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To avoid fainting, keep repeating: “It’s only a sound effect.”

The reviews for the remake of The Last House on the Left have not been too kind. Dennis Harvey of Variety says the film is “Unnecessary on every level save the paramount commercial one.” Peter Howell of the Toronto Star says, “If you’re a sociologist tracking the decline of civilization over the past four decades, you’re in for a night of solid research.” Roger Ebert advises, “I’m giving it a 2.5 in the silly star rating system and throwing up my hands.”

Quite predictably, the film has been roundly tagged as one more experiment in horror torture cinema, which reached a sort of hysterical apotheosis with the Hostel series and a few other less successful variants including Wolf Creek, Captivity, and The Devil’s Rejects (a film that I actually admire). In a 2006 article for New York, David Edelstein lamented the pervasiveness of sadistic horror as Hollywood’s choice scare opiate:

Explicit scenes of torture and mutilation were once confined to the old 42nd Street, the Deuce, in gutbucket Italian cannibal pictures like Make Them Die Slowly, whereas now they have terrific production values and a place of honor in your local multiplex. As a horror maven who long ago made peace, for better and worse, with the genre’s inherent sadism, I’m baffled by how far this new stuff goes and by why America seems so nuts these days about torture.

It isn’t that surprising, especially if we consider the critical reception of Wes Craven’s original Last House on the Left, which itself was a loose remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. Howard Thompson’s New York Times review, even after 30 years, is an apt summary of a sub-genre that still confounds critics and some audiences:

In a thing (as opposed to a film) titled “Last House on the Left,” four slobbering fiends capture and torture two “groovy” young girls who airily explore the bad section of a town and more or less ask for trouble.

When I walked out, after 50 minutes (with 35 to go), one girl had just been dismembered with a machete. They had started in on the other with a slow switchblade. The party who wrote this sickening tripe and also directed the inept actors is Wes Craven. It’s at the Penthouse Theater, for anyone interested in paying to see repulsive people and human agony.

While Thompson’s repulsion stems from the gruesomeness of the film’s depiction of rape, torture and murder, Edelstein is more concerned with the slick, high-end production values afforded to this sub-genre of modern horror. In the days of Craven’s original film, exploitation pics — even highly crafted ones — hardly resembled A, B, and even C-grade fare. Now, the slightly unattractive textures of film grain, overexposures, lens flares, and slap-dash editing are markers of a highly stylized studio horror film. With Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects and the the remakes of Friday the 13th, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Last House on the Left, the unintentional effects of a low budget and youthful experimentation have been consciously codified into a new system of horror aesthetics. Dennis Cozzalio pinpointed this trend in a recent piece on the new Friday the 13th: “The wonder is that even though every single scare is of the dog/funny stoner/masked psycho-jumping-out-at-you-from-nowhere (accompanied by amplified musical sting, or scream, or stabbing sound effect) variety, the movie is so much more accomplished on a simple technical level than any of its predecessors that, despite its slavish faithfulness to the tired (not a typo) and true Jason formula it ends up, through the sheer magic of competent pacing and high-quality cinematography, seeming like a masterpiece, if not of the horror genre, then at least of the Jason genre.”

Last House on the Left

Indeed, the cultivation of specific techniques into a new conventional system of aesthetics and high style is not limited to the horror genre. In fact, many modern filmmakers seem to be borrowing and reinventing old techniques all the time, consciously or unconsciously. The most pervasive of the bunch is the use of documentary “realism” in action films and dramas. So, while your old home movies were often poorly lit, hand-held, and edited with lots of jump cuts and subjective inserts, some Hollywood genres have utilized these techniques in the service of greater realism.

There is also the sense that a foul movie like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and its remake should not look too slick or too artful, since its off-the-cuff approach actually adds another level of mystery, terror, and disgust. The original narration at the beginning of Tobe Hooper’s film points to the film being a factual account “of the tragedy that befell a group of five youths…” Twenty-five years later, The Blair Witch Project went further by claiming that the low-quality video to be actual found footage. Some even claim that the dingy aesthetic of old VHS rental copies add to the mystique and danger of some older horror flicks. What better than to experience true no-budget horrors on a worn VHS copy that warps, stutters, and bleeds color.

So, as these films have moved from trench-coat theaters to suburban multiplexes, their visual styles have also streamlined. But the focus on their unmistakable visual polish has unfairly eclipsed the role of sound in this new horror paradigm, where cheap is now expensive chic. Modern sound style is at the core of my doctoral research and the horror genre provides a useful introduction to some of its key aesthetic trends. To be sure, the sound of modern horror might not deviate from the fundamentals of earlier eras, but as with many things the devil is in the details.

The sound of horror is the exclamation point to a terrifying scene. It’s the rhythmic pulse that quickens our breath in anticipation of a pay-off scare. It can also be laughably predictable: the screech of high strings, a woman’s scream in the dead of night, an intense clap of thunder, the heavy breathing of a nearby assailant. These sonic conventions and icons, among many others, have defined the sound of horror cinema since the 1930s, if not earlier. They contribute to our sense of the genre by providing some key sonic markers.

I’ve always considered the goal of horror sound to be the enhancement of the visual frame by supplying the right amount of atmosphere, tension and directional cues. Sound can also push the limits of horror violence by suggesting far more than what is shown. Points are often raised about the severity of current horror violence, but they usually concern visual depictions of various extreme acts. Arguably, the gurgling, bloody gasps of victims or offscreen sounds of powertools diving into flesh have been safe from MPAA censorship, since it’s heard and not seen. Even as the borders of acceptable graphic imagery enlarge, sound will inevitably push them even wider. The unseen presence of sound taunts us with orchestral crashes, faraway whispers, and deafening silence.

With only mono sound and some stock library tracks, classical Hollywood films have yielded a surfeit of terrifying moments derived from the spare or dense use of sound. In keeping with today’s film roster, the final act of Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre emphasizes poor Sally’s torment at the hand of her captors. She screams, sobs, and cries throughout the final sequence at full volume. Even as Hooper cuts to wide shots, we still hear her at full volume, in full auditory close-up.

Like Hitchcock did in Blackmail, Hooper substitutes some of Sally’s screams with non-diegetic sound effects and score to — perhaps — give the audience some reprieve from the horror, and to further emphasize the nightmarish qualities of the insane dinner party sequence. The sustained, overt screams play as counterpoint to the film’s opening credits, which depict the police investigation of the chain saw crimes. Over a black screen, the repeated sound of an eerie camera flashbulb gives way to fleeting glimpses of human flesh and decaying bodies. The remainder of titles mix sound effects with score, a tapestry of radio static, cymbal hits, and other odd noises. Overall, the dense sound track to Hooper’s film is creatively sewn together, mixing “naturalistic” ambiences with subjective inserts like the sound effect in place of Sally’s scream.

By comparison, the sound of modern horror is quite different, even as it still works to achieve the same results: to provide discomfort. Gregg Rudloff, a sound supervisor, notes:

Where in other films you might want to have nice, smooth transitions between scenes, in a horror film we might do the opposite: We might make an uneven transition so that it startles the audience a little bit — not spill-the-popcorn startling, but just something that’s a little off and uneven about it. It can be something as subtle as a background sound.

And it seems that some critics are paying attention, too. In two reviews for the new Last House on the Left an argument is made that questions the manipulative qualities of sound to inject some faux chills and shocks into what is considered to be a rather predictable flick.

Variety reports that some “hyperbolic camerawork and body-blow Dolby thuds can’t equal the queasy, plain impact of original’s most upsetting moments.” The New York Times adds, “I suspect the movie’s sound designers deserve some kind of an award: thanks to them, the damage one can inflict with small appliances and a giant grudge is all too clear.”

Two things are evident from these observations: 1) impact and 2) clarity. These are two of the most salient characteristics of modern sound technology and style. Digital audio affords greater frequency range, a more robust dynamic range, and crystal clarity at the top and bottom ends of the loudness spectrum — making those appliances sound so piercing.

Low frequency sound from theater subwoofers can reach out to touch you in your seat, providing an added jolt of tactile horror to the cinematic experience. The bottom-end Dolby “thuds” that Dennis Harvey speaks about in his review have become staples of the horror and action genres. Rudloff explains: I like to use the sub for impact occurrences. Obviously, if there’s an explosion or if somebody kicks in a door, you can use the kick, but I don’t like to have it as a steady element. I think it muddies up the sound; it clouds the details that might be apparent in other areas.”

Perry Robertson, who supervised the sound on Rob Zombie’s Halloween, adds: “People are so jaded these days, and it’s hard to make anyone jump anymore. Part of it has to be the picture, part of it has to be the music and part of it is the sound. You hit them with a loud sound using subwoofers. If you get that quick hit from the sub, you’ll feel it in your chest.”

Rob Zombie's Halloween

In a way, then, the sub “hit” represents a modern spin on the stinger, a high-pitch “gotcha” effect that is sometimes performed by high strings or a chorus of shouting voices. The sub hit is not so much heard as it is felt, thereby bringing the horror into the theater without resorting to William Castle’s 1950s gimmickry.

Everybody has their own favorite stinger or “jump scene,” but here’s an undeniable classic [click on the frame]:

Friday the 13th Jump

With Zombie’s Halloween, the sub sting is used to amplify and punctuate Michael Myers’ strength, as evidenced by this clip. The attack on Mr. Strode is cut fast and close — without any blood — but the sound of Michael’s strike is mostly at the low-end as opposed to the higher frequency sound of a knife blade.

Contemporary filmmakers and sound designers are drawing on the techniques and conventions of the horror genre to craft the ubiquitous jumps and shocks. Rudloff acknowledges that horror films are highly conventionalized, yet audiences are keen to the tricks of the trade. As a result, the sound designer’s job is to keep the audience off-balance. Melissa Hofmann, sound supervisor on Captivity, believes that horror films require more mood than other genres:

If the picture is leading them to be jarred, then we have to support that with sound or lead it with sound. If it’s an environmental sort of thing, then sound can play a huge part of giving a feeling without necessarily the audience even knowing. Those subtle things can help to build up to or support the bigger things. Or on something that’s more psychological, they can be a big element of that subconscious feeling. People don’t even think about it; they just kind of squirm a little and that’s what we are after. I love that — to be able to get to them without them even realizing it, to get them on that visceral level.

Modern horror sound can also add a subtle layer of discomfort that does not rely on broad dynamics and punchy bass. Not necessarily a horror film by definition, Zodiac utilizes an interesting technique when the voice of the Zodiac killer is heard over 911 lines. David Fincher and his sound team assembled a vocal track using two different actors’ voices, alternating each word, in order to create an altogether strange, but not unreal, moment. Ren Klyce, the sound designer, tells Mix Magazine: “[ADR editor] Gwen Whittle and I thought it was a pretty bad idea and that it would never work…Splicing from one actor to another? Forget it! We said, ‘Okay, let’s just do it and show David that it can’t work.’ So Gwen started to do this — and it worked! It was so weird.” The most unsettling aspect of the vocal work is the line reading of Zodiac’s sign-off after the Blue Rock Springs murder, which was supposedly inspired by the real killer’s odd way of saying “goodbye.”

Zodiac

The film’s real set-piece is the interrogation of Arthur Leigh Allen at his workplace, an oil refinery, which is anything but a quiet place. The din of machinery never overwhelms; instead it coats the walls of the scene, providing a subtle subtext to the interrogation. Right from the start, Fincher places his detectives (and his audience) into an uncomfortable and highly unfamiliar sonic environment. The constant drone of refinery equipment hangs heavy in the air, linking Allen to a feeling of unease.

While modern studio horror films may conventionalize the techniques of grindhouse favorites, the intents and aims remain the same: to scare you silly. They may be polished versions of raw, vinegary horror, but it’s important to consider how these films scare us. Sound remains one aspect of a larger canvas, where filmmakers and sound crews push the boundaries of taste and censorship, as well as cinematic style and convention.

Thoughts on the sound of horror?

Last House on the Left New

Ph.D. or Bust

Matt Groening School is Hell

And there it was. My wife alerted me to a precipitous article in the March 7th edition of The New York Times that filled me with both dread and resolve. If you don’t end up reading it, I’ll brief you on the bad news. Humanities PhD’s are finding it harder to find secured full-time positions in the nation’s public and private colleges and universities. Interviews with recent graduates and post-doctoral fellows only serve to highlight the chill that has befallen even the most prestigious institutions, leading to a virtual hiring freeze for most humanities disciplines.

I had been told that my ascent to the world of a tenure-track position would be easier than, say, the previous few generations, since there was a consensus among faculty members that several programs would face steep retirement numbers in the coming years, which would inevitably lead the way for more junior hires. But the cold reality of this recession seems to have had the opposite effect: more and more senior faculty, facing diminishing savings, are sticking it out just a few more years. Even still, my limited experience with departmental politics and budget-conscious deans have taught me that contract instructors and part-timers with no job security have become the favored option. We’re far cheaper to hire and as students we’re forced to accept the meager pay and benefits as our initiation to the world of professordom.

The net result of this system — in my estimation — is a department of instructors that have little or no time to pursue research projects that constitute the backbone of any real academic’s career goals. It can also lead to departments that are filled with instructors who are overtaxed and underpaid, if only because their tenured counterparts are salaried employees with benefits. The path to promotion, higher pay, fewer teaching obligations, and more research time is in danger.

So that’s the current reality. Not promising in the least. But for some strange reason I am compelled to finish what I started. Not because I feel the obligation to finish, or am out of career options, but because passion drives me. There’s nothing else I want to do, and if it means an uphill climb, then I’ll make sure to prepare myself and my CV for battle. I will drink plenty of water; I’ll speed bag through more film theory; I’ll spar with in-depth film analysis until I’m dizzy.

Last summer, several newspapers cut their film columnists and reviewers citing budgetary cutbacks, leaving some critics to write (for free) on blogs like this. I have attempted to avoid this pitfall — and the relatively short review space of the popular press — and thought professional film criticism was the safer bet. Now my odds may not be so favorable.

I should have known that this career choice would be an uphill climb, if only from the strange looks and even stranger questions that came from family and friends. I have spent the better part of five years explaining, correcting, and laughing off what constitutes the running commentary of my young adult life. For the record, as a film studies PhD I write on and about film — I don’t make films. Nor do I teach students to make films. I’m not a film critic in the way that you might know that term. I wrote for and edited a newspaper once, but I don’t currently write for one. I know people in the industry, but they’re probably not featured in US Weekly. And no, this isn’t part of my journey to law school or business school. To top it off, the cultural tide has been rising against the plight of grad students everywhere. Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy agree: grad students are the worst.

Writing the Damn Thing

The dissertation itself is an altogether different story. If a summary description of a college professor’s job duties aren’t obvious enough, then the duties of a PhD candidate lurk even deeper in the cave of confusion and befuddlement.

During an interview for CBC Radio last year the interviewer asked me off-air about my project on film sound technology and style. I told him quite honestly that it was a multi-year ordeal with no real conclusion in mind; I’d have to let the research speak for itself. He was floored. He couldn’t imagine spending four, five, maybe even six years on the same topic. His world of news and current events, where things change by the minute, runs at 100 miles an hour, which is completely anathema to a researcher’s slow and methodical pace. I told him it was my job to investigate those things to make up the finer-grained points of contemporary art practices, namely film and television. With that in mind, the breadth of time matters very little; just ask anyone studying 19th century German romantic opera.

So, the interviewer finally asked me how I could tolerate the repetition. I told him I hadn’t thought of it. It was an honest answer. It takes as long as it takes to formulate the argument, make my points, and then conclude the bastard. Perhaps the strangest thing is that I found his horrified amazement to be the abnormal attitude. I thought, Who wouldn’t want to spend their time studying the things that excite their curiosity and fill their creative spirit?

Most people, apparently.

My interviewer would eventually pack up his things and start texting his boss about his next story, the next big thing. Meanwhile, I’d still be at my desk thinking, writing, and revising my thoughts on the same story.

In a certain way, the task of writing a dissertation never scared me as it seems to frighten some. Mostly, I’m scared of those around me who expect results…now. Just write it. Write something. It’s only your thesis, not your life’s work. Just write it. Cull together your blog posts and call that your thesis. Don’t try to be original, just write it. Does it have to be 300 pages? Try for 200 and pad it with big quotes.

It’s an endless tirade that usually begins with someone’s head poking through the office door with a look of anticipated excitement. They’re thinking, “Are you finished yet?” half-expecting you to say yes.

The Obsessive Cinephile

Watching a movie more than once isn’t considered obsessive. Spending a few years writing a 400 page tome devoted to the history of moviemaking borders on obsessive. It might also help sprout a few gray hairs. But most importantly the obsession is derived from a passion to write, share, and communicate the art of cinema with an audience. It’s about figuring out the details for myself, reveling in the research, the analyses, the theorizing, and the historicizing. And a few more gray hairs.

Some rules for living with a PhD candidate — or knowing one — might include the following:

1) Avoid asking most “when,” “what,” and “why” questions. You’ll only be disappointed with the roundabout, even flaky answers you receive.

2) If you observe your PhD candidate not putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, don’t panic. He or she is thinking it out up here (points to brain). Watching episodes of Maury and scrolling through TMZ.com might also help ferment the big ideas, too.

3) If your PhD candidate laughs at your conventional work hours, don’t get angry. They must live with their work 24/7 since it exists solely in their heads until they can successfully spill it out on some choice bonded 8.5 X 11 paper, where it will eventually sit on a bookshelf and collect dust for the rest of their life. Once in a while a grad student will ask to see it and they will mistakenly think that anyone can write one of those.

4) Just play along with their belief that other people are interested to hear their ideas on obscure topics. It makes dinner conversations a lot more enjoyable.

5) An academic readership of 5000 is bestseller material.

The humanities PhD candidate may not be an endangered species, at least not according to the Times article which has us backstopped and overflowing like law students, but creative thinkers have never had it easy. In an early meeting with my thesis supervisor we cajoled that we’re “idea men,” not quite ready with answers, but only more questions. And there’s something charming, if not completely noble about that. The wonderful thing is that even if this wasn’t my profession, I’d do it anyways. I’d be tucked away in some cubicle, in some other job, writing and analyzing and pushing the conversation on cinema even further. And that’s the real reward.

I’ll let Bart Simpson sum it up for us all:

Bart and Grad Students