The Importance of Sound Use in Horror Films

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Updated: Aug 18, 2023
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In 1931, the German filmmaker Fritz Lang directed M, his first sound film. The plot of the movie is simple: the city of Dusseldorf lives in fear of a serial killer of girls and a massive search is underway to find him. In 1931, the sound film industry was still in its infancy. In fact, there are many sequences in the film that could be in silent movies, sequences without dialogue in which the ambient sound is ignored, as when the police raid the red light district (no sirens, no car noises, nothing) (Prince, 2007).

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Practically all the directors of that time came from silent cinema, which means they were adept at narrating solely with images. However, Guillermo Del Toro was quite familiar with the sound film industry, having established a successful career in it.

Not all directors seem to understand that one of the great strengths of film is the dramatic use of sound, especially in the horror genre, in order to better engage the audience. Both Lang and Del Toro exemplify this understanding. Director Fritz Lang’s M was his extraordinary first venture into sound film, utilizing dialogue, leitmotifs, and even the absence of sound in many cases to describe the hunt for the killer at the center of the movie. In the beginning of M, Lang uses little dialogue, focuses on an empty staircase, a plate on the table waiting for the arrival of Elsie, all done in silence, setting an ominous tone for what is to come. In Cronos, although dialogue is also minimal, it is more present. Additionally, there are fewer actors throughout the movie than there are in M.

During the first forty-five minutes of the film M, we hardly see M, only a brief shot of him before a mirror. The other moment in which he briefly appears is during the murder of the girl. We see how he tricks her by buying her a balloon, though we only view this interaction through his back and shadow. Lang uses a leitmotif, the whistle that accompanies the protagonist throughout the film, to instill a sense of threat that overwhelms the audience every time they hear it (Prince, 2007). In contrast, in Cronos, Del Toro frequently employs dramatic music to set the tone for each scene, eliciting emotional responses from a musical standpoint. This is a notable difference between a movie from 1931 and one from 1993. Production-wise, Del Toro had access to more modern and effective design technologies.

Although similar in genre, M and Cronos use different dramatic approaches to induce fear in the audience. In M, the shot in which the murderer’s shadow obscures the police poster that little Elsie is playing against or the two scenes indicating the girl’s murder (a ball rolls off into a bush, the balloon that the murderer had bought the girl becomes entangled in electrical cables) are some of the images with which Lang creates the unsettling atmosphere that pervades the entire film. Cronos, on the other hand, is also a horror film but employs a more fantastical approach: the protagonist drinks blood in his pursuit of immortality.

In Cronos, Del Toro creates many of the same style shots – shots meant to express the emotion of the scene. However, there is a greater focus on the dramatic visual effects, especially makeup and costume design, which increase its visual impact on the audience. The costume design and makeup in M were quite natural and period-appropriate, as film noirs of that time were accustomed to (Prince, 2007). Although it is obviously due to the dates in which each movie was made, with M being far older than Cronos, the special effects of Cronos are significantly more advanced, such as when the device adheres to the hand and chest of Gris to extract blood.

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The importance of sound use in horror films. (2022, Nov 09). Retrieved from