Thursday, January 17, 2019

Two Problems with "Proof of Concept" Short Films

Hollywood calls them "proof of concept" (POC) films. Short films that are a sample of an (as yet) unproduced feature film to potential investors. A POC short film aims to "prove" that its story will look great expanded into a feature.

Some POC films also showcase the intended feature films's cast. But sometimes a different cast is used in the actual feature, for artistic or financial reasons. For example, Grace, whose POC I saw in 2007 at a film festival.

It's common for filmmakers to submit POC films to festivals, hoping to win awards and thereby entice investors. But while POC films might occasionally interest investors, they generally fail as short films. This is because, like a short story, a pleasing short film should be self-contained. It should have a beginning, a middle, an end. And engaging, well-defined characters. A dilemma facing those characters. And a final resolution. Closure.

Too often, POC films lack closure. They leave viewers hanging. We get the sense that the real story begins after the film ends.

Roger Sampson's Visitor (2017) is such a film. It opens with Dr. Price (Ashley Felkner) examining a pregnant woman, while explaining her new experimental drug. Dr. Price says, "It will help women, who couldn't be mommies before, to have children." We later see Dr. Price at her home, talking to her voice recorder, repeating the wonders of her new drug. She is pleased that the FDA is expected to approve it soon.

We then cut to what appears to be an alien spaceship descending to earth. We intercut shots of the alien craft's decent with shots of Dr. Price at home, strangely affected. She falls into a zombie like trance, eats glass, and exist the house. The End.

Huh? What did I just see? This ten minute film was mostly just exposition about Dr. Price's new wonder drug. Then the alien ship is introduced and Dr. Price leaves home. What was that about?

This is clearly a POC film. Want to know what happens to Dr. Price? How the aliens are connected to her new drug (if at all)? You'll have to watch the (as yet nonexistent) feature film.

POC films can usually be spotted through this lack of closure. There is exposition. Characters are set up and introduced. A great conflict or problem (often upcoming and always unresolved) is broached. Then ... The End.

Becca Flinn-White's The Candlelight Witch (2018) suffers this same problem. In this six minute film, two children and a babysitter are alone on a dark night. The babysitter relates an urban legend about a witch. The witch appears and kidnaps the babysitter.

Whereupon one child asks, "So what do we do?"

The other replies, "Get her back."

The End.


Once again, I sensed that now begins the real story: the struggle to regain the babysitter from the witch. But you'll have to wait for the (as yet unproduced) feature film to see it.

I have confirmation that Visitor and The Candlelight Witch's are POC films. But I can usually spot them just from this lack of closure, which leave me emotionally dissatisfied. Seeing Visitor or The Candlelight Witch, I feel as if I've left the theater ten minutes after the film began.

A satisfying film need not resolve every problem. Many fine horror films end with an implication that the threat lives on. But a self-contained cycle of dramatic events should be resolved. Halloween (1978) had closure even though Michael Myers was still alive and would return, because Laurie Strode's night of horror had ended. Tomorrow was another day. Nothing in Halloween mandated that Myers continue to terrorize Strode in Halloween 2.

But a well made POC short film needn't lack closure. Some are not merely advertisements for planned feature films, but stand on their own artistically.

Becki Pantling's Off Duty (2018) is a seven minute film about a psychic police officer. Its story is self-contained. The officer arrives at an investigation and resolves the problem. I didn't know it was a POC film until I'd read it marketing materials.

Perhaps one reason that Off Duty works as a short is because it promotes an intended TV series rather than a feature. So really, Off Duty is an episode from an intended series. TV series usually offers some closure with each episode, even if some dilemmas are left unresolved until the following episode.

This does not mean that a POC short for an intended feature film must lack closure.

Another problem with some POC films is that they start well into the story. Yes, it's generally a good idea not to have too much exposition; to begin a film with the drama already in progress. But some POC films take this too far.

Ozlem Altingoz's Birth (2018) feels like the later scenes of a feature. Maybe she choose to film these scenes for her intended feature because they're especially effects laden. (See, investors, how cool this will look when it's finished?) But as a viewer, I felt as if I'd arrived very late to the film. That I should know what was going on, but didn't.

I was annoyed by this lack of back story. Some mystery is good, but Birth inundated me with too many unexplained details. A possessed wife, an expectant baby on the way, a son's vague accusations against his parents ... how did these all connect? Who are these people? What brought about this situation? What are they talking about?

The ending failed to answer any of my questions. It only raised more questions. Which, I assume, would be explained in the upcoming feature.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a "proof of concept" short film. But do tell a self-contained story. Explain what needs to be explained. And give us closure.


For more about structure 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, October 10, 2018

Off Duty Uses Creative Lighting to Depict the Supernatural Realm

In Off Duty, Police Constable Layton (Becki Pantling) investigates a haunting in a warehouse. It's something she performs "off duty," perhaps because the higher ups would frown upon her psychic gifts. She can commune with ghosts.

Off Duty is a spooky little ghost story, creepy and atmospheric. A British horror short which successfully captures that X-Files vibe. A police procedural with a serious tone and unexpected, original twists. PC Layton isn't just a ghost hunter. She's a vigilante.

The lighting is especially impressive. DP Jamie MacLeod uses two distinct lighting setups. One for the normal world and one for the astral realm that Layton enters. Warm yellow lights for normalcy. Cold blue lights for the astral plain.


The concept is similar to the lighting schemes used in Insidious and Stranger Things (to depict "The Further" and the "Upside Down," respectively), but simpler and on a much lower budget. Thankfully, Pantling and MacLead avoid the use of green nightvision. Ghost hunter films should give that a rest.


For more about lighting 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, July 19, 2018

The Case Against Film Subtitles: Dubbing Is Better

Back in film school (NYU) I was taught that, regarding foreign films, true cinĂ©astes prefer subtitles over dubbing. This is why lowbrow exploitation films (Godzilla and Zombi 2) are dubbed, whereas highbrow art films (Jules and Jim and Breathless) are subtitled. 

The rationale is that an actor's voice is part of his performance. Dub the actor, and you can no longer appreciate the film as performed by that actor. It becomes a new film. This is especially obvious with certain actors who have highly distinctive voices, such as Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger. If you've seen films with their voices dubbed, you not only hear, you can feel the difference.

Nevertheless, I prefer dubbing.

Sure, I prefer Schwarzenegger in his original voice. But that's because he's speaking English, a language I understand. I might not appreciate his voice as much if he were speaking German and I had to read subtitles.

The notion that an actor's performance is better preserved with subtitles, rather than dubbing, is overrated. It's true that dubbing dilutes an actor's performance, but in a way, so do subtitles. This is especially true with films that are dialog intensive -- a lot of dialog, quickly spoken, to the point that the actors are practically speaking over each other.

Subtitles dilute an actor's performance because, when I watch a dialog heavy film, I can't actually watch the actors. Streams of sentences incessantly fill the bottom of the screen. No sooner do I finish reading the text than a new word dump appears. I can't keep up. I repeatedly pause the DVD to read the dialog. Then I unpause, and pause again, so I can read the next batch of sentences. It's like flipping through pages. I'm no longer watching a film. I'm reading a book.

How then can I focus on the actors' performances? Their facial expressions, reactions, or even their voices? You can't appreciate a vocal performance when you hear it broken into bits from constantly pausing the DVD.

Another distraction is the surprisingly large number of misspelled words and incorrect punctuation in many subtitles. I've seen we're spelled were, and I'm spelled Im. I saw a film in which a mad scientist was conducting experiences rather than experiments. One character said "I was a theft." when he clearly meant "I was a thief." 

Among foreign horror films, inept subtitles are the rule rather than the exception. It's rare that I see a film whose English subtitles are in perfect English.

What's the problem? Is there a shortage of "professional" script translators overseas? Have the big studios booked the few competent translators? Or do indie horror filmmakers have such low budgets that they can't afford competent translators? Maybe they think that translation is easy, a safe item on which to save money, so they can't be bothered to hire a professional? Instead they recruit some student intern (for no pay) who's looking to break into the business, despite his not having achieved sufficient English language proficiency to do a competent job.

Every incorrect subtitle, every pause of the DVD, distracts me, interrupting my suspension of disbelief, lessening a scene's tension or humor, hindering my enjoyment of the film.

Unfortunately, subtitles are now the norm in horror films. It wasn't always so. Italian exploitation films of the 1970s and 1980s were routinely dubbed. I think the practice of subtitling horror films began with the advent of J-horror in the late 1990s.

Why is subtitling the new norm? I don't think it's because distributors have suddenly gained an appreciation for film as an art form. Rather, subtitling is cheaper than is dubbing. Either way, you hire a translator for the script. But now you needn't hire a new cast of actors to perform that script in a foreign language. The more countries you hope to distribute the film in, the more money you save.

The rise in the number of indie horror filmmakers worldwide, along with a concomitant increase in horror film festivals to encourage their efforts, is another factor. It's a race to the bottom. If you see your competition getting away with saving money by not hiring actors to dub foreign dialog, why should you spend extra? Thus have subtitles -- poorly written at that -- replaced dubbing as the new norm.

Horror fans have enthusiastically embraced many dubbed films over the decades. So although contemporary horror filmmakers might say they're opting for subtitles for art's sake, really, it's to save a dime.


For more about sound issues 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, 2018

Directorial and Writing Mistakes in The Haunting of Marsten Manor

An early scene in The Haunting of Marsten Manor showcases several errors that filmmakers can learn from. All these errors stem from one problem: the characters behave unrealistically, in ways meant to create drama or to advance the plot, rather then remaining true to themselves and their situation.

We are at the reading of a will. An attorney (Alan Peterson) tells Jill (Brianne Davis) that she has inherited her aunt's house. Jill is surprised, because she'd never met her aunt. 

"Can I ask you a legal question about wills?" says Jill.

The attorney gets testy. "A legal question, huh. Let me guess. Your daddy sent you off to law school, all bright eyed and bushy tailed, out to make the world a better place, mmm? Shoot. First question's on the house. After that, $250 an hour, two hour minimum."

Jill stand up, outraged. "I'm not bright-eyed, because I'm blind. So obviously I can't go to law school or any school. I can't make the world a better place, because I can't see it." 

ERROR: This exchange is silly. The lawyer's sudden rudeness is unmotivated. He went from friendly to snide in an instant, just because Jill asked a normal question. Besides, it is his job to answer any question Jill has regarding the will. Jill is his client's heir. He is the paid executor of the estate. The writers (Dave and Julie Sapp) either don't know, or don't care, about the law.

So why did they write this exchange between Jill and the attorney? I suppose it's to "motivate" Jill's anger. The lawyer is rude not because it's true to his character, or to the scene's context, but because the writers want to Jill to get angry. Alas, they couldn't come up with a realistic trigger. They are treating Jill and the attorney like lifeless props, rather than as characters who behave true to themselves.

The scene continues.

The attorney loudly says, "I am sorry."

"I'm not deaf. I'm blind," Jill retorts.

The attorney says more quietly, "I am sorry. Please sit down. What was your question?" 

Jill says nothing. She's too angry to care about her question.

"Okay then," says the attorney "Then I will give you the keys to your new place." He has a document for Jill to sign. He considers it, then gives the document to Jill's friend, Rob (Ken Luckey). "That's all right if you go ahead and sign for her." 

Jill is angry again. "I can write my name. My hands aren't broken."

"Fine," says the attorney.

 Jill signs the document.

Then the attorney offers the keys to Rob. "Here you go."

"I believe those are mine," says Jill, hand outstretched.

Rob takes the keys from the attorney, then gives them to Jill.

ERROR: If Jill is blind, how did she know the attorney was offering the keys to Rob?

Never mind that after Jill's outburst over the document, the attorney would not offer her the keys. They're just keys. If Jill can sign a document, she can certainly hold keys.

But this error is compounded.

The attorney now says, "Here's a copy of the will. The deed and the address. So forth and so on. Your papers." 

Remarkably, the attorney once again offers the papers to Rob. Once again, Rob takes the papers and gives them to Jill.

I guess the writers really want to belabor that it's very difficult for Jill to be blind. Everyone thinks she's helpless. Well, we got it with the document. I don't buy that the attorney would then mistakenly hand the keys, and then the papers, to Rob.

 The attorney says softly, looking at Rob, "Good luck to you all. And I'm sorry about before." 

"I can still here you," snaps Jill.

ERROR: How did Jill know the lawyer was looking at Rob, trying to speak confidentially to him? Jill had asked the attorney to speak softly, stating "I'm not deaf." Why would she not assume he was simply ... speaking softly as per her request?

Jill "knew" because the writers wanted her to get angry again. The writers are treating Jill as a prop, making her behave in whatever way advances their plot, without any regard for whether Jill's character would say this do that in any particular situation.

A final complaint. Alan Peterson plays the attorney with a really bad, strong, fake Southern accent. Well, The Haunting of Marsten Manor is a Civil War themed ghost story. I guess the director wanted to establish that we're in the South.

Despite its faults, The Haunting of Marsten Manor is not an awful film. It's a reasonably enjoyable ghost film. It has flaws, as do many indie (and big budget) efforts. But one can enjoy it if one is willing to suspend disbelief. 

For additional examples of bad writing -- where the characters are treated as props, rather than behaving logically and true to themselves -- see my analyses of Prometheus, In Search of Lovecraft, and Deadly Messages, and Dark Floors.

You can also (for now) see The Haunting of Marsten Manor on YouTube. The above scene begins at the 2:08 mark.


For more about writing 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.

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.


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.


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.


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.