements that make up the film


“Film” is the completed movie that we watch on the screen. It consists of a story within a setting populated by characters journeying through the story’s timeline. Just like a novel or a short story the horror movie has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The key elements of the film are:

  • Character—the people or beings portrayed by the actors
  • Setting—the location, time, and mood of the action (visual and auditory)
  • Story Line—the plot or sequence of events leading to a resolution or climax (the story can be conveyed through narrative, dialogue, or action)
  • Point of View—the perspective from which a scene or the entire movie is viewed (point of view basically is how the viewer learns the “truth” of the story)
  • Theme—the controlling concept or overall message of the film (what evokes the horror)

Step 3: Identify each of the production and film elements in your horror movie


This step is as simple as jotting down the names of the film crew and actors and then making a list to identify the characters, setting, and other elements of the finished movie. Following these steps before you begin writing a review not only clarifies the concrete elements of the film, but it narrows your focus and helps you identify the controlling concept (comparable to a thesis statement in a term paper) of your review.

Why is narrowing your focus and identifying your controlling concept so important? Because a movie review must be short, concise, clear, and convincing. Whether your review is intended to promote the movie or to pan it, it must convince your reader that your perspective is reasonable and your judgment is sound. I’ve included a Key Horror Movie Elements template to get you started. All you have to do is jot down the name of your horror movie at the top, identify each element, and write any comments or observations you have about each. You may decide you have nothing to say about some of the elements and that is OK. If you can’t identify any of the elements from memory, go to http://www.IMDB.com and get the information. It is your responsibility as a movie reviewer to research the information and at least be cognizant of the elements in your horror movie.

Step 4: Quiz yourself on the effectiveness of your horror movie

Asking yourself a series of questions about the movie based on your knowledge of the elements tells you what to write about. I’ve supplied some questions for you to ponder. You don’t have to answer all of them, but the answers that come most easily to you will indicate your approach to writing the review and focus you on that topic. A horror movie is a complex group effort, so sometimes it isn’t completely clear which of the roles deserves the credit or the blame. Here is the Q&A, a list of questions with suggested roles in parentheses to help you decide the strengths and weaknesses of your horror movie [printable copy of Q&A]:

Theme:

·        How compelling is the theme of the movie?

·        Is the premise realistic for a horror movie?

·        Is the theme original or formulaic?

Story Line:

·        How well does the story flow (Writing)?

·        Does the story unfold through narration, dialogue, action or a combination? (Writing)

·        Does the sequencing of the scenes support the story line or complicate it? (Directing)?

·        Do the scenes transition smoothly or seem arbitrary or abrupt (Editing)?

·        Is the story original or formulaic? (Writing)

·        Is the story believable within the context of the movie’s premise (Writing, Directing)?

·        Is the story timeline sequential, non-sequential, or unclear (Directing)?

Character:

·        Are the characters believable and realistic (Acting)?

·        Are the characters’ actions and placement natural (Directing)?

·        Does the performance of an actor stand out in a particular scene (Acting)?

Point of View:

·        Is the point of view of the movie through the characters (Writing)?

·        Is the point of view of the movie through the action (Cinematography, Directing)?

·        Is the point of view of the movie through a narrator (Writing)?

Setting:

·        Is the setting of the story typical for a horror movie (Directing, Production Design)?

·        Does the setting set and sustain the appropriate mood for the movie (Directing, Production Design)?

·        Does the music score support the setting and the story (Sound Direction)?

·        Does the foley fit in seamlessly and not detract from the action (Sound Direction, Foley)?

·        Is the sound level consistent or are there level changes that are appropriate for enhancing certain scenes (Sound Directing)?

·        If special effects are used, are they well constructed and effective (Production Design)?

·        Do the special effects placements add or detract from the story (Directing)

Directing:

·        Do all the elements of the horror movie work together in harmony to make the movie a perfect blend of technical and artistic qualities (Directing)?

·        If all the elements do not blend, which ones stick out and why (Directing)?

·        Does the movie as a whole elicit a response from you consistent with a natural response to witnessing something horrifying (Directing)?

The list of questions is not exhaustive. There are hundreds of questions you can ask as you review how effectively the elements of the movie are treated. But the list will give you a place to start and facilitate your job as horror movie researcher before you write your review. The more detailed your answers to the questions, the more focused and clear your review will be. You can even come up with your own questions and observations to add to the list. As long as you can answer your own questions you won’t have any trouble satisfying your audience.

Writing Your Review

I have selected the horror movie Heart of Midnight as the subject of my sample review. Here is a summary of the production and movie elements with sample commentary in red:

Key Movie Elements in:  Heart of  Midnight

Production:

My Movie Elements

My Comments and Observations

  • Producer

Andrew Gaty

No comments

  • Director

Matthew Chapman

Understands how to portray what he writes

  • Writer

Matthew Chapman

Good eye for psychological horror

  • Production Designer

Gene Rudolph

Setting consistent with gothic feel

  • Director of Photography

Ray Rivas

Visuals and camera angles enhance the gothic and insane feel of the movie

  • Sound Director

Leslie Shatz, Sound Designer; Vanessa Ament, Foley Artist

Soundtrack and foley nicely enhance the atmosphere and support the gothic feel

  • Special Effects

Guy Tuttle

Interesting and unobtrusive

  • Film Editor

Penelope Shaw

Some flaws, but generally OK

  • Actor #1

Jennifer Jason Leigh

Brilliant

  • Actor #2

Peter Coyote

Brilliant

  • Actor #3

Frank Stalone

Quirky

  • Actor #4

Denise Dumont

Excellent supporting role

  • Actor #5

Gale Mayron

Excellent supporting role

 

 

 

 

 

 

Movie:

 

 

  • Character #1

Carol Rivers

Protagonist suffering from severe psychological trauma resulting from child abuse; her view of reality within the film seems filtered through psychosis

  • Character #2

Sharpe/Larry

Appears as Det. Sharpe only because Carol says, “Tell me you’re Detective Sharpe”; later he is revealed to be uncle Fletcher’s former partner

  • Character #3

Ledray

Cop skeptically reviewing Carol’s alleged rape

  • Character #4

Mariana

Social worker trying to help Carol in her fight against the system and male chauvinist prejudice

  • Character #5

Sonny

Gender confused character hiding within the walls of the club taunting Carol until Carol discovers and confronts this character

  • Setting

Old nightclub being refurbished

Setting follows theme of classic gothic mansion with catacomb-like passages and hidden horrors where the victim is sequestered; haunting music by Yanni (reminiscent of “Tubular Bells” effect in The Exorcist) and Ethel Waters; good foley incorporation keeps viewer on edge; lighting and shadow work add to the intensity of the atmosphere

  • Story Line

Carol inherits a seedy night club from her deceased uncle. She decides to move in and refurbish it, hoping to overcome her traumatic past and start a new life

The story seems clear enough, but something is going on with the point of view that seems to suggest a separate reality

  • Point of View

Entire story from protagonist Carol’s point of view

Though the story seems to be told from Carol’s point of view, we are getting facts from other characters, camera angles, actions, and situations

  • Theme

Tagline

“Between the madness of what is real and the horror of her imagination lies the... Heart of Midnight

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are sample answers to the Q&A in red:

 Theme:

·        How compelling is the theme of the movie? Very compelling; the horror seems to come from within Carol’s mind.

·        Is the premise realistic for a horror movie? Yes. True madness and mind disintegration is the biological basis for horror.
Is the theme original or formulaic? The theme is quite original in that is uses the protagonist’s imagination to filter the viewers’ understanding of the events.


Story Line:

·        How well does the story flow (Writing)? The story flows quite well; Carol is intent on making a life for herself at the Midnight and never stops trying.

·        Does the story unfold through narration, dialogue, action or a combination (Writing)? The story unfolds through language, camera work, and action; case in point: when Carol first runs into the character played by Peter Coyote she says, “Tell me you’re Detective Sharpe” and he obeys; this character is fulfilling Carol’s wish within the story. Often the action and camera work belie what the dialogue or language suggests: the scene where Carol’s alleged rapists are congregating suggests that even though she feels they are spying on her through the window, they don’t have a clear view of her window. The alleged rape scene shows Carol always fully clothed, suggesting that the rape was imagined.

·        Does the sequencing of the scenes support the story line or complicate it (Directing)? The sequencing of the scenes deliberately complicates the story. It is the Director’s way of presenting a world viewed through psychosis.

·        Do the scenes transition smoothly or seem arbitrary or abrupt (Editing)? The scene transitions vary from smooth to abrupt; but this is part of the technique to show how some days are good and others steeped in psychosis.

·        Is the story original or formulaic (Writing)? The story is original.

·        Is the story believable within the context of the movie’s premise (Writing, Directing)? Very believable. You know that Carol is insane and that the horror is real.

·        Is the story timeline sequential, non-sequential, or unclear (Directing)? The story line moves along a continuum that demonstrates an altered reality.

Character:

·        Are the characters believable and realistic (Acting)? The main characters are believable and rounded. Some of the minor characters are two dimensional, indicating that they are the figment of Carol’s imagination.

·        Are the characters’ actions and placement natural (Directing)? Yes. In Carol’s world sanity and insanity run parallel and then intersect. The character placement supports that notion.

·        Does the performance of an actor stand out in a particular scene (Acting)? Leigh’s and Coyote’s performances are so much in sync that their characters interact like two dancers. Often when the two run into each other they actually back into one another. That is more of a Directing technique to show that the characters become aware of each other only indirectly.

Point of View:

·        Is the point of view of the movie through the characters (Writing)? The point of view comes almost exclusively from Carol’s perspective.

·        Is the point of view of the movie through the action (Cinematography, Directing)? The action and camera work often contradict Carol’s point of view.

·        Is the point of view of the movie through a narrator (Writing)? No.

Setting:

·        Is the setting of the story typical for a horror movie (Directing, Production Design)? Yes. The Midnight is comparable to the gothic “mansion” or “castle” with hidden rooms and an oppressive atmosphere.

·        Does the setting set and sustain the appropriate mood for the movie (Directing, Production Design)? Yes. The Midnight sequesters its victim in typical gothic fashion. Carol cannot escape the setting and in a sense becomes trapped in her own nightmare.

·        Does the music score support the setting and the story (Sound Direction)? Yanni’s score is perfect for this movie. Also the choice of Ethel Water’s “Baby, What Else Can I Do” might have been done to set a nostalgic mood, but it inadvertently (I can’t believe it was planned) supports the central gothic image by talking about a “mansion” with a king and queen.

·        Does the foley fit in seamlessly and not detract from the action (Sound Direction, Foley)? Yes. The foley adds to the surprise, horror, and supernatural effect very well.

·        Is the sound level consistent or are there level changes that are appropriate for enhancing certain scenes (Sound Directing)? The sound level is skillfully varied for effect when the element of surprise is required.

·        If special effects are used, are they well constructed and effective (Production Design)? The special effects are adequate and not overdone.

·        Do the special effects placements add or detract from the story (Directing)? They support the story.

Directing:

·        Do all the elements of the horror movie work together in harmony to make the movie a perfect blend of technical and artistic qualities (Directing)? Very nearly. There are a few minor technical flaws like microphones appearing in scenes, but generally well done.

·        If all the elements do not blend, which ones stick out and why (Directing)? None.

·        Does the movie as a whole elicit a response from you consistent with a natural response to witnessing something horrifying (Directing)? Yes. The ending is stunning. Throughout the movie Carol is in a foot cast (“an elephant trod upon it”). She looks angry, terrified, unhinged throughout, but at the end the cast is gone and she looks beautiful. Also throughout the film the phrase “things always come in threes” is repeated. At the end Carol and Sharpe/Larry are slow dancing to the Ethel Waters song. Sharpe is starting to answer questions for Carol that have haunted her. The final answer that Sharpe offers is the answer to the question about threes: “You wanna know what three is?”  But instead of letting the audience know the answer, he whispers it into Carol’s ear as the film ends. The look on Carol’s face encapsulates the secret meaning and exposes the horror to Carol. The audience is left with only the feeling of dread and horror, robbed of direct communication. Very much the way fear is communicated in a nightmare.

 

Now that you have the information you collected using the elements template and the Q&A, you can take your answers and organize them into a written review. The elements sheet provides you with the facts; the Q&A provides you with your opinions. Just use the information wholesale, reorganize it as needed, edit your sentences, and you’ve got your horror movie review. Here is what a sample review might look like using the information and techniques I’ve detailed.

Review of Heart of Midnight by David R. Saliba

Matthew Chapman shows his mastery of writing and directing by creating a haunting horror movie that draws on classic gothic cinema while retaining an originality all its own. Madness and mind disintegration are the biological basis of Chapman’s horror. The story opens with Carol Rivers (Jennifer Jason Leigh) leaving her mother (Brenda Vaccaro) to make a life for herself at “The Midnight,” a seedy nightclub she inherits from her dead uncle Fletcher. Carol has been battling psychological problems and convinces her mother that she has to be on her own to try to regain her mental health. Chapman expertly unfolds his story through language, camera work, and action. He uses visual metaphors to reveal information about the plot that the protagonist cannot see for herself. Even though the point of view comes almost exclusively from Carol’s perspective, Chapman subtly employs action and camera angles to contradict Carol’s point of view. When Carol and the character played by Peter Coyote meet, they back into each other. This is Chapman’s way of symbolizing for the audience something that Carol does not yet know (but that a savvy horror audience might pick up). Her unusual reaction to their surprise meeting is to demand between clenched teeth, “Tell me you’re Detective Sharpe.” Coyote’s character immediately obeys and Chapman has sequestered his audience like the classic victim in a gothic tale. Leigh’s and Coyote’s performances are so much in sync that their characters interact like two dancers. Chapman is keen on that metaphor and carries it to the final scene of the movie where he skillfully victimizes the audience for the last time.

Chapman sets up “The Midnight” as the classic gothic “mansion” with hidden rooms and an oppressive atmosphere. The Midnight sequesters its main victim, Carol, in a setting that becomes her own worst nightmare. The constant oppression of fear and confusion is enhanced by Yanni’s music score that captures the mood of entrapment and horror. The choice of Ethel Water’s “Baby, What Else Can I Do,” introduced early in the movie, might have been made for its nostalgic tone; but ironically the lyrics include a “mansion,” thus supporting the central gothic image found in all good horror stories. The sound level is skillfully varied for effect whenever the element of surprise is required. And the foley introduces surprise, horror, and supernatural effects unobtrusively.

The film’s ending is stunning. Throughout the movie Carol is in a foot cast (“an elephant trod upon it”). She looks angry, confused, terrified, unhinged throughout, but at the end of the movie the cast is off her foot and she looks reborn and beautiful. On several occasions throughout the film Carol uses the phrase, “things always come in threes,” as a petition. At the end Carol and Coyote’s character begin to slow dance to the Ethel Waters song. As they dance Coyote’s character starts to answer questions that have haunted Carol (and the audience). Coyote’s character asks Carol: “You wanna know what three is?”  But as Carol nods (apparently dreading the answer), instead of sharing the answer with the audience he whispers it into Carol’s ear; a scene reminiscent of the end in O’Connor’s “Greenleaf.” The look on Carol’s face exposes the horror of the secret. The audience is left with only the music playing, the feeling of dread and horror; robbed of a definitive answer and of any hope for salvation. Chapman’s close has the same effect on us as the fear generated by a nightmare.

Summary

I encourage you to try this approach to writing your next horror movie review. And I encourage you to start posting your reviews on www.Amazon.com or on www.IMDB.com. Once you get into the habit of following this method you’ll discover how smoothly your ideas and writing flow. Here is a quick summary of the steps I detailed earlier:

 

Step 1:   Review the key elements that make up the production

Step 2:   Review the key elements that make up the film

Step 3:   Identify each of the production and film elements in your horror movie

Step 4:   Quiz yourself on the effectiveness of your horror movie

Step 5:   Take the information you supplied in Steps 3 and 4 and organize it into a 500-1000 word review

Step 6:   Edit your new review for final presentation

Step 7:   Log on to Amazon.com or IMDB and publish your work