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Building a Better Bomb: The Alternatives to Suspense

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Building a Better Bomb: The Alternatives to Suspense

It’s always a bad idea to argue with the Master. Any sensible person will tell you so. On the subject of cinema, there is probably nothing more foolish and outright uncool than to question Alfred Hitchcock. You don’t question Hitchcock; you shut up, listen and learn. The man didn’t just revolutionize the medium, he wrote the official Book of Rules. Every filmmaker since, especially those with dread on the repertoire, builds on the foundations Hitchcock left behind. Steven Spielberg, Alejandro Amenábar, M. Night Shyamalan, Hideo Nakata: they all owe the one who is commonly referred to as the Greatest Director of All Time.

Like I said: it’s always a bad idea to argue with the Master.

Wish me luck…

Anticipating the bang: the Suspense Formula

Why bother telling a story if no one’s interested? Surely, attention is the first thing a filmmaker demands from an audience. It’s easy enough to grab spectators by the collar, but how do you keep them intrigued? A movie must push them to the edge of their seats and gain momentum without running out of steam. Because no one could seduce audiences better than Alfred Hitchcock, his formula for storytelling has been studied and followed over and over. According to Hitchcock, the most powerful means of holding onto the viewer’s attention is suspense.

There it is, the magic word: “suspense.” Whisper it in a room full of cinephiles and watch them get all misty-eyed. Suspense! François Truffaut described it as “the stretching out of an anticipation.” Dictionaries define it as “a state of uncertain expectation,” “a feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen” or “pleasant excitement as to a decision or outcome.” If there is one guarantee for audience involvement, suspense is it. Just trust the Master of Suspense. Whenever he was preparing a script, Hitchcock always put himself in the place of a child whose mother is telling him a story. Whenever there’s a pause in the mother’s narration, the child will always ask: “What comes next, Mommy?” Hitchcock knew that nothing is more fascinating to us than the Next Thing and he taught filmmakers how to dangle that carrot in front of our faces, barely out of reach. That is the essence of suspense: a tantalizing and often threatening hint of what’s to come.

Even though Hitchcock was no stranger to shock (he used it to memorable effect when he killed off his beloved leading lady, Janet Leigh, a third into Psycho), he always thought surprise was the lesser alternative to its twin brother suspense. In Vertigo (1958), his adaptation of the French novel D’Entre les Morts, he even sacrificed the book’s final surprise twist (“Judy is Madeleine”) in order to inject a firm dose of suspense into the story (“When will Scottie find out that Judy and Madeleine are the same person and how will he react?”). Although critics at the time had trouble understanding Hitchcock’s intention for us to watch Scottie unravel, rather than figure out a “whodunit,” and were quick to remark that the director had broken his own rules of dramatic tension by ruining the mystery, Hitchcock reasoned:

“To my way of thinking, mystery is seldom suspenseful. The whodunit generates the kind of curiosity that is void of emotion, and emotion is an essential ingredient of suspense.”

In the book Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock compares the two complementary dread-inducing techniques of surprise and suspense, and makes a convincing plea for the latter. To properly illustrate his argument, he used the setting of the interview itself as starting point:

“We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the audience knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!”

“In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed.”

A lecture like that makes a strong point about the limitations of surprise as a means to thrill an audience. Surprise is overrated, so it seems. It doesn’t come as a surprise, then, that decades later, Hitchcock’s argument for the superiority of the Suspense Formula still stands. Critics and academics alike continue to find it nearly impossible to punch holes in this mentor’s rock solid reasoning, backed up by a legacy of some of the most forceful films in the history of cinema. When it comes to keeping an audience alert, suspense is simply more bang for your buck, to use a fitting phrase.

So why bother questioning its lonely status at the top? Bear with me, please. Let’s not declare the element of surprise bankrupt just yet. And hold on: let’s not exclude alternative ways of building tension either. There’s no doubt that fear in the face of impending evil, otherwise known as dread, is unique in its way to fuel our immediate interest, but suspense is only one approach. Has Hitchcock’s groundwork really been so all-encompassing that he left no area unexplored for the generations of filmmakers following in his footsteps? I think not. The Dread District went through a couple of interesting changes since a few non-commissioned officers took over the reins. Yes, you heard it right: changes. The fact that Hitchcock practically invented the grammar of the modern thriller cannot stop a language from evolving.

Inside the bang: the Hidden Threat

When Roman Polanski’s Repulsion came out in 1965, it was heralded as a staggering work of suspense. It’s fairly obvious that his film about a young beautician’s descent into madness was heavily influenced by Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), a classic that paved the way for all psychological thrillers in its wake. But is Polanski’s film really a work of suspense? To adequately answer this question, we may have to ask ourselves what suspense is not: Let’s listen to the Master himself:

“It is indispensible that the public be made perfectly aware of all the facts involved. Otherwise there is no suspense.”

According to this assertion, obscuring the facts rules out the very possibility of suspense. If we take Hitchcock’s word for it, as I suggest we do, how is Repulsion able to generate suspense by consistently withholding the facts from its audience? Polanski doesn’t achieve tension by supplying detailed information. On the contrary: Repulsion is all about surprise. A typical example is the scene where Carol, played by Catherine Deneuve, is walking around the apartment that she shares with her sister, unable to sleep. A minute passes by. No anticipatory music, no creepy camerawork, no manipulative cuts. Just the sound of a dripping tap. Suddenly, without a single warning, the wall cracks open with a thunderous sound. That’s it. The scares come from nowhere and catch the audience off-guard.

Hitchcock might have seen the implicit nature of scenes like these as a missed opportunity. Chances are he would have looked for another way of staging its dramatic potential, concrete enough so he could let his audience in on what’s going on and stretch out a few lousy seconds of shock to fifteen fat minutes of anticipation. Yet Repulsion almost categorically refuses to take this route. The only time a genuine moment of suspense comes along is when the audience is offered a glance at the knife that Carol hides behind her back while the landlord tries to come on to her; but this moment is strangely understated, and we are so “repulsed” by his sexual advances that we’re more likely to cheer Carol on to stab the bastard than to fear for his life. So, strictly evaluated from the suspense school of reasoning, Repulsion doesn’t cut it. That doesn’t explain, however, why the film is such a jolly effective nailbiter. How did Polanski pull it off?

Carol’s emerging insanity is the real threat in Repulsion. Much like Miss Giddens in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, she is a danger to herself. We care for Carol’s safety, but cannot predict where this situation will take us, leaving us helpless. Since Polanski forces us to experience the narrative in first person, through the prism of Carol’s psychotic mind, the cause of our dread is not under the table, but all around us: we are inside the bomb. And trapped as we are inside Carol’s head, we lack a clear overview. Our anxiety stems from not knowing what to expect: a Hidden Threat. Under the blinding spell of subjectivity, we don’t know what will trigger the bomb. We’re left with no clue as to when precisely it will explode, because even when we do hear the clock ticking away in the background and nearly smell the skinned rabbit carcass rot in the living room as days pass by, time is nothing but an abstraction, a metaphor for mental regression. The irrational fractures in its dramatic flow give Repulsion a trippy, unnerving mood that gradually breaks down the securities of the audience in perfect sync with the protagonist’s twitchy sense of paranoia. The only thing that becomes clear to us is that we need to get out of that apartment quick, as soon as we realize it is a reflection of Carol’s crumbling state of mind.

When Madame Denise says to Carol: “I can’t help you if you won’t tell me what’s the matter,” she also articulates the reason behind the audience’s sense of unease. It is confusion and a lack of information, as opposed to Hitchcock’s abundance of it, what gives Polanski’s elliptical horror its edge. Repulsion is obviously shocking and masterly executed, but suspenseful it is not. Come to think of it, probably the most suspenseful thing about Repulsion is the chance to watch French goddess Catherine Deneuve in see-through nightgown. What a sly move to make a frigid woman so insanely attractive!

Polanski was the first to follow his own example, with the bastard child Rosemary’s Baby (1968) as the diabolical result. Slowly, other directors followed: Nicolas Roeg personified a couple’s sense of loss over their drowned daughter in the shape of a mysterious dwarf in a red coat in Don’t Look Now (1973), Paul Verhoeven surreally depicted the Catholic revelations of an alcoholic, bisexual writer in De Vierde Man (1983), Adrian Lyne blew life into the paranoid hallucinations of a dying Vietnam veteran in Jacob’s Ladder (1990) and Christopher Nolan turned time backwards for a brain-crushing representation of amnesia in Memento (2000). No one has explored the twisted territory of the Hidden Threat more thoroughly, however, than David Lynch. While Repulsion carefully balances on the line between fantasy and reality, Eraserhead (1977), Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001) blur the same line into a shadowy region of its own. Lynch even dares to sacrifice his own story logic and leaps back and forth between present time, flashbacks, wish fantasies and foreboding nightmares to submerge the senses in the subconscious. If little Alfred would ask his Mommy “what’s next” two thirds into Lost Highway, I’m not sure the answer would clear things up. After all, his mother isn’t really telling him a bedtime story. She’s just talking in her sleep…

Facing the bang: the Revelation Response

The opposite to a threat lurking in the shadows is the kind that taps you on the shoulder and thrusts its tongue in your mouth. In the suspense camp, this kind of frontal assault is seen as more or less a dead end. “There is no terror in the bang,” Hitchcock said, “only in the anticipation of it.” Hitchcock experimented with subtle gore in his time, but as a rule he believed suggestion had greater impact. What could be creepier than one’s own imagination?

Well—maybe a lack thereof. A new breed of filmmakers was less convinced of the public’s ability to form their own picture and filled in the gaps for them. And it has to be said: some of all time’s most terrifying movies could not for the love of God be typified as “less is more” material. The tolerant spirit of the ’60s and ’70s opened up the door to new levels of carnage and exploitation, spawning a wide range of cinematic subgenres, from the zombie flick and the splatter movie to the Italian giallo and the occult thriller. Some of them were grounded in harsh realism, while others delved deeper into the fantastique for some old-fashioned grand guignol. Unapologetic nasties like Night of the Living Dead (1968), Straw Dogs (1971), The Last House on the Left (1972), The Exorcist (1973) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) pretty much put aside the idea that implying is more effective than showing. Across the Atlantic, European shock maestros Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento dispensed with suggestion altogether by serving piles of gore on a platter. No anticipation there: the audience is thrown before the wolves barely halfway into the first reel. Just the grueling details—on the double please!

Whereas Hitchcock usually chose to keep his audience in the know at the cost of revelation, this radical movement excelled in what Clive Barker, writer and director of Hellraiser (1987) and Nightbreed (1990), called “the Revelation Response”: the appeal of the morbid and surreal. “Appeal” may seem an odd word in reference to horrors designed to appall, but this paradox is integral to a concept that no longer strictly revolved around throwing the monster out, but embraces the monstrous as a part of ourselves—or in the case of Barker: invites a bunch of them over for an orgy in the dungeon to celebrate “the intricacies of perversity.”

This time, Hitchcock’s bomb under the table is exploding right before our very eyes and we’re forced to witness the anatomy of destruction. Hell unfolds in slow motion as we face the biggest threat of all: the Bitter End. We see body parts twitching, we smell the stench of burned skin and we hear the victim next to us utter his last breath. This is as close to a rendezvous with the Grim Reaper as we can get without actually having to stop living for it. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this is just the introductory scene. If our stomach is up to it, we can stick around to watch the decomposing corpses transform into flesh-eating creatures of the night…

Needless to say, this no-holds-barred mentality could not count on a lot of affection from the refined critical establishment: hence the generalization that an inordinate application of the gross and grotesque indicates an incapacity for building tension. That’s about as crude a statement as saying that pornography is unable to arouse. What it all boils down to, like it frequently does, is taste. There is plenty of tension left in the explicit, and the tremendous anxiety these graphic confrontations generate in the spectator can be attributed to our ambiguous response to the question: How much farther will this movie go, and do I really want to go there? Sure I do! Like hell I don’t! The Revelation Response taps into our darkest hopes and fears and beguiles and disturbs in equally extreme measures. Exactly the kind of push-pull attraction that keeps the hardcore crowd coming back for more. For recent evidence, look no further than Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999), Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000), Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002) and James Wan’s Saw (2004).

Echoing the bang: the Pavlovian Minefield

The element of surprise made an unexpected comeback in 1976, when audiences around the world were treated to the mother of all shock endings in Brian De Palma’s Carrie. It is fascinating to see how different De Palma’s surprise tactic was to the way suspense is achieved. Instead of building tension by feeding expectation, it sets the viewer at ease until it seems there’s nothing left to fear.

After a bombastic climax in which Carrie subsequently unleashes her full telekinetic powers at the high school prom to quite deadly effect, causes a fatal car crash, impales her God-fearing mother with a set of flying kitchen knives and gives up the ghost during an apocalyptic inferno, things finally seem to calm down. The night fades to black and sunlight appears, introducing the obligatory epilogue. Composer Pino Donaggio lays over one of his most soothing adagios as good girl Sue Snell, played by the angelic Amy Irving, strides towards us in a slowed-down pace. Sue is dressed in white, lensed in soft-focus, with her long, wavy hair lit up by magical backlight. Tears well up in her almond-shaped eyes as she bends down to lay some flowers on Carrie’s grave. We’re almost completely reassured: the nightmare is over… And just when a sigh of relief escapes our lips, Carrie’s bloody arm shoots out from the gravel and grabs Sue by the elbow. Then we wake up. And just like our reminiscence of an actual dream, it is only in hindsight that we recognize the surrealism of the scene.

It wasn’t until two years later, however, that surprise fully emancipated itself from the degradation it got from Master Hitchcock and evolved into a technique that deserves a category of its own. Halloween (1978) was danger stripped down to its bare essentials and taken to its extremes at once: Michael Meyers, a faceless, unstoppable murdering machine without a motive, was out on the loose. Turn the wrong corner and he’d be there to slice you to threads. Like Carrie, Halloween had its feet firmly planted in classic suspense, but it had more up its sleeve. While De Palma saved the best for last, John Carpenter was in a generous mood and perforated his narrative with “popcorn flyers” from beginning to end. He multiplied Hitchcock’s bomb under the table and changed it into a minefield, where every step you take can be your last. The trick payed off. Whereas Hitchcock mainly concentrated on the period leading up to the bang, Carpenter exploited the aftermath of the explosion. In the book John Carpenter: Prince of Darkness, he explained his method as such:

“I always thought that you could also have another effect on the audience if you blow the table up suddenly. If you do it suddenly, everything after that is changed a little bit. You won’t trust the movie anymore, and you will have doubts about what you think it will do. So you have a different level of suspense.”

Here is an example where suspense is generated by the apprehension of surprise. In a way, it’s the best of both worlds. The repetitive use of meticulously timed jumps as a tactic to evoke a nerve-wracking atmosphere has a lot in common with the famous way that Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov got his dogs to salivate at the ring of a bell, just because it was the sound they heard each previous time food was served. In the course of just one movie, Carpenter conditions his audience to recognize repeating patterns, like a catchy yet creepy musical cue or a slow crawl of the camera followed by a shock appearance of the killer, to elicit a trained reflex. By echoing what led to a bang before, the Pavlovian Minefield stimulates a feeling of dread that turns spectators into petty little Pavlov puppies, masochistically awaiting the next jolt to give them that much-expected rush of adrenaline. It is this roller coaster aspect that has made the Pavlovian Minefield so commercially lucrative. Halloween spawned not less than seven sequels and became the definitive blueprint for the slasher genre, resulting in highly popular franchises like Friday the 13th (1980-2001), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984-1994), Scream (1996-2000) and countless others.

Beyond the bang: the Cerebral Spiral

The next step in the evolution of cinematic tension came in the form of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). That may seem a bold statement now, but it was completely in line with expectation at the time. Kubrick, the genius director who redefined science fiction, black comedy and just about any other genre he cared to touch, was to adapt a bestselling novel by the new King of Horror, Stephen King. What could possibly go wrong?

Boy, were some people in for a disappointment. Sure, there was plenty to marvel at in Kubrick’s The Shining—the gliding Steadicam shots, the larger-than-life production design and a bone chilling score are the vivid marks of a master filmmaker working at the top of his game. But all the technical and artistic joie de vivre in the world can’t revive a graveyard of missed opportunities. Or can they? Critics called the film stagy, muddled, heartless, wordy, deliberately paced and poorly contrived; while many fans of the book simply found Kubrick’s adaptation not scary enough. Stephen King himself accused Kubrick of having no apparent understanding of the genre, and not entirely without reason. Here was a horror film with no suspense hooks, no cheap thrills, no gratuitous gore, no snappy editing, no catharsis—what in bloody hell was Kubrick thinking he was adapting: Jane Austen? King compared the film to “a great big beautiful Cadillac with no motor inside. You can sit in it, and you can enjoy the smell of the leather upholstery—the only thing you can’t do is drive it anywhere.”

It makes you wonder what kept the engine running in King’s relentless page turner. The answer isn’t hard to find. As one of the finest practitioners of literary suspense, King never made a secret of it how much he values characterization. To use his words: “You have got to love the people… that allows horror to be possible.” Such a notion goes right back to the principles of Hitchcock, who frequently stressed that “fear depends upon the intensity of the public’s identification with the person who is in danger.” Audience identification: quite possibly the most fundamental ingredient for suspense. Identification? With these people? Kubrick makes it almost impossible for us to connect with the characters in his version of The Shining. Jack makes a pretty bonkers impression from the moment we lay eyes on him (not surprisingly, since Nicholson inhabited Milos Forman’s Cuckoo’s Nest five years earlier), and there isn’t a great deal to admire about his spouse Wendy either, who is neither pretty nor clever, and curiously devoid of female intuition. Sure, we care about the kid, but Danny’s split personality conversations with Tony—the boy that lives in his mouth—freak us out just as much. It’s not for nothing that King chose to portray Danny’s imaginary friend as a separate entity; that made his youngest character easier to like. And as far as the instantly sympathetic Halloran is concerned, well, you remember what happens to him…

It is evident that Kubrick had no intention to conform to expectations. He was following his own compass and waved a lot of the novel’s scare tactics good-bye. The question is why he seemed intent on poking fun at the rules of the genre, when he had such a fine example at his disposal. Such was King’s frustration that he initiated a four-and-a-half-hour TV mini-series that stayed faithful to the source material, aptly called Stephen King’s The Shining (1997). Nevertheless, even though King’s traditional emphasis on myth and psychology worked wonders for the novel, the same approach made the mini-series remarkably unremarkable. In fact, it only testified to the brilliance of Kubrick’s adaptation. Sometimes a different medium benefits from a different approach.

Since its initial lukewarm reception in 1980, the reputation of Kubrick’s film has steadily improved. Two decades after its release, British movie magazine Empire called out The Shining as the Scariest Movie of All Time, describing it as “the only horror film that gets scarier the more you see it.” The magazine had a point there: Repeated viewings of scary movies usually suffer from the Law of Diminishing Returns, but The Shining’s fear factor tends to grow with age.

True innovation always takes some getting used to: Kubrick’s film so drastically deconstructed the genre in which it operated that it falls flat when judged by conventional standards. That doesn’t mean it is a failure; it just means Kubrick once again altered the form to fit his idiosyncratic sensibilities. In this particular case, he moved the horror film beyond the primarily visceral level to the cerebral. What he ended up with in many ways represents the antithesis of King’s fiction. Taken on their own terms, though, the film and the book are equally frightening in a diametrically opposed fashion. Whereas the novel built suspense by means of interior monologue, Kubrick externalized the conflict and let his images do the real talking, the way a true visual stylist should.

Kubrick’s creation is open to an infinite number of readings, of course, but it’s fair to presume it is less about an all-American family being torn apart by a malevolent supernatural force than it is about, say, the trappings of social convention or one man’s struggle with his own insignificance. Jack suffers from some good-old existential angst, doomed as he is to aimlessly wander the inscrutable paths of Destiny’s maze, forever and ever and ever. Who can blame him, really, with the evil Overlook as his hermetically sealed universe. In nearly every shot, the hotel and its surroundings loom large over the Torrances, at once intimidating and claustrophobic. Kubrick frames the lobbies, rooms and corridors with an obsessive eye for realism and geography, consistently showing both the floor and the ceiling of each area through wide-angle lenses, as if we’re looking into a kid’s diorama. In sharp contrast with the almost reassuring use of darkness, shallow depth of field, skewed angles and subjective points of view that have become stereotypical of the Gothic haunted house flick, Kubrick disorientates the viewer with labyrinths bathed in broad daylight, crystal clear symmetry and curiously objective camerawork, evoking a distanced, Brechtian feel that in a substantial way discourages emotional involvement—the very purpose of suspense!—, and urges us to focus on the grander scheme of things. Meanwhile, page after page of dialogue is recited in long, lingering takes that would make Andrei Tarkovsky blush, giving the spectator oodles of time to contemplate the Big Picture. When Jack finally goes after Danny and Wendy, it’s not the sudden crush of his axe splitting through the door that forces an emotional response in us, and it’s not so much the apprehension of the kill or a lust for blood that gets us excited. Trivialities like these would only distract from what Kubrick sees as the real horror of the situation: the very idea of a father fucked-up enough to murder his own family. This Cadillac can drive alright; we just didn’t notice it moving.

Kubrick’s The Shining is constructed like a Cerebral Spiral that draws the spectator in with the kind of slow-burning tension that gets under your skin in retrospect, exactly because it appeals to sluggish thought processes rather than immediate instincts. By using our minds to trigger emotion, its scare tactic is considerably less direct than others, but those who are willing to take the detour are in for a long and bumpy ride. The thing about Kubrick’s bomb is that it’s not under, but on top of the table, where everyone including the protagonists can see it. We can try to defuse it, but we don’t know which wires to cut. We can try to escape the building, but we’ll get lost in its mazelike architecture looking for the Exit. And what’s more: that bomb on the table… it never goes off. Whereas the wicked in King’s novel comes from an external factor blown to pieces in the last act (along with the lost soul corrupted by its power), Kubrick’s film doesn’t offer such relief. Jack and the Overlook Hotel are not purged and destroyed in a climactic resolution, but literally frozen in time. There’s no release to the tension, no re-established status quo; Kubrick guides us all the way into his maze, offering endless possibilities for speculation, and then leaves us alone in a permanent state of uncertainty. Are we safe now or is the bomb still ticking? The epilogue only amplifies this lack of closure. When the camera closes in on Jack Torrance’s smiling presence in a group photograph taken in 1921, hanging in a corridor of the Overlook Hotel, does that mean he has found in reincarnation an escape route to the past, that his spectre has been absorbed by the hotel, or does Kubrick imply that time is of no relevance in purgatory? (Remember the words of Delbert Grady: “You have always been the caretaker.”) No matter what the answer is, the characters in The Shining are caught inside a perpetual loop, and each time we revisit their story, we enter a little lower on the downward spiral.

Few filmmakers had the balls to pick up on Kubrick’s groundbreaking experiment in fear, but some names should be mentioned. David Cronenberg’s filmography shifted from visceral to cerebral in the ’80s and ’90s, although the Canadian director never turned his back on the fetishistic body horror of his early work, which typically falls under the aforementioned Revelation Response category. Videodrome (1983), Dead Ringers (1988) and Crash (1996) flirt with cold existentialism in their own bizarre ways and share The Shining’s distancing storytelling techniques. So does the austere and highly disturbing Safe (1995), in which Todd Haynes terrorizes Julianne Moore as well as the viewer with a thought-provoking concept called “environmental illness.” To this day, the Cerebral Spiral remains the most easily misunderstood alternative to suspense. During a press-screening at the Venice Film Festival, Jonathan Glazer’s metaphysical Birth got booed by an audience that took its risqué subject matter at face value. Seasoned auteur Paul Schrader went through the humiliating process of having his finished film Exorcist: The Beginning rejected and completely remade by Renny “Deep Blue Sea” Harlin, for being introspective and cerebral instead of fun. “Let’s not kid ourselves,” Morgan Creek executive James G. Robinson told L.A. Weekly about his odd decision, “this is the entertainment business.” Coming from the man who brought us Freejack and Soldier, this is a notion decidedly scarier than the released end result.

Augmenting the Dread Palette

Fair enough: In the realm of audio-visual pyrotechnics, it is doubtful that filmmakers will ever discover a better recipe for gun powder than good old suspense. On the other hand, with a larger variety of alternative recipes to mix and mess around with, the door to a more lethal combination is still wide open. Hitchcock spent an entire career pioneering and developing devious cinematic devices as a means to thrill his audience in the most effective way possible. The thought of four daubs of extra paint on his Dread Palette might not have been so disagreeable to the Master of Suspense after all.

Alternative tension-building techniques like the Hidden Threat, the Revelation Response, the Pavlovian Minefield and the Cerebral Spiral do not undermine the strengths of the golden suspense formula, but they do enrich the filmic vocabulary. It is precisely this enrichment—a wider range of choice rather than the individual potential of said alternatives—that can be seen as progress. And progression is what this medium needs, for as any Latin professor can assure you: a language that stands still is a dead one.

Peet Gelderblom directs, edits and develops commercials, TV programs and broadcast design in Amsterdam. He founded 24LiesASecond, for which he wrote and edited several essays, and is the twisted cartoonist behind Directorama (the website as well as the book).