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Monica Valentinelli

Taking a Bite Out of Horror: A Guide to Reviewing Horror Films Like the Pros

Posted on January 7, 2007 by Monica Valentinelli

Written by Kristin Battestella
Additional Writing by Monica Valentinelli

Introduction

Horror-genre lovers (like you and me) can’t resist sharing our love of the macabre. If we tell our friends about a dog of a film, they probably won’t go to see it. How then do we write a film review that finds the happy medium between gushing over the latest hit and bashing that worthless dud?

Whether you’re writing for print or online media, film reviews typically address certain topics like; the grading system, what you liked and didn’t like, who made the film, who stars in it, and whether or not you would recommend the movie to others. Genre reviews should contain these standards, of course, but when it comes to a horror movie, there are several more pieces of essential criteria that can help flesh out your review.

Fear Factor and Gut-Wrenching Emotions

If you don’t discuss fear in a horror review, you probably shouldn’t be a horror reviewer. Most fans want to know what “type” of horror movie they’re going to see, so if the film was unintentionally funny and didn’t scare you one iota, say so. However, if you are a big, macho guy and the movie terrified you into crying like there’s no tomorrow, you should include this in your commentary because the horror genre isn’t only about fear—it’s about the entire emotional gamut. The “best” in horror films don’t just terrify you—they pump your heart and send you on a roller coaster ride. Take the classic film, The Exorcist, for example. Fans, both new and old, never grow out of the terror spawned from Blatty’s book and movie. Society’s fear of the devil (as well as some pretty morally-shocking scenes), is enough to give any horror film the upper hand, but The Exorcist succeeds because we care about the family involved. Most films (unless they are only about the slash-and-gore) are made this way. As a reviewer, tell us about the ups and downs in this movie—we want to know both.

SFX and the Gore Factor

Old-fashioned horror movies have no effects at all, except for tricks of the camera, special lighting, and some heavy makeup. In today’s age, however, if you’re writing about horror films, most movies have some kind of special effects that warrant a paragraph or two in your review. If the director doesn’t use any, like in The Blair Witch Project, if the effects are so low-budget it takes away from the film, or if they are the best thing you’ve seen since the first time you saw The Matrix, by all means say so. Remember, though, that the movie is more than just computer-generated imagery and blue screens. Be a stickler for sets, costumes, and props because realistic blood splatter does matter! So if that axe is obviously made of rubber, mention that because, like most fans, some of those details can take away from an otherwise decent movie.

The amount of gore in a horror film can often sway fans one way or the other. Silly deaths, cliché murders, unrealistic stunts and high body counts–if there is too little (or too much) blood and the sight of it suffocates an otherwise great plot, include that in your review. We love to watch horror films, but since there are so many sub-genres, writing about the hack-and-slash factor is essential.

Plot Twists and Common Myths

To many purists and fans, plot is more important than how amazingly visual a film is. If the plot is silly or has hokey dialogue, a lot of people will turn off their TV or walk out of a theatre, no matter how perfect the special effects are. Pay close attention; see if you can find the back stories for the characters or the plot. Can you figure out why that poltergeist is sticking around? Are you sure you know why zombies are coming back to life? Within the horror genre, there are lots of ghosts, ghouls, vampires, and demonic myths out there. Take vampires for example. There are classic films like Fright Night, and then there are newer films like John Carpenter’s Vampires: Los Muertos. How does the film you’re reviewing compare to other films? Is there a decent vampire creation myth? Or is it so unbelievable it’s “too” inventive?

Most horror movies have a plot twist that leaves you breathless. Whether or not you include “the twist” in your review is totally up to you—sooner or later the surprise ending is going to leak out to the fans. So when you are commenting on it, write about whether or not the plot twist works or if it felt like it was just some cheesy add-on.

Playing the Right Part

You might not think characters, the actors who play them, or how the director presents his film matter as much as some of the other elements we’ve discussed, but maybe, just maybe, they’re the most important. As part of the audience, we need to root for the good guy, we want him to survive at the end. Likewise, we should “love to hate” the bad guys or truly fear the villain and dread the nightmares of his evil deeds. If an actor is miscast or just doesn’t feel right wearing his character’s shoes, a horror film will fall apart. Don’t get sucked in by a famous name; some actors are better in sappy dramas and comedies than in a thriller. Cite the actresses’ credentials, but don’t base her performance on another work. For example, Freddy Krueger actor, Robert Englund, played the benign alien visitor Willie in V, and the quintessential jedi, actor Mark Hamill jumpstarted his voice acting career by lending his talents for the popular villain, The Joker, in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. One of the worst assumptions you, as a reviewer, can make is to also assume an unknown “name” can’t act. Many directors, like Joss Whedon, prefer casting unknown actors so that we see a familiar character with fresh eyes. Be objective; your readers will appreciate your review more.

International Screams

One thing that many of us reviewers are seeing a lot more of these days, are re-released films produced outside of the U.S. Nightwatch, The Descent, The Grudge, and Dog Soldiers, are just a few films we have the pleasure (or the horror) of seeing here in the states. Cultural influences should not sway your review because horror fans exist all over the world; we’ll continue to see a rise in European and Asian film releases over the next, few years. To get around potential cultural pitfalls, be upfront about the film’s origin and cultural innuendos that you may not understand but someone else might. If the American is woefully out of place in a British film or if the gore in a Japanese original is too much, share that with your readers as your opinion. There are many differences between the world’s cultures, and there’s nothing worse than a film that gets trashed because someone just doesn’t “get it.” One example of this is The Grudge. Did you know that American ghosts are vastly different from wraiths in Asia because they’re based on different religious and cultural beliefs?

From the Director

Anybody with a camera can make a horror movie, but the genius of a tried-and-true director can enhance and redefine the genre. Look for unusual shots and camera angles or carefully choreographed fight sequences. Sometimes lighting techniques are lost, due to modern editing processes, but make a note of what might be lurking in the shadows. How dark does the picture look? Too dark to see who is who? Or is it just dark enough for you to see the big, bad werewolf’s eyes? The director sets the atmosphere and places everything within the setting to his liking, so tell your reader if the film was a job well done.

Yet Another Sequel and the Right Audience

Many horror films are either remakes or sequels to an original and have been very popular, both in Hollywood and abroad. You should definitely comment on where the film is in a series or if it’s a modernized version of classic films like The Omen. Sometimes, a movie you’re watching will make you feel like there might be enough loose ends left for a sequel. Sadly, some sequels are better than the original, and you should definitely mention if what you’re watching is better in comparison. If you can, review both the sequel and the original and reference them both. Compare the pros and cons of each version and form an opinion on which does “the horror” best, and stays true to the film’s intended storyline.

While some fans watch “horror for horror’s sake,” others might enjoy a complex thriller or a serious story based on a psychological threat. Your review should explain the film’s target audience. Remember that not all fans like sex, guts, and rock-n-roll. If the movie is a blood fest, the film will probably not appeal to fans that love scary ghost stories. You can easily figure out which audience the film is for based on some of the elements we’ve discussed.

Reviewing On Location

Where you’ve seen the film is an important aspect of your movie-watching experience. If you are reviewing from the theater, set the scene in your review for your readers. What types of people are sitting in the auditorium? Where there any kids? Did they cry? Did anyone run out screaming or walk out in disgust? One of the ways you can make your review more personal is to write about why you went to see the film. If you went to see the film because you were on a date or simply because you love every one of George Romero’s movies, include that nugget of information as your personal touch.

These days, most films have a three-to-four month turnaround from the theater to DVD. Even then, we’re seeing the release of a regular DVD, the special edition DVD, and the Director’s Cut DVD. If you’re reviewing one of these, be very specific which release you are writing about. Be sure to watch the behind-the-scenes features and extras if there are any. Add your thoughts if you find that the alternate scenes are better (or worse) than what’s in the film. Include your comments about the “making of” highlights or the crafty anecdotes from the director and/or cast in the “commentary” option. Be mindful of packaging, graphics, and price. Is the DVD in a cool set or plain box? Are the menus easy to navigate on your TV or PC? Is the film worth your time and money?

Conclusion

Whenever you’re writing a review, remember that your personal opinion isn’t the only thing we want to read about. Take inspiration from the topics we’ve covered and write down all your thoughts and perceptions on the pros and cons of a film. It’s tough to take a pen or paper to a theater, so practice being an objective observer and make mental notes when you’re in your plush chair. Learning to write good reviews is a process, and many of the “great” reviewers out there got better simply by writing more of them. After you’ve outlined your thoughts, put them in the order you want your reader to read. Will you go through the film point by point? Put all the bad first? Alternate between pros and cons? Stick to your outline and make sure you support what you say with examples. This review is your opportunity to let your voice be heard. Regardless of what your reviewing style is, the key to writing excellent reviews is to sound like you know what you’re talking about by balancing your opinion with your observations in the review. Sometimes, it does help to have someone else read your writing to ensure your words flow well, and you’ve covered the basics of grammar and spelling. If you can’t find someone to read it, see if the media you’re writing for will help you edit it or simply, read it out loud.

Feel like you’re ready to tackle your horror movie review? Grab your notepad and start jotting down notes. We can’t wait to read all about it!

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