Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman
Often, horror Movies don't expect much from their audiences. Typically, there's nothing philosophical or theological about them. As a rule, they don't offer social criticism. If they mix science with their horror, the science is likely to be dubious. Psychology, when it's included, as an explanation for a character's bizarre behavior, is apt to be simplistic or patently absurd. History is usually general and vague or wrong altogether.
Audiences don't mind. They're happy to overlook such discrepancies. They're not interested in factual or political correctness. They want to see death and destruction, blood and guts, and a naked scream queen or two. Give them that, and they'll consider their $10 well spent.
Nevertheless, some horror movie directors want to give audiences more bang for their buck. They have something to say, and they want to say it. In addition to merely entertaining viewers, they want to share their visions, their understandings, their insights with audiences concerning evil, society, heroism, the human psyche, art, filmmaking, or what-have-you. Alfred Hitchcock is one such director. Stanley Kubrick is another. Both Scott Derrickson and William Friedkin are other horror movie directors whose films deliver more than fear, as is David Rosenberg.
Some of the points Hitchcock makes is about filming per se. In an interview with Cinema magazine, the director defines cinema as “pieces of film assembled.” The individual pieces of film, he adds, mean “nothing”; it is their combination, in such a way as to form a “mosaic” of them, whereby their “combination creates an idea” (or, he adds, later, “an emotion”), that they become meaningful. Part of the forming of the mosaic is the selection of the images; another part, in Psycho, in particular, is the “juxtaposition of angles” and the rapidity with which each piece of film appears, for only a fraction of a second, on the screen, resulting in the assembly of a “montage” suggestive of the stabbing of Marion Crane (Jennifer Leigh), while, in fact, “no knife ever touched any woman's body in that scene.”
In the same interview, Hitchcock also speaks of how he maintained and intensified suspense while avoiding a cliche in North by Northwest. The cliche was “a place of assignation [taking] the form of a figure under a street lamp at the corner of the street,” which is often used to “put [a] man on the spot.” Besides the boredom that results from the use of a cliche, another problem is that cliches set up predictable situations. The audience has seen them so many times before that they know what will follow.
To avoid this hackneyed device, Hitchcock “take[s] the loneliest, emptiest spot I can so that there is no place to run for cover, no place to hide, and no place for the enemy to hide, if we can call him that,” having the protagonist disembark from “the bus . . . , a little tiny figure,” standing in the middle of a “complete wasteland.”
Then Hitchcock seems to threaten the man. Just as he intends, the audience thinks, “Well. This is a strange place to put a man.” As cars pass, the audience begins to suppose, “"Ah, he's going to be shot at from a car,'” but Hitchcock frustrates this expectation by showing “a black limousine go by.”
Next, a car approaches from a different direction, stops, and “deposits a man,” before returning from the direction it came. Just as the director intends, the audience imagines the man may be the protagonist's assassin. When the main character approaches him, engaging the stranger in conversation, it's clear to the audience that the new arrival is not a killer. For a second time, Hitchcock has raised the audience's expectation as to what will occur, only to frustrate their prediction.
Now, as “the local bus” approaches, the stranger to whom the protagonist is speaking says, “That's funny.” He points out that a crop-dusting plane is “dusting a place where there's no crops.” The stranger gets onto the bus and leaves. Hitchcock says, “The audience says . . . 'Ah, the airplane.' Now, what's gonna be strange about the airplane, and you soon know. And from that point on you have a man trying to find cover. There is no cover until he gets into the cornfield. Now, you do in the design a very important thing.”
By avoiding a give-away cliche, and repeatedly arousing and frustrating his audience's expectations about what will happen, Hitchcock creates and maintains suspense. Then, when the threat they suspect is coming finally arrives, Hitchcock makes sure the action continues, as the protagonist scrambles “to find cover,” as he is chased by the menacing airplane. The entire scene, from beginning to end, is carefully designed before it is ever filmed. As Hitchcock explains, “This sequence is very carefully designed step by step both visually and to some extent in its menace . . . . So that's production design, exemplified in terms of its function.”
Any author of horror fiction should take the same pains as Hitchcock did in planning the action of his movie's scenes, remembering that the images created on the page, like those filmed on the sound stage or on location, are, when properly combined, in such a way as to form a “mosaic,” the means by which the writer “creates an idea”—and the way that he or she manipulates readers by causing them to draw inferences as to what will come next—inferences which the writer must then frustrate as he or she introduces new possibilities or plot twists.
Now that he has explained how to design combinations of images to create ideas, Hitchcock explains how to use the same process to create an emotion in his audience.
Hitchcock offers two examples. The first, from Psycho, involves Detective Milton Arbogas entering the Victorian house occupied by Norman Bates and his “mother.” As Arbogas steps onto the upper-story hallway floor, after having ascended the staircase, “Mother” rushes from her bedroom, knife in hand, and stabs him across the face. A close-up shot shows the bloody gash in his forehead and cheek and registers his shock as he begins to fall backward, down the stairs, pursued by his killer. Hitchcock explains how he captured this horrific sequence:
. . . When he got to the top of the stairs, I took the camera very high, extremely high. So that he was a small figure. And the figure of the woman came out, very small, dashed at him with a knife. And the knife went out, and we're still very high, and as the knife started to come down, I cut to a big head of the man. And the knife went right across the face, and he fell back from that point on. Now the reason for going high—and here we're talking about the juxtaposition of size of image. So the big head came as a shock to the audience, and to the man himself. His surprise was expressed by the size of the image. But you couldn't get the emphasis of that size unless you had prepared for it by going high.
Mr. Stewart is sitting looking out of the window. He observes. We register his observations on his face. We are using the visual image now. We are using the mobility of the face, the expression, as our content of the piece of film. Let's give an example of how this can vary, this technique, with whatever he is looking at: Mr. Stewart looks out. Close-up. Cut to what he sees. Let's assume it's a woman holding a baby in her arms. Cut back to him. He smiles. Mr. Stewart likes babies. He's a nice gentleman. Take out only the middle piece of film, the viewpoint. Leave the close-ups in—the look and the smile. Put a nude girl in the middle instead of the baby. Now he's a dirty old man. By the changing of one piece of film only, you change the whole idea. It's a different idea.
When Jeffrey smiled at the baby, the audience thought him a “nice gentleman,” but were a nude woman substituted for the baby, the audience would have imagined Jeffrey is a pervert, and their emotional response to him would have been quite different.
Every piece of film that you put in the picture should have a purpose,” Hitchcock says, which means each sequence of images should be planned in detail and be combined so as to encourage the audience's ideas and emotions while depicting whatever action is called for by the scene. Style is the means by which Hitchcock says he accomplishes these goals, insisting, “I put first and foremost cinematic style before content . . . . Content is quite secondary to me.”
Alexander Pope defined style, with regard to writing, as “proper words in their proper places.” If “images” were substituted for words, so that, so amended, Pope's definition reads that style, with regard to film making, is proper images in their proper places, Hitchcock, no doubt, would agree. By substituting one image for another, Hitchcock can change the context of a scene and, as a result, the audience's reaction, or feelings, about Jeffrey.
Note: In future posts, we will consider the messages Stanley Kubrick, Scott Derrickson, William Friedkin, and David Rosenberg express through their films: