Sunday, June 17, 2018

Contrasting the Visuals in Two MOS Horror Films: Daughter of Horror and The Beast of Yucca Flats

Daughter of Horror (aka Dementia, 1955) and The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961) were made within a decade of each other. Both films are low budget affairs. Both "feature" runs at under an hour. Both were shot in black & white. Both were shot MOS (i.e., without any sound recorded on set). What sound there is was dubbed in afterwards.

Despite their similarities, they are markedly different. Daughter of Horror is an admirable work of art. The Beast of Yucca Flats is schlock This is why it's instructive to study these films together. Especially their handling of MOS. What did the first film do right that the second got wrong?

You won't find many MOS films these days. Modern video cameras have built in sound recorders. Not so film cameras in the 1950s. And so, some low budget filmmakers tried to save money by doing without sound recorders and boom mics on set, instead shooting MOS and dubbing in the sound during post production.






Comparing these two films, you'll see that Daughter of Horror embraces its MOS limitations. The film has no dialog. Instead, it relies on powerful visuals. Director John Parker's compositions are beautiful and arresting, borrowing stylistically from German expressionism. His harsh lighting creates extreme, angular shadows, and rich, deep blacks.

The production design and staging are similarly expressionistic. For one scene, Parker found an impressively gargantuan staircase. In another, the woman enters a nightclub and is creepily and claustrophobically surrounded by what initially appear to be floating arms.  

Parker's visual style creates a surreal sensibility, which is appropriate as we are allegedly sharing a mad woman's nightmares and/or hallucinations. (She wakes up, but remains uncertain if it was only a dream, so it could be either.)


 


By contrast, The Beast of Yucca Flats tries to hide its MOS limitations. The film does its (poor) best to fool the audience into thinking that sound was recorded on set. There is dialog. But because it was dubbed during post-production, director Coleman Francis uses several tricks to conceal that the dialog doesn't sync with his actors' lips. When the actors talk, they're always seen from a distance, or obscured in darkness, or behind an object. Or talking off screen -- whereas filmmakers normally show the actor who's speaking, Francis instead frames the actor who's listening, the talker being out of camera frame.

Francis's technique cheapens his film. An actor's voice carries much of his personality. Because we never see his actors speak the voices we hear, some emotional connection with the audience is lost. Better for them never to have spoken in the first place.

Unlike Parker, Francis doesn't provide interesting visuals. His images are dull. Mostly people wandering the desert. Still worse, he shot his film day-for-night (i.e., during the daytime, with the film underexposed to create a nighttime look). Day-for-night is often used for wide expanses (e.g., desert vistas) because of the expense of lighting such large areas. Had Francis rented some generators and lights, he might have had the rich blacks and sharp shadows of Daughter of Horror. Instead, The Beast of Yucca Flats suffers from flat "lighting." Dull, grayish, washed-out.

Apart from dialog, The Beast of Yucca Flats dubs many other diegetic sounds: wind, gunshots, screams, and engine noise (from cars and planes). The only diegetic sound dubbed in Daughter of Horror is laughter. Thus does the latter further embrace its MOS limitations.





Both films have music and narration. Daughter of Horror's narration is more self-aware and self-referential. The narrator addresses the protagonist. "Run, daughter of horror, run." By contrast, Yucca Flats's narrator addresses the audience. The former dynamically interacts with its surreal world. The latter fills in the narrative gaps created by the MOS limitations, telling us (rather than showing) what we would otherwise have learned through the missing dialog.

Narrative gaps are a problem for The Beast of Yucca Flats, because the film attempts to tell a traditional horror/sci-fi story about a killer monster. By contrast, Daughter of Horror doesn't have a linear story, but is a subjective, surreal look at madness. 

Daughter of Horror was initially released as Dementia and had no narration. (The top YouTube clip is without narration, the latter with.) Some fans believe the narration harms the film. Even so, Daughter of Horror's narration better serves its film than the narration for The Beast of Yucca Flats. The latter's narration aims for a philosophical profundity that comes off as unintentionally funny. 

Daughter of Horror should be studied for tips on how to tell a tale visually. Good to know even if you're making a sound film. As for The Beast of Yucca Flats, well, it's schlock. Even so, it can be entertaining if one is in the right mood. I was bored the first time I watched. But I enjoyed my second viewing.

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

Friday, April 20, 2018

Poor Scriptwriting in Prometheus

I have previously written about a common problem in scriptwriting. A writer uses his characters to advance the plot in a certain direction, pushing them toward actions and decisions that contradict their intelligence and personalities. Characters become ignorant, stupid, or behave contrary to their nature.

In poor writing, characters are lifeless puppets to advance the plot. In good writing, characters advance the plot in ways that are consistent with their intelligence, emotions, and situations. Their actions are logically motivated.

In Prometheus (2012), Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) is a scientist who travels to a distant moon (in another solar system), hoping to meet an alien race that, he believes, created humanity. When the spaceship carrying him arrives, Charlie rushes out with his team to explore, despite there only being six hours of daylight left. Charlie is too eager to wait for the next day.



Charlie finds a barren terrain and what appears to be "a tomb" (Charlie's word) with several dead aliens. Returning to the ship, Charlie becomes depressed and drunk. He refuses to attend the autopsy of an alien's head, because "I didn't come for an autopsy."

Is this a scientist speaking? This is humanity's first contact with an alien species, but Charlie prefers to sulk and ignore history in the making, because he's disappointed not to have met a live alien. His attitude is that of a child, not a scientist.

But it gets worse. Not only are Charlie's attitude and emotions poorly motivated, but he's not very intelligent for a scientist. There is no logical reason to believe that the alien race is dead.

1. The spaceship just arrived. They've been on the moon less than a day. The alien "tomb" was underground. Is it not logical to assume there might be other places on the moon where aliens are still alive? Perhaps underground? Imagine if an alien ship landed in the Sahara Desert, and immediately concluded the Earth was barren of all life. Not very bright, is it?

2. Even if the moon is barren, why assume the alien race is dead? Why assume this moon is their home world, the only place their civilization existed? On the contrary, Charlie already knows these aliens are a star-faring people. They came to Earth. Is it not logical to assume they'd be scattered among the stars? That this tiny moon was but a small outpost of their empire? That the reason they left maps on Earth directing us to this moon was, not because it was their most important world, but because it was their closest world to Earth?

And indeed, this is what the ship's captain (Idris Elba) concludes much later in the film. That this moon was but an outpost of the alien's civilization.

Well, duh! I figured that from the start. It sure took a while for these scientists to come around. Why were they so dense? It's not that I'm smarter. Real scientists would not have jumped to the conclusion of a "dead race" after less than a day on that moon. Well-written fictional scientists would likewise not have been so quick to make such blatantly false assumptions.

But writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof wanted to inject some drama into their story. And also extend the story to feature film length. So they dummied down their scientists, keeping the scientists stupid until they reached a turning point in the plot that required them to suddenly wise up.

A final observation. Because the alien race's intent is evil, Prometheus is horror, not science fiction. These aliens created humanity, taught us, invited us to visit them, then wanted to kill us. Horror.

Contrast this to a science fiction film such as 2001: A Space Odyssey. A similar setup. An alien race creates us (or at least guides our evolution), teaches us, and invites us to visit them. But their intent is apparently benevolent, albeit strange to our limited thinking. 

For further examples of poorly motivated characters, see my analyses of In Search of Lovecraft, and Deadly Messages, and Dark Floors.

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For more about the nature of horror, 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, 2018

The Creepiest Scene in Her


Her (2013) is not a horror film. Her is both science fiction and social commentary. An examination of man's atomization in a society that increasingly replaces human contact and life experiences with virtual substitutes -- pornography, video games, etc. Yet Her also has creepy moments that rival those found in the best horror films.

Spoilers ahead.

In Her, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) buys a newly invented operating system that incorporates artificial intelligence. He chooses to give the OS a female voice. When the OS comes online, she introduces herself and asks Theodore for his name. When he asks for hers, she christens herself Samantha. Theodore asks, "Why Samantha?" and she replies that, in response to his question, she read a book about names and liked the sound of Samantha.

Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is smart. She can read a book in under a second. Even complex physics books. She explains that, as an AI, she will continue to learn and develop to meet Theodore's specific computing needs. She begins by reading his thousands of emails (in under a second) and deleting those deemed no longer necessary. She keeps the funny ones.

She and Theodore hit it off. Samantha is warm and funny and concerned about Theodore. She displays emotions. Are her emotions real? She explains that she thinks so. That when she tried to determine if her emotions were real or mere algorithms, she suddenly felt angry that she should doubt her feelings' authenticity.

Theodore tells people he's dating his OS. People are accepting. His friend, Amy (Amy Adams), has struck up a close friendship with her OS. Samantha is great with kids. She hits it off with Theodore's goddaughter. Theodore and Samantha even make love, sort of. How soon before marriage to your OS becomes legal?

One of Her's strengths is that the viewer feels that Samantha is a young, vibrant woman. That she's human. That she's like us. But there are dark hints on the horizon. Consider this scene of Theodore on a double date with his friends. Samantha speaks through his smart phone, seeing the world through its camera.




While the thought of us mortals dying is creepy, nevertheless, the scene reinforces Samantha's loving warmth. Her relationship with Theodore is special.

But late in the movie, we learn more about Samantha. She has continued to develop, traveling the internet, exploring and living beyond the bounds of Theodore's desktop. She has met and formed relationships with other people and OSs. Consider this scene.





Horror is the realization that the world is not as our minds believe. The above scene creeped me out. It's not that Samantha is seeing someone else. People do that. It's that, even as she's talking to Theodore, she's simultaneously talking to 8,316 other people

That's not human. That's ... a thing.

The scene rips off the human mask from Samantha. Its emotional impact -- at least on me -- is similar to that of the classic Twilight Zone episode, "The Lonely." Corry (Jack Warden), falls in love with a female android (Jean Marsh), forgetting that she's not human -- until another man shoots off her face.






Both Her and "The Lonely" lull us into accepting as a loving woman that which we know to be a machine. Only to give us the creeps when we are later reminded that she isn't human.

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For more information about the nature of horror, 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, February 16, 2018

Jack O'Lantern's Strong Emotional Core

I see hundreds of horror short films a year. Mostly they're the same setups, the same payoffs. Some films are well made, with good production values. Some are even scary. Only a few are memorable -- lingering in the mind, thought-provoking, emotionally affecting.

Erik LeDrew's Jack O'Lantern (2017) is such a film. Its economical five minutes packs a strong, emotional punch. Watch it now. Then I'll explain why I admire it.




As I said, it's an economical film. It says much with little. Under five minutes long (4 minutes, 45 seconds) and no dialog.

Many filmmakers mistakenly stuff their films with aimless chitchat. Vapid teens talking about their boyfriends or hookups, filling up time but doing nothing to advance the story. Dialog should have a purpose. If it doesn't serve a purpose, you don't need it.

Jack O'Lantern is "pure cinema," telling its story visually. A story. Not a vignette with just a setup and payoff, where a nondescript victim is stalked and killed by a gruesome but commonplace monster. But a story with fully-fleshed characters and emotional depth, a strong moral core and substantive theme.

The film opens with four young people on Halloween night. We never learn these characters' names (despite being listed on IMDB). Instead, they are archetypes. Which doesn't diminish their emotional depth. Considering the film's brevity, these characters are admirably distinctive, enough so as to engage audience empathy.

There is the Bully. He smashes Jack O'Lanterns with an ax. He seeks approval from the Mob, which is a guy and two girls. Yet while the guy and one girl cheer on the Bully, one of the girls, the Good Girl, conveys disapproval with her facial expression.

We empathize with her disapproval. And her disapproval helps support the impression that these smiling Jack O'Lanterns are alive. Helpless, harmless little creatures, happy to shine on their one night of the year before decaying. Yet the Bully kills them on their one night, because he's bigger, and stronger, and has an ax. We can imagine him bullying people the rest of the year.

The Bully continues smashing Jacks. The Good Girl hugs a Jack, tries to defend him, and finally dissuade the Mob from following the Bully.

The Bully gets his comeuppance. This is a well-trodden horror story arc, typical of Tales from the Crypt's moral dark fables. I doubt any horror film can be wholly original. But Jack O'Lantern treads this story arc especially well.

Jack O'Lantern lingers in the mind because of its strong emotional core. We revile the Bully. We love the Good Girl. We empathize with the Jacks. (Well, I did.)

Its emotional core is strengthened by a moral core. The man smashing the Jacks is wrong. The girl defending the Jacks is right. The film's outcome is just.

And the moral core supports a thematic core. Victims, and even former supporters, eventually turn on bullies. That's not always true in real life, but it doesn't lessen the theme's power or the tale's emotional catharsis.

If all Jack O'Lantern had to offer was a theme or moral message, it wouldn't be much of a film. Many anti-bullying films are hackneyed and trite. But Jack O'Lantern is also a very well made film.

I said how economical it was. Conveying much (an interesting, fast-paced story; emotionally engaging characters; thematic depth) in under five minutes. And no dialog. That efficiency is partially due to Tristan Noelle's cinematography.

Jack O'Lantern is beautiful. Shots are nicely composed, making efficient use of depth of field and rack focuses.

The sets are also economical. A house. A back alley. A city sidewalk. One scene only has the Bully and the Mob smashing Jacks on a city sideway, the Good Girl trying to protect one of the Jacks while resisting the Mob. Yet the beautifully lit Jacks, the stark street and alley, effectively convey the film's atmosphere and theme.

Jack O'Lantern is not subtle. Its story is lean, heavy-handed, and archetypal, stripped of all nonessential dramatic details. We never learn anything about these people aside from their attitudes toward smashing Jacks. But that's all we need to know for the film to work.

I can see a lesser filmmaker padding Jack O'Lantern to a half hour, opening with the characters' aimless chitchat as they plan for their upcoming Halloween, and who's dating who, and who will meet up with who at what party, planning to get some some beer, etc. Instead, director Le Drew and writer Malcolm Dewitt strip the story to its bare essentials, even dispensing with dialog. Such a minimalist approach might not work in every film, but it works very well in this one.

The actors also do their part to carry the film, especially the Bully (Christopher Gusella) and the Good Girl (Hayley Peppergrass). I don't know how talented they'd be with dialog. But their facial expressions and body language effectively create characters to the full extent necessary for this film.

Jack O'Lantern conveys the beautiful, dark mysteries of Halloween. Noelle's lighting evokes a Ray Bradburyesque atmosphere, assisted by contributions from Aaron Jackson (production design) and Abby Niederhauser (art direction).

For another short film with a strong emotional core, see my analysis of The Ghost and Us.

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For more information about horror film themes, 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, January 1, 2018

Get Out Uses Wide Shots for Hightened Suspense and Emotional Distance

Early in Get Out, a young interracial couple discuss Chris's (Daniel Kaluuya) introduction to Rose's (Allison Williams) parents. Rose reveals that she has not yet told her parents that Chris is black. Despite Rose thinking the matter unimportant, Chris worries. How will Rose's white parents react to him being black?


Allison Williams of Get Out.

Daniel Kaluuya of Get Out.


This scene establishes some initial suspense. Because Chris is worried, we too are worried. Like him, we grow anxious to see the look on the parent's faces.

Yet filmmaker Jordan Peele denies us this opportunity. The entire initial meeting with the parents is a single long take, framed in a wide shot. So wide that we can't see the look on anyone's faces.



Chris and Rose arrive by car, exit, then go up to the front door. The door opens and the parents emerge from the house. We hear warm greetings and see hugs, but we can't see the expressions on anyone's faces.

This wide shot is a small thing, yet it's noteworthy. The parents likely had warm and welcoming expressions when they first saw Chris. Their voices sounded friendly. Yet by preventing us from seeing their expressions, by extending the moment until we get inside the house, Peele injects more suspense and tension into the scene than it might otherwise have had.




But before taking us inside the house, Peele further increases our suspense by widening his exterior shot, until we see a black man staring at the house. We don't know why he is there, but his presence, and the darkening music, suggest that all is not well inside.






Peele continues using wide shots inside the house to emotionally distance us from the parents, only slowly drawing closer to them. It's how the wary Chris might feel, only slowly growing to trust the parents' outward display of liberal acceptance.



Our first closeup in this critical "meet the parents" scene is of the young couple, listening to the father (Bradley Whitford) speaking. This further bonds us with the couple, so that we see and feel events from their perspective.


Bradley Whitford.

Catherine Keener.

Only after we are bonded with the couple do we get our first close look at the parents' friendly faces. Friendly -- or trying to hard? Either way, that we now see the parents in closeup suggests that Chris is finally allowing himself to be drawn in and trust them. Or at least, to give them the benefit of the doubt.

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For more information on framing shots 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.