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How John Carpenter creates fear in his films.

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  • How John Carpenter creates fear in his films.

    Hi everyone. I am doing some research for a project for my films studies college course. The title of my project is [B]''Was that the Boogeyman?’: Dehumanisation and the Paranoia of the Unknown in the Films of John Carpenter'[/B], and I am focussing on the films [B]Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982) [/B]and [B]Christine (1983)[/B], with the main focus being on Halloween. I have been a fan of Carpenter's work since I was a kid, yet I revisited his films for this research project and realised how truly terrifying they are, especially Halloween and The Thing, yet how they deal with such humanistic issues (small communities, relationships between humans, domestic settings). Essentially, Carpenter put horror in the domestic setting for the mainstream audience, and the unknown in terms of The Thing. What I want to know is how you all think he does this, and how he achieves such a finessed effect of fear. For example, I have written a lot in the project about the use of long takes in Halloween, and particularly prolonging what a contemporary spectator sees as a conventional jump scare- these long takes he uses put the subjective spectator in quite an uncomfortable position, making them feel like a stalker themselves.
    If anyone has any thoughts at all about how Carpenter creates fear in the films I mentioned, they would really be appreciated for use in my research. As you can see, I am trying to focus on the techniques of how he creates fear in particular scenes, but any thoughts would be valued.
    Thank you.

  • #2
    Interesting, but... the forum has a focus on British Movies, and neither the films you mention, or Carpenter himself, has any connection with British Film. There may be someone willing to join in, but it is a bit like going to a Chinese TakeAway and ordering Pizza.

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    • #3
      The best way to create fear is do what Alfred Hitchcock did (John Carpenter along with Brian DePalma acknowlede him) and that is not always show what the audience is expecting to see or feel.

      Comment


      • #4
        Look at the first Alien film, you never see the monster clearly. The mistake they made in the follow-up films was to focus too much on the monster(s)

        The scariest thing is the the thing(s) that you can't see

        Steve

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        • #5
          Not Carpenter, but look at the scene in Night Of The Demon when a hand suddenly appears on the bannisters while Peggy Cummins (or Dana Andrews) is creeping around Dr Carswell's lounge. The whole audience jumped out of their seats :eek:

          Comment


          • #6
            If your talking Carpenter, why not mention [I]The Fog[/I]? The fog itself is used as a character, and the way in which Carpenter uses small incidents to unnerve is very effective. From the point where the town becomes 'unglued', to the piece of wood found on the beach, to the body in the morgue which starts to walk (shout out to the fantastic Darwin Joston as the coroner, Dr Phibes !), they all hugely build the tension. Add the music, and its a classic.

            Frankly, even the John Houseman prologue (added after the initial shoot) cranks things up.

            Since this is a British movie forum, its fair to point out that The Fog was inspired by The Trollenberg Terror and fog seen by Carpenter on a visit to Stonehenge (a site which is of course also seen as the start of Night of the Demon), and Prince of Darkness was in part inspired by Quatermass and the Pit.
            Last edited by Bonekicker; 9th March 2018, 10:05 PM.

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            • #7
              To broaden the comparisons even further... the scariest film I remember watching is The Blair Witch Project, which shows almost precisely NOTHING on screen. The audience create their own fear, as they start to imagine what might be going on. For this reason, it is said that people with little or no imagination (teenagers) watch this film and find it a complete bore. I had it echoing around in my head for weeks afterwards. I daresay there are some reviews of the film that try to analyse where the scariness comes from, perhaps they might mention Carpenter (and Hitchcock, Alien, etc.).

              Comment


              • #8
                As someone who has been accused of/commended for having a very fertile imagination since childhood (perhaps that's why I've never learned how to get "bored"?) I prefer to watch a film which DOESN'T leave too much to the imagination....this drives me nuts as my mind always goes into overdrive dreaming up myriad "what ifs" and concocting imaginary monstrosities and outlandish ramifications in my head which can't be shared and shaped...no, I firmly want to be able to relax and be entertained by the filmmakers' imagination, please...show me (at the right moment) what you're envisaging mr storyteller - I'm not here to do the work for you! Subtlety can - but rarely - cut the mustard for me where a good chiller is concerned. "The Innocents" is a fine example where glimpsed shadows and unnerving whispers help to build a climate of fear - so it can (occasionally) be done. But that's a ghost story. Monster movies are a different kettle of fish. I'm probably in the minority when I say that I'm glad we get to see the beast at the climax of "Night Of The Demon". It could have been better executed, but not bad for 1957 to be fair, and better than relying on smouldering footprints and horrified faces, which I'd regard as a cop-out.

                So I have to say that I fundamentally disagree with Steve and StoneAgeMan on this one... the very reason I dislike the first (somewhat dimly lit and plodding) "Alien" film is precisely because you DON'T see enough of the monster. It's a cop-out. That's just one reason why I much prefer all of the sequels. Less is NOT always more, for me at least. I would, for example, have felt mightily short changed had the magnificent balrog in the first "Lord Of The Rings" film been shrouded in shadow as per Tolkien's written account...no, I want to see how Peter Jackson perceives this whip-wielding, fiery monstrosity in all its blistering, volcanic-breathed detail...would I have preferred its horns to point the other way etc? let me wallow in your visual construction...by all means keep me on tenterhooks and build up the tension but don't prick-tease me by witholding the splendid pay-off!

                Apropos Carpenter and his formula for fear... he seems to successfully tap into the dread of "it's not IF, but WHEN..." in "The Thing" for example we have the well worn scenario of a base under seige and the intimate claustrophobia of the isolated whodunnit....you KNOW the invader will be exposed - no lazy swerve (like the recent Godzilla movie) by cutting away from the action then returning to explore the psychological terror in the aftermath...no, Carpenter does the decent thing and, having superbly cranked up the foreboding and kept us nervously guessing (and imagining) he does at last reveal his eldritch-faced spider-legged scuttling nightmare with clearly visible, full blown in-your-face terror (the kind of creature guaranteed to give youngsters nightmares). Managing the tension and delivering on the climax is a tough balancing act but Carpenter tends to deliver, for me anyway.

                Comment


                • #9
                  [QUOTE] Monster movies are a different kettle of fish. I'm probably in the minority when I say that I'm glad we get to see the beast at the climax of "Night Of The Demon". It could have been better executed, but not bad for 1957 to be fair, and better than relying on smouldering footprints and horrified faces, which I'd regard as a cop-out.[/QUOTE]

                  Actually, the producers made Tourneur put the monster in at the end, to satisfy the audience, but frankly, its not all [I]that [/I]great (its always seemed to me to resemble the monster in the old Chewits ad). The most effective manifestation in the mist/sparks in the trees (made famous by Kate Bush) - it shows [I]something[/I], but its more in the head of the viewer.

                  Monster movies tended not to show the monster because, all too often, the effects really arn't all that good, plus dramatic effect, etc. In 1979, showing the Alien early on would have been difficult to top later - the earlier glimpses work more effectively to crank up the tension. The same goes for Jaws. The still wonderful 'The Jaws Log' points out the reality - Bruce was most a bust - the shark just didn't work very well. The lack of screen time of Bruce until about two-thirds of the way through was the end result of the thing just not looking very good. But again, the hints and glimpses are more than enough, if your skilled.

                  As for Lord of the Rings - I sort of tune out as one huge CGI battle melds into another. Thats part of the problem with CGI - its easy to show the creature, etc. But once you've seen it, what then? Anyone whose seen an of the Transformers films knows the feelings - huge robot does something cool and smashes up stuff. Rinse and repeat.

                  Carpenter was clever enough in The Thing to have the sort of monster they could never have had for the original, but kept the tension. Thus it delivers.

                  Looking at some like De Toro, he uses the effects in a slightly different way - he uses it to create a believable world, no matter how bizarre it first seems. Then is clever enough to deliver a great film with it.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    [QUOTE=Bonekicker;n54942]

                    Actually, the producers made Tourneur put the monster in at the end, to satisfy the audience, but frankly, its not all [I]that [/I]great (its always seemed to me to resemble the monster in the old Chewits ad). The most effective manifestation in the mist/sparks in the trees (made famous by Kate Bush) - it shows [I]something[/I], but its more in the head of the viewer. [/QUOTE]

                    But I already had eight of my own versions in my head by the climax - I wanted to know exactly what the moviemakers themselves were "seeing" - and no wriggling out of it, limited budget or no limited budget.... REVEAL!!! Yes, Tourneur's tussle with the production team is well documented; I'm still glad they overrode him. The demon could certainly have been better - shades of Scooby Doo in the actual creature (left) all they needed to do was give it a simpler, less cartoon dog-like fizzog - something like my version on the right - and I think it would have done justice to the film:

                    [IMG2=JSON]{"data-align":"none","data-size":"full","src":"http:\/\/i68.tinypic.com\/rkzdw9.jpg"}[/IMG2]

                    Rather a semi successful demon though (the long shots, despite their juddery creakiness, are great) than being fobbed off with no demon at all, beyond a "we'll leave it up to you" series of oblique suggestive glimpses. Worst thing for me is that ridiculous, squeaky wheeled tea-trolley sound effect whenever the creature approaches. If only more ominous music/sound had been deployed.

                    [QUOTE=Bonekicker;n54942]
                    The same goes for Jaws. The still wonderful 'The Jaws Log' points out the reality - Bruce was most a bust - the shark just didn't work very well. The lack of screen time of Bruce until about two-thirds of the way through was the end result of the thing just not looking very good. But again, the hints and glimpses are more than enough, if your skilled.[/QUOTE]

                    Again, I accept that I always seem to be out of step with virtually everyone else on this... I think the model is excellent, bearing in mind that a real life Great White Shark does actually possess a rather "fibreglass" quality to it in the flesh...and the black, doll's eyes (as Quint so chillingly puts it) always help make these real animals resemble animatronic models - a case of life imitating art in the natural world I've always thought. The highlight of the film has to be the very visceral denouement of Robert Shaw's grizzled old sea salt: all slithery-decked screaming helplessness and vomiting blood.... right into those eponymous jaws - a prime example of where a dose of undiluted gore CAN actually improve a film if used correctly. Had that been shot "around" the shark with only close ups of the victim, quick flashes of fin and off camera screaming, I'd go so far as to say it would have spoiled the film. It surely doesn't get much more horrific than WATCHING a shark eating a man?

                    [QUOTE=Bonekicker;n54942]
                    As for Lord of the Rings - I sort of tune out as one huge CGI battle melds into another. Thats part of the problem with CGI - its easy to show the creature, etc. But once you've seen it, what then? Anyone whose seen an of the Transformers films knows the feelings - huge robot does something cool and smashes up stuff. Rinse and repeat.[/QUOTE]

                    I agree that overdosing on CGI really does dilute the overall effect - but if used judiciously (a single CGI monster like the balrog) up against real actors in a cleverly lit set - then like most modern advances it can be very effective, and better surely than those dated, low budget attempts of yesteryear which I thought we'd agreed risk being embarrassingly disappointing when viewed today.
                    Last edited by Tonch; 12th March 2018, 07:51 PM. Reason: To try and post an image - but it failed anyway, ironically just when I am trying to push the case for revealing and not hiding the monster!!!

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      [QUOTE]But I already had eight of my own versions in my head by the climax - I wanted to know exactly what the moviemakers themselves were "seeing" - and no wriggling out of it, limited budget or no limited budget.... REVEAL!!! Yes, Tourneur's tussle with the production team is well documented; I'm still glad they overrode him. The demon could certainly have been better - shades of Scooby Doo in the actual creature (left) all they needed to do was give it a simpler, less cartoon dog-like fizzog - something like my version on the right - and I think it would have done justice to the film:[/QUOTE]

                      With you there. I understand why they had to put in a monster, and its could be a lot worse, but its way too big (pretty much sitting on a train!), and I rather like the demon in the pictures [URL="http://www.horrorhomeroom.com/jacques-tourneurs-curse-demon-horror-persistence-evil/"]here[/URL] - a slightly more simple monster would have been fine. But its still a cracking film, so why worry?


                      [QUOTE]Again, I accept that I always seem to be out of step with virtually everyone else on this... I think the model is excellent, bearing in mind that a real life Great White Shark does actually possess a rather "fibreglass" quality to it in the flesh...and the black, doll's eyes (as Quint so chillingly puts it) always help make these real animals resemble animatronic models - a case of life imitating art in the natural world I've always thought. The highlight of the film has to be the very visceral denouement of Robert Shaw's grizzled old sea salt: all slithery-decked screaming helplessness and vomiting blood.... right into those eponymous jaws - a prime example of where a dose of undiluted gore CAN actually improve a film if used correctly. Had that been shot "around" the shark with only close ups of the victim, quick flashes of fin and off camera screaming, I'd go so far as to say it would have spoiled the film. It surely doesn't get much more horrific than WATCHING a shark eating a man?
                      [/QUOTE]

                      I totally agree with the effect on screen - Bruce delivers, especially when Shaw gets eaten. But they had terrible problems with getting it to work - a complex piece of hydraulics, mechanics and electrics, all sitting on the seabed in salt water. And getting it to do what they wanted in the way of dramatic action and movement was a real pain, even after they conquered the problem of running it fast in the water and blowing out the back! So Bruce was sort of hidden until you really couldn't hid it any more. And it completely works that way. And Spielberg did what Carpenter did on [I]The Fog[/I] - added extra scenes to punch up the action/scares. In his case, the bit with the head falling out of the wrecked boat (still makes me jump!) was filmed in his swimming pool, using milk to make the water look more opaque. Sometimes thats the way it rolls.

                      CGI is fine, when its used like a garnish, and with skill. There was an article in the Guardian some times ago, which suggested that the bigger the number of people being wiped out via CGI (2012, Pacific Rim, etc), the less you care. If you can watch 1000 people being zapped, then you start to get a bit bored unless its 2000 the next time. To be fair, thats nothing new - audiences have always said 'seen that, what else have you got?' Spectacle gets old fast.

                      My kids laugh at effects from the 90's - its odd that digital/greenscreen effects date much quicker than anamatronics - [I]Ghostbusters[/I] still works as a movie, but some of the effects are a bit ragged. On the other hand, [I]Gremlins[/I] is still totally fine.
                      Last edited by Bonekicker; 12th March 2018, 10:30 PM.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        [QUOTE=cassidy;n54822]Not Carpenter, but look at the scene in Night Of The Demon when a hand suddenly appears on the bannisters while Peggy Cummins (or Dana Andrews) is creeping around Dr Carswell's lounge. The whole audience jumped out of their seats :eek:[/QUOTE]

                        Yes & when Dana Andrews is walking through the woods & a branch almost hits him!

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          [QUOTE=Tonch;n54940]As someone who has been accused of/commended for having a very fertile imagination since childhood (perhaps that's why I've never learned how to get "bored"?) I prefer to watch a film which DOESN'T leave too much to the imagination....this drives me nuts as my mind always goes into overdrive dreaming up myriad "what ifs" and concocting imaginary monstrosities and outlandish ramifications in my head which can't be shared and shaped...no, I firmly want to be able to relax and be entertained by the filmmakers' imagination, please...show me (at the right moment) what you're envisaging mr storyteller - I'm not here to do the work for you! Subtlety can - but rarely - cut the mustard for me where a good chiller is concerned. "The Innocents" is a fine example where glimpsed shadows and unnerving whispers help to build a climate of fear - so it can (occasionally) be done. But that's a ghost story. Monster movies are a different kettle of fish. I'm probably in the minority when I say that I'm glad we get to see the beast at the climax of "Night Of The Demon". It could have been better executed, but not bad for 1957 to be fair, and better than relying on smouldering footprints and horrified faces, which I'd regard as a cop-out.

                          I'm with you on the fact that we get to see the beast at the climax of the brilliant Night of The Demon. As you also say it was 1957 and I'm sure that audiences at the time lapped it up. I know I did and I was about 13 at the time. I still feel cheated that we don't actually get to see Lugosi's Dracula staked at the end of the 1931 film but instead are left with Van Helsing stating that he has driven a stake through the vampire's heart after he bends down near the coffin and we just hear a gasp as Dracula expires.

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            In interviews ( appeared on UK TV History of Horror with Mark Gatiss ) , Carpenter says hes a fan of genre film motifs . Iconography and themes he plays with to his taste .
                            He dosnt hold the punches with his compositions , he's like a film buff who makes movies , Not everything has resolution and that can be fustrating . Good, evil , heroes and villians are murky , Our imaginations can draw our own conclusions .
                            Last edited by AlecLeamas; 16th March 2018, 05:19 PM.

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