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Tricks of the Trade (part 2 of 2)


This week's School of Fear is actually the second half of the feature I started LAST week where in I started compiling a top ten list of shots/camera tactics that we use in horror to create tension and fear in horror films. 

First, a quick review, in case you missed class last week and you're too damn lazy to click the link and read last week's part one first:

A question I always get about my filmmaking is "How can you create something so scary?"

You feel it. Same as comedy. Horror is specific, and to communicate such a specific thing as tension, dread or sudden release (terror), you have to use really specialized tools. I'd bet that most horror directors don't know exactly what it is they do, on a technical level. Like a lot of master chefs, they just taste it til it's right. They feel it.

But my task with this list is to put a gun to my head and force myself to dissect exactly HOW I communicate fear visually. And the basic rule is censorship. I censor what I let you see. I quite literally aim your eyes to what I want you to see. And in horror, above all other genres of cinema, that tactic is absolutely indispensable.

So as a creator of horror, if my ideas come from an emotional  ability to worst case "what if", and creating tension, dread and terror is all about WHAT I LET YOU SEE, then what are the actual nuts and bolts tactics of the cinematic scare? 

Well I'm glad you asked! Because here are the remaining top five tools you need to have in your mental scare kit.

5) THE EVIL PERSPECTIVE. This one's fun because it places you in the shoes of the antagonist. The most notable early instance I can recall of this happening in horror cinema is in Mario Bava's Bay of Blood, arguably the first actual slasher film. It's really nothing more than a hand held POV shot from the predator's point of view.  It was also used incredibly well in Jaws, then in Halloween, Friday the 13th, and then by the time Sam Raimi came on to the scene, he was able to parody the technique with hilarious (and still frightening) results in The Evil Dead trilogy.

4) EMPTY PLACES. A relatively unknown director named Fred Walton in 1979 made this technique famous among horror aficianados when he used it in the film When a Stranger Calls, and it has since been a favorite tool of Wes Craven, John Carpenter, and yours truly. Show a tension building scene -- for example, a babysitter gets a harassing phone call from a maniac, who hangs up on her. She sits there, thinking, frightened. Then here's what you do: cut to wide master establishing shots of empty rooms around the house -- the children's room, the front yard, the kitchen with the big sliding glass door leading to darkness.  What this does is take your dark imagination on a field trip of sorts around the arena... and in each shot you are looking for the monster/maniac... and your mind is a GREAT special effect tool.  And what is it, technically? Just some shots of empty rooms. Empty rooms that might not be empty...

3) THE LONG HOLD. This one's always been one of my favorites because of its simplicity. It's just a tight static or slow dolly/zoom in on a significant, but inanimate object! Best example of this EVER is in The Haunting (not the piece-of-shit remake, but the original from 1963, directed by Robert Wise and starring Julie Harris.  To me, this shot is the epitome of efficient horror. There's a scene where  the lead character is hiding in her gothic bedroom in the exceedingly haunted (or is it?) Hill House. Anyway, we get an entire scene of her terror while staring at the doorknob of her room. Go put it on your Netflix queue right now. Because the whole scene is just intercuts of a woman looking fearful and a doorknob that's not moving, and yet it's one of the scariest scenes I have ever seen in my life. You can see the same technique done in Poltergeist when  little Robbie Freeling is convinced that his toy clown doll is going to come and get him. Another SCARY scene about someone staring at an inanimate object... which of course EVENTUALLY moves on its own. Mwahahahaha.... 

2) THE PHANTASMAGORICALLY IMPOSSIBLE, AKA "WTF is that I'm looking at?" Okay this one is not a camera trick, but it's worthy of the list because it's all about fucking with the audience and everything they believe to be real. In literature, H.P. Lovecraft did it by describing things that should not be, horrible things not meant for human observation. Things so awful that merely seeing them will break your mind. So how do you show the audience something like this in cinema?  Well this one's about spfx and the vision to go all the way. Movies that have done this are Carpenter's The Thing, Cronenberg's The Brood & Videodrome, Clive Barker's Hellraiser series. Linda Blair's crabwalk and head spin. These things are physically and fundamentally wrong to everything we know as humans.

These are but a few examples of the writer/director throwing out all convention, everything that SHOULD be, and starting over. Everyone has nightmares, so everyone has the capacity to be "really fucked up." Most people wake up, forget the bizarre and dark horrors of their own subconscious, and head off to work. But a precious few (the guys above, for starters) have the ability to remember their nightmares, and then TRANSLATE them for you. If you're working on horror and you come up with something that makes you go "WTF?" then you're on your way to creating something worthy of this category.

1) SHOW ME THE MONSTER. Hitchcock taught us this lesson: If two people are sitting at a table at a café, talking, and then suddenly they're killed in an explosion, there's no tension. BUT... show the audience the bomb strapped to the underside of the table and suddenly their inane conversation about their sandwiches becomes the most tense thing you've ever watched. Why? Because you give a shit about their lunch? No. Of course not. Because YOU know the bomb is there, and you know there's danger, but they're oblivious and you want to tell them but you can't...! This form of tension building is doubly potent when dealing with predatory monsters. If you show your audience your monster in the same shot as your protagonist, and the protagonist is unaware, then you're in for horror gold.  I won't give you any examples of this... your homework is to go find this one. And when you do, you'll know it.

So you now have the ten MOST POWERFUL tools known to the horror director. Careful, though -- they're dangerous. Use them correctly and you're on your way to being a master. Use them poorly and you're a hack...

Gaudium per Atrox.