Saturday, July 8, 2017

Bite Is a Christian Allegory Against Fornication

I've written previously about the nature and difficulties of interpreting a film's message. It is an inexact process, but not wholly subjective.

That said, a strong case can be made that Bite (2015) is a Christian allegory against fornication. This is especially surprising considering that Bite hails from Canada, a nation even more politically correct than the U.S. I'm guessing the film's writer and director didn't realize what they were making.

You can read my review of Bite -- and my case for its being a Christian allegory, at the Hollywood Investigator.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Stephen Furst of The Unseen Dies

News outlets are reporting that actor Stephen Furst has died. According to JD Knapp at Daily Variety [June 17, 2017]:


Stephen Furst, best known for getting his start in “Animal House,” has passed away due to complications with diabetes, Variety can confirm. He was 63 years old. 

Furst died in his Moorpark, Calif. home on Friday. His sons Nathan and Griff Furst confirmed their father’s death on Facebook Saturday evening.


New media are highlighting what they regard as Furst's most noteworthy acting achievements, such as roles in Animal House, Babylon 5, and St. Elsewhere. They're overlooking the work by Furst that most impressed me: that of "Junior" Keller in the 1980 horror film, The Unseen.

The Unseen is one of my favorite horror films. (And I am not the person to say that lightly.) A framed poster from the film currently hangs in my living room. The one on the right. There are many Unseen posters out there, with different images. I should know. I own a few. 

In The Unseen, Furst performed splendidly as an inbred, retarded killer. In my review of the film, I wrote: 

But it is Stephen Furst (Animal House) who shines as Junior Keller ... the unseen. Weldon describes Junior as a "murderous, retarded, overweight, full- grown baby." That's kinda what Junior looks like, but not really what he is. Having seen The Unseen a dozen or so times, I suspect he kills the women by accident. He merely wants a closer look (at Lamm's golden hair, for instance), and pulls too hard. A child who doesn't know his own strength. And he's not a "full-grown baby," he just looks like one because he's fat, dressed in soiled diaper-like rags, and he can't talk. He can only grunt.

Okay actors. Here's an assignment: Portray a sympathetic mutant retard killer, while wearing soiled diaper-like rags, in makeup that makes you look like some ugly incestuous spawn from Deliverance. And all you're allowed to do is grunt. Grunt and stomp and pound and grunt.  And oh yeah, try and be nuanced and subtle.

Furst does it.




His Junior is ugly and frightening, yet we detect his motivations beneath his grunting and stomping. His frustrated ineffectual attempts to communicate with Bach and recruit her for his playmate. His love for mom. His fear, then anger, at dad. However repulsive and scary and unsympathetic Junior initially appears, his demise is poignant. I hesitate to equate Furst's Junior with Karloff's Monster, but I also hesitate to dismiss the comparison out of hand.


You can see the entire film on YouTube (although I also own it on Beta, VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray -- in addition to seeing it in the theater when it was first released.)





Some horror fans hate The Unseen. Why do I love it so much? You can read my entire review here.

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For more about The Unseen, 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, June 3, 2017

In Search of Lovecraft Suffers from Poorly Motivated Characters

Poorly motivated characters are a common problem. These characters' actions are inconsistent with their previous behavior. Writers threat these characters as puppets, having them say or do things merely to advance the story, without regard as to whether that character, as established by his other actions or statements, would do that

Slasher film victims are a classic example. It often makes no sense for them to wander about the woods at night after everyone has strangely disappeared. Yet they do so anyway, merely because the writer wants to get that character from point A to point B.

In Search of Lovecraft (2008) provides another example. In this film, two TV journalists, Rebecca and Mike (Renee Sweet and Tytus Bergstrom), investigate a Lovecraftian cult. The film explodes with poor directing, acting, and writing, but I'll limit myself to a few scenes.

Who is this Mike character? Writer/director David J. Hohl establishes that Mike is an Army veteran who has seen combat. Mike carries a gun. He's strong. He's brooding. He's tough.


 

Dr. D'Souza (Saqib Mausoof) tips off Mike and Rebecca that information on the cult might be obtained at a certain spot in the woods, late at night. Mike and Rebecca drive there and park. Their intern, Amber (Denise Amrikhas), sits in the back seat. (above)




We hear a noise. The car shakes. A tentacle descends on the windshield. The creature breaks the rear window. The panicked Amber exits the car. The creature pulls her up and out of sight. Rebecca opens the car door, about to exit and rescue Amber.

Holding back Rebecca, Mike says, "You can't go outside."

"But we have to find Amber," Rebecca protests.




Remaining safe in the car, Mike shines his flashlight out the window.

"Do you see her?" asks Rebecca.

"Too late," says Mike. "Go! Go now! Go now!"

What are ex-soldier Mike's motivations? Is he really a coward? Or perhaps he only wanted to "go now" because he was protective of Rebecca, the woman he really cares about?

Let's see what Mike does next. 






The next day, Mike and Rebecca set up a meeting with Dr. D'Souza at a park in San Francisco. Upon spotting D'Souza, Mike rushes up and grabs him, as though about to beat up D'Souza.

"Amber's gone!" Mike shouts. "Will you tell us what's going on!"

"Do you have any idea what happened to us last night?" asks Rebecca.

"What the fuck attacked us?" asks Mike.

"I warned you about the cult," D'Souza replies.

Why is Mike attacking D'Souza? Up till now they trusted him. Mike never showed any concern for Amber in any previous scene. And if Mike did care about Amber, why didn't he try to find and help her last night? Instead of urging Rebecca to drive off now?

Mike is acting tough simply to act tough. Acting tough not from any motivation, but because writer Hohl wants Mike to act tough. Maybe Hohl thinks that having Mike bully D'Souza will inject drama into the scene.

And then Mike's character grows less consistent.








While Mike and D'Souza are bickering, a disheveled bum approaches Rebecca. He grabs her arm and presses a bloody handkerchief against it.

"Ow, you're hurting me! You're hurting me!" screams Rebecca.

Rebecca, Mike's love interest, is being attacked. Rebecca screams that she's being "hurt." How does Mike react?




Upon hearing Rebecca's screams, Mike slowly turns to see what's troubling her. And then does ... nothing. Like a block of wood, Mike watches the bum leave, having given the handkerchief -- containing Amber's ear -- to Rebecca.

So what is Mike's character? Tough? Brave? A hothead?

Mike is tough, brave, and hotheaded enough to bully D'Souza, who's threatening no one. But Mike doesn't attack the bum, who was "hurting" Rebecca. Even with Rebecca screaming right beside him, Mike only slowly takes notice of her.

Is Mike a coward? Afraid of the bum? Yet D'Souza is taller and younger than the bum. Mike might run from a tentacled monster, but if he can fight D'Souza, he can take the bum. So if Mike's not afraid of the bum, why didn't he defend Rebecca?

Is Mike a hothead? Hotheaded enough to attack D'Souza for an event that occurred last night. But not so hotheaded as to attack a bum who right now was "hurting" the woman he truly cares for.

Mike's instances of toughness, bravery, and hotheadedness are inconsistent. They come and go without rhyme or reason. Without any discernible motivation.

Mike does what he does because writer Hohl uses Mike -- and the other characters -- as empty-headed puppets, their sole purpose to move things along from scene to scene. Mike runs from the monster because Hohl is finished with that scene. Mike shouts at D'Souza because Hohl thinks it's dramatic. Mike ignores the bum because Hohl wants the bum to leave. 

Mike acts according to Hohl's motivations because Hohl hasn't provided Mike with any of his own motivations.

Inconsistent, poorly motivated characters are less "real." Thus, audiences are less likely to sympathize and empathize with them. Which weakens the horror in a horror film.

To better understand why, read my post about the importance of characters in horror. Also read about the poorly motivated characters in Dark Floors.

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For more practical tips for low-budget horror filmmakers, 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, June 2, 2017

A Minimalist Production Design for Out of His Tree

Finding suitable locations is one of the bigger problems confronting low-budget horror filmmakers. Many actors and crew members will work for little pay or no pay. Realistic looking locations (e.g., a restaurant, school, airport, hospital) are more difficult and costly to secure. Shooting permits, location fees, and liability insurance are expensive for those on a shoestring budget. In some cases, the law even requires a (paid) fire marshal and/or other professionals to be on set at all times.

But with a little imagination, filmmakers and production designers can create locations on the cheap. Such as in Out of His Tree (2016), an eight minute film set inside a hospital.

Hospital rooms, whether real or on a sound stage, can be expensive to rent. Instead, for Out of His Tree, production designer Sorsha Willow took a minimalist approach, merely suggesting a hospital with only a few set pieces.








Out of His Tree has two locations. The first is Dr. White's (Laverne Edmonds) office. She makes some phone calls before going to see her next patient. Her "office" is just a white area. The only set piece is a white phone.

Writer/director Robert Howat's cinematography assists Willow's minimalist design by bathing the office in soft white light, and blurring the wall behind Edmonds. What is that on the "wall" behind her? Charts and papers? We don't know. Nor does it matter.

Sound effects further assist in suggesting a hospital: soft conversations echoing in a hallway, phones ringing, etc.

Because a solitary actress standing in an empty white space can make for a static, dull scene, Howat enlivens the scene by shooting Laverne from different angles during her conversation.







The second location is in the patient Johnny's (Robert Howat) room. We learn that Dr. White is a psychiatrist. Johnny is mentally ill. Their conversation comprises the remainder of the film, ending with a supernatural revelation.

It's a simple white room. The main set pieces are two metal chairs, some papers, and wrist straps on Johnny.

Apart from saving money, the film's minimalist set design has the aesthetic effect of focusing our attention on Dr. White and Johnny, because there's little else in the rooms to distract our attention.




This focus is further heightened by Howat's heavy use of medium closeups and closeups. The frames become tighter as the story progresses, enhancing our intimacy with the characters.

It has been said that comedy is a long shot while drama is a closeup. Long shots emotionally distance audiences from the characters' sufferings. Closeups pull us into their hopes, dreams, desperations, and fears. Howat's use of closeups serves his dark supernatural tale well.

Also read about how low-budget filmmakers created inexpensive locations for Mark of the Witch and Psychic Sue.

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For more practical tips for low-budget horror filmmakers, 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, June 1, 2017

A Powerful Silhouette in Insidious: Chapter 2

Silhouettes are an effective -- and inexpensive -- way to enhance a scene's mood or atmosphere, infusing the scene with power, poignancy, beauty, romance, mystery, unease, or terror. This simple lighting technique can delineate a character or support a theme. Horror films have used silhouettes in many ways, as have other film genres and styles. Noir is especially famous for its heavy use of silhouettes.

Insidious: Chapter 2 makes admirable use of silhouettes.




Josh (Patrick Wilson) is a father possessed by a ghost. No one in his family knows this yet. The scene opens with Josh playing outside with his son. The smiling actors, joyful playing, and sunny lighting all suggest happy normalcy.




Josh's wife, Renai (Rose Byrne) gazes at her husband and son, happy and secure in what she sees.

Renai returns to her other son, still sitting at the breakfast table. The son relates an ominous story about Josh to Renai. Much of it is told in flashback. The son's story suggests there is something wrong with Josh. He might not be as he appears.




The son's story instills in Renai -- and in us -- a fear of Josh. This loving father of only a moment ago now seems to be a threat. Whereupon, Josh calls to them. They turn toward him and we cut to...




Josh, standing in the doorway -- in silhouette. He speaks in friendly tones. Yet the silhouette enhances the fear instilled in us by the son's story.






We cut to Renai and son, looking at Josh. Then again to Josh, the frame tightening from the previous long shot to a medium close-up. This has the emotional effect of strengthening Josh's presence, so that he feels that much more threatening.

This silhouette's emotional impact derives largely from the film's dramatic context. It is the son's ominous account to Renai, of seeing Josh behaving strangely, that infuses Josh's silhouette with menace. In another dramatic context, in another film's story, the silhouette might have an entirely difference impact, or no impact at all.

You might also want to read my previous post about Insidious: Chapter 2's use of sexual deviancy. 

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For more information on lighting and framing, 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, May 31, 2017

Death Doll: Another Example of Horror via a Facial Shift

I've written previously about how horror can be achieved through a change in an actor's facial expression. The fear comes from the audience's realization that a character they've come to know and trust, and often sympathize with, is not who they believe to be. The character is actually evil, or crazy, or possessed, or not even human.

Death Doll (1989) provides another example of this technique. Trish (Andrea Walters), a young widow, believes herself to the stalked by someone or something. She turns to her brother-in-law, Dillon (William Dance), for help.

Shot on an obviously low budget, Death Doll is impressive in that it leads the audience down one path (suggesting a threat from a sinister fortune-telling machine), before revealing that the threat originates from elsewhere.

Spoiler Alert...

Near the film's end, we discover that Dillon is not the loving brother-in-law that Trish (and we) have come to trust. Rather, he's a schizophrenic murderer. Much like Norman Bates, Dillon has a split personality. Norman occasionally imagines himself to be his mother. Dillon imagines himself to be his doll.

Actor William Dance reveals Dillon's schizophrenia through shifts in his facial facial expression and voice. When speaking as Dillon, Dance's face is relaxed. His voice is mellow. He looks toward Trish.

When speaking as the doll, Dance's face tightens. His voice rises in pitch. His eyes not only widen, but they look into the camera. This is especially unsettling, as it breaks the "fourth wall" such that Dillon now appears to be staring straight into the audience's eyes.

Observe these images from Death Doll:










Director William Mims further enhances the scene by dressing Dance in black, and setting him against a black backdrop. Thus Dillon's head appears to be disembodied, floating in darkness. It adds to the scene's menace, creepiness, and poignancy. Poignancy, because the crazed Dillon is dying before our eyes while he delivers a sad speech about his tragic childhood. (I did warn you with a Spoiler Alert.)

Death Doll is a little known low-budget gem, which you can see for free on YouTube:





Also be sure to read my other article on how horror can be achieved through shifts in an actor's facial expression.

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For more on horror and acting, 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 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:







Also examine the use of low-budget framing in Demon.

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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.

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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

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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.