Tuesday, March 13, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, March 10, 2012

How Christianity Functions in Absentia

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

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

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

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

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

How do these religious elements serve the film?

Spoilers ahead...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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