“Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know…”
-Traditional Irish Proverb
Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House was the first book I read that scared me. There have been a handful of others since. But no literary work has chilled its way into the bone of my story-fascinated body quite with the same permanence as Jackson’s novel. This lingering, lifelong scar is attributable in no small part to a singular scene. While walking around the purportedly haunted house at night, Theodora sees something behind Eleanor and screams for Eleanor to run. The two take off on foot, and whatever it is that Theodora saw giving chase is never described, only the expressive terror on her face and voice.
Jackson, like many great horror novelist, was a skilled cartographer working within the dark landscape of the human psyche. Her exploration of the subconscious went far beyond the minds of her characters. One of her most impressive tools was Jackson’s ability to contract the imagination of her readers to do her work for her. It is a high form of storytelling that allows a great storyteller to hand the narrative over to the stimulated and now uncontrollable imagination of the audience.
Regardless of the format, the application of this technique is one of the least applied and most effective tools of modern narrative artists. In film, the method of turning the camera away has produced moments that are profoundly more effective than any onscreen scene or frame. The visual and audio construction of the art form and the subsequent expectation of witness allows the unseen event to fulfill any number of functions.
A.) The Merciful Act
Sometimes, an event is left from the screen as an act of mercy from the filmmaker. Often times, this need is dictated as much by culturally-defined decency, studio demands, and the emotional maturity of the audience as much as it is motivated by artistic pursuit. An obvious and relatable example of the mercifully unseen movie event occurs in the Disney animated classic Bambi. Early drafts of the script called for Bambi’s mother to absorb the fatal bullet of the hunter onscreen. Even as it stands, Bambi inspires every child’s first experience with clinical depression, but had Disney held to that initial direction, America might have been sent into a spiraling cycle of insurmountable Great Depressions. Even with the hunter never displayed, enough information is provided before (the gun shots, the frantic scramble) and after (the disappearance of the mother, Bambi’s worried, unanswered cries for help) for viewers of any age to deduce the harsh reality. The devastating effect is uncompromised, the emotional punch is uninhibited, but the jarring, vulgar exhibition is totally avoided.
While Bambi offers the most familiar example, Fritz Lang’s early serial killer drama M set a precedent in craft in similar purpose. M was presented in 1931, the late dawn of the art form, and, at the time, presenting a narrative built upon the murder of children was a particularly difficult proposition. However, the storyline necessitates a child murder be communicated. So, after opening with children in the street offering creepy lyrical allusions to the presence of a neighborhood murderer, we see a child walk up to and bounce a ball off of a wanted poster. The camera moves the frame closer until all we see is the sign and the tossed ball. A silhouette moves into the shot and speaks the child. The movie cuts then to a mother waiting and searching eagerly for her child. No murder is shown, but the impression of murder is enough to jar the viewer as thoroughly as any onscreen killing.
B.) Amplifying the Violence
In Quentin Tarantino’s first and arguably best feature, one scene sets itself apart in the collective cultural memory. Everyone remembers the toe-curling and maniacal sadism of the “ear scene” in Reservoir Dogs. But it takes a steady-sighted revisit to distinguish that the camera moves away from the actual ear-cutting. Michael Madsen’s deliberate taunting dance, the ironic and misplaced classic tune, and the police officer’s anguished screams communicate the violence before the camera cuts back to trickling blood. And yet, as viewers, we can’t help but grimace, to grit our teeth and clinch our fists, to want to turn away, probably more so than we might have if the small-budget movie had opted to attempt to present the act of mutilation.
Similarly, David Fincher’s Se7en is a film that leaves the impression of unsettling violence, but until its final act, it is more a collection of victims than crimes. Detectives Mills and Somerset (Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman) arrive too late to every crime scene. An ominous and harsh score, atmospheric production value, and gruesome scene arrangement elevate this murder mystery far above its peers, lesser movies that fall into less haunting allure of immediate violence.
C.) Turning Off the Lights
As stated at the outset, sometimes the most effective path to terror is to simply turn off the lights and leave the victim to imagine the possibility. The third application of the strategic unseen movie event offers just that. In some of film history’s greatest horror works, the scariest moment are those in which the screen shows nothing, but the mind of the viewer fills in the blank segments of the script.
Consider Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. With the alcoholic, self-destructive context provided by the backstory and Nicholson’s standard unhinged performance, nearly the entire movie subjects itself to a possible interpretation of madness-rather-than-haunting. Everything seemingly paranormal could, in theory, just be the delusion of a damaged, schizophrenic brain. Except for one moment, an event unseen by the audience. When the pantry door is unlocked, with a slight sound effect and a sliding lock fixture, the entire story is turned on its head. A physical, inexplicable act. The instant is never revisited, Jack’s rescuer is never revealed, but that singular moment, which also opens the figurative door to a tidal wave of unexplained imagery (that damn dog suit, particularly), displays the most brilliant decision-making instant in all of horror.
Similarly, 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, a distinct and prominent cornerstone for both viral marketing and found footage films, applied the same application of camera blind terror. The first act of the fake documentary constructs for the viewer the legacy of the Blair Witch hauntings and Rustin Parr’s murders, through stories told by local interviewees. These details are recalled in the film’s final moments, leaving the the witch and Rustin Parr unseen, leaving the fimmakers tormentors’ unidentified, and leaving the viewers with a goose bump-inducing equation to solve as the screen cuts out. Ultimately, the lingering, unanswered questions contain the sort of succinctly packaged terror that lesser horror films lack the patience to pursue.
D.) Thematic Contextualizing
When Butch and Sundance run guns ablazin’ into a hail storm of bullets from Bolivian forces, the camera freezes and sepia tones seep into the held frame, rendering what amounts to an aged photograph. What is lost that might have been gained had the camera followed them through this final adventure? Given the direction and intent of the movie up to this point– a measure of unbreakable fraternal comradery and a shared devil-may-care spirit– isn’t this the more comfortable and fitting closing image? Does the eventual escape or more likely defeat matter as much as closing with the two brothers framed together for what might be one last time? By stopping the reel here, Director George Roy Hill has punctuated every strained statement made toward the relationship between these two characters.
From heroic elevation to thematic degradation: In the under-appreciated Coen Brothers’ character study from 2009, A Serious Man, we see a final shot that lands a sucker punch on the exact worn area where the rest of the movie has thrown jabs. The impending tornado moving directly toward the main character’s son is one of the most riveting and religiously provoking images in all of film. A Serious Man is Job-like in its intention, taking measure of a Biblical (if darkly comedic) onslaught of bad fortune, suggestively brought on from up high. With the funnel cloud showing up after an unexpected turn of good luck for the protagonist, the final image works as a twist-of-the-unsubtle-sword. This last divine image emboldens what so far had been presented as the seeming cruelty of God so that we see it against the smallness of man; where before, God/fate seemed a malicious tormentor, there is now an entity beyond measure from the human perspective. While it might seem absurd to roll credits at this point, in the hands of America’s best modern filmmakers, the editing works in perfect keeping with the film’s thematic intent– measuring miniscule man against a ruler of divine and infinite length.
If you couldn’t tell from the last provided example, I’m a a die-hard Coen fan, and luckily for everyone, this particular topic allows a second evaluation of Coen film mastery. Specifically, it would be wasteful to explore the subject of the unseen in film without a focused consideration of No Country for Old Men, which uses hidden events in ways that account for all four of the previously mentioned methods. The Cormac McCarthy film adaptation contains not one, but two major off-screen deaths communicated through context clues before and after. Both hero veteran Llewellyn Moss and his innocent wife Carla Jean meet execution style deaths at the hands of a Mexican mob and cold killer and Biblical force Anton Chigurh. Pulling these deaths out of perspective accomplishes the following:
A.) The movie mercifully saves the viewer from having to watch the hero and his endearingly wife meet their end, but still manages to pinch the viewers’ guts in emotional anguish.
B.) The cutaways amplify the unspeakable cold violence with which these two characters are dispatched, which proves to be much more unbearable than watching the onscreen death would have been.
C.) From a squinting perspective, Anton Chigurh is a movie monster. His presence is terrifying and his murders horrific. “Turning off the lights” as he occupies the room with Carla Jean leaves the viewer frightened by the stressful final moments of the movie’s most likable character.
D.) At its heart, the story of No Country for Old Men is one of the human condition left helpless to time and fate. In the traditional movie structure, Llewelyn Moss walks away an underdog hero with his wife either in his arm or in safe keeping. But in this movie, fate, personified by Anton Chigurh (a manifestation not unlike A Serious Man‘s tornado), renders Carla Jean and Llewelyn obsolete, expendable, not even worthy of a displayed end. They are trash left on a hotel floor, organic material wiped from the bottom of a shoe.
Thus, the Coen’s latest masterpiece exemplifies the power of the unseen in film. If a better example exists, it slips my mind, and that’s why we have a comment section.