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.

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