Tuesday, December 21, 2010
For many years, incomplete VHS copies of Crucible of Terror were released in so many editions, I wondered if the film had fallen into the public domain. These VHS editions were badly chopped up, missing scenes, and the washed-out visuals looked to be shot on super-8. (Curiously, the poor visuals aesthetically supported the film's story and characters.)
Then Image Entertainment released a "restored" DVD edition, running at 90 minutes, 26 seconds. A marked improvement. The visuals were sharper, colors more distinct, and about 10 minutes of missing footage had been restored. Alas, Image Entertainment's DVD was fullscreen.
Now Severin has released a widescreen edition of Crucible of Terror, running at 90 minutes, 13 seconds. That's 13 fewer seconds than Image, but perhaps Image's extra 13 seconds are not of the actual film?
Is Severin's edition a marked improvement? Not really. Compare the two screen shots below.
First, a shot from the Image Entertainment edition:
Now a shot from the Severin edition:
The Image edition shows far more of the top and bottom portions. Some ceiling lights, and the bottom of the sculpture, which are visible in the Image edition are missing in the Severin edition.
The Severin edition shows more of the left side of the screen. More of the paintings are seen.
The Image edition shows more on the right side.
Sound and visuals are also better on the Image edition. In two day-for-night shots in the Severin edition, the characters walk in a jerky fashion, whereas they walk smoothly in the Image edition. I'm not sure why.
For more about my views on various old and new 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.
Some of my horror film reviews can also be read at Communist Vampires.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
What is character? Writing + acting = character.
The most memorable characters from classic films and TV shows are created by chemistry. The chemistry that occurs when the right actor meets the right part. This is why it's been said that 90% of directing is casting.
What has this to do with scripting a horror film?
When I first saw Dawn of the Dead it blew me away. I was in my teens and had never before seen such gore. But after thirty years of horror, I'm bored by gore. Actors in bad makeup eating bloody intestines put me to sleep.
I think this is why so many zombie comedies are being shot. Hardcore horror fans are jaded. At a certain point, gore alone looks silly or sordid, rather than scary or shocking. Filmmakers can try to "push the gore envelop," but I'm not sure there's anywhere left to go.
How then to engage audiences for your latest horror film? Character.
Horror films have been compared to rollercoasters. To which I'll add: characters are the car. A great character engages an audience. Audiences sympathize and empathize with the character, getting into the character's skin so they can "suspend disbelief" and enter the character's world, being shocked and frightened by whatever shocks and frightens the character.
Effective characters take audiences for a ride on the coaster. Ineffective characters leave audiences standing on the ground, outside the story and looking up at the coaster. They see it twisting and turning, but they're not on board experiencing the thrill of the ride.
How to create an effective character, one who engages an audience? Audiences should care about the character, but that is not to say the character must be likeable.
For more about creating an effective horror story, especially on film or video, 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, November 27, 2010
One nice thing about watching a series on DVD is that you can watch several dozen episodes (about 22 minutes each) in under a week. The experience differs from watching one or two episodes a day, as was the case when the Dark Shadows was broadcast, most recently on the Sci-Fi Channel in the 1990s.
DVDs offer a more compressed viewing experience. Seeing so many episodes at once enables one to see the "bigger dramatic picture" because the story isn't parceled out in little bits.
The first 37 episodes pf Dark Shadows cover only the first three days of Victoria Winters's stay in Collinwood. But it feels so much longer for the viewer. Those 37 episodes cover over 7 weeks of broadcast time -- yet so many events are compressed into those 3 days!
Day 1: Victoria arrives at Collinwood, the Collins fear the arrival of Burke, Sam warns Victoria, as does Maggie, Carolyn is smitten with Burke. And much else.
Day 2: Carolyn brings Burke up to Collinwood, David tampers with Roger's brakes, resulting a Roger's car crash. And much else.
But let's focus on ...
Day 3: Roger leaves the hospital, the police investigate Burke, Burke travels to Bangor then returns to Collinsport, during which the police have searched his room, the police then learn that David's fingerprints were on the wrench under Burke's fingerprints, David tries to plant false evidence in Burke's room, Burke brings David back to the house, they both lie and claim Roger's car crash was an accident, Victoria has dinner with Burke, making Carolyn jealous, Victoria returns yet again to Collinwood, and late that night, after 1 a.m., Victoria hears a ghost sobbing. And much else.
These events consume over 7 weeks in broadcast time -- yet occur over 3 days in story time. Pay attention as each episode segues into the next, from cliffhanger to cliffhanger. No days in between. Three days.
I suppose one can say that it's a bit over 3 days, because it's 1 a.m. by episode 36. Yet the morning of Day 4 doesn't start till episode 38, so I consider the first 37 episodes the first 3 days.
What's the aesthetic effect? A disconnect between what I'll call the story time and emotional time The story time as experienced by the characters is 3 days, yet the emotional time corresponds to the broadcast time as experienced by the viewer.
For instance, the characters undergo significant emotional shifts over those 37 episodes, as a person might over 7 weeks -- rather than as a person might over 3 days. Victoria decides to leave, then stay, then leave, then stay, several times. Carolyn refers to Victoria as a longtime family member by the end of Day 3. On the morning of Day 4, Carolyn says to Victoria, "Since you're one of us now..."
These would be odd statements to make after only 3 days of knowing someone. Yet it feels right to viewers. They've been watching these characters for over 7 weeks, so it feels like these characters have known each other for 7 weeks.
That's the disconnect between the story time and broadcast/emotional time. The characters behave -- and the viewers emotionally respond -- to however long viewers have watched the characters, not to however long the characters have lived in their fictitious world.
In Danse Macabre, Stephen King remarked on a curious feature of soap opera time. I don't have the book before me, but King referred to soap opera's "mysterious growing kid phenomenon." (His exact term may differ.) A woman on a soap has a baby. Within six months of broadcast time, the baby is a young child. In another year, the child is a teenager. No explanation is given. The characters all take it in stride.
Dark Shadows likewise pretends that its broadcast time corresponds to the characters' story time. Four years into the show, characters refer to events as happening four years ago. Yet if one were to observe closely, I wonder ... does the show's entire five years of events occur over only about 3 and a half months?
(1250 episodes / 37) * 3 = 101 days of story time.
Yes, parts of Dark Shadows's story occurs in other time periods. But that would only shorten the story time. For instance, as I recall, Victoria disappears during a seance, then reappears soon thereafter. Several months of broadcast time in 1795 reduced to a few seconds of story time in 1967. So perhaps all the events at Collinwood occurred in only a couple of very busy months.
Thomas M. Sipos's interview with Dark Shadows actor Jonathan Frid is available in print form in Sipos's horror collection, Halloween Candy. While the book contains much else, those who wish to purchase only the interview can find it in a Amazon Kindle edition or as a Barnes & Noble Nook ebook.
Monday, November 8, 2010
Theofantastique is a blog that covers the overlap where horror meets religion.
Sound interesting? Read the interview for further insight into my views on that subject, and related issues.
Monday, October 11, 2010
But the recent release of the new I Spit On Your Grave raises another issue. This film played this past weekend at the Screamfest L.A. horror film festival. The film is being marketed and critiqued as a horror film.
But is it horror?
I've not seen the remake, but I've seen the original. I've been told by those who've seen both films that the remake's story is faithful to that of the original.
How does this story (the same in both versions), differ from the story in Death Wish?
Yes, there are minor variations, but do any of these elements differentiate I Spit on Your Grave from Death Wish so that the one is horror, but not the other?
In I Spit on Your Grave, the rape victim takes revenge, whereas in Death Wish, it's the victim's husband who takes vengeance. This may qualify I Spit on Your Grave as more feminist than is Death Wish, but not more of a horror film.
Another variation is that I Spit on Your Grave punishes the men who injured the woman, whereas Death Wish punishes any and all criminals (i.e., those who prey on women, and men, other than just the husband/vigilante's wife). This makes the revenge killings in I Spit on Your Grave more personal, but not more of the horror genre.
I Spit on Your Grave is more graphic than is Death Wish. The women are brutally raped in both films, but a man is castrated in I Spit on Your Grave, whereas the criminals are mostly shot in Death Wish.
But if I Spit on Your Grave is horror because of the rapist's more graphic death, are we not being asked to identify with the rapist? Is that what makes the film horror?
No, because horror requires that we identify/sympathize with the victim, not with the monster. This is why revenge fantasies by their very nature risk undermining the horror elements.
A final variation is that I Spit on Your Grave is a low-budget, indie film, whereas Death Wish is a big studio product. This is also why the former is more graphic; indie films were more graphic than studio fare in the 1970s.
This may be the key reason to the (false) perception that I Spit on Your Grave is a horror film. Back then, horror was more likely associated with low-budget, indie trash. Because I Spit on Your Grave was a low-budget indie film, and a highly graphic one, it was more likely to be marketed by the distributor, and accepted by the audience, as a horror film.
It's a marketing thing. Another example of people's genre perception being formed by marketing rather than by objective, rationally derived, aesthetic criteria.
Horror requires an Unnatural Threat. Something "not of this world." Some dramatic element that, as H.P. Lovecraft wrote, creates "a malign and particular suspension or defeat of the fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space."
An Unnatural Threat can take the form of the supernatural (e.g., The Sixth Sense, The Haunting, The Exorcist, The Mothman Prophecies, The Grudge, Lost Souls).
But an Unnatural Threat can also be an "unnatural creature" of science. That is, some creature that is unnatural to our current understanding of nature (Alien, The X-Files).
Can a slasher make for a horror film? Yes, provided that it is an unnatural slasher. Halloween was the first slasher horror film. This was because Michael Myers could not be killed. He was unnatural.
Myers was the first of what I term the Uberpsychos. Halloween's great contribution to horror was the invention of the Uberpsycho, a new type of monster. It was with Halloween's introduction of the Uberpsycho that the psycho crossed from the crime/suspense/mystery genres into horror.
But there is no Uberpsycho in I Spit on Your Grave. Just tawdry, sleazy, pathetic villains -- cruel, but ultimately weak and mortal. Can you imagine the heroine in I Spit on Your Grave defeating Myers or Jason? Of course not. Horror monsters are not so easily killed.
I have grudgingly carved an exception to the Unnatural Threat. I'm willing to concede that there is a second horror genre, which I call the Naturalistic Psycho Gorefest, wherein the victim is terrorized by mortal humans (e.g., Saw, The Devil's Rejects, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). But even in these films, there must be something that removes this stories from the natural and normal. Some element...an especially bizarre or deranged psycho, or an especially unusual environment or situation.
I see nothing in I Spit on Your Grave that removes it from the realm of crime drama/suspense/revenge fantasy.
For more about my thinking on Unnatural Threats and the Naturalistic Psycho Gorefest, 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, October 5, 2010
The film's resemblance to Hostel (2005) is remarkable.
In El tren de la bruja, a man (played by Manolo Solo) participates in a "scientific experiment about fear" -- but soon suspects that the "spook house" he's locked inside is no safe "scientific experiment," but deadly entertainment for rich sadists.
A "scientist" taunts over a microphone: "Did you really think people would pay $1,500 Euros to sit in a chair for 15 minutes? Didn't you wonder why this 'experiment' takes place in an abandoned warehouse, far off in the country? No. Imagine if you are a rich person, bored with life. What new thing might entertain you? Perhaps to see some poor, frightened fool tortured and killed."
I paraphrase, but that's the gist.
I have this film on an English-subtitled DVD, but I can only find a non-subtitled clip on You Tube:
Solo insists that the scientist's taunts are only meant to frighten him, as part of the experiment. He says he refuses to be frightened. The scientist taunts some more, then ups the ante...
So, is the experiment legit? Or are we in for some actual torture and death to entertain the rich? The outcome is neither. El tren de la bruja packs more surprises in its 18 minutes than Hostel manages at feature length.
Apart from its originality, El tren de la bruja is superior to Hostel in that it doesn't rely on graphic torture. Rather, it relies primarily on sounds and suggestions to inspire fear.
Actor Manolo Solo does a great job. His character goes through cocky arrogance, feigned courage, doubt, fear, hysteria, and cynicism over the course of 18 minutes.
As in The Blair Witch Project, El tren de la bruja's sound is an active participant in the story. The noises emanating from the dark, moving about, and changing pitch and timbre, insinuate all manner of threats. Heard but not seen, these alternating noises inspire fear by conjuring images in the audience's imagination.
Copies of El tren de la bruja may be obtained through Kimuak.com.
Also see my 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, August 9, 2010
I prefer the term aesthetically effective.
Art is communication. In The Cinema as Art, Debrix and Stephenson discuss art as a three-stage process. We begin with (1) the artist's original concept. The message, theme, or work as envisioned by the artist. There follows (2) the work itself. The finished horror film. And finally (3) the audience response. How viewers (or readers, or listeners) interpret the work.
All three stages must exist for a work to be art. An accidentally spilled a can of paint that created the Mona Lisa would not be art, because there was no artistic vision or intent. If an author wrote a book and hid it in his drawer, it would not be art until the first reader read it.
These three stages differ, to varying degrees. The finished work is never as originally conceived by the artist. The audience's response is never quite what the artist intended.
Neither stage is subservient to the others. If an artist intended to write an antiwar book, but most readers interpret the book as a glorification of war, it would be a mistake to say the readers' interpretations are wrong simply because it's not what the author intended. The artist's intent is not the final arbiter as to what a work means.
An art work stands on its own. Interpretation is an asymptotic curve. With each new interpretation (including the artist's intent and viewers' interpretations), the curve of interpretation draws nearer the line of the work. But the two never touch. The greater the agreement on what a work means, the closer the lines are. The more disagreement or diversity of opinion, the farther apart the lines.
If a critical mass of people interpret a horror film as anti-feminist, that film is most likely anti-feminist even if the filmmaker intended a feminist message. I say "most likely" because, as with the asymptotic line, one can never say with finality what a work means. The lines can be very close, or far apart, but they never touch.
When I say that a horror film is aesthetically effective, I mean the filmmaker did a good job of using cinematic tools (lighting, sound, depth of field, editing, etc.) to express his story, characters, and themes. That most viewers will respond emotionally and intellectually in the way the filmmaker intended.
An aesthetically effective film can be entertaining or not. An aesthetically ineffective film can be entertaining or not. A film's entertainment value is a separate issue from the film's aesthetic effectiveness.
Beauty? Aesthetically pleasing? These are end results, and have nothing to do with the issue of art as effective communication. An artist may intend for his work to be beautiful or ugly, pleasing or repulsive.
SubUrbia effectively conveys the boring, empty, emotionally stupefied lives of suburbia. If director Richard Linklater intended this message, then he demonstrates an effective command of his cinematic tools. The film is ugly and emotionally unsatisfying, effectively supporting the film's theme.
Of course, it may be that some viewers are emotionally satisfied in seeing characters lead emotionally unsatisfying lives. Why? Because it reaffirms their view of the world ("I am right to feel dissatisfied about life.") or because it makes them feel better off ("My life is better than the lives of other people.") If they "get" the message that Linklater intended, then SubUrbia is aesthetically effective.
I was turned off by SubUrbia. I disliked the characters, and did not enjoy the film. But I "got" the message, and empathized with the characters' misery. So for me, SubUrbia succeeded as art, but failed as entertainment. It's the sort of film that one appreciates rather than enjoys. There's a limited market for such films: indie art houses rather than summer tentpole releases.
There are many ways to judge a horror film. Whether it's entertaining, or politically satisfying, or cinematographic beautiful, or creepy, or shocking, or frightening. These factors will affect whether a horror film is pleasing to an audience.
But the issue of whether a horror film is aesthetically effective (did the filmmaker intend to communicate such politics or themes or creeps, or do so by serendipity, or intend the opposite so that it subverts the filmmaker's intent) is an issue that overlaps with, but is separate from, the above elements.
For more about film aesthetics in general and as it relates to horror, and about the specific appeals 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.
Thursday, August 5, 2010
In Vacancy, editing creates a false sense of space, which effectively misleads and unnerves audiences.
A killer is chasing David and Amy, a married couple, in an underground tunnel. Because the tunnel is tight, we can't see who is where in relation to each other. We know that David is ahead of Amy, and the killer somewhere behind, but that is all. We don't know how far behind the killer is, or if he can see them.
We see only brief, repetitive shots of David, Amy, and the killer, sometimes from the front, sometimes from behind. Edits are quick, creating a sense of panic. Our inability to know how close the killer is, or whether any of the shots are his POV (point of view), unnerves us. Dim lighting further contributes to the audience's confusion.
David (Luke Wilson) finally reaches the exit. Amy (Kate Beckinsale) turns and looks behind her.
We cut to this shot of the killer emerging from a tunnel, and turning right. He appears to be looking at Amy!
This is because this edit creates two eyeline matches. Amy's eyeline in the previous shot appears to be directed at the killer in this shot. And the killer's eyeline in this shot appears to be directed at Amy in the previous shot. One eyeline match would have been enough to create a sense that the two shots share the same space.
Two eyeline matches double this sense of shared space. This sense of shared space is further supported by the 180 degree line that is created by this edit. Amy looks leftward, and the killer looks rightward. This places the two characters on the same side of an imaginary 180 degree line, creating the sense that we know where each is in relation to the other. Amy is to the killer's right. The killer is to Amy's left.
However, we then cut to the killers POV -- and see an empty tunnel!
Vacancy's editing has fooled the audience! The killer was not behind David and Amy. As if to confirm this, the killer turns in the other direction.
And sees nothing.
We cut back to Amy, still looking behind her. This confirms that she hasn't yet left the tunnel. The killer doesn't see her because he's in another part of the tunnel.
Horror films use such tricks to unnerve audiences, fraying their nerves so they are more susceptible to upcoming shocks and frights.
For more about how horror uses editing, and the difference between shocks vs. frights, 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, August 1, 2010
I don't think there's a consistently or reliably different aesthetic effect between a wintry vs. summer mise-en-scène. And to the extent there is, I wouldn't focus on lighting or color.
I love wintry horror films, but that's largely a personal taste. I love winter, period. I find gray skies and barren streets emotionally uplifting. Bright, sunny skies depress me. Maybe I have a reverse form of seasonal affective disorder. Perhaps many goths do too. (Although, I am not a goth; I live in khaki.)
Either a winter or a summer setting can support a horror film's story, characters, or themes. The bleak, wintry scenes in Ghost Story support the characters: four old men, in the winter of their lives, their situation frozen, unchanging, by an old, guilty secret. Their elder lives contrast with the flashbacks to their youth, set in summer, when a guiltless future was still before them.
Yes, many people associate winter with bleakness and despair. Filmmakers can exploit this. The stark Canadian winter scenes in The Brood reflect Frank's bleak situation, his marriage "gone cold."
The wintry scenes in The Changling reflect John's depressing situation, having recently lost his wife and daughter in an auto accident.
But bright, sunny summer scenes can also reinforce a film's horror. If not by reflecting the character's bleak situation, then through contrast.
The Final Terror and The Prey (and many summer camp slasher films) are full of sunny outdoors footage -- creating a bright mood which contrasts with the brutal slayings. The Prey's sunny outdoor footage itself embodies contrasts; its footage depicts wildlife prey. Nature is brutal, despite the summer sun -- as it that psycho who grew up in the natural wilds, soon to prey on the campers!
Winter and summer mise-en-scène can both help or hinder a horror film, depending on how it relates to the film's story, characters, or themes. It all depends on context.
For more about my thinking on mise-en-scène in 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, July 31, 2010
By humanism, I mean that optimistic, secularist, usually materialist notion that "Man is the center of the universe," the "measure of all things," the "standard of all morality." That humans are inherently valuable. I regard Jean Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, and Ayn Rand as humanists.
By contrast, theism places man as subservient to higher beings (God, or gods, or some supernatural power). Man has value only to the extent that God grants him value. Even demons (or evil gods) recognize man's value -- why fight for his soul if it has no value?
Nihilism, like humanism, is also materialistic and secular, but nihilism sees man as no more valuable than any other entity in the universe. Just an accident of biology, without any meaning or purpose to his life.
Humanism elevates man to the top of the pyramid. Theism places man lower down the pyramid. Nihilism sets man on a flat plain, the equal of lions, jellyfish, cockroaches, and rocks.
In most horror films, victims are threatened by an Unnatural Threat. These films are usually theistic, in that they place the victims in the context of a supernatural universe (e.g., The Sixth Sense, The Haunting, The Exorcist, The Mothman Prophecies, The Grudge, Lost Souls).
However, even as the victim is overwhelmed by superior powers, there is a certain dignity in fighting superior creatures.
In other horror films, the victim is terrorized by squalid, sordid, grubby humans. Saw, Hostel, The Devil's Rejects, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre have no Unnatural Threat. Rather, these Naturalistic Psycho Gorefests dehumanize the victims, placing them at the mercy of mere mortals, and reduced to the status of animals. These victims' humanity means nothing, their situation hopeless (no God or Justice will rescue them). They are just another piece of meat to be slaughtered, eaten, shat out, and forgotten.
These films create a nihilistic sensibility. The protagonists' suffering has no value or meaning.
Theistic horror films evoke a "sense of wonder" as we realize our smallness before transcendent powers. Nihilistic horror films evoke a "sense of despair" as we realize our smallness before some creepy retard with an ax.
Sometimes it's hard to say whether a horror film is theistic or nihilistic. An Unnatural Threat need not be supernatural. Aliens are unnatural to our current understanding of nature (Alien, The X-Files). So too a psycho who can't be killed -- what I term the uberpsycho (Halloween). These films flirt with theism, in that they posit higher powers.
Yet some horror/sci-if is nihilistic. H.P. Lovecraft reflected a nihilistic worldview. His characters inhabit a godless universe, at the mercy of superior beings.
In any event, I can't think of any effective humanist horror films. Even if the victim wins at film's end, her journey was through either a theistic or nihilistic milieu.
This is not to say that humanists can't enjoy horror films. Horror is about the collapse of a safe, secure normalcy; the end of reality as we know it. A humanist may very likely be terrified if he (or a character on screen) confronts a suddenly nihilistic turn of events.
For more about my thinking on Unnatural Threats, the Naturalistic Psycho Gorefest, Uberpsychos, and Horror/Sci-fi (and how it differs from science fiction), 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, February 3, 2010
"This is a book about horror film aesthetics. That sounds abstract and theoretical, but quite the contrary, this book is intended to be pragmatic. A practical and useful guide for aspiring horror filmmakers. This book analyzes how various cinematic tools -- acting, makeup, costuming, set décor, framing, photography, lighting, editing, and sound -- have been used by past films to effectively (or in some cases, ineffectively) create horror on screen.
"This book is an 'aesthetic how to' guide for horror filmmakers. Not to help them copy past films, but rather, to spark their imaginations. To expand their understanding of the horror genre -- its nature and appeal to viewers -- and their appreciation for the full creative potential of their film and video equipment. Aspiring filmmakers often read technical manuals to learn what the buttons on their cameras do, but they don't bother to learn how to use those buttons creatively. I know this as a horror film fan, critic, and journalist, and also from screening films for the Tabloid Witch Awards horror film contest and festival, which I founded in 2004 and continue to manage.
"This is not a book about how to use film and video gear. This is a book about how to use film and video gear effectively. In a way that conveys your horror story and themes in a clear, entertaining, and frightening manner.
"Student and independent filmmakers should find this book useful, but it is also intended for the hardcore fan. I hope this book will enable fans to 'see things' in horror films they may have previously missed, and thus gain a deeper appreciation for the genre. An appreciation that leads to greater viewing pleasures."