Friday, March 22, 2013

Don't Show the Monster!

In my previous post I ranked 1979's Alien as the second scariest movie of all time.  There are about a thousand reasons why but I'm going to focus on only one.  We never get a clear shot of the alien.  The Nostromo is dark; the corridors are narrow but there are also wide areas, all wreathed in shadow.  Each and every time we see the alien it's never well-defined.  We get a vague sense of what it looks like but director Ridley Scott knew better than to show us the whole package.  There's a reason for that. 
The imagination is much more powerful than any rubber costume, even one created by master Hollywood craftsmen.  It is much more effective to suggest the creature's appearance than to actually have it stand in the open.  Because as soon as we see it, no matter how horrific it looks, we can deal with it.  Ridley Scott knew it.  And so did Shirley Jackson twenty years earlier. 
In her novel, The Haunting of Hill House, she never shows us what's in the house.  Oh, there's definitely something in there.  But what it is she keeps to herself.  We hear slow, heavy footsteps in the hallway outside Eleanor's room.  Those footsteps stop outside her door.  Then something bangs on the door like it wants in.  But Jackson never shows us what's doing the banging.  The two female protagonists clutch each other as the banging on the door speeds up and gets louder.  A moment later the banging stops.  A moment after that the two women are relieved to hear one of the men in their group asking them if they're okay in there.  This moment was captured in spectacular fashion in the movie version, The Haunting (1963).  In a later scene as the group tries to flee the house, a wood door starts to bend inward as something on the other side tries to get to them.  It's a terrifying moment, because wood doesn't bend like that.  So what the hell is making it happen?  We never see it.  They wisely never open the door.  They do what anybody would do in that situation:  They get the fuck out of Dodge.  Their survival instinct overpowers their curiosity and so we never do learn what's haunting Hill House.  It's precisely why the story is so effective in both the book and movie versions.  (Except the 1999 remake.  Despite having a semi-decent cast led by Liam Neeson, the movie sucked.) 
Spielberg accomplished the same thing, albiet unintentionally, in Jaws (1975).  Since the mechanical shark never worked properly we get to see very little of it.  A fin here, a quick headhot there.  It was Spielberg's intention to follow the novel as closely as possible, but the shark appears in the novel way more than it does in the movie.  Hell, the shark is mentioned in the first sentence of the novel:  "The great fish moved silently through the water..."  Peter Benchley apparantly did not subscribe to Jackson's less-is-more approach.  But because the mechanical shark kept breaking down Spielberg was forced to find ways to suggest its presence and appearance rather than show us.  Major kudos to John Williams for that.  Today it would not be an issue.  They would just CGI the shit out of it and the shark would be in ever scene.  And the movie would not be half as effective as it was.  For proof, watch Deep Blue Sea (1999). 
There are many more examples.  After his teleportation experiment goes horrifically wrong, main character David Hedison spends the second half of the movie with a towel over his head in the original version of The Fly (1958).  Eventually his wife pulls the towel away but for most of the time his head is hidden from us.  Audiences probably guessed why but the reveal takes so long they were probably squirming in their seats for some time. 
In X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963) Ray Milland develops eyedrops that allow him to see outside the human visual spectrum.  They give him x-ray vision and he can see ultraviolet rays.  But the more he uses the eyedrops the more he sees.  And he starts to see...things.  Things no one else can see.  Are they real or is he losing his mind?  He takes to wearing dark sunglasses and he wears them in every scene thereafter.  And that's when the squirm factor comes in.  Because what, exactly, is going on behind those shades?  In the final shot of the movie the glasses come off.  I won't ruin it for you but it's pretty creepy. 
These authors and filmmakers got it exactly right.  These stories are frightening because most, if not all, of the monsters are never shown.  Let the audience's imagination do your work for you.  It sounds lazy but it's quite the opposite.  It takes a lot of skill and self-control not to describe something too vividly.  It's an approach I tried to use in my third novel, Dark Annie.  When it becomes available you can tell me whether or not I succeeded.     

No comments:

Post a Comment