Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Cat on the Mantelpiece

Last week, despite my general disdain for remakes in general and horror remakes in particular, I watched Breck Eisner's new iteration of George A. Romero's The Crazies. There seems to be something sufficiently sturdy and robust about Romero's stories and ideas that means that his work tends to withstand a reheating at the hands of others. And The Crazies 2010 proved that - it was pretty good fun and it moves. But I can never just sit and enjoy a horror movie without trying to pick it apart and see how all the pieces fit together, examining what works and what doesn't. So this is me musing out loud about the mechanics of horror movies.

I have a pet phrase I use when talking about horror movies called "the cat on the mantelpiece". It means a cheap, fake-out jump scare. For example: a character apprehensively walks into an empty room and, without warning, a cat jumps off the mantelpiece and makes them (and the audience) jump. Or someone suddenly reaches into the frame from off-screen and grabs a character's arm. There's no other context or anything specifically scary about these moments. It's just a cheap jump. I'm not overly fond of them, but they do have their uses. For a start, it puts your audience on edge and sets up a feeling of unease. You can have one or two of these towards the beginning of a movie and that's fine. When it comes to setting the tone, any trick is fair game.

But if you overuse them (and The Crazies came dangerously close to overdoing it with "cat on the mantelpiece" gags, but just about got away with it), or if you are still using them deep into your running time, I lose patience pretty quickly. Anyone can do a "cat on the mantelpiece" gag. It's the equivalent of a fart in a comedy. Cheap, easy, effective but lazy. By the time you are deep into the story, you should be furnishing the audience with real scares driven by the tone, the situation, the story, the characters, the monsters, whatever. Not extraneous jumpy things because you haven't figured out another, better way to provide scares.

(Sidenote: Sam Raimi is a master of "cat on the mantelpiece" gags, and Drag Me To Hell is chock full of great ones. But most filmmakers aren't Sam Raimi and don't possess his judgment and sense of pace and timing for these things. Raimi knows when to use them and how to use them, giving Drag Me To Hell an infectious sense of fun.)

But thinking about the "cat on the mantelpiece" also leads me to thinking about framing in general. In horror movies, if I ever see a character framed to the side, I'm never looking at them (regardless of the intention of the director). My eye is always drawn to the dead space to their left or right, because I'm expecting something to happen over there. And even if nothing happens and if it has still served to unsettle me somewhat, then that's fine. The importance of tone in horror can't be underestimated.

I'm particularly fond of frames within frames: TV sets, windows, open doorways - because they can either serve as a separate focal point, or can somehow emphasise the action happening in the wider frame. One of my favourite frame-within-a-frame moments works beautifully for both horror and comedic purposes - the moment in Shaun of the Dead when Shaun is fiddling with the fusebox at the Winchester and inadvertently switches on an outside light briefly, even though he himself misses it:

Also? Hazmat suits. Hazmat suits are inherently creepy and are probably under-utilised in The Crazies. Whenever you can't see someone's face or eyes, when they are wrapped in gas masks and shapeless, creaking plastic, it serves to dehumanise them and makes them something to be feared. Interestingly, the absence of a visible face doesn't apply to superhero movies, but that's because an invisible face is supposed to unsettle other characters in the story, not the audience. Spider-Man isn't scary to us, because we've already seen nerdy Peter Parker before the mask goes on. Going back to Raimi again for a second, he has to resort to tricks that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko never had to worry about. In Spider-Man comics, it's perfectly acceptable for entire comics to show Spider-Man masked. But in movies, the problem is that masks don't emote (with the possible exception of V for Vendetta, where Hugo Weaving managed to convey so much with tilts of the head and other little bits and pieces of subtle body language). You can't see fear or anger or tears through a mask. And you can't see the face of the leading actor who has been paid so much to wear the iconic spandex. (Or their bloody tears. What is it about modern storytelling that demands that the protagonists get all weepy-eyed all the time? Lazy, lazy storytelling shorthand. Yes, Doctor Who. Yes, Lost. As much as I love you, you are both so guilty of this.)

And I'm done. I leave you now with a shot of possibly the finest "cat on the mantelpiece" scare of all time, a rare one which actually does pay off from a character and storytelling perspective. Take it away, Bruce.

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