08
Jan
09

Horror and Cinematic Sleight of Hand – part 2

Here we go with part two of my ramblings on the structural, artistic, and psychological similarities between Horror films and concepts of sleight of hand. I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far… and if you missed out on part one, go back one post and read that first!

In part one, which I know you read before even glancing at this, I talked about how both Horror films and magic routines are predicated on this idea of a highly structured lie that one MUST believe in order to truly enjoy. Some people don’t like scary movies because they believe this lie a little too intensely. Some people don’t like magic because they can’t bring themselves to this proper state of mind. 

The key to bringing about the combination of both affecting and entertaining the audience is the element of surprise. In both art forms, we see that this carries with it an emphasis on timing and pacing. How many times have you seen a horror film where there is a big build up and musical swell as a character slowwwwwly opens up a closet door, only to find it’s something mundane like the cat. Then five seconds later once you’ve relaxed the monster/killer/alien REALLY jumps out. This fake-out technique is a demonstration of timing. Next time you watch a classic horror film, get a feel for the timing of the scares, there’s a rhythm to it. Sometimes the rhythm is normal, and sometimes it is broken for effect.

Sleight of hand has many similar concepts that mirror this same tempo. There are many “sucker effects” that are designed to make it appear as if the magician has screwed up his routine, only to show moments later that he has pulled a fast one and had it under control the whole time. This mirrors the pacing of the “sucker scare” above. A build, then a fake out to drop the audience’s guard, then a surprise out of nowhere. In terms of the level of audience investment and the overall “drama level” these two concepts are identical. Man, I wish I had a graph for this.

Both horror films and sleight of hand are art forms that realize they are based on surprise and spectacle, and must therefore present each surprise as better and bigger than the last. No good magic routine is built to flatline. Each phase of a routine, or each routine in a show, is supposed to get more and more impossible, even if it is only more impossible seeming. Similarly, each scare or kill in a horror film usually builds up to be better than the last. Horror films often have their first few kills take place off camera, and save the really gory stuff for the end. I realize that many forms of art follow that arcing structure with all those greek words I can’t remember (Peripeteia!), but magic and horror are based on smaller moments of shock that build upon one another. 

These concepts of timing and pacing can, of course, be subverted. I’ll point right now to Mulholland Drive, which is not really a horror film (though, who knows really), but it definitely has scares in it. The “man behind winkies” scene is infamous because it lays out in great detail exactly how it will scare you… and then still does. Here the power isn’t in the element of surprise, but in the anticipation of the element of surprise. In the magic world, we see this done with Penn and Teller, who often love to fart in the face of established routines and traditions. They sometimes telegraph the blow the same way Lynch does, except they do it for comic instead of dramatic effect.

I thought this would be a two parter, but it’s going to be a three parter… hope you don’t mind. I can babble more on this subject than I anticipated. The next post will be more stuff on technique and theory. I’m gonna go watch the Orphanage and work on my Elmsley Count.

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