Against Subtlety

“This is cinema…If you invent it, think it, then find a way to show it… otherwise do something else.”
                – Andrzej Zulawski

I don’t know about you, but things that go bump in the night stopped scaring me when I was about eleven. This thought comes to mind as a result of the plaudits that rained down on The Blair Witch Project: perhaps the most frequently heard compliment was for its non-explicit horror, relying instead on “subtlety” and “atmosphere”. Underlying this praise was often an innate assumption that gory horror is somehow inferior, a quick and dirty fix for less talented film-makers. This elitism is also reflected in yearnings for some mythical golden age of horror, before in-yer-face splatter replaced artistic integrity. But do either of these claims bear close examination?

They do ignore the impact of outside forces: BWP’s decision to go the low-tech, “noises off” route was motivated less by artistic considerations than a budget which couldn’t afford even the most primitive of effects. This also informed the rest of their choices. Too cheap to hire real actors? Make it a pseudo-documentary! Locations too expensive? Film it all in some woods! The movie’s only real asset was an ability to take the limitations of no-resource film-making, and bypass them. Believe me, the directors will not be relying on bunches of tied-together twigs for the rest of their careers.

The same is true for many of the often-touted “classics”, such as the original Cat People. Any attempt to depict the sexual undertones or body horror which are inherent in the storyline would have been forbidden, courtesy of the Hays code. This is therefore not “subtlety”, but censorship. In addition, with the effects available at the time, the transformation would have been derisory (you’re referred to werewolf/Jekyll & Hyde movies from the same era as evidence), and the same applies to The Fly or The Thing – both of which were also remade in the 1980’s to much greater effect, because the modern versions were freed from such technical limitations. Remember: a choice forced upon the artist is no artistic choice at all, and they should not be praised for it.

Old vs. New Cat People
We’ve all made more difficult decisions. Really.

You could have argued a case for understatement, back when the audience’s imagination was indeed far superior to what was on the screen. [This is why Them! works superbly in the first half, but falls apart as soon as you see the “giant ants” with their pipe-cleaner antennae] However, even possessors of the most fertile mind’s eye have to admit that Rob Bottin’s creations in The Thing trump anything they could envisage. And this is part of my case: I don’t go to the cinema to “use my imagination” – if I want that, I can stay home and listen to the radio or read a book rather than pay ten quid up the West End.

Cinema is primarily a visual medium, and if it isn’t used to the maximum extent, you are crippling yourself needlessly. Not that this means you must show everything, just that there needs to be some meat in the sandwich. For example, where would Alien be without the payoff? Ninety minutes of Something Lurking in the Shadows, sure, but the true horror only hits the buffers when you see H.R.Giger’s famous creation, and realise it’s ten times worse than you conceived possible. I admit there are directors who handle special effects better than their actors (James Cameron leads the way there) but this is scarcely new: D.W.Griffiths was a great technician, yet many of his films could fairly be described as empty spectacles on a par with the likes of Armageddon. Give me the works of Cronenberg or Jackson any day.

The problem with current horror films is less gore than innate predictability (although in point of fact this applies to all genres). Even the post-modern Scream and its clones are playing with the same deck, they just turn the cards face up, in a way intended to be ironic but which is, if anything, simply more banal. True horror is fear of the unknown: this “unknown” can be in-your-face, raw and bloody, or preparing to pounce from the shadows – that doesn’t really matter, as long as it plugs into the right mental slot of the viewer. But above all, unknown it must be, rather than the turgidly obvious.