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.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Night of the Demons (2009): Colored Lights Enhance Low-Budget Horror

The past decade's proliferation of inexpensive, high-quality video cameras has yielded hundreds (maybe thousands) of low-budget horror films. Alas, many of these films suffer from that cheap "home video" look and sound -- and in a way that does not aesthetically support the characters, story, or themes.

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).

I don't normally like horror film remakes, but 2009's Night of the Demons is a fairly good one, largely (though not exclusively) due to its use of diegetic colored lights.

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.

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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.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Tim Burton's Dark Shadows Fails Because It Subverts the Original Characters

The greatest strength and pleasure of TV's Dark Shadows (1966-71) were its characters. I doubt this Gothic soap opera was ever scary to an adult (though "the hand of Count Petofi" scared me as a child). The show is famous for its bloopers. Wobbly tombstones and boom mics in the frame. This is why some modern critics claim that the show's primary appeal is as camp comedy.

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.

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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.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Broken: A Character's Facial Shift as Horror

Horror may be defined as the realization that "the world isn't the same as our minds believe" (to cite the bounty hunter, Rogan, in Fox TV's Werewolf). Likewise, horror can be the realization that an intimate loved one is not who you believed them to be. Or that you yourself are not who you believed yourself to be.

This revelation of someone being other than they appear to be can be done through special effects, but I am especially impressed when it's conveyed through story and acting (i.e., a shift in facial expression) alone.

In The Broken (2008), Gina (Lena Heady) suffers a car crash. Physically okay, she is now plagued with amnesia -- and a growing suspicion that she has a double (i.e., a doppelganger, though that term is not used) who is somewhere out there, following her. Why?

Gina then grows suspicious that her boyfriend, Stefan (Melvil Poupaud), is not her boyfriend. That he's been replaced by his doppleganger.

If it sounds like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, that's no accident. The Broken pays direct homage to the 1978 remake when a frightened Asian man tells Gina's brother, Daniel (Asier Newman), "That's not my wife."

The Broken's conceit is supported by a creepy atmosphere that's achieved through 1. long stretches of silence (occasionally supported by some unsettling ambient noise), and 2. extreme closeups of mundane objects.

(David Lynch has used these same techniques to great effect, and The Broken continues borrowing from Lynch through to its penultimate scene, with a musical score that's reminiscent of the one at the end of Mulholland Drive.)

The Broken packs its greatest emotional punch at films end. Actually, two punches.

The First Punch is in the penultimate scene, in the form of a Big Revelation. Gina's long hunt for her doppelganger ends when she discovers her own dead body in her apartment, whereupon Gina's amnesia lifts and she remembers that She is the doppelganger!

Naturally, she is distraught by this revelation, in an emotional scene that is supported by The Broken's Lynchian music score.

I saw this revelation coming about 15 minutes before it did. It's not too original a plot twist. Many films have protagonists who discover at the end that they're really the villain (Total Recall, Thr3e, Number 23), or really the good guy (Murder by Night), or a ghost (The Sixth Sense, The Others) or dead (Jacob's Ladder). Ideally, the audience is likewise surprised. Having empathized with the protagonist, they emotionally share the protagonist's shock and distraught.

But it's The Broken's final scene that makes it a truly great horror film. Its Second Punch is a Personality Shift that is one of the scariest horror scenes of the past decade. It's a scare that's achieved without special effects, but through story and acting alone.

In this final scene, Gina is at work, knowing that she is a doppleganger. She exits the room to see her brother, Daniel, in the hallway. She'd earlier warned Daniel about the doppelgangers. Daniel has by now seen the personality transformation in his fiancée.

We'd last seen Gina as a sympathetic character. A woman distraught at learning that, before her amnesia, she had been a murderous doppelganger.


She approaches Daniel, a blank look on her face. Is she still the sympathetic doppelganger with a conscience? We can't tell from her expression.


Daniel stares at her. Saying nothing. Wondering if she's now also one of them. (She always was, though she -- and he -- didn't know it.)


An expression of hate clouds Gina's face. The same cold hate we'd seen on the other doppelgangers. The camera moves in closer to emphasize Gina's expression. She remains silent. No warm words of greeting to her brother.

Whereupon Daniel runs away in fear.

This is the Second Punch. It's the scariest scene in the film because we have grown to empathize with Gina. She had been warm and loving. The First Punch was shocking, but it didn't mean we couldn't continue sympathizing with her as a doppelganger. Bruce Willis remained sympathetic in The Sixth Sense, though he turned out to be a ghost. Arnold Schwarzenegger remained a hero in Total Recall, though he learned had been an evil government agent before his memories were removed.

Gina's emotional acceptance of her villainy is the real terror of The Broken. Not the initial terror of her being stalked by doppelgangers. Not the second terror of discovering that she's one of them. But the final/third terror of her embracing her dark side -- of her personality transforming into entirely new person.

Some monsters resist their dark side. Gina didn't. She became evil before our eyes. A transformation achieved largely through Headey's performance.

Daniel's discovery of Gina's personality shift evokes Invasion of the Body Snatchers's scene where Nancy's discovers that Matthew has become a pod person. In both films, a frightened mortal approaches a trusted friend, only to have that friend's face reveal that they are no longer the same. But Donald Sutherland's monster -- although suggested by his performance -- also benefited from the sound effects emanating from his mouth. Not so with Lena Heady.

Lost Souls has a character shift that's similar to Gina's -- a scary transformation implied largely through acting. At the film's end, Peter (Ben Chaplin) is about to become the Antichrist on a specific time. (The date and time of his birth, 33 years ago.) He urges Maya (Winona Ryder) to shoot him after the transformation.


The time arrives and Peter insists that the transformation didn't occur. He begs Maya to put down the gun. Maya is confused. Should she put down the gun? Then the car's clock blinks 666 -- indicating that now the transformation has happened.


Ben Chaplin's expression changes, indicating that now Peter is the Antichrist.

Shifts in facial expression, especially when a trusted person is suddenly revealed to be evil, are an effective way of scaring audiences. Many examples exist. To cite just one more, consider Ray Wise's changes of facial expression to suggest Bob's possession of Leland in Twin Peaks.

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For more about acting techniques 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, April 14, 2012

La muerte incierta Demands DVD Release

It seems that most significant (and a great many minor) horror films have by now been released on DVD. Even more titles are available on VHS, if only as used copies. Yet a few stragglers remain. Horror films that one has read of, but never seen.

Some of these lost films may be found on bootleg or file-sharing sites, or even on Ebay. Apparently, a loophole in copyright law allows an out-of-print film to be copied and sold. (At least that's what one seller told me.)

But one horror film that remains elusive, though I've sought it since the 1990s, is La muerte incierta. (You can see its trailer, below.)


This Spanish film was released in 1973. The Internet Movie Database says that it also has an Italian title: La morte incerta. But the IMDb lists no English title. Perhaps the film was never released in an English-speaking country?

My favorite online translator translates the Spanish tile as The Uncertain Death, the Italian title as Death Uncertain.

Certainly, La muerte incierta is an obscurity. I've never met a horror fan who's ever heard of it, though it's been talked about online. As best I know, the film was never released on home video in any format. It might not ever have had an American theatrical release.

Even so, La muerte incierta is not without a respectable pedigree. The film was directed by José Ramón Larraz, who is perhaps best known to horror fans for Vampyres (1975). It also features actress Rosalba Neri (The Devil's Wedding Night).


But I'm most interested in La muerte incierta because it features my favorite obscure British horror actress: Mary Maude.

Maude may be best known to horror fans for her role as the sadistic schoolgirl in
The House That Screamed (aka, La residencia). Maude told Filmfax No. 75-76 that she considers her work in the film only half a performance, because her voice was dubbed by another English actress. Maude was working on another project at the time of dubbing, and thus was unavailable.

Maude's only other starring role in a horror film was in the oddball Crucible of Terror, though she also had a bit part in Terror (British 1978).

As you can see, Maude's body of work in horror is small. Which makes me all the more curious to see La muerte incierta.

Considering that La muerte incierta involves José Ramón Larraz, Rosalba Neri, and Mary Maude, I think there's a decent-sized market for it, should any DVD distributor be paying attention.

Of course, there's always the grim possibility that the film is truly lost. All copies trashed or burned or destroyed beyond repair. All that remains are some posters and lobby cards, and a trailer. Hints of what might once have been.

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For more about obscure, "must see" 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, March 13, 2012

Moving Shots Enliven a Static Threat (e.g., The Great Alligator and The Creepy Doll)

Sometimes a horror filmmaker faces the problem of making a “static threat” appear frightening. For instance, a cheap monster prop that doesn't move. Not all filmmakers can afford expensive electronic puppets or CGI effects. In such cases, a moving shot (aka a moving frame) can help enliven the static prop.

In the 1979 Italian film, Il fiume del grande caimano (aka The Great Alligator, The Big Alligator River), director Sergio Martino has a giant alligator prop that resembles a floatation device. The prop can swish its tail, but that's about it.

However, Martino makes his alligator appear more lively by panning his camera along the alligator. Sometimes, the alligator prop is pushed in one direction while Martino's camera pans in the opposite direction. Or the prop is pushed toward the camera, which pans to the side. This interplay of movement enlivens the prop.

It's still obviously a prop, but the moving camera helps audiences suspend their disbelief. And because The Great Alligator is a highly entertaining film, many viewers will want to suspend their disbelief, and thus are already halfway there, provided that Martino helps them along. As he does with his moving camera.

In addition to his moving camera, the silliness of Martino's alligator prop is further mitigated by tight framing (only parts of the alligator appear in the frames -- his foot, his snout, his tail, etc.), and brief shots (because these these quick cuts are of short duration, audiences lack the time to mentally digest and contemplate the lameness of the prop onscreen).

Here's a fine alligator attack scene from The Great Alligator (the poor sound is my ineptitude). Observe the 1. moving frame, 2. tight frame, and 3. brief shots, and consider how they help the alligator prop appear more lively and less silly.



Now compare to this earlier scene from The Great Alligator. Here Martino uses some tight frames, but lets in a wide frame, allowing us to see the alligator prop in full. Not very impressive, is it?



Despite its shortcomings, The Great Alligator is a highly enjoyable Jaws ripoff. I've seen it many times and recommend it.

P.J. Woodside, director of The Creepy Doll, was likewise faced with the problem of a static threat -- that of a doll. The doll never moves or talks. (Once, near the end, it changes expression.) The Creepy Doll is a subtler, more psychological horror film that many contemporary horror films.

How to promote a horror film to audiences, when its threat is so static? How to present this threat in a trailer?

Woodside's solution was to move her camera around and about the doll, sometimes just bobbing a bit, as demonstrated below:



It works. Woodside's moving camera helps enliven the doll, implying that a dark mind lurks beneath its plastic, painted surface.

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For more about framing and editing 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, March 10, 2012

How Christianity Functions in Absentia

Interpreting a film for symbols and themes is a somewhat subjective process. I liken the interpretive process to an asymptotic curve.

In Mike Flanagan's Absentia, the Christianity is subtle but explicit. Buddhism also makes an appearance. Why are these religions in the film? Do they serves a function?

Absentia is about two sisters, Trish and Kelly, who live near a portal to another dimension. A dimension inhabited by Lovecraftian demons. The sisters are unaware of this. Or that it was a demon that abducted Trish's husband seven years ago.

Trish is a Buddhist. Kelly is a Christian. Trish meditates with incense and a gong. Kelly prays before a crucifix on her bedroom wall. The sisters occasionally discuss their respective religions. Thus, Absentia's religious elements are explicit.

But not much is made of these elements. The sisters' discussions are brief and without conflict. Thus, while the religious elements are explicit, they are also subtle.

How do these religious elements serve the film?

Spoilers ahead...



Eventually, the demon abducts Trish. Kelly offers herself up to the demon in exchange for Trish. At the last minute, Kelly changes her mind and flees. To no avail. The demon takes Kelly -- and keeps Trish.

Actress Katie Parker (who plays Kelly) suggested at a recent screening that Kelly's Christianity and Trish's Buddhism were intended to emphasize the monster's power -- that no religion could protect you.

Yes, I can see that interpretation. But I also see how Absentia's religious elements function in other ways:

1. Kelly's explicit Christianity adds subtext to the story. It fleshes out her character.

2. Her Christianity provides motivation for her character when she offers to sacrifice herself for Trish. That Kelly changes her mind and flees demonstrates that she's still human and flawed (i.e., only Christ is perfect.).

Apart from her Christianity, two other factors motivate Kelly's intended self-sacrifice: 1. Her love for Trish, and 2. Her hurt and guilt over Trish having called her a prodigal sister. Kelly is hurt by this comment and wants to prove Trish wrong. And Kelly feels latent guilt; a part of her worries that there's truth to Trish's accusation.

As for Trish's Buddhism, I think it's there to offset Kelly's Christianity, for two reasons.

1. Some viewers may think the film too preachy if Christianity is the only religion portrayed in an explicitly positive manner.

2. Some viewers regard Christians as bigots. This preconception is proven wrong by Kelly accepting her Buddhist sister. Thus, Kelly's reaction to Trish's religion further fleshes out Kelly's character (i.e., she is a humble and tolerant Christian).

Trish's Buddhism acts as foil for Kelly's Christianity (i.e., Trish's Buddhism functions more to flesh out Kelly than Trish).

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For more about interpreting themes and symbols 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.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Parody vs. Mash-Up -- Contrasting Waxwork II: Lost in Time with The X-File's "The Post-Modern Prometheus"

The parody is a relatively easy subgenre to create, because all the main story elements -- the characters (their attitudes, mannerisms, physical appearances), the dramatic situations, the cinematographic and audio styles -- are given to the parodist. Filmmakers and writers who tackle other genres must strive to create original characters and storylines -- an effort that does not burden parodists.

Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1991) demonstrates how easily a lazy filmmaker can create serviceable entertainment when parodying past films. By contrast, "The Post-Modern Prometheus" episode of TV's The X-Files shows how a filmmaker can build upon parodied elements to create something new and worthwhile.

Waxwork II is a sort-of anthology film that parodies previous horror films. Its two lead characters, Mark and Sarah, enter a time warp that sends them through various scenarios, each evoking a horror film.

At one point Mark finds himself with a group of ghost hunters, about to explore a haunted house. Horror fans will immediately recognize the tale as parodying The Haunting (1963). Waxwork II borrows the characters (as in the original, two men and two women), some of their names (both films contain an Eleanor), their attitudes (in both films, an assertive lesbian hits on a timid Eleanor; the lead investigator is a stuffy scientist), the black and white cinematography, and many situations (the laughing girl behind the door).

Waxwork II offers a few original bits, but with rare exception (John's exposed ribs), the film's original elements are unfunny. All the real humor derives from mimicking The Haunting.

Thus, the parodied elements act as a crutch for an otherwise unfunny comedy.

Examine how slavishly the parody mimics the original, in both content and style (and these are only a few of many examples):







This slavish mimicry is true throughout Waxwork II. In another vignette, Sarah finds herself on an alien spacecraft. Very quickly, horror fans will recognize this as a parody of Alien (1979). The astronauts' uniforms resemble those in Alien. Sarah's hair mimics Ripley's hair. The astronauts are cynical and slovenly. And they're being pursued by an alien that bursts from people's chests.


In both of the above vignettes, the audience's pleasure derives not from original characters or situations created by the filmmaker, but from the audience's sense of recognition at identifying which film this or that scene is lifted from.

Of course, many comedies, not just parodies, derive laughs from a sense of recognition. But whereas other comedy subgenres must strive to create original characters and situations from which to draw that sense of recognition, parodies can all too easily get lazy and rely solely on a mimicry-based sense of recognition.

All this is not to say that a slavish parody can't be entertaining -- just that it's a relatively easy and lazy form of filmmaking.

By contrast, consider "The Post-Modern Prometheus" episode of TV's The X-Files. This TV episode simultaneously parodies multiple targets (not just one source film per vignette), then blends all these targets together, while also adding strong, original elements (e.g., series leads Mulder and Scully), to create something new that can stand on its own merits.

In "The Post-Modern Prometheus," Mulder and Scully are presented in 1930s black and white, in a story that borrows characters, situations, and themes from Frankenstein, The Elephant Man,The Mask, and Edward Scissorhands (particularly the episode's music -- check the YouTube excerpt below), and then juggles and mixes these disparate elements into an original, compelling, and cohesive story.



By cohesive, I mean that the story is not just a disparate sequence of random parodied targets, but that all the elements -- Mulder and Scully's characters and attitudes, the original story elements, the parodied targets -- hold together (every element aesthetically and dramatically supporting the other elements) and create a unified story, one that is both unexpectedly funny and surprisingly poignant, while remaining true to Mulder and Scully's personalities.

That is to say, "The Post-Modern Prometheus" works as an The X-Files episode. It does not feel as if Mulder and Scully are slumming in an unrelated "very special episode" because the writers couldn't think of an The X-Files episode that week.


By contrast, Waxwork II feels unfocused and overlong. The main (original) characters are not interesting in themselves. They exist for no purpose other than to meander about as props in the increasingly dull and obvious parody vignettes. Tellingly, the film's most original vignette (the medieval story) is also its most tedious.

Unlike Waxwork II, "The Post-Modern Prometheus" is not only a parody -- it's a mash-up. The former over-relies on borrowed elements as a crutch. The latter borrows smaller bits from many sources, adds large doses of originality, then mixes it into something wholly new.

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For more commentary 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.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Ghost and Us: Showing, Not Telling

Emily Carmichael's horror comedy short film, The Ghost and Us, provides an excellent working example of the old screenwriting rule, Show, Don't Tell.

In the film, Laura (Maria Dizzia), is newly married to a man she loves. Ben (Geordie Broadwater) loves her back. The problem is that Ben's ex-wife, Sena (Moira Dennis), won't let go. She keeps dropping by unannounced. Laura even finds Sena in the newlyweds' bedroom, whispering sweet nothings into Ben's ear.

Laura can't even get a restraining order against Sena, because ... Sena is dead. The woman isn't just a stalker, she is a spiritual stalker.

(Yes, The Ghost and Us evokes Blithe Spirit.)

Despite its short length (11 minutes), The Ghost and Us provides story arcs for all three of its characters (wife, husband, dead wife). All three characters change in some small way by film's end.

Especially admirable is the film's mid-point scene. As Syd Field teaches, the mid-point is where one should normally place a film's key turning point/incident -- an incident that affects the main characters' story arcs. The Ghost and Us not only achieves this, but it does so by showing, not telling.

Prior to this mid-point scene, Laura and Sena have battled and bickered over Ben's affections. The mid-point scene begins after Laura and Sena have engaged in a temporary truce. Together, they share a snack in the kitchen. Girl stuff of the sort that bonds women.



Then it becomes apparent that Sena cannot eat. She's a ghost.

Laura's attempt to help Sena eat, and the latter's realization that she's no longer of this world, both strengthens their bond, and conveys a poignancy that lifts The Ghost and Us above a mere spook tale. Adding to the scene's strength is that:

1. It's conveyed visually. Rather than having the two women say nice things about each other, Carmichael shows Sena's inability to eat, and Laura's futile attempt to help her rival.

2. It's not overdone or overlong. The incident occurs. It's over. The women return to battle. (Albeit with a greater understanding of their situation, and of each other, hence, their emotional story arcs are advanced.) By not belaboring this scene, The Ghost and Us avoids the trap of cheap sentimentality.

Actually, The Ghost and Us is admirable for just having a story and characters. All too many horror films these days are just an unmotivated succession of scenes which contain nothing but gore effects.

Emily Carmichael is an NYU film school graduate whose work has screened at the Sundance Film Festival. She may be contacted at Kid Can Drive.

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For more commentary about 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, January 31, 2012

Horror Films Are Too Loud

At a horror film festival last year, a filmmaker made an offhand remark about "the loud scary sound" in his film. He assumed I knew what he meant by "the loud scary sound."

Alas, I did. Horror films are full of "the loud scary sound," or what I term, an Audio Shock.

An Audio Shock is a 1. brief increase in volume that startles an audience. Audio Shocks serve a legitimate purpose. They unnerve viewers, making them emotionally receptive to tension and fear.

But shocks are not to be confused with fear. Shocks are easy. Loud noises and gory visuals shock viewers. Audience jump, and then it's over.

Fear is a longer-term emotion, lasting for (hopefully) much of the film's duration. Fear is creepy and tense and lingers throughout the viewing experience. Story, characters, and atmosphere build tension and fear over the course of a film.

Shocks unnerve viewers (tilling their emotional soil), so that the seeds of fear may grow.

Unfortunately, lazy or inept horror filmmakers offer Audio Shocks and visual gore -- but then fall back on hackneyed stories and cardboard characters. Their films till the soil, but plant no seeds. They mistakenly believe that Loud = Scary.

Not!

Cheap and easy shocks may be enough to satisfy newbie fans, but after a few years, jaded viewers want more than just being jolted. They want story and characters, atmosphere and originality -- even a Sense of Wonder.

Apart from Audio Shocks (a brief "loud scary sound"), some films blast extended eardrum-rupturing noise at audiences, in the mistaken belief that Loud = Exciting. Some horror films feature an attack or chase scene that lasts for minutes, with eardrum-rupturing noise (usually music or sound effects) extending over all that time.

While horror films are most likely to use (brief) Audio Shocks, the action film is the genre primarily guilty of popularizing the extended loud noise aesthetic, with gunfire and explosions contributing to much of the eardrum assault.

But alas, horror has been borrowing action film aesthetics, its loud scenes growing ever longer. This is why I've taken to bringing ear plugs to horror film screenings.

It's not my imagination. Ioan Allen of Dolby Laboratories blames this loudness trend on insecure directors. As he put is: "Somebody said that the loudness is inversely proportional to the number of days left before the preview." ("Beyond the Ear-Death Experience: Tech Experts Blame Helmers for Current Loudness Syndrome," by Neil S. Yonover. Daily Variety, August 21, 1997, p. 13.)

Yes, insecure directors, of horror or action films, will up the volume in the mistaken belief that it will make their films more frightening or exciting.

When I was running another horror film festival a few years ago, a director entered the control booth, instructing me to make sure that the volume was especially loud at a certain "crucial moment." He even took the liberty of adjusting the sound controls, showing me where he wished me to set it. (Of course, I lowered the volume back to comfortable levels right after he exited the control booth.)

These insecure directors just don't get it. Loud does not equal scary (or exciting). Rather, it's the contrast in noise levels that creates an audio shock.

In Aliens, a rescue crew is exploring a deserted lab. Sound levels are low. Carter (Paul Reiser) stares at a jar -- when an alien in the jar TAPS against it.


This mere TAP functions as an effective Audio Shock. It's enough to make audiences jump. Not because the TAP is especially loud, but because of 1. the contrast in sound levels between the room's silence and the TAP against the jar, and 2. the unexpectedness of the TAP.

Audio Shocks are not created by loud noises, but by a sudden (unexpected) increase in volume.

To recap:

1. Audio Shocks (a brief and unexpected increase in volume) unnerve audiences, so as to make them emotionally more receptive to fear (which in turn is created by story, characters, and atmosphere).

2. Audio Shocks need not be painfully loud.

3. Horror filmmakers should not rely on Audio Shocks and visual gore alone. A strong horror film needs an intriguing story and engaging characters.

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For more commentary about audio shocks, 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.