In 1945, as World War Two was winding down, Edmund Wilson wrote two
critical pieces dealing with the mystery novel. He was troubled by the rise in sales of a
form he thought commercial and crude. Indeed, in an earlier article writer about west
coast writers’ “The Boys in the Back Room,” he described James Cain’s work as
“ingenious in tracing from their first beginnings the tangles that gradually tighten
around the necks of the people involved in those bizarre and brutal crimes that figure
in American papers…” (newspapers).
When readers wrote him to confirm that there was real literature between the covers
of so-called mystery novels, Wilson gathered up a pile of popular crime fiction by Nero
Wolfe and Earle Stanley Gardner, setting out to evaluate the field in a piece
titled ”Why Do People Read Detective Stories?” He said of Dashiell Hammett’s
The Maltese Falcon that it was “not much above those newspaper picture strips in which you follow from day to day the ups and downs of a strong-jawed hero and a handful of beautiful adventuresses.”
This piece was attacked by a pack of readers who said he had read the wrong mystery
writers. Wilson then wrote a piece titled “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd.”
Here he gave faint praise to Raymond Chandler, stating:
“To write such a novel (a work of art) you must be able to invent character and
incident and to generate atmosphere and all this Mr. Chandler can do, though
he is a long way below Graham Greene. It was only when I got to the end that
I felt my old crime-story depression…. Because… the explanation of the mystery
is neither interesting nor plausible enough.”
Edmund Wilson never got what crime fiction was about. It’s an entertaining ride on a
dark night with a drink and cigarette in hand. A cure for loneliness. What was needed
for the detective novel reader was not an Edmund Wilson, but a gemologist, who
could weight and measure and cut the gems of crime fiction, noir, suspense, define
their splendors and describe their angles of complexity.
I’m not sure there is a book out there that does this for crime fiction, but I do know
one that works for horror films. It’s titled Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. Written by Thomas M. Sipos, it’s a vast handbook for horror film audiences, scholars and fanatics.
Published by McFarland in 2010, Horror Film Aesthetics logically analyses horror as a sourcebook that clearly defines the genre.
Sipos is an expert in the field, both as a writer of horror fiction and as a definer
of the horror genre. He is the author of such fiction as Hollywood Witches, a look at the true horrors of Hollywood, Vampire Nation, a bloodsucking tale of Romanian Communism, and Pentagon Posessed: A Neocon Horror Story. He runs Tabloid Witch Awards, an annual Santa Monica film festival that features new horror films from around the world.
As an extra, he appeared in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and “Embrace of the Vampire.”
His articles on horror have appeared in Filmfax, Midnight Marquee, Mondo Culto and
In his own words, this is what Horror Film Aesthetics covers:
Horror is a genre. Genre is a set of story conventions. Horror’s story conventions
can be divided into two categories: Unnatural Threat and Naturalistic Psycho Gorefest..
Unnatural Threat can be subdivided into three subcategories: Supernatural, Horror/Sci fi (not to be confused with sci-fi) and Uberpsycho.
Film is built up of Cinematic Tools: acting, makeup, set décor, photography, framing,
editing, sound etc.
Dramatic films (those that tell a fictional story) have three aspects: Story, Characters and Theme. Aesthetics is the study of how Cinematic Tools support (or fail to support) the film’s story, characters and themes.
If that sounds a little like Edmund Wilson, Sipos is a trained lawyer who went to film school. So, we have a book by Hegel about horror and it goes way beyond the cheap genre .
Horror Film Aesthetics divides the genre into three categories:
Uber Psycho: the mad crazies like Jason and Freddy from Nightmare on Elm Street
and Halloween. Supernatural, the ghostly elements from “The Ring,” “the Haunting,”
and “Lost Souls.” And Horror Sci Fi . Films and TV like “The Re-animator” and “X
Sipos takes a long time to separate what is real horror from semi-horror.
Take horror as an unnatural threat. Is Hitchcock’s “Psycho” really a horror film?
Maybe not. Sipos tells us cheaper horror films are often better than big studio productions.
“A major weakness of many big studio horror films is that the audience correctly
senses that the stars are safe from harm (a presumption Hitchcock betrayed to great effect
in Psycho.) An audience’s perception of a protagonist’s invulnerability (he cannot lose)
weakens the horror. The Frightener (1996) is well structured with surprises, yet the
audience just knows that stars Trini Alvarado and Michael J. Fox will enjoy a happy
This precise and careful commentary allows the film watcher and the filmmaker
to imagine their way through the dark woods of horror film equations. Step by step, Sipos spells out how to write a horror script and how to cast a horror film. These two elements are key: writing and casting.
Sipos is best in showing us what works brilliantly in horror and what fails. Here are two examples: For the film “Kiss Daddy Goodbye” Sipos notes:
“If your script has creepy characters, cast creepy actors. In “Kiss Daddy Goodbye,”
a single dad raises two psychic children. … The actors are real life brother and sister.
Patrick Regan III and Nell Regan. They look creepy. They have that blond “Village of the Damned” look. Vacant eyes. Cold expressions. Eyes and mouths like sinister slits.
Monotonal voices. Nell’s curl lips look like she’s been sucking a lemon. Her lisp
is an additional eerie touch. If these two actors entered my casting studio, I’d run away screaming.
Were they directed to play their characters so emotionless? Are they bad actors?
Are they truly weird? I’m not sure… One might say this is good casting for a horror film. But “Kiss Daddy Goodbye” was directed and co-written by the kids’ real-life dad,
Patrick Regan. That’s right. Daddy wrote a script about two kids who reanimate daddy’s corpse, to be performed by daddy’s real life- kids. One wonders what Freudian family demons inspired this film , Brrrrr!”
For me this goes back to that old cliche, write about what you know. In horror
filmmaking it translates to film what is at hand. In horror, you can write it yourself and
cast your own kids. .
Sipos also tells the filmmaker that horror can be cheap, once you get the script
and cast. He says of the film “Star Crystal,” (an E.T. imitation) :
The film’s décor is a marvel of cheapness. As in “Alien,” some astronauts find
an alien egg on another planet. (In this case, Mars.) But rather than an intricately veined and pulsating egg, “Star Crystal’s” alien egg resembles a lifeless lump of copper-tinted aluminum foil. One critic called it a baked potato. Instead of “Aliens” elaborately designed passageways… the astronauts in “Star Crystal” crawl about inside featherless tubes… that look to be constructed … from cardboard.
All this is very helpful when going over your films’ budget with a producer.
Sipos has viewed many such films at his own film festivals. Cheapness never detracted from the project and special effects never helped much. If the aesthetics he outlined in this book work, the film can be a winner.
Sipos also admired and encourages outlaw filmmaking.
In my own personal view, Hollywood is the biggest collection of gangsters and
criminals in the world. Anyway you can get around them, rip them off, uncover their
phoniness and outsell their shoddy wares, I’m for it. I doubt Sipos shares these views,
but he does write some funny things as an outsider:
Filming without permits or insurance is called guerilla filmmaking.
About “Carnival of Souls” (1962) Jeff Hillegass writes :
‘A small crew allowed the filmmaker to sneak in and out of settings
(locations) in order to grab a few shots, without bothering to obtain
permits and close streets for shooting’ This inexpensive by risky option
is why some low budget films are shot in barren urban areas during
early hours, or on remote beaches, or in secluded forests.
An empty set is always an option for creative low-budget filmmakers
…an empty set can look stylish rather than cheap.
As opposed to, let’s say, shooting in Bell. Hollywood attorneys and Bell officials
schmoozing together. That’s a horror film of a different type. Aesthetic or not!
NEVER HAS SO MUCH MONEY BEGIN GIVEN TO SO FEW TO FUCK UP SO
MANY. That’s not Sipos. That’s Bukowski! Sipos is really a fun guy, but there’s a
lot of wickedness in this text because horror outside the studio is often a look up
the pop asshole of American culture and it’s filled with exactly what anuses produce.
Another amusing case in point: How horror invents out of poverty:
In “Carnival of Souls, shot mostly MOS ( without synchronized sound) ,
Mary’s soul is disconnecting from reality. Although film critic Jeff
Hillegass considered actress Candace Hilligoss’s detached performance
appropriate to her role as a lost soul trapped between life and death, he
also wrote ‘Much of the audio had to be post-dubbed , which led to
unfortunate difficulties in sync which remains in the final film.’
I agree with Hillegass’s assessment of Hilligoss’s performance, yet I
also believe that the imprecise synchronization enhances the film for the same reason.
It reinforces the imprecision of a soul trapped in an imprecise twilight world…
What was Claude Lelouch’s explanation in switching from color film to black-and-white in “A Man and a Woman?” Answer: ” I ran out of money and black and white was cheaper!”
Much of Sipos’ book is technical and helpful for the young director just starting
A further example for fans and filmmakers is his knowledge of mechanics.
“One visually arresting effect is the dolly counter zoom. Alfred Hitchcock is credited
with its’ invention in Vertigo (1958) where he used a counter zoom to suggest John’s
(James Stewart) disorientation Hitchcock moved his camera in towards John while
simultaneously zooming out The speeds of the “dolly in” and “zoom out” were
synchronized so that John’s size within the frame was unchanged. Only the space
around him was distorted.”
“This book,” Sipos explains , “is a how- to guide for horror filmmakers. Not to
help them copy past films, but rather to spark their imaginations. To expand their
understanding of the horror genre – it’s nature and appeal to viewers — and an
appreciation for the full creative potential of … film and video equipment.”
What good fortune for the critic and horror film fans who goes along for the ride.
Since Thomas M. Sipos has been my friend and an editor for some years, I tried to
obtain a list of his hundred greatest horror films. He refused on aesthetic grounds,
but he did mention films that were his personal favorites.
I’ve listed several here with comments from his book For the general reader,
This will be a bonanza. If horror is an art form (and I think Sipos proves it is) this is a list
Of films you should look for on DVD either to collect or to order from NetFlix.
Let’s begin with the film “Lost Souls.” (2001)
(It) was a critical and box office flop. But so was “Blade Runner” (1982).” Why?
Early in “Lost Souls” all aspects of mise-en-scene (putting it all onstage) unite to create
a beautiful and visually striking composition, which in turn is supported by all other
cinematic tools. In this shot, two priests, a deacon, and Maya (Winona Ryder) enter an
asylum to perform an exorcism. The four of them stide in single file. They step in
unison. Their long coats evoke the superheroes from “The Matrix.” … photographed in
silhouette, which strips away nonessential detail, leaving only the outlines of their…
coats. Sound effects support the staging, their every step thundering and reverberating,.
Their steps are further exaggerated and made ponderous through (1) slow motion
Photography and, (2) a wide angle lens that expands space …. They appear… as strong
individuals. The “tough guy” image is further reinforced by location and set décor. They
stride through a room of concrete, exposed pipes dripping water, prison grills on the
doors and windows.
That’s how its done. To Sipos, horror is a serious art form, like Grand Opera. If you
read him carefully, you will see exactly why he thinks that. Lights, camera, ACTORS.
Why is Ryder so perfect for this film? Well, because she is! .
Another film on Sipos’ list is “The Ring” (English version #1 2005) He views it as unforgettable, especially in the use of color.
“Because of “The Ring’s” dim lighting and desaturated colors, the visual contrast
and its emotional impact are that much greater whenever the film unexpectedly shifts to overexposed, bright, saturated colors. Twice the demon/ghost Samara grabs Rachel’s arm, causing Rachel to see radiant flashbacks of Samara’s past.”
Yes. This is how the film draws us in. It’s the genius of horror that cannot be found in
other genres. It only works for horror moments!
Sipos does not give us the history of “The Ring,” from its inception as the Japanese
film “Ringu,” (1998) but the story is there for the reader to pursue. Why is horror sooooo
easily transferred from the Japanese version to the American version? What unique
Japanese characteristics and myths therefore enter the American film experience?
That’s for you to discover and you will when you read this book!
As you get into the details of composition, you begin to see what drew major directors like Stanley Kubrick to make a film like “The Shining.” (1980) Curiously, it’s hardly mentioned in this book.
No matter. Sipos’ list of masterworks is superb! Kubrick would have agreed!
Take “Suspiria,” (1977) which I suspect is Sipos’ favorite horror film. He singles it out as technically unbeatable, highly original and a film breakthrough all filmmakers should take seriously. If you haven’t seen “Suspiria,” you’re in for the ride of your life and. Sipos tells you exactly why.
In ‘Suspiria’ (Italian 1977 directed by Dario Argento) , an American dancer, Suzy,
attends a ballet academy in modern German, which…. is run by a coven of witches.
The film’s fairy tale plot structure… is supported by vivid fairy tale colors. ‘Within
individual shots , huge solid areas of single color abound; the background will be
dominated by strips of yellow, the middle ground cool deep blue, while in the
foreground a character’s face will glow red. Pure, intense red light pulsates behind
the odd shaped panes of glass in the academy’s many doors
Sipos is quoting from other sources because this is the horror film of the ages,
but he makes the point that “ ‘Supiria’s’ colors threaten because they are
unnatural. Too bright, too vivid, too many of them. They overload our senses
Their omnipresence escalates into an assault.”
Sipos describes how Argento obtained his horror colors in “Suspiria”: He used Technicolor prints (stock) similar to those employed in “Gone With The
Wind,” and “The Wizard of Oz.”
“ Emulsion based prints that increased the nightmarish color of the film.”
That’s just a beginning. Wait till you come to the room filled with razor wire.
Then there’s “Zombie 2,” which Sipos describes as “nihilistic and visceral.”
“The infamous eye gouging scene in ‘Zombie 2’ takes its own sweet time.
The zombie grabs Paola’s hair and slowly pulls her eye toward the wooden shard.
(Whether it’s slow staging or slow motion photography, the aesthetic effect is
identical). But slow motion can sap energy from a scene, so action films normally
favor overlapping edits.”
Not horror. Horror does it all in one slow sweep!
Yes, this is very technical, but it does give a phenomenological description of what
we are seeing as filmgoers. It allows us to peek behind the director.
Another Sipos favorite is “The Brood” (1979) . This one he champions as one of the
early triumphs of David Cronenberg. He loves his use of Canadian winter light, the
bleakness and starkness of winter in this frightening 1979 film about aliens who kidnap a
child from her family. Sipos writes: “In ‘The Brood’ two mutant midgets kidnap Candy from her school and lead her across a snowy landscape. Candy wears a bright red parka. The mutants wear bright orange and blue. The three are framed in a long shot, so they appear as small figures against a vast snowy landscape.”
Yes, that’s how it’s done. Invention and mood and color. You are right behind the
camera as Cronenberg works! .Hardly a studio clone!
“The Brood’s” core theme is the trauma of divorce and its resultant child custody
battle. Cronenberg has said that his recent divorce inspired “The Brood.” Mood,
bleakness, the draining of color. Sipos has a lot to say about the meaning of horror.
The true meaning.
Let’s go on with his list.
Next is “Curtains” (1983). It’s one of Sipos’ recommended Slasher films.
The director is unknown and the DVD is impossible to obtain. Watch for it on TV or pull
it off your MP3 file. It might be on TCM the same night as John Huston’s “Freud,”
also an impossible film to buy!
Sipos says of “Curtains” “We hear shrill music, the slasher’s heavy breathing,
And hacking sounds. 16 shots totaling nine seconds. Under one second per shot.
We don’t see Tara’s death, yet these off screen sounds, the colorfully lit and eerie
mannequins, and the editing’s fast tempo, effectively convey Tara’s violent demise.”
That’s how it’s done, from “Nightmare on Elm Street,” to “Halloween,” to “Friday the 13th.” But it all began far away from Hollywood.
“The Haunting” (1962) is Sipos’ favorite ghost story, from a strongly written character study by Shirley Jackson. It was director by Robert Wise. On the DVD you can hear Wise talk about how he invented hallway claustrophobia in the hotel he rented in England as he went along. Each actors speaks of the creepiness of the work as it burrowed itself into their psyches. Especially interesting are the comments by Claire Bloom and Russ Tamblyn.
By now you are either getting into what Sipos has put out for you or you’re flipping over the sports page of your local paper.
A few more titles and we’re done.
“Reanimator” (1984) is a Lovecraft classic Sipos calls “visceral and deeply satiric.” He singles out the acting of Jeffry Combs.
There are two sequels, not up to the original.
“Here is the test. Does the fear survive the laughter?” Then it’s real horror.
“Terror” from 1978 is an English film directed by Norman J. Warren.
What Sipos likes is its honesty of style and its energy.
The director said
“Your search for a story is in vain. There is no real story and very little logic.
I just wanted to make a film that was fun.”
Sipos was actually an extra in “Bram Stocker’s Dracula,” where he played
a student I’ll let you discover for yourself what he got from the Coppola family.
Not red wine!
“Deathdreams” (1978) is the last on my list, but in the book you can find a hundred
more. “”Deathdreams” crtitiques the Vietnan war. Duh. At most a horror film should require a little intelligent thought, but no special university training.
In summation Sipos writes: :Horror Films Can Be Theistic Or Nihilistic – But Always Anti-Humanist.
For his full explanation of horror content, you’ll have to buy the book. As to his views on Hollywood, I think he would agree with Nathaniel West when he wrote “America needs to learn the value of a dollar forty-nine.”
As my cousin Henry Pleasants would note, “enuf said.”
BEN PLEASANTS is an anarchist poet, playwrite, essayist and novelist who lives with his wife Paula in California.