Guillermo Del Toro’s Golden Rules of Horror (2006)

(Originally published in Hotdog, January 2006)

From the offbeat vampirism of his debut film Cronos to the comic-book action of Hellboy, there’s few directors alive as passionate about horror as Mexico’s own Guillermo Del Toro. Here, he explains his most important pointers for any wannabe horror filmmakers.

1: Make sure it’s not for everybody.
It’s important not to make a horror movie into wholesome entertainment, and one effect of this is that you’ll lose some of your audience. In almost everything I’ve done, I try to have at least one “walk-out” scene– like in Cronos, where the main character licks a puddle of blood from the bathroom floor. They’re scenes where anyone who’s not with the movie will probably leave the theatre, either physically or mentally. Shocking the audience may be dangerous, but sometimes, you’ve just got to take out a hostage and shoot them in the head, so they know you’re not kidding.

2: Know the Classics.
It’s currently hip to be post-modern and tongue-in-cheek about our genre, but I’m absolutely a romantic when it comes to horror. My movies, even when they’re reflections on the genre, are done with absolute respect and admiration for whatever preceded them. I love paying homage to the true masters of horror like Mario Bava, Terrence Fisher or James Whale, and even if you’re going to be iconoclastic about it, it’s important that you should know what preceeded you.

3: The biggest special effect in a movie is the Actors
If you watch any of the versions of King Kong, what’s most important is how the actors react to Kong. You can have the best special effects in the world, but if the actors aren’t convincing, the audience won’t buy it. When I’m casting, I try to look for a sense of vulnerability, even if it’s someone who’s tough physically like Ron Perlman- you need to believe their reactions, and be able to relate to them.

4: Be afraid of yourself
If something makes you queasy or if you’re afraid to show something onscreen– go ahead and show it. When your instinct is to be repelled or scared by it, there’ll be people who react just as strongly. It’s like writing comedy, where the first person you want to make laugh is yourself. Most of the “walk-out” scenes I’ve done were things that made me nervous, personally, and that was what made me want to do them. Films are about provoking an emotion- and if you feel something when you come up with the idea, than that emotion will go all the way through to the audience.

6: It’s not about the scares
People tend to be confounded by this, and they say, for example, “I saw Devil’s Backbone, it’s not that scary.” And I say, it doesn’t matter- you can watch a Woody Allen film and it doesn’t have to be laugh-out-loud funny. To me, it’s the difference between a wave and humidity. A shock moment is like a wave- it hits you frontally, and causes some damage, but it goes away quickly, and then you’re swimming along. The other type of horror, which I think is much more effective, is like humidity, where it’s all around you, almost undetectable at first. It seeps in very slowly, but it’s much more permanent.

7: Love your Monsters.
One of those easy sound-bites that people quote about horror is “Less is More”, and I always squirm at that. It really depends on the film, and there are a lot of horror movies which actually work by the rule that “Less is more– until you give them more”. Horror is like bluffing when you’re playing poker, and at some point you’ve got to have four aces. You can’t bluff the whole game, and part of that philosophy requires you to love your monsters. When you show them, the first person who’s got to be turned on and giggling about showing that creature has to be you.

8: Find the Beauty in Horror
At the end of the day, Horror is the offspring of fairy tales, and you need to find the fairy tale element in the horror story you’re trying to tell, that sense of almost child-like amazement, poetry and beauty. It’s all the same, even if you’re trying to do something like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which is brutal, sordid and violent– and yet, there are moments of strange beauty in it. It’s what the French used to call “Graveyard Poetry”, and it’s something every horror movie should at least aspire to.