thriller

The Horror of Everything We Don’t See in Robert Eggers’ The Witch

(This article discusses graphic violence in the context of horror movies. The scene discussed is so horrifying, in fact, that I debated as to whether I should even write a piece on it, as I hope to avoid sounding insensitive and tasteless. However, I believe that the concepts this sequence raises are absolutely crucial for understanding the horror genre, and to ignore them would be to leave a gaping gap in one’s understanding of cinema.)

Film analysis involves the careful dissection of everything that happens within the frame (the mise en scène), how those frames are linked together, and the sound that accompanies them. This, of course, makes sense, and it seems rather silly to point it out; obviously analyzing a film involves picking apart the components that constitute it. But I think this conception of cinema leaves out a crucial component; yes, it’s important to note all that a movie is, but what about everything it isn’t? The choices an auteur makes about what to leave out of a frame or a sequence are often just as crucial as the decisions they make about what to actually put in it, and it can sometimes be challenging to see this.

Here’s a perfect case study: The Witch by Robert Eggers. There’s a lot to love about this film, and reams have been written about it (see, for instance, Briana Rodriguez’s review in Back Stage that discusses the psychological relationship between director and actor), but there’s one particular sequence I’d like to hone in on. The film kicks off with a colonial New England family leaving their town after a heated religious disagreement, venturing into the wilderness to start their own independent farm. Shortly after the move, the mother of the family gives birth to Samuel, her fifth child. Just a few minutes into the film, one of its most horrifying sequences takes place. Thomasin, the eldest child in the family, is out in a field playing with Samuel. When she diverts her attention for a split second, he disappears. The family searches for him in the woods, but he’s nowhere to be found. They’re unsure of what happened to him, but it’s revealed to the audience that he was abducted by a witch, a middle-aged woman who lives in a decrepit hut just a short walk from the family’s farm. A minute-long sequence shows his fate: be warned, this sequence is incredibly graphic. I’ll link it here for anyone that wants to give it another look, but I’d highly suggest that you watch the film in its entirety before reading this piece. The scene may just seem tasteless without the film’s context. (The portion in question begins around 1:18 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIfjcHn9JYw)

It’s a brutally tough sequence to watch. Yet the interesting thing about it is that we don’t actually see the violence taking place. We see the moment immediately preceding the brutality, and then we see the product of it. The process, replaced by a few moments of a black screen, isn’t actually shown on screen. This may seem like it would lighten the impact of the violence, but in many ways it actually bolsters it. Although we don’t directly see what is happening to the child, there’s certainly no ambiguity about what’s going on in the scene. We’re left to fill in the blanks, forced to conjure up scenes of the horrifying act that’s taking place in the sequence. Perhaps our own imaginations are capable of generating images more terrifying than anything Eggers could throw at us, and that potent ability is what he’s leveraging for the sake of horror. Sure, at risk of being seen as a tasteless and gratuitous filmmaker he could have actually shown the murder on screen, but that may not have even been as effective as his practice of restraint. All the fake blood, special effects, and CGI in the world couldn’t match what the audience’s mind is capable of dreaming up, and by giving them some space to roam he leads them to a terrifying impact that traditional imagery couldn’t match.

Perhaps, then, this scene may inform how we think of the medium as a whole. Perhaps film isn’t just a set of juxtaposed images and sounds that deliver an emotional and intellectual impact, but the scaffolding that allows for the creation of an effect within the audience’s mind. Thus, film is the framework for viewers to generate their own thoughts and feelings built upon the content on screen. It’s not a neatly packaged dose of stimulation, but rather an unfinished picture with blanks left for the audience to fill. This seems to align in some ways to the “reader-response” school of literary criticism, but I think the basic concept may apply to any artistic medium. In a lot of ways, the input from a film’s viewer is just as important as the film itself; the horror of what we don’t see in The Witch provides a great example of this give-and-take.

North By Northwest and the Two Kinds of Mystery

I finally got around to watching North By Northwest after picking up a Hitchcock boxed set. As everyone says, every aspect of the film shone through as a towering example of the craft of filmmaking. There is, however, one storytelling element that got me thinking about how a good thriller is put together.

It seems that every thriller has two different varieties of mystery: mystery behind the nature of a character or occurrence, and mystery behind how a certain situation will play out. For instance, the identity of a shadowy figure would be an example of the former, as the audience is unaware of who they are. A scene in which a protagonist is trying to rescue someone would have the latter form of mystery, as the audience is unaware of whether they’ll manage to pull it off and, if so, how they’ll do it. North By Northwest excels at providing seemingly limitless volumes of the first kind of mystery. As soon as we discover why Thornhill was kidnapped, we’re invited to consider Kendall’s motives and position in the story. Every “nature” mystery is replaced with a new one until the story finally culminates at Rushmore, when all of these mysteries are finally resolved together. Repeatedly refreshing this kind of mystery ensures that there’s always something for viewers to figure out, that we’re not just caught up in how events will play out.

It Follows

A good horror film builds layers of dread slowly and meticulously, generating a nearly unbearable sense of fearful anticipation in the viewer before finally resolving it. It Follows performs the first step beautifully. Its voyeuristic long shots, paranoid circular pans, and corner-of-the-eye glimpses of the monster create such terror and tension that many claim to habitually glance over their shoulder after watching the movie. It’s a palpable, visceral anxiety that few modern horror pieces manage to achieve.

On the other hand, a good horror film also has satisfying moments when all of the tension is broken. This is where It Follows falls flat. The film’s monster is terrifying because it’s elemental and mysterious, a being that the viewer and the characters can’t quite fathom. The terror that it creates so effectively is cheapened a bit when it builds to fight scenes that pit a group of friends against an invisible, Herculean, shape-shifting brute. In order for a resolution to be satisfying, it must be compatible with the means used to build fear in the first place. Otherwise it can come off as a shoehorned action sequence intended to universalize the film’s appeal, which is never a good thing.

Don’t let me scare you off from this piece, though. It’s worth a look solely for its elegant generation of anxiety and stripped-down horror. But be wary of the action, as it dulls the film’s edge.

Green Room and Unrestrained Brutality

The strength of the horror genre lies in its ability to build up layers of tension and dread, to pile the audience’s fears into a fragile tower until it finally knocks out the foundations and allows the whole thing to come crashing down in a crescendo of terror. A good horror film repeats this throughout its runtime, creating mountains and valleys that work the viewer into an inescapable stupor of fright. It doesn’t sound particularly pleasant, but it’s a formula that has appealed to the masochistic side of countless fans throughout cinema’s history. Green Room is a masterwork in pacing. Anxiety is generated skillfully and without respite, and when it erupts into violence it doesn’t hold back.

It’s not a film for everyone. I still haven’t decided whether it’s a film for me. I’m more apologetic towards violence in cinema than some (see my piece of Refn’s Only God Forgives), but Green Room toes the line between hard-hitting gore and nauseating snuff. I’m not criticizing the film for it, but the violence certainly makes it a difficult piece to digest. I’m not comfortable saying I liked the film, but it’s hard to deny that it provides a visceral, unapologetic look at the depths of human depravityand that’s exactly what it sets out to do.

Introductory Film Studies 01: Shot Composition

This lesson is adapted from a video essay I made addressing the same topic. It has all the same examples and is nearly identical, apart from a few tweaks. If you’d prefer to watch the video, it can be found here.

Because of its unique blend of images and audio, film is a complex storytelling medium. With colors, lighting, score, editing, shot framing, acting, and dialogue to pay attention to, it can be difficult to figure out what exactly a film means, what it is saying, and why it makes us feel a certain way. Just like in any form of communication, a director has a variety of tools at his or her disposal when communicating ideas through film. Each of these tools can be used to carefully manipulate a film to achieve the director’s goals, to communicate through images and audio exactly what they want to say. Gaining an understanding of these tools, both how they work individually and how they work in tandem with other tools, can make it easier to extract meaning from a movie. Think of these tools like rhetorical techniques in literature: for instance, a poet may string together a series of s’s in sequence to emphasize sinister undercurrents, or Shakespeare might use a blazon to mock literary tropes. In a similar way, Alfred Hitchcock may use a classic technique, the “iris”, to make viewers feel like they’re spying on a character. Or Steven Spielberg might choose a specific camera angle for a shot that communicates a character’s terror when faced with a dinosaur. These sort of techniques allow a director to make a statement, to create a specific impact. By breaking down these techniques, we can begin to understand what that specific impact is. Today we’ll be considering shot composition, one of the most essential tools in a director’s repertoire.

 

I’ve said this already, but I really need to emphasize that, when analyzing film, we don’t just look at all of the techniques a director uses in isolation. We take all of the pieces, all of the tools, and examine how they work together to achieve a particular effect. However, in order to do this, we need to understand those individual pieces so that we’re not overwhelmed with visual and auditory information. Even though we will be focusing on shot composition for this video, keep in mind than it can influence, and be influenced by, the other techniques a director may choose to implement. With that in mind, let’s narrow our focus to shot composition.

 

Composition is one of the building blocks of film. It refers to the arrangement of characters and objects within the frame, the relative positions, sizes, and prominence of entities within the shot. A director can manipulate the composition of a shot in order to create an impact, to influence the viewer’s perception of what is on screen. It can inform us of relationships between characters, highlight specific character traits, and generate an emotional response from viewers. Not only is shot composition an effect tool for conveying a message to the viewer, it’s also essential for just making a film look good. There’s a reason composition is a basic technique taught in art classes. In much the same way that a painter composes his piece to be visually appealing and interesting, a director composes his shots to maintain his audience’s attention. While a director may opt for busy composition in some instances to get a point across, a muddled mess of objects and characters is confusing and visually unappealing.

 

A film is a string of pictures, and by understanding what is happening within those individual pictures we can begin to understand film as a whole. Take this shot from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. FfJwgCe.png Your interpretation may be different from mine, and that’s absolutely okay: we’re just trying to get used to examining a shot and deriving meaning from it. Notice the guns forming a barrier between the standing soldier and the three sitting on the steps. It creates a visual divide, one that may reflect events happening within the narrative. Why would Spielberg choose to use guns specifically? Yes, they’re soldiers so it makes sense within the film’s context, but perhaps Spielberg had more in mind when composing this shot, perhaps he wanted to make a point about how war tears individuals apart, or something like that. Why is one soldier standing and the other three sitting down? Does it further enhance the divide between them, does it serve some larger role within the context of the film? These sort of questions help us to examine composition, to derive meaning from it, and interpret the film.

 

The Spielberg example is pretty straightforward to analyze. I chose that particular shot because the compositional decisions are pretty easy to pick out. I strained a bit at times, but it’s still pretty clear what Spielberg is getting at. There are instances, however, in which compositional decisions are more subtle. Sometimes, it can be more difficult to pick out what a director is getting at with his shots. It’s also important to keep in mind that some compositional elements may not even be deliberate decisions. Authorial intent is a difficult question, and there’s a never-ending debate on whether it even matters. For our purposes, we won’t be concerning ourselves too much with this question. Right now we’ll examine the composition of shots and not worry too much about whether the director intended a certain impact; instead, we’ll just attempt to understand that impact in the first place.

 

Let’s look at the composition of one more shot. This one is from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.Z8KLPA7.png Notice the arrangement of the four standing figures. They seem to be of equal prominence in the shot, taking up about the same amount of space. Even without having seen the film, it’s easy to tell that these four guys are probably friends or allies, that there’s a degree of cohesion between them. With shot composition, Kubrick is able to inform us of the relationship between these four characters, to communicate an idea to us only with visual information. There’s also a figure lying on the ground in front of the four men. Placing him in this position immediately subordinates him to the other men, makes him their inferior. Again, composition immediately gives us an impression of a relationship within the film. Lastly, consider the long shadows cast by the four men. An argument could be made that this falls more under the category of lighting, but let’s not get too caught up in that right now. It’s still a shape within the frame, so we’ll consider it a compositional element as well. They give the viewer an ominous feeling, a sense of foreboding. They make the figures seem larger than life and powerful, emphasizing their dominance in the shot. Every piece of this shot’s composition creates a specific impact, impacts that contribute to the larger significance of the film itself.

 

Of course, if you’re casually watching a movie you won’t be able to pause it at every cut and analyze every last compositional element— but try to pick up on things that stand out to you. How does the director use composition to impact the viewer? What is that impact? How does it tie into the larger significance of the film? How does it work in tandem with other techniques? Doing so will provide you with a better understanding of film, and watching movies will become a more rewarding experience.

 

Going in Blind With The Invitation

I recently had the chance to watch Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, and it was a more interesting experience than most of my film viewings thanks to the way I was introduced to it. I was browsing through a reddit thread recommending films that are at their best when nothing is known about them going in, and Kusama’s latest was the most recommended by a fair margin. Naturally, I went in blind, and the experience was greatly improved because of it. Of course, I can’t say that and then go on to spoil what makes the movie great for anyone reading this. If you haven’t seen the movie yet stop reading right here and go watch it. I recommend the film wholeheartedly, and it will still be great if you know a bit about it going in, but do yourself a favor and watch it without any prior knowledge.

Recently, I praised Aronofsky’s ability to craft and command an atmosphere within his films that envelops the viewer completely. This is largely due to his unwavering pacing and his eye for aesthetics. Kusama has a similar talent. She has a penchant for building dread and tension even in situations where there is no obvious justification, which is certainly a good thing in a film that has all of its action packed into the last fourth of its runtime. It’s the definition of a slow burn, getting you on the edge of your seat and then forcing you back into it with periodic uneasy breaks from the tension, a quiet truce with what you’re almost certain will explode at any moment. For much of the film I was convinced that it was possible that the tension would just never explode, that the surprise everybody on reddit was talking about is that there IS nothing wrong with the dinner party. This would have been a bold move on Kusama’s part, but ultimately a letdown. Building up tension and never allowing it to release may be an interesting statement for a storyteller to make, but that doesn’t make it good storytelling.

I did feel that the “side quest” mystery of discovering what tragedy Will and Eden had in their past was a bit contrived and unnecessary. I believe giving viewers information that characters don’t have can create for an interesting experience, but the other way around just makes viewers feel excluded and frustrated. Plenty of tension is already created throughout the course of the film with the eerie and unsettling vibe of the dinner party. Kusama needs to let us focus squarely on this tension, allow it to turn over in our minds and makes us uncomfortable, and keep us occupied until it finally erupts. Distracting us from it by withholding information about Will’s past muddles the experience and makes it a bit less focused, an annoyance that draws our attention away from the main event. It’s a minor issue that does not detract much from the overall experience, but it is an issue nonetheless.

Mike Flanagan’s Hush, and What Makes a Good Thriller

The best thrillers are stories of limitation; their protagonists have certain disabilities or weaknesses that cause them to struggle with overwhelming circumstances. This can be seen in the broken-legged window sleuth portrayed in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the forgetful avenger in Nolan’s Memento, and the insomniac factory worker in Anderson’s The Machinist. Joining the ranks of these films is Hush, a superb thriller by Mike Flanagan that tells the story of a deaf and mute writer, Maddie, fighting off a murderous home invader.

Portraying disabilities effectively can be difficult to achieve in the cinematic medium. However, when done right, it can generate emotions in viewers that allow them to fully integrate themselves into the film and associate with the characters. Nolan achieved this in Memento by using an unorthodox narrative structure, disorienting viewers and making them struggle to find their place in the film’s world, just like the protagonist is forced to do as a result of his defective memory. Flanagan, on the other hand, achieves a similar effect through clever sound design. Sometimes the sound becomes muffled, as if the microphone is underwater, in order to show viewers Maddie’s limited sensory perspective. At other times the sound is completely normal; this is used to great effect when Flanagan shows the murderer toying with Maddie, talking or tapping on her window so that only the viewer can hear. This does a great job of instilling helplessness, so much so that I found myself wanting to reach out and warn Maddie. At one point I found myself thinking that it would be an interesting portrayal of deafness if the entire movie was silent, but this would limit its ability to generate the helplessness that I found to be so engaging. The sound design Flanagan chose to implement is versatile and effective, and I’m happy he chose it. This is the main reason I enjoyed this piece so much; using techniques exclusive to cinema to generate an emotional response within viewers is the hallmark not only of an exciting thriller, but of any quality film.

Clever sound design that plays off of Maddie’s disability isn’t all that the film has going for it, though. With a mute protagonist, it’s easy to fall into the trap of cheesy one-sided dialogue to establish the world; Hush is not a victim of this. Flanagan does a great job of including small tidbits that are subtle and don’t rely on dialogue, but are still emotionally impactful. My favorite of these (minor spoiler ahead) is when it is revealed that the antagonist is a mass murderer. Rather than showing this through cheesy dialogue, Maddie turns over his crossbow and sees a series of carved notches. I also appreciated the fact that the film relies on slow-burning tension rather than cheap jump scares in order to generate anxiety in viewers. Small things like this add up to create an immersive and convincing thriller, the kind of film that other directors should aspire to create.