Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Reflections: Scare Tactics

A few years ago I bought tickets for a festival screening of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) in Toronto. This was my first chance to see a silent film outside my home and I was pumped for it. Things looked even better once I got to the theatre and saw every seat occupied. How nice that felt, given how old the film is and how many other options those film-goers had, especially that week.

Nice? Yeah. The audience laughed all the way through it. What an irritating time I had, sitting there for more than an hour while several hundred audience members mocked a film I love. This was not my first crack at Nosferatu; I’d seen it two or three times before. I even owned it on tape. I thought it was a great horror film, and here were these rubes making fun of it.

It felt right to be a snob that night. But you have to give up snobbery to truly appreciate art, and in so doing, you’ll face some harsh truths. Among them is this one: if audiences laugh at a film, it isn’t scary.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the film is bad. A film can succeed on some level while failing to achieve its aim. However, ‘funny’ seems so far from ‘scary’ that you have to wonder what’s gone wrong with Murnau’s vampire flick over these last 87 years, or what’s gone wrong with its viewers. Since that evening of laughter, I’ve tried to understand why most of the audience saw something different than I did.

Silent horror’s most lasting contributions seem to be those produced, or inspired by, the German Expressionist movement of the 1920s. The Expressionist’s chief purpose was to produce a mood, usually a creepy and unsettling mood, and they’d enlist a film’s full resources to do it. Expressionist films are notable for bizarre characters, intense contrasts of light and dark, ghoulish plots and stylized settings, often deliberately artificial looking.

Travelling a winding road in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

These movies also have their share of fiends and monsters, but there’s no Jason’s, Freddy’s, or killers appearing in the bathroom mirror. That’s a good thing. ‘Gotcha’ moments work best in films with a relatively normal protagonist, existing in a relatively normal world, aside from the immortal killer, bodysnatcher, etc. One of the things that makes Halloween (1978) and its ilk so effective is the assertion that average environments can house, or even hide, horrible things. If we cannot trust the mundane, then we’re really in trouble.

The Expressionist horrors have no mundane. Their physical environments are unfamiliar and off-putting. Their protagonists can be as weird as their monsters—for example, I’ve always considered the vampire in Nosferatu less scary than the hero’s wife, who seems disengaged and sexually ambiguous even before she’s possessed by the Count. If she’s the core of our hero’s home life, what must he really be like? Not much like us, that’s for sure.

If we try to relate to these characters, they'll lose us. I can’t think of any silent horror character that actually inspired me to fear for his or her safety—mostly I’ve observed them at a distance, playing their own, weird parts. But the absence of visceral terror creates a hole that can be filled by the imagination. Indeed, the more we think about these movies, the creepier they get. Distorted images of people and objects are, after all, reflections of the feelings we’ve impressed upon them. What does this say about us? How does this challenge our beliefs? Given the time to digest what we've observed, we have to admit that if these movies looked more realistic, they’d be less disturbing. Our detachment from the world is more comforting than we realize.

Nosferatu's Nina Hutter (Greta Schroder) could be pretty scary herself.

Silent horrors and comedies aren’t that different in this respect. In slapstick comedies, we’re entertained by the inventiveness comedians apply to their physical environments—anything can be a gag, so really, nothing is normal. In silent horrors, nothing seems normal to begin with, including the people the movie presents as normal, so we feel ill-at-ease. If we chose to follow this film, we can count on no safe harbours.

If you want to see a modern film that captures this spirit, watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Yeah, I said it. This movie minimizes suspense (the fuel of the ‘gotcha’) and provides us with a cast of teenagers nearly as out-to-lunch as the killer family. Decay, death and depravity rule every scene, from the opening shot until the last. Nothing, ever, feels right.

Someone once told me Texas Chainsaw Massacre was too goofy to be frightening. She’d seen it with a bunch of friends in her residence common room. Texas Chainsaw Massacre scared the shit out of me when I first saw it—at home, by myself, in the dark. We saw the same movie, but I think she saw it the wrong way.

Well, I certainly didn’t see Nosferatu the wrong way. I saw it in public, in a theatre, accompanied by (I’m told) the original score. Maybe my first experience of seeing the movie gave me an advantage that night. When I first saw Nosferatu—at home, by myself, in the dark, with organ notes pulsing through every scene—there was no suggestion of humour.

In defense of those who laughed, I now understand how mannered acting and a celebratory festival atmosphere could kill the mood. But most of all, I blame that score. It was too punchy and comic. If this was the music Murnau wanted, I’m not sure what reaction he was going for. What I do know is that silent horror films build universes of profound and disturbing images, into which viewers must immerse themselves. Each universe is a fragile thing. Distractions destroy them, turning scary into funny; then the movies become jokes.

Music can make an old film feel fresh again. Here’s how it’s done.


  1. Audience laughter:

    Several years ago, when the only way to see these films was on 16mm, a college asked me to show Lon Chaney in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.

    "Don't be upset but these kids are going to laugh all the way through it," the instructors told me when I got there.

    "Not today," I replied.

    Then I introduced the film.

    I told them how Lon Chaney, the star of the film, had parents who were deaf mutes. As a result he had learned pantomime so he could communicate with them.

    I explained that at that time anyone who had any kind of thing that set them apart, such as being left-handed (from which comes the word "sinister"), having a shock of white through our hair, or our eyebrows meet over our nose or being deaf or mute or both, being homosexual or... was looked at as a child of the devil.

    As a result Lon Chaney grew up knowing what it is like to be viewed by people as a monster.

    Then I told them the back story of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA; how Erik had been born with a face so hideous his mother made him wear a mask from birth.

    I added that while most people see The Phantom as the monster I see the girl as the one without a soul.

    The Phantom hears in her voice a quality no one else discerns. He helps her; becomes her teacher (at no cost to her) and develops the gift that he, alone, knew was in her.

    She imagines the face behind the mask to be as beautiful as the soul that is guiding her.

    Despite all warnings (brought on by The Phantom's painful awareness of the effect of his deformity) she rips off the mask.

    When she sees his face, it is, "Goodbye, honey and I am keeping the money."

    "This film," I ended, "is the story of everyone of us who has ever had our heart broken. I created the music score you will hear with it. That is how I have presented it."

    The lights went down.

    I began the film.

    There was not a single wrong response heard during its course.

    No mocking laughter.

    Just the pure silence of an enraptured audience.

    There were five hundred teenagers in that audience.

    When the film ended they rose as one body and applauded for nearly ten minutes.

    As they walked by me on the way out they stopped to thank me for what I had said while adding they had just had the greatest film experience of their lives.

    Said their teachers, "They have never done that before. I wonder why they are doing it now."

  2. Sounds like a positive evening--too bad the Nosferatu program couldn't have had even a minute of preamble to set things up so well.

    We take for granted the motivations of modern actors--maybe part of the problem is that we don't do the same for actors of the past?