Most of us like to be scared and thrilled and made tense, especially if it is in the darkened recesses of the cinema. Because as the adrenaline and stress levels rise we know, at the back of our minds, we’re safe. Nothing can actually harm us because it’s happening on a screen. Yet witnessing characters in danger of harm or death can be an exhilarating and cathartic experience for many. Watching films of the horror or thriller genres is subconsciously akin to a near-death experience. Facing the reaper from a position of relative safety is part of the thrill of going to the movies.
But what draws us toward the darkness of the thriller and, psychologically speaking, why do we enjoy them so much? According to research conducted by Dr. Deirdre Johnston in 1995, viewing motivations for watching the horror or thriller genres include sensation seeking and overcoming fear, whether you’re identifying with the killer or the victim. Moreover, Peter G. Stromberg argues in his piece The Mysteries of Suspense that uncertainty and surprise are powerful tools in the thriller genre. As humans, we are uncertain of our mortality and thrillers tap into that innate fear. As social mammals, we have the power to experience and feel fear as characters on a cinema screen do. Lastly, Sheila Kohler opines that a fascination with violence draws us to the thriller genre. While most of us are scared of hurt and pain, by placing violence within the structure and order of a story we both enjoy the sensation of danger while controlling said violence.
These are just a few of the psychological reasons why we are drawn to the thriller genre. Formally and stylistically, the thriller also offers a myriad of entertaining devices including McGuffins (or red-herring), twists, cliff-hangers, flashbacks, flash-forwards, voice-overs, etc. Moreover, it also features unreliable narrators, innocents-as-victims, mistaken identity, monstrous villains, revenge, kidnappings, and ticking-time-bomb countdowns to name a few. According to James Patterson, one of the thrillers enduring characteristics is the openness to expansion into sub-genres with the spy, historical, police, medical, religious, tech, and military settings. Essentially, the structural flexibility of the threat of death is far-reaching and the ability to create suspense is very progressive within the thriller genre hence why it has proved popular with audiences and filmmakers alike.
One of the greatest proponents of the thriller was, of course, Alfred Hitchcock. Often cited as the “Master of Suspense”, Hitchcock is quoted as saying, “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” He certainly made us suffer beautifully in all manner of classic films: The 39 Steps (1935), Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), Psycho (1960), and countless others. Aside from Hitchcock’s dazzling skill with form and style his narratives always contained powerful villains or external forces of authority which symbolized death. Thus, while coming close to death throughout Hitchcock’s protagonists more often than not survive while the villain or force perished. Thus, a Hitchcock thriller offers catharsis, which is a Greek term Aristotle used to describe the purging of negative emotions.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Hitchcock had an incredible influence on filmmakers throughout film history. Indeed, the term Hitchcockian thriller has entered the vocabulary of cinema. His films have influenced great filmmakers including Steven Spielberg, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorcese, and most of all thriller expert Brian DePalma. He, in my opinion, is a postmodern filmmaker as he uses devices like homage and pastiche within his filmic style, echoing many of Hitchcock’s films in Obsession (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980), and Body Double (1984). Within DePalma’s oeuvre, there are also impressive set-pieces lifted from other films such as The Battleship Potemkin (1925)/Odessa Steps homage in The Untouchables (1987). Likewise in the spy thriller Mission Impossible (1996), DePalma’s iconic Langley heist set-piece was done with no dialogue in a major nod to classic French crime thriller Rififi (1955).
What DePalma has in common with Hitchcock too is the use of humor in his films to provide catharsis or pay off suspenseful moments. I liken this to releasing a valve and letting the audience off the hook somewhat. This is seen none more so than in the wildly over-the-top film Body Double (1984), which is a pastiche of both Rear Window and Vertigo (1958). In a particularly suspenseful scene, our protagonist is about to be skewered by a pneumatic drill, and just at the moment of impact, the plug from the wall is pulled, thus releasing the threat of death and finding some sick humor in an, especially tense moment. Of late, however, I have noticed a movement away from such humor or release-the-valve safety. Where both Hitchcock and DePalma employed the convention of catharsis and overcoming death, recent cinema releases have taken a slightly different approach.
While Hitchcock and DePalma often favored the highly stylized approach to building suspense it’s interesting to compare their work to some recent films which I feel take a more subtle, yet just as effective, approach. The Coen Brothers adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2007) is such a film. The story is a dark crime narrative involving a tense pursuit across the country involving heinous hitman, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). The filmmakers establish Chigurh as a force of nature and create suspense through uncertainty, as he kills both law enforcement officers and the people who hired him.
The most tension-inducing scene is Chigurh favoring a coin toss to decide if someone lives or dies. He uses this method both in a scene with a store clerk and at the end with Kelly McDonald’s character Carla Jean. While the innocents-as-victim is an often used convention in thrillers, the nature of fate or luck within the scene creates unbearable suspense as Chigurh’s crimes become not motivated by a sense of professionalism, but rather scarily, the flick of a coin. There’s some relief when luck seems to shine on the store clerk but no such fortune for the unfortunate Carla Jean. Even then there is ambiguity as we, like her husband, do not see her die; however, it is implicit in the editing and performance that sadly she does.
Arguably, the finest thriller director around at the moment is David Fincher and his film Zodiac (2007) was a detailed analysis of the characters involved in the hunt for the eponymous serial killer. It’s a film full of brutal murders and obsessive characters, notably Jake Gyllenhaal’s cartoonist turned investigator, Robert Graysmith. His character becomes obsessive about discovering who the Zodiac killer is and even loses his family and job in the process. Toward the end of the film, Graysmith interviews Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer), a film projectionist, and the suspense is created literally out of nothing. The total absence of a known nemesis creates an unlikely amount of tension, especially allied with the way Fincher shoots in shadows and frames his characters. Graysmith is not seemingly in any danger but his paranoia, claustrophobia, and a growing sense of unease petrify him until he is forced to flee. In fact, the thriller genre convention of revealing the murderer is, like in the real-life case of the Zodiac, rejected; thus catharsis is denied to the audience throughout this nail-biting paranoiac thriller classic.
Similarly, in the recent crime thriller Sicario (2015), aside from the conventional exploding bomb opening, the director Denis Villeneuve uses more subtle techniques to get under the skin of the audience. Often thrillers will have a brutal showdown between our hero and the villain resulting in the nemeses’ death, but at the end of Sicario, it is a far more quiet and unnerving scene. Here Emily Blunt’s moralistic Kate Macer realizes she has been used to collude the black-ops Cartel murders by CIA-sanctioned assassin Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro). While Gillick has a gun to Macer’s head the threat is palpable but what makes the filmmaking so striking is it has the confidence to eschew the standard car chase or big fight finale for something so tense and disquieting. The tragedy of humanity here is the realization for Macer that she will not make a difference in the CIA and the law cannot protect her. Gillick represents as he puts it, “the land of wolves”; thus once again, similar to No Country For Old Men, we as the audience, are given no escape or purging from death as Gillick walks away to continue his morally ambiguous endeavors.
What all these scenes and films provide is a denial of releasing the valve and consequently allaying our fear of death. Moreover, in contravention of the classical thriller model, the villains and monsters in these scenes actually get away so while the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian DePalma allow catharsis by generally defeating the bad guy, neo-Hollywood filmmakers like those mentioned above, kill us softly with a creeping nihilism and feeling of dread which remains even after you’ve exited the cinema.