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More than 30 minutes into "Alien," Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi horror classic, the creature that gives the film its title has not yet had a close-up. In fact, it has not been glimpsed at all.
The fact that audiences are pinned to their seats and clutching the arms of their chairs has, at this point in the film, very little to do with the alien itself and everything to do with expert manipulation of viewer's emotions and responses.
It is what Sir Alfred Hitchcock, speaking of his film "Psycho," called, "directing the viewers. ... playing them, like an organ."
Filmmakers from Hitchcock to Scott and David Cronenberg to Stanley Kubrick have exercised the theory that things that go bump in viewers' brains are far more threatening than any creature with gnashing teeth or a psycho wielding a kitchen knife.
Audiences left in the literal dark about the nature of a threat will devise opponents more horrible than what any special-effects wizard could contrive. Horror filmmakers know the same thing that terrorists do: Citizens confronted with vague threats and one indelible vision of just how bad things can get will speedily make up the rest in their minds. With a bit of suggestive help, audiences terrorize themselves, bedeviled by primal fears of the random, the faceless, the unknown.
The greatest horror films - from Hitchcock's "Psycho" and "The Birds" to Scott's "Alien" and Jonathan Demme's "The Silence of the Lambs" - brilliantly create a sense of foreboding from the start. Hitch's black birds swarm over the opening credits of "The Birds" and then disappear for a disquietingly long time; an unidentifiable transmission from unknown origin emanates from an outergalactic pinpoint in space, requiring the doomed "Alien" crew to investigate; townsfolk give wide-eyed testimonials about the Blair Witch; and a young female FBI agent named Clarice Starling comes face to face with Hannibal the Cannibal.
In deliberate contrast to this sense of unease, filmmakers manufacturing fear often create a deliberate sense of the familiar and mundane. After the sky-blackening credit sequence, Hitchcock opens "The Birds" in sunny San Francisco, where he seems, for a time, to be filming a breezy romance. In "Alien," crew members aboard the Nostromo argue about bonus pay, smoke cigarettes, drink coffee and talk about getting home. Hannibal the Cannibal proves highly intelligent and well cultured. In "Jeepers Creepers 2," two young brothers help their father with farm chores, and a bus carrying a sports team finds the kids horsing around and making jokes.
Ignorance of the enemy works wonders in ratcheting up the audience fear factor. A common component in horror films is the onscreen characters' lack of knowledge about the creature creating the havoc.
"What the hell was that?" Parker asks in "Alien."
"Why are the birds ...?" young Cathy asks in "The Birds."
"The Blair Witch Project"'s documentarians wonder if the horror stories are true or false.
The kids demolished by the Creeper have no idea what the thing is or why it has an appetite for human flesh.
Hannibal's predilection for some homo sapiens - and not others - appears to revolve around issues of civility and, in "Hannibal," moral correctness.
An inability to stop whatever "it" is from doing its bloody work adds additional layers of fear. "Mother," the Hal-like supercomputer aboard the "Alien" spaceship, has no idea how the humans aboard the craft can stop a giant parasitical threshing creature that excretes corrosive acid. Nobody in bucolic Bodega Bay, Calif., has any idea why ordinary birds like gulls, crows and sparrows are attacking townspeople and plucking out their eyes. (The area ornithologist, who might be some help, turns out to be a reactionary windbag.) The reasons for Norman Bates' psychopathic behavior are understood too late to help Janet Leigh's Marion Crane. And the Blair Witch and the Creeper? Both have appetites for flesh that leave a trail as bloody as Freddy Krueger and Jason's ...
Critical to every horror film is the scene that generally comes early on in which audiences are shown - often in graphic, bloody detail - just what the menace is capable of doing.
In Jonathan Demme's "Silence of the Lambs," we get a gruesome shot of flayed and suspended security guards. In "Alien," audiences are treated to the unforgettable dining table sequence in which John Hurt's Kane explodes. In "Blair Witch," there are descriptions of havoc. In "Psycho," we get the shower scene.
"This is the most violent scene of the picture," Hitchcock told François Truffaut in the indispensable text "Hitchcock/Truffaut." "As the film unfolds, there is less violence because the harrowing memory of this initial killing carries over to the suspenseful passages that come later."
In "The Birds," Hitchcock delays giving audiences a glimpse of horror, but he suggests what is coming in a series of lines that indicate that birds are acting strange.
The moment at which filmmakers give up their aliens, witches, psychos and birds to the close-up lens is fraught with peril. As one Internet scribe noted, "most folks end up looking for the zipper to the monster suit."
The alien critter that pops out of John Hurt's chest in "Alien" resembles an umbilical cord with sharp teeth. The full-grown Alien - she of the giant head and retractable jaw - suggests an overgrown praying mantis with drool.
"Blair Witch" is unique in never showing audiences the source of the carnage, substituting small totems like twig figures that serve to terrify.
The best horror directors manipulate the rhythms of their films to create what amount to spasms in the cineplex. Terror yields to relief over and over again, putting audiences through cycles of shallow breathing (or held-breath) followed by exhalation or laughter.
Telling Truffaut about the restaurant scene in "The Birds," Hitchcock said, "... I felt that after the attack of the birds on the children at the birthday party, the small birds coming down the chimney, and the attack of the crows outside the school, we should give the audience a rest before going back to horror. That scene in the restaurant is a breather that allows for a few laughs."
In "Alien," the tense search for the creature reveals the marmalade cat called Jonesy hiding in a locker, the medical drama aboard ship is followed by a congenial meal that is interrupted by the ultimate gross-out, Ripley's moment of calm in the shuttle is shattered by the alien.
The significance of sound cannot be underestimated in scary films. In "The Birds," when gulls attack the Brenner house in Bodega Bay, it is rendered solely by the sound of the birds - a cacophony intensified to create what the Master of Suspense called "a menacing wave of vibration." In a critical scene, the film's principal characters cower in the living room as the sound of the birds works them into a frantic state of fear. Hitchcock, shooting from low angles, emphasized the head room above each character and the sound thundering down from above.
Later, the simple sound of the rustling wings startles Tippi Hedren's Melanie and leads her to more peril.
Bernard Hermann's score for Hitchcock's "Psycho" provokes suspicion and panic.
"Alien" is filled with shifts between silence and ominous noises. Scott fills the soundtrack with the solitary sounds of breathing, or a cat's meow before all hell breaks loose.
Showing too much of the menacing creature can undo a scary picture.
In his review of "Halloween:Resurrection," BET writer James Hill put his finger on the problem: "By exposing [Michael Myers] to death the filmmakers have done what no one else has been able to do for six movies - kill [the character]. The cameras here show us too much, like the fact that baby Myers was locked in closets and chained to walls. All of a sudden, Michael is a victim of abuse. His motives brought out of the shadows. ... Real fear comes from the unknown. That's why dark hallways and first dates are so unnerving - you don't know what to expect."
Film critic David Thomson, writing about Hitchcock in his "Biographical Dictionary of Film," says, " ... his suspense works through deliberately withheld knowledge - and withheld from the hypersensitive voyeuristic curiosity that he has aroused - so he teaches us to share the fear of the world that he always owned up to."
The end game of scary films is no more and no less than to have audiences jumping out of their seats.
Speaking to Truffaut about "Psycho," Hitchcock said, "My main satisfaction is that the film had an effect on the audiences ... I don't care about the subject matter; I don't care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the soundtrack and all of the technical ingredients that made the audience scream. I feel it's tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of mass emotion. And with `Psycho' we definitely achieved this. It wasn't a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance or their enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film."