N.B I wrote a similar piece for The Maccabees Society, though it’s less technical about film making. You can read it here.
The Exorcist III is a beautifully edited horror movie that more people should appreciate, and It greatly inspired the way I’m developing my feature film, Amanda’s Bracelet. You should watch the video I made to see the film making techniques in action, which is a companion to this piece.
If you don’t know too much about The Exorcist 3, it’s a film released in 1990 that is a direct sequel to the 1973 seminal classic. William Peter Blatty, writer of the novel and subsequent screenplay of the original screenplay, rejected working on a sequel, as he felt the work was complete. Warner Bros. had other ideas though and released The Exorcist 2: The Heretic to the true horror of cinema goers worldwide. Blatty, being a man of faith, decided he was up to the task of doing justice to the mythos by writing his 1983 novel Legion which ties into the events of the original, which then provided the basis for the second sequel in the film franchise.
Blatty neatly subverts the shock value of the original (turning head, vomit, crucifix masturbation, etc) for a more subdued, heady horror experience. It’s not a God vs Devil, supreme good vs absolute evil story. The novel explored the idea of evil and its place in God’s plan for salvation, and the film does carry many of these elements forward. With these philosophical themes, however, a less literal approach to filmmaking is probably desired.
If you take a look at the opening credit sequence for example (it’s in my video), you’ll notice that it’s essentially a wordless sequence that illustrates the idea of the film. You have shots of the interior of a church that is peaceful and tranquil, then all of a sudden a violent gust of wind smashes through the front doors and turns the place upside down. And yet you’re not suppose to watch it and think “Oh wow, the caretaker is going to have his work cut out for him in the morning”. Blatty carefully chose shots of praying statues spliced along side weirder elements like a roman collar with apparated blood, and an image of a Christ statue opening its eyes when the place is being vandalised.
He repeats this trick again in later scene taking place at a Jesuit university. The characters Kinderman (George C. Scott) and the university president (Lee Richardson) are having a solemn discussion on Damien Karras, and it’s a conversation that wouldn’t look out of place in a Godfather movie. Slowly, but surely, Blatty starts injecting images of a clock that stops ticking, to rustling paper, to an eerily opening door to get our mind presuming the worst, and then climaxes with the bizarre when a statue relocates and is morphed into something sinister, thereby vindicating our presumptions.
What Blatty and his editors Peter Lee Thompson and Todd Ramsay achieve is not an image to be interpreted by our five senses alone, but an image created for the mind. In the Eastern world, there is a movement of Christian art called “Icons”, and it’s rather famous for its flat panel depictions of biblical imagery and saints, because the philosophical notion is that the more “realistic” art is (like three-dimensional sculpture), the more it remains in the realm of the physical senses. Incidentally, the mind-image connection through film editing is what Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisentein opened up for us as early as Battleship Potemkin, and in a horror film such as The Exorcist, it allows the mis-en-scene in each individual shot to be composed for maximum surreality, and frees it from the spatial awareness that usually comes with visual austerity. Horror can and does suffer from austere visual cohesion: just watch the Insidious movies to understand that the scares come from the physical proximity of the characters to the danger, even within the spiritual dimension of The Further. We only fear for their bodily harm, but not for their psyche or their soul.
With less literal editing, you’re able to convey more interesting topics. In classic western philosophy, there are two types of knowledge: speculative knowledge and practical knowledge. Practical knowledge (ethics, politics, the natural sciences), deal with our application of them in the real world, and therefore visual literalism is perfectly acceptable in conveying such truths that only deal in material ideas. However, speculative knowledge (such as metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology) is usually best served with analogical reasoning. Therefore, in film, a metaphorical approach to mis-en-scene and editing is the most effective, as the knowledge isn’t reliant on our senses, but our ability to comprehend them in the mind.
I feel good horror tends to touch upon speculative truths more often than not, so I believe sequences that verge on the metaphorical rather than literal are more effective at eliciting terror.