Sunday, June 18, 2017

Stephen Furst of The Unseen Dies

News outlets are reporting that actor Stephen Furst has died. According to JD Knapp at Daily Variety [June 17, 2017]:

Stephen Furst, best known for getting his start in “Animal House,” has passed away due to complications with diabetes, Variety can confirm. He was 63 years old. 

Furst died in his Moorpark, Calif. home on Friday. His sons Nathan and Griff Furst confirmed their father’s death on Facebook Saturday evening.

New media are highlighting what they regard as Furst's most noteworthy acting achievements, such as roles in Animal House, Babylon 5, and St. Elsewhere. They're overlooking the work by Furst that most impressed me: that of "Junior" Keller in the 1980 horror film, The Unseen.

The Unseen is one of my favorite horror films. (And I am not the person to say that lightly.) A framed poster from the film currently hangs in my living room. The one on the right. There are many Unseen posters out there, with different images. I should know. I own a few. 

In The Unseen, Furst performed splendidly as an inbred, retarded killer. In my review of the film, I wrote: 

But it is Stephen Furst (Animal House) who shines as Junior Keller ... the unseen. Weldon describes Junior as a "murderous, retarded, overweight, full- grown baby." That's kinda what Junior looks like, but not really what he is. Having seen The Unseen a dozen or so times, I suspect he kills the women by accident. He merely wants a closer look (at Lamm's golden hair, for instance), and pulls too hard. A child who doesn't know his own strength. And he's not a "full-grown baby," he just looks like one because he's fat, dressed in soiled diaper-like rags, and he can't talk. He can only grunt.

Okay actors. Here's an assignment: Portray a sympathetic mutant retard killer, while wearing soiled diaper-like rags, in makeup that makes you look like some ugly incestuous spawn from Deliverance. And all you're allowed to do is grunt. Grunt and stomp and pound and grunt.  And oh yeah, try and be nuanced and subtle.

Furst does it.

His Junior is ugly and frightening, yet we detect his motivations beneath his grunting and stomping. His frustrated ineffectual attempts to communicate with Bach and recruit her for his playmate. His love for mom. His fear, then anger, at dad. However repulsive and scary and unsympathetic Junior initially appears, his demise is poignant. I hesitate to equate Furst's Junior with Karloff's Monster, but I also hesitate to dismiss the comparison out of hand.

You can see the entire film on YouTube (although I also own it on Beta, VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray -- in addition to seeing it in the theater when it was first released.)

Some horror fans hate The Unseen. Why do I love it so much? You can read my entire review here.


For more about The Unseen, 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, June 3, 2017

In Search of Lovecraft Suffers from Poorly Motivated Characters

Poorly motivated characters are a common problem. These characters' actions are inconsistent with their previous behavior. Writers threat these characters as puppets, having them say or do things merely to advance the story, without regard as to whether that character, as established by his other actions or statements, would do that

Slasher film victims are a classic example. It often makes no sense for them to wander about the woods at night after everyone has strangely disappeared. Yet they do so anyway, merely because the writer wants to get that character from point A to point B.

In Search of Lovecraft (2008) provides another example. In this film, two TV journalists, Rebecca and Mike (Renee Sweet and Tytus Bergstrom), investigate a Lovecraftian cult. The film explodes with poor directing, acting, and writing, but I'll limit myself to a few scenes.

Who is this Mike character? Writer/director David J. Hohl establishes that Mike is an Army veteran who has seen combat. Mike carries a gun. He's strong. He's brooding. He's tough.


Dr. D'Souza (Saqib Mausoof) tips off Mike and Rebecca that information on the cult might be obtained at a certain spot in the woods, late at night. Mike and Rebecca drive there and park. Their intern, Amber (Denise Amrikhas), sits in the back seat. (above)

We hear a noise. The car shakes. A tentacle descends on the windshield. The creature breaks the rear window. The panicked Amber exits the car. The creature pulls her up and out of sight. Rebecca opens the car door, about to exit and rescue Amber.

Holding back Rebecca, Mike says, "You can't go outside."

"But we have to find Amber," Rebecca protests.

Remaining safe in the car, Mike shines his flashlight out the window.

"Do you see her?" asks Rebecca.

"Too late," says Mike. "Go! Go now! Go now!"

What are ex-soldier Mike's motivations? Is he really a coward? Or perhaps he only wanted to "go now" because he was protective of Rebecca, the woman he really cares about?

Let's see what Mike does next. 

The next day, Mike and Rebecca set up a meeting with Dr. D'Souza at a park in San Francisco. Upon spotting D'Souza, Mike rushes up and grabs him, as though about to beat up D'Souza.

"Amber's gone!" Mike shouts. "Will you tell us what's going on!"

"Do you have any idea what happened to us last night?" asks Rebecca.

"What the fuck attacked us?" asks Mike.

"I warned you about the cult," D'Souza replies.

Why is Mike attacking D'Souza? Up till now they trusted him. Mike never showed any concern for Amber in any previous scene. And if Mike did care about Amber, why didn't he try to find and help her last night? Instead of urging Rebecca to drive off now?

Mike is acting tough simply to act tough. Acting tough not from any motivation, but because writer Hohl wants Mike to act tough. Maybe Hohl thinks that having Mike bully D'Souza will inject drama into the scene.

And then Mike's character grows less consistent.

While Mike and D'Souza are bickering, a disheveled bum approaches Rebecca. He grabs her arm and presses a bloody handkerchief against it.

"Ow, you're hurting me! You're hurting me!" screams Rebecca.

Rebecca, Mike's love interest, is being attacked. Rebecca screams that she's being "hurt." How does Mike react?

Upon hearing Rebecca's screams, Mike slowly turns to see what's troubling her. And then does ... nothing. Like a block of wood, Mike watches the bum leave, having given the handkerchief -- containing Amber's ear -- to Rebecca.

So what is Mike's character? Tough? Brave? A hothead?

Mike is tough, brave, and hotheaded enough to bully D'Souza, who's threatening no one. But Mike doesn't attack the bum, who was "hurting" Rebecca. Even with Rebecca screaming right beside him, Mike only slowly takes notice of her.

Is Mike a coward? Afraid of the bum? Yet D'Souza is taller and younger than the bum. Mike might run from a tentacled monster, but if he can fight D'Souza, he can take the bum. So if Mike's not afraid of the bum, why didn't he defend Rebecca?

Is Mike a hothead? Hotheaded enough to attack D'Souza for an event that occurred last night. But not so hotheaded as to attack a bum who right now was "hurting" the woman he truly cares for.

Mike's instances of toughness, bravery, and hotheadedness are inconsistent. They come and go without rhyme or reason. Without any discernible motivation.

Mike does what he does because writer Hohl uses Mike -- and the other characters -- as empty-headed puppets, their sole purpose to move things along from scene to scene. Mike runs from the monster because Hohl is finished with that scene. Mike shouts at D'Souza because Hohl thinks it's dramatic. Mike ignores the bum because Hohl wants the bum to leave. 

Mike acts according to Hohl's motivations because Hohl hasn't provided Mike with any of his own motivations.

Inconsistent, poorly motivated characters are less "real." Thus, audiences are less likely to sympathize and empathize with them. Which weakens the horror in a horror film.

To better understand why, read my post about the importance of characters in horror. Also read about the poorly motivated characters in Dark Floors.


For more practical tips for low-budget horror filmmakers, 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, June 2, 2017

A Minimalist Production Design for Out of His Tree

Finding suitable locations is one of the bigger problems confronting low-budget horror filmmakers. Many actors and crew members will work for little pay or no pay. Realistic looking locations (e.g., a restaurant, school, airport, hospital) are more difficult and costly to secure. Shooting permits, location fees, and liability insurance are expensive for those on a shoestring budget. In some cases, the law even requires a (paid) fire marshal and/or other professionals to be on set at all times.

But with a little imagination, filmmakers and production designers can create locations on the cheap. Such as in Out of His Tree (2016), an eight minute film set inside a hospital.

Hospital rooms, whether real or on a sound stage, can be expensive to rent. Instead, for Out of His Tree, production designer Sorsha Willow took a minimalist approach, merely suggesting a hospital with only a few set pieces.

Out of His Tree has two locations. The first is Dr. White's (Laverne Edmonds) office. She makes some phone calls before going to see her next patient. Her "office" is just a white area. The only set piece is a white phone.

Writer/director Robert Howat's cinematography assists Willow's minimalist design by bathing the office in soft white light, and blurring the wall behind Edmonds. What is that on the "wall" behind her? Charts and papers? We don't know. Nor does it matter.

Sound effects further assist in suggesting a hospital: soft conversations echoing in a hallway, phones ringing, etc.

Because a solitary actress standing in an empty white space can make for a static, dull scene, Howat enlivens the scene by shooting Laverne from different angles during her conversation.

The second location is in the patient Johnny's (Robert Howat) room. We learn that Dr. White is a psychiatrist. Johnny is mentally ill. Their conversation comprises the remainder of the film, ending with a supernatural revelation.

It's a simple white room. The main set pieces are two metal chairs, some papers, and wrist straps on Johnny.

Apart from saving money, the film's minimalist set design has the aesthetic effect of focusing our attention on Dr. White and Johnny, because there's little else in the rooms to distract our attention.

This focus is further heightened by Howat's heavy use of medium closeups and closeups. The frames become tighter as the story progresses, enhancing our intimacy with the characters.

It has been said that comedy is a long shot while drama is a closeup. Long shots emotionally distance audiences from the characters' sufferings. Closeups pull us into their hopes, dreams, desperations, and fears. Howat's use of closeups serves his dark supernatural tale well.

Also read about how low-budget filmmakers created inexpensive locations for Mark of the Witch and Psychic Sue.


For more practical tips for low-budget horror filmmakers, 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, June 1, 2017

A Powerful Silhouette in Insidious: Chapter 2

Silhouettes are an effective -- and inexpensive -- way to enhance a scene's mood or atmosphere, infusing the scene with power, poignancy, beauty, romance, mystery, unease, or terror. This simple lighting technique can delineate a character or support a theme. Horror films have used silhouettes in many ways, as have other film genres and styles. Noir is especially famous for its heavy use of silhouettes.

Insidious: Chapter 2 makes admirable use of silhouettes.

Josh (Patrick Wilson) is a father possessed by a ghost. No one in his family knows this yet. The scene opens with Josh playing outside with his son. The smiling actors, joyful playing, and sunny lighting all suggest happy normalcy.

Josh's wife, Renai (Rose Byrne) gazes at her husband and son, happy and secure in what she sees.

Renai returns to her other son, still sitting at the breakfast table. The son relates an ominous story about Josh to Renai. Much of it is told in flashback. The son's story suggests there is something wrong with Josh. He might not be as he appears.

The son's story instills in Renai -- and in us -- a fear of Josh. This loving father of only a moment ago now seems to be a threat. Whereupon, Josh calls to them. They turn toward him and we cut to...

Josh, standing in the doorway -- in silhouette. He speaks in friendly tones. Yet the silhouette enhances the fear instilled in us by the son's story.

We cut to Renai and son, looking at Josh. Then again to Josh, the frame tightening from the previous long shot to a medium close-up. This has the emotional effect of strengthening Josh's presence, so that he feels that much more threatening.

This silhouette's emotional impact derives largely from the film's dramatic context. It is the son's ominous account to Renai, of seeing Josh behaving strangely, that infuses Josh's silhouette with menace. In another dramatic context, in another film's story, the silhouette might have an entirely difference impact, or no impact at all.

You might also want to read my previous post about Insidious: Chapter 2's use of sexual deviancy. 


For more information on lighting and framing, 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.