Saturday, March 27, 2010

stop it, you're freaking me out!

Last night I tricked my husband into watching "House of the Devil" on DVD. I told him it was a sweet little movie from Sweden about babysitting. I'd been hearing good reviews about this mostly unknown horror film from 2009 and wanted to check it out. I think the film effectively does two things: first it creates incredible tension by playing on suspense. Honestly, not much at all happens for the first 70 minutes. There's a few tidbits thrown in here and there, but it's hardly up to modern horror film standards in terms of pacing. I don't mean that as a criticism, in fact I don't think it's a bad thing at all. That brings me to the second point, it very effectively recreates the mood of early 80's horror. I can remember being traumatized by late night commercials for "Mother's Day" and "Let's Scare Jessica To Death" running during the late late movie. Ah the joys of being a child during the era of laissez-faire parenting -- your time has passed.
I was talking to a filmmaker about his movie The Puffy Chair and how when I first saw it there were these long, tense passages where nothing seemed to be happening and several of us in the audience found ourselves filled with dread -- dread that something terrible was about to happen. The movie is a comedy for those who have not seen it. He said that generally we've come to expect the worst -- so when things are just sailing along we get anxious. This is very much the case in The House of the Devil. The main character puts on a gigantic walkman and bops around a house and you just know the shit's about to get real.
I've been thinking a lot about horror -- how hard it is to evoke on the page as a blueprint for what's to come. For me the most effective horror is character based and psychological. It isn't about attractive teenagers saying glib things to each other before being dispatched but rather about all those deeply felt human emotions. In the Strangers the writer/director uses the space of the first act to give us character information. Now he's told us something bad is going to happen and in fact given us a glimpse of how bad it's going to be. Then we learn about this couple. He wants to get married, she doesn't -- it's not Scenes From A Marriage but it's effective enough. Then the ordeal begins. If you're interested, read the first draft of the script and see how it compares to the finished film. In one particularly interesting passage starting on page 63 the couple shoot an old man who wanders into the house randomly. In the finished film Bertino changes out the random old man with a close friend of the main character? All the creepy language, descriptions of the Strangers looming masks in the darkness are still there but the switch of the close friend is important. Relationships. The main character cares about his friend more than the old man. It's more tragic and therefore more horrific and it further motivates him to try to seek revenge by going after the strangers as he does in the next scene. I think I've just discovered a "trick of the trade" as my former instructor Allen Estrin called them: "If you really want to scare, you've really got to care." That is to say, if we don't care about the characters, if we're not invested in the outcome, we're not feeling the dread and we're not scared.

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