Tag Archive for spring into suspense

Carrie: The Musical and the Spectrum of Spectacle and Suspense

carriethemusicalbroadwayposter Carrie: The Musical and the Spectrum of Spectacle and SuspenseI’ve been obsessed with Carrie: The Musical for much of my life. The ill-fated big budget Broadway adaptation of the Stephen King novel and the Brian De Palma film has perplexed and delighted theater fans for years. The infamous soundboard bootleg from one of the last performances has circulated readily since the late 80s–first on cassette tapes, then CDs, then digital download–and even included demos of the cut songs and interviews about the show. The show is so widely known in theater scenes that, if all the people who swear they saw the Broadway production actually saw it, the show would have lasted more than five performances.

Last year, Carrie: The Musical was revived in NYC. This was the first officially licensed professional production since the failed Broadway mounting. The buzz was huge and the original creative team even came back to revise the book and score. On paper, the show has never been stronger. The new orchestrations are more theatrical than the super-synth/MTV-styled orchestrations of the original. The new songs and lyrics do more to define character and theme than the replaced songs (including my beloved audition song “Heaven”). This is now the official version of Carrie, with a cast recording for sale and everything. It’s really good.

The problem was the infamous Carrie–with all the camp and spectacle–didn’t come with it. The new direction of the show was sincerity and intimacy. The material can handle intimacy, for sure. I dream of a one room adaptation where the entire story is told through the relationship between Carrie and Margaret White with a few moments happening right outside the door: the forced apology, Tommy asking Carrie to the prom, the gym teacher encouraging Carrie to fit in. But camp the story can’t live without. I mean, the revival wanted to do the prom prank scene with a digital projection of blood rather than an actual splash of stage blood onstage. The blood eventually came in but none of the spectacle–the slamming doors, the trap doors, the teenage sexual antics–came with it.

carriethemusicalrevival Carrie: The Musical and the Spectrum of Spectacle and Suspense

No blood? No deal. Oh, good. They added blood right after this.

The revival is finally available to license for amateur and professional productions and I will be encouraging people I know to mount productions. There’s a great show here if the right team gets their hands on the material.

One scene from the original production stands out as the embodiment of the potential of Carrie: The Musical. In a scant four and a half minutes, two actors, strong direction, and a brilliant song create such suspense that the audience goes wild.

“And Eve Was Weak” is one of the Margaret and Carrie duets in the show. It happens right after Carrie is humiliated for having her first period in the locker room. Margaret, horrified that her daughter has disobeyed numerous rules, demands Carrie pray for forgiveness. A true Christian worthy of redemption would never receive “the curse of blood” and Carrie has failed her moral duties. Carrie fights back for the first time in her life, demanding an explanation of what she’s actually done and questioning her mother’s take on Christianity.

The two get into a physical altercation onstage. They circle each other and the cellar where Carrie is forced to pray. As Carrie fights back, her mother becomes more frustrated. Margaret drops her daughter down the steps, pushing her deeper and deeper into the hole until she can slam the trap door shut. Then the lights literally burn out in the house and Margaret learns the true meaning of fear.

At its essence, Carrie is a sensationalist show. This stems from King’s own approach to the material. The novel is epistolary, telling the story of a teenager’s murderous rampage through tabloids, news clippings, police reports, school records, and eyewitness accounts of the lives of Margaret and Carrie. The stories told are improbable–rocks falling from the sky, a young girl electrocuting a gym full of people and setting the building on fire, a mother attempting to cast the sin out of her daughter by stabbing her in the bath–but wild enough to make you want to read more.

“And Eve Was Weak,” as staged in the original Broadway mounting, accomplishes that. You can’t believe that this woman is throwing her daughter around for reaching sexual maturity yet it’s happening live in front of you. The daughter, barely able to get off her knees to defend herself, is utterly unprepared for the cruelty of the adult world. Carrie finds a way to fight back, but never finds a way to assert her worth until it is too late. Blowing up the light bulb could have been distraction enough to escape the cellar; instead, she doesn’t find the strength to lash out until she’s already lost the battle. It’s a brilliant visual representation of the power struggle between the characters and functions as narrative-essential spectacle. Who knew an eight foot raked flat could be so horrifying and electrifying?

There is never any doubt that Carrie has powers in the original novel and those powers manifest themselves in increasingly violent ways. You can’t tell this story in shades of gray; it needs the full rainbow of spectacle to breathe and draw the audience in. The first production of this musical to actually focus on the story with the appropriate level of theatricality will be a smash hit. Until then, we have to settle for reconciling the distracting spectacle of the original Broadway production with the subdued but improved exposition of the Off-Broadway revival.

Thoughts on Carrie in any form? Or “And Eve Was Weak” specifically? Share them below. Love to hear from you.

The Sound of Suspense is Sometimes Silence

Yesterday, we took a good look at how Alfred Hitchcock refined the art of cinematic scoring to create suspense in unexpected ways. Today, we’re looking at the complete opposite: silence.

Most films have some kind of scoring. Even if it’s just an opening or closing theme, music is used to establish some kind of frame of reference for the viewer. Young Adult uses a 90s rock song, complete with tape deck and rewind sound effects, to show how the protagonist is trapped in the past. Anna Karenina has an elaborate score timed perfectly with the onscreen action to create a sense of whimsy and melodrama in the story. Original, adapted, or licensed, the origin of the music is not as important as the emotional or contextual reaction to the song.

But what happens when a film doesn’t use any incidental music or scoring at all? In the case of found footage horror and low budget thrillers, it’s a regular occurrence. Having the characters film the action as part of the film cuts the cost of licensing music or hiring a composer/arranger. There wouldn’t be scoring in real life, so why would music suddenly appear in the background in a suspenseful film?

suspensesilencethestrangers The Sound of Suspense is Sometimes SilenceThe Strangers is one of the better modern examples of this. The 2008 horror film became a surprise hit because of the unrelenting suspense onscreen. First time writer/director Bryan Bertino took the Hitchcock “bomb under the table” concept to the extreme. The unhappy couple vacationing in the remote cabin have no idea what is going to happen for minutes at a time as we, the audience, see the blood-thirsty strangers circle the house, reach for the phones, and set up their traps. It’s amazing the amount of suspense Bertino got out of one scene where the woman is standing in the hallway completely oblivious to the masked stranger staring right at her through the window for well over a minute.

More surprising is how The Strangers uses no traditional scoring to advance the mood. There are plenty of opportunities for wistful ballads and fast-paced chase motifs. The camera lingers on a very subdued moment of despair–the woman takes off the ring her boyfriend tried to propose with and sits down at the kitchen table–with no real scoring. A little music here and there could have gilded the lily and really tightened the film up. As it stands, The Strangers was as shocking and effective as it was in theaters because there was nothing in the film to release you from the suspense.

Funny Games, the original and the remake, used the same concept to much better effect. The films establish themselves as otherworldly–first too picturesque and perfect, then too artificial and gameshow-like–so the normal expectations of life and cinema no longer apply. By the time all hell breaks loose and the bad guys force the upper hand, you don’t miss the music. You’re too busy trying to think ahead of the characters onscreen to anticipate the end of the film.

The lack of music in a suspenseful film forces the viewer to pay attention to the screen. It means the screenplay and acting have to be tighter than usual because no amount of edits and special effects will distract from such intense scrutiny of characters and story. It also means that you can get your message across with subtlety and suggestion rather than over the top action set pieces.

suspensesilencethelastexorcism The Sound of Suspense is Sometimes SilenceThe found footage sub-genre really uses this to great effect. From the unfocused lens of The Blair Witch Project to the social commentary and character study of Chronicle, the elimination of incidental scoring in this kind of film lets the story breathe. Sure, you have misfires like Cloverfield where the story doesn’t evolve enough to maintain interest. But you also have shocking successes like The Last Exorcism, where the silence onscreen allows the director and editor to dictate when you get to breathe again.

If you want to film a suspense story grounded in real lives rather than over the top spectacle, it’s worth exploring a score-less film. An action-driven story needs the music to guide the mind to the narrative or emotional takeaway of a scene. A dialogue-driven suspense story or even a slice of life gone wrong concept doesn’t necessarily need the extra cross-hairs to align the viewer with the director’s vision.

Thoughts on suspense film scoring or the lack thereof? Share them below.

Guts by Chuck Palahniuk and Non-Linear Suspense

When I decided to dedicate April to suspense, I wanted to cover a variety of approaches in a variety of media. Hitchcock suspense is the most prevalent and recognizable at this point. It’s the style that I refer to in reviews with the “we know the bomb is under the table but the characters don’t” imagery. The disconnect between audience and the character is a strong, time-tested method of building suspense.

gutsbychuckpalahniukhaunted Guts by Chuck Palahniuk and Non Linear SuspenseThe opposite can be just as effective. Chuck Palahniuk uses it to great effect in his short story “Guts” from the portmanteau novel Haunted. The novel, a spin on the Amicus-horror film anthology style, has a great set of short stories surrounded by a bizarre framing device. The personal stories of the various participants are more engaging than the story of the artist commune that connects them all, which is the conceit of the novel.

“Guts” is the crown jewel in the collection. This is the story that will live in infamy for causing people to pass out at bookstore appearances across the country. It is a strange, unsettling, and ultimately graphic tale of sexual exploration gone wrong. It’s a perfect storm of hot-button issues to create publicity that could easily overshadow the story itself if it wasn’t so well-written.

The unnamed narrator recounts a series of really stupid decisions by young people who are trying to eek out a bit more pleasure in their lives. Whether it be by carrot, by towel, or by candlestick, the young men in the story are put in great peril and humiliated for exploring their sexual urges in unconventional ways. The little stories are broken up with brief looks at language, society, and the backdooring of sexual culture.

Each little vignette in “Guts” gets a little more extreme than the next. The payoffs are bigger each time–in humor, sadness, anger, or pain. Then it begins to dawn on you that the next story doesn’t end after two or three paragraphs. The next story is the last story and it’s longer than all the other stories combined.

From what you learned already in the story, the narrator is going to face consequences for trying to pleasure himself with the aid of a pool. He even warns you right at the start that holding his breath will be his downfall.


Take in as much air as you can.

This story should last about as long as you can hold your breath, and then just a little bit longer. So listen as fast as you can.

gutsbychuckpalahniuk Guts by Chuck Palahniuk and Non Linear SuspenseThe obtuse warning is quickly forgotten with all the asides and near-rambling that happens when the narrator diagnoses the world’s problems. Once the narrator breaks the surface of the water for the first time, you know something bad will happen. Then that bad thing gets worse with each paragraph until the result is almost unbearable. The story ends and you can breathe again but the fresh air does not erase the panic from the page.

Chuck Palahniuk doesn’t exactly use misdirection to make “Guts” work. True, the actually story isn’t revealed right away but the circumstances do not change. Young men are punished by fate for doing stupid things for pleasure. The only shift leading into the narrator’s own story is the level of detail. The stories are dirty little anecdotes and bar facts until the consequences hit home for the narrator.

In Palahniuk’s story, the bomb has already gone off. We’re left with a narrator trying to pick up the pieces and let you know exactly what the explosion was like. The story is so personal and traumatic that he keeps deflecting–to other people and other topics, anything to delay the recollection of his fate. We don’t know what’s going to happen and how far the story will go and that creates suspense. It’s not that we know the bomb is under the table but the characters don’t; it’s the character knows when the bomb went off but he doesn’t really want to tell you.

You can read “Guts” at Chuck Palahniuk’s site.

Thoughts on “Guts?” Share them below.

Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates: Twisting Fate

Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates might be the most perfect horror novel ever written. It is a masterpiece of suspense that never tries to misdirect you. What you read is what you get and that’s what’s so terrifying about it.

Oates uses the Poe device of the self-proclaimed unreliable narrator to create a piece of Hitchcock-style suspense. We know the bomb is underneath the table and the narrator will not escape, but he doesn’t know that. He really believes his plans are not only foolproof but logical and just.

Quentin P. is a disturbed young man. He is already a registered sex offender for his previous attempts at sexual conquest. Quentin knows he likes teenage boys and will do anything within his power to create a perfect sex slave. He has a master plan that can’t possibly go wrong more than one time, right?

zombiebyjoycecaroloates Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates: Twisting FateThe genius of Zombie is Oates’ refusal to pull any punches. You keep reading this novel because you cannot believe that Quentin will go through with his plan. Then he comes up short and starts the exact same plan again. Zombie is relentless in its pursuit of truth in this Dahmer-inspired tale. Quentin will pursue his obsession at any cost and for any small reward he can get out of it.

Zombie is a short novel and a quick read at that. There is not a lot of text on any page to reflect the mental capacity of Quentin. Name, locations, and entire paragraphs are redacted as if you’re reading Quentin’s diary after the evidence at the trial is released in the public records. The sentences are short, blunt, and succinctly descriptive. It only takes so many words to describe what he has in mind for his young victims and yet he provides increasingly terrifying variations on the same actions.

The suspense comes from knowing there is no way Quentin’s plan can succeed. That is proven early on in the novel. What makes Zombie a true masterpiece of suspense is Oates’ choice to double down on the insanity. Quentin’s failure leads to a second attempt to do the exact same thing to his next victim with only a minor change. Every misstep is not so much corrected as it is repeated.

If you trip on the third step that’s just a little higher than it should be every time you go up the staircase, it doesn’t make a substantive difference if you lead with your left foot or your right foot. In Quentin’s twisted mind, that third step will magically not be a problem because, this time, he’ll count to three before stepping on it; then he’ll count to four or change his socks for the fourth attempt.

It takes a brilliant mind to create such a believably disturbing yet compelling narrator. Joyce Carol Oates finds a sense of brevity in Zombie that’s as profound as her novels several times its length. The suspense generated by a cycle of self-destructive choices that only change in superficial ways make the novel an experience you can’t just shake off.

Thoughts on Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates? Share them below.

Alan Wake and the Push of Video Game Action

I’ve played through the Xbox 360 game Alan Wake twice now and really enjoy it. It’s super-moody with a lot of noir notes and an emphasis on storytelling. It builds great suspense in the first hour of play and only escalates from there with an unpredictable story. Yet, in an attempt to provide a psychological action thriller rather than a psychological thriller, developer Remedy tipped their hat toward third person shooter tactics that don’t evolve nearly to support the story.

Alan Wake is a well-known writer with a bad case of writer’s block. He goes on vacation with his wife to try to restart his creative juices but winds up plagued by dangerous nightmares instead. Possible stories he could be writing come to life at night. His only source of protection is light, a scarce resource in the middle of the woods.

alanwakelight Alan Wake and the Push of Video Game Action

See the lights? Good luck getting there

The light conceit is excellent. It’s evocative of the writing process itself. I couldn’t help but recite Emily Dickinson’s “Tell All the Truth but Tell It Slant” the first time the game went into the nightmare world.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;

As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

Light is the source of inspiration for writers. It is the lens that focuses your perspective of the world. It’s everything you see and care about in the subject you’re covering. You put your own spin on what you want the audience to see but the spin must reflect reality. If it doesn’t, the audience feels betrayed and no long buys your conceit.

alanwakecover Alan Wake and the Push of Video Game Action

Alan Wake: A Psychological Action Thriller

Alan Wake uses light as a savior and a weapon. A lone street light on a winding path can be the difference between life and death in the middle of the night. A found flashlight, however, becomes a weapon of mass destruction. Point it at your enemy and he loses his ability to hurt you. Wake’s greatest weapon is overexposing his opponent so that no mystery or fear remains.

The trickiest aspect of the exposition is Wake’s use of light. Part of the mystery in the dark is eliminated each time he fights, chipping away at the threat the night poses. The exploration during the day is, by comparison, beautiful but nonthreatening. If you’re walking down a dark hallway, something will confront you; if you’re walking in a lit room, nothing will happen.

This creates an interesting situation in Alan Wake. The early scenes in the dark build a really palpable sense of suspense. The first nightmare has a sequence inside a cabin that almost made me pause the game and walk away. I was trapped, unable to do anything while the threat of a vengeful hitchhiker was held back by an old wooden door. I knew what would happen if the villain reached me, but I was powerless to save myself until the game provided a way out.

alanwakemoregunplay Alan Wake and the Push of Video Game Action

More=harder in Alan Wake

Yet as the game progresses, the tricks become less effective. The technique of building suspense is a constant and repeating series of cinematic tricks that would work great in a two hour film. Yet, in an eight hour or longer video game, the tricks become predictable. The story has enough twists and turns to hold your interest. It is the in the moment gameplay that poses the greater problem. Even if you can’t figure out where the story is going, you can sense when the story is going to change or a new challenge is going to pop up.

Alan Wake doesn’t help itself with the difficulty curve. The third-person shooter aspect of flashlight plus other weapon is harder to control than necessary. Even if you assume an intentional device of a writer not being a crack shot right off the bat, there’s a lack of responsiveness in the firearms and a disorienting aiming system that adds more challenge than the actual narrative-driven changes of the story. The gameplay does not always reflect the style of storytelling. The suspense signals during in-game action sequences wouldn’t be as distracting or predictable if the game mechanics were challenging, not distracting, in their own right.

alanwakeaction Alan Wake and the Push of Video Game Action

More exploration, less run and gun would be great

This is not to downplay the quality of Alan Wake. It is a very engaging suspense game for people who want horror to go beyond zombies or vampires. The control/pacing flaws are only a distraction because the rest of the experience is so strong. Wake’s story, in and out of the nightmare world, is great. The characters are interesting and the environmental conceit strong.

I just have to wonder if the game wouldn’t have benefited from a less action-oriented approach. Without the sameness of the fights drawing extra focus to the structure of the game, the darker areas could have focused more on surviving the story rather than fighting the game itself.

Thoughts on Alan Wake? Share them below.