Creating Successful Horror: James Van’s Nine Directing Tips

James Van's Nine
James Van’s Nine

To celebrate James Van’s Nine 40th birthday, the creator of “Saw,” “Insidious” and “The Conjuring” shares a portion of the director’s principles that will be particularly useful if you’re going to make a horror movie.

1. Horror isn’t necessarily expensive.

If you can’t scare the viewer with a modest budget, then you’re likely not to succeed in the genre of horror. Restrictions must fuel your ingenuity, which is the key skill of any horror movie director. A unique feature of the genre – you can achieve a great effect in it with small means like mockups (poster mockup), or sounds. The squeaky door alone can give you the creeps of goosebumps on your back. But the squeak of the door is not worth it at all. 

 2. The real horror is in the sound, not in the image.

A thing I never tire of repeating. The best horror movies don’t make the visuals scary, but the sound, the acoustics of the frame. It’s through sound design that it’s best and most effective to threaten your character. 

 3. Work with the imagination of the viewer.

Follow Alfred Hitchcock’s credo to let the viewer’s imagination work. Remember that the suspense is waiting for the action, not revealing it.

 4. Call upon primitive fears

The task of frightening the viewer in one way or another is reduced to addressing the ancient human fears. As we grow up, each of us faces all possible types of these fears. One of them is the basis of the movie “And the light goes out…” In it, we work with the classic fear of so many people – the fear of darkness. 

 5. Deceive the viewer

The modern viewer, in contrast to the viewer of previous epochs, perfectly shaken in the language of the genre of horror, because cinema has become easily accessible, and the number of films is huge. Under these conditions, your job as a director is to constantly surprise the viewer. It’s the only way you can keep the viewer’s attention. If the audience is waiting for something to happen, think about how you can fool their expectations. I always try to find something that will surprise me.  

 6. Turn over the genre canons of horror

Take classic horror movie techniques and use them unexpectedly to find your way. In the case of “Insidious”, we wanted to make “the story of the haunted house”, but only so that it wasn’t a traditional “story of the haunted house”. And “Saw” was conceived as a chamber thriller, but one that wasn’t like the other indie films of this genre. 

 7. Create memorable peaks

A film must have particularly bright, memorable episodes. Episodes that are so powerful that it is their people who discuss them when they come to work the day after watching your film.  

 8. Take responsibility

The experience of “Saws” sequels taught me something. I didn’t shoot any of the sequels, but a lot of people thought that I was their director. So “The Conjuring 2” I decided to shoot myself: “If someone will scold me for the franchise, at least I’ll really be responsible for it. In addition, if the sequels to “Saw” turned in the wrong direction as I would like, then “Insidious” develops exactly as I want. 

 9. Work on your own style

It’s a real irony. Although after “The Saw” I made a number of other paintings, it seems to me, more perfect and more reflective of my style, until I took off “The Conjuring“, I continued to be associated with “The Saw”. Alas, after watching this film, some people only noticed what was not so important to us – blood and guts. Because of that, I had to prove for a long time that I know how to use the tools of a horror film, know how to create suspense, and not just shocking self-harming.