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Anti-Suspense Thrillers

August 1, 2013

Thrillers are for thrills, not vague irritation

Picture the scene; you are watching a film that has been branded a ‘psychological thriller’. You know, then, that whatever the main aggravation for the protagonist, it is going to be something inside their own head. Knowing this, a good director will have tried to integrate a little mystery as to what this mental affliction might be and keeps you guessing. It could be agoraphobia, or claustrophobia. Something is going to tip this character over the edge – the interest lies in what it is, what has caused it and what inevitable tragedies it will cause.

Tension is mounting. You are beginning to find out more about the protagonist and their situation. The beginnings of empathy are forming and you know that something is going to happen soon… Then it happens. With a blast of noise from the soundtrack which is the musical equivalent of a small child yelling “Boo!” at the top of their lungs, a large creature, monster, face of the past, or other such threatening figure leaps out into the screen in a blaze of drama. You jump out of your skin and your heart makes a bid for freedom from your ribcage. As it settles down, you are able to bring your attention back far enough to realise that the threatening character is not so much of a threat after all. Maybe it is just the protagonist’s mum, bursting into the room to offer them a cup of tea.

As you give a passing glance at the clock, you notice that the film is only half-way through. How strange, you think. Strange to have such an out-of-the-blue, dramatic scene right in the middle, only to return back to normality as if nothing had happened. It’s almost as if the picture itself was high jacked, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers style. This is not, however, a one-off occurrence. Before you know it, there is another intrusively loud, heart-leaping moment, seemingly unrelated to the first and with no signpost or warning. On a line graph, the tension levels would look like a gradual slope, followed by a giant spike, then a dip and a gradual rise once more. At this point, you might start to feel annoyed; similar to how you would feel if you were sitting in serene silence and your younger sibling suddenly leapt out in front of you and blew a loud raspberry in your face.

The movie will continue along this path, right up until the end. You imagine that at some point, the director looked at their film and said “This is not intense enough! No one will take it seriously!” Before you know it, all hell has broken lose and the picture is ridden with complete anarchy. The climax will come and rather than feel the shock and awe that is obviously intended, you will feel exhaustion and confusion. You will wonder how it is that you are supposed to be impressed by an ending comprised of the surprise appearance of some big, strange jumpy-thing when the entire end half of the film was taken up with exactly that. After a record breaking number of heart poundings, your capacity to care about the film and its protagonist will have slowly withered and died.

Such is typical of a number of thrillers in this style. Black Swan, well received by most audiences and critics, has more plot twists and turns and uncomfortable dangling periods than a broken roller coaster, then expects you to be taken aback by the twist at the end. The first hour is punctuated by the odd human, humorous moment, but unfortunately this is abandoned in favour of wall-to-wall action, intent on misleading you and making you unable to tell if the protagonist is asleep, awake, hallucinating, imagining or whether all these bizarre things are actually happening. Actually, the film is amusing in its second half; however, one gets the impression that this is unintentional.

Similarly, the much older British film Revulsion has the same problem. The first half is concerned with developing the well-considered characters and setting up for the second half, which is devoted to things literally popping out of the walls. The style just does not seem to be in keeping with the beginning of the film; if you turned off the television in the middle and turned it back on again, you might be under the impression that you were watching two completely different pictures. Even more strangely, the exact same scene with cracks appearing in the walls occurs several times; by the time the end arrives, the impact has worn off somewhat.

Both these films, whilst enjoyable and with an interesting plot or initial idea, may disappoint the people who prefer a more smooth gradation of suspense. Alfred Hitchcock, dubbed the ‘Master of Suspense’, showed in many of his features that a slow build up to a finale is a sure-fire recipe for success. The use of anticlimax has become frequent, yet it is more often disappointing than it is engaging. Other directors might also do well to consider that old rule of films in the horror genre; It’s not what you see, it’s what you don’t see…

One of the lesser known films by director Steven Spielberg is a thriller called Duel. In Duel, our protagonist is driving across the dry, hot Nevada landscape with long, empty roads miles from civilisation, when he finds that he is being chased by an antagonist with a hidden face driving a large truck. We never find out why. We know nothing about our protagonist, or the antagonist. There is barely any dialogue; instead a rapid, intense internal monologue by the main character maps his increasingly paranoid thought processes while the camera gives us an attractive close-up of the sweat beads forming on his brow. Quiet and unassuming, Duel works because you can feel the gripping terror of being completely alone and unaided, pursued by an unseen and very real threat.

Psychological thrillers are different because the threat is in the character’s own head and is therefore inescapable. When the threat is on the outside, it can be defeated; perhaps with a few explosions and a lot of gunfire whilst men with rippled muscles swear at each other. Short of shooting yourself in the head, Fight Club style, there is no such easy way to rid yourself of the demons in your mind. This should be the setup of a tense and often terrifying thriller, but instead these types often turn out to be nothing more than strange and slightly amusing, with forces of the supernatural barging in and detracting from its credibility. This is a shame and if the genre is to improve, film makers should remember that not everybody is still afraid by things that go bump in the night.

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