What is it about the chilly isolated atmosphere of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ or the tantalizing schemes of a killer in films like ‘Zodiac’ or ‘Psycho’ that keeps the audience coming back for more? Is it the violence? Is it the sense of helplessness radiated by the characters and their predicaments? Could it be the soundtrack of the film reaching a horrifyingly spontaneous crescendo? Is it time to stop proposing rhetorical questions?
Yes it is, in fact. It’s an amalgamation of all these things---factors that snowball into prime examples of cinematic art. For is it not the thriller that keeps the audience in the mindset of the film, in the demented mental landscape of the psychopathic killer or the slowly deteriorating psyche of the main character? Thrilling films keep the audience engaged and primed for suspense, as opposed to comedic light-hearted films that have short laughs and are somewhat devoid of thought (not that they lack substance, these films are good for other things). Some films can try to thrill---possibly ‘Eagle Eye’ or the disastrous remake of ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’---and yet they adhere to the modern sense of the word’s definition, which is definitely altered from that of subtle, introspective engagement that inhibits original plot.
But what makes a chilling thriller, beyond the explosive chase scenes and relentless gore fests? Perhaps films that stray from conventional thought and break away from recycling of formulaic plot structure like the countless remakes stagnating among today’s box office hit-or-miss mentality.
Jack Nicholson’s father figure in ‘The Shining’ gradually transitions from a parental role model into the silhouette of a murderous nightmare creeping around the corridor. Stanley Kubrick captures this degradation effectively with several things, namely atmosphere---i.e. the aforementioned isolated environment that ripens the mind for psychopathic duality--- and expressionism that becomes sufficiently exhibited by the actor. At this point the audience feels a strange, adverse attraction to the character and his tumultuous psychopathic journey as he wanders aimlessly through the hallways of the hotel that personifies his complacently vacant state of mind.
Notice the high strings and accentuated movements at the start of the scene, followed by conspicuous silence as Nicholson holds an untimely conversation with his unstable conscience.
Films like ‘The Shining’ succeed in keeping the audience sympathized with the trappings of its plot and the implications of insanity, proposing the questions-“Is this what it’s like to be insane?” and “Wouldn’t that be freaky to truly experience this, whether as the victim or the antagonist (whom, I guess you may imply, is also a victim of sorts)?”
On the other hand, ‘Psycho’ (1960) is innovative in terms of cinematography. Hitchcock, infamously known as the “Master of Suspense” (perhaps more aptly described as the advantageous and cinematic “Lord of Subtlety”), utilizes the camera to indirectly exhibit character emotion. By inducing every little nuance of everyday routine, he can twist awkward silence or ambient background noise into the soundtrack of your hypothetical doom: a feat best attained in his infamous shower sequence.
Interestingly, the dated effects can make the scene feel somewhat comedic---though the contemporary audience should pick up on the intended effect. The key element here is soundtrack: even today people still utilize this theme to embody something they perceive as spontaneously scary or sarcastically obscene. Whether or not the character was actually being stabbed (a testament to the advancement of visual effects at that time) is something for another post. Remember, at another cultural time and place, this stuff was considered pretty scary!
One memorable resonance from last summer’s cinematic orgasm that was Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’ remains to be the Joker’s theatrical entrance onto the dimly lit production stage and his confrontation with Gotham’s miscellaneous assortment of thugs. Watch again, if you must…or if you’ve been living in a cavern for the last few years…
As a result of modern technology and methods of filmmaking, directors and the people they orchestrate can easily achieve the means to establish the ideal atmosphere for the intended tone of any scene. The popular mentality nowadays for the ideal screenplay writer is summarily “What makes my script a good, high budget explosion of euphoria that will reel in the broadest demographic of audience?'” Instead of making an elaborate entrance, Heath Ledger’s Joker walks jovially into the fray and turns a simple impromptu “magic trick” into a perfect cinematic moment. The screenplay mechanically reads: THE PENCIL is gone. JOKER bows.
Simplicity is crucially effective here. Ledger sufficiently captures this and transfers it onscreen to relay simplicity into one of the most enjoyable moments in film. On top of this, steady close-ups of the Joker’s face forces the audience to scrutinize his anarchical complexion and his unpredictable tendencies within subtle expression: the perfect method to convey a persona of a character without a (dental) plan.
These elements conglomerate into the ideal thriller, the genre that entices audiences and filmmakers alike to revisit the pathos of a sadistic antagonist---or even protagonist, depending on how you look at it. The thriller will never stop persisting to chill the engaged viewer into theoretical reflection by movie’s end: an effect arguably better achieved via sheer subtlety. Without the thriller, films would probably not be taken very seriously---because the thriller has the potential to be a psychological evaluation, a violation of mental bounds, an ambitious upheaval of conventional filmmaking.