Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter on Suspense

Editor's note: Fair warning- Several scenes of graphic, bloody violence are discussed in detail below. With pictures. Small children and people with heart conditions, by all means, continue. Part I. Part II. Part III.

The Friday the 13th films are slow and boring. This is a problem, especially in the age of DVDs and streaming video, where I can turn off a movie with the push of a button. Filmmakers need a way of catching and holding the audience's attention. We can surprise people with loud noises, but the effect wears off after a few seconds. An engaging narrative will help. But that takes time and a talented screenwriter. What is a director to do without them?

Creating suspense in a movie is not rocket science.[ref] This coming from a guy who actually likes rocket science. [/ref] It is, however, incredibly effective. To quote Alfred Hitchcock, suspense "is the most powerful means of holding onto the viewer's attention."[ref] Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut. With the collaboration of Helen G. Scott. Simon and Schuster, New York: 1983. Pg 72 [/ref]  And they didn't call him the Master of Suspense for nothing.

I remember watching a video of the Challenger disaster, knowing exactly what would happen 73 seconds after liftoff. I could not look away. French director Francois Truffaut describes suspense as the "stretching out of an anticipation."[ref] Ibid.[/ref] It creates a very powerful, almost excruciating emotional response. But that's what horror movies are supposed to do, right?

The key is to tell people something bad is going to happen- and then make them wait for it. Hitch again: "It is imperative that the public be made perfectly aware of all of the facts involved. Otherwise, there is no suspense."[ref] Ibid. [/ref]

Early on in the 2009 film, a young man discovers the body of a friend in the woods and races back to camp, where his girlfriend is- Oh my God, he's caught in a bear trap! Ahhh! The agony! AHHHHH!!![ref]All screencaps are from the regular DVD release.[/ref]

Ohmygod-ohmygod-ohmygod- SNAP! Surprise!

There is no suspense here. But there could be. Did anyone think to put the bear trap in the foreground, and let Our Hero run towards it in the background? It would look great in the anamorphic widescreen:

Other scenes try to create a vaguely creepy atmosphere, but show nothing specific. Later, Jason cuts the power to a hunting cabin where the Machete Bait are partying. He leers on the roof, apparently about to go inside. The film shows us a half open window, but are we to believe he snuck in through it, without making any noise?[ref] When the audience isn't engaged in a film, their minds wander, and problems like this become even more apparent. [/ref] Jason only reappears when he's about to attack someone.

A half-open window. Could Jason sneak through this without making any noise or disturbing the bottles on the sill? Don't look now, but there's somebody standing right behind you...

This second shot is only held for a second or two, before Jason grabs the girl, Bree. If we want to create suspense, we need to linger on it. Let Bree relax for eight or ten seconds after she opens the shower curtain. The viewers will squirm. He's right behind you! We must see Jason, and always know what he's up to.

The few suspenseful setups in the franchise are usually for fake scares- that dark shape was just boyfriend in a mask. Jason Goes to Hell has maybe two sequences of POV shots sneaking up behind the victims. Of course, this doesn't make up for the movie being insipid.

Why, Marcus Nispel? Why? Before Bree gets to the bathtub, the camera dollies... ...behind the shower curtain she's about to open, showing us clearly that there's no one there.

The cutting throughout the New movie is very quick, as is usual these days. This scene lasts about a minute, and has 26 shots. Average shot length (ASL): 3.16 seconds. 14 of those shots come in the last 20 seconds, up to the point where Jason impales Bree on a rack of antlers.[ref] The only time, ever, that we see the antlers is half a second before Bree lands on them. [/ref] ASL for Jason's attack: a blistering, nearly illegible, 1.71 seconds.

All those rapid shots obscure the odd staging of the action. Jason grabs Bree from behind, turns away from where the antlers should be, and then pushes her onto them, back-first. The scene is also oddly light on the gore: There's no shot of the antlers protruding out of the body[ref] And subsequent shots, from the shoulders up, wouldn't show them, anyway. [/ref]. Didn't we just see a screwdriver to the neck and an axe in someone's chest? What gives?[ref] Why, yes, it is a little weird to think about stuff like this in such great detail. Thanks for asking. [/ref]

Jason grabs Bree from behind. The antlers are several feet to our left. Jason rotates in place at least 180 degrees to his right. He's now facing away from the antlers.
Don't blink! This half-second-view is the only time we see the antlers in the entire scene. So how exactly did this happen? Note the lack of bloody aftermath. And no, the ten other shots still don't show everything.

A longer, wider shot, showing both actors from head to toe, would be more explicit. We could then simplify the blocking by having Bree shoved into the horns front-first. This, to me, would be even more violent, what with her face being smushed into the wall.

Why didn't the filmmakers use longer, wider shots? The rapid editing is textbook Intensified Continuity, the dominant editing style in mainstream movies today: Each shot shows only one piece of information, usually in close-up. Once we see it, the film cuts to something else.[ref] David Bordwell suggests that this flurry of images, with only a vague impression of what's happening on screen, can mute violence to achieve a lighter PG-13 rating. But every film of this franchise has been rated R. Hmm. (Scroll down to "The Michael Bay approach...")[/ref]

Why didn't Nispel and Co. try to build actual, explicit suspense? Perhaps there were practical limitations, like a compressed pre-production period, and no chance to plan out the shots like this.

Or perhaps Marcus Nispel and his collaborators are too afraid to use all the tools at their disposal and really frighten their viewers.


What a bunch of wimps.

Some final thoughts in Part V.