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.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Stray Rounds

There is a persistent bit of received wisdom that you will repeatedly hear from writers - a mantra that states you must write every day. Here's an example:

“To be a successful writer, write every single day whether you feel like it or not.” -- Alex Haley

It's a perfectly sound bit of advice. But, as with all tidy little homilies, it doesn't quite tell the whole story. Sometimes you need to take a step back. Sometimes you need to stop staring into the heart of the sun or you're just going to go blind. I'd been banging away at a few things for the last couple of weeks, and no matter how hard I hammered away at the square pegs, the motherfuckers were never going to fit into the round holes. And then I had one of those Eureka moments where I realised that the problem wasn't how I was writing. The problem was what I was writing. It was never going to work to my satisfaction, largely because I'm not a "content provider", I'm a writer. I'm not very good at hacking out anodyne text-based wallpaper for websites, because I just can't get excited about it. Sure, I can do it, but I'd rather not. Fortunately, I don't depend on writing gigs to pay the bills, so I can just bow out of those jobs and leave it to those better suited to that particular brand of soul-destroying drudge work. But the process left me antsy and irritable, and I needed to step away from the keyboard for a couple of weeks to sluice out my polluted brainpan.

And one of the things you don't hear so often when writers are banging on with all their "I'm a writer. I write every day. Yes I do. Write write write." is that sometimes you just need to turn off the output and ramp up the input instead. Writing isn't purely about putting one word in front of another endlessly, regardless of quality or reflection or passion. Sometimes you need to go outside and get on with the gloriously messy business of life to remember why you write in the first place. Which is a convoluted way of saying that I've been stoking the furnace for a few weeks to get myself fired up again. And it worked. Here's a random sampling of the pop-cultural delights that have tweaked my amygdala during my brief self-imposed sabbatical:

Ode to Kirihito

Groundbreaking mangaka Osamu Tezuka is still best known in the west for the family-friendly adventures of his robot Pinocchio Astro Boy, but this hefty 832-page graphic novel from the early 70s shows off his flair for formal experimentation in a sprawling picaresque tale of body horror that is impossible to reduce to a synopsis, defying easy genre classification as it bounces around from medical and political thriller to freakshow weirdness. (I'm particularly fond of the Human Tempura. Don't ask - just buy.)

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

Andy Serkis plays Ian Dury. Really, you don't need much more of a pitch than that to get me hooked. One of London's finest ever lyricists and a genuine one-off, with the light touch of Ogden Nash seasoned with a generous splash of bloody-minded piss and vinegar. And Serkis just nails it. I seriously doubt I'll see a performance that good for the rest of the year. Plus, those songs performed with the actual Blockheads. I loved every minute of it and reeled out of the cinema grinning like an idiot. Je t'adore, ich liebe dich, hit me, hit me, hit me...

Me Cheeta

I picked this up on a whim and I didn't regret it. Part satire on the glut of bloated self-serving celebrity memoirs choking the shelves of a dwindling number of bookshops, part marvellously filthy tome full of salacious gossip (after all, no animal has ever been successfully sued for libel), part serious reflection on the mistreatment of animals in the service of entertainment and, best of all, a beautiful valentine to the mighty Johnny Weissmuller, the greatest Tarzan of all time. I wasn't sure what to make of it until a couple of pages in and then I hit this line, sat back and enjoyed the ride:

"Rex Harrison was an absolutely irredeemable cunt who tried to murder me — but still, you have to try to forgive people, no matter what. Otherwise we’d be back in the jungle."


The fantastic con-of-the-week show about a crew of specialists pulling a Robin Hood and ripping off the Man to help out the little people. Or, as neatly encapsulated by master thief Parker's off-the-cuff line: “Sometimes bad guys are the only good guys you get.” Leverage really sings not only because of its exuberant sense of fun and the superlative swiss-watch machinations of the plot, but it manages to succeed with something that so many other shows get wrong - it marries five perfectly-cast actors with five brilliantly-written roles. These aren't the bland cookie-cutter cyphers of the CSI franchise. And the fun train never stops.