Monday, March 17, 2014

Edge: Poor Grooming Hinders Suspension of Disbelief

Sometimes a filmmaker can't achieve something on screen because of a low budget -- but sometimes it's due to laziness and a lack of artistic commitment. It would have been just as cheap to shoot a scene correctly, but the filmmaker -- or the actor -- couldn't be bothered.

Hair styles are one example. Hair cuts and shaves are cheap. I've complained before about low-budget films that feature soldiers with beards,goatees, and ponytails. Edge, a low-budget film about a serial killer, makes the same mistake with its portrayal of uniformed police officers.



This cop from Edge (above) has a full beard.



And here's a cop (above) with a Mohawk. Not an undercover cop, mind you, but a uniformed officer.

Maybe this Mohawk is an "in joke" -- one of the film's producers is "Mohawk Lighting Productions." If that is the intent, filmmaker Jacob Whitley should at least be aware that his joke comes at the cost of detracting from the film.

How so?

It concerns suspension of disbelief. The lower a film's budget -- the cheaper its  sets, props, costumes, the sparser its cast -- the more difficult for viewers to suspend disbelief, and the more likely the film becomes Mystery Science Theater 3000 fodder. This is why low-budget filmmakers should do everything within their skills set and budget to achieve verisimilitude -- a sense of reality -- on screen.

Remarkably, Edge's end credits list four actual cops -- two "tactical advisors" (sic) and two "location assistants." (Their ranks are one officer, two sergeants, one captain.) True, these cops weren't part of the hair & makeup crew, but you'd think one of them would have mentioned something about the police characters' beard and Mohawk.

Edge's credits indicate the film was shot in La Palma, California. Is this how real cops groom themselves in La Palma? Even if that were so, Whitley should have known that such grooming is outside the norm, so his film would have greater verisimilitude with clean-shaven officers.

Edge's detectives have five o'clock shadows, but one can be more forgiving of that. Detectives are more often portrayed as casual in dress and grooming than are uniformed officers, so audiences are more likely to accept that.

But Edge has some other faults that break viewers' suspension of disbelief. In one scene, police officers storm into a house. They find a dead man, his throat slashed. Detective Rivers (Scott Butler) finds a knife in a sink filled with bloody water.




So Detective Rivers reaches into the water and picks up the knife.



He stares at the knife in disgust, then tosses it back into the sink.

Huh?!

Even if the serial killer had tried to wipe the knife of fingerprints, and wash off his DNA, wouldn't a professional detective have removed the knife with rubber gloves, then placed it into a plastic baggie, for further analysis? Instead, Rivers contaminates the knife with his own prints and DNA. And his partner beside him says nothing, as though this is normal procedure

I think modern audiences have been sufficiently sensitized over these past few decades of CSI shows that even lay people know better than to touch anything at a crime scene with bare hands. Once again, it would have been just as cheap to have filmed Rivers leaving the knife untouched, than to break the viewer's suspension of disbelief with his unprofessional behavior

Edge is not an entirely bad film. It's reasonably entertaining for its budget. DP David Molina's photography is sharp and his use of blue lights to evoke night nicely done. Although the film is set in California, Scott Butler has what sounds to me like an Australian or New Zealander accent (his IMDb page says he's from South London), but one can overlook that.

You can see Edge on YouTube:




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For more about mise-en-scène, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Frankenweenie: A Curiously Anti-Science "Pro-Science" Message

Horror has traditionally been skeptical of science and progress. Going back at least as far as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, horror stories have often suggested that "Some things man was not meant to know." Science fiction abounds with characters who are scientists, but horror is more likely to feature mad scientists.

Frankenweenie, an animated feature inspired by the 1931 film version of Frankenstein, acknowledges horror's anti-science tradition, but then tries to turn it around into a pro-science message. Yet Frankenweenie ultimately fails, finally "defending" science with a curiously unscientific message.

In Frankenweenie, the parents in a 1950s type suburban community fear Mr. Rzykruski, a science teacher at their local high school. Much like the villagers in Frankenstein, the parents are ready to run Rzykruski out of town carrying pitchforks and burning torches. Instead, they give Rzykruski a chance to defend himself.

Rzykruski does a poor job defending himself. He insults the parents for their ignorance and fear of science. Naturally, this does not endear Rzykruski to the parents. Even so, one senses that Rzykruski's rants are intended as a pro-science message, with which the viewer is intended to sympathize.

But then the film turns curiously anti-science, not by opposing science, but by misrepresenting it.

As Rzykruski packs his car trunk with his belongings, preparing to leave town, Victor asks him for advice. Victor asks why his science experiment didn't yield the same results the second time around.

Well, according to the scientific method, an experiment with the same variables must repeat the same results before any conclusions can be reached. If the experiment does not repeat its results, then one must search for overlooked variables. The scientific method is about rational thinking, about Reason, no?

Instead, Rzykruski suggests that Victor's experiment didn't yield the same results the second time was because Victor didn't love his experiment the second time.



Rzykruski points to his head and says, "People think the perfect scientist is here."




Then Rzykruski points to his heart and says, "But the perfect scientist is also here."

HUH?

What do emotions have to do with Reason and the scientific method? Sure, it's nice if scientists feel passionate about their work -- but when assessing the results of their experiments, they should be completely dispassionate. Aloof. Rational.

This superiority of Heart over Mind is an all-too-common Hollywood theme. It's the sort of cheap sentimentality one finds in many Hollywood films.

We see it again in Dark City. A dying race of aliens kidnaps a whole city's worth of humans, in an attempt to discover what makes them human, so as to assume human form and thus avert their extinction.

In the end, the aliens fail. Why? Because they were studying the human mind instead of the heart.




Like Rzykruski, John (Rufus Sewell) points to his head and tells a dying alien, "You wanted to know what made us human. But you're not gonna find it in here. You went looking in the wrong place."

Hollywood films abound with aliens who apparently travel millions of light years to study our emotions. Star Trek was full of aliens mystified or fascinated by human emotions. So too the aliens in The Forgotten and Visitors of the Night, to name a few.

Unsurprisingly, Frankenweeinie is a Disney film, the studio with the greatest reputation for cheap sentimentality.

Frankenweenie is apparently intended as a pro-science film. Yet the film praises science by damming it.

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For more about interpreting themes in horror films, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Insidious Chapter 2: Sexual Deviancy as a Threat

It's unusual to see a horror film like Insidious Chapter 2 these days. In it a man turns serial killer because his mother forcibly raised him as a girl. Sexual confusion, deviance, and transvestism are presented either as sources of evil or creepy things to be feared.

One could argue that it was denying the man his true (heterosexual) orientation -- not his transvestism -- that compelled him to kill, but that requires some thought. On the story's surface -- which is all that most viewers will consider -- a man in a woman's dress is presented as creepy and dangerous.




When I saw this surprise revelation onscreen, I suddenly realized how rarely sexual deviancy is depicted as threatening in modern horror films, as compared to 30-50 years ago. Sexual deviants (is that term still used today?) were a common threat in horror and crime films of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, with examples too numerous to list in their entirety. But consider a few examples...

A serial killer with an incestuous love for his mother (Psycho). A murderous lesbian couple doing the work of Satan (The Sentinel). A lesbian punished for her sexual sin (Class Reunion Massacre). A brother who rapes his sister (The Unseen). A transvestite serial killer (Terror Train). A gay transvestite serial killer (Hide and Go Shriek). A male transvestite in love with his sister (Stripped to Kill). A mother who castrates her son (Castle Freak).

A film that mirrors Insidious Chapter 2 especially closely is Sleepaway Camp, wherein a young boy is forcibly raised as a girl. After a sex change, s/he continues serial killing in the sequels.

Today there are parents who are openly raising boys as girls (or visa versa) and insisting that, though their child has a penis, the world recognize him as a girl. What was once considered a source of horror, something to be hidden from the world, is now proudly proclaimed.

Critics debate whether horror is an inherently progressive or conservative genre. In Monsters from the Id, E. Michael Jones argues that horror is mostly about deviance from traditional sexuality. Nevertheless, modern horror films have mostly followed society's changing attitudes toward sexuality, making Insidious Chapter 2's retro-sexuality a curiosity.

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For more about interpreting themes in horror films, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Miscast Amazon Warrior Women in The Other Side

It's been said that 90% of directing is casting, because once an actor is cast, the director is stuck with that actor's physical and creative range -- limited to that actor's age, height, weight, facial features, voice, skills, and training.

Every actor has a limited range, some greater than others. No one actor is right for every part, though actors may insist otherwise. The Other Side provides an example of miscasting. In this case, the miscasting of a popular archetype -- that of the kick-ass, Amazonian warrior woman.

While the Amazon archetype extends back to antiquity, modern examples include Diana Rigg's Emma Peel in The Avengers, Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft, Carrie-Ann Moss's Trinity in The Matrix series, and Mila Jovovich's Alice in the Resident Evil series.

The Amazon archetype has long appeared in low-budget genre films. Alas, low-budget Amazons are often less impressive than their Hollywood renditions.

The Other Side is more of a theological thriller than a horror film. Like Resident Evil, The Other Side is heavily informed by action genre aesthetics. In the film, a young man escapes from Hell, along with other inmates. Satan dispatches "Reapers" to bring them back. The Reapers are kick-ass assassins. Their clothes and gymnastic gunplay borrow stylistically from The Matrix.

Male Reapers wear long trench coats and fedoras. They use only guns. But female Reapers are clad in high heels and black leather. They use guns, swords, crossbows, and martial arts knives. No logical reason is given for this sartorial gender disparity. I suppose that director Gregg Bishop simply selected whatever fashions he thought looked cool.

The female Reapers are played by Lori Beth Sikes and (very briefly) Amy Lucas. The problem with their casting is that these women appear to be lightweight, petite, and short. The role of a female Reaper can be better played by a truly Amazonian actress -- tall, strong, ideally even a bodybuilder.




Why were Sikes and Lucas cast? It's not as if acting ability was an issue. The Reapers don't have any lines. All Sikes does is keep her face in a deadpan scowl. (Much like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator. -- I guess Bishop thought a fixed scowl made Sikes's character look tough).




These petite Reapers in leather, flailing swords, look silly, thus risking audience disbelief. If the part calls for an Amazon -- cast an Amazon. Someone like the 5'10" Sandahl Bergman with her lean and muscled dancer's body. Or the 5'11" Lana Clarkson.

No, it doesn't matter that the Reapers are supernatural and thus don't need physical strength. The Other Side portrays them as warriors, in which case they should appear as warriors.

Every film requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. The more entertaining a film is, the more willing audiences are to suspend disbelief. And The Other Side is fairly entertaining. Its stunts and special effects are highly impressive for its claimed $15,000 budget. So I suspect that most viewers will easily suspend their disbelief, and accept the petite actresses as Amazonian warriors.

But why should audiences be made to exert that extra effort, when the filmmaker could just as easily have cast more appropriately? The further viewers must stretch their disbelief (already an issue with fantastique films), the sooner they'll give up, and relegate the film to Mystery Science Theatre 3000 fodder.




Such miscasting of warriors is not limited to women. Note the belly on the above "elite" special forces solider in Santa Claus vs. the Zombies. (And see my separate article on the poor hairstyling in this film.)
 
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For more about mise-en-scène as it relates to actors, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Poor Hairstyling of Soldiers in Santa Claus vs. the Zombies

Many genre films -- horror, sci-fi, and especially action films -- feature soldiers or police officers. This means casting actors for those roles. While low-budget filmmakers can't always be choosy about their casts, they should at least make the effort to have their soldiers look like soldiers -- especially if it doesn't cost anything. Like insisting that the actors shave and trim their hair.

Actors playing soldiers -- especially elite special forces troops -- should appear to be lean, trim-haired, and clean-shaven. Why? Duh! Because those are the standards demanded of real-life soldiers. Sure, some scripts can allow for unshaven troops -- say, if they've been fighting in the jungle for a while, or if the story is set in some distant past or future time period -- but otherwise, the rule applies.

Unfortunately, too many low-budget filmmakers ignore this rule, for no apparent reason other than sheer laziness.

Consider Santa Claus vs. The Zombies. This is yet another zombie apocalypse film. Much of it is set in a basement office with the President of the United States and his staff -- both civilian and military -- planning ways to combat the zombies. This being a micro-budget film, one forgives the tiny office and staff. What is unforgivable is the sloppy mise-en-scène -- particularly the hairstyling.

The filmmakers didn't even try to create a sense of realism. The staff comprises only one general and several "elite" special forces troops. Okay, the filmmaker could only afford a small cast. And his elite troops do have cool uniforms and special forces red berets. But ...



Some of these special ops troops have goatees or full beards. One has a long ponytail and is especially fat (see above).

The general is grossly overweight, but even if we can forgive that, we cannot overlook his goatee.

I can understand a filmmaker wanting to cast his fat friends instead of casting lean actors who actually look like special ops troops. But please make an effort. Give these actors military crew cuts and shave their faces.

It seems like a small matter, yet it's telling. It indicates that the filmmaker and friends didn't take this film seriously. The actors may have wanted the parts, but not to the extent of shaving or cutting their hair. (It would take a while to grow it back so long.) And the filmmaker accepted it instead of insisting on a military look for his military characters.

The entire film is low-budget and amateurish, and the above indicates why. It's not just lack of talent or money, but lack of artistic commitment.

No, it doesn't matter that this film is supposed to be a comedy. Even comedies require commitment to the story and characters.

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For more about mise-en-scène, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.


Friday, September 21, 2012

Demon: Low-Budget Framing of a Period Piece

One of a low-budget filmmaker's biggest challenges is finding decent locations. Actors and crew will often work for free. But good locations (i.e., not the filmmaker's basement apartment) usually cost money. This is especially true if you want to shoot outdoors, on a busy city street. Insurance and permits must be obtained, and streets must be cleared of pedestrian and vehicle traffic.

Some low-budget filmmakers ignore this problem by shooting "guerrilla style." They eschew insurance and permits, and shoot only a few actors, on city streets or in malls, with a handheld camera. They hope that their cast and crew resemble tourists with a camera, and they'll thus be ignored by police and security guards.

(Note: In the 1980s, New York City only required a shooting permit if a filmmaker's equipment touched the ground. Filmmakers who avoided tripods, shooting everything handheld, did not need permits. I don't know what the law is now in NYC, or in other jurisdictions.)

Okay, so if you only have a few actors, and shoot handheld, you can use city streets without a permit. You'll have people and cars in the background, unrelated to your film, but provided they are too small or blurry to be identifiable, you generally face no legal problems. (But consult a lawyer on this.)

Location problem solved?

But what if you're shooting a period piece? Your story is set in the late 1800s. Sure, the cars and people in the background aren't identifiable, but ... they're cars! And the people are wearing modern clothing!

The Big Studios will simply obtain (and pay for) a shooting permit, and the off-duty police (more money) will kindly block off all streets so they can shoot their period film.

But what if a low-budget filmmaker can't afford that? How then to shoot a period piece on modern city streets?

One solution is a judicious use of framing.

Demon is a low-budget horror film (written and directed by Mark Duffield) set in Victorian London. Fortunately, London is full of old buildings that were around in Victorian times. But it's also full of modern cars and people. How to shoot the architecture, and not the modern population, without closing off the streets?

Duffield solved the problem by framing many street scenes at low angles, so we only see the upper parts of buildings.



At one point, Amy (Clare Langford) takes newcomer Lorcan (Andrew Mullan) on a tour of London. She shows him London Bridge. Today's bridge is normally full of cars, but a low-budget filmmaker can't afford shut down a major bridge. Erasing the cars through CGI effects might be cheaper, but still costly. Duffield simply frames the cars out of view.

Here are a couple of other scenes of Amy showing Lorcan the sights of London. Again, the shots are in low angle. Perhaps to avoid showing modern tourists or cars parked on the streets?




But this framing is not only pragmatic, in that it hides modern life. Demon's framing also serves an aesthetic function. Amy is showing Lorcan (and us, the viewer) the splendor of Imperial Britain's capital city, and he is duly impressed. The low angles effectively convey their emotional awe at the city's sights.

I use the term pragmatic aesthetics to describe whenever a filmmaker applies budgetary and technical compromises to aesthetic effect. This applies to Duffield's framing. He couldn't afford to close off London's streets, nor delete its modern life with CGI, so he framed to hide modern life -- even as his framing simultaneously supports the story, characters, and theme.



But it's not just low angles. Here's a tight shot of Lorcan from a high angle. The tight shot hems him in, so we don't see much beyond him (including modern life). The high angle likewise hides what's beyond him. Were the camera raised, we'd see more of the street, and perhaps some cars.

Then there's the below tight, straight-on angle shot of Lorcan. Again, we see little beyond him.



The staging also serves Demon's low budget. In both of the above shots, Lorcan is static. People walk past him. Pragmatically, this creates the impression of a bustling London street, filled with people -- but on the cheap. Had Lorcan walked along the street, the camera would have followed him, and more of the street would need to have been closed for filming.

The above two frames and staging also serve an aesthetic purpose. Lorcan is paralyzed with fear over the notion that he might be a hideous monster. The above images are from his nightmare. His static staging supports his emotional paralysis. And the tight framing conveys his feeling of being trapped in a very bad situation.


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For more about framing, staging, and pragmatic aesthetics in horror films, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

How Gary Oldman Coaxed a Realistic Performance from Winona Ryder

Some horror film directors want realistic performances from their actors.

Not every film requires realism. Children Should Play with Dead Things and Blood Feast benefit from their actors' hammy performances. (This not true even of many horror "comedies" -- many "so bad it's good" films are actually "so bad it's unwatchable".) Hal Hartley often requires deadpan performances from his actors.

But say a director wants realism. How to coax a realistic performance from an actor?

Jonathan Emrys, an extra on Bram Stoker's Dracula, relates how director Francis Ford Coppola sought a realistic reaction from Winona Ryder (a look of stunned shock), and how Gary Oldman figured out a way to coax this reaction from Ryder.

(I think Bram Stoker's Dracula's overall acting style is a bit more theatrical and styled than the more mundane realism of many films. But nevertheless, Emrys offers an instructive account of how Oldman drew a realistic reaction from Ryder.

As Emrys's relates it:


[W]e all were set up on the streets again, and Mina (Winona Ryder) was supposed to walk down the street to the Apothecary shop and look across the street to see Dracula (Gary Oldman) staring back at her.

Directly behind the camera was Coppola, and the ever professional Gary took his place beside the camera, in the mud, to give Winona a point to look at.

Winona repeatedly walked down the street, stopped, stared, then continued into the shop. However, she apparently was not giving the shocked or startled look Coppola was looking for, so he kept sending her back up the street to start again, over and over.

During one of the longer spaces between takes, Gary starts looking around and spies a vegetable cart beside me. He asks a P.A. "Are those real vegetables?"

The P.A. replied that they were and Gary asked "Are those real zucchinis over there?"

The P.A. nodded and Gary asked "Can I have one? Could you get me a zucchini?"

The P.A. was confused by the question, he didn't know if he should, so he asked an A.D. who, I think asked another A.D., and finally was given the reply "Yeah, sure."

They grabbed one of the zucchinis and gave it to Gary who immediately took his place again beside the camera.

I'm standing directly behind Gary, so all I can see is him facing the street with the zucchini held firmly behind his back. Winona finally comes into view and waits at the top of the street, and Coppola yells "Action!" and Winona starts down the street.

As she approaches her mark, Gary shifts the zucchini to his front, at about groin level.

Winona reaches her mark, stops and turns to Dracula and has an utterly surprised, shocked and startled look on her face. She kept it professional and continued into the Apothecary's Shop.

The moment Coppola yelled "Cut!", Winona stormed out of the shop and proceeded to harangue Gary, who took it in his stride, laughing. This seemed to upset her even more, so Coppola finally got out of his seat and took each of them by the arm and walked them back up the street and out of view, all the time Gary was laughing and smiling, and Winona was not.

A few moments later, they all came back into view, and Winona was still not real happy, but there was no longer any smile on Gary's face as he dragged his feet, head down, like a punished schoolboy.

Yes, that was a funny thing Gary did, and sure Winona probably didn't think so, but at least Gary helped Coppola to get that look he needed from her.


You can see the above scene here:



You can read more about Emrys's experiences as an extra on Bram Stoker's Dracula at his Blood Thirsty website.

I met Emrys on Bram Stoker's Dracula, because I too worked as an extra on that film. You can read about my experiences on the Hollywood Investigator.


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For more about acting styles in horror films, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.