Feb 3, 2010

Threalism (Thrilling Realism)

After finally getting around to seeing The Blair Witch Project today, I asked myself, "what makes this kind of horror/thriller/mystery movie so effective?" The first key point that sprung to mind was the sense of realism, portrayed by a number of factors:
  • The use of a hand-held camera as opposed to relying on tripods, tracks, jibs etc, which creates the sense of experiencing the film ourselves as an audience.
  • The rawness of the documentary film style. Heather, a character from the BWP even states that she wanted to keep her film raw and real, with nothing cut out. So unlike genre film, with these films it feels like you're watching unedited footage. Like a family video, only sprinkled with the elements of horror.
  • The limitations of the 4:3 aspect ratio as used in The BWP, which means we see less. I found this highly effective in this film because there were many scenes shot at night when it was pitch black in the woods, and all the characters had were a torchlight each - which makes the fear of not being able to see everything or more even frightening. I guess it also affected me more because I'm living in a wide-screen world. This could be a plus for effect.
  • Direction is highly important, I've found. I'd read some IMDB trivia of BWP about what the directors did to the actors in order to further create that sense of realism:

    • "The actors were given no more than a 35-page outline of the mythology behind the plot before shooting began. All lines were improvised and nearly all the events in the film were unknown to the three actors beforehand, and were often on-camera surprises to them all."
    • "To promote discord between actors, the directors deliberately gave them less food each day of shooting."
    • "In a scene where the main actors are sleeping in a tent at night, the tent suddenly shakes violently and they all get scared. This was unscripted and the director shook the tent."
    • "The three leads believed the Blair Witch was a real legend during filming, though of course they knew the film was going to be fake. Only after the film's release did they discover that the entire mythology was made up by the film's creators.
      (Now, I don't know if these pieces of trivia are true, or perhaps slithers of rumours spread around the internet, but I believe them and it shows the kinds of techniques these directors use in order to bring the best out of their actors. I love that kind of directing.)

  • The way the film is marketed (especially pre-release in order to gain audiences) proves to be a vital factor in the overall effect of the film on the audience. Take Paranormal Activity for example. The film was completed in 2007, yet didn't get properly released till 2009. It made its success over the internet, where it gathered so much attention and interest that it was eventually picked up by Paramount Pictures for its own nationwide theatrical release. The BWP had used an alternative, slightly 'interactive' strategy to bring attention to the film by using "missing" posters of the three characters in the film, which they first used at Sundance. Again, I love hearing about these sorts of alternative marketing strategies for a film.
It really excites me when I hear about alternative ways of film-making on small budgets, like Paranormal Activity's USD$15,000 budget, which eventually profited in the millions. And marketing strategies like what the BWP did with posters and the use of the internet's ability to spread information (before the film was released, the actors' pages had stated their deaths that corresponded with the film's story). It's clever film-making, and I love it.

That aside, it seems the use of realism in film-making to thrill tends to be more effective on an audience. In 1999, The Blair Witch Project made it either frightening to enter the woods, or ecstatically thrilling to enter the woods in search of myths; while in 2009, Paranormal Activity brought a similar investigative horror/thriller/mystery documentary film into our homes, and into our very own bedrooms. Just typing that gave me the creeps.

With that being said, I may just put on some light comedy tonight before going to bed. Heh.

(If and when you have the chance to see Paranormal Activity, please do so! I highly recommend it.)

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