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The Sounds of Horror
by Patrick Storck

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We've covered the look of horror, we've covered the timing, and since we can't feel, taste, or smell most horror movies now that the William Castle methods are so hard to accomplish, we just need to understand the sound of horror.

I've said it more than a few times. Sound is the easiest thing to overlook on a movie that can completely ruin the final product. If you can go in knowing what you want the sound output to be, you'll be better off. If you don't know a lot about sound recording, separation, levels, tone, and the like just ask around. Check with friends in bands. If they don't have some equipment, boards, microphones, and cables laying around for their own projects, they almost certainly know someone who does. Musicians operate entirely in sound and will be much more adept at getting you the best elements for post-production. On set what you see is what you get to a pretty strong degree, but what you hear can be absolutely different.

The first element you should consider is the overall tone. Horror has a lot of opportunity for dialogue-free sequences. People explore places alone. Long establishing shots, tracking shots, or just actions that don't need witty banter all take time on screen. An instinct to fight upon shooting, capturing, and putting together that first rough cut is to rush some atmospheric sequences because they don't play well. You forget that the sound effects of distant footsteps, leaves rustling, water dripping, and the music you'll be adding, all add to the pace and rhythm of the scene.

Figure out how long you want a scene to take. Is it a slow sequence? Do you want the moment to linger? If you have a piece of music you think is similar to what you want for the bit, and there isn't any dialogue, go ahead and play it on set. Time the bit out with a stopwatch. If it's slow or fast, pleasant or somber, it can remind you to take your time.

On set recording of dialogue, room tone, and effects and other noises is always worth doing if you have the means. Still, with horror films you have the same freedom of logic and style in sound as you do in visuals. If something is louder or quieter than it rationally would be, the audience will generally follow you with it. A chain saw can be deafening, a bone crack like a gun shot. Somebody clearly stalking through the woods might not make a sound at all if it serves the moment. Maybe you even crank up the victim's footsteps just a little more for contrast. Record sound on set, but also try to get foley sound of every noise element for the scene on a separate track for playing later.

Every sound can be separated and tweaked. Look at every bit of noise, or on-screen business that might be served by some. If you think about each little bit you'll think about and understand the possible effect it could have on the audience. You'll be less likely to just dump some stock files of spaghetti being stirred, more likely to come up with something that sparks the imagination a little more. If you just go with the basics of sound as recorded in-camera, you'll lose some great chances.

The music for a horror film is extremely vital. It's also one of the most distinct styles of film score. Plenty of action, comedy, romance, historical, or fantasy films have scores that share themes, orchestral arrangements, scope, or tone with each other. Most films also use the music for transitions or big sequences, a way to give punch up or set the tone without being obtrusive. Even the best, most memorable non-horror scores tend to be bold themes for the titles, then variations of those themes under the moments or characters they tie to.

While horror also repeats themes, it does so boldly. Think of HALLOWEEN or JAWS. The score is your clue as to the nature of the scene. You hear the themes and even if nothing else is going on to indicate trouble, the music will create a Pavlovian response. A more subtly mixed score might not generate that same effect. These scores are generally fairly simple so that their repetition isn't too distracting. You want people to hear music and feel the atmosphere it provides, but you don't want them listening to it instead of paying attention to the film. It should be a hair above being evocative white noise.

You should be setting a pulse for the action, using the repetition to set a subliminal tempo. The faster the beat, the more the audience will want the characters to run or fight. The slower the beat, the more one gets a sense of something creeping up on us. It's impending doom, thunder off in the distance.

One element used in horror more than any other genre is the sting. It's that quick burst of notes when the villain pops out, the cat jumps in the window, or some other sudden action occurs intent on getting the audience to jump out of their seat. I've said before I think it's generally a cheap gag, but it does work. It works even better if you included these loud bursts to further assault the audiences senses, disorient them.

If you're not using a sound effect for something happening on screen, consider the sting or some other shot-specific little riff. The way the notes stand out may draw attention to a bit of business that might otherwise be ignored. The sound can be a clue. I've found sometimes using music for on-screen bits is more effective, while sound effects work better for off-screen business. Letting the audience see something they can't hear or vice versa is off-putting. Yes, it breaks the logic of your reality, but that can be okay if you're using it as a tool and not just doing it by mistake.

When you've compiled all of the elements, make sure to do one more thing most people don't. Cover the monitor, turn off all the lights, close the windows, and listen to the whole movie from start to finish. See if the sound creeps you out. Does the music affect you? Does your mind wander? Don't stop and make notes. Just listen straight through to let the feelings build or fail. At the end make notes, then go back and look for moments that need work.

We always hear that seeing is believing, what you see is what you get, and so forth. People think with their eyes. They visualize. What this means to you is that when it comes to their ears, they've left their guard down. Use it to your advantage.

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Other Columns
Other columns by Patrick Storck:

That Should Be In a Movie

2010: A Year We Could Make Contact

Bad Movie Christmas

Suggested Reading

Thanks again!

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Patrick Storck
Patrick hails from Baltimore, MD, where playing by the rules is frowned upon. Only average things come from playing it safe.


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If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Patrick Storck by clicking here.


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