Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating The Visual Language Of Fear by Thomas M. Sipos (book review).

September 1, 2016 | By | Reply More

Thomas M. Sipos is likely to cause controversy with his opening chapter to his book, ‘Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating The Visual Language Of Fear’. After all, how do you define ‘horror’ as its likely to vary a lot in any discussion? To my mind, ‘horror’ is an aspect added to any story to send a shiver down your spine that death is the fate of a variety of characters, no matter what the overall genre is. With the ‘horror’ genre, it is centred on scare rather than character-building.


Some parts of what Sipos writes, I agree with. Others, I can point out exceptions, like for instance, Hollywood A-list actors don’t get killed in horror films and was often scurrying through the index in case they were covered later. Three examples off the top of my head, actress Katherine Ross in ‘The Stepford Wives’ (1975), actor Gregory Peck in ‘The Omen’ (1976) and actor Jeff Goldblum in ‘The Fly’ (1986) were leads and killed in these films. The latter two are examined in this book by the way. It’s a shame Sipos concentrates so much on American films, as our British horror films have a tradition of killing the lead cast in them.

The same applies with ‘The X-Files’. Although I agree with Sipos that it has many horror based stories, it is also strongly Science Fiction as well. When I call horror and fantasy grey cousins of Science Fiction, it is because they share elements with it. So from the start, we have problems with the definition of what is horror. Something I wish Sipos had examined more is that real horror is something that can happen to you close-up than to people on a spaceship far away. Being scared for a character is often your body reacting the way you would in their situation. Re-watching films of this nature should be seen as more of a catharsis moment equivalent to facing such fears again and again. Thinking that something can come out and get at you personally is true horror. From this, I take ‘horror’ as an aspect of any genre.

When Sipos gets on to discussing staging in film-making and how to get the best out of any type of budget, he really does come into his own. He also discusses a lot of horror films so expect a lot of spoilers if you haven’t seen them. However, you wouldn’t be directing a horror film without some interest in the subject.

I will take him up on one comment about ‘Alien’ (1986) and the ‘raining’ environment in the bay where Brett is killed. This was the place where one of the Nostromo’s landing legs was housed and after being exposed outside, you would expect it to have been given an automatic wash once retracted. Considering how tall the bay was, you would get the damp to rise and cause a minor shower there afterwards.

Sipos discussion on how Americans like to watch films set in America and how foreign country cities are disguised well or badly to masquerade that way is very enlightening although you would think more directors would work at widening their taste.

The chapter on camera lens is instructional for anyone interested in filming in any genre. Combined with a lot of examples, you should be able to understand and see their various uses. One important lesson you will remember is that a digital zoom is not a good choice for close-ups.

The same applies to the chapter on lighting and how it is applied to give, shall we say, a sinister slant to a scene. These kinds of chapters really need to be read by comicbook artists, too, as they use the same sort of language that they do and it would help develop the mood that is required on paper as much as on screen.

Editing is a more tricky subject and the chapter devoted to it is more about the decisions you see in the final film than the footage the screen editors go through with the raw material. Even so, the principals are the same in knowing what is effective and, in context, how to scare you.

Probably the biggest learning curve is with how to create with sound. Sipos points out how newcomers just assume that the camera microphone is powerful enough or think dubbing voices is easier later. Something I hadn’t known before is that film purists are called ‘cineastes’ and dubbing is rarely done with foreign action films because it gets in the way of the action. Mind you, I suspect screams and grunts are universal language.

The final chapter about the appeal of horror films pretty much agrees with something I wrote above earlier. I should point out that I tend to write the first drafts of my reviews after each chunk of a book I read a day. We just like to be scared and then can put it back in a box afterwards.

Although I’ve been critical at the start of this book, there is a lot of useful information to digest as to what makes a horror film scary which can be employed on a limited budget to make sure you get more bang for your bucks. Saying that, it does help if you also have a flair for film-making to give it your best efforts. If you just want to understand the film process or learn a few tricks of the trade for illustration, then that’s an added bonus.

GF Willmetts

August 2016

(pub: McFarland. 280 page illustrated indexed enlarged paperback. Price: £27.95 (UK), $37.99 (US). ISBN: 978-0-7864-4672-9)

check out websites: http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/ and www.eurospanbookstore.com


Category: Books, Horror

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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