As part of our Tension Blog-A-Thon, our friend Lisa (aka The Pearl Poet on TriggerStreet) gives us her thoughts on Ghostbusters and Arachnophobia.
Thanks so much, Lisa!
The film Married Life has its fill of character drama, and with it, comes tension. Our protag Henry (Chris Cooper) doesn't want to hurt anyone but when he falls in love with the beautiful young Kay (Rachel McAdams), he wants to find a way to let his wife, Patty, down easy. What easier way than poisoning her?
Here are the elements of suspense described in the Hitchcock article that arise throughout this story:
1) Make the audience have compassion for the characters on the screen
Henry is trying to murder his wife. This is not an admirable trait. Yet, he's developed in such a way that we feel sorry for him. His reasoning behind trying to kill Patty is that he doesn't want her to suffer. He wants to give her poison that will kill her, painlessly, while she sleeps. He just wants to be happy with Kay, and heck, if that's not relatable, then what is?
2) Always let the audience know more than your characters
Murder Attempt One: Henry makes Patty breakfast. Judging from her surprised reaction, this is a very unusual thing for him to do. He offers her more toast, dosing it with butter, even when she specifically asks him not to. We don't actually see Henry put the poison in the butter, but we know his plan. We saw him buy poison. And he insists she eat more. The audience knows something Patty doesn't.
Murder Attempt Two: Henry puts the poison in Patty's medicine. Henry goes to work, leaving his wife at home, knowing she'll take the medicine before lunch. He's worried at work so he calls the house. No answer. He has a neighbor check on her. The tension and suspense at this moment is at its peak. As he waits on the phone for the neighbor to return, he is looking out of his office window. He watches a man scatter papers all over the sidewalk. We wait with him. He doesn't know if Patty is dead yet, if it worked, and neither does the audience. What is probably no more than a minute, feels like an eternity. And it thickens when the neighbor says there was no answer at the door. The tension in this scene breaks when Patty finally calls…she was in the shower.
Murder Attempt Three: Patty tells Henry she would take her medicine at 11:30 that night, as usual, right before bed. This is where time comes into play. Patty should be dead by 11:30 pm. Henry tells Patty he is working late, but he goes to see Kay. But Kay breaks up with him to be with Richard. Henry, realizing he may have lost everything (like the man with the scattered papers) races the clock to get home and try and save his wife. The tension rises when he's stopped by the cops for a broken tail light. Will he make it in time?
There is also a lot of sexual tension. The story is narrated by Richard (Pierce Brosman), Henry's best friend, and he knows about both Patty and Henry's affairs. He knows they both want to be with someone else, so if he told them, he would "set them free." Richard almost tells Patty about Henry and Kay, but Henry walks up behind him. So he lets it go, pursuing his own selfish desire for Kay.
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.
The audience knows about Patty's affair, Henry doesn't, and we know that Richard has the power to end both of their unhappiness. But of course he chooses to put himself first. There is a lot of unsaid things between the characters, moments last a little longer, we're teased. But most of all, I think tension and suspense is brought on by the questions that continually arise.