To say I love Hitchcock would be a nearly criminal understatement. My fascination with and admiration for his films and his directing skill border on worshipful awe.
I even have a tattoo to prove it.
Naturally, when Hitchcock/Truffaut hit Naro Expanded Cinema, I ran to see it. It’s the film of Truffaut’s book, Hitchcock, nearly 370 art book sized pages covering the 50 hours of interviews Truffaut did with Hitchcock. After the film, I ordered a copy.
Required reading, class.
Seriously. If you’re interested in Hitchcock, filmmaking, cinema, or just the creation of suspense and fear on screen, drop everything right now and order a copy.
And don’t get it from the library. Get your own so you can underline, highlight, make notes.
Go. I’ll wait.
Right. Anyway. Like any such tome, Hitchcock is replete with the secrets of a master. I don’t want to rob anyone of the chance to discover this for him or herself, so I’ll focus on what, for me, was the big A-Ha Moment, right there at the bottom of page 316.
The stronger the evil, the stronger the film.
Simple. But in that simplicity is the reason why, in my eyes, many horror movies fall flat. It’s why something creatureless like Requiem For A Dream is infinitely more terrifying than most iterations of Jason. Why, on page and screen, The Shining worked, and Cujo didn’t. Why Alien is scarier than Prophecy.
When the evil isn’t strong enough, it’s not compelling. If there’s a creature or killer, you end up with something that merely looks threatening and/or gross. It’s horror (reaction) versus terror (anticipation).
A good example is the much touted Pumpkinhead.
We know exactly why Pumpkinhead has come. He was summoned. For vengeance. Rightly so I might add. Vengeance can also be claimed for the first Friday The 13th. This is one of the ironies of horror. Too much information undermines the strength of evil. Similarly, we know why/how Chucky, Freddy, and the Cenobites are all there.
Once you have even a quasi-reasonable explanation for why the evil is there, all that’s left is to sit back and wait for the good guys and/or gals to figure out what to do about it. That’s an entirely different experience than being just as much in the dark as the people on the screen. Now it’s suspense vs. terror.
Take, for example, the aforementioned Cujo. Once we know the dog is rabid, we wait to see how the events unfold. Ultimately we have a pretty self-satisfied Hey, my dog’s vaccinated or I just have a hamster sense of safety. Can’t happen here, right? Incidentally, Dead Alive, though funny as hell, has a similar problem.
But terror? Well, it’s what we don’t know that’s frightening. Rabies is one thing, but let’s look at 28 Days Later. On one hand, another virus. Viruses make people sick. We know that. What we don’t know is how to prevent or cure all of them.
Or take the classic wrong place/wrong time premise. There is never an adequate explanation. You’re someplace you aren’t supposed to be, and the people who are supposed to be there know that.
Before way too many sequels and remakes provided way too much backstory, we had no explanation for the evil in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (nearly bloodless as it is, no matter how many times I see it, it’s still one of the scariest damn movies ever). Those guys were just there. It’s their house. The kids? Trespassers technically
Similar cases can be made for Deliverance. And Rituals.
Ditto Night Of The Living Dead. Vague hints at best as to why this is happening. Something about Venus, a satellite, but the lab coats ultimately don’t know. That said, I have a different problem with why the zombie genre just doesn’t work for me (another story for another time).
Or The Bad Seed. Sure, there’s a melodramatic subplot involving heredity, but with no clear victors in the nature/nurture debate, genetics is still a non-explanation.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the impetus of this entire discussion. One clear example is The Birds. There isn’t even an attempt to pretend to provide so much as the appearance of an explanation. And it works beautifully.
How then does Norman Bates qualify as strong evil? Timid, anxious, socially awkward. Taken on his own, he doesn’t. Mommy dearest, however. We don’t know why this, uh, relationship developed the way it did. We just see the results. And like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, there is precious little blood to be had. Still scary as hell.
Sometimes evil is so strong it transcends the film itself. In some ways, knowing what’s coming makes it worse. Take the scene in Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock where Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock stabs at Scarlett Johansson’s Janet Leigh. A scene about filming the shower scene. Still sends chills up the spine.
Like the man said, “The stronger the evil, the stronger the film.” Here endeth the lesson.