Movies are crafted by filmmakers with well-timed reveals that terrify and then horrify. And yet the goal of marketing departments who assemble the trailers only care about maximizing profit – craft be damned. Then there's the blabbermouth journalists on Twitter and the web who have advance access to films and want everyone to know it. I'm now staunchly dedicated to avoiding all spoilers but if I give up trailers, articles, and social media ahead of a film's release, how could I possibly figure out which films to watch?! Here’s my plan:
1. Watch Trailers the Right Way
Avoiding trailers is both obvious and impossible to do. Their intoxicating allure is almost undeniable. Marketers don’t care what is spoiled in hopes of hooking mainstream audiences who need to see an entire movie in a 2-minute trailer before they plunk down $14 for a ticket. All the money shots (jump scares, effects, and big reveals) are featured. The solution is to watch only part of the trailer. Typically, the first 30 seconds of the trailer provides exposition, showcases the actors and notable crew, and then ramps up with the action shots. This gives you enough of taste to decide whether you want to see the film.
2. Know Your Filmmakers
Dedicated horror fans recognize notable directors, writers, and studios. In the 80s John Carpenter, Wes Craven, David Cronenberg and New Line ruled the box office. Now it's James Wan, Del Toro, Jordan Peele, Blumhouse that seem to be unstoppable. Knowing who made the film is sometimes indicative of the production, style and themes you’ll be getting. Like a movie? Find out who wrote and directed it and follow them. I’m looking forward to new work from Ari Aster (Hereditary), Mike Flanagan (Doctor Sleep), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), Robert Eggers (The Witch), and Justin Benson/Aaron Moorhead (The Endless). As for studios, A24 and Ghost House Pictures have been making some of my favorite horror films. None of this guarantees a great movie, but they have been consistent.
3. Identify Source Material
Many horror movies start their lives as books, and half of those are written by Stephen King. Unfortunately most books don’t survive the transition to the screen. I look for original stories, indie filmmakers, or films that started as short films. There’s an undeniable passion in a filmmaker's major theatrical debut film, and they usually bring originality that pumps new blood into the genre. The stories they cook up, coupled with the eagerness to tell their stories can overcome the mundane tropes and endless jump scares.
4. Study Horror Films
Without seeing trailers, it’s important to study and read about films. There are so many awesome sites like Bloody Disgusting and Dread Central that cover every aspect of horror films. Did actors love the experience? Did directors feel supported or thwarted by the studio? Was there extensive reshoots? Reading articles about a troubled productions usually leads to troubled films (The Mummy and World War Z). And pay attention to film festivals (Fantastic Fest, SXSW, Stiges, Screamfest, Telluride, Toronto After Dark, etc.) where up-and-coming directors debut new films and indie directors debut headier or experimental films without distribution deals. Many of the hits for next year premiere at festivals this year.
5. Follow Real Horror Fans
Rotten Tomatoes, social media, and professional horror sites are fun guides to horror, but for my money, I want to hear from the real horror fans not esteemed critics or writers paid to see films. Don't get me wrong. Journalists are absolutely vital but you have to follow the ones who actually like horror and love film. Others are the bloggers, podcasters, and Twitter folks who devote serious energy towards their passion for horror films, and usually don't get paid to do so. Examine which films they like or dislike, and follow the ones that correspond to your tastes. Develop a dialogue with these horror experts, comment on posts, debate salient points, get to know them, and they will never steer you wrong. But beware. It's impossible to talk about films effectively without spoilers so read the articles and reviews after seeing the film.