What are some examples of great tension and suspense in cinema history? What made those examples great? What's to be learned by it? What are some bad examples? Because I would really like to know.
Please engage all of the very kind and thoughtful contributors by adding comments to their posts. I'll be updating the table of contents frequently all weekend. Let me know with a link to this post in your article or e-mail me and I'll add your article to the list!
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Table of Contents (updated 10/5/08 at 7:00 pm):
- First, our friend David Alan gives us his thoughts on Ghostbusters and Arachnophobia. "Arachnophobia, like Spielberg’s Jaws, which uses my favorite kind of tension, puts more emphasis on characters and build-up. And so, no matter if it may not be frightening, or that there is little edge, or anything else for that matter, Arachnophobia succeeds in holding that amiable, fun creepiness along the way and through the final scenes where it's just Ross against an army of extremely deadly spiders. Still, that doesn't mean it won’t make you jump in your seat from time to time."
- Next, another friend, Lisa, aka The Pearl Poet on TriggerStreet gives us examples from Married Life. "The tension and suspense in this film works because of what the audiences knows or doesn't know. In my opinion, the tension is the highest when Henry waits to hear back from the neighbor. We have no idea what has happened to Patty yet, so we feel like we're waiting with him. And when he discovers Kay and Richard together, we understand the panic in his eyes, his panic to get home and try to save his wife, because now more than ever, he needs her."
- Next, our friend Nigel (aka “Terraling”) gives us his thoughts on The Decalogue. "We start with a scene full of foreboding that primes both the intellect and the heart: something bad will happen. As the story unfolds details accumulate that foreshadow the outcome with ever greater certainty. A small boy, the nearby frozen lake, his curiosity about what happens when you die, and -- crucially in the context of the theme of the story -- his father's dismissal of religion and his faith in science, the boy's discovery of the brand new skates that were to be a Christmas present, the father's certainty that the ice on the lake is sufficiently thick for the boy to go out on it (they calculate it together on a computer)."
- Your very own Mystery Man, in what will be two articles on tension this weekend, first explores the world of Indiana Jones. "A baddie has to be BAD in order to be feared."
- Here's Joshua James on The Untouchables: "Here’s what I posit. There’s going to be a lot of people writing about the importance of visuals, beats, etc, when it comes to suspense in the cinema, and those are indeed important, but there’s a few things that I feel often get overlooked, and they are more important, in my small opinion. They are: 1) Context 2) Character [and] 3) Expectations." Love it! Also of note is The Prestige, The Reveal and the Head-Fake: "And when you think about it, that’s the craft part of this job as a writer. Like the magician, we’re only as good as our REVEAL."
- The always fabulous Emily Blake talks up I Am Legend. "It's that isolation, the quiet, the dark, the loneliness, all that works in conjunction. And these scenarios are well set up. Francis Lawrence, the director, clearly took his time with these shots. It's not all about getting the loudest, fastest bang. It's about showing us the danger so we have time to think about it before he steps in it. We feel what Robert feels and we are really worried because if he's the last man on Earth then his death is the death of us all."
- Bob Glickstein talks about a variety of films: "But then how to explain the even greater tension in similar scenes in Schindler’s List and Pan’s Labyrinth — scenes in which a sympathetic character is at the mercy of a psychotic military commander pretending at kindness that you know can explode at any second into depraved cruelty? We don’t know what horrible whim is about to be indulged, we just know that it’s gonna be bad, real bad; and there will be no escape for the victim, and no repercussions for the psycho. In these cases the evil is all too credible — the psychopath is recognizably human, not a cartoon; and the victim is someone in whom we’re invested, and with whom we identify. Maybe the secret of movie suspense is simply to depict fully realized, three-dimensional characters in bad situations." Thanks, Bob!
- Michael Patrick Sullivan talks TV and Battlestar Galactica: "This, right here, is one of my favorite kinds of tension. The kind that doesn't just take you for a ride, but makes you a backseat driver. Something's happening, and the viewer is piecing it together ass, if not just before , it happens. It involves, and it doesn't talk down. That's a tricky one, if there's any measure of predictability, you're shot. But it gets the mind racing and the viewer is taken to the edge of seat as they think they're on the leading edge of figuring something out while all that information, and all those moments build to the reveal of what's going on, right at the instant you've think you've figured it out. Or did you? Maybe you were just strapped in at the front of the ride."
- Christian Howell writes about No Country For Old Men: "We will root for the mellow guy who just found some money. We want to see his wife take advantage of the money. We HOPE beyond hope, but the viciousness of Chigur raises the UNCERTAINTY. We are cognizant of the stakes and realize that there could very well be a destructive outcome. Destructive for Moss. Destructive for Bell. Destructive for Carla Jean. Destructive for Wells. Like the cougar we find it difficult to root for Chigur but we do admire and fear his ruthlessness and power."
- And finally Mystery Man goes over various Elements of Suspense: "If, in the first chapter, you say there is a gun hanging on the wall, you should make quite sure that it is going to be used further on in the story. - Anton Chekhov"