What Makes for a Great Film 

The Art of Showing in Horror Movies  


Gabrielle Bossart, Reporter

Why is it so difficult to make a “good” horror movie? Plenty of things in life are scary and even terrifying, so why are successful horror movies hard to come by? While ideas for great films are certainly abundant, the issue is in the execution. It is extremely difficult to create a compelling narrative for horror movies, and the time constraint does not help. Filmmakers have very little time, really only two hours, to develop characters, explain their motives and personalities, and craft a plot that is strong enough to create fear in the viewer. It can be done though, and its successful creation amounts to the art of showing, not telling.   

A compelling film respects the intelligence of its viewer. This means that it does not feel the need to explain every detail of the plot or decision of the characters. An engaging film will allow the viewer to form hypotheses, consider motives, parse out personalities, and predict outcomes. Through artfully done shots and context clues, viewers should be able to understand the character’s decisions and justify them based on what they know about the character’s personality even if they do not agree with them. Creating interesting and well-rounded characters is the first step to creating a compelling horror movie. What typically happens in bad horror movies, and in films in general, is that not enough organic character development is accomplished, leaving the film with empty characters that audiences cannot relate to or simply dislike. If the audience does not care about the character because they do not feel connected to them, then whatever happens to them will not matter either. People like to have someone to root for. In horror movies, this person is usually the hero of the story or the underdog taking on the elusive and powerful villain in a quest to survive until the end. We want them to win because if they do, then we could too.  

For a case study, let us examine the new horror movie, Barbarian. This recently released horror film is an example of simply fantastic storytelling with a positively horrific premise. Barbarian does what a lot of films fail to do – it is committed to simply showing the viewer details, giving them the pieces and letting them solve the puzzle. The character development is strong in that each main character’s nature is developed and logical. The decisions they make further into the film, though perhaps not the most intelligent, make perfect sense in regard to the nature of their personalities that have been revealed to us through their past actions. In this way, their choices are incredibly realistic, adding a layer of depth to the movie that other films struggle to achieve.   

Let us look at the main character, Tess. She is a relatable modern-day woman. She works hard, she is capable, and she is appropriately attentive to her surroundings. The film does not say these things to you outright. No friend calls Tess to tell her she is too careful and needs to live a little. She does not come out and tell the other characters in the film that she is cautious and intelligent. You discover this for yourself based on carefully placed and well thought out shots in the movie. When Tess arrives at her AirBnB to find it already occupied by a stranger claiming they had booked the place through another service, you get to see her cautious nature firsthand. If you are paying attention, you will notice that she makes a point to always lock the door behind her immediately after entering a room. She does not drink the tea offered to her when she has not witnessed it being made. She keeps her phone on her and even takes a picture of the license of the man claiming to have also booked the house. She asks to see the confirmation email that the stranger has also booked the home. She does not go down the dark, creepy hallway when locked in the basement, saying blatantly, “nope.” The audience is simply shown these small details throughout the film, but they all say things about Tess and her nature, allowing the viewer to draw conclusions about her personality and how she would handle certain situations. This plays an important role later on, when she uses her intelligence, keen observation skills, and protective intuition to understand what is going on in the creepy basement caverns and to survive the ordeal.  

The complete opposite is seen in her counterpart, AJ. AJ is not observant, has low emotional intelligence, no situational awareness, and seemingly no survival instincts. We understand through his short backstory that he is poor at reading social cues, selfish, and only concerned with how his immediate environment and the people in it can serve him. As an example, when AJ, who happens to be the owner of the AirBnB house, arrives at the home in order to see about selling it to get him out of some financial difficulty, his actions make complete sense. Whereas Tess was horrified at discovering the secret caverns below and ponders what terrible events might have happened there; AJ is not even phased. In a completely opposite reaction, we witness him begin to measure the square footage of the space, unconcerned with all the typical signs of foul play and captivity that literally litter the walls and basement space. While this reaction is entirely on the other end of Tess’s, it is a completely realistic example of his behavior, based on what we have been shown about his nature. The film shows us Tess’s and AJ’s behavior in a way that justifies the later scenes of the movie where the characters are put to the test.   

In addition to strong character development, Barbarian leaves the real monster of the movie up to the interpretation of the viewer. The original threat, when pondered, cannot be held completely responsible for its actions as ignorance and appalling circumstances define its life. The real threat could be interpreted as the very nature of man and the evil that he is capable of carrying out. There are several monsters in this film, and one gets the sense when watching that the filmmakers are inviting the audience to consider how much they really know about the people in their lives. After all, how well do we really know our neighbors?   

Overall, Barbarian is a great example of a horror movie done well. The plot is insane and certainly not for the faint of heart, but the storytelling is exceptional. This movie, like other great horror movies, seeks to form a conversation with the viewer. It extends an invitation to draw out its secrets, put together its clues, and gain meaning from its subtle details. The strong character building and the complexity of the plot in this film adds an additional entertaining aspect. Because the viewer gets to understand the nature of each character’s personality, they can begin to guess how the story will play out. In the end, the viewer either gets the satisfaction of having successfully played detective or the pleasure of being surprised by an unexpected, but still likely, outcome. Either way, these aspects make for a film that is memorable, fun to watch, and creatively accomplished. 


Gabrielle Bossart is a Dakota Student Reporter. She can be reached at [email protected].