Sometimes, the subtle approach is more effective than the average jump scare or gory scene in a horror film. By focusing on the small details, the audience gets an in-depth look into a character’s background, providing us with even more to be scared of. In Psycho, for example, the main character’s obsessive nature is vital to our fear of him. In modern psychopath thrillers, characters who are meticulous and finicky can creep us out more than those who possess opposite traits.
In contrast to some of the over-the-top gore or maniacal behaviour we’re used to seeing in mainstream slasher films, “quieter” films such as Stoker and Piercing prove that the tension is in the details. The stifled nature of these films and their characters suggest a need to eschew such excess and focus on the smaller-scale aspects of a scene or character to provide the scares. In amplifying those details or focusing on a character’s obsessive tendencies, we are able to pick up on more than just what’s on the surface. Hidden in those details are tension, suspense, and hints to some unnerving identity which could either help us understand a character’s reasoning or make us even more scared of them.
We see this in Psycho’s Norman Bates, whose affinity for taxidermy is highlighted nearly as soon as we meet him. We see him shrewdly tidying up his room full of stuffed animals and it’s hard to believe Hitchcock included this detail to endear him to us. Without the inclusion of this unique hobby, we might be less inclined to believe Norman is capable of what unfolds later on in the film. The same goes for Park Chan-wook’s psychological thriller Stoker, which sees Mia Wasikowska play a teenager who becomes obsessed with murder after her father dies. We watch the layers of this character’s sweeping descent unfold through her intense self-possession, which is personified in her clothing. India is a stoic character and, much like Norman, she teeters on the edge of normalcy and psychosis. We don’t know if she’s actually insane or just misunderstood until the very end of the film. A look into the details, however, might suggest otherwise. India’s clothes are painstakingly symmetrical, and her reticent demeanour might hint at a need for perfection.
These characters can show us what it means to become unhinged. Two scenes in Psycho and the upcoming horror-thriller Piercing, mirror each other in that the male characters, Norman and Reed (played by Christopher Abbott), meticulously plan and act out their murders before they even occur. By watching them execute their plans, step-by-step, we are being given several more layers of fear. Not only do we now anticipate watching a murder unfold, we also wonder if and how it will play out differently; will the killer forget a step? Will someone interrupt him? Will the victim act according to the killer’s plan? If something goes wrong, how will the killer react? In Piercing, something does go wrong and Reed is forced to act quick. What unravels is a glorious cat-and-mouse chase, in which you don’t know who has control until the very end. It’s doubtful that such a dynamic could exist and be as suspenseful had we not learned of Reed’s anal tendencies.
It can be somewhat more enjoyable to watch these campy and obsessive traits come forward in subtle ways; to watch a character twitch when he sees his stuffed bird is out of place, or when the patterns on a dress reflect the dark and rigid inner workings of a character. The contrast between the gore than often comes with horror films and these perfectionist characters is interesting to look at. Why are such scrupulous, oftentimes neat and seemingly put-together people interested in something as messy as murder? It’s much more intriguing, I would think, for a director to explore at length the many answers to such a question, as opposed to straight up slasher films which don’t tend to give their killers much background aside from a penchant for killing. Those films can be entertaining, but the slow-burning, tension-filled works pioneered by the likes of Hitchcock and continued in films made today can be just as thrilling.
by Alexandra Colatosti
Alexandra Colatosti is a freelance writer based in Montreal. She will be graduating with a degree in Journalism and Film Studies at Concordia University in late 2018. She loves all kinds of film, especially horror and sci-fi. She also enjoys the classics but finds it hard to watch them on any old screen. Her favourite directors are Michelangelo Antonioni, John Cassavetes and Paul Thomas Anderson. Some of her most beloved films include A Woman Under the Influence, Metropolitan, La Dolce Vita and Dazed and Confused. You can find her ranting and raving about movies, among other things, onTwitter or check out some of her other work here.
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