If you have never seen Roman Polanski’s Chinatown or if it’s been a while- see it, particularly now that there are opportunities to view on HDTV stream or Blu-ray. This film is essentially a gumshoe detective film-noir presentation, and yet it was not made in the 1940’s but rather in 1974;  nor was it filmed in black and white but in color. Yet, Polanski, despite shooting in color and in the decade of the 1970’s, achieved the same mood as some of the greatest film-noir crime dramas directed in the 1940’s. The actors and background elements in every single scene of the film are perfectly framed and shot such that you never doubt for one moment you are watching the greatest detective film-noir presentation ever. Nor do you once doubt you are watching a crime drama unfold in old 1930’s Los Angeles. Polanski achieves this with simple hand-held camera shots and clever lighting. No special effect was needed to make us believe what we are seeing.

Jack Nicholson Chinatown

Jack Nicholson Chinatown

 

The Amount Of Effects Used in Horror Inversely Affects Genuine Fright

Zero special effects in film noir crime dramas are common given the nature of the stories being put to film. I would argue that horror is a genre that could also do without it. At the end of the day, the story and the setting need no artificial embellishments if done right. However, given that the horror genre has supernatural elements, it may be unavoidable from time to time. But, any CGI effects should be used as seasoning- anymore and you kill the stew. Overall, I would argue that the quality of the horror film and the level of fright it delivers is inversely proportional to the amount of CGI effects introduced. A horror film with a ton of CGI cannot be truly frightening- the more that is added kills the mood. Whereas, little to zero CGI allows more opportunity for the film to be truly frightening- if the director is talented enough to pull it off.

 

I wrote here that Hollywood is missing the boat when they re-boot some of these classic monster films. Dracula Untold in 2014 looks like a comic book superhero film rather than horror. Brendan Fraser’s The Mummy in 1999, is a great film, but it is more of an action adventure than actual horror. Unfortunately, The Mummy reboot in 2017 was a disappointment when they sucked all the goth, horror and fright out of it and turned it into an effects-ridden video game. I would be willing to bet that the moments where you were most frightened and spooked during a horror film involved zero effects. Sometimes, all you need to tell a good spooky story is just a camera, lighting, a clever script and some solid acting. A solid score a la John Carpenter’s Halloween also helps.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

 

Want Proof? Watch These Brilliant Stories Put to Film

Here’s a shortlist of some of the greatest horror films that will frighten you organically with a good quality story and no effects:

  • Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby in 1969
  • Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974
  • John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978
  • Peter Medak’s The Changeling in 1980
  • Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in 1980
  • Wes Craven’s Scream trilogy in the 1990’s.

Are there exceptions? Sure. The Ring from 2002 surgically used effects to generate genuine fright. But in the end, as a general rule, if you want a genuinely frightening horror film, then the mood, scenes, and frights need to be framed naturally. For a great discussion on crafting and filming a quality horror film listen to Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist Podcast interview of Jordan Peele, the director of Get Out.

 

 

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