Alfred Hitchcock: the First Director to Brand Himself (Part 2)

Beyond name or image recognition, there is more that Hitchcock did to build his brand. Before anything else was intentionally accomplished, it was important for Hitchcock to specialize quickly and stick to it. Other than Psycho and The Birds, the rest of Hitch’s films are suspense. And even Psycho and The Birds are suspenseful as well (but skew more towards the horror genre than suspense-thriller. Hitchcock specialized in the art of suspense. And you can learn more about this specific subject by reading the book Suspense with a Camera by Jeffrey Michael “the Hitchcock Whisperer” Bays. Having grown up in the silent film days, Hitchcock took the visual storytelling techniques used in those films and adapted them to “talkies.” Interestingly, while so many were turning visual films (a bit redundant since films should be visual) and including expansive dialogue (on the verge of sounding like a stage play), Hitch embraced the power of silence and minimalist dialogue that was truly an extension of the plot itself. The camera was the unspoken star of the movie.

Hitchcock was not only a master of suspense but was also a master at surrounding himself with talent. A quick glance over his prolific filmography (approx. 50 feature films plus many TV shows) reveals that he almost exclusively worked with the best talent on screen and behind the camera. Princess Grace Kelly, Janet Leigh, Jimmy Stewart, Carry Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Kim Novak, Tippi Hedron, Gregory Peck, and more. Hitchcock worked to forge relationships with the actors he wanted to work with. He made himself out to be someone they wanted to work with too. Of course, his reputation preceded him so many were predisposed to wanting to work with him even before meeting Hitch. This concept is referred to as branding by association. And you and I engage in this practice everyday on social media by following, commenting on, and tagging other users. We hope to be noticed, or we make ourselves someone that other influencers want to engage with. If you do all these actions under your name, then you are building your brand.

Creating engaging content, in which you are specialized, without knowing your audience can end in a lackluster performance. As a former marketing and sales professional, Hitch knew that he needed to identify his target audience to craft a story that would instantly resonate in a call to action (i.e. buying tickets). Through his studies and experience in marketing research and development, he knew how the human imagination worked and what cinematic elements would impact the audience most. Hitch started with the end result he wanted and worked backwards. Researchers call this inductive reasoning. By approaching his films this way, Hitch knew that the elements he chose to use and the method by which to execute them, he would achieve the desired result. The end result points us back to the “specialization’ step in the branding process because Hitch mastered the art of suspense with a camera evident in his ability to achieve it consistently. No one knew his audience better than Hitchcock did.

Although all the steps in Hitch’s branding process are vitally important, one step stands out in particular as perhaps the most important element. Take credit for your work. In no director today–or ever, really–have I witnessed a better and more entertaining example of taking credit for one’s work than Hitchcock. Between his famous cameo appearances and his show running of his title television program, which is largely what is responsible for making him a household name outside of cinephiles and film buffs, Hitchcock injected himself into our theatres and living rooms. And it’s that TV show’s opening that made the nine stroke profile sketch of Hitch world famous. In addition to taking credit for ones own work, there is also a need to allow others to promote you. And that’s where the critics and television hosts come in. Because of Hitch’s sense of humor and his mastery of cinematic storytelling, he was always a crowd favorite. Even though he never won an Academy Award (though, nominated several times), he was bestowed other awards in the US and UK. In fact, he was knighted by the Queen! So, we really should address him as Sir Alfred Hitchcock.

When many writers and directors were going full-talkie after Warner Bros. The Jazz Singer, in order to stand out from the crowd, Hitch made the decision to hold back on dialogue. Sometimes, Hitch would even have extended periods of near silence to place emphasis on the visual aspects of the conflict. Hitch described this practice of holding back on the dialogue, as holding back your cards. Using a poker game analogy, don’t lay all your cards on the table. Hitch desired to add multiple layers of conflict or dramatic irony to each scene. This process layers the story by adding new dimension to the conflict and dramatic irony. Hitchcock made it a point to guide the audience through the story versus telling them what was happening. Practices like this reinforce the idea of the Hitchcock brand.

Hitchcock’s mastery of suspenseful cinematic storytelling is demonstrated through his lack of detail-giving throughout his stories, whether we are talking his films or television shows. This action contributes to just why his films and shows are brilliant! In many ways, Hitch provides opportunities for the audience to figuratively contribute to the dialogue in the films. There is a high degree of anticipation as the audience does throughout the story; and it’s this heightened sense of anticipation that contributes to to engagement factor. Again, it may seem that there are other directors who have also done this, but Hitchcock was the first. And this is part of his brand.

What sets Hitchcock apart from his contemporaries as the first director to brand himself, is the important step of the branding process that requires the content, service, or product creator to elevate the product or service to an art form. We have plenty of examples of this today such as Apple, Lego, Disney, and yes even Michael Bay. Think about it. As soon as I mention Michael Bay, you instantly form an image of his style of motion pictures to mind. Furthermore, you know precisely what you are going to get (and not get) and you’re guaranteed to get more than two hours of explosions, homophobia, over-sexualization of women, lack of coherent plot, car chases and more. In fact, the concept of an explosion is synonymous with Michael Bay; it is his brand, so to speak. Hitchcock accomplished creating his brand decades before Bay. Whether talking about Hitchcock films today or back when they were first-run movies, the general public knew precisely what they were going to get with a Hitchcock film. Interestingly, this is why Psycho was such a big deal because Hitch broke some of his own rules to redefine the American horror film. And it’s this breaking of cinematic rules that made the film a success then and now.

Just because you have a logo, a recognizable name, and a record of successes, that does not mean that you are a brand. It’s like this: just because you have all the ingredients to make that fancy dish you had at that exclusive restaurant, that does not mean you can replicate the dish. You need the recipe that details the order and amounts. That is not unlike becoming a brand in the art and science of motion pictures. Part of being a brand goes beyond the product or service in which you have demonstrated specialization; you have to take all the respective elements of brand building, and then create an experience for the audience. Motion picture director branding is experiential. More than a couple hours of exceptional entertainment, the audience desires greatly to experience the director’s vision. Through his understanding of audience, Hitchcock knew how to activate movie goers and create an emotional connection between his name and image and what they desire for the best cinematic experience possible.

While the knowledge for motion picture producers and directors to use logos, color pallet, typography, iconography, design, and imagery strategically was not new with Hitchcock, he was the first director in Hollywood to combine the power of all those elements and the others that have been mentioned in this essay. Separately, each of the aforementioned elements can be influential tools; but combined, they are extremely powerful for developing a brand.

PART 1

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Alfred Hitchcock: the First Director to Brand Himself (Part 1)

More than an instantly recognizable silhouette. Before the idea of a director branding him or herself became as common a goal as it is today, Alfred Hitchcock pioneered the very concept of a director developing a brand that would instantly be recognizable by millions. Not only was Hitch the Master of Suspense, and still is, but he was also a master of marketing. Unknown to many, Hitchcock worked in sales and marketing before he became one of, if not the, most recognizable name in cinematic history. Between his experience in marketing and with silent filmmaking, he was a master of captivating visual storytelling way before his most well known works of cinema. I teach media and screenwriting at the University of Tampa, and I’ve often told my students that writing a compelling, memorable, effective thirty-second commercial can be more difficult than writing a two-hour film. I realize that illustration overly simplifies the respective concepts; however, the idea is that if you can proficiently tell an intriguing or impactful story in thirty-seconds, then you can proficiently write a two-hour movie. Taking what worked well in advertising and marketing, and adapting it to a cinematic diegetic structure, Hitchcock was able to capitalize on his penchant for visual storytelling and ability to prompt desired physiological and emotional responses from the audience. The American Marketing Association defines a brand as “a name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” The fact that Hitch’s name and silhouette have instant meaning, definition attached to them, is evidence enough that he was a master of branding.

Prior to understanding just how Hitchcock became the first director to brand himself, it is paramount to understand how a brand–more specifically brand recognition–comes to exist in the first place. A simplistic method of understanding what defines a brand takes the form of a relationship between an image (or idea) and the individual. Relationship is key. There is an emotion attached to the relationship between the image and the products or services that it represents; moreover, this relationship is not without a practical component such as cozy fur-lined boots or an automobile with consistent impeccable quality. By extension, the relationship between an individual and a brand can create a sense of importance, safety, or class. Once a relationship is formed, then the individual experiences both physiological and emotional reactions to the sight or sound of the image or idea. Think of that feeling you get when you see the Disney castle or hear “Wish Upon a Star.” Or perhaps, imagine how you feel or react when you see a BMW or wear a Rolex. These are iconic brands that mean something to many individuals. The mere exposure to the sight, sound, or message will prompt a comprehensive response within the mind and body. As the maxim goes, “imitation is the highest form of flattery;” therefore a quality, successful product or service will be copied but never fully replicated because there is always a secret ingredient that makes the original unique. In addition to the aforementioned, when an image or idea becomes a recognizable brand, then there is a power endowed upon that image that gives that company (that owns the image, product, or service) a kind of soft power that cannot easily be quantified but it’s quite real and figuratively measurable.

Not unlike Rolex, BMW, and Disney, Alfred Hitchcock was and is also a brand–and a powerful one at that. He was the first director to become a brand; and since then, others have tried to brand themselves as well. Some with success and others with defeat. One of the keys to Hitchcock’s ability to combine the words of marketing and filmmaking in order to not only develop a reputation but become a brand, Hitchcock recognized early in his career (especially after coming to the United States) the importance of promoting himself–his actual image–in conjunction with the promotion of a particular film. He demonstrated a clearly intentional desire to ensure that his name was at the forefront of the conscious of the American public. When a particular director, who consistently delivers quality or groundbreaking films, links the outstanding performance of the films with his or her image, then the mere sight of or name of that director carries priceless value. Following the breakup of the studio system over the late 1940s through the 50s, there arose an increased opportunity for to claim authorship of a motion picture. Prior to the decentralization of Hollywood, most movies were completely packaged by the Studio/distribution company, with the director playing a minor role. With the new opportunities to connect a motion picture to the director during marketing, it paved the way for directors to advance their own careers as well as the success of the movie. As studio authorship decreased, individual (director or producer) authorship increased!

According to Janet Staiger in her essay Creating the Brand: the Hitchcock Touch, she outlines four significant criterion that apply to image or brand as it relates to showbusiness. (1) the character persona that is created by selection of performances in film, tv, web media, etc (2) the performer (acting ability) in those mediums (3) the worker/laborer that develops from what is learned about the individual’s professional life in respect to business dealings and (4) the private persona that derives from the individual’s off-camera personal life. Whereas these criteria are more aligned with an actor or actress, these elements can be applied, by extension, to understanding Hitchcock as a brand. Hitchcock’s character can be seen through his genre selection–the types of films that a director authors. Think of his genre selection as the equivalent of the types of characters an actor or actress chooses to play. We recognize the performer element in Hitchcock’s consistent ability to direct the motion pictures with incredible precision and innovate programming for then-new mediums like television. Hitch’s worker/laborer attribute is found in what we know about his behind-the-scenes work on set and in the business offices. Most famously is his near-departure from Paramount when he went to make Psycho, for which they earmarked zero funding. He self-financed the iconic film and used his Alfred Hitchcock Presents crew. Passion, determination, and commitment witnessed. In terms of his private persona, Hitch was famously a practical joker and a family man. In fact, his daughter appeared in multiple episodes of Presents. All these elements together combine to create Hitchcock’s image.

But there is more to branding oneself than crafting an figurative or metaphysical image. There is the physical image that is recognized by the naked eye. After injecting himself into film social circles comprised of well-established directors, screenwriters, and even critics and journalists, he had a well-known name. And even though a name can carry power, it needs a tangible representation. Although one may assess that Hitchcock came up with that trademark minimalistic nine stroke silhouette, the inspiration came from a series of director sketches that appeared in The Motion Picture Studio journal in 1923. There, we have a group of then and now famous directors with Hitch appearing sideways with his famous belly out and hands in his pockets. By the 1930, Hitchcock was being heralded as a master of suspense. And that description of Hitch’s work continued until the moniker stuck in perpetuity.

In addition to the soon-to-be-moniker, film magazines took notice of his notable weight. By the late 1930s, it is said that Hitch already weighed in excess of 300lbs. As the maxim goes, “there is no bad publicity,” and that can definitely be witnessed in how Hitch’s brand continued to develop during his early days in America. The constant articles about his weight, the unprecedented success of his films, his cameos in those films, and sketched of Hitch, all those elements together created Hitch’s image. You can very much liken the evolution of the Hitchcock figurative image and physical logo to the evolution of Walt Disney’s image and either the Mickey ears or castle logo. Whereas the content of the motion pictures that both produced/directed respectively are quite different, they share one important element in common. They both injected themselves into the production and marketing of their work as much as possible. Although Walt Disney made himself into a brand (most solidly after Snow White), it was Hitchcock who was the pioneer in the very idea of a director creating his (or her) recognizable brand. In many ways, Walt follow Hitch’s direction to make his brand. But where did the famous nine stroke sketch come from? Well, according to author Robert Kapsis in his book Hitchcock: the Making of a Reputation, he drew the sketch himself in 1927 for the purpose of making it into a gift for his friends and colleagues. He created a wooden jigsaw puzzle with the iconic image an placed it in a small linen bag. I cannot think of anything more Hitchcock. This parallels how Hitch injected himself into his cinematic work both in the story itself, as a cameo, and in the marketing of his films.

Hitchcock knew that to create a brand–as everything he has accomplished for this result has been completely intentional–he needed to make a connection between his films and himself, and then himself to his name, and his name to the abstract profile. Then when someone sees the logo, they are immediately predisposed to feeling a certain way about Hitch and his films. It’s a bi-directional highway, so to speak.

Part 2

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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“Searching” Spoiler-Free Full Review

Remarkably spellbinding! Searching takes the concept of “screen life” movies to impeccable levels. Although the concept of a film relying entirely on computer screens is not new, this is the first time that it has been executed perfectly. The first wide-release film to take this approach was 2015’s Unfriended, and it was quite the pioneer in its approach to essentially adapting Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, with the end result being pretty good. The following films to take the approach, including the more recent Unfriended: Dark Web, failed to tell a coherent story. Learning from the successes and failures of this cinematic concept of the past “computer screen” films, writer-director Aneesh Chaganty, along with co-writer/producer Sev Ohanian, crafts a suspenseful thriller that truly understands the power of the internet and how it enables and affects our actions. There is genuine emotion felt in this film. You will truly care about the lead characters and remain hooked for the entire film. Chaganty seems to have taken a page right out of the Alfred Hitchcock playbook for suspenseful storytelling that relies upon character development, twists of the everyday, and only use on-screen violence or graphic details to supplement the story. This tension-filled voyeuristic crime drama is successfully created–not through viruses, the supernatural, dark web or illegal activities–but through the mundane things we do everyday. Perhaps this film uses modern technologies to tell the story, but the soul of this film is brilliant old-fashioned suspense. And that solid foundation is why this film will do incredibly well.

Following the tragic death of wife and mother Pam, David (John Cho) and his daughter Margot are forced to move on with their lives, doing their best to cope with the loss of their loved one. Over the couple of years since his wife’s death, David and his daughter have drifted apart but still maintain a relationship. Loss of a mother and wife has a major impact upon a family. After Margot fails to return home after a study group session at a classmate’s house and repeated unreturned texts and phone calls, David fears that something terrible has happened to his daughter. When another classmate informs David that Margot never showed for a trip on which she was invited, David reports her as missing to the police. Detective Vick (Debra Messing) heads up the investigation into the whereabouts of Margot that immediately leads nowhere. Lead after lead leads the investigation to believe that Margot may have simply ran away. Convinced that his daughter did not run away, because of so many elements of the investigation not adding up, David turns to the one piece of evidence that was initially overlooked by the police, Margot’s laptop. Following the cookie crumbs left in the seemingly mundane websites visited by Margot, David begins to connect the dots that will hopefully lead him to what happened to his daughter.

No spoilers here. In fact, I urge those who have seen it to NOT spoil it for everyone else. In a manner of speaking, this film feels very much like Psycho must’ve felt when it was released. Hitchcock mandated that no one be allowed to enter the auditorium after the movie began; and furthermore, he insisted on an adherence to strict show times. In fact, much of how our modern cineplexes are run today are a product, in part, by the release of Psycho. The closest I will get to spoiling is informing you that there is an amazing twist ending. Just when you think the story is coming to a close, watch out! Taking what Unfriended (the original, not crappy indirect sequel) did well, and learning from what Dark Web failed to do, Chaganty’s Searching provides audiences with a fantastic experience visually, and anchors the plot with strategic, effective emotional beats.

The story is just as much emotional as it is visual. Possibly even more emotionally and psychologically-driven than the images the frame can capture. Whereas other films that rely upon what we do on our computers fail to have genuine, authentic characters, Searching depicts everyday, real life people doing what millions of others do. How often have many of us been able to talk to complete strangers about something that we are uncomfortable talking to our family or closest friends about? That is precisely what Margot does. Providing additional commentary on the mediation of society through digital media, Chaganty highlights our digital selves versus our actual selves. This is evident in the healthy social life Margot was leading her dad to believe she was experiencing; when in actuality, she was quite alone and simply focussed on school work and little else. David realizes that he didn’t know his daughter at all.

Previous “computer screen” concept movies pretty much involved never leaving the primary computer screen–easily becoming visually exhausting. Chaganty’s thriller chooses to switch from iMac, to iPhone, to PC (with Windows XP), to online news footage. These changes prohibit the setting from ever becoming too familiar or boring. The minor changes keep the senses heightened. Hitchcock earned his moniker by consistently delivering suspenseful cinematic excellence; and this suspense was executed with visual precision coupled with strong emotion. Chaganty very much patterns his modern suspenseful crime drama after the exemplary work of Hitchcock. Different from previous films using real-time on a computer to allow the plot to unfold, this film takes place over a week–closer to more traditional “movie time.” One may be inclined to conclude that the tension feel less intense because of not watching the plot unfold in real time, but that is definitely not true with Searching.

From the moment Margot’s missed facetime and phone calls fail to waken her father to the heart-pounding conclusion, the tension is in high gear. Hitchcock describes suspense as the having to do with the audience having sympathy for the characters and an intense need for something dramatic or shocking to happen. While the audience does not want something bad to happen to the lead characters, they are still at the movie in hopes that something terrible happens. Ironic, isn’t’ it? Much like Hitch delivered suspense through information, Chaganty does the very much the same with Searching. Another way Hitch delivered and ensured a suspenseful atmosphere in his films was having two important events happing concurrently. With David and Vick very much leading their own investigations respectively, we often experience this dichotomy. And Hitch is certainly famous for his twits, and this film contains some fantastic red herrings and twists to the tension-filled plot.

Presently in a limited release, with the film opening everywhere August 31st, Searching is a phenomenal whodunit build upon effective suspense and visceral tension. You will be glued to the plot and feel the emotional rollercoaster experienced by David as he searches for his daughter. Chaganty has proven himself through demonstrable evidence that he understands suspenseful storytelling. Because the film exists in the everyday world we live in, it may get you thinking twice about the degree to which your own life is mediated by technology. The social commentary in the movie also reminds us to be ever vigilant who we correspond with through live video and chats. For you never know to whim you are really speaking.

If you’ve enjoyed this article, be sure to check out all my past ones! You can search for a film by title to see if I’ve written on it. Don’t forget to follow my blog by clicking the blue button in the upper left!

A24’s “Hereditary” (2018) horror film review

Arthouse meets mainstream in this outstanding horror film! This terrifyingly good nightmare will haunt you long after you leave the theatre. After all the hype A24’s latest generated out of the Overlook Film Festival, many were wondering if it could live up to the accolades. Suffice it to say, it did all that and more. It’s been characterized by many as The Exorcist for a new generation, and rightly so. In fact, elements of the plot, setting, and characters can be likened to not only The Exorcist, but The Shining and The Witch as well. When you have a film that’s being compared to two of the pioneering films in supernatural horror and a popular modern one, then you know the film is exceptional. Relying chiefly upon an overwhelming sense of dread from the onset and intense emotional agony, Hereditary will assault your mind and eyes with that which cannot be unseen or unfelt. Wrier-director Ari Aster’s thrilling masterpiece will likely join the canon along side other great horror films as it is one that pushes the boundaries of what a horror film can do. Unsettling beyond measure, this is the type of film that leaves a lasting impression upon the minds and eyes of the audience. Furthermore, the danger of describing this film in too much detail can mitigate the phenomenal experience that should be this film. Not for the faint of heart, I suggest taking someone along with you to watch this amazing horror film unless you want to brave the disturbing narrative alone.

Following the death of not so beloved Ellen Leigh, her daughter Annie Graham’s family begins to uncover cryptic secrets of a bizarre and terrifying nature. Annie’s ancestry contains generations of psycho-social disorders that begin to point to a sinister family heritage. When a tragic death befalls the Graham family, the beautiful mountain home turns into a house of nightmares. The deeper Annie goes into the grim history of her family, the more she unravels a sinister secret that will test the limits of human psychology and just how far one will go to protect loved ones while remaining sane. When the search for answers peals back the vein between the physical and supernatural worlds, Annie learns that her family’s inherited an insidious fate of the darkest of natures.

Hereditary delivers a new kind of horror, or should I say a classical approach to the post-modern horror experience. Classical in the sense that it relies upon the auteurist craft of visual storytelling, complex characters, and an overwhelming sense of dread brought on my the score and cinematography to assault your mind, ears, and eyes instead of simply terrifying the eyes. Instead of including cheap jump scares, prolific gore, blood soaked murders, or terrifying images, Hereditary transfers the horror from the screen into the minds of the audience. When a horror film gets into the mind of the audience, that is truly where the horror lies. What isn’t said, heard, or seen is far more powerful than what can be seen with the naked eye. Clearly the suspenseful nature of the film is taken out of the Hitchcock playbook while the horror craft is inspired by the Kubrick (The Shining) and Friedkin (The Exorcist) approaches. Audience are kept on edge and pleasurably uncomfortable  (Carol Clover’s pleasurable unpleasure theory) by sequences of events that cannot be completely discerned as being real or figments of the Graham family imagination, given the heritage of mental illness. You will be terrified by, not only the uncanny events and sinister secrets of the film, but the dark family psychodrama with characters suffering from internal torment.

Toni Collette’s captivating, terrifying performance as Annie Graham is one that screams Oscar contender. We will be hard-pressed to encounter another more compelling and gritty performance the rest of the year. Although horror has always been popular and bankable, it has largely been passed over by The Academy until recent years with major wins by Get OutThe Shape of Water, and even Ex Machina’s visual effects. The genre that can trace its cinematic roots back to the dawn of indie and commercial motion pictures is finally being embraced at the Academy and Golden Globe awards. There are no shortage of reasons why critics and fans are praising everything about Hereditary. What’s there not to like??? There is little doubt that Collette’s portrayal of a tortured daughter and reluctant mother will be the most most exceptional performances of a female actor this year. Whether talking horror or other genres, the role of Annie Graham will go down in the record books as one of the most gut-wrenching characters of contemporary cinema. Her command performance is spellbinding as you get forcibly sucked into this twisted world of a family-heirloom evil that is showered by outstanding remarks by critics and fans across the spectrum. With landmark wins for the horror genre for actor, actress, picture, and more, it’s entirely possible that we got a look at one of the films that will earn many nominations and even some wins at the next award season.

It’s important to note that this isn’t simply a “scary movie.” Scary horror is simple to achieve; sheer terror, nightmare-inducing horror is difficult to create. The former is mostly concerned with the moment; include a jump scare, some violent gore, or a creepy figure. Whereas with the latter, the writer/director is pre-occupied with creating a simple plot, complex characters, and an atmosphere filled with dread to successfully carry the film from beginning to end. Hereditary is frightening on every level. To Hereditary’s credit, it delivers what audiences want plus subverting the expectations of the genre to generate true primal fear in the experience of this horror masterpiece. It’s far too easy for for a writer/director of a horror film to give audiences what they want to see. The danger in that approach is delivering a film that only has temporary value. Like getting a sugar-rush for energy versus proper nutrition. The effects of the “scare” provide nothing after the shallow energy has been used. Shallow versus depth. On the opposite end of the spectrum. a horror film that is too deep often fails to deliver what general audiences want to see and only cinephiles, like yours truly, find appreciation in the story. Hereditary contains the kind of masterfully crafted visceral imagery, emotional agony, and psychological trauma that creates a powerful, penetrating horrific experience that will give this film an evergreen life.

Not for the timid, this film will test the limits of your imagination and ability to sleep without fear of nightmares. Brilliantly frightening, this motion picture harnesses the power of how to effectively impact the mind and body of the audience. From moments of sheer terror to tormented souls caught in a dark family psychodrama, throw in a healthy dose of ominous evil and you have a don’t-miss cinematic experience. Exceptional characters, plot, a nightmarish score and more, give this film reachability and material to discuss in future film studies classes.

“Jurassic Park” (1993), Sci-Fi Horror NOT Action-Adventure

In honor of Jurassic Park‘s 25th Anniversary, I want to revisit why the film works so incredibly well, and never gets old. Just like Dr. Alan Grant states at the beginning of the film, “raptors have far more in common with present day birds than they do with reptiles,” that same analogy can be drawn with the original Jurassic Park and its proximity to horror compared to action-adventure. Borrowing from Dr. Grant, the original Jurassic Park has far more in common with scifi-horror than it does with action-adventure, hence why it has held up over the years and continues to be a favorite film for many cinephiles and fans alike. While all the sequels, including Jurassic World are far more action-adventure than the original, Jurassic Park can be likened to Ridley Scott’s Alien. The latter is a quintessential space scifi-horror with action-adventure sequels just like the former. And like Jurassic Park, the original Alien is considered far superior to that of the sequels. But why is this? There are many reasons from script to director to cinematography; but at the end of the day, it’s the fact that both these critically acclaimed and admired films have their respective roots in the American horror film and not action-adventure movies. More so than any other genre, horror is (1) uniquely American and (2) the most time tested, given it can trace its roots back to the 1890s and was perfected by Universal Pictures in the 1920s and 30s.

So what separates Jurassic Park from the sequels? Both have life-threatening dinosaurs, both have action, both have adventure, etc. But, only the original carries with it social commentary, rich subtext, and well-developed themes told through a brilliant combination of horrific frights and believable sciences taking place within a world of fiction grounded in reality. Furthermore, the focus in both Jurassic Park and Alien is largely on the drama between the characters and the oppositional forces in the film. The sequels in both franchises place far less emphasis on well-developed conflict and drama, and instead sacrifice those golden elements of cinematic storytelling for high-concept CGI-filled adventure movies with lots of dinosaurs or aliens. The proliferation of gimmicks and effects is often used to hide a weak story. Fortunately, Jurassic Park provides audiences with a strong plot told through exceptional cinematic storytelling.

Jurassic Park‘s screenplay benefitted from being penned by the award-winning author Michael Crichton who also wrote the novel by the same name. Often times, when the author of the novel also writes the screenplay, the screenplay forms a stronger foundation upon which the technical elements can be build. A more recent example of a brilliant screenplay adaptation of a novel is Gone Girl, the author of the novel was the screenwriter. Although a screenplay is visually driven whereas a novel is internally driven, when a novelist with a penchant for visual storytelling writes the screenplay for the movie adaptation, the screenplay tends to contain better developed characters, strong subtext, effective conflict, and excellent dialogue. Crichton created incredibly memorable characters who each spoke with their own voice. Casting the right actors to portray the characters is obviously important–and the cast for Jurassic Park is exemplary–but even before the actor steps into the character’s shoes, the character has to be created. Each character in Jurassic Park possesses unique traits, strengths, weaknesses, dialect, and behaviors. Instead of the conflict being arbitrary, the conflict develops through the interpersonal relationships between the characters and the relationship between the characters and the opposition–human and nature.

I was in elementary school when the movie hit theatres in the summer of 1993; and although under 13, my parents allowed me to go see the movie. It was my first PG-13 film, and what an experience! Not unlike Dr. Grant’s reaction to his first encounter with a dinosaur in the film, my reaction to Spielberg’s masterpiece was eyes-wide-open, mouth gaping wide, and racing endorphins. And then comes the macabre contrast in Acts II and III. “Ooo, ahh–that’s how it begins, and then there’s running and screaming” (Dr. Ian Malcolm, The Lost World). Aptly stated. The opening scene hooks the audience with a disaster, but does not reveal much about the dinosaur in the secured transport–brilliant. Because this scene did not show a dinosaur, the audience’s curiosity is pricked which creates an eagerness to see a dinosaur and a degree of nervousness or apprehension accompanying that curiosity. We wanted to see more. If you’re familiar with Hitchcock’s bomb theory, he states “you must never let the bomb go off.” More than simply shock audiences with the death of that employee at the beginning of the movie, this scene serves as information more than a glimpse at that which would be horrific in real life. This delay of seeing a dinosaur forces the audiences to pay more attention to the characters, dialogue, and conflict than looking for the next dino. Furthermore, the delay in seeing a dinosaur, perfectly setup audiences for the grand reveal on the way from the helipad to the Visitors Center. Interestingly, if you add up all the screen time that dinosaurs receive in the film, you’ll find that they are only on screen for about 20-minutes. Just like Hitchcock transferred the terror from the screen into the minds of the audience after the Psycho “shower scene,” Crichton and Spielberg did the same with Jurassic Park.

It’s the soft introduction to the man-made dinosaurs that makes the horror of the dinosaurs feel so much more intense later on in the film–and make you scream! In terms of the type of science-fiction horror film Jurassic Park could be classified as, it shares many commonalities with man vs nature and man vs technology horror films. Crichton is known for his believable science within his works of fiction. It is obvious that genetics and paleontology were researched enough to use real, hard science to inspire a fictional science that feels just out of reach of the current trends in the science, technology, and engineering fields. Pair that with horror, and you have a solid cinematic film. The brilliance of horror films is how they can creatively comment on or provide a different perfective on a anthropological or psychological observation; moreover, it can be helpful when exploring philosophical questions. And these topics are visually explored through the movie and externalize the themes. One area that separates popcorn action-adventure movies from horror films is the cultural significance of the subtext and themes. Typically, action adventure movies do not carry with them social commentary nor significantly pull on our emotions and tap into our most primal fears. Jurassic Park contains all of this. There is something about horror films that beckons the audiences to find enjoyment in, that which in real life, would not be enjoyable—and not only see it once, but repeat it. And furthermore, find the unfamiliar and grotesque fascinating to behold as what should remain hidden comes to light. Certainly the dinosaurs in the movie should have remained “extinct,” but were brought back to life and engaged in violence in which we find enjoyment. 

Some of the themes found in Jurassic Park that are told through the visceral horror and tense dramatic moments are: man vs nature, foolishness and folly, greed, wisdom vs knowledge, man vs technology, and parenting. Why don’t the Jurassic films have the chache that the original does? You try to find to find rich themes such as these in the subsequent films. They don’t exist. Why? Because it is far more difficult to explore what it means to be human and social constructs in a scifi action movie than in scifi horror. An action movie would be ill-equipped to tackle questions of a philosophical nature because the focus is largely on the action itself and not necessarily the characters, and almost never the subtext and theme. For an action film to delve into that which causes the film to take on an intellectual nature, it would lose the attention of those who simply want a good popcorn movie. Don’t get me wrong, there are excellent action-adventure movies that contribute to the world of cinema in exceptional ways. Indiana Jones Raiders, Doom, and Last Crusade do that. Obviously, the inability to reconcile nature’s resistance to control is one of the most important themes of Jurassic Park. Dr. Ian Malcolm tells the group that “life finds a way,” and it immediately becomes the film’s mantra (and a quotable line), true in every demonstrable, measurable way; the dinosaurs survive outside their design and engineering, the lost children survive with the help of a kid-averted paleontologist who discovers his parental side, humanity survives despite meddling in the natural order of things by playing God because that’s what we do–we survive. Every character in the film either understands or is reminded of this–some of them, by force when it’s too late–through the course of events.

Jurassic Park uses horror film techniques in a brilliant fashion to force its audience into considering the larger philosophical questions mentioned in the previous paragraph. It reinforces those questions with clever parallels: Dr Grant’s way of paleontology is about to go “extinct” due to the rise of computer technology (the line “don’t you mean extinct” came from a comment behind-the-scenes regarding CGI encroaching upon animatronics, puppetry, and special effects); the power of the natural world is exponentially magnified when the park’s technology failure is combined with a disastrous tropical storm; money causes literally every ill in the film, even when it is being used for supposedly admirable purposes; and “you were so pre-occupied with whether or not you could, you didn’t stop to think if you should.” The inability to reconcile nature’s resistance to control is one of the most important themes of the film, of course. Ian Malcolm tells the group that “life finds a way,” and it abruptly becomes the tale’s rallying cry, true in every conceivable way; the dinosaurs survive outside their engineering, the lost children survive with the help of a paleontologist who discovers his paternal side, humanity survives despite its meddling because it’s what we do. Every character in the film either understands this, or is made to by the course of events.

Beyond exploring themes, it’s the intent of the film that determines whether is a thriller (suspense) or horror film. The films speak for themselves. If the intent is to horrify, then it’s a horror film; if the intent is to thrill, then it is a thriller. In all fairness, Jurassic Park is borderline; but it’s the level of shock, fear, and dread that may just be enough to tip the scale toward horror instead of thriller, and certainly evidence enough to prove that it is NOT simply a dark action-adventure movie. Much like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Scott’s Alien, Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is also an intellectual film. Whereas an action-adventure movie would have provided audiences with a few minutes collectively of some surface-level chit-chat above ethics in order to technically give the film a theme, Jurassic Park provides audiences with an entire film about ethics that will have them talking about the various dilemmas and challenges facing the characters throughout the film. It’s brilliant! And quite the rarity these days. The hand of Spielberg’s penchant for horror (Jaws and Poltergeist) is seen in Jurassic Park from requesting that Crichton rewrite the original screenplay to be more cinematic and less internally driven because Spielberg desired to take the novel and adapt it to screen as a Jaws on land. If his intent was to make a sequel to Jaws, then we have to conclude that his intention was to horrify audiences in some measurable amount.

With a film as dynamic as Jurassic Park, it may be nearly impossible to prove that it is a horror film at its roots; but, the body of information provided in this article help to support the thesis that it is a horror film based upon the intention, conflict, themes, and visceral terror. “Well, there is it.”

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

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