Old movies and building tension for a horror story.

Thought by R.W. Van Sant

Old movies and building tension for a horror story.

A movie review. Kind of.

I was recently watching an adaption of a short story that I liked as a teenager — “The Lurking Fear” by Lovecraft. The short story gave me chills, but the movie completely failed to deliver. Oh, sure there was blood, gore, hidden monsters striking out from the floor, the vents and out of the cemetery. But the moments that should have made me uneasy did not, which is a shame. It was less horror and more a dark adventure.

 I found myself thinking about those scenes from the old paperback. Why had the short story affected me more strongly? You would have thought that sounds and images would have more power to terrify. Music and sounds have a way of controlling emotions better than almost any other format and, if used well, in concert they should be a powerful tool. A picture paints a thousand words and a second of video replicates that dozens of times. The move should have been able to drive me as the viewer to the very edge of despair. It did not. Why not?

I think that reason rest mostly in the fact that horror and terror come from the minds fear of the unknown. The movie showed too much of the monsters and gave away too much of their motives.  Although the viewer could not sympathize with the creatures, they could understand those motives. We knew early what they looked like, where they were, what they wanted. From that point it was predictable — so gore and shock were the only tools remaining, and they were utilized too early.  In the book the creatures struck without warning, were seen only in shadows of a lightning flash, and the depravity of their true nature was only discovered at the end.

I remembered a lesson that I learned from the movie “Jaws”. The shark was scary because we never saw it until late in the movie. The same is true of the movie “Alien”. When a writer or a director only give hints, your mind will fill in the gaps with horrors so personal and terrible that they cannot fail but to inspire terror.

The old movie directors knew this, the good ones, and were aware that they lacked the tools to show what they wanted the audience to see. So they gave us shadows, sounds, partial glimpses, and showed us the wake of destruction the creatures left behind. Modern movie makers have more tools than those early movie makers had and yet, by showing too much, and trying to make the evil understandable, have removed or diminished the unknown and with it the imagination’s ability to take over and fill in the gaps, to make the watcher (or reader) feel dread at the prosect of cold anticipation.

As a writer, I feel it might be helpful to go back and watch those old movies. The ones with terrifying shadows and bad costumes that couldn’t be shown clearly lest they inspire hilarity rather than fright. The movies that attacked the dark, unprotected recesses of the mind rather than assault the eyes, sensibilities and squeamishness of their audience. I am hoping to learn a few things from the earlier generations.  


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