Horror and Cinematic Sleight of hand – part 3!

Okay! This one should wrap up my long winded but every so interesting piece on horror as cinematic sleight of hand. You really shouldn’t jump into this in the middle… please go back and read part 1 and 2 if you’re interested.

The last thing I need to really address with respect to technique with horror films and magic is the idea of gimmicks. In order to make things simple, I’m going to use the word “gimmick” as a blanket term to refer to all types of gimmicks, gaffs, and systems. Quickly, all of these things are some type of secret device that either appears to be normal or is never seen. These gimmicks are often used to make a magic trick work.

Magic can be crudely split into two types. The tricks that use gimmicks, and the tricks that use sleight of hand. They both have their pros and  cons, obviously. Gimmicks always work, and sometimes can give a stronger impact than true technique, but they are sometimes viewed as cheap by other magicians, or if they are exposed. 

Horror films can be shown to have these same two types. Here, “gimmicks” refer to those ever present “jump scares” or “pop out moments”. That’s where the music quickly spikes up or there’s a loud sound accompanied with something shocking. It makes you jump, and it almost never fails. Like magicians, film critics come down hard on films that overuse this effect and don’t have any real demonstration of filmmaking technique. 

In both cases, the gimmicks work. They get the desired effect of shock. They often work even if you know they’re there. Yet, from within the art form, both are viewed as lower than legitimate sleight of hand or suspenseful filmmaking. The only difference here is that if magic is performed properly, nobody should know whether a routine uses gimmicks or not, whereas a lay audience may still feel a sense of unfairness in horror films that overuse the jump scare. 

I’m sad to say that I can’t use an example from the world of magic without tipping the gaff on how some tricks work, but I’m sure everyone is familiar with at least one magical gimmick. The best horror films use both jump scare gimmicks as well as true tension and psychological horror. If we think of something like Jaws, which hinges on building tension by not showing the shark much until the end (refer to my bit about pacing in part 2), we still see that there are a couple jump scares to keep you on your toes. The classic “hole in the boat” moment is the best jump in the film by far.  

If we look at something like Pulse… the shitty american remake of a japanese film called Kairo. It got heavily criticized for using “loud noises” in order to get a rise out of the audience, without adequately building tension before and afterwards.

We see that horror films need to balance their gimmicks with their technique in order to be respected, although a film filled with gimmicks still works when it comes to the goal of affecting the audience. Magicians who solely use gimmicks and have little to no sleight of hand skill are looked down upon as well. They often build a pattern of several difficult sleight of hand tricks with normal objects, only to switch to a gimmicked trick later on, making it seem all the more impossible. 

I think that’s everything I wanted to say on the subject of horror films and cinematic sleight of hand. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. Perhaps in the future I’ll visit this in even more detail, with video clips and snapshots to illustrate my points further. There is still more to delve into as well, but I think I’ve monopolized this blog of mine for too long. 

Hopefully the mineshaft will shock and entertain you more in the future. Thanks for reading!


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