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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
The lighting is flat and boring. The filmmaker was satisfied with whatever light was available on set, or brought just enough additional lighting gear to capture an image.
The sound is harsh and hollow. The filmmaker shot in his own apartment (rather than on a sound stage), and the actors' voices reverberated off of the hard walls and hardwood floor. Which would not have been a problem had the filmmaker used rugs, sound blankets, or other sound dampening tools.
Colored lights are an inexpensive way to help overcome the "cheap, boring" lighting problem. Colored lights will work for any film, but are especially likely to enhance films of the fantastique (such as a supernatural horror film).
Lights can be either diegetic or nondiegetic. Diegetic lights have their source within the story (e.g., a table lamp, car headlights). Nondiegetic lights have no logical source within the story. Dario Argento's Suspiria and Norman J. Warren's British tale of witchcraft, Terror, are examples of horror films that make extensive use of nondiegetic colored lights.
Many scenes in Night of the Demons are enhanced with diegetic colored lights. Consider this early scene of three girls riding in a car. The middle girl is lit purplish blue. The other two girls are lit red.
Why? From where do these colored lights originate? It's never explained. The red lights flash, depart, and return throughout their trip. Maybe they're driving past stores with bright red neon signs, or emergency vehicles flashing their lights? (Yet we hear no sirens.)
Whatever these lights' sources, they enhance the scene. They contribute to a supernatural mood, preparing us for the dramatic events to come.
The girls' destination is a Halloween party at a reputedly haunted house. As they enter, we see that the house's interior is brightly lit with primary colors (similar to Suspiria's color palette).
The colors are bolder and more prominent than in the car, and once again support an ethereal, supernatural ambiance. Plus, they're beautiful to behold -- there's no reason a horror film can't delight an audience with its beauty even as it scares.
The police raid the party and evict most of the partygoers. That leaves seven young people. We see them in a dark living room (two photos, below).
Rather than boring white or yellow table lamps, colored and decorative lights are the primary visible light sources. If any stage lights are used, they're only bright enough to illuminate the characters, but not so bright as to overwhelm the on-set colored lights or destroy the mood they've created.
Consider how relatively inexpensive it was to create this beautiful and mood-enhancing scene (above). A mood that aesthetically support's the films' supernatural conceit.
Here in this other room (below), bright lights adorn the wall. Sometimes these lights appear white against a blue background. Other times they glow blue.
These lights hanging on the wall don't look expensive, yet consider how far they go in creating a supernatural ambiance. An ambiance that supports the upcoming dramatic event -- the two women (one of them possessed by a demon) floating off the ground.
Bright primary colors aren't appropriate for every horror film. Some horror stories work better with grim, gritty, desaturated colors. And most horror films work with far less money than Night of the Demons's reported $10 million production budget.
But colored lights (whether decorative diegetic lights or nondiegetic stage lighting) are relatively inexpensive. When used appropriately, they can go far in creating mood and making a film look less "cheap."
Sometime to consider if you're you're shooting a horror film on a low-budget.
For more about how to effectively light a horror film, 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.
While the original Dark Shadows isn't particularly scary, especially in a modern horror context, I wouldn't call it camp. The show remains entertaining and engaging -- at times, even suspenseful, eerie, and poignant -- because of its characters.
Characters are created by the actor plus the script. Characters are what engage an audience. This is especially true of a TV series. Audiences tune in, sometimes for years on end, because they've come to love the characters. The plot is secondary.
Dark Shadows fans love the characters, and the actors who portray them. Jonathan Frid is Barnabas Collins. And although the character of Victoria Winters was always written true to form, I never could believe Betsy Durkin or Carolyn Groves as Victoria Winters. Only Alexandra Moltke (aka Alexandra Isles) is Victoria.
Many TV remakes fail creatively, even if the new script is true to the original character, because the lead actor is different. Patrick McGoohan is The Prisoner. Darren McGavin is Kolchak, The Night Stalker. Lindsay Wagner is The Bionic Woman. The remakes failed, and good riddance.
The 1991 Dark Shadows TV remake failed for many reasons. 1. The original was shot on a TV soundstage, which is more surreal and cozy then the remake's outdoor locations. 2. The original's daily half-hour installments maintained a long, drawn-out, suspenseful pace, which the remake's weekly one-hour installments couldn't duplicate. The former pacing worked better for the series' many characters and complex, interweaving storylines.
But the remake's biggest flaw was that it changed the characters. Not only did it cast new actors (unavoidable, but a still serious shortcoming), but the script subverted the characters. The original Maggie was a wholesome girl-next-door. The new Maggie was a slut. The original Roger was a prissy, stuffed shirt. The new Roger was a hunky beefcake.
In short, they were not Maggie and Roger. Not even parodies of Maggie and Roger.
With its new set of characters (both as written and as performed), the 1991 Dark Shadows was not a remake, but an entirely new show. Yes, it poached the original characters' names, and some plot points, but that made for a remake in name only.
Sometimes classic characters are reimagined (e.g., Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Ebeneezer Scrooge). But you can only reimagine a character so far, before it becomes an entirely new character.
Tim Burton's 2012 Dark Shadows film is not a remake, but a parody of the original TV series. Parodies are a tricky thing. Parody characters are shallow duplicates; neither the original characters, nor substantive characters in their own right. They are caricatures to laugh at, rather than the original people the fans care about.
Perhaps Burton understood that Dark Shadows could not be remade on any serious level. Not only is the original cast unavailable, but the original characters were written with a white bread innocence (WASPy wholesome girls and respectful young gentlemen, albeit amid vampires and witches), that would be laughed at by many of today's young viewers.
Dark Shadows's original characters are the stuff of nostalgia for a simpler place and time: the fictitious town of Collinsport. The show ran during turbulent times (1966-71), with nary a mention of Vietnam, race riots, or bra-burning. Despite its horror content, the series emotionally cocooned audiences from "relevant" topics. A cocooning aesthetically supported by the show being shot on soundstages, which, as I noted above, are more cozy and surreal than are (more realistic) outdoor locations.
Burton's Dark Shadows does what Hollywood does best: makeup and special effects. Much of the new cast look like the original characters, but these caricatures are not written as the original characters. And because the characters are different, the film fails as a remake.
Fans seeking a remake will be disappointed -- and I suspect that few fans will be satisfied with a mere parody.
For more about actors in horror, and about the relationship between horror and comedy, 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.