Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Directorial and Writing Mistakes in The Haunting of Marsten Manor

An early scene in The Haunting of Marsten Manor showcases several errors that filmmakers can learn from. All these errors stem from one problem: the characters behave unrealistically, in ways meant to create drama or to advance the plot, rather then remaining true to themselves and their situation.

We are at the reading of a will. An attorney (Alan Peterson) tells Jill (Brianne Davis) that she has inherited her aunt's house. Jill is surprised, because she'd never met her aunt. 

"Can I ask you a legal question about wills?" says Jill.

The attorney gets testy. "A legal question, huh. Let me guess. Your daddy sent you off to law school, all bright eyed and bushy tailed, out to make the world a better place, mmm? Shoot. First question's on the house. After that, $250 an hour, two hour minimum."

Jill stand up, outraged. "I'm not bright-eyed, because I'm blind. So obviously I can't go to law school or any school. I can't make the world a better place, because I can't see it." 

ERROR: This exchange is silly. The lawyer's sudden rudeness is unmotivated. He went from friendly to snide in an instant, just because Jill asked a normal question. Besides, it is his job to answer any question Jill has regarding the will. Jill is his client's heir. He is the paid executor of the estate. The writers (Dave and Julie Sapp) either don't know, or don't care, about the law.

So why did they write this exchange between Jill and the attorney? I suppose it's to "motivate" Jill's anger. The lawyer is rude not because it's true to his character, or to the scene's context, but because the writers want to Jill to get angry. Alas, they couldn't come up with a realistic trigger. They are treating Jill and the attorney like lifeless props, rather than as characters who behave true to themselves.

The scene continues.

The attorney loudly says, "I am sorry."

"I'm not deaf. I'm blind," Jill retorts.

The attorney says more quietly, "I am sorry. Please sit down. What was your question?" 

Jill says nothing. She's too angry to care about her question.

"Okay then," says the attorney "Then I will give you the keys to your new place." He has a document for Jill to sign. He considers it, then gives the document to Jill's friend, Rob (Ken Luckey). "That's all right if you go ahead and sign for her." 

Jill is angry again. "I can write my name. My hands aren't broken."

"Fine," says the attorney.

 Jill signs the document.

Then the attorney offers the keys to Rob. "Here you go."

"I believe those are mine," says Jill, hand outstretched.

Rob takes the keys from the attorney, then gives them to Jill.

ERROR: If Jill is blind, how did she know the attorney was offering the keys to Rob?

Never mind that after Jill's outburst over the document, the attorney would not offer her the keys. They're just keys. If Jill can sign a document, she can certainly hold keys.

But this error is compounded.

The attorney now says, "Here's a copy of the will. The deed and the address. So forth and so on. Your papers." 

Remarkably, the attorney once again offers the papers to Rob. Once again, Rob takes the papers and gives them to Jill.

I guess the writers really want to belabor that it's very difficult for Jill to be blind. Everyone thinks she's helpless. Well, we got it with the document. I don't buy that the attorney would then mistakenly hand the keys, and then the papers, to Rob.

 The attorney says softly, looking at Rob, "Good luck to you all. And I'm sorry about before." 

"I can still hear you," snaps Jill.

ERROR: How did Jill know the lawyer was looking at Rob, trying to speak confidentially to him? Jill had asked the attorney to speak softly, stating "I'm not deaf." Why would she not assume he was simply ... speaking softly as per her request?

Jill "knew" because the writers wanted her to get angry again. The writers are treating Jill as a prop, making her behave in whatever way advances their plot, without any regard for whether Jill's character would say this do that in any particular situation.

A final complaint. Alan Peterson plays the attorney with a really bad, strong, fake Southern accent. Well, The Haunting of Marsten Manor is a Civil War themed ghost story. I guess the director wanted to establish that we're in the South.

Despite its faults, The Haunting of Marsten Manor is not an awful film. It's a reasonably enjoyable ghost film. It has flaws, as do many indie (and big budget) efforts. But one can enjoy it if one is willing to suspend disbelief. 

For additional examples of bad writing -- where the characters are treated as props, rather than behaving logically and true to themselves -- see my analyses of Prometheus, In Search of Lovecraft, and Deadly Messages, and Dark Floors.

You can also (for now) see The Haunting of Marsten Manor on YouTube. The above scene begins at the 2:08 mark.


For more about writing 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.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Contrasting the Visuals in Two MOS Horror Films: Daughter of Horror and The Beast of Yucca Flats

Daughter of Horror (aka Dementia, 1955) and The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961) were made within a decade of each other. Both films are low budget affairs. Both "feature" runs at under an hour. Both were shot in black & white. Both were shot MOS (i.e., without any sound recorded on set). What sound there is was dubbed in afterwards.

Despite their similarities, they are markedly different. Daughter of Horror is an admirable work of art. The Beast of Yucca Flats is schlock This is why it's instructive to study these films together. Especially their handling of MOS. What did the first film do right that the second got wrong?

You won't find many MOS films these days. Modern video cameras have built in sound recorders. Not so film cameras in the 1950s. And so, some low budget filmmakers tried to save money by doing without sound recorders and boom mics on set, instead shooting MOS and dubbing in the sound during post production.

Comparing these two films, you'll see that Daughter of Horror embraces its MOS limitations. The film has no dialog. Instead, it relies on powerful visuals. Director John Parker's compositions are beautiful and arresting, borrowing stylistically from German expressionism. His harsh lighting creates extreme, angular shadows, and rich, deep blacks.

The production design and staging are similarly expressionistic. For one scene, Parker found an impressively gargantuan staircase. In another, the woman enters a nightclub and is creepily and claustrophobically surrounded by what initially appear to be floating arms.  

Parker's visual style creates a surreal sensibility, which is appropriate as we are allegedly sharing a mad woman's nightmares and/or hallucinations. (She wakes up, but remains uncertain if it was only a dream, so it could be either.)



By contrast, The Beast of Yucca Flats tries to hide its MOS limitations. The film does its (poor) best to fool the audience into thinking that sound was recorded on set. There is dialog. But because it was dubbed during post-production, director Coleman Francis uses several tricks to conceal that the dialog doesn't sync with his actors' lips. When the actors talk, they're always seen from a distance, or obscured in darkness, or behind an object. Or talking off screen -- whereas filmmakers normally show the actor who's speaking, Francis instead frames the actor who's listening, the talker being out of camera frame.

Francis's technique cheapens his film. An actor's voice carries much of his personality. Because we never see his actors speak the voices we hear, some emotional connection with the audience is lost. Better for them never to have spoken in the first place.

Unlike Parker, Francis doesn't provide interesting visuals. His images are dull. Mostly people wandering the desert. Still worse, he shot his film day-for-night (i.e., during the daytime, with the film underexposed to create a nighttime look). Day-for-night is often used for wide expanses (e.g., desert vistas) because of the expense of lighting such large areas. Had Francis rented some generators and lights, he might have had the rich blacks and sharp shadows of Daughter of Horror. Instead, The Beast of Yucca Flats suffers from flat "lighting." Dull, grayish, washed-out.

Apart from dialog, The Beast of Yucca Flats dubs many other diegetic sounds: wind, gunshots, screams, and engine noise (from cars and planes). The only diegetic sound dubbed in Daughter of Horror is laughter. Thus does the latter further embrace its MOS limitations.

Both films have music and narration. Daughter of Horror's narration is more self-aware and self-referential. The narrator addresses the protagonist. "Run, daughter of horror, run." By contrast, Yucca Flats's narrator addresses the audience. The former dynamically interacts with its surreal world. The latter fills in the narrative gaps created by the MOS limitations, telling us (rather than showing) what we would otherwise have learned through the missing dialog.

Narrative gaps are a problem for The Beast of Yucca Flats, because the film attempts to tell a traditional horror/sci-fi story about a killer monster. By contrast, Daughter of Horror doesn't have a linear story, but is a subjective, surreal look at madness. 

Daughter of Horror was initially released as Dementia and had no narration. (The top YouTube clip is without narration, the latter with.) Some fans believe the narration harms the film. Even so, Daughter of Horror's narration better serves its film than the narration for The Beast of Yucca Flats. The latter's narration aims for a philosophical profundity that comes off as unintentionally funny. 

Daughter of Horror should be studied for tips on how to tell a tale visually. Good to know even if you're making a sound film. As for The Beast of Yucca Flats, well, it's schlock. Even so, it can be entertaining if one is in the right mood. I was bored the first time I watched. But I enjoyed my second viewing.


For more about the use of sound 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.