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.

1 comment:

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