Saturday, 21 May 2011

Psychological Film Review Essay

Psychological Horror in Film

Every feature of a psychological horror film is intended to build tension, confuse and twist with the minds of the audience. Character Director Sato Takayoshi explains “Psychological horror has to shake the human heart deeply. (this means) uncovering people’s core emotion and their core motivation for life.” He goes on to state that some areas to focus on are “Sex and Death” (Hantke:2004:123) as these are things on the minds of people in daily life. Camera angles, filters, lighting, sounds, actors and settings all contribute to the intense portrayals of dark narratives. Many films centre around one character, a protagonist and their families or people closest to them. The events of the film traditionally have a tragic and traumatic result for the protagonist and the audience are left to see the reactions of the friends. Using examples from Brad Anderson’s ‘The Machinist’ (2004), the protagonist Trevor Resnik's physical appearance is one of the first features depicted to the audience, and an element of why the audience becomes disturbed by his story. Actor Christian Bale lost 60 pounds for the role leaving his body practically skeletal. His physical appearance is tragic. Pale and malnourished as if the life is being sucked out of him. Along with the characters tiredness the hollows of his eye leave his face dark and lifeless. A key quote from the film repeated by two female characters close to him is "If you were any thinner you wouldn't exist." As an audience member it is assumed that secretly this is what Resnik wants, to slowly disappear from existence. His overall appearance does display him as a pitiful, tragic character, helping to gain some empathy towards this character which means that viewers become more engrossed in his suffering story. Though Resnik is an example of physical deterioration, he and other protagonists display mental deterioration.

Jack Torrance from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ (1980) is again a dominant character who gradually suffers a takeover of paranoia stemmed from ‘cabin fever’, As with the protagonists of both ‘The Tenant’ (Roman Polanski 1976) and ‘The Haunting’ (Robert Wise 1963) characters who through actions of other characters or suspected paranormal activities become mentally manipulated and again the pattern follows that this leads to paranoia and then their eventual complete mental melt down. Jack Torrance on the other hand, played by Jack Nicholson is a perfect example of how the actors mannerisms, facial expression and gesture can enhance the visual intensity and tension of the character’s present state for an audience member. Nicholson takes this psychological thriller and pushes it over the genre boundary into horror. His character becomes frightening and unpredictable, violence is a catalyst for horror, as the tension builds the audience knows that a bloody end is near for someone. ‘The Shining’ is an incredibly intricate metaphor for the breakdown of the human mind. A Freudian Theory can be related to the three family members. Jack, the Father is a symbol of a ‘super ego’ the part of the mind that enforces rules and boundaries. His son Danny is the ‘id’ the untamed section of the mind which wants and desires with no knowledge of rules, and his mother, ‘the ego’ a compromiser between the two. As Jacks mind begins to corrupt the enforcement of the super ego increases threatening the other sections of the mind driving them away. The ego and the Id eventually flee the forceful hand of the enforcer, resulting in his demise. Author Gary Hoppenstand believes Jack Torrence to be “ A weakling who loves others only because he loves himself.” (Hoppenstand:1987:59) This most normal of emotions and metal states, pure selfishness is almost ike the foundations of Jack’s futures melt down, his mind was built on rotten foundations.

Camera shots vary widely in all films but there are certain techniques used in psychological films that enhance the tension of a specific moment. The photo to the right (from’ The Shining’) ( ) shows how a high angle elongated shot from behind the child takes the audience into a "god" view point becoming the second 'presence' in the room, an unseen presence. As the shot is from behind the child and the child is purposefully made to appear small in the shot his isolation is made even more enhanced. Our unseen presence also encourages the character to become paranoid, our view could also be through the eyes of another who is behind Danny, undetected and waiting to pounce on the unsuspecting character .

‘Rear Window’ by Alfred Hitchcock (1954) accounts the experiences of L.B Jefferies (James Stewert), a wheelchair bound photographer. He begins observing his range of diverse neighbours from his window cataloguing their movements and habits. The still to the left ( ) is one of many shots with the round filter to mimic the view through Jeff’s camera. It is a very detached shot purposefully so you are looking at action but cant necessarily understand want is going on. As Jeff does, he jumps to conclusions and believes this man Mr Thorwald, has committed the murder of his wife. The basis of this film relies on the audience being under the same disbelief as Jeff, otherwise the mystery and tension of the film is dead.

‘The Haunting’ by Robert Wise (1963) sees Dr John Markway gather three other people with prior paranormal experiences to investigate the haunting background of 'Hill House'. It is important to say at this point that no ghosts or apparitions are seen in the film. The events are portrayed through strange use of lighting, diegetic sounds and uncontrollable movements of furniture. The architecture of the house is vitally important. Low angle camera shots enhance the house (picture above : looming over the people destined to venture inside. with its, dark and gothic towers and large black windows it appears incredibly threatening. The protagonist Eleanor responds to this by saying that she thinks "It is staring at (me)".

"Silence lay steady against the wood... and whatever walked there walked alone." This is one of the first quotes in the film emphasising to the audience that every part of this house is evil and dangerous to its inhabitants. There are other uses of camera shots to build the tension and terror. Very high angle shots are used to increase a sense of vertigo. The still to the left ( is a prime example of this. The scene contains a woman hanging herself at the top of the spiral stairs. The shot is well composed to allow only the bottom of the victim’s legs within the mise en scene and the sudden drop to the floor with nowhere to break the fall.

‘The Tenant’ (Roman Polanski 1976) Polanski uses a great deal of diegetic sound to enhance protagonist Trelkovsky's isolation and loneliness within this haunting apartment such as dripping taps, the moan of the water pipes and creaking floorboards. One Image that haunts both Trelkovsky and the audience is the image of previous tenant Simone's almost entirely bandaged face screaming in the hospital. An image se en a few times throughout the movie but ironically is the last image seen in the film but of Trelkovsky in the same situation after his attempt at suicide. The bandaged face unnerves people because it is a lack of identity stripping the character of their recognisable features. The scream is a typical horror feature created to shock and strike fear into those watching (and listening).

In conclusion it takes many elements to build up an effective psychological thriller, the elements of action, light, sound and camera angle all build up the tension and layers of twisting plot that the audience have to take in and calculate in their mind. But in the end, as represented by these examples in this essay it is the old tricks of “there’s someone behind you” and “what will happen next”, or a frightening image that keep the focus and attention of the audience.


Horror Film Creating and Marketing Fear by Steffen Hantke 2004, University Press Mississippi, pg 123

The Gothic World of Stephen King: Landscape of Nightmares by Gary HoppenStand, 1987 Bowling Green State University Press pg 59

1 comment:

  1. Hi Sarah, this is a comprehensive essay in which you uncover many of the main distinguishing threads of psychological horror. Well done. Good to see you referencing on the blog, too.