13/02/2017

The Wolf Man - The Age-Old Problem With Horror

Thoughts On: The Wolf Man (1941) 

A man returning to his father's estate in his home town is attacked by a wolf.


This is a highly enjoyable Universal classic horror picture that I can't help but recommend to anyone who hasn't seen it. The set-design as well as the black and white cinematography throughout are exemplary of the gold standard of classic horror, the script is tight with a few sparkling moments between Chaney's Larry Talbot and Ankers' Gwen Conliffe and Waggner's direction is very interesting around key moments of transformation or revelation. What's more, there is a mature and somewhat complex commentary on good, evil and shades of grey in this film that ends in poignant tragedy. That said, this film has very many faults and is far from perfect. The acting is shoddy at many points and the dialogue isn't honed in and subtle enough for the most part and so just comes off as clunky or ill-designed. What's more, for a vast majority of this picture Waggner's direction is incredibly flat with no expressive cinematic language at all. There is one great sequence with a lot of superimposition that is fantastic, but, beyond this, there's not much to this film in terms of direction that says much or conveys emotion very well - this is all left to the spectacular set-design and lighting. Despite this criticism, this is, as said, a highly enjoyable film that is easily sunk into and watched. So, if you haven't seen it, certainly give it a go.

What I want to talk about with this picture, however, is what I see to be an incredibly significant lesson in filmmaking and writing. And in discussing this lesson, we'll be uncovering, as the title suggests, the age-old problem with horror.

To start, there is an easily identified kind of cinephile - it is the one who loves old B-pictures, exploitation, thrillers, slashers, gore and horror. The draw of cinema to this kind of cinephile seems to be the fantasy in horror, the magic of the scary and the thrill of the frightening. I've never understood this side of cinema if I'm to be entirely honest. Whilst I can see the attraction, I do not comprehend why, what is easily argued to be, bad films, have the huge draw that they do. So, when I look to a film like The Wolf Man I see and feel the entertaining factor, but certainly can't see this kind of movie as a reason to go to the cinema and to endlessly watch and obsess over film. This is because, though it is an easy stance to take that many seem to assume without reason or rhyme, I see horror as a truly troubled genre. The core problem with horror movies is simply that they are often far too fantastical to have any sense of verisimilitude - to be believable. This results in tropes and conventions of horror like the jump scare, like the countless dumb decisions characters make and the utterly contrived or awkward action. As said, some embrace this and there is certainly a type of cinephile that goes to the cinema and loves film because of this. I'm just not one of those people. When I think of a great horror film, I think of The Shining or Repulsion. This is because these films seem to be dramas before they are horror films, which raises a question I've posed before: when does a film start being a horror movie?

Drama is really not a genre. Drama implies conflict, which all movies have, and so to call a film a drama is redundant. However, with drama comes an idea of realism. We thus judge a film to be a drama if it is confined, grounded and doesn't appeal to wider genres - instead communicates raw emotions in a realist way. Horror, an explicit genre, on the other hand is defined by the reaction of an audience, thus, it is defined by the emotion of horror that we are supposed to feel. In short, a horror horrifies. More specifically, a horror film horrifies through fantasy. If you were to horrify through a more realist veneer, you couldn't use monsters, ghosts or supernatural demons as they do not fit into reality. So, when a filmmaker or writer tries to horrify us under realist terms, we end up classifying their work as psychological, a thriller, slasher or crime-drama. Understanding this, you can see that labelling a film as a simple 'horror' is dependent on a lack of realism and an abundance of fantastical happenings. This sets a president. If a film is to horrify through fantasy, as a film such as The Wolf Man, Frankenstein, The Night Of The Living Dead, The Exorcist or Dracula tries to, they require the invention of some kind of monster - a werewolf, demon, devil, zombie, vampire or revived mutant corpse. This is what makes horror great, but also where it runs into trouble.

How do you crack someone's skull open and eat their brains? How do you tear someone apart? How do you suck someone's blood? How do you rip flesh from bone? How do you exorcise a little girl? How do you transform into a werewolf? These are all questions a writer and filmmaker has to ask themselves as to produce a horror movie. You'd ask yourself the same kind of things if you were writing a drama: What is it like to be dumped? What is it like to lose a loved one? What is it like to be cheated on? What is it like to lose your job? What is it like to become a parent? It is asking questions like these that movies are made and scenes are written. However, there's a key, and very clear, difference between the questions you ask as to write a drama and the questions you ask as to write a horror. This difference is experience. Most people will have had some drama in their life; they will have been dumped, cheated on, have lost family or at least have seen these kind of things happen to people around them. It's knowing these details that a screenwriter can type out a script - because they know how to visualise things actually happening. This task is many, many, many times more difficult when it comes to horror. Whilst you may think you know the emotions that will surge through your body as you're faced with a werewolf because you're a human and have felt fear before, it is certain that you've never witnessed a werewolf tearing a person apart. This is exactly why horror films are so difficult to pull off and are so often terrible - the filmmakers often cannot successfully portray these fantastical events in a believable way.

The catch 22 with horror is then that, for a movie to be a horror film, it needs fantasy, but for a film to work and be effective, it needs the opposite of fantasy - it needs realism and verisimilitude. Filmmakers struggle with the genre of horror (in some aspects of the process) because this conflict between fantasy and verisimilitude is not understood or managed well. The reason there is then such a visceral negative reaction to a scene like this from Birdemic...


... is simply that we can see that the birds are fake. Whilst the filmmakers of Birdemic must have known they were making a terrible movie and embraced that, we see the same issue in a more serious film such as Hitchcock's, The Birds...


What truly makes this scene, just like the many scenes from Birdemic, terrible is not just to do with technology. Yes, there's horrific special effects in both of these films, but it is the way in which these sequences are actually written and played out that makes them so bad. For example, if you were to try and kill a bunch of attacking birds, would it look like the first image? If you were to run away from a bunch of attacking birds, would it look like the second image? The answer is, no. However, what would it actually look like if you were to fight off killer birds or run away from them? You don't really know - just as we all don't - right? These are difficult things to visualise as they are so absurd and, for the most part, unrealistic or unnatural. Even when these things do happen...



... we laugh because they're so awkward. And we've certainly all seen videos of birds attacking people - our reaction to them is never that which the makers of Birdemic or The Birds wanted to achieve though. What this implies is that the premise for both of these films is ridiculous and could only truly work if they're self-consciously stupid, or aimed towards children or people who are easily scared.

The real problem with horror is that this core problem with ridiculous horror films is also evident in the ones that you are supposed to take more seriously - films like The Wolf Man. The scene in The Wolf Man I then want to zoom in on comes at the end of the first act and is the one where Bela, in the form of a wolf, attacks and murders Gwen's friend before Larry confronts and kills it with the cane.


What I'll try to do it is put to words the way in which this scene plays out. To introduce...

JENNY and BELA sit at a table in the fortune teller's tent.
Jenny: Can you tell me when I'm going to be married? 
Bela casts flowers from the table onto the ground then rests his head in his hand, pushing his fringe back, revealing a star on his forehead.

To keep things short, we'll jump ahead in the scene past the point in which Bela sees the star in Jenny's hand, implying that she is his next victim...

Bela: No, no, go away. Go quickly! Go! 
Jenny: Yes! Yes, I'm going! 
Jenny flees the gypsy tent, leaving Bela staring at the flowers at his feet. 
MELEVA, who works in her own tent, hears the commotion. Looking to Bela's tent, she sees him stood in the entrance, head cupped in his hands. 
The horse tied to a carriage nearby begins to stir. 
Jenny meanwhile runs through trees, into densening fog when suddenly-- 
AAAAAHOOOOOOOO 
The horse starts bucking and snorting, trying to break loose. 
Jenny continues running. 
LARRY and GWEN, still at an intimate distance, hear the howl. 
Larry: What was that? 
Gwen: I don't know. I've never heard anything like it before. 
A sharp scream pierces through the air-- 
Jenny: AAAAAAAAAA!! 
Larry: Stay here. 
He makes for the shrill, cane at hand, leaving Gwen by the tree...
Gwen: Larry! Wait! Larry! 
He hurdles tree roots that jut up from the dirt, cutting through across the skin of fog that masks the ground--stopping, seeing... 
A WOLF tearing at the body of a woman.
Larry springs forward, hat flying, grabbing the wolf and pounding it with his fist. The wolf shakes him loose and pounces, immediately ripping away at Larry's chest. 
Larry grabs the jaws, wrestles the wolf off himself and throws it to the ground before reaching for his cane and... 
BAM 
BAM 
BAM 
BAM 
... repeatedly hammering the silver handle down... the wolf's snarls slowly subsiding... 
Larry, gripping his chest, stumbles then falls away from the silenced creature.

This is scene as best as I can transcribe it and it has quite a few problems. The first is obviously the dialogue. It is too repetitive and too loud. By being too loud, I mean to suggest that it says what's in the characters heads and doesn't rely on subtext enough. For example, after hearing the werewolf howl, we get the exchange between Gwen and Harry:

Larry: What was that? 
Gwen: I don't know. I've never heard anything like it before. 

This can be cut out and done with facial expressions. This is difficult to put down in words as a screenwriter, however. You want to communicate, in the sharpest and clear way, that the two characters heard the howl and are scared. The dialogue is a quick, but not so great, way of putting this down. But, what would be worst than those two lines of dialogue would be the description I gave: the two characters heard the howl and are scared. This is why you see this kind of dialogue in so many movies - it isn't as blunt, it fills white space on a page, it succinctly gets a point across and is often overlookable. However, what is wrong with this approach is that, when put to film, it is clunky. This isn't always the case though. If you have great actors, they'd be able to use these lines to get across emotions that invest an audience, not make them reel back at the flat dialogue. This is a source of major anxiety for any writer - especially a screenwriter. When you write a book, you have to hope that a reader reads your words in the way they were intended to be read. In the same respect, you also have to hope an actor says your lines in the way they were meant to be said - or, better.

You cannot avoid this dilemma as a writer. However, as a screenwriter, you have a device that a novelist or playwrite does not - you have the image. This is why I suggest that you take away lines like this and let cinematic language communicate the point. However, with The Wolf Man, the recital of these lines was pretty flat and the cinematic language used to project them was mediocre. This simply means that there was no tension constructed by Waggner, Chaney or Ankers. The emotion in the scene only comes from lighting and the score. This is what has the sequence fall flat - all the devices of cinema do not come together as the acting and direction are weak links.

Now, when we move into the action sequence of this scene, we run into the biggest issue with both the script and movie. This all falls into line with all that we've been talking about in respect to fantasy in horror as well as screenwriters having never experience something like a werewolf attack. It is very evident, in the film, that neither Waggner or the screenwriter, Siodmak, have either never seen a wolf attack or been attacked by a wolf. Whilst I don't know if this is true, it certainly comes off this way. And the blame for the amateurish, kerfuffled wolf attack is certainly to be put onto the director because a screenwriter, lucky for them, gets to hide behind the ambiguity of his/her words. So, let's take a look at how I describe the attack...

He hurdles tree roots that jut up from the dirt, cutting through across the skin of fog that masks the ground--stopping, seeing... 
A WOLF tearing at the body of a woman.
Larry springs forward, hat flying, grabbing the wolf and pounding it with his fist. The wolf shakes him loose and pounces, tearing at Larry's chest. 
Larry grabs the jaws, wrestles the wolf off himself and throws it to the ground before reaching for his cane and... 
BAM 
BAM 
BAM 
BAM 
... repeatedly hammering down the silver handle... the wolf's snarls slowly subsiding... 
Larry, gripping his chest, stumbles then falls away from the silenced creature.

If you gave this to about 10 directors and asked them to film it, you'd probably get... maybe 3/4 different versions of this scene. Many would think that you'd get 10 different scenes from 10 different directors and this is arguably true. It is not very likely that you'd get the exact same scene over and over - an obvious fact. However, I say 3/4 different versions as most of the scenes would be approached in a very similar way - assuming we have a bunch of average directors. In such, you could imagine someone taking the gory and close-up approach. In this, the camera would track Larry's feet as he jumps over the roots and comes to an abrupt stop. We'd get an extreme close-up on his horrified face and then another extreme close-up on the blood, flesh and guts of the body being torn at by the wolf. We'd then proceed to get a very violent and bloody beat down of the creature - one that would likely be framed awkwardly with a shaky camera, too many cuts and a whole bunch of close-ups to mask the fact that an actor who has never been in a real fight is trying to kill a doll. Great, right? Another approach you may see is the PG 13 version of this. This scene wouldn't be so violent or dynamic, would be shot from a distance and would rely on obstruction or implication - a tree in the way or a shadow doing the beating. Again, great, right? This is what you see in The Wolf Man - a distant, static and rather tame scene that comes off as awkward. There is one redeeming factor that does jump out at you though. This is the shot with a real dog or wolf tugging at what I assume to be a doll. This would have been better if the wolf was actually thrashing about, but, the shot is a well used and pretty powerful one. Other than this... this scene is nothing special and comes off as cheap.

How do we then fix this? The answer is a simple one that you won't like: be a better writer and director. You have to find a style and approach to better convey this scene. Don't worry, I won't leave you with just this. Whilst I don't believe I have the all-powerful answer on how to make the scene better, I believe I have an approach you can choose to take and develop.

This all starts with the script and it'll now become more evident why I went on about genres, fantasy, horror and so on. To write better action sequences, you have to know what it is like to be in them. If you don't have access to this knowledge - say, for instance, you're writing a scene about a 1000 foot fish attacking a city or simply don't want to watch dogs attacking people on YouTube - we're going to have to use the power of imagination. This is probably the hardest element of writing - or, at least, I find this to be the case - as it's the most arduous and down-in-the-dirt aspect of the process. Ok, so, imagine we're in the moment in which Larry decides he will confront the wolf. Stop here. You've just come across a wolf ripping flesh off a dead woman. How does this make you feel? A mixture of things is what I'd suggest. There's that deep, acidic, sickened feeling in your gut. There's the cold wave of liquid chill that moves into your bones. There's the inclination to step back and run away. How do we put this in a script? Unfortunately, unless we we're to go experimental or cartoonish, you may have to drop a few lines. So, if you were to communicate this is in a classical, but expressive, manner, you'd imply the crumpling of eyes, fear in the pupils, sweat on the face, weak, loose and clammy hands, heels treading back over the dirt, fog wisping up at your trembling knees. If we were to take a cartoon approach, you could simply have the character turn white, gulp and have that giant bead of sweat pop off their head - maybe add some stress lines on the face with veiny, bloodshot eyes that refuse to blink. To take the more experimental route, you could take all those lines and turn them into literal images within a montage. You could then show a close-up on the man's stomach before cutting to vat of bubbling green acid that has white ice thrown on it. You could have a bone break through the icy waters of a lake and cut this into a montage of a person standing afraid (hence utilising the Kuleshov effect and not relying so much on the actor). You could even show a rapid montage that flickers between frames of each of his body parts between which the blood, guts, jaws and so on flash from the screen.

In the end, there are a vast multitude of approaches you may uncover if you stop, put yourself in a situation and think. And, having covered these three ways, you can hopefully see varied and more expressive means of communicating this one tiny detail of coming across the wolf. This is an arduous process, but I believe it can pay off. All it takes is imagining that you are in that situation, breaking that down into sensory images and finding a way to portray them. Once you have a script that does this, the director may take over and hopefully enrich it with further vision.

What's so important about horror, and where you will be truly tested as a writer, is not just in the moment where our character comes across the werewolf. It will be the sequence in which your character attacks the wolf. How does he approach the creature? How does the wolf retaliate? How does the fight play out? How can you turn that into sensory images that give the illusion that you know what it is like to fight a werewolf? These are questions I will leave you to ponder and maybe use as a tool to practice writing. In fact, I'd love to know how you would answer these questions and construct this kind of scene.

So, what you can ultimately learn from a film like The Wolf Man, which is deeply faulted because of its script and direction, is the age-old problem with horror. It is so hard to balance the fantasy with the realism; to conjure the illusion that demonstrates that these things could actually happen before your very eyes. To confront this problem you must provide the illusion that you know the scene as if its an event from your life - and to project this, you need to communicate sensory details through cinematic imagery. Whilst I say that this is true, I certainly don't consider myself particularity good at it. I, like most, am learning and working on this craft. But, given the tools, I believe the growing process is all the more effective and accessible. And so, in the end, is this helpful to you? What are your thoughts?






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