Today: February 28, 2024

Horror's Show Or Tell

As the dark nights draw in and kids and kidults get busy preparing for a weekend of Halloween hokum

By Edward Boff

As the dark nights draw in and kids and kidults
get busy preparing for a weekend of Halloween hokum
, Edward Boff tackles
a topic much discussed by horror aficionados – whether horror is best shown or
implied. So draw closer to the fire folks, while we regale you with tales of
ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the
night …

The horror
genre has ways of getting us in the mood.
From building tension and unease, to shocking or grossing us out with
surprising and grotesque sights, there’s a whole spectrum of spookiness out
there. But is there an optimum
point between what to reveal, and what not? In his excellent text on horror
writing, Dance Macabre, Stephen King discusses
how, although when a horror movie does reveal its monster, it can be a letdown,
if nothing at all is shown, then there’s an anticlimax. Fortunately there are
plenty of films that play games with the show or tell convention – and are all
the stronger for it.

Cat People, 1942

Producer Val Lewton was arguably the
man that put RKO on the horror radar
with films that not only delivered in ways that the money men didn’t expect but
also created a distinctive mood of their own. Lewton’s solution to the show or tell conundrum was to show
little but suggest a lot. The best example is RKO’s first big horror title Cat
People; a tale of a woman who turns into a ferocious panther. However, we
seldom see the cat on screen, mostly just shadows and noises that suggest it. It’s even possible that there’s nothing
supernatural at all going on and we see nothing to overtly confirm or deny
this. Using a series of long
sequences, which director Jacques
Torneur
called “walks”, a mood of menace is created. There are
also clever jump scares, including one famous one that has since given other
such scenes the nickname “a Lewton Bus”. The result is a truly timeless, unsettling piece that the
special effects-filled and trashy ‘80s remake can’t hold a candle to.

Night Of The Demon, 1957

This true gem, based on a story by British ghost story legend MR James, has been the subject of a
much debate and controversy over the years. Directed by Jacques
Toureur
, using every trick learned from his time with Val Lewton, many feel
that the actual appearance of the Demon itself at the beginning and end
(something the producers insisted on) hurts the film and its ambiguity. It’s said by quite a few (including the
film’s writer, Charles Bennett, who
said he wanted to shoot the producers for it) that showing the fiend, which
comes for the victims of the curse, turned a psychological thriller into a monster
movie. That may be true but there
is a strong counter argument that it helps the film. For a start, given the massive build-up, not having anything
shown at all would really have cheated the audience. Also, there are so many scenes that explicitly foreshadow
the demon’s appearance that it’s clear the plan was for it to be there from the
start, though perhaps not lingered on.
Final point in its favour: the demon looks incredible for ‘50s special
effects! It’s one of the best
monsters of the era, and you can bet that its mug on the posters got those bums
on seats.

Psycho, 1960 (Main Picture)

The infamous shower scene that shocked audiences at the time has gone on to be
one of the most spoiled moments in motion picture history (right up there with
Rosebud). One thing that shocked
audiences at the time was the provocative mix of sex and violence and yet, on
closer inspection, the scene is nowhere near as overt as it first looks. The sequence apparently took a week to
shoot, and given the number of cuts and edits in there, that’s believable! Alfred
Hitchcock
very carefully put the whole thing together so that none of Janet Leigh’s ‘features’ were actually seen, nor any actual stab
wounds made. The whole thing
edited together, with THAT music, gives the impression of something far more
explicit, even though it showed nothing the censors could properly object too.
It’s no wonder that many a subsequent murder scene owes this a great deal; see
original Texas Chainsaw Massacre for
another example of grisly deaths far more implied than shown.

The Haunting, 1963

It was Robert Wise, another graduate
of the Val Lewton School, who handled the film which many have held up as a
master class on how to make a devastatingly effective horror without spilling a
drop of claret or revealing any monsters. All the big shocking moments are done
almost entirely with sound rather than images. Even the one main special effects moment, of a door bulging
impossibly, is an image of concealment, cementing the power at work without
actually showing what’s on the other side causing it. This technique, combined with strong performances, clever
set design, and an intelligent, psychological storyline, is why this classic
has aged so well … and why the poor CGI filled, fake-looking 1999 remake has
been deservedly forgotten already.

The Wicker Man, 1973

One of the most remarkable things about this horror legend is that, for most of
the running time, not a lot really horror-movieish happens. It doesn’t play like a traditional
British horror of the period. Instead it’s more an odd detective story,
discussion on religion, and musical. Really, the songs by the band, Magnet, are all of an old folk variety
and help build the mood of unease in the first hour or so, leaving the audience
spending that time thinking “where is this going?” But then all is revealed (including the
significance of the title), and the true horror emerges, both from the
situation and the realisation that everything really has been leading to this
all along and there’s no way out.
Compare this to the gimmicky, pointlessly jump-scare filled Nick Cage remake and you’ll see how
much more effective an ending like this can be when you ease off on the horror
leading up to it.

The Thing,
1982

John Carpenter’s The Thing may seem
an odd film to put in this especially as its incredibly elaborate gory
transformation effects (courtesy of practical effects legend Rob Bottin) caused critics at the time
to label John Carpenter a “pornographer of violence”. Time has been very kind to The Thing
though, especially now we can see, with hindsight, how necessary the effects
are. The film has plenty of long,
tense stretches where we don’t have any monster action at all. All of which
builds up to the moment when the gloves (and hands, and face, and torso…)
come off. For the story to work,
the Thing has to be shown to be completely alien in every sense of the word.
Something utterly against all conventional biology as we know it. Something
utterly abhorrent and nightmarish.
As such, you can’t really imagine the same sort of terror being achieved
without such gruesome excesses.
This is one case where the gore is entirely justified. It doesn’t happen
enough to be gratuitous and it has a definite intent and purpose within the
story.

Ghostwatch, 1992

A TV production rather than a theatrical release but well worth mentioning as
it was dramatic enough to flood the BBC with complaints at the time. Taking the form of a live broadcast
from a haunted house, what was so smart about Ghostwatch was the way it chose
to show the ghost, Mr. Pipes, haunting the team. His appearances in the background were so brief and so
blurred as to be almost subliminal. Combined with the way that none of the
people in the show seemed to notice his presence, it’s easy to see why the
audience were unnerved. The later
description and explanation of Pipes’ appearance cemented the show into a
horror far greater than the BBC make-up department could ever create!

In The Mouth of Madness, 1995

The works of HP Lovecraft have
thwarted all but the best filmmakers over the years. The beings at work in Lovecraft’s stories, the “Great
Old Ones”, are said to be so terrifying, so alien, so beyond human
comprehension that the mere sight of them drives one to madness. So how do you put that on film? Well, John Carpenter, in his brilliant
tribute to the Cthulhu Mythos, found a way. In the moment when They finally enter the mortal world, it is
as a huge array of monstrous shapes that are the best the special effects team
could muster … but we never get
a clear look at them. They are
either completely out of focus or shown in quick very close cuts, leaving you
unsure what you’ve just seen. (“Was that a tooth or a claw? Is that a tail or tentacle? A weird mouth or a weirder eye?”) The effect is dramatic and incredibly
unsettling, and this is just one reason why In The Mouth Of Madness is one of
the unsung horror masterpieces of the 1990s.

The Blair Witch Project, 1999

What really kicked off interest in the ‘found footage’ sub-genre was a
nano-budget film that rapidly became the most profitable independent movie of
all time, surpassing the previous champion Halloween. The tale of a bunch of filmmakers menaced by … something in the Maryland woods became
a huge success mainly down to a massive hype machine. This of course also led to a backlash, of those who decried
the film’s ambiguities and the fact that little happens on screen. One thing that can make watching Blair
Witch far more effective, though, is the mockumentary, Curse Of The Blair Witch, (included on the DVD). In it, more of the legend of the Blair
Witch, and the related events around Burkitsville, are told and expanded
upon. Watching the film after
seeing this suddenly a lot of “huh, that’s odd” moments take on a new
significance, as the students’ journey has numerous parallels with the old
(made up) legend. If they had
worked this material into the film’s theatrical release, that may have curbed
the backlash a lot, as it would have given the audience’s imagination’s even
more to work with, and hinted far more at the characters’ eventual fate.

Paranormal Activity, 2007

No list would be complete without discussing the franchise which has pretty
much become license to print money every Halloween. The first film in the franchise, a tiny budgeted affair shot
out of director Orin Peli’s house, became just as huge a hit as Blair
Witch. And the two films have many
similarities, but there is one all-important difference. Instead of Blair
Witch’s running around shakeycam approach, PA keeps the camera still on a
tripod for its big scares. The
main shot of the couple in bed is perfectly framed to show you the … erm, Paranormal Activity that occurs,
even though we never directly see what’s causing it. Even so, the hints we do get as to its true form (if it has
one) are more than enough to chill, like the footprint scene that confirms that
whatever is haunting the couple, it’s not only not human, it never was. The reason none of the sequels have
been quite as effective is that explaining why the demon is haunting these
characters, dilutes the terror and paranoia of “this could happen to
anyone!” The Halloween
franchise made the same mistake; unknowable, inexplicable horror that could happen
to anyone is inherently more frightening than revealing that there’s something
special about these characters that have marked them for death.

So what can
we conclude from all this? Well,
that telling a good scary story ultimately follows exactly the same rules as
telling a good joke. You’ve got to
build it up really well, have a killer punch line and you shouldn’t have to
explain the whole thing afterwards.
In terms of what to show and what not, it’s all about what works for the
particular story. Some stories need to show more than others but however much
does get revealed, the film must earn the right to show it. Finally, what to show and what to hide
must also be considered on a story level; how much the audience knows about
what’s at work can be inversely proportional to the terror they feel …

Alex Moss Editor

Alex Moss’ obsession with film began the moment he witnessed the Alien burst forth from John Hurt’s stomach. It was perhaps ill-advised to witness this aged 6 but much like the beast within Hurt, he became infected by a parasite called ‘Movies’. Rarely away from his computer or a big screen, as he muses on Cinematic Deities, Alex is “more machine now than man. His mind is twisted and evil”. Email: alex.moss@filmjuice.com

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