Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The House of the Devil

Show me the monster

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Godzilla 2014

Over the weekend, I finally caught up with the recent remake of Godzilla. I’d wanted to see this movie for a long time, and although I was aware that a lot of viewers had found it disappointing—especially with regard to Godzilla’s own limited screen time—I was looking forward to watching a big, effects-driven blockbuster that followed what I’ve called one of the cardinal rules of suspense. You don’t show the monster. You let the viewer’s imagination do the work. It’s what Spielberg did in Jaws and Ridley Scott did in Alien. I know all this, and I believe in it. Yet after Godzilla was over, my first reaction was, well, that I wished I’d seen more of the monster. Part of me feels a little guilty even for typing this. Director Gareth Edwards and his production team are obviously harking back to Spielberg, and there’s no question that this approach is preferable to the nonstop pummeling of the senses we get from the likes of Michael Bay. But if we look back at what what Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Roland Emmerich’s own Godzilla remake, we start to realize that the truth is a little more complicated: “Steven Spielberg opened Jurassic Park by giving us a good, long look at the dinosaurs in full sunlight, and our imaginations leapt up. Godzilla hops out of sight like a camera-shy kangaroo.”

So which is it? Would Spielberg want us to show the monster or not? Or to put to put it another way, why does an approach that works for Jaws leave us so dissatisfied with Godzilla? For one thing, there’s the fact that while Jaws leaves its shark offscreen for most of the movie, it spends the intervening time developing a trio of engaging protagonists we’d happily follow on an ordinary fishing trip, while Godzilla kills off its most interesting character before the halfway mark. A director like Spielberg also knows that every delay demands a corresponding payoff: most of the flying saucers in Close Encounters stay out of sight, but when we see the mothership at last, it still has the power to delight the imagination almost forty years later. Godzilla never affords us that kind of cathartic moment, which even a movie like Peter Jackson’s King King offers almost to a fault. More subtly, it’s worth pointing out that most of the films that first come to mind when we think of the power of suggestion, like Jaws or Alien, were forced in that direction out of technical limitations. Not showing the monster is only one of a series of ingenious decisions and workarounds imposed by real constraints, and it’s no surprise if the result is more compelling than a movie that doesn’t need to sweat as hard.

Roy Scheider (and Bruce) in Jaws

But I think the real explanation is even simpler. In Jaws, it makes sense to leave the shark off screen: for the most part, we’re seeing events from the perspective of men on shore or on the boat, fighting an unseen foe, and as long as we stick to their point of view—which makes for good dramatic logic—we won’t see more than a dorsal fin or underwater shadow. The same holds for Alien, which pits its crew against a single murderous creature in a labyrinth of darkness, and even Close Encounters, where the flying objects, by definition, are elusive enough to remain unidentified. But Godzilla is hard to miss. He’s 350 feet tall. This is a creature defined by its overwhelming physical presence, and to keep him out of sight, we need to artificially depart from the perspective of those on the ground. We cut away from the main action or cheat the lighting and the camera angles, so instead of seeing things through a character’s eyes, we enforce a kind of alienation from what the human beings in the story are experiencing. (Having already been entertained but underwhelmed by Pacific Rim, I’m starting to think that any story about two or more really big monsters might be inherently undramatic: there isn’t enough room for action on a human scale when the plot turns on a fistfight between creatures the size of skyscrapers.)

In other words, Godzilla understands the “rule” that it shouldn’t show the monster, but it forgets why that rule has meaning in the first place. Watching it, I felt much the same way I did when I saw Ti West’s The House of the Devil. In that movie, we’re repeatedly shown the heroine moving past dark doorways, and each time she does, our heart rate accelerates—but time and again, nothing happens. And after an hour of establishing the layout of its terrifying house, when the horror finally does come, the film commits the ultimate crime: it cuts away to a room we’ve never seen. Maybe it knows, rightly, that dread is more effective than terror, but it forgets an even more basic rule: if you’re going to tease us with all those shots of a doorway, sooner or later, something has to come out of that door. Godzilla makes much the same mistake, which is only a reminder of the difference between approaching a genre from the outside, even from the standpoint of a loving fan, and figuring out its logic from within, as Spielberg did. Rules, to the extent they exist, are there for a reason, and it can be dangerous, especially for smart storytellers, to honor those conventions with great technical skill while failing to articulate while they’re there in the first place. And as Godzilla proves, you can be a careful, perceptive, and talented director, but still miss the monster in the room.

Two shots from Psycho, or the power of dread

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Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is full of unforgettable images, but two of the greatest are often overlooked. The first is that oddly melancholy moment when, from over Janet Leigh’s shoulder, we see the bathroom door open through the translucent shower curtain, the camera silently holding for a few seconds on the silhouette of the figure beyond, before the curtain is drawn aside and all hell breaks loose. The second, from the great staircase scene, is the shot of the door opening at the top of the steps, also in silence, shortly before Martin Balsam’s detective meets his startling end. Neither shot draws attention to itself, but both are utterly essential: for a few agonizing seconds, we know exactly what’s going to happen next, and that sense of dread heightens our terror and horror at what immediately follows.

Dread, terror, and horror: these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but they’re very different things, and all writers of horror or suspense should understand the distinction. The definitive explanation is Orson Scott Card’s, in the introduction to his collection Maps in a Mirror, and if you’ve never read it, please check it out here. Dread, he explains, is the fear you feel when you know that something is wrong, but aren’t quite sure what it is—the strange sound in the house, the creaking floorboard, the light under the closed door. Terror is when the killer or monster is coming at you at last. And horror is the aftermath: the body, the blood, Janet Leigh’s staring eye. Of the three, horror is the weakest, while dread is the strongest, because it preys on our fears and imagination. As Card writes:

True, bad things happen to my characters. Sometimes terrible things. But I don’t show it to you in living color. I don’t have to. I don’t want to. Because, caught up in dread, you’ll imagine far worse things happening than I could ever think up to show you myself.

At their most effective, the tools of dread seem so simple that it’s easy to underestimate the craft required. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King observes that the scariest image in the world is that of a closed door. Very true—but only if the pieces of the story have been properly assembled in advance, so that we’re afraid to find out what might be on the other side. I’ve rarely had as hair-raising an experience at the movies as the first time I saw No Country For Old Men, but its greatest image, like those in Psycho, is one of the simplest: a closed hotel room door, seen from inside, with light visible underneath, which is suddenly blocked off by the shadow of a man in the hallway. Nothing could be simpler—except that film has already established the characters of the men both inside and outside the room, and without that essential groundwork, the tension wouldn’t be nearly as unbearable.

And the tools of dread, like all fictional devices, can be misused when taken out of context. Ti West’s ’80s horror pastiche The House of the Devil has a lot of fans, but for all its cleverness, I think it displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the workings of true horror. It repeatedly shows its heroine moving past dark doorways, and each time she does, our heart rate accelerates—but time and again, nothing happens. And after an hour of establishing the layout of this terrifying house, when the horror finally does come, the film commits the ultimate crime: it cuts away to a room we’ve never seen. The mounting sense of dread turns out to be just another tease, even if more skillfully executed than most. Because the ultimate lesson of dread is that, to justify itself, it must turn to terror. The shower curtain draws back. The figure appears on the stairs. And sooner or later, something comes out of that door.

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