As part of our Tension Blog-A-Thon, our friend David Alan gives us his thoughts on Ghostbusters and Arachnophobia.
Thanks so much, David.
A General Note of Caution: the article will ramble and offer no back-story, witty or loaded insightful remarks.
While the list of things-to-worry-about-even-though-there isn’t-a-damn-thing-you-can-do-about-‘em continues to grow and be filed next to their friends from the History, Discovery and Science channels -- you can rest easy knowing this latest brouhaha isn’t one of these things.
But -- this, of course, is not easy to do. Especially for those who learn from, and often times regurgitate, horrible films. Better to learn from the really good stuff, right?
Well, in honor of learning from the really good stuff let's look at the most famous, and perhaps the most effective, tension in film history -- the tension in "Ghostbusters."
To be fair, maybe it is, maybe it’s not. I don't know. I’m not an expert. I just know it has a shit-load of tension and the film is actually quite decent, but I’ll leave it for you to decide.
Consider "Fried Eggs and Zuul."
Dana exits a cab, makes her way to her apartment door, and has an encounter with her neighbor, "Louis," who tells her that her television had been left on. Dana then brushes him off and enters her apartment, making her way to the TV, and as she goes to turn off the TV, she notices the "Ghostbusters" commercial. (Could it be foreshadowing? C’mon, who uses that in movies!? Seriously!?)
The commercial ends. Dana turns off the TV set, goes into the kitchen, and pulls out her groceries -- eggs, Stay Puft Marshmallows (more foreshadowing perhaps?), loaf of bread -- and is putting them away (now the ominous feeling is intensified) when the eggs, one by one, erupt out of their shells and fry themselves on the countertop.
Dana turns, sees the eggs frying.
She’s fucking horrified! What’s happening?
Then -- a strange growl sound coming from the fridge.
She pulls the door open and sees another realm.
She’s still aghast and paralyzed.
"ZUUL," the doglike creature says.
And finally, she screams and slams the goddamn refrigerator door.
Just like that -- tension is built-up, paid-off. Now, it may be mild, of course, but without it the scene would’ve been utterly flat.
But really, when it comes down to it, the "We got one!" is the best. Several scenes come close, such as "Get Her!," "Terror Dogs" or "Crossing the Streams," but none quite reaches the level of "We got one!" even after seeing it repeatedly.
It doesn't get better than this, folks. The tension is magnified by the fact that, for the majority of the scene, the audience is uncertain, which creates suspense towards the climax between Slimer and the Ghostbusters.
Now, when I started thinking of tension, I thought, "Okay, I have to talk about the awesomeness that is Arachnophobia."
Just as "Ghostbusters" was hardly a standard-issue horror-comedy, "Arachnophobia" isn’t your atypical genre movie.
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.
But I know what you’re saying, "If you’re going to talk about Arachnophobia, and you're not going to talk about one of the most legendary bathroom scenes in cinema history, then fuck-off."
Not to worry, I’m with you.
To set up the scene -- it starts with an 80’s girl starting the shower and dad needing to use the bathroom, and, of course, she says, "Go away!" Dad walks-off, daughter hops in the shower. But then that some-shit-is-about-to go-down music kicks in. And then a spider appears --
The scene effectively taps into our fear of the unknown, making you squirm in your seat as the spider slides between her breasts towards her -- insert witty comment here -- and then gives you relief with a bit of comedy at the end. Can you think of anything more terrifying? I certainly can't.
So what in the hell does all this mean? To sum it all up: On "Ghostbusters" and "Arachnophobia," Ivan Reitman and Frank Marshall fucking nailed it, from square one -- setting the stakes, structure, pacing, originality, which is hard to come by these days, dialogue, everything. It is the mix of everything combined that makes the tension work. It also makes these movies much more than family-friendly summer movies.
Put simply, tension is one of those components where you can't just get by, you really do need to keep at it until it is there -- and you need to nail it. And ultimately, if done right, the audience will be impressed as hell, and hardly aware of the fact they are being manipulated.
So there you go.
Print this. Cut it out. Laminate it. Put it in your wallet. Don't lose it.
Welcome to the tensionless story jihad.
Okay, so I rambled a little. Two out three ain't bad, right?