While watching a movie for review recently I was stunned by how much I got into the atmosphere of the film regardless of my reservations about the rest of its content. Nothing beats a film that is successful on all levels including storyline, dialogue, acting and direction but atmosphere, it seems to me, is something special, particularly in the realm of horror. A part of me in fact, feels capable of forgiving a film’s failure in other areas if it is able to capture that certain something elusive that many neglect to. To me, there is a certain magical element to a film’s atmosphere and it goes beyond just capturing a flashy image. It’s a marriage of sound, tone, color and stance that can offer the viewer a rewarding experience even when other areas of the movie may disappoint.
I’m going to do myself a huge solid by not trying to attempt to cover all of the films I want to talk about in one single post, this will be an ongoing series. I’m also going to treat myself to not using any kind of numerical rating system. You’ll see that all of the movies mentioned will range greatly in overall quality but that they share one thing in common. These are movies that, to me, capture a gratifying ambience even if only momentarily. My hope is to go beyond speaking about how they simply look on a visual level and talk more about the overall feeling or mood established.
So let’s get started, that top image of the castle that I used for the post’s title card is from WILLIAM PETER BLATTY’s 1980 film THE NINTH CONFIGURATION. Here BLATTY worked with cinematographer GERRY FISHER who he teamed up with again for the equally excellent THE EXORCIST III. I was going to write about how I wished that BLATTY directed more often but I’m not sure if we, as an audience, even deserve such a thing. Maybe let’s all appreciate the incredible work he has already gifted us with and then perhaps we’ll deserve more of his fascinating work.
At first glance we have a traditional foreboding castle dunked in fog but this is no ordinary castle, it’s being used as a mental institution. I think those hanging branches work well as a stand in for bars of a cage. The shattering effect of the twigs cracking outward could also represent vision through a fractured mind. This shot is used early in the film and instantly sets a sense of place. Cold isolation prevails and we are informed that we are far off the beaten track. If you haven’t seen NINTH yet, get on it quick, not only will it blow your mind but you’ll also get to meet a very young TOM ATKINS.
Can you believe this shot is from THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES? You know, I really like this film and I hardly mention it because it’s stuck in some “thriller” isle in my head (working in a video store for years will do that to you.) It’s so good though and the type of horror it instills is the superior kind that opens your mind and really makes you wonder. It was filmed in Kittanning, PA and you may recognize some locations from 2009’s MY BLOODY VALENTINE which was filmed there too. I have Pennsylvania all through my blood so maybe I’m extra susceptible to this film’s environment. There’s an off-putting collision between woodsy nature and the run down industrial throughout. (Don’t be put off by RICHARD GERE and DEBRA MESSING being in this movie, it’s good enough to survive even that.) The current for much of the film reminds me of waking up in the middle of the night and walking about before your eyes have had a chance to focus. Nothing is clear but everything is clearly “off.”
Here is another director I feel I have to defend, JOE DANTE. This guy truly had the goods and it’s a shame that his talent wasn’t nurtured in the direction that it should have been. Creating an ominous forest atmosphere at night is challenging enough but just look what DANTE is able to achieve during the day in 1981’s THE HOWLING! There is a fairy tale aspect but it never loses a sense of the recognizable. We get the idea that the everyday could transform into the fantastic at any given moment. Besides establishing truly wonderful outdoor dioramas, the film opens on the direct opposite side of the thematic fence thrusting us into neon mazes of urban sex shop sleaze. These woods are where one would expect to escape unseemliness but in DANTE’s paws, the audience is well aware that danger is still around every corner.
It’s almost too easy throwing LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH on to the operating table. This film, directed by JOHN D. HANCOCK, oozes atmosphere like a squashed donut oozes jelly. For the most part it’s like an ethereal waking dream as viewed through cheesecloth. I had my pick of hundreds of haunting moments to choose from but I had to select this more earthbound and blatant capture. First of all, nothing beats authentic locations, the SCARE JESSICA house absolutely has a personality all its own. I love how the center of the frame is split down the middle by the weathered road. Although Jessica is outdoors she seems trapped, in fact, it rather looks like she’s being chased by a giant house and tree! She appears bullied by her surroundings, a doll-like plaything to the fates. I’m quite confident that I will never fully understand what is going on in this movie and I like that. Why should the viewer get all of the answers while Jessica flaps around like a confused goldfish that fell out of its bowl?
The hardest part for me about selecting images based solely on atmosphere was not picking films with snowy winter backdrops EVERY time. I knew my fetish going in so I’ve tried to steer myself away from it as much as I could. The fact remains though that snowy horror movies kick ass and there’s just nothing I can do to change that. 1987’s DEAD OF WINTER directed by ARTHUR PENN was obviously meant to elbow HITCHCOCK but for me it mostly registers as snow porn. Yes I admit it, this old biddy bait curls my toes and would you please be a dear and fetch me my afghan? What I’ve grown to notice is that this pet favorite’s persuasive atmosphere is not solely kept to the outdoors as the above image testifies. Wow, that’s MARY STEENBURGEN and doesn’t that resemble the cover of some potboiler gothic paperback from the sixties? The chance of any of the happenings in this mousetrap identity swap mystery occurring in the real world are a million to nil but if you muzzle your critical mind, the cozy, parlor game aspect of it pays off in spades.
While we’re on the subject of snow, let’s just get this one out of the way now, as it is perhaps the epitome of what I’m talking about. It is probably complete utter madness to expect a mortal being to translate the sheer epic phantasmagorical quality of PETER STRAUB’s magnum opus GHOST STORY to the big screen. It ‘s kind of like trying to shove a zeppelin into a fanny-pack. Those who have read the book may be able to fill in the blanks but a standard theatrical running time just isn’t enough time to do the tale justice (someone get on the snow ball and do a miniseries, please!) Although the screenplay and running time fail the subject matter, nobody has a right to complain about the aura created by director JOHN IRVIN with notable visual assists by ALBERT WHITLOCK. I’ve always hankered for a bit more of DICK SMITH’s fantastic make-up effects on display but the truth is some of the film’s most lingering chills come from its more vague illusions. The above shot is one of my all time favorites and I’d put it in league with ROBERT WISE’s delicately brutal hand in THE HAUNTING (1963). Like a bug in amber, a pristine moment is caught where an image starts to form… seemingly from nothing. It’s a forced a-ha moment that keeps the viewer cautious throughout the rest of the film.
ALEJANDRO AMENABAR’s 2001 film THE OTHERS’ only crime is following in the footsteps of THE SIXTH SENSE which came out the year before. Both films close with similar rug pulls but if you want to talk oppressive atmosphere THE OTHERS runs rings. There probably aren’t many shots in the film that are not impeccable but I find the one above exceptionally satisfying considering the story. Is the great monstrous mass of fog erasing the world or are we looking at an unfinished canvas that some unseen creator has neglected to continue with? The lonely figure sweeping the stairs suggests that some semblance of existence must go on either way. I think it’s a gorgeously somber way to present a dwelling filled with characters that our world has unknowingly left behind.
Have you ever just wanted to grab TIM BURTON by the shoulders and shake him? I know I sure as hell have. When he’s not acting goofy he’s capable of sublime beauty and when he eases up and lets it flow, he’s a true force. Unfortunately, some of his films unnecessarily ramble into knots of convoluted crapitude. Take SLEEPY HOLLOW for example, what a drop dead gorgeous looking film. BURTON’s even able to believably capture a time period where people were just barely living off the land and still had one foot stuck in the muck of ancient fears. It’s really a shame that the plot ends up ravaging everything earned. WASHINGTON IRVING’s Headless Horseman needs little garnish. It’s a simple tale and as such, it has prodded goose bumps out of anyone who has heard it for hundreds of years. BURTON’s movie tries too hard, throws too many unswallowable spices into the pot and ends up some kind of weird porridge but again, there’s nothing like it as far as atmosphere goes. I learned to approach SLEEPY HOLLOW as I would a beautiful buffoon. I smile, nod, take in the scenery and let it babble on. Jeez, check out how in the above image the kid’s posture echoes that of the gravestone in the background; one of several perfect moments in an imperfect film.
GARY SHERMAN’s DEAD AND BURIED has loads of atmosphere but damn if it’s not difficult to capture in one shot. The visual style of the film is pretty straight forward and often times murky. To best experience the seaside town of Potter’s Bluff in all its glory you have to collect bits and shards throughout the film and just wade in the accumulative effect. The film within the film is a different story altogether, it’s an avalanche of gritty and disturbing imagery that’s way ahead of its time. Decades later this type of trash chic would pop up everywhere from FIONA APPLE videos to underwear ads, not to mention tiny indie flicks nobody has ever heard of like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Whereas something truly low budget like BLAIR and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE wore its own jeans to work and allowed its grunge to speak for itself, DEAD AND BURIED consciously uses this hand held, dipped in sewer gruff in contrast to the rest of the film. The startling effect places the viewer into the chair of an unwitting co-witness to debauchery and murder. Hey, guess what? You’re watching a snuff film! The capture above speaks for itself; we’re voyeurs being peeped on by a voyeur. There’s barely any distinction between indoors and out and we’re caught red handed in his gaze.
We can’t talk about atmosphere and not bow toward producer VAL LEWTON and director JACQUES TOURNEUR. Their 1942 psycho-sexual game changing stunner CAT PEOPLE laps up mood like milk. Creating a dark shadowy world that echoed the psyche of the film’s characters was the first order of business for these two. I want to make sure that I impress that good atmosphere is not all about the weather outside and gloomy vistas. This simple, intimate living room scene of Oliver (KENT SMITH) and Irena (SIMONE SIMON) communicating their fears illustrates that human figures make great landscapes as well. Check out the body language with smitten Oliver lying back on the couch and repressed Irene straddling the fence so to speak. It’s all about them and they may as well be the owl and the pussy cat off to sea in a beautiful pea green boat. You don’t have to guess who the pussy cat is, just check out the cat ear shadow provided by the chair in the background!
I think we’ll be seeing more of LEWTON and TOURNEUR in future episodes of “Atmospheria,” but this is a good place for us to part ways for now.
Keep the fireplace burning kiddies, you never know what the shadows hide!