Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Kiss: Implied Gore in Offscreen Space

A long-running debate in horror film criticism is the merits of explicit vs. implied threats. Which packs the greater emotional punch? To see gore in all its graphic detail, or to leave such horrors to our imagination?

The Kiss (1988) provides an excellent example of the power of implied gore, in a scene that is set at a department store. The scene comprises 39 shots, running a total of 1 minute, 19 seconds. 

The scene opens with three closeup shots of escalator stairs, from different angles. 


Two teenage girls step onto the escalator, Amy (Meredith Salenger) and Heather (Sabrina Boudot). 

As they rise with the stairs, Heather realizes that she's dropped her lipstick. She returns to the bottom of the stairs to retrieve it. As she reaches for it, her necklace is caught by the escalators.

Naturally, Heather is unable either to extract the necklace from the stairs, or to remove the necklace from around her neck.

There follows an increasingly tense series of shots. Heather rising with the stairs. Amy looking on in horror, screaming for help, unable to help Heather.

Amy's boyfriend, Terry (Shawn Levy), who works at the store, hears Amy. He rushes to the escalator. He kicks the Emergency Stop button, but to no avail. The escalator won't stop. 

As the scene progresses editing heightens our sense of panic through brief, quick cuts of the same few shots -- Terry's frantic kicks, Amy's horrified gaze, the moving escalator stairs -- and Heather's screaming face, the necklace wrapped ever more tightly across it.

Viewers, morbidly tantalized, fearfully anticipate what will happen to Heather's face when she reaches the top of the escalator. But when Heather does arrive, the penultimate shot of is Amy's horrified gaze -- then a final shot of the escalator stairs, still running smoothly as blood, hair strands, and necklace bits collect at the top.

What happened to Heather is left to our imagination. Instead, we cut to a scene of a distraught Amy arriving home. We learn that Heather is in the hospital, "badly cut up."

We never see or hear of Heather again. Her face -- or what's left of it -- is forever left to our imagination.

This scene's dramatic setup and editing do much to build audience tension. So much so that our minds filled in the blanks as to what occurred to Heather's face.

Some filmmakers would feel the need to push the envelop and show the flesh tearing off from Heather's face, perhaps in slow motion. Some films have indeed shown humans being skinned alive (e.g., Dagon). Yet The Kiss's handling of this scene is also extremely effective in instilling suspense and horror.

The Kiss is an excellent supernatural tale of African witchcraft. It is currently out-of-print as a DVD, but you can see it on YouTube:


For more about the use of offscreen space 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.