Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Strangers' New Technique

Mama Tried to mess with my DoF and all I got was this stupid movie

The Strangers has been a film I've looked forward to seeing for the past six months or so, back when i heard an interview with the writer/director Bryan Bertio conducted by the Creative Screenwriting Magazine podcast. From what I remembered he majored in film at the University of Texas - Austin and began working as a grip on films shot in the area. He had been submitting scripts to different contests during this time and eventually won with his strangers script. After flying in and out of LA a few times he was offered the directors position. One reason for this was his visual approach in which he stated that he didn't want the fake colors and highly stylized type of horror film prevalent today (i.e. Saw) and rather pushed for a more naturalistic method.

Now for some reason I have a deep love for these stories of first horror films, my favorite one being John Carpenter's Halloween. The reason for this is that horror is the one genre that requires an immense amount of creativity and ingenuity in eliciting terror within people. Money cannot buy fear or scares, rather it avoids problems by adding speical effects, extreme gore or large production sets. The low budget films Halloween and Psycho may seem gorey in content, but they actually have less blood than current television shows, yet people are convinced these movies possess what my mom describes as "all that blood and guts stuff." Because first time directors usually don't have access to the aforementioned equipment it requires the need to look towards other means to develop fear - Carpenter's amazing visual technique combined with a great plot, Wan's groundbreaking gorno devices, Craven's adoption of Eastern philosophy, Hooper's mastery of technique and ambiance - blogs could be written about any of these, and many other directors.

I want to talk about Mr. Bertino's technique - where he went right and how it lead to wrong.

The film opens up on a couple who have clearly just gone through a significant problem in their relationship. Given the fact that the man had this particular house in the country, it could be assumed that the problem was create by the woman. Did she cheat? Maybe they were just friends befor this point? Did she break up with him? (+1 pt for using visual rather than narrative to explain this).

Sadly, we come to find out that he proposed to her and she didn't give an answer. Now this was told in a completely UNNECESSARY flashback! As if the audience could not have put together the fact that while she had an engagement ring and was not wearing it combined with the resentful attitude of the man mean that there was a problem! Oh my god, would no one understand this?! They literally slapped us in the face for not being able to put the simple pieces together by resorting to a single flashback. I can just see the producer being like, "Although most people seeing this film will have completed grade school, they just will not get these simple facts. Hmmmm...I know, throw in a flashback!" (-2pt for treating the audience like an idiot).

Regardless, Bertino sucked us into the story of a relationship gone wrong, very similar in style to Cloverfield (where the first 30 minutes got me sucked into the subplot, almost forgetting a horror film was being viewed). It is because of this situation that the initial door pounding causes us to be so startled. While previous directors have adopted a style of either music, editing or composition in the frame to build up suspense, new horror films are now combining genres, drama and horror - sucking us out of what we intended to see and using this to their advantage.

When the girl appears at the door this also goes against our expectations as viewers. When a knock is heard within horror conventions, either no one will be there or it will be a friend or neighbor (Scream, Opera, I Know What You Did Last Summer, etc...) The idea of having a STRANGER asking if a particular person lives in the house located in the middle of nowhere at 4am is perhaps one of the creepiest things I can imagine (NOTE: look to the trivia on imdb).

The door in this situation is representing the unknown, or the hidden fear, and thus when the knocker reveals themself against conventions these hidden fears stand the chance of being wrongfully interpreted - in other words, either this person is crazy, lost, or drunk because with this house being in the middle of nowhere how else could this mistake be made? People are use to doorbells/knowkcing in horror films, but they are not use to the knocker being revealed as a creepy person. Bertino understands this fact and it develops an anxiety in the viewer. They want to answer the question of why this person knocked on the door and BOOM the anxiety seed is planted.

BUT, this is another problem I had with the movie. The establishment of the house in the middle of nowhere was TERRIBLY done. Instead of the stupid flashback they should have dedicated that time to build the selcusive nature of it. The only part of the movie that reveals the location of the house is the opening credit sequence where houses are being passed by and thus KIND OF, but NOT-REALLY-AT-ALL establishes the location. If they did this better, not only would the movie have worked out better, but the fear would have been established MUCH earlier.

So the husband leaves, and the wife sparks up the last cigarette; clearly wondering what the hell is going to happen to their relationship (+1pt for this because of its realism - although we know its a scary situation, Bertino knew that the woman's thoughts were preoccupied with other issues, and the knocker was not one of most people would respond given the circumstances).

It is at this point that the creepiest scene in the entire movie tajes place. The woman goes toward the sink, leaving screen-left open. Yet no longer does this open screen leave room for a pop out, for its not only a MEDIUM-SHOT, its a MEDIUM-LENS within a MEDIUM-SHOT. Though I assume the DP created this idea considering his track record of belonging to the ASC, this was a genious experiment. I can just see him telling Bertino "Do not play with the COMPOSITION play with the DEPTH OF FIELD to establish terror, people have become desensitized to the composition pop outs, its been played out" (look at my previous Halloween entry part 2 for an example of this).

Many times in horror the frame for pop-outs will be a very shallow, 2-DIMENSIONAL field of focus to work with - see Loomis and the window in Halloween, woman below window in Tales from the Crypt (movie), etc... This scene is an experiment with THREE DIMENSIONAL SPACE, allowing the entire kitchen to be seen. And so it happens! Because of the medium-lens, the partially shallow focus eventually reveals a blurry, horrendous figure in a mask located in the background. Bertino even fools the audience into thinking that the woman might see her as indicated by her glance into the window. The shot then reverses as she turns around, goes back to the previous and the man is gone. (+5 pts. for this revolutionary technique).

Suddenly the door starts pounding again for a marvelous sequence of heart-pounding action. She eventually reaches the bedroom and her husbands returns home just as the action stops. He's of course skeptical (as if her being frightened to death, bleeding and belligerent was all just a figment of her imagination...-1pt for this typical reaction). The scene then proceeds into what I thought was an amzing seuence involving the song Mama Tried by The Strangers playing while the best friend arrives at the house. It was a grat way to add a much more twisted element to the film, to the point that it provides almost a relief from the previous moment's horror.

This scene I feel is part of the glorified violence neo-horror (gorno) as observed in Saw and Hostel. Although I was not at the theater to see this movie I can just imagine people on their edge of their scenes, their hearts slowing down from the previous scene. Now those hearts are picking up seed again, BUT with a smile developing on their face in anticipation of what is about to happen with the shotgun. In horror films, when the audience knows something the characters do not it creates A LOT OF TENSION. I can just see neighbors telling each other, "Oh my God, the man is going to shoot his best friend!" Not because the neighbor doesn't know, but because people love to figure out movies! Bertino yet again knew this, and combined it with glorified violence. We do not know the friend, we do not care for there has been no development. In othe words, they wanted to see him get shot! With such a great, catchy song playing Bertino invokes an EXCITEMENT in the audience. I guarantee that after the friend got shot the entire theater was uproarious with laughter. This was hands down my favorite part of the film and one of the best scenes viewed in a long time. (+10 pts for this scene)

I will stop here because as far as I'm concerned after this point the movie takes not just a turn for the worse, but an instantaneous free fall into shit. It proceeds into contrived, uninspired, typical horror schema that we have all seen countless times and I do not want to spend anymore time talking about it. (-9pts for this)
I'm not sure what I was trying to accomplish with assigning arbitrary points, and I'll probaby never do it again. In the end I just needed them to equal...
5/10 or...
// slashes

Monday, October 13, 2008

Mid-Scary Movie Month Update

I always seem to forget that my apparent life of film autonomy for the month of October comes to be voided due to college midterms. Alas here is a brief update on the pitiful amount of scary movies viewed thus far.

1. Joy Ride
Slashes: 3.5/4
Best Moment: In the motel room when they fool Black Sheep into meeting up with Candy Cane. Something about the way Steven Zahn laughs is so relatable towards experiences I've gone through with my friends - where you're messing with someone so bad that your whole body is responding. Add the sudden tension of realizing its no longer a joke with the great lighting and roadside motel room and you got yourself a golden scene.

Scariest Moment: I know its generic and has been done before, but when I first saw this movie and he mentioned the taillight being broken I almost shat myself. The entire scene from that moment through the car chase was amazing.

2. Prom Night
Slashes: .5/4
Best Moment: When the movie ended - hands down one of the worst things I've ever seen.
Scariest Moment: That this movie was made.

3. Session 9
Slashes: 1.5/4
Best Moment: When Josh Lucas's character is going back for the coins and there's the brief shot of the person in the hallway. Other than that the movie was pretty lame and boring with minimal payoff.
Scariest Moment: Above.

4. Martin
Slashes: 2/4
Best Moment: The scene with the priest at dinner was pretty funny, but not really.
Scariest Moment: None.

5. Invasion of the Body Snatchers - 1978
Slashes: 4/4
I plan on writing a whole entry for this film. Just like Halloween did in '05 or Suspiria in '06 this film blew my mind. Although its still early I'm predicting that this will be the best movie of the month.

6. Jacobs Ladder
Slashes: 3.5/4
Best Moment: Thinking to myself in a facetious manner that this whole film was probably about acid flashbacks, and then finding out I was right.
Scariest Moment: The scene at the party where the club music is playing and his girlfriend starts getting pounded by the stranger who turns into some sort of monster. The birds flying, the flashing lights, goddamn I was on edge.

7. Opera
Slashes: 3/4
Best Moment: When the fake police officer is inside the apartment and then kills the friend with the Saw 2-like bullet through the eye hole. Yet again the aesthetic mixture of opera music and green/red lighting was perfect.
Scariest Moment: When the killer attaches the eye-pin devices to the women's eyes for the first time, very Saw-esque

So thats all I have done for the month so far. Next up on my Netflix Queue I have The Thing From Another World, The Brooding and The Omen...all films I have yet to see so check up for the updates.

Friday, October 10, 2008

What Made Halloween Work? - Part 2 of a History of Horror...kind of

Was Carpenter building the perfect house, or laying it upon the perfect foundation?  

...what took place is a rarity for anybody who loves film, a movie that defies expectations so much that it becomes a religious experience.  While some people feel they see Jesus in a piece of toast and have their lives changed forever, I saw perfected horror in a television and followed the same belief.  I was shocked with Halloween's ability to elicit such strong physical responses – a pounding heart, sweaty hands and numerous jumps in my seat.  Carpenter had come to revolutionize the horror film through meticulous compositing of the frame, a technique that has remained to work for the past 30 years.

The technique can best be understood by first looking towards a few examples.  When Dr. Loomis and Sheriff Brackett are in the Meyer’s house walking cautiously up to Michael’s old bedroom Loomis approaches a window and is positioned frame right, leaving about 2/3 of the frame filled with the window.  Suddenly an object hits the glass.  The empty space caused the viewer to believe it was a simple medium profile shot (something they have seen time and again within television and other movies), yet it was all just a trick.  Another great example is the picture above, in which the the frame yet again leaves just enough enough breathing room to have Michael jumping out the back seat be unexpected and yet terrifying.  

            This shot is no different than a practical joke in which a person is lead into a dark basement and comes to be startled by a friend who pops out of the shadows.  The person who is startled is done so because of the preconceived notion that no one is downstairs, and thus the person should have nothing to worry about.  But since a dark basement is commonly a fear experienced during childhood transitioning into adulthood the “what if?” that our consciousness develops never stops.  Thus, to apply the analogy to Halloween, the basement represents the horror film, that is, the basement represents the potential fear of the horror film.  The composition represents the unexpected within the basement, that is, the unexpected in the horror film being viewed - the gore, pop-outs and antagonist.  Finally, the person who jumps out of the darkness would then represent the object of horror, that is, Michael jumping out of the shadows or the object hitting the window.  Thus combining all three of these elements, a potential fear for what is about to be seen with the unexpected occurrence of horrific objects within the film.  Carpenter developed this formula into an exact science.  Though it can be argued that films such as Black Christmas or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were the first true slasher films - a point that will be discussed soon.  

            My bewilderment over the fact that this film, having been released over twenty-five years ago when I initially saw it, was still able to make this formula work lead me to understand that it cannot simply be just those three elements, nor any other technical formulas – such as music or editing.  The reason for this fact is proven by looking towards how other slasher films such as Valentines Day, Black Christmas, Prom Night and so on adopted and adhered to the same principles and were not nearly as frightening.  It was not just the technique at all, but the story that came to revolutionize the genre. The idea of having the film take place during Halloween added a further eerie reality to the overall plot.  Halloween continues to be a creepy day in the life of any child, a day in which a strange brooding emotion permeates through the air.  Combining a marvelously constructed horror story, both in form and content, with an equally marvelously constructed eerie holiday combined into greatness.  New Years Evil, Valentines Day, Prom Night, and Black Christmas are films whose content is associated with more joyful holidays and thus are not nearly as effective regardless of the adoption of the particular techniques.  The idea of a murder spree on taking place on Valentines Day almost seems farcical in how much the two plot elements contradict each other - a day of love and a day of terror.  Another great example of this fact is evident through the success of Friday the 13th, an equally brooding day, and a movie that continued on for what will soon be nine sequels.  Personally I believe the films are completely lacking in substance, but it makes my point all the stronger in that regardless it still has been a successful series.

            The reason for this can be again observed through the basement analogy.  The dark basement is the day – either Halloween or Friday the 13th – and thus contains an underlying fear within it.  What these films provide is prevention for the imagination from developing its own individual, subconscious images associated with these days and rather provides them for the audience.  Michael and Jason are now direct and horrific manifestations of their fears.  They have come to replace the individually created images that most people commonly had to take. 

            Now in my opinion, Halloween has lost the eerie effect it once maintained as can be indicated by the fifteen or less trick-or-treaters coming to my door every year.  Its just no longer the holiday it once was.  Friday the 13th has also lost is eeriness and what was once a day of horror film marathons on the USA network has perpetuated itself into a day like any other.  It is my theory that it is because people had finally obtained sufficient images to associate with these days in the likes of humanistic characters like Michael or Jason and hence the imagination can no longer cause peoples’ subconscious to develop their own, unique fears - our individually manifested fears have become ubiquitous.  Literature or stories passed-on, while being effective in eliciting an overall terror, still maintained an individualistic perspective on what the subject matter could look like in a physical form, and nothing except pure visuals can provide a unanimous understanding of what particular horrifying objects can be - even novels who go deep into description provide ambiguity.  For instance, if I write a horror film script and it gets passed on between readers, they will each develop their own visual sense of what the content could become, but when the film is produced all of that individuality has now gone away in favor of one, particular image. Even if people try to recall their previously conceived notions, the new image cannot be overlooked. What I mean to get at is previously, before Halloween and Friday the 13th based films came out the fear we gained on these days was based upon the fact that no amount of description could totally get our fears across - whether emotional, physical or mental.  Hence, everyone was alone in their fears, unable to connect with anyone else.  These films created a sense of unity which has lead to a dilapidation of these holidays once strong sense of fear.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Personal History of Horror - Part 1

Where is that horror?

Having just finished our freshmen year of college my future roommate Kevin and I decided to pay a trip to the haven of distracted boredom – Orland Square Mall. It hadn’t taken but a day to understand how use we had become to living on our own rather than under the watchful eye of our parents – back in a town filled with old beds, old friends and an atmosphere scattered with old memories. The stores were mostly the same with a few having been replaced with what only seemed to be a different name, yet containing the same crap. It seemed that everyone else home from school went through the same understanding and thus the mall became an early, unwelcoming high school reunion. There were the people who had stayed the same, people who had changed for the better, people who had changed for the worse, all asking the same questions and leaving us to give the same responses. There was the girl you always had a crush on who you hoped you’d see again, the friend of your friend who was only saying hello because it was too awkward to ignore, there was the person you hoped you’d never see again and understood why when the conversation surpassed two minutes worth of time. Suddenly the stores had become no longer places of commerce, but of refuge. The chances of seeing old friends dwindled when hiding amongst the clearance racks ranked with snow globes and old pajamas

Specifically there was a store called Suncoast that had come to be a viable source of music and movie purchases due to their going out of business sale. I had never been a fan of Suncoast, or any other mall-based media outlet. I was consistently baffled as to how these outrageously priced stores could stay in business with Best Buy and Circuit City only minutes away. Suncoast was the first to exhibit the effects of a person's common sense. Regardless, unlike a college town or living in the city, the mall was the only place to go, and Suncoast, having 50% markdowns off of their merchandise, was the only place to shop. Every week they would raise the percent off and thus what turned into a few purchases would quickly expand into spending the rest our years savings before the beginning of summer employment. At least three times a week we would go to the store under the false impression that maybe, just maybe we had overlooked a particular movie – and naturally we would purchase something we thought we didn't want the day prior. It was near the beginning of this crazed addiction that I came across a movie that had been part of an overlooked genre through my growing film interest - the horror film - and the movie was Halloween 5. It wasn't just the fact that I had avoided this area of film, but how it triggered a forgotten memory from my adolescence.

Like most young teenagers, my sister would commonly have sleepovers in which she would have my dad rent three or four horror films she picked from the local video store. I would frequently join her in this outing, but my fright over the horror films was amplified by an inability to even look at the movie cases. Occasionally I would flip over a VHS box, observing the horrific images scattered amongst the film’s synopsis – though this could only be done on a rare, non-subsiding compulsive basis. Thus, after all of the presents, birthday cake and gossip circles, long after the parents had retired into slumber (usually around 9pm regardless of rather or not a sleepover was taking place) my sister would begin the scary movies.

Being the younger brother, I adopted the persona of a spoiled brat who refused to let my sister have this sleepover and mini-film fest without my presence. There was one condition though. The way in which our family room was situated allowed for no outside light to come in. I am still baffled by this architectural overlook, but it did allow for an extra darkness that only a movie theater seemed capable of providing. The couch we had folded out into a bed and it would then be loaded with blankets and pillows, making the four or five girls on top of the it extra comfy and safe. I on the other hand could not join them on top of the bed, and was forced to sit underneath it with a few dilapidated pillows and one green blanket I received as a Christmas present a few years prior.

And so the macabre would be begin. Though I can only recall a few specific films that s– Friday the 13th pt. 3, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Child's Play 2 - I now understand this was because they were the most frightening compared to others. Something about the opening scene in Friday the 13th filled me such an immense amount of exciting fright that I felt as if I had what I refer to as the "nervous poopies" during a game of hide and seek. During the movie I was never scared, it was a rarity that I would have to close my eyes or buried myself in a blanket. It was after the film ended, when my sister would tell me I had to go to bed and I was forced to take the long, dark walk up to my bedroom. The rule was simple, I could watch one movie, maybe two, but after that I needed to exit the room. Maybe it was only because I understood my solitude away from a group of thirteen-year-old girls, but I feel that my room completely exasperated the terror I was feeling. Specifically, I had a lamp that upon being touched would turn on/off. It had three levels of brightness, but even the highest one could not provide enough light to illuminate the dangers I felt were lurking outside the door, inside my closet and underneath my bed. Naturally, I could not sleep…ever. My mom would be brought into the room for the subsequent few nights for any horror film I watched – Scream; 4 days, A Nightmare on Elm Street; 3 days, A New Nightmare; 4 days, Child’s Play 2; 3 days. It was as if I could rate how good the movie was by how many nights I needed my mom.

Off the top of my head I only joined my sister for two or three years of this. I never understood how even though sleep would be lost and my imagination would develop the most horrific of images manifesting into tears that I would continue to want to see the films. Perhaps each year I thought I would be better equipped, perhaps each year I enjoyed taking my imagination to the utter brink of emotion. I’m not sure, not even to this day.

And so these memories flashed before my eyes as I stared at the Halloween 5 DVD. Somehow it was the one horror film series from which I had never seen a single movie. I saw most of the A Nightmare on Elm Streets, most of the Friday the 13ths, all of Child's Play, I even saw the dreaded Candyman – but never Halloween. I immediately had the idea of having one of our summer projects be to watch all of the classic 80s horror series. Later that day I told my friend and fellow film aficionado Tim of the idea and he was pumped, Halloween was the scary movie he remembered from youth. Thus I went to my queue on Netflix and put Halloween on the very top – it arrived in about three days.

check back for Part 2