The video above is one of my favorite YouTube clips of all time (in case it’s not clear, that a re-cut of Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic “The Shining” as a heartfelt family comedy) – but unfortunately, 99% of horror movie trailers adhere to a different format.
What format is that, you ask? (I’m assuming you asked that.) Well luckily, I’m here to deconstruct it for you! Hit that jump sonnnnnnnnnn.
Movie Title: This is the most critical part of the trailer because you need something iconic and memorable to build the whole trailer around. You want something where the antagonist/threat/cause of zombies is identified quickly and easily, because as you’ll see eventually your video production team is lazy and worthless, so it’s best to make the job as easy on them as possible. Additionally, you will need to close out the trailer with a still shot of the title written in blood/typewriter font/mist, so it’s doubly key.
- Texas Chainsaw Massacre
- The Exorcist
- Eight Legged Freaks
- Ghost Ship
Opening Seconds: This is the most critical part of the trailer, as you need to set the horror theme right away. Luckily for you, there are dozens of different ways to do this, including:
- An excessive number of establishing shots for a creepy location (i.e. a church, a haunted house, Chuck E. Cheese)
- Some painfully normal footage of an animal acting totally normal (i.e. pacing the woods, making sound, pacing the woods while making sound)
- A little kid doing pretty much anything (i.e. being on a playground, taking a dark path somewhere, laying in a bed, putting their disgusting little hands all over the handles at a frozen yogurt store)
- A family moving into a new house with a dark history (i.e. people were murdered there, there’s a well where spirits live, it was once owned by Pauly Shore)
- Showing footage of a tragedy that has already taken place, either recently or in the distant pass (i.e. a recent traffic accident, news clip from several decades ago, someone spilling a glass of perfectly good whiskey on the floor)
Really, the world is your oyster here – the only key is that you need to revisit this section later to highlight whatever change has taken place (more on this later).
Central Theme: This is the most critical part of the trailer, as you need to set a consistently scary tone throughout the whole trailer. The question you should ask yourself is: What’s going on in your movie that’s so tense/dramatic? Has a family moved into a haunted house? Did you watch a video of a little girl and now have only seven days to live? Did you just see a boy’s father get trampled to death by a herd of gazelle?
How should you set that tone? Get a creepy little girl to sing a semi-famous song, obviously!
Seriously, it’s imperative – little kids are the creepiest things ever (“Children of the Corn”, anyone?), so getting them to sing something slowly will immediately give people chills.
Sound: This is the most critical part of the trailer, since no horror movie trailer has ever been made that didn’t give this the respect it deserves. If you want your trailer to be a success, there’s only one thing you need to know: short bursts of sound, long stretches of silence or soft music/singing. The trick is to artificially heighten the tension by putting your main characters in quiet situations – especially if that silence is prefaced with a fade out of a bass-heavy sound – and then BAM!, that silence is pierced by a loud scream or a startlingly loud noise (and typically a scream along with it, honestly). It literally doesn’t matter if your sound team knows a mixing board from a stand mixer – just get them to make as many startlingly loud noises as they can within 30 seconds and you’re in business.
Re-Establishment of Opening Seconds: Remember how in the opening seconds you established your trailer with something totally normal? Now’s the time for the most critical part of the trailer: to REALLY drop the hammer on the viewer. Due to a zombie outbreak/demonic possession/weird artifact found in an attic or whatever, suddenly:
- Your creepy location loses power and is pitch black, save for a flash of lightning or a spirit appearing
- Whatever animal you built your movie around lunges/swoops in to attack a human
- A little kid has their eyes roll back into their head and/or appear in totally pale white/dark black
- The house shows someone or something either disappearing or suddenly appearing
- A shot-for-shot re-enactment of the prior tragedy happens all over again
Your viewer isn’t retarded, mind you, but it’s still best to beat them over the head with the obviousness of the horror motif – besides, the rest of the movie is going to be nothing but filler in the form of chats with local authorities or sexy teens sexily and irresponsibly partying, so your movie needs all the help it can get.
Closing Seconds: This is the most critical part of the trailer, because it’s how you’ll leave a lasting impression. How are you gonna do that? Employ the sound technique we discussed earlier, preferably twice in quick succession. Your trailer’s timing should go something like this:
- :25 seconds – Loud scream
- :26-28 seconds – Movie title still shot
- :29 seconds – *Another* really tense quick cut of someone screaming
- :30 seconds – Opening date of movie, etc.
So there you have it – it’s really that easy! With a little patience and like 20, maybe 30 minutes of writing, you should be able to write a successful horror movie script – and now, thanks to my helpful guide, the trailer practically writes itself. You’re welcome!
[Ed. Note: This post required a lot of research into horror titles of the last several decades, which Wikipedia has carefully curated into a neatly-formatted alphabetical list…and sweet babies, some of these titles and premises are absolutely hysterical. I’d strongly recommend reading them as a follow-up.]