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Picturegoer (1936) - Why 'Thrillers' Thrive



Why "Thrillers" Thrive

Why do we go to the pictures? To see life reflected on the screen, certainly — but what kind of life?

Obviously, the kind we don't experience ourselves — or the same life but with a difference; and the difference consists of emotional disturbances which, for convenience, we call "thrills."

Our nature is such that we must have these "shake-ups," or we grow sluggish and jellified; but, on the other hand, our civilization has so screened and sheltered us that it isn't practicable to experience sufficient thrills at firsthand.

So we have to experience them artificially, and the screen is the best medium for this.

In the theater we can see things happening on a stage, remote, impersonal, detached from ourselves. We are safe, secure, sitting in an armchair and looking at the struggle and turmoil of life through a window, as it were.

In order to appreciate what the characters on the stage are going through, we have to project ourselves into their consciousness; we have to receive our thrills vicariously, which is not the most effective method.

Watching a well-made film, we don't sit by as spectators; we participate.

Take a case in point, which a great many Picturegoer readers are likely to have seen — the scene in Hell's Angels, in which the British pilot decides to crash his plane into the envelope of the Zeppelin to destroy it, even though this means inevitable death to himself.

We see his face — grim, tense, even horror-stricken — as his plane swoops down. Then we are transferred to the pilot's seat, and it is we who are hurtling to death at ninety miles an hour; and at the moment of impact — and blackout — a palpable shuddering runs through the audience.

That is good cinema.

In this there is no harm, because in our subconscious we are aware that we are safe, sitting in a comfortable armchair, watching a screen.

Let me illustrate this. Some years ago there was an exhibition sideshow promising thrills, in which people were admitted (a handful at a time) to sit facing a curtain between two columns.

They naturally expected the curtain to be drawn — but instead, with a loud cracking sound, one of the pillars began to topple over on them.

Just before it reached them, and before they even had time to leap from their seats, its fall was arrested and it hung suspended above them.

That provided a thrill, certainly, but not the kind to please the public. There were so many complaints that the sideshow was closed down — because the public's basic feeling of security was undermined.

The cinema can leave the spectator with a subconscious assurance of absolute safety, and yet surprise his imagination into playing tricks on him.

Secondary to the type of thrill in which the audience seems to participate is the type in which some character who has won the audience's sympathy is involved in danger; and here again the screen can be far more effective than the stage, because the screen can produce an impression of great danger where no danger is.

It would take several complete issues of the Picturegoer to list the number of ways in which this can be done, and anyway it doesn't do to give away too many tricks of the trade; but an example or two will show what I mean.

Supposing your hero is to throw himself over a castle rampart into a moat filled with crocodiles; on the stage you hear the other characters say there are crocodiles, you see the hero jump, upstage, and disappear from sight, and perhaps a litde water is splashed up.

On the screen he is in no greater actual dangers, yet you look over and see for yourself what a terrible height it is; you see the reptiles swimming about; you not only see the jump, you see him fall, you see him hit the water, you watch him swimming desperately from the crocodiles — and you must believe the evidence of your own eyes. Your hero must be in grave peril . . . for the camera, as we know, cannot lie!

Or supposing you see a terrific shock of opposing horsemen, as in Cecil B. DeMille's The Crusades. I have it on very good authority that not a horse was hurt during production of that sequence. The effects were secured by the use of a few horses trained to fall, and skillful editing.

Such scenes, which set the blood pounding through the veins, are highly beneficial for indigestion, gout, rheumatism, sciatica, and premature middle age. The audience thrives on thrills, the cinema thrives on the audience, the director thrives on the cinema, and everybody is happy.

But the so-called "horror" film — that's an entirely different matter.

The term, meaning originally "extreme aversion," has been loosely applied to films which, to supply the desired emotional jolt, exploit sadism, perversion, bestiality, and deformity.

This is utterly wrong, being vicious and dangerous. It is permissible for a film to be horrific, but not horrible; and between the two there is a dividing line which is apparent to all thinking people.

The forerunner of the cycle of "horror" pictures which is now drawing to a close was the stage "Grand Guignol," and that was merely a "stunt," calculated to attract a neurotic section of the public.

There is a growing body of opinion, inside as well as outside the film industry, against such films, which are successful in direct ratio to their power to create unnatural excitement.

As a matter of fact, they are bound to fail, because the public is, as a rule, healthy-minded.

Producers of "horrible" films realize this, and consequently "tone down" their product to make it acceptable.

But in doing so they tacitly acknowledge its basic fallacy; imagine a man hitting you on the head with a hammer with one hand to impress you, and with the other holding it back for fear it offends you!

A "thriller" must be wholehearted — the more exciting the better. And that is why the authentic "thriller" will live and thrive, and the "horror" film will die.