Sunday, September 6, 2009

Movie Suspense - The "Don't Show Me" State

Film is a visual medium, a "show don't tell" enterprise, and as such the prevailing wisdom is that if you can show something instead of saying it, you should. But showing can be a wrong decision, too.

For example, I recently watched Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon, a great piece of 1950s British fright that bears more than a passing resemblance to Sam Raimi's recent Drag Me to Hell. Tourneur, who also made classics such as Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, had a reputation for using subtle suspense techniques instead of special effects, which made his films genuinely haunting and effective. And both Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie had a certain level of ambiguity about their scarier elements, leaving it up to the viewer to decide if what was happening was supernatural or not. Night of the Demon might have been along those same lines as well, but for an interfering producer, who insisted on adding a drastic special effect to the beginning and end of the movie. Namely, the sight of this guy.

Now, I like a good monster flick as much as the next gal. But I can't help thinking what the movie would have been like without seeing that bad boy. Especially as this is what Tourneur wanted to begin with, wouldn't it have been awesome to have to think about whether the demon was real or whether the two deaths that bookend the film are tragic coincidences? That's a much better fit for the skeptical protagonist and the line at the end about how it's better not to know - a line which, may I add, is utterly worthless coming as it does right after the monster effect (because even if the characters don't know for sure, WE do because we've been shown it).

Drag Me to Hell, of course, is set up very differently and seeing the horrible things that happen to that movie's heroine is the payoff, not something that spoils it. But it got me thinking about other movies where success or failure rests largely on whether we, in effect, see the devil. And how what we bring to a movie can be used to affect how we see it and what we believe it to be about. Night of the Demon, without the demon, is about a skeptic who is investigating a bunch of cultists, and the head cultist who tries to put the whammy on said skeptic as punishment for his disbelief. Is it for real? Or is it all in the cursed person's head? And aren't we better off, as Dana Andrews says in the end, not knowing?

Harvey is an excellent example of this, though the word "devil" doesn't apply, obviously, unless you have an irrational fear of rabbits. Harvey is supposedly a six-foot tall white rabbit, but we never see him (except in a painting). He's real enough to Elwood (James Stewart), eventually Dr. Chumley, and even occasionally Elwood's sister Veta. But we never get real confirmation that he actually exists, since everyone who claims to see him could be seen (by some) as unreliable reporters. This premise worked tremendously well on stage, which is where Harvey was first produced, and possibly even better on film, where the limited effects capabilities of films in 1950 would have made it difficult to use much more than a tall guy in a costume.

I have to wonder, though, what a modern filmmaker would do with such a character. Of course, I won't have to wait much longer, since Steven Spielberg is doing a remake of this movie. I find the very idea of Spielberg doing a remake a travesty, but a remake of Harvey seems even more of a crime. And my biggest fear for this project is that they're going to decide to show us the rabbit. It's more than just the fact the we don't need to see it. Seeing it literally spoils the magic and spoils the fact that two people can walk away from this movie having seen two completely different films. One about a crazy but endearing man who thinks he sees a giant rabbit, and one about a guy who has an amazing imaginary friend that no one else believes in.

We often call the movies magic, and a lot of that magic has to do with the wonder of what we see on the screen. But when it comes to showing real magic or the supernatural on film, sometimes the real trick is to present it to us without literally showing it. To pull the imaginary rabbit (*cringe* I know, I know) out of the hat, and instead of showing it to us, ask us if we see it or not.

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