Saturday, October 1, 2011

In the Mood for Horror: Atmosphere over Fright

I've watched so many horror films that haven't scared me I couldn't even give you an accurate count as to how many times it's happened.  For the most part, horror movies never frighten me.  Not to put too fine a point on it but, for Pete's sake, I'm a grown man so the jump scares and demonic hobgoblins just don't do shit for me, so don't get too disappointed if I've got a blank look on my face.

But here's the thing.  This is how many times a movie not scaring me has affected whether I liked it or not:  zero.


There are those who like horror because it scares them.  Plenty of people, in fact.  Others go for the gore and the jump scares.  I wish them all the best and wouldn't even try to persuade them against it as changing the heart is a difficult thing to do if that's where the heart leads you.  But for me, it's mood, all the way.

I like atmosphere.  No, screw that, I love atmosphere!  Atmosphere gets me through and that's why, for the most part, whether a movie is demonstrably scary or not doesn't matter a whole hell of a lot to me.  If you've visited here long enough, and read through enough Octobers, you've seen my mentions and write-ups of City of the Dead (aka, Horror Hotel).  And if you're groaning, thinking, "not again," don't worry, I'm not going to go back into it except to say that it's the "thick as mud" atmosphere that sells me every time.  It's not just a favorite horror movie, it's a favorite movie, period.

Recently, I wrote a post on TCM about my semi-addiction to isolated locations in the movies.  In it, I mention both The Wicker Man (1973, of course) and Don't Look Now as two personal favorites.  Both of those movies have horrific, even supernatural elements to them and that makes it easier to provide a dense, foreboding atmosphere.  It can be done with drama, but an isolated landscape in a drama, like Stroszek (also mentioned in the post), gives off a whole different feel than horror.  In drama, the feeling is more of the despair of hopes and dreams.  In horror, it's more about the dread of the unknown.  And that dread is what pulls me in, every time.

It's why the Universal classics work so well for me, because of their command of atmosphere and mood.  I don't watch Frankenstein or The Bride of Frankenstein because I want to be scared.  I watch them for the mood they set, a sense of dread, of creepiness and foreboding.   And all of the horror films I love, from Old Dark House and City of the Dead  to The Shining and The Thing (horror/sci-fi), have a true command of atmosphere.

But great atmosphere need not be a product of big studio financing.  As often as not, it's something that can be obtained on easy credit with no money down.  Take a look at Carnival of Souls, The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity to find great cases of atmosphere done on the cheap.

So when I hear someone complain that a horror movie isn't scary, frankly, I get a little irritated.  The horror genre's sole purpose is not to scare but to deal with horrifying elements, usually, but not always, in dramatic form.  Something can horrify us but not necessarily scare us (Freaks, perhaps).  The two are not synonymous.  It can do both, one or the other or neither.  The horror movie deals with that which is outside the realm of most people's normal experience.  To get those kinds of stories right, the first thing a director has to do is establish mood.  Only then can he hope to scare us.  To paraphrase the old saw about real estate, in the realm of horror, the three most important things are atmosphere, atmosphere, and atmosphere. And when it's done right, it's like the air that you breathe.



21 comments:

bill r. said...

Yes indeed to all of this. "I didn't think it was scary" is, on one hand, a seemingly completely legitimate critique of a horror film -- "I didn't think it was funny" will usually do in the case of comedies, after all (though not always, but let's not get into that) -- but somehow, with horror, that misses the point. Not entirely, because you talk about dread, and how far from "being scared" is "feeling dread", really? Not very. But like you, I'm almost never scared by horror movies (I won't pretend it's never, though, although in my case maybe "freaked out" is a better phrase) and it effects my enjoyment or appreciation of the film not at all.

What I like, along with atmosphere and all sorts of other things, is weirdness. I even think that's key to something being truly frightening, but regardless, weirdness is an essential component for me. God knows pretty much all the movies you cite approvingly meet that criteria, and it's often unremarked upon. But ROSEMARY'S BABY is weird and THE EXORCIST is weird and DON'T LOOK NOW is super weird. The inexplicable, the weird, makes me uneasy.

Greg said...

You know, the moments early on in Paranormal Activity, before they overjerk themselves and spew demon cum all over the place, when there's just a sourceless shadow on the wall and a door that slightly moves. That shit really creeped me out. I mean, it was a little unnerving even.

And Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist and Don't Look Now all have great weird atmosphere but also, with The Exorcist, a palpable, punch in the chest feeling of disquiet, dread and isolation. When Karras is either in the room with Regan or making his way to the room, it's as if the rest of the world no longer exists. It's just a bedroom in a Washington, DC townhouse, but when he's in there, it's like he's in the belly of the beast. Which, I suppose, he is. And that's how you know it works.

Arbogast said...

I'm with you, brother. And yet I crave the horror vibe the way that Bird craved the spike... I just can't stay off the stuff.

Maybe more than any other genre, horror delivers the raw materials to scare yourself, if you're open to it. The individual narratives of horror movies almost don't even matter... almost. It's where they take you when you're done watching them, and the way your mind complicates or continues what you've seen on the screen that makes the exchange valuable. I've spent decades thinking about horror movies and I'll go out thinking about them.

Greg said...

and the way your mind complicates or continues what you've seen on the screen that makes the exchange valuable.

That's why not getting too specific works so well in horror. Seeing Mike standing in the corner at the end of Blair Witch provides a creepy jolt but then, later, you can't repel the image, brief as it is, from your head. That final moment is ten times more creepy in my head when I think about it than it ever was upon first seeing it.

Joel Bocko said...

I think in the end atmosphere is WHAT scares me about a horror film - jolts don't last very long, but the, as you put it, feeling of creeping dread stays with you long into the night.

And I agree with Bill R. on weirdness. Probably my favorite horror film is also the weirdest I've ever seen, The Black Cat. Interestingly, it's also one of the few pre-1960 horror films I can think of with little to no use of the supernatural (I mean there are satanic cults and pickeled people, but still the horror lies in the human not the inhuman).

Greg said...

Joel, The Black Cat is such a great one. I love most anything done with Bela Lugosi in the thirties. The atmosphere in those movies is just fantastic.

Fred said...

I agree with you, Greg. I think in order to work, horror films need to get the atmosphere right. Once they have that set, they can get you to accept even the most illogical of premises or plot points (Suspiria immediately springs to mind, where the first fifteen minutes is such a tour d'force with its pounding score and bright, Dutch angled cinematography that you accept what happens in the rest of the film). The scenes in The Exorcist with Father Damien are what work for me the best in that film. Jason Miller gives such a wonderful performance as that tortured soul, with the world-weary, hangdog expression. The scene in the nursing home with his dying mother just nails it. For the rest of the film, you just know something awful is going to happen, and Friedkin pours it on, despite the early 70s setting. By the end, you are feeling uneasy as hell, even if you didn't jump out of your seat in abject fright.

For me, my attraction to horror films goes back to a traumatic event from very early childhood, where certain older relatives thought it would be funny to scare the 4 year old me. I think I find horror films cathartic, even (or maybe especially) the ones like The Wicker Man and The Exorcist where there is no real happy ending.

Joel Bocko said...

Yeah, I think in addition to the wiggy set design and trippy plot elements, the weirdness factors is helped by Lugosi being a good guy (yet he's still creepy to the point where the more conventional heroes don't even seem to believe he's "one of them" and end up killing him).

I've got a random question which maybe you would be able to answer: was Lugosi really so much taller than Karloff? Throughout the film he towers over him, which seems to defy our expectations, and I can't help but wonder if it was a trick to satiate his ego (recalling all those digs at Boris scattered throughout "Ed Wood", whatever that's worth...)

Christopher said...

I'm a mood man all the way..Perhaps its a mistake to begin to make a horror film with the intention of TRYING to scare someone..If film is an art and horror is the theme,then a well laid out pallet and a heart and mind to convey with those driven brush strokes,then you are certain to have a desired effect with the onlookers....The Black Cat(1934) dosen’t remind me of a horror film so much as it does one of those unfortunate traveling experiences where due to unexpected money or transportation problems,you are forced to stay overnight some place totally out of your comfort zone,with people who seem to play upon your fears..and who may or may not let you leave..Its a film I watch nearly every halloween.

Greg said...

For me, my attraction to horror films goes back to a traumatic event from very early childhood, where certain older relatives thought it would be funny to scare the 4 year old me.

Cripes, I hope it wasn't too bad. Sorry about that.

I too like horror movies that go full tilt into despair but, for the most part, how many horror movies have truly happy endings in the first place? Certainly resolved endings, like Psycho or Texax Chainsaw Massacre, but not really happy. Still, I'm in agreement, certainly with The Wicker Man and The Exorcist, with the former being an all-time favorite.

Greg said...

Joel, I'm almost positive Karloff was taller. He was over six feet tall and he's the one in Body Snatcher who towers over Lugosi.

Greg said...

.The Black Cat(1934) dosen’t remind me of a horror film so much as it does one of those unfortunate traveling experiences where due to unexpected money or transportation problems,you are forced to stay overnight some place totally out of your comfort zone,with people who seem to play upon your fears..and who may or may not let you leave

Sounds like the Hotel California.

GregWA said...

I have been asked to bring some movies to a Halloween party and this looks like a good group to ask for help.

The hostess wants to play "old, B&W horror" movies silently on a TV in the room. I will need about 5-6 movies and it's a lo-tech affair, so I'm not editing scenes together.

I know many of the best movies are not visually horrifying all the way through, so I guess I'm looking at mood/atmosphere with shocking moments.

The only one I definitely want to use is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Also thinking The Wolfman and Bride of Frankenstein. Any other suggestions?

Greg said...

Those all seem like good choices but I don't know how much I like the idea of movies being used as background visual noise. I mean, I love the idea that the visuals can speak to a person without the dialogue, and I think I would like edited clips together more, but why not go with more silent works, like Nosferatu that could be enjoyed properly? Caligari and Nosferatu would be excellent visual choices that could be enjoyed fully by those wishing to do so.

Anyway, we're actually probably the wrong group to ask this kind of question to.

Arbogast said...

Lugosi was 6'1", Karloff 5'11".

Christopher said...

as for the mood films for the halloween party,I'd pick House of Frankenstein and House Of Dracula(House of Drac having the better visuals),that way you get all 3 of the big boys in there with one killing,add The Mummy's Ghost(Chaney's Mummy at his most staggering hilarious)and baby makes 4..

Greg said...

Arbo, you're making that up (okay, maybe not). I looked up Karloff and it said he was over six feet. I couldn't find anything on Lugosi in my ultra-quick, slapdash search but I suppose I'll trust your findings.

surly hack said...

I don't want to be shocked. I prefer getting the "creeps". A feeling of dread, impending doom, spine-tingling chills. The lowest gore-slinging hack can provide a shock. That intangible something is what I crave. Director Jacques Tourneur added that something to Cat People, Leopard Man, I Walked With a Zombie under the tutelage of Val Lewton, as well Night of the Demon. But he added an intangible something to his non-horror/supernatural films as well. Here's to mood and atmosphere.

Greg said...

Jacques Tourneur added that something to Cat People, Leopard Man, I Walked With a Zombie under the tutelage of Val Lewton, as well Night of the Demon.

An all-time great and an all-time favorite. He defines mood over shocks like no other.

SPEEDbit said...

Great post! Yes. We agree. Isolated locations leave a sense of not knowing what's gonna happen next which can be both suspense building and horrifying at once. Blair Witch did that very well without a large budget. Thanks for the post. Keep blogging!

Richard Harland Smith said...

If you want to run movies silently, I'd suggest ones that give you plenty of m-eye-lage. Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a good choice, as is Nosferatu. How about throwing in a ringer like Carnival of Souls, which was made 40 years later but is still structured in some ways like a silent movie? Freaks would be one that people would notice - it would really pull focus in its moments of extreme, well, freakishness. If you can get your hands on the Criterion Island of Lost Souls when it streets mid-month, that's a good one too for great, creepy, smudgy visuals. Also, the Halperin Brothers' White Zombie or even I Walked with a Zombie from Val Lewton.