Friday, October 16, 2020

Trash Horror Defined: The Example of Cold Blooded

Both Trash Horror and Horror Trash are common terms. I'll use Trash Horror in this post, because I'm focusing on horror films and so "trash" is the qualifier.

How to define the Trash Horror subgenre? Many Trash Horror films are funny, but not all, so while Trash Horror and Comedic Horror overlap, each subgenre has its own defining criteria.

A great Trash Horror film is a glorious failure. Several elements are required.

* The budget is usually minuscule.

* Production values are rough. Actors can either chew scenery or do an impression of wood, but they must never display emotional depth, subtlety, or talent. (Re-Animator's stellar cast disqualifies it as Trash Horror).

* There should be ambition -- a filmmaker whose vision extends beyond his abilities.

* And for true Trash Horror greatness, that vision should be outré -- too crazy for anyone to take seriously.

* Nevertheless, there must be sincerity. As with the Great Pumpkin's choice of pumpkin patches, great Trash Horror displays sincere artistic effort and love of horror.

* Finally, the result must entertain (e.g., Blood Feast, Don't Look in the Basement, Horror High, Basket Case, Shock 'Em Dead.)


Kidd Tommy's Cold Blooded pays homage to both Horror High and Shock 'Em Dead. Set in the 1980s, it's the tale of Moonie (Teva White), a young mad scientist who also manages her boyfriend's rock band. Then Rick (Nolan Potter) dumps Moonie for a hot blonde, and she concocts a potion that turns Rick into a lizard-man -- leading to rock & roll stardom and a trail of dead bodies.

But it would be inaccurate to call Cold Blooded a failure in the true Trash Horror sense. The film is also a "genre parody" -- a film that painstakingly mimics past genres, eras, and cinematic styles. Examples include Shafted (1970s blaxploitation), Isle of the Damned (1970s Italian cannibal horror), Automatons (1950s robot sci-fi), Man of the Century (1930s musical comedies), and Francesca (1970s Italian giallo). What these films have in common is a love for their source material.

That same love shines through Cold Blooded. Writer/director Tommy's film looks to have been shot in the 1980s and distributed on VHS. You have the hair styles and fashion, the hair band, the video store, and the color bleeds and tape glitches one expects when watching an old VHS tape.

Essentially, Tommy set out to make a film that's "so bad it's good." That's not as easy as it sounds. Directors who make an intentionally bad film rarely produce a film that "so bad it's good," but more often a film that's "so bad it's unwatchable." Their films lack sincerity. We sense the cast and crew got lazy because they thought bad filmmaking didn't require effort. The results on screen are more often slipshod than entertaining.

Cold Blooded is not true Trash Horror, but a painstaking parody of Trash Horror. Which, ironically, because of its sincere effort at parody, succeeds as both parody and as Trash Horror. It's actually Trash Horror, once removed. (Are you still with me?)

Kidd Tommy does an excellent job capturing the look, the sound, the vibes of the 1980s. Plus, she successfully depicts it through the direct-to-video prism of that era. Finally, she tells an entertaining story with engaging characters -- despite the actors' hammy performances, we are emotionally invested in Moonie and Rick. We care what happens to them.


For more information on defining and demarcating the subgenres of horror, 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.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Mobile Camera and Staging Enlivens The Vast of Night

Stage plays adapted to film can appear static. Long scenes with people just sitting and talking can weary an audience. Thus, filmmakers will sometimes try to liven up events by breaking single location scenes into different locations, taking the characters outdoors for a walk as they continue talking. Or they'll have the camera roam for a bit, inserting a few brief action shots for an interlude to break the monotony of all that talk.

The Vast of Night (2019) is a talky film. Although its topic of alien abduction carries much potential for action, it has many long, static scenes of people just sitting and talking.

In one scene, Fay (Sierra McCormick) sits at switchboard for ten minutes, listening to the radio or talking to people over the phone. Ten minutes is a long time to focus on one person just sitting in tight quarters, talking or listening.

It can be interesting, if there's an engaging character in an intriguing situation. And Fay is engaging. But however good the scene is, it might be even better if things were livened up.

Director Andrew Patterson uses a mobile camera and staging (actors walking or driving about for long stretches) as active interludes between his long, static scenes. Breaking up things before stupor sets into the audience.

The Vast of Night opens with a long take, a mobile camera following Everett (Jake Horowitz) as he enters a high school gym, walking about, talking to several people, following a teacher downstairs to the basement, then up and out again, into the parking lot.

Patterson uses several long takes for this scene (some over two minutes in length) while a mobile camera instills a sense of anticipation and excitement. Thus the film is mostly a series of long, static scenes of people talking -- discussing aliens, government conspiracies, and lights in the sky -- interspersed with long interludes of the camera roaming about.

Sometimes Patterson's mobile camera follows people. But sometimes it appears to be seeking something. In which case, these mobile shots serve a secondary purpose.

At one point, the camera glides quickly over the dark streets of this small New Mexico town, nobody in sight. Because of 1, the story's context, and 2, no human is present, and 3, the camera moves faster than any human can run, it feels as if we're seeing events from the POV of unearthly being. An alien, perhaps? This appears not to be the case, but the feeling is there nonetheless. And it adds to the film's eeriness.


For more information on cinematography and staging in horror, 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, April 24, 2020

Zooms Lens Put to Imaginative Use in Shadows of Fear

The "Sugar and Spice" episode of TV's Shadows of Fear uses the zoom lens in an imaginative way for an interesting effect.

Anne's (Sheila Hancock) husband, Victor, is having an affair. She's known it for a while. She found a letter to Victor from his mistress. But tonight Anne has other problems. Her son hasn't come home. She has reason to believe that Victor picked up the boy from school. But why would he? And where are they now?

As the night wears on, Anne wonders if she should call Victor's mistress (her phone number was in the letter) to see if Victor and their son are with the mistress. But neither Victor or his mistress know that Anne knows about them. If he and the boy are not there, Anne will have revealed her knowledge to the mistress for nothing.

In the following scene, Anne breaks down and phones the mistress. The camera zooms closer to Anne's face every time the phone rings.

Ringing and zooming work together in mutual support. Anne wants to talk to the mistress, yet doesn't want to talk to her. Ever been there? Where you dread talking to someone, yet are anxious to do so? Each time the phone rings, Anne expects and wants the mistress to answer, yet is relieved when she doesn't.

The zooming heightens this tension. We only zoom during the phone rings, each zoom bringing us closer to Anne's tense face. It has been said that comedy is a long shot; tragedy a closeup. Seeing a character up close helps the audience to identify with that character and empathize with her emotions. And horror is a genre that requires strong audience empathy with the protagonist.

Apart from heightening tension and character identification, the zooming in "Sugar and Spice" serves another purpose. Shadows of Fear featured plays that were videotaped on TV sound stages. Back in the 1970s, TV cameras were larger and more unwieldy than today. None of that handheld, shaky-cam style of shooting permitted by later, smaller cameras.

As a result, TV shows that were shot on sound stages in the 1970s were "stagy" and "static." The zooming in "Sugar and Spice" is an example of an innovative director trying to liven up the visuals in what is essentially a stage play.

"Sugar and Spice" was directed by Patrick Dromgoole.


For more information on sound and cinematography in horror, 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, April 5, 2020

Creative Lighting in Boris Karloff's Thriller

An admirably creative use of lighting appears in a 1961 episode of Boris Karloff's Thriller, "God Grante That She Lye Stille."

Margaret (Sarah Marshall) is a young woman possessed by a witch's ghost. In the end, the witch is defeated and expelled from Margaret's body. Margaret then lies exhausted in bed, attended to by Edward (Ronald Howard), a doctor who has fallen in love with Margaret.

Margaret and Edward speak. Edward helps Margaret sit up in bed. They hug and make plans for their future. Then Margaret is set back down in bed, whereupon she dies.

Observe the lighting in this scene. Margaret is initially brightly lit. But when she is set back down on bed, she is placed into darkness.

There is no logical reason within the story for this sudden darkness. All the presumed light sources in the bedroom should still be functioning. This change in lighting nondiegetic in that it doesn't originate from within the story.

Aesthetically, the change in lighting is symbolic and emotional. A subtle way of symbolizing the life leaving Margaret, while also conveying the emotional pain felt by Edward (and hopefully by us, the audience).

This change in lighting is subtle, because I doubt that many viewers consciously noticed it. It more likely affected them solely on an unconscious, emotional level. I myself wasn't sure the lighting had changed when I first saw this episode. Rather, I did a double take, thought it might have changed but wasn't sure, then replayed the scene. Of course, this would have been impossible in 1961 when the episode first aired.

The cinematographer was Benjamin H. Kline. Directed by Herschel Daugherty.


For more information on lighting for horror, 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, March 8, 2020

Admirable Use of Extreme Long Shots in It Follows

Extreme long shots of people often disempower them on screen. A tiny astronaut seen against the vastness of space, or against a vast alien spaceship (e.g. Alien, 1979), emphasizes the astronaut's vulnerability. So too when we see tiny urban campers walking or rafting amid a vast, untamed wilderness (e.g., The Final Terror, 1983).

But in It Follows (2014), extreme long shots achieve the opposite emotional effect: they empower the monster that's stalking its victims.

This is because of the context of the story. Jay (Maika Monroe) is being stalked by a monster. This monster is an enigma. Jay knows little about it, other than that it takes on the appearance of people. It can resemble anyone, even a loved one, and change its appearance at any time. Some clues that a person is the monster are that 1. the monster cannot talk, and 2. other people can't see it. Some less reliable clues are that the monster usually has a deadpan expression, though its expression can turn hostile. And it usually walks toward you in a slow, steady gait, though it can pause.

Anyone can be the monster. Anyone can be a threat. To know, one must examine the person up close. If you call out, does he respond? Is her expression friendly or deadpan? (Alas, to get near enough to the monster, to see if it is the monster, can be fatal.)

Any tiny person in the distance, coming in Jay's direction, is a potential threat. Of course, most people will not be the monster. This uncertainty means that the audience will be unnerved at the sight of anyone in the distance approaching us. We have no way of knowing which passerby is actually the monster.

Consider when Jay goes to the lake. She is sitting in a chair, conversing with her friends. A woman emerges from the foliage in the distance.

This scene is well staged, in that Jay and her friends are all sedentary. Only the unknown woman moves. Because she is the only movement on screen, she catches our attention.

At this point, Jay is in a medium long shot, the woman in extreme long shot. Because she is so tiny on screen, she is an enigma. We can't discern her expression. She walks casually, as any normal person might. But the audience is unnerved, especially because Jay is unaware of the woman's approach. If it is the monster, her friends won't be able to see her. And if they did, they might think nothing of it; they don't fully believe in Jay's monster stalker.

The scene is well played out. As the woman approaches Jay from behind, Jay continues talking to her friends, Kelly (Lili Sepe) and Paul (Keir Gilchrist). Kelly lies on a blanket in front of Jay. Paul is seated to Kelly's right.

When Jay's hair is lifted, Jay initially thinks nothing of it. It might be the wind. But her friends, and the audience, sees that the person doing the lifting is invisible, thus the monster.

(Although the monster was visible to us before, it might be that the monster is now invisible because we are seeing it from Kelly's point of view.)

Throughout the film, the monster is often (not always) seen in an extreme long shot. This empowers the monster not only because it makes it difficult to tell if it really is the monster, but also because it helps to shroud the monster in mystery. It is often true in horror that the more enigmatic is a threat, the more threatening it is. The less we know, the harder to defend or fight against it. The less we know, the more unnatural it seems; the more it feels like an Other.

It Follows ends with a similar, and very effective, use of extreme long shot. The monster might be dead, but can Jay really be sure? She walks with Paul, who is now also cursed. We see them together on an ordinary suburban street. Then we see them from behind. When we see them again from the front, there is a man behind them in the distance, walking in the same direction.

This unknown man's presence is unsettling both because he's in an extreme long shot (making him an enigma), and because his appearance is sudden. Of course, he might be a neighbor who exited his house while we were watching Jay and Paul from behind. Who knows?

The end.


For more information on framing and staging, 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, February 29, 2020

Acting Errors in The Fear of Darkness

When creating a character on film, it's important for an actor to ground the character in reality. The more real the character feels to an audience, the easier for the audience to empathize with the character, and thus suspend their disbelief regarding the supernatural events the character experiences.

Little things are important. Details enhance, or subvert, the audiences' sense that the character, and events on screen, are real. A viewer might not even know why he didn't like a film, only that it didn't feel right.

In The Fear of Darkness (Australian 2015), Skye (Penelope Mitchell) insists that an extra dimensional entity killed her boyfriend. The police think that Skye killed her boyfriend; that she is insane. They've placed Skye in the care of Sarah (Maeve Dermody), a psychologist who's trying to heal Skye.

The Fear of Darkness is reasonably enjoyable, albeit mediocre and unoriginal. But one thing especially irritated me. Sarah kept removing her eyeglasses. Anyone who's experienced near-sightedness, and thought about it, knows that Sarah's behavior rang false. And once I thought about it, I couldn't stop thinking about it. Every time Sarah removed her glasses reminded me that it was only a movie.

Why does Sarah wear glasses? Presumably because director Christopher Fitchett wants us to think that Sarah is smart. She's a doctor. A scientist. Why, she's so smart, she even wears glasses!

That's an old trope. Put glasses on a young, pretty actress, so we all think she's smart. But okay. So Sarah wears glasses. But she is too young to be far-sighted. So she must be near-sighted. In which case, actress Dermody should behave as would a near-sighted person.

Far-sighted people use reading glasses to magnify materials that are up close, like words in a book or on a computer screen. They remove their glasses to look at a person across a room, because even slightly longer distances appear sharper without reading glasses.

But near-sighted people wear glasses all day. They put them on in the morning, and keep them on until bedtime. To a near-sighted person, everything, near or far, is shaper with glasses.

Yet Sarah treats her glasses as would a (much older) far-sighted person. She's always putting them on and taking them off. Here are two examples, among many:

Sarah wears glasses to read some papers. But then she removes them to look at people across a conference table. This is how a (much older) far-sighted person uses reading glasses. But near-sighted people need glasses for both reading and seeing people across a room.

Now this scene is doubly fake ...

We begin with Sarah reading a computer screen. So now she doesn't need glasses of any kind to see a computer screen? But she needed them in previous scenes.

Then something interesting appears on screen. Sarah puts on her glasses. Why? To get a closer look? Nonsense! If she could see the screen well enough to use a search engine, she does not need glasses for "a closer look."

And then, wearing glasses, Sarah sees something far across the room, apparently in the mirror. Well, that makes sense. A near-sighted person would need glasses to see far across the room.

So Sarah gets up -- and removes her glasses! -- as she approaches the mirror. Why? To get a better look? From far across the room? Again, nonsense. She saw the entity with her glasses. Why take them off now? Being near-sighted, the room would go blurry once Sarah removes her glasses.

I don't know who is responsible for Sarah's constant eyeglass play, Dermody or Fitchett, but Sarah is thoughtlessly mimicking elderly movie scientists, who often remove their (reading glasses) when looking up from some papers. But neither Dermody or Fitchett asked themselves, why do elderly people remove their glasses?

Because they're far-sighted, which the young Sarah cannot be.

But if she can't play with her glasses, that leaves Sarah with only two realistic options. Either lose the glasses -- But then how will we know that Sarah is smart? Or keep her glasses on throughout the film, never removing them -- But then we won't see Dermody's pretty face!

Either option would work. But because horror films are entertainment, and attractive actors are a selling point, The Fear of Darkness reduces eyeglasses to a "smart girl" prop (i.e., an optional accessory) on a pretty face, at the expense of creating a more realistic character.


For more about the performances of actors in horror, 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.