Saturday, April 15, 2017

Mark of the Witch's Tight Frames Hide a Low Budget

Mark of the Witch (1970) offers another example of how tight framing can hide a low budget.

The film's opening shot is of a hangman's noose. Apparently an execution is about to occur. The audience sees the noose and imagine a scaffold. Which is good, because we never actually see a scaffold.

With just this one shot of some inexpensive rope, the filmmaker avoids the expense of building a scaffold.

We see three pairs of feet walking in the mud. We can assume the bare feet are those of the condemned witch, approaching the unseen scaffold. The other two pairs are the guards escorting her. We assume the condemned is a witch because of the film's title.

We still haven't seen any scaffold or onlookers. But our imagination is filling in those missing elements.

Mac Stuart (Robert Elston) watches the procession. A tight shot just of him, from a slightly low angle. Because of this framing, we see nothing around or behind him -- just empty sky. We still don't see any onlookers, which normally would be present at a witch's hanging. The audience must assume and imagine the onlookers.

Are they right to do so? We don't hear shouts from the crowd. We can't be sure that Stuart isn't the only onlooker.

A note on costuming. Stuart wears 18th century clothes. The Salem witch burnings were in 1692 -- the 17th century. There were no witch's executions in America in the 18th century. So Stuart's costume isn't accurate. I'm guessing it was the cheapest item available that was close enough to a 17th century suit. Low budget filmmakers often cut corners.

Many viewers won't notice. Those who do will overlook this anachronism if the film is otherwise entertaining.

We see the three pairs of feet approaching the scaffold. Actually, they're only approaching some wooden steps. It might be a simple step ladder. Cheaper than a scaffold, and enough to imply a scaffold.

Once again, the audience's imagination fills in the blanks.

The witch's feet mount the step ladder -- sorry, scaffold. I didn't mean to break your suspension of disbelief.

The hangman and the witch (Marie Santel). Standing on ... what? They could be standing on a scaffold. Or on the ground. Or the sandy shores of a beach. Anywhere, really.

The noose could be hanging from a pole, extended by a production assistant.

Another note on costuming. The hangman is bare chested. Why? I know films sometimes depict medieval executioners as bare chested. But this hangman lives in colonial America. He wouldn't be bare chested.

I'm guessing the filmmaker didn't want to rent a costume for the hangman, and so, rather than have the actor wear his 20th century wardrobe, the director has him bare chested. It's silly but it saves money. And again, viewers savvy enough to notice will forgive -- if the film is otherwise entertaining.

The witch addresses the onlookers, beginning her speech with, "You will hear me now, you good men of Lancashire!"

So there is a crowd of onlookers. We never see any onlooker other than Mac Stuart. Yet we can assume there's a crowd through two devices: 1. the script, which has the witch addressing many people, and 2. the staging, which has her moving her gaze across an apparently large crowd.

A note on sound. There are no crowd noises. Not anywhere in the scene. Okay, so the filmmaker didn't want to spend money on extras. Couldn't he have had his camera crew shout and murmur? Or dub some crowd noise in post production?

There is ominous music. But the lack of crowd noises (which should be present) cheapens the scene and hinders our suspension of disbelief.

It's not like director Thomas W. Moore doesn't know how to creatively save money on sound. In a later scene, set in 1970, an ambulance collects a corpse in a park, amid cops, reporters, and onlookers. All of the sound -- sirens, reporters reporting the incident, etc. -- was dubbed during post production. It was cheaper to dub those sounds than to hire a sound crew to record on location. A good move that saved money and did not detract from the film.

So why couldn't Moore have dubbed some crowd noises for the hanging scene?

You can watch this opening scene -- and the whole film -- on YouTube:


For more information on framing, costuming, and sound, 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, April 13, 2017

The Problem with Found Footage Films

The Blair Witch Project was innovative. I much admire it. But not most of the copycat films that have since tried to mimic its found footage formula. Of course, every successful horror film "inspires" inferior copycats -- and the occasional superior copycat. But the horde of found footage films since Blair Witch have been especially lacking in merit.

Is there something unique about the found footage style that encourages bad filmmaking? Yes.

The found footage style provides an excuse for -- and thus encourages -- laziness and low effort. In general, filmmakers know that strong production values usually make for a better film. But in the case of found footage, filmmakers often take less care with composition, lighting, or sound, on the rationale that, because the film is supposed to be a "home movie" shot on real-life locations, it makes sense that camera angles are rough. Lighting is murky. Shots are out of focus. Voices are muffled by wind and other noises.

Acting and writing also suffer on found footage films. Actors, without talent for improvisation, will nevertheless improvise their dialog (poorly), on the rationale that they should sound like "real people." Well, real people are boring, their dialog a disjointed series of vapid non-sequiturs. Talented screenwriters know that dialog should sound real, but not be real. A script should evoke verisimilitude -- the semblance (not the actuality) of reality.

It's not that a found footage horror film can't have great production values, writing, and acting. (The Last Exorcism and Quarantine prove otherwise). It's that the found footage style tempts a filmmaker to slack off. To ignore poor lighting and bad sound recording. To convince himself that his inanely babbling actors reflect a raw authenticity.

But rather than capturing an engaging vérité authenticity, the final film often feels lazy, sloppy, and dull. Padded scenes with interchangeable characters, chattering about trivialities while waiting for something to happen.

Found footage doesn't mean you can ignore writing, acting, and production values. Audiences still want a strong story told at a fast pace, engaging characters portrayed by talented actors, sharp dialog with witty lines, and all the rest. Not some amateur "actors" wandering about an allegedly haunted ... whatever ... improvising empty dialog, until something evil (that we've already seen in previous films) finally strikes.


For more information, 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.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Poor Scriptwriting in Deadly Messages

Inept writing, a problem in all film genres, often manifests in lame dialog and poorly motivated characters who behave illogically.

The weaker a script, the harder for an audience to suspend disbelief -- which is especially critical for fantastical genres such as horror. If you introduce an unnatural element into a horror story (e.g., a Ouija board or a ghost), it helps to ground the rest of the story in reality. A ghost anchored among solid characters will be more believable -- and thus, more frightening -- than a ghost adrift among silly caricatures.

I've discussed poorly motivated characters in Dark Floors. Poor character motivation results when writers treat their characters as puppets. Writers have the characters say and do whatever pushes the story forward, never mind if a character in such a situation would do that. 

Clever writers create situations that motivate characters toward the writer's goal. Inept writers push characters toward a goal despite a contrary situation.

In Deadly Messages (1985, aka Ouija), Cindy contacts a ghost through a Ouija board. Soon thereafter, Laura (Kathleen Beller) sees a mysterious man murder Cindy. Laura phones the police. When they arrive, they see no body and immediately dismiss Laura as a nut. They even threaten to prosecute her the next time she calls in a false alarm.

This is nonsensical, bad writing. Laura gave the victim's identity to the police. A responsible cop would at first investigate the alleged victim, Cindy -- Does she exist? Is she missing? -- before accusing Laura of fabricating a false report.

Why the bad writing? Most likely the writer wanted to heighten Laura's tense situation and vulnerability. How much worse for Laura, after seeing Cindy murdered, if the police don't believe her. If they instead accuse her of a crime. Who will protect her if the killer returns? 

Additionally, the writer likely thought the scene would be more dramatic if the cops don't believe Laura. An opportunity for the actors to shout and argue and emote dramatically.

Films are full of such phony, manufactured "drama." The writer should have kept the characters -- and their current situation -- in mind while writing the scene. Actors call this being in the moment. Reacting to surrounding people and events in a logical fashion, rather than behaving in a manner disconnected from reality.

More bad scripting arises in Deadly Messages when Laura's doctor reveals Laura's brain diagnosis to Laura's boyfriend, Michael (Michael Brandon), and lets Michael break the news to Laura -- if he wishes. The doctor even confides his suspicion to Michael that, based on the test results, he thinks Laura has had electroshock therapy in the past, and has kept this hidden from Michael.

Again, this is nonsense. A professional physician is obligated to maintain patient confidentiality. Laura and Michael aren't even married. Yet the writer has the doctor blabbing Laura's medical secrets to her boyfriend. Why?

Because it's more dramatic. Rather than keep the characters' current situation in mind -- being in the moment -- the writer likely thought it more dramatic for Michael to learn about Laura's secret first, and then have him surprise her with the news.

The writer had also established that the doctor was Michael's friend, and wanted to protect Michael from the possibly mad Laura. But this is no excuse for the doctor betraying his patient's confidence. At the very least, the doctor should have raised this as an issue. It would have made the whole scene, including his betrayal, more believable.

Overall, Deadly Messages is a reasonably entertaining woman-in-peril, suspense mystery (with some supernatural elements). But, as is typical of TV movies, logic suffers for the sake of phony drama, hindering suspension ofdisbelief


For more information, 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.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Psychic Sue: Pragmatic Aesthetics in the Use of Location and Set Décor

One of the biggest expenses for many low-budget films is renting an appropriate location. Actors and crew will often work for deferred pay, or even no pay, and there are plenty of both to choose from. But appropriate locations -- especially on the cheap -- are harder to secure.

Money can be saved on location rentals (and their permit fees and insurance coverage) by reusing the same location for different locales (i.e., pretending that the same place is really someplace different). Even cheaper and easier if you can reuse the same location without changing any of its set décor.

(By location, I mean where a scene is filmed. By locale, I mean the place the location represents. For instance, a scene that is filmed in Toronto (the location) might represent an event occurring New York City (the locale.))

In the short, comedic horror film, Psychic Sue, Jennifer (Kate Finegan) visits Sue (Andrea Coyne) for a reading. Sue's psychic shop is stereotypical of such places -- red curtains, candles, occult knick-knacks. Sue spouts the usual spiritual gobbledygook. Rather than demanding anything so crass as money, Sue instead asks Jennifer to "cross my palm with silver." She also claims that her candles are "forged by the monks of Tibet."

Later, a ghost compels Sue to visit "a real psychic." So Sue visits psychic Zoe (Sarah Agha), whose shop is nearly identical to Sue's. Identical red curtains, candles, lights, occult knick-knacks. Only the tablecloth and its place setting are different.

Obviously, director Dave Lojek used the same room and set décor. He didn't even bother to vary the curtains and knick-knacks. Yet events make it clear that this location represents two different locales -- Sue's shop and Zoe's shop.

This dual use of the same location and set décor serves two purposes. Pragmatically, it saves money. Aesthetically, it provides humor. Monty Python often used the same sets (with only cursory changes in décor) for comedic effect, the characters pretending not to notice.

Well, sometimes one character -- usually the put-upon protagonist -- does a quick glance-about, noticing the striking similarities, before shrugging it off. Sue does likewise in Zoe's shop.

Psychic Sue's script reinforces the comedic effect of using identical rooms for different shops. For instance, Zoe spouts nearly identical nonsense to that of Sue. Zoe asks Sue to "cross my palm with silver" and extolls her candles as being "forged by the monks of Tibet."

By using the same location and décor for different locales, Lojek saved money. But what makes his reuse of locations especially admirable is that he put his financial corner-cutting to aesthetic use (e.g., heightening the humor).

Psychic Sue's duel use of the same location is an example of what I call pragmatic aesthetics -- when a filmmakers puts a budgetary compromise to aesthetic use.


For more information about mise-en-scène 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.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The First Step: Obscuring Low-Budget Makeup Effects

Sometimes less is more. A threat might be more frightening if unseen and left to our imagination. For instance, the entity in The Haunting, slowing pressing in the heavy wooden door as the terrified characters watch from its other side. We never did learn what lurked behind that door.
But sometimes "less is more" is just a filmmaker's excuse to show less (fewer sets, locations, actors, or special effects) because he could not afford to show more. The film needed to show more (nothing was aesthetically gained by its showing less), but more was not in the budget.
And sometimes these two motivations for showing less -- aesthetic and financial -- conjoin in a mutually supportive manner.
In The First Step, a cellar dweller creeps up from a basement, up three flights of stairs, to kill a little girl. This is a short, low-budget ($500) film. As such, the cellar dweller's makeup effect (by Delia De Cock) is admirably original and effective, but upon close examination, it looks like makeup.
This means that, should audiences get an opportunity to closely examine the makeup, it will be that much harder for them to suspend their disbelief and enjoy the horror.

The First Step solves this problem by obscuring the cellar dweller with dim lighting (such that the creature is often seen in silhouettes) ...

... and a soft focus (thus blurring the edges of the makeup application, so that the creature's twisted features appear natural).  

Framing also helps obscure the monster, often showing us only its body parts (e.g., a foot, a clawed hand, etc.).
I don't know if this was the filmmakers' (Daniel Brown and Kate McMeans) intent behind their lighting, photography, and framing, but that's the aesthetic effect. If you were to pause the film and scrutinize the creature, then its feature will more clearly be seen as artificial makeup, rather than actual monster skin. But when seen only briefly in quick cuts, and under dim lighting, and through a slight blur, then the creature's artificiality is less obvious.
By obscuring the cellar dweller, more is left to the viewer's imagination. This imagination is further stimulated by the monster's creepy voice and disjointed body movements, (actress Jon Anna Van Thuyne), both of which suggest all manner of horrors.

To recap:
The First Step's low-budget yields some fairly nice monster makeup effects, but these effects are obviously artificial should viewers closely examine them. To prevent such close examination of the makeup, the filmmaker employs...
* Dim lighting (creating silhouettes),
* Soft focus (blurring the image),
* Tight framing (showing only parts of the monster),
* Quick cuts (further preventing close examination of the creature).
This leaves the creature's nature up to our dark imaginings, which are further stimulated by ...
* Sound (a creepy voice for the monster),
* Acting (disjointed body movements by the actor).


For more information about lighting, photography, framing, editing, sound, and acting 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.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Acting in Clockwatchers: Artificial Facial Expressions vs. Authentic Emotions

There is no such thing as horror acting. There are horror actors (e.g., Bela Lugosi, Peter Cushing, Jamie Lee Curtis), but only in the sense that the actor becomes known for working in many horror films. But there is no horror acting style. Yes, scream queens will scream, but their screaming is more often a form of performing rather than acting.
Performing is a broad term that encompasses (among other pursuits) dancing, singing, poetry readings, standup comedy, acting, and screaming in a Halloween haunted house attraction.
True acting, as taught by teachers of The Method, involves creating a character with an authentic, emotional inner life. Real emotions that actors project through their instruments that's what Method teachers call an actor's entire being (including his face, body, thoughts, and emotions).
Method actors emote through their instruments.
Most of the past decade's hundreds of micro-budget, indie horror films fail in one or more areas. Flat lighting, crude sound, and poorly motivated characters  are prevalent. But the most common defect among micro-budgeted indie horror films is the quality of the acting.
Some beginner actors mistakenly think that acting is largely about creating facial expressions. (Someone even self-published a book about it.) But if the actor does not project an inner emotional life, then the facial expression will appear false. External and artificial, rather than internal and authentic.
You've likely fooled around with friends, when one of you pretended to be sad, angry, or scared, maybe by mugging a facial expression. Surely everyone could see that the person was merely playacting, rather than actually being sad, angry, or scared.
Conversely, there were likely times when you sensed that your friend was sad, angry, or scared, even if they tried to hide such emotions behind a happy face. Their true emotions were breaking through the surface -- a far more powerful and convincing thing to see than a fake expression.
Great acting is not about artificial facial expressions, but about generating and projecting real emotions.
A scene in Clockwatchers (1997) demonstrates an acting fallacy committed by poor actors (and poor directors). Lisa Kudrow plays an office temp (Paula) with dreams of becoming an actress. While riding home a bus, Paula shows a co-worker all the great faces she's learned at acting class. This scene is meant to satirize poor Paula, who (unlike Kudrow) is a terrible actress. Yet this scene also illustrates one of the hallmarks of bad acting.

While Paula's "acting" is as good as that in many low-budget horror films, it falls short of great acting. (Her happy face appears the most authentic. This is likely because Paula herself is in an upbeat mood as she showcases her faces to her co-worker, so her happy face has authentic emotions behind it.)

However, to really "get" the above scene, one must view the actual film. Film students should watch Clockwatchers in any event, as it is one of the best indie films of the 1990s. A satire of office cubicle workers, it has authentic acting and dialog, and is subtler, more powerful, more poignant, and more true-to-life than the similarly themed Office Space.
Students of acting and directing should also compare Betty's (Naomi Watts) two performances of the same scene in Mulholland Drive. Betty, like Paula, is an aspiring actress. Betty first performs the scene at home, as she practices for her audition. Her performance is pretty poor. Betty then performs the scene a second time at the audition. This time her performance is so extraordinary.

This instructive scene from Mulholland Drive not only demonstrates great acting as opposed to poor acting, but it also shows that the same scene, when played with different emotions, yields startlingly different results. 

For more information about acting 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.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Dual Use of a Wide-Angle Lens in "The Concrete Captain"

Wide-angle lenses expand space. If the lens's angle is wide enough, it even noticeably distorts space. Horror films have found many applications, both aesthetic and pragmatic, for wide-angle lenses. Among its uses, a wide-angle lens can...

* Depict the subjective POV of a person who's drugged, drunk, tired, or insane.

* Depict the subjective POV of an unnatural creature (e.g., a ghost, alien, demon).

* Suggest an ominous, alien, or supernatural presence or situation.

* Photograph everthing in small rooms or tight spaces (low-budget films can rarely afford to rent a professional studio in which the camera has enough space to pull back to photograph a scene).

* Expand space so as to suggest a larger setting. (Realtors also use wide-angles lenses for this purpose -- ever notice that houses, lawns, and backyards often look bigger in their Zillow photos than they do at Open House?)

But especially admirable is when a filmmaker achieves more than one aesthetic effect from a wide-angle lens. Such an application may be referred to as being aesthetically efficient.

It is because of its aesthetic efficiency that I admire this shot from "The Concrete Captain," an episode from TV's Ghost Story/Circle of Fear.

In the above scene, a ghost possesses Gene Rowlands, compelling her to come out to the beach. Her husband, played by Stuart Whitman, catches up and tries to bring Rowlands back to the motel. They struggle at the top of some stairs.

The wide-angle lens in this scene achieves two effects.

* First, the lens's distortion of space suggests a supernatural presence (i.e., the ghost possessing Rowlands).

* Second, the lens' expansion of space makes the stairs appear that much higher above the ground. This makes the consequences of falling down those stairs appear that much more dire, thus heightening viewers' tension as they watch Rowlands and Whitman struggle.


For more about the use of lenses 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.