One of the most important aspects to horror is a sense of place. This can be metaphysical or very physical. Today, I’m thinking very physical.
If things are going bump in the night, where are they bumping? In my apartment, if something is knocking on the east wall of my bedroom, I’m annoyed. West wall, I’m nervous. North wall, I’m terrified.
What do you mean that doesn’t make any sense? Oh, right. It’s because I haven’t established that the east wall abuts my noisy next-door neighbor’s living room. Or that the west wall lines a closet that I’m 90% sure is empty. Or that the window in the north wall opens out to an eleven story drop . . . and whatever might happen to be floating outside, scratching at the pane.
That’s why it’s important to establish the “where” before you try to sneak in the “what. ” This is essential, particularly in genres like: haunted house stories; siege stories (think old John Carpenter, like “Assault on Precinct 13” or “Prince of Darkness”); and anything that will involve something coming in, going out, or chasing through.
For the links for the 6th and the 7th, I’m going to recommend two recent horror movies that do a great job of subtly establishing the geography of the physical locations in the early, tone-setting moments of the film so that when all hell breaks loose, the audience intuitively knows the stakes (i.e. just how fucked the protagonists are)
First, “The Conjuring” – Not a bad movie, but pay attention to the excellent way in which James Wan establishes the physical space and layout of the house. It helps that the family is moving in, so we get to explore it with them, but also notice how he reinforces this (when Lilly Taylor is playing the clapping game and walking around upstairs, it’s a perfect reinforcement of where the bedrooms are in relation to one another – that way when the night terrors begin, the viewers understand where everything is). This is some top notch work and it’s amazingly unobtrusive, accomplished through organic plot moments and smooth camera work/editing.
Second, “Safe Haven” from VHS 2. I can’t recommend VHS 2 for anything other than this segment, but, man, is this worth it. Acting! Effects, and creepy shit aside, the real lesson here is establishing the sense of place. As our film crew protagonists wind deeper into the cult’s complex, it is framed as them receiving a tour for the documentary that they are filming. Narratively this makes sense, it also introduces to several other elements (like the children, the dark hallways that nobody should go down, etc.) but it also establishes the lay of the land. That way, when everything goes wrong deep in the recesses of the facility, the viewer knows just how far the heroes have to go to make it back to the surface and to safety. That creates instant tension without having to have someone say “Oh we’re so far from the entrance!” Also, the audience has a list of mental boxes to check as the heroes get closer and closer to escape: creepy hallway? Check. Weird classroom? Check. Stairs? Etc etc. Establishing this early and clearly means that the director doesn’t have to slow down later to explain where things are – he can use all his narrative and cinematic momentum to deliver the scares.
Even more amazing? The compound was actually four separate locations! Wow, movie magic.
(Side note: If you haven’t seen The Raid: Redemption from the same directors of Safe Haven, do yourself a favor and do that, too. This is another example of how to excellently establish a sense of physical place that then informs the audience’s understanding of the action when the climax hits. Trust me, your brain will thank you).
Well, that’s it for today(s). What do you think? Any particularly good or bad examples spring to mind? What about any examples from literature (or other media)?