5 of the Best Edited Horror Films, and What We Can Learn From Them
By David Winter
Jul 14, 2023
4 minute read
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Editing matters in horror films. The building of dread, jump scares, and tension. They all rely on the editor's ability to create an atmosphere that feels alive. Editing tricks like jump-cuts, match cuts, fade-ins/fade-outs, etc., make viewers feel like they are inside the film, experiencing it for themselves. Editing can take a mediocre script or video and turn it into something extraordinary! That is why editors matter in horror films. They have the power to make or break any project, with their ability to build suspense and strike terror in viewers' minds. Here are five edited horror films you should watch and what you can learn from them:
1) The Shining
The Shining is a classic horror film with chock-full moments where tension is built up to an almost unbearable level. One great example is when Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) swings an axe at his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), while defending her son, Danny. It's a pinnacle moment, showcasing how crazy Jack has become. It also leads to one of the most iconic lines in cinema history: Here's Johnny!
It's also important for editors to remember these principles for their films. If you want your audience to feel something, give them a shocking moment or line of dialogue or even make them laugh unexpectedly. One way to do this is by using transitional cuts. Transitional cuts are fast, jarring cuts between scenes that are usually different lighting conditions or shot sizes. These transitions can be used for comedic purposes, like cutting from a wide shot to a closeup of someone's face as they talk to hammer home the joke, but can also be used in more serious films like Paranormal Activity to throw you closer to the terror.
Jaws is a perfect example of how to build suspense in one scene. The first time we see the shark, it's a barely visible shadow. The second time it's beneath a boat on the surface, but only for an instant before it disappears again. The third time is when it kills Chrissie, which is framed by eerie music playing. Then there's not another sighting until much later in the film (even then, it's at a great distance). It adds to the eeriness of this movie and helps us understand why people were so frightened of sharks after seeing it.
It also does this without resorting to any gratuitous violence or gore. Instead, it uses intelligent editing techniques to make you jump out of your seat without seeing anything too scary. When editing a horror film, think about what could be done to use clever editing tricks like these. Not every shot has to be frightening. Just because someone dies doesn't mean they must die in gory detail. There is often more fear to be found in what are minds can imagine vs what is shown on the screen. The human brain is incredible at filling in the blanks.
What else can you learn? Watch movies like Jaws closely and study the way they edit their scenes. Ask yourself: Why did they do that? How can I apply this technique?
Halloween is an American horror franchise that has been going on since 1978. The best thing about this franchise is that you can learn many great lessons from the editing process to apply to your work. For example: create suspenseful sequences by leaving shots slightly longer than what might be considered normal for the average Hollywood film. If someone opens a door and walks into another room, don't cut away too soon; instead, linger on the door. Let the audience ask themselves if something is about to happen there. Sometimes it will, sometimes it won't, but it's in the unknown that the scares are generated.
Learn how to use jump scares sparingly and wisely. If used too often, it will become ineffective because viewers will begin to anticipate it or even see it coming. Remember to alternate them with other types of scary footage, such as tense dialogue scenes or any other tension-building technique. A good rule of thumb is one jump scare every 15 minutes at most, but fewer jumpscares are always better.
Alien is one of the best-edited horror films because of the creeping claustrophobia it builds and the realistic nature of the alien. A combination of great design and practical effects makes it feel real and alive. The director wanted to create a living, breathing organism that was scary at first sight. They had an incredibly talented crew work on this film to achieve this goal. They also used many close-ups to make people feel claustrophobic while watching it. The suspenseful music helped with this as well. But it's the editing that truly brings the film to life. It's paced to perfection.
5) Paranormal Activity
Paranormal Activity is a low-budget horror film made partly to see if audiences would watch a movie without any jump scares. The premise revolves around a young couple moving into a suburban Los Angeles home. They soon come to find that a demon has haunted it. It was directed by Oren Peli, written by Michael R. Perry, and produced by Steven Schneider. Paranormal Activity is one of the most profitable independent films ever, grossing over $193 million with an estimated budget of $15,000 (although some sources say as high as $8 million).
One thing you can learn from this film is not to overdo your use of jump scares. Keep them minimalized, or they can start to wear on your audience's attention span. For example, when there is a long passage where nothing terrible happens, and then the protagonist sees something in their peripheral vision or hears something off-screen, the tension builds up to the point where when they turn their head, expecting something horrible to happen, they get their heart rate up and feel truly afraid for the character's life.
Another great thing about this film is its editing pace. Have you ever seen it before? Did you notice how quickly things happen? Scenes go from shot to shot without pause, and the film doesn't linger on anything too long. If the film went on for too long, its inherent emptiness would start to show and risk becoming boring. It is, after all, a film where very little happens by design. They manage to move at a quick pace without feeling rushed.
It's important to watch these films for yourselves to truly understand the lessons they hold. Although editing is a practical art form, much of it comes down to feeling. Did a scene feel rushed or drawn out? Was the cut to the next shot well-placed or jarring? Did the film feel too long or too short? Watch these classics for yourself (if nothing else, you'll have a great time!) and question the decisions. Why did they make that choice in the editing room, and what did it add to the film? You'll find yourself picking up no end of tips and ideas for your own projects.
When you're ready to try these techniques, why not do so on Lightworks at www.lwks.com. Ranging from YouTube videos to Hollywood-level productions, Lightworks is the editor of choice when it comes to creativity.