Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Thursday, September 24, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

On a cold winter night a few years ago, I was channel surfing when I came across what seemed to be a documentary on the Discovery Network about a real life haunting. I say "seemed to be" because it had fairly high production values and a great deal of cinematic flair in its dramatization of the infamous Snedecker case. This was "A Haunting in Connecticut" which would later lead to a series on the same channel depicting "A Haunting" in many other parts of the country. None of those, however, came close to the feeling of dread and wintry death as this one, however. Part of the effect was due to the story itself which was, of course, supposedly "true". Or at least as true as anything self proclaimed "demonologists" Ed and Lorraine Warren were involved with before (The Amityville Horror).

This material has been adapted again into a feature film starring Virginia Madsen and it desperately wants to scare you to death. Armed with elaborate makeup effects and a whole bag of visual and auditory fireworks the movie works hard for your money and should theoretically be scarier than the cut rate television production. But it's not. Not by a mile.

So, the question is: Why not?

The story of the Snedecker haunting first came to the public's awareness via the book "In a Dark Place" written by horror novelist Ray Garton along with the Warrens themselves. Garton would later say that the book was a pile of BS and that many of the Snedeckers stories were contradictory. After relaying his concerns to Ed Warren, Garton supposedly received this sage advice:

"Oh, they’re crazy. Everybody who comes to us is crazy. Otherwise why would they come to us? You’ve got some of the story – just use what works and make the rest up. And make it scary. You write scary books, right? That’s why we hired you. So just make it up and make it scary."

Now I bring this up not to attack the Warrens or Ray Garton for taking your money. I bring this up because the intent was not journalistic, but rather narrative. "Just make it up and make it scary." But what does that really mean? "Make it scary"? At its core, the story as laid down by Garton and dramatized on the Discovery Channel program is nothing more than the usual blood and thunder ghost story. It could be broken down in the usual beats:

1.Unsuspecting Family moves into strange and strangely inexpensive old house.
2. They slowly become aware that they are not alone there.
3. Tensions rise as the supernatural phenomena begins to tear apart the family unit.
4. Someone goes to the library instead of looking on the internet to find out about the house's murderous past.
5. Ed and Lorraine Warren are called in to fight the evil within. If the family is Catholic replace "Ed and Lorraine Warren" with a Priest.

I suspect that amid the piles of scripts sitting on Ari Gold's desk in Entourage, there would be at least one or two with this exact structure. And not one of them would be even remotely scary.

OK. So, how did Garton take this formula and "Make it scary"?

He didn't-You did-the moment you saw the words, "Based On A True Story". The suspension of disbelief which is so important to all fiction but of primary importance in a tale of terror is automatically engaged with those 5 words. And with this engagement comes the sudden loss of critical functions. Something that would sound contrived in a work of fiction is not even given a second's thought once it is believed to be "what really happened" because we all know that there are many things that are "Strange, but true".

Now, it IS true that Garton was also working with a pretty creepy situation from which all kinds of deep seated fears could be milked. You see, this wasn't just your regular "Amityville" house with a creepy attic. This house was once a funeral home complete with all the old dissecting tools and a crematorium in the basement. Now, few of us would want to spend more than a few minutes in one of these places-let alone spending the night-let alone LIVING there. Along with this situation is the central figure of the story's haunting, the Snedeckers teenage son who was stricken with cancer and receiving intense experimental treatments at a local hospital in a last ditch effort to save his life. There is something about the young man being so close to death that gives the story an added sense of personal drama and makes the supernatural aspects more harrowing. This is very well captured in the Discovery Channel program which makes great use of aerial shots of snow capped Connecticut trees and icy roads to envelop you in a cold and deathly universe. But the program does something else which makes it quite frightening and it's not narrative but formal. Since someone was good enough to put the whole program up on YouTube you can watch the entire thing there-but for our purposes take a look at THIS portion of the program-it's not the scariest part or the most interesting but it serves to demonstrate the peculiar effect of the form.

Now, the events depicted in the clip are all present in the film version. Yet, they carry none of the dread that is in virtually every second of this clip. The TV version is even more subtly and effectively directed than the feature version. It makes use of a quiet gliding camera and very specific and quiet sound effects to play on the viewer's imagination. This is all more successful than the elaborately constructed explosions of shock cuts and screaming in the film.

But there's something else.

And it's been used in programs of this sort since the days of In Search Of and Unsolved Mysteries. The story is not only relayed visually through re-enacted dramatization but also orally through a "voice of doom" narrator and personal testimony of those involved. Ghost stories have a long tradition of oral storytelling and it could be that this is the form that has the most power. The thing is that is a form that doesn't agree with the commonly accepted notion of narration in the cinema. In motion pictures, narration that simply states what the visuals make obvious is considered to be artless. But here, we see the young boy go into the basement and are told by the narrator that "Paul made his way down to the basement." But this narration sets us on edge. The same scene in a standard horror picture accompanied by "scary music" would only be slightly effective. In a standard horror movie, the boy would go into the basement and hear strange sounds from the shadows. But in the TV version the narrator tells us that the boy "could hear strange sounds from the next room and began to feel as though something was watching him." Now THIS really begins to chill the spine in a way a movie could never achieve. The shots that follow of the boy walking into the dark room have a dread that wouldn't exist without the voiceover.

The question is whether the commercial cinema can actually learn from this and achieve the same effect within the confines of cinematic storytelling. You don't go to the movies to watch an extended Unsolved Mysteries episode after all, the expectation is for a psychologically credible narrative that isn't interrupted by omniscient narrators or personal testimony. How could a filmmaker blend the forms without alienating the audience?

I don't know if he could do worse than the trite and obvious manner in which the film version was made. The film isn't BAD, and actually the acting is quite good by Madsen, Kyle Gallner, and Martin Donovan. What fails to work is the film's insistence on being in your face. The desire to prevent the teen audience from texting in the dark rather than following the story leaves a movie that has no grace notes, no sense of real atmosphere or control of pacing. I think it should be remembered that the much subtler TV version was MADE FOR TV where there is a very real fear that someone would just flip the channel. For a theatrical film, you have a captive audience who has paid for a ticket and is not so ready to jump ship. But for me, an hour of annoying flash cuts and random screams made me want to do that very thing. At least there was this tribute to a truly great horror film:


Ishmael said...

Nice commentary.

I can count on one hand the number of times I've been even remotely 'scared' while watching a film (well, at least as an adult). In fact, it's so rare that I've come to not only not expect to be scared, but desire for filmmakers to not even try (Instead, I'd prefer they go for a) creepy, and if not creepy, then b) exciting and funny ala Wes Craven).

And it's not because I don't scare easily. I'm not skittish, but I certainly don't have nerves of steel, either. Rather, I fear it's simply something about the medium that doesn't allow for genuine fear (and honestly, can we blame them? Fear, as you suggest, correlates rather strongly to our sense that perhaps what's going on could actually be real).

Film convey funny very well, drama well, action and sentimentality perhaps better than any other media, etc. but fear, not so well. 'Horror', however, seems to be something sui generis- not quite fear but not not fear. And horror is really the baby of film (Can horror be done in any other media?). And horror is really what I meant when I said above that all I expect from film is either creepiness or Wes Craven-esque fun. "The Shining" is probably both, but is it scary? Exciting, yes, but it never scared me.

What's my point? I think you're dead on when you point out that a big-budget major motion picture fails to do what a low-budget made-for-Discover-Channel 45-minute program can, and that is actually scare me. Why? Because I am liable to believe a documentary before a film that the content of their story is true, that it actually happened. It's as simple and uninspired as that.

All that being, do I enjoy the genre of horror? Well much (when it's well done). To me, some of the most entertaining films have been horror films (Off the top of my head, I'm thinking of "The Shining" and "The Thing"). But are they scary? Not even an iota as scary as visiting the Atco Ghost or those freaky pamphlets I used to encounter on PATCO, cartoon renderings of Hell.

Brian said...

Hello Again Ishmael,

I agree. Horror is a genre that I love but I only love it when it is creepy like LETS SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH and DON'T LOOK NOW(which has an ending if seen in a theater or at home late at night that really makes your blood run cold) or the "splatstick" like "Re-Animator" for fun. What I don't like is horror that attempts to SCARE me with loud noises and sudden cuts. That has only worked once for me in modern times and it was in "EXORCIST 3" which was pretty lame overall. But it had that ONE scene where the Nurse walks out of the hospital room as seen from down the hall and is suddenly followed by whatever-the-hell-it-was wrapped in white sheets and carrying shears. I think it was partly the appearance of the figure that was scary.

Horror is something that does not work well in literary mediums although I find that radio can often trump film in terms of getting the imagination working. SOUND is actually the most important element in making a horror film, choosing just the right sound effects to make the viewer imagine things much stranger than any special effect can conjure. One of the best horror filmmakers ever is David Lynch although no one would dare call him that-I think Lynch has frozen my blood more times than I can count and mostly with sound. Do you remember the SHRIEKING of Laura Palmer in the Red Room scene of the last episode of TWIN PEAKS? Or the sudden appearance of BOB at the foot of the bed? .

I think one of the problems of horror films is their insistence on logical narratives. There's always a third act questioning, "SO, Dr, what exactly ARE werewolves and how do we kill them?" and in American film the monster/demon is always vanquished and order is restored. The very power of the horror film is their ability to capture the feeling of a nightmare not as some fantastical world with fog filters and crazy colors but as though it were REAL the way nightmares really seem. So the best horror films are like documentaries of dreams.
Dreyer's VAMPYR feels this way as does much of NOSFERATU.

The most interesting horror film would get rid of all the conventions. AN AMBIENT FILM if you will. No music score. No "cool" camera angles-replace that with a simple observational framing, sometimes framed badly with characters at the edges of the frame. Virtually no plot-replace plot with an almost boring chronicle of a subjects very real and mundane day to day existence-work, caught in traffic, etc. No characterization, replace that with OBSERVATION like in documentary. All shot with available light, room lamps, etc.

And then SLOWLY, start to bend that reality. Have things being seen at the peripherals, shadowy figures who seem to be watching the character while he sleeps etc...scenes that are halluncinations perhaps but shot in the same way the rest of the m movie is shot with NO inflection of drama-someone trying to break into his home for example...

A mundane nightmare like Kafka.

Could be boring as hell or very disturbing.

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