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

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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Alfred Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies (1990-2003)

Since we are gearing up for the highly anticipated Halloween events at theme parks around the country and with Halloween Horror Nights Orlando and Howl-O-Scream Tampa beginning soon, I thought it would be fun to take a look at one of my all-time favorite attractions at Universal Studios Florida that was built around the magic of movies and the macabre.

Alfred Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies was an opening day attraction at Universal Studios Florida, and stood as tribute to the Master of Suspense and father of the modern horror film from 1990 to 2003. In addition to the attraction/show in Production Central near the front entrance of the park, the Bates Motel and house were located near E.T.. This set was used for the filming of Psycho IV: the Beginning, and welcomed guests from 1990 to 1998. The very heart of Universal Studios Florida was immersing the park guests into the magic of filmmaking and creating an experiential journey, placing you on the set of your favorite movies. Shifting away from the magic of movie making to completely immersing park guests into the movie worlds themselves, Universal Orlando replaced the Hitchcock attraction with Shrek 4D. Fortunately, the Horror Makeup Show and the seasonal Halloween Horror Nights event still keep the heritage of horror and suspense alive, as Universal essentially invented the American horror film. As I love exploring the past, present, and future of the parks, I thought it would be fun to hop in the wayback machine to analyze just why this attraction was popular then, and why there’s been a resurgence of interest and popularity. Perhaps we will see Hitchcock return to Universal Studios Florida in a move permanent way in the future with horror and suspense films being some of the biggest box office and critical success of recent years.

Prior to analyzing the former Florida attraction, it is important to head to the other side of the country to briefly visit the word famous studio tour at Universal Studios Hollywood! Believe it or not, the Universal Studios tour dates back to 1915. That’s right. It predates Walt Disney’s Disneyland. So, one could hypothesize that Disney appropriated the idea of turning a movie studio into a theme park from Carl Laemmle and Universal Studios. Starting as a walking tour that included a stunt show until “talkies” forced the studio to shutter the tour, until it reopened as the tram tour in the 1960s, one of the crowd favorite parts of the tour is driving past the infamous Bates Motel and Bates House. As the tram passes the iconic motel and house that set the bar against which all other horror films would be judged, an actor portraying Norman Bates charges toward the tram wielding the famous butcher’s knife (Murdy, 2002). Even though the audience knows this is a tour behind the scenes of the most utilized backlot and studio in the world (Milman, 2001), there is something uniquely special about this chance encounter on the tour. And, that something is what the designers of the guest experience on the studio tour use to bring about the successful convergence combining both the original movie and the live experience. In order to successfully complete the transposition from the movie to the live experience, the attraction designers tapped into the uncanny or unheimlich (Freud, 1919) of Psycho and utilized the elements of terror and shock to facilitate the aura of horror that exists just by looking upon the timeless motel and house. Uncanny, referring to that which is revealed that should remain hidden–the return of the repressed. For more on how Freud’s uncanny influences horror films, please see my article The Psychology of Horror. 

Central to Psycho and the single most famous moment in cinema history (Cosgrove, 2013) is the brilliantly perfect shower scene. And, it served as the main event at the former Universal Studios Florida Hitchcock attraction. Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies. took park guests into the world of suspense and horror as meticulously crafted and defined by Alfred Hitchcock. For those who have seen Psycho, the very sight of the motel and house is enough to strike fear into the mind and bloodstream. It is representative of the very best that horror cinema is able to offer society. In no attraction, based off a work of horror, is there a better example of the very essence of the magic of creating horror films than in the synergistic experience of beholding the four-fold elemental process of Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies. 

The aforementioned attraction was divided up into four distinct parts, with the famous shower scene being the central focus (ThePsychoMovies.com, 2014). According to an interview with one of the producers of the attraction, Susan Lustig describes the process of creating a horrific live experience from the horror of the iconic movie itself. Just like a horror movie is divided up into parts, or has a cinematic structure, so too did the Hitchcock attraction. There are many parallels between the famous shower scene and the live attraction. In the movie, the sequence leading up to the shower scene is very much a preshow in the same way the attraction contains a preshow area. The preshow in the movie is when Norman is gazing through the peephole into the room of Marion as she undresses. Just like Norman is visually gathering information about Marion, the park guests in the preshow area gather information about Hitchcock’s career and a glimpse into his masterful techniques. Thanks to “idrion,” you can watch the old preshow video below!

Next, the park guests sit through clips of 3D versions of Dial M for Murder and The Birds. Before 3D movies became commonplace in your local cinema, Hitchcock experimented with it back in the mid 20th century. Much like he was a pioneer of more traditional visual storytelling, he also experimented with color 3D films. On the note of his groundbreaking decisions as a film director, Hitch was also a pioneer in the early days of television with his show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. While sitting in the Hitchcock 3D theatre, park guests watched an entire scene from Dial M for Murder and select scene from The Birds. In a manner of speaking, this part of the attraction worked to assault the eye with suspense and terror; moreover, this presentation prepped the mind for experiencing the horror in the next room. Paralleling this element of the attraction to the film, is Norman’s actions after he spies on Marion and before “mother” takes over. Between the time Norman looked upon Marion through the peephole and puts on the wig and dress, he sits in the kitchen and presumably debates with mother on what to do. In a similar way, you were also faced with what to do with the information you gathered from the presentation. You could go onto the next room or exit the attraction. As we all know, following that scene, “mother” returns to the bathroom to save her son from Marion. And you, much like Normal/Mother, will soon head to the infamous Bates Motel bathroom. The old Hitchcock 3D theatre is the one currently used by Shrek 4D, an attraction that pales in comparison.

After the 3D movie, the park guests enter the Hitchcock Stage and look upon recreations of the motel, shower, and house. The main show at the attraction is the Hitchcock Stage where the infamous shower scene is reenacted before a live audience. A side note: if you experienced the Krampus HHN26 house, then you were in the old Hitchcock stage! In addition to the Bates House and Motel, there is a recreation of the tub/shower used by Hitchcock to film the scene. At this point in the movie, Marion is thoroughly enjoying her shower, cleansing herself from her transgression of stealing the money. Hitch constructs the scene in such a way that the audience gets both objective and subjective camera shots from inside and outside the shower. All of a sudden a shadowy figure approaches the opaque shower curtain and throws it open, wielding a knife. The sinister figure stabs Marion repeatedly; and through more than fifty cuts (editing cuts), the scene is played before the people in the dark. Likewise, this same scene is brought to life for the studio audience at Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies. Through mechanical engineering and film production techniques, the cast of the show reveals how the master of suspense filmed this iconic scene. Whereas you may think that this reveal of the “man behind the curtain,” so to speak, may impact the brilliance of this scene, it actually gives audiences a greater appreciation of it. It’s attractions like this that I miss from the Universal Studios parks and resorts lineup. In order to experience the show for yourself, checkout the following video from SandhillDigger.

Following the show on the Hitchcock Stage, the park guests walk into a museum-like room revealing many of Hitchcock’s secrets and techniques in some of his most notable films. It parallels the end of Psycho when the psychiatrist is analyzing Norman and explaining how and why he did what he did. You could even peer through binoculars to the apartment building across the street just like in Vertigo. For the cinephile or film buff, this museum opened eyes and minds to the magic that was the films of Hitchcock. If there was any doubt that he was a pioneer ahead of his time, which may explain why he never won an Oscar but was nominated several times, then this exhibition puts those doubts to bed. Just like Norman was the forerunner to the classic slasher and father of cinematic psychopaths, Hitchcock is still the master of the art of suspense and horror cinema.

Horror has always been popular and bankable; however, in the last several years with arthouse horror making it big, classic franchises getting new installments, and horror television taking off with the debut of American Horror Story, there has been a resurgence in popularity among general audiences and younger millennials. Since horror is the best genre for creatively and viscerally exploring what it means to be human, social and institutional constructs, gender roles, religion, and more, the general public is drawn to it in order to provide a different perspective on social commentary. With this newfound interest in the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock is once again in the forefront of minds. When movies such as the recent Searching and others such as Get Out, A Cure for Wellness, and A Quiet Place being compared to Hitchcock–or at least elements of the respective films–those whom are developing their taste for cinema look to see why and how Hitch was influential. Interest in the Master of Suspense is once again growing. With such an interest and growing fanbase, perhaps Universal will once again look for a way to integrate Hitchcock into the park, even if just for HHN.

 

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Bibliography

Cosgrove, Ben, The Shower Scene in Psycho, Time Magazine, November 16, 2012

Davis, Susan, The Theme Park as a Global Industry, Media Culture and Society, Sage Publications, July 1996

Freud, Sigmund, The Uncanny, The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Hogarth Press, London, 1919

King, Geoff, Ride-Films and Films as Rides in the Contemporary Hollywood Cinema of Attractions. Cineaction, 2000

Milman, Andy, Future of Themed Entertainment, Journal of Travel Research, Sage Publications, 2001

Murdy, John, The World Famous Universal Studio Tour, The Park Insider Magazine, Summer 2002

Movie Massacre.com, Dismantling of Universal Studios: Bates Motel and House, June 21, 2010, Accessed from http://www.moviemassacre.com/blog/the-evolution-of-universal-studios-florida-part-1

Oliver, M., & Bartsch, A. (2010). Appreciation as Audience Response: Exploring Entertainment Gratifications Beyond Hedonism. Human Communication Research

Psycho, Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Universal Studios, 1960

Singer, Matt, Jaws and the Changing Face of Movie Theme Parks, Independent Film Channel website, 2011

Universal Studios Florida Attraction, The Psycho Movies.com, Accessed from http://www.thepsychomovies.com/archive/floridaattraction.html

 

Sinister Summer: “The Silence of the Lambs” retrospective

“Good evening, Clarice.” How many of you have never thought of fava beans and chianti in the same way since then? Quite literally inventing a new genre that combines elements of horror, suspense, and crime to create the crime thriller, The Silence of the Lambs remains the motion picture that typifies the genre. More than 27 years later, Silence still holds up and continues to terrify audiences today. Whereas this iconic film may not be considered horror, by today’s understanding and expectation by many, it was certainly widely considered horror when it was released in 1991. A sleepy success, I might add. Essentially, Silence is an indie film that flew in under the radar but soon grew to be immensely popular and critically acclaimed. Silence is also one of only three films to win “the big five” Academy Awards (picture, director, lead actor, lead actress, and screenplay). This, in and of itself, serves as demonstrable evidence that The Silence of the Lambs is one of the most influential and profound films of all time–across all genres. Furthermore, there is not one single moment that I would change because it is cinematically perfect just the way it is. It is arguably a dark crime-thriller, but it is also very much a horror film. When asked which category I put it in, I respond with horror. Why? Because there is certainly intent to horrify audiences during particular scenes in the film; whereas, a crime-thriller tends to not overly concern itself with the intent to horrify. The intent to horrify is what defines it as a horror film first and crime-thriller as a very close second.

A senator’s daughter is kidnapped, and it is believed to be the work of a serial killer. After serial killer “Buffalo Bill” (Levine) leaves a trail of mutilated bodies of female victims behind, FBI forensic psychology director Jack Crawford recruits Clarice Starling (Foster), a sharp cadette, to interview famed psychiatrist, cannibal, and psychopath Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins). Crawford hopes that Lecter can provide insight into the case in order to apprehend Buffalo Bill. While tracking down Buffalo Bill with assistance from Lecter, Starling must confront her own internal fears in order to overcome all obstacles to catching Buffalo Bill before he kills again.

Most notable in Silence of the Lambs are the performances of Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, and don’t forget Ted Levine. While Hopkins and Foster get most of the attention, Levine delivers a command performance as Buffalo Bill. Delivering a spine-chilling and exhilarating performance as Dr. Hannibal Lecter is Sir Anthony Hopkins. The performance was so intensely perfect that he won his Oscar for male actor in a leading role with fewer than 15mins on screen. Hopkins gave us an uncompromising performance that caused audiences to be frightened and yet love him at the same time. Furthermore, this performance ushered him into the company of the likes of Jason, Freddy, and other icons of horror. Foster’s Academy Award winning role as Clarice Starling was gripping, engaging and pivotal. Her phenomenal performance gave a much-needed voice to feminism–a voice that was sorely missing at the time–and is still needed today. She was strong, feminine, smart, vulnerable, and clever all at the same time. Not nearly receiving the accolades he should, Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill is masterfully delivered. His terrifying portrayal of this character was dark, twisted, and mesmerizing. In fact, his oft quoted line “it rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again” appears in memes, parodies, and other media. His character was even used in an episode of Family Guy. Levin’s Buffalo Bill, much like Lecter and Starling, was instantly iconic. What is the common element found in each of these performances? Uncompromising devotion to the character that brings about a believability that few actors have been able to encroach upon.

What a screenplay! One of the foundational parts of visual storytelling that I feel is largely missing from many modern horror films is a solid screenplay. Adapted from the novel written by Thomas Harris, Ted Tally’s Oscar-winning screenplay for Silence is incredible. Although there are some differences between the screenplay and the novel, the screenplay is widely seen as an excellent adaptation and even praised for its more unnerving ending compared to the novel. While some negatively criticize the screenplay for portraying transgendered (or more broadly queer) individuals as being predisposed to abnormal or violent behaviors, Tally’s screenplay comes to the defense by including dialogue that transgendered individuals are prone to pacificity plus no scientific correlation between, what we would now call the LGBTQ community, and violence. Starling is never objectified by Lecter; and any other character objectifying or patronizing her, she quickly diverts attention back to the case. She isn’t modeled as a sex symbol; funnily enough, Lecter refers to her clothes as frumpy, cheap, and her entire persona is barely beyond her background as “poor white trash” from West Virginia. The screenplay contains a healthy, progressive message for feminism–more specifically–women working in a man’s world. Foster’s Starling gave a voice to those women who are working diligently to prove that they are just as capable (and in some cases maybe even moreso) as any man in a given profession. Some film scholars and critics have referred to Silence of the Lambs as one of the most feminist films of all time. Prior to Silence, there were few horror, crime, or film noir motion pictures with strong female protagonists (Ridley Scott’s Alien being another example).

Executing his impeccable vision for this iconic film, the late director Jonathan Demme guided this film from screenplay to screen, blazing new trails for a genre not typically known for high caliber, excellent motion pictures. Moreover, the film was so successful that junior executives at studios would pitch other screenplays as “the next Silence of the Lambs.” Most remarkably about the direction of the film is the success at overcoming prejudices held against visually and psychologically disturbing stories that involve graphic language, cannibalism, nightmarish serial killers, nudity, self-mutilation, and (although mostly off-screen) violence. There are Hitchcockian tones in the suspense and violence that can be seen in the off-screen violence, framing, lighting, and angles. That which is in the mind is more frightening than what the naked eye can see. Demme’s Silence is arguably seen as a model for other horror and thriller filmmakers, and is often imitated but never has been replicated. The power of subtlety. Demme communicated so much emotion through subtle movements and strategic dialogue rich with subtext. One element that is common amongst Best Picture winners is the ability to take what was then “present day” and make it timeless. The plot, characters, and setting feel ageless. Genuine fear can be felt throughout the film because Demme channeled that which terrifies him in real life. It’s authenticity is uncanny. Much like Psycho was groundbreaking for modern horror films featuring psychopaths and twist endings, Silence of the Lambs was groundbreaking in that it relied upon the everyday world rather than supernatural forces to shock with unbelievable credibility and realism.

While the director, screenwriter, and actors are the principle forces behind the success and timelessness of Silence, the film would not have won best picture without amazing editing, music, cinematography, and other technical elements. The best editing and cinematography occurs when you don’t see the seams or think about camera placement or angle. Superior editing and cinematography enable the characters and plot to maintain center stage. The world Demme desires to portray in the motion picture was to be as real as possible. Hence why you won’t find lengthy shadows, set decoration that stands out from the world that it inhabits, and music that enhances but never overpowers a scene. Demme and his director of photography Tak Fujimoto worked together to strategically include a motif of birds that are literal and metaphoric. This is evident in not only Clarice “Starling” but in the crows at the beginning, stuffed owl in the Your Self Storage unit, and even in the line at the crucial turning point, “it’ll be terns for us too.” Birds are an important element in films, not limited to horror films. Specifically terns was used in place of turns because terms are a protected bird species, much like the mind of Dr. Lecter. Birds are a common motif or symbol in films, and can be used to represent different concepts or ideals.

Thematically, Silence is incredibly rich. These themes are brought out through the strange relationship shared by Lecter and Starling. There is a high level of respect mutually expressed by both characters, albeit unconventional. This strained relationship is observed in the similarities between Lecter and Starling. Examples of the parallels between Starling and Lecter include the feeling, they both experience, of being ostracized by the world in which they respectively live and work. Lecter from the human race, for his psychopathy and cannibalism; and Starling by the law enforcement profession because she is a women in a time that women were not commonly pursuing careers in law enforcement. They both occupy a prison. Whereas Lecter’s prison is a literal one, Clarice’s is a metaphoric one because of the men that literally and figuratively tower over her, establishing her boundaries. Clarice may not have a doctorate but she can easily match wits with Lecter in the shared power they both have to manipulate and persuade with cunning. Less obvious is the shared past they both have as victims of abnormal upbringings. Lecter was a victim of child abuse, and this ca be inferred in his dialogue with Clarice (note: Demme should have underscored this a little more) with Clarice being left an unloved orphan to be raised by distant relatives. Shared childhood trauma. These similarities are what forge the bond between these two strong characters. Demme and Fujimoto reinforced these themes and relationships with visual storytelling elements in order to personify and manifest in dynamic ways that hook and mind and eye.

Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs remains one of the most iconic films in cinema history and will continue to have an evergreen shelf-life. It’s a multidimensional motion picture that frightens and intrigues. It is an arthouse film that achieved commercial success. Perhaps Red Dragon and Hannibal do not live up to the quality of experience of Silence but they by no means infringe on the ability for Silence to terrify us today. From the buildup to the introduction of Dr. Lecter to the trademark moth cocoon in the throat of the original victim. Furthermore, Demme continues to drive up the suspense and tension that create frightening thoughts and imagery through the use of interiors and exteriors of houses and buildings that represent the minds of characters (i.e. Buffalo Bill’s house and lair). We continue to seek this film out for its ability to manipulate our minds and eyes through strategic and artistic use of story and image. And you know what? We love these characters. We like and can identify with Clarice, have an unconventional respect and even like Dr. Lecter, and are completely intrigued and disgusted by Buffalo Bill.

 

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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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!

Sinister Summer: “Jaws” Retrospective Horror Film Review

The original blockbuster! With The Meg opening tonight, the next article in my Sinister Summer series is a retrospective on Jaws (1975). And, we still “need a bigger boat” after all these years. Beginning with the iconic minimalistic score by John Williams, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is still keeping people out of the water more than forty years later. Beyond the film, you can still face off with the most famous shark in cinema history at Universal Studios Hollywood. A favorite for folks to watch on July 4th each year (as I do), this film became the standard for the modern horror creature feature. And at only four minutes on screen, Bruce (Jaws’ nickname), successfully terrified audiences then and continues to frighten beachgoers today. For all intents and purposes, this iconic film set the bar for and essentially created this subgenre of horror movies featuring man-eating monsters from the natural world that exist in places where we typically find joy and relaxation. The ocean, theme parks, rivers, lakes–these innocent places become the setting for unimaginable terror.

If you are old enough to have watched it in theatres in 1975 or fortunate enough to have attended the special 40th Anniversary screenings back in 2015, then you can attest to the film’s evergreen ability to scare you out of your wits. When I watched it on the big screen in 2015, the auditorium was filled nearly to capacity with kids, teenagers, and adults. To see this iconic film on the big screen was truly a memorable experience. Especially so around where I live, since the gulf beaches are just down the road. The atmosphere was incredibly fun. All of these fans, most of which had likely seen Jaws before, were gathered together to relive the terrifying experience of a man-eating shark terrorizing a small New England town during the July 4th holiday season. But why would so many people pay to see a film that they had seen at no additional cost on TV or watched on DVD/BluRay?

Much in the same way Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is often credited, and rightly so, for being the first modern horror film and forerunner to the classic slasher; likewise, Spielberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws is credited as the first modern creature feature horror film and forerunner to the blockbuster (or event movie). I am not negating King Kong, Creature from the Black Lagoon, or other predecessors; it’s important to take note of the word modern. Aside from excellent, visionary direction, both Psycho and Jaws have three important elements in common (1) powerhouse cast (2) strategic suspense and (3) a brilliant, oft-parodied, burned in your mind musical score.

It probably seems like you were born with John William’s two-note Jaws theme in your head, much like Bernard Hermann’s Psycho screeches. The terrifying suspense of Jaws comes in the form of a PG movie. That’s right, Jaws is rated PG. But this film delivers a bigger and more memorable punch than any gory torture porn horror film ever could. The groundbreaking structure of both these legendary films are the prototypes from which their respective branches of horror films are derived. They are the blueprint, if you will, for suspense and horror. The manner in which the suspense is drawn out for most of the movie assists in the ability to enjoy it over and over again, without it ever feeling like a B movie. The drawn out suspense engages you emotionally and psychologically. The feeling of dread lingers and lingers. In fact, you don’t truly see Bruce until the third act of the film when he jumps out of the water in an attempt to bite off the arm of Chief Brody. This intentional drawing out of suspense makes the delivery of that moment pack a powerful punch, an assault on the eyes and mind. Both Psycho and Jaws benefit from an excellent cast. The respective casts could not have been any better. Interestingly, in order to not allow the cast to overpower the story or shark, Spielberg didn’t choose actors with an instant command presence. But they displayed a strong presence nevertheless. It never feels as if they are acting, but truly become the characters they are portraying. The relatability of the characters is partly due to the screenplays, but it takes phenomenal actors to successfully bring these characters to life. Spielberg would repeat this same successful approach to creating blockbusters E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and Jurassic Park.

For more on suspense, checkout this video featuring Hitchcock himself.

When Jaws is referred to as the original blockbuster, it’s not simply due to being the first film to break the $100mil box office sales mark, toppling the records previously set and held by The Exorcist and The Godfather. That is a valid observation, but is ultimately incidental. Reasoning behind this thriller’s ability to create the concept of a blockbuster movie is the fact Jaws was seen as an event not to be missed. Looking back at the original crowds of 1975, you’d think the movie was a one-night-only big event. Hence the term blockbuster. The common adjective attributed to big summer movies literally derives from the fact that queues for the box office wrapped around city blocks. It busted the block, so to speak. And the rest is history! Coupled with the summer release date and ticket sales, the allure of Jaws generated levels of enthusiasm and interest never seen before. The film took in so much money at its opening, that it nearly made up the entire production budget by the end of the first week. Furthermore, distribution and marketing companies began to use Jaws as a model for future marketing efforts in order to attempt to generate another blockbuster effect. After Jaws in 1975, the next big blockbuster would be George Lucas’ Star Wars IV: A New Hope in 1977. All these factors contribute to the iconic status of Jaws in terms of its contribution to film business.

Instead of building a thriller on shock value, disturbing imagery, or jump scares, author Peter Benchley’s screenplay for Jaws focussed on crafting a cinematic atmosphere that had an intimate, claustrophobic feel built upon well-crafted drama through character development and conflict, at the center of which is a little heart. Different from contemporary creature features, Jaws picks off swimmers in the single digits and those attacks all happen at a single beach on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. And instead of an entire agency hunting down the man-killer shark, three unlikely men are forcibly thrown together in order to track down and eliminate the terror from the waters off Amity Island. Keeping the principle cast and environment small, enabled the drama to perform strongly. Big things do come in small packages. Coupled with the strong performances from the entire leading cast, this brilliant combination of cinematic elements works together to give us some of the most memorable lines, scenes, and cinematography in movie history. Furthermore, real people swept up into an impossible situation and foolish decisions enable the audience to identify with the characters and the setting in ways that make the terror feel all the more real and close to home–or the beach.

While Bruce is often thought to be the villain of Jaws–and no mistaking it, he is definitely an antagonist–I argue that the true opposition to the goal in the plot is Amity’s mayor. If we accept the goal is to apprehend or kill the man-eating shark, then Vaughn serves as opposing that action. Perhaps you’ve never though of the true villain of Jaws being Mayor Larry Vaughn. A close analysis of the plot reveals that Jaws (Bruce) functions more as a catalyst for the principle conflict between Chief Brody and Vaughn. Other than the death at the beginning of the film, the Mayor is indirectly responsible for the remaining deaths. After all, it’s due to his utter complacency, negligence, and classic greed that led to the other deaths. For most of the film, we spend far more time with Chief Brody’s continued conflict dealing with the social pressures, desires, and ill-fated decisions of his boss than we do with shark attacks. Mayor Vaughn fails to acknowledge the sheer gravity of the dangerous situation, and close Amity’s beaches in order to keep his citizens safe. In effect, he fed them to the shark. Seems like a villainous action to me. Bruce was being a shark, Vaughn was the villain.

Often the central character’s development hinges on the direct and indirect conflict with the opposition to the goal of the plot. In this scenario, Mayor Vaughn stands between Brody and Bruce. The moments in which Brody demonstrates measurable growth in his character arc are when he attempts to stand up to the Mayor showcasing a contrast between public safety and a combination of politics and economics. Unfortunately, we never witness Brody truly standing up to the Mayor to enact measurable change per se; however, it isn’t needed because we witness several moments of Brody shouldering the responsibility of protecting the citizens of Amity as a civil servant. By contrast, Vaughn is more preoccupied with a warped view of  civic responsibility that places more importance on increasing the bottom line of the local businesses than public safety. He rationalizes his position opposing the advice of Brody by engaging in classic psychological defense mechanisms such as denial, displacement, and projection. Vaughn’s actions throughout the film depict an elected leader with misplaced priorities in order to better his own career.

The success of Jaws and reasons why it continues to stand the test of time has more to do with the beauty in simplicity and strategic marketing than Spielberg’s filmmaking. Don’t get me wrong, Spielberg is an excellent storyteller and directed many of our favorite films such as this one, Jurassic ParkE.T.Poltergeist (with Tobe Hooper), and more, but it’s the strong screenplay and innovative marketing efforts that give Jaws the chutzpah it has. Jaws quite literally changed the way studios market “blockbuster” films. Prior to Jaws‘ release, the only films to get wide, general releases were B-movies and exploitation films, but Universal Pictures took the chance at cramming Jaws into as many screens as possible, and it paid off in spades! Jaws wasn’t the first film to book theatres in this was, but it was the first to be well-received by by critics and fans. The film was an instant success!

Even if you trust the statistics that you are more likely to be injured or die in a car accident than be attacked by a shark, Jaws still leaves you wondering what may lurk in the depths of the ocean, and by extension lakes and rivers (thanks in part to Animal Planet’s River Monsters). There is a lingering feeling, even if in the back of your mind, that a man-eating shark could live in our oceans. That is the power of this film and why it has continued to pervade popular culture for more than 40 years. Its influence on popular culture is certainly not limited to the dozens or imitations such as Lake PlacidPiranha, Deep Blue Sea, or parodies like Sharknado, but it serves as the inspiration for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, the Monster Jam monster truck Megalodon, theme park attractions, and the music is often used in unrelated TV shows and movies. Lines, imagery, music, and characters are permanently embedded in the psyche of the general public.