March 30, 2012 2:47:30 PM
It is easy for movies to scare us. Books can do it, too, and so can stage theater, but for sheer immediacy of fright, the movies deliver. The effect is much diluted on television. I think that maybe a scary movie in the theater is especially scary because you are sitting in the dark with strangers and having a flickering story unfold as stories used to be told around campfires. Probably there is more to it than that. Sure, there is more to it than that; scary films have been essayed upon at length, analyzed, psychoanalyzed, and taken apart. Here is an attempt from a new slant. Framing the Dark: Dread by Design in Motion Pictures (Dal LaMagna Publishing) by David Aldrich purports to have found the formula for fright. It is a larger format book, of short text, beautifully produced, with plates from famous films. The stills included are mostly from silent films, indicating Aldrich's admiration for the classics and the basics. He is able, in a series of essays, to pin down convincingly just how a good chiller works (though I think no one has yet fully explained just why the genre is so popular). He has also given a sort of guide for filmmakers, not only what to do but what to avoid in order make such a movie effective.
I won't be giving anything away by telling you Aldrich's formula, which he proposes four pages into the book: seeing a chiller involves witnessing "dissolution of selfhood and its primal extinction by an obsessive and totalistic humanlike being that embodies both assaults." He fleshes out the many ideas of this "simple formula" in one film after another. Suffice it to say that although he is well acquainted with psychological theories, he starts his chapter on the roots of our responses with "We find ourselves impossible to explain." But basic explanations are there: we are wired for the emergency of close confrontation with an aggressor. A looming body, locked eyes, and teeth grab our attention more than anything else in the world. Aldrich's pithy prose shows conclusively that the general subject of thrillers can be a fertile area for intellectualization, but that's not what we are sitting in the theater for at the time. "Thought can do no more than identify or redefine active presentations still set in our minds, shaping organic responses but not making them. Intellect is also given little weight, losing out to sensory evidence."
That scary face is supremely important as a visual stimulus, and it can take many forms. Everyone knows how mesmerizing a gaze can be, and of course Aldrich describes such scenes, but he also writes about a less obvious stimulus for fear: "We are easily weakened by a winning smile, and by the snarl of a winner as well, and in both cases we are also taken by the teeth." Indeed, the photographs included here mostly feature monsters with aberrant dentition, like the fearsomely pointed picket-fence teeth of the ghoul played by Lon Chaney in London After Midnight, or the rat-like incisors of Max Schreck in Nosferatu. Then there are the completely natural, horrifying teeth in Jaws. Aldrich writes admiringly of the particular monster of the shark: "Demonic films demand less naturalism, and they spent themselves on repulsive realism and miscellaneous magic tricks." Not here. The shark makes many appearances though the movie, with the terror becoming heightened because of the simple technique of refraining from showing the beast in full form until the movie gets going; the first attack, for instance, shows nothing but the swimmer in distress. The shark in full form, and full maw, is shown in the climactic sequence.
The animal monsters in Jaws and in Alien are mentioned here, as are completely human monsters like the ones that Robert Mitchum played in Cape Fear or The Night of the Hunter. Most of the chillers described here, however, feature distressingly warped humanoid threats. Aldrich calls The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) the first masterwork of the horrific genre, featuring the somnambulist with blank white face and white hands with the rest enclosed in a leotard. There was a misstep, though, which Aldrich points out: the horror is split between the somnambulist and the doctor who controls him. "Even together, the two figures present a less fearsome sight than if their compounding and conflicting qualities were seen within a single person." There was no such split when vampires took to the screen, first in Nosferatu (1921) and then Dracula (1931). The first had rat teeth, sunken eyes, fanned ears and huge bony hands. The second had fewer animalistic features, but did have an ashen face and subdued fangs. What really counted was Dracula's accent. Bela Lugosi had played the role on stage, and his alien Hungarian accent lent the role a courtliness and emotional distance that emphasized the creature's inhuman obsessions. (The inescapable pursuit by a supernatural force is a theme explored here repeatedly.) In The Phantom of the Opera (1925), the fiend's "features are arranged in a most grotesque and immediately informative manner: Lon Chaney's living skull possibly says it all more than any other horrific visage." Frankenstein (1931) took what could have been a misstep. The innovative flexible makeup allowed Karloff to show emotion, and the performance showed increasing humanity. "Normally," writes Aldrich, "good qualities are a bad idea. Any redeeming emotions make the menace much less of a monster and significantly shrink its psychic standing." Here, the sympathy we feel does not make us any less concerned about the chaos the monster might bring.
"Monsters should stay on message," writes Aldrich. If they are shown doing anything ordinary, they are consequently less powerful. Monsters should not employ agents to assail their victims, even hardware like weapons or thrown missiles. Dream sequences might be well used to hint at "real" menace to come, but if it is "all a dream" we may feel that our sense of alarm was fraudulently enlisted. And here, for you producers of gore-fests: "Too much graphic slaughter also dulls our sensibilities, and too often it is a succession of similar assaults with little impact on the plot or our developing destruction. More of the same provides diminishing returns." The advice here is good, and the writing is often arch and amusing, with meaningful puns. Writing of the tense confrontation in the mountaintop house near the end of North by Northwest, Aldrich says, "Given so many compelling angles on conflict, Hitchcock is able to take his best shots." Summarizing the teamwork needed for a good picture, he writes, "Cinematographers who always make it so real could expose shortcomings here. The editor who helped shape the last blockbuster might not quite cut it..." Assessing Jurassic Park, Aldrich says, "Spielberg is a filmmaker with a personal vision and unusual abilities in all departments, but he is most at home with the glow of magical wonderment and spiritual connectedness than with our darkest sides. His heart is in the wrong place..."
It is clear that Aldrich has thought deeply about these matters. Those of us in the audience will enjoy seeing the movies as he sees them, and those who make such movies could do it better using this volume as a guide. In fact, Aldrich, who has made short films, may be in a position to do it himself. The book's website says he is working on a screenplay, a chiller set in the late twenties. It will be fascinating to see how well his movie works, given the foundations he describes here.
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