Atmospherics, Creature Design, and Bad Horror
Over the weekend I managed to pull off a horror double-header. I went to the theater and watched the latest Conjuring Universe film, The Nun, then came home and watched Damien Leone’s ode to 1980s slasher flicks Terrifier. Though the two movies don’t have a lot in common—The Nun is an old school haunted house movie and Terrifier is a campy gore-fest—I nonetheless found an odd through-line between them.
Between the two, Terrifier is by far the better movie. It’s inventive, gory as hell, equal parts creepy and funny. In short, it’s all the things you’d expect from a horror film. But what stood out the most was that the antagonist, Art the Clown, doesn’t utter a single sound the entire runtime of the movie. While this isn’t the first time this has been done by any means (Michael Myers in Halloween and Jason in Friday the 13th come most readily to mind) it’s one of the first times I recall a horror villain being such a fully-realized and expressive character without using words. Michael Myers and Jason Voorhies both hide behind masks, which make them unknowable and menacing, and that serves the narrative of both film franchises. It makes Michael and Jason perfect ciphers for the changing tastes of horror fans. Since they are unknowable, they can mean anything. Art the Clown is a different sort of silent monster. He’s shown most often in bright light. He moves slowly, and then quick as a spider, all the while pantomiming his glee at the carnage he’s causing. He’s terrifying because we can see the human being beneath the grease paint We can see the manic glint in his eye, and yet we have no idea why his reasons for anything he’s doing. Just like in the real world, where definitive answers (especially in cases of serial murder) are so difficult to come by, such a baldly violent and quixotic character as Art the Clown is both hyper-realistic and just odd enough to be a convincing fictional boogeyman.
Though all the other characters in Terrifier speak and scream and breathe loudly, the eerie effectiveness of Art the Clown’s silence calls into question the necessity of sound at all. With John Krasinski’s brilliant A Quiet Place still ringing in our ears, one has to wonder whether sound design is a bit of crutch for most horror directors. A screech here, a howl there. Too often sounds are used as replacements for horror ingredients that are much harder to pull off: atmospherics, great creature design, and above all empathetic acting. It’s not surprising really, given the often low budgets of most horror films, that most lack one or more of these key ingredients. Atmospherics require tremendous skill in the directing and DP positions, creature design often requires money, and great actors rarely work at the budgetary levels of most of these movies. Still, no genre is capable of teasing out amazing experiences from these raw ingredients for almost no money quite like the horror genre.
After-all, horror deals in something fundamental: fear. But more than that, it can incorporate the full range of human emotions through a medium that is both enjoyable, entertaining, and deeply cathartic. As the Master himself put it in the foreword to his short story collection, Night Shift:
“When you read horror, you don't really believe what you read. You don't believe in vampires, werewolves, trucks that suddenly start up and drive themselves. The horrors that we all do believe in are of the sort that Dostoyevsky and Albee and MacDonald write about: hate, alienation, growing lovelessly old, tottering out into a hostile world on the unsteady legs of adolescence. We are, in our real everyday worlds, often like the masks of Comedy and Tragedy, grinning on the outside, grimacing on the inside. There's a central switching point somewhere inside, a transformer, maybe, where the wires leading from those two masks connect. And that is the place where the horror story so often hits home.”
It’s no wonder, then, that horror, more than other genres, can still do its job wonderfully well without the aid of sound or even words. There’s a reason so many of the earliest films were obsessed with the supernatural. From Georges Méliès’ impressionist masterpiece A Trip to the Moon (Le voyage dans la lune) and the first film version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1910 to Nosferatu and the Universal Monsters of the 1920’s-1950’s, horror and the supernatural dominated the early days of film because horror can tell a complete story with nothing more than atmospherics, creatures, and actors. Words are unnecessary for the genre.
Which is why Terrifier succeeds, because it manages to master 2 of the 3 key ingredients. The film’s limited abandoned warehouse setting, alternating light composition, and instantly iconic main baddie overcome the general abysmal acting to create a memorable addition to the horror canon. That the movie has so few words is a testament to how unnecessary they are to effective horror filmmaking.
The Nun also proves this rule, albeit because the movie somehow manages to build picture perfect atmospherics, great creature design, and good acting into a depressingly boring horror film. How is it possible a film could possess all three key horror ingredients yet still be ineffective? It comes down to the words. There are simply too many of them in The Nun, and so many of them tear holes in the narrative. It would have been a much better movie if the filmmakers had taken a few lessons from Terrifier and perhaps the history of film in general. When you have an amazing creature, a haunted abbey, and great physical actors, keep it simple, stupid, and tear a few pages of dialogue out of the script.