Serrated Edges by Billups Allen: The use of unorthodox story structure in horror films

Nov 11, 2019

Splat the Movies Series

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I’ve been attracted to horror and sci-fi as long as I can remember. One of my very first memories is seeing the poster for Alien (1978) in a movie theater in Jackson, Miss., where I first saw Star Wars (1977). Like many people, Star Wars stuck with me, but so did the poster of green light emanating from a cracked egg. “What could that movie be about?” I wondered as I stared at it. The poster already had me in a grip. I was scared. I eventually saw the movie at my grandmother’s house. She was an early HBO subscriber, back before it was twenty-four hours even. At once point she asked, “Why are you watching that when you can’t take your hand away from your face?” But for better or worse, she and my parents let me watch it. I watched Friday the 13th (1980) right there on my grandmother’s floor, too. There was something surreal about seeing it under my grandmother’s care. If I could have a choice to relive seeing Star Wars in the theater for the first time or Friday the 13th in front of the TV on my grandmother’s floor, it’d be a hard choice for me to make.

I’m not into horror solely because I regularly love to see blood and guts splayed on the screen en masse. I do enjoy a good—or an especially bad—slasher movie. I’ve followed the Friday the 13th franchise through all of its ridiculous phases. I’ve also found that horror and sci-fi have illuminated my favorite themes in film. Strange performances. Eerie silences. My right brain functions were regularly charged by narratives found in The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), one of the first television programs to regularly produce episodes based on stories written by horror, fantasy, and sci-fi writers. The show was often in syndication when I was growing up in the years before—and when we couldn’t afford—cable television. The show is known for its tendency to pick stories with a “gotcha” or ironic moment at the ending that—at best—was supposed to act as a moral, and meant to encourage you to ruminate on the subject.

A classic example, based on Damon Knight’s short story “To Serve Man,” begins with aliens landing on earth with the intention of saving humankind from itself, offering technology and trips-to-paradise accommodations on the alien home world. As droves of humans volunteer to take a ride to the alien home planet, a code breaker named Paddy (Susan Cummings) is charged with translating To Serve Man, a manual the aliens are following. As her colleague Michael Chambers (Lloyd Bochner) boards the spaceship, Paddy arrives and tries to stop him, her warning resonating from the crown: “It’s a cookbook.” This one line is iconic to the series. It exemplifies the twist ending as shot using a camera. Michael Chambers is not aware. The viewer is not aware. Paddy is aware and is racing to the scene, but she’s too late.

This type of narrative escalates the possibilities of the scary narrative. When we first see Bela Lugosi in 1932’s Dracula, we can see he is someone to fear. Dracula draws in his target and it allows him to move on to a new target, so the movie carries on similarly. Here we see the head alien (Richard Kiel) and perhaps fear him. But then he offers a hand; he offers help. We must decide if we trust him. Of course Dracula is the name of the antagonist in Dracula—and we assume there’s something sinister about the alien, or else he wouldn’t be on The Twilight Zone—but these small twists open the possibilities.

For my small brain, the Zone was a Master’s degree in how to not fully trust what’s going on in the little screen, to be ready for anything.  

Many first time directors get their start in the horror genre. Studios are often willing to take a chance on horror scripts because they are often cheaper to produce and there is a margin for error during production. A slasher film, for example, is more likely to survive a bad performance than a drama. As a launching point, horror has the advantage of a pre-existing audience and marketing avenues. But horror also has the advantage of room for experimentation for the daring. Unusual time shifts, strange plot twists, and unexpected dream sequences can be employed without as much reprisal. If done poorly, a movie can evoke the ire of ruthless horror fans. But done correctly, distorting classical film tropes can cause disorientation and be an effective way to frighten audiences and induce scares. Atmospheric moments in horror can be more useful than extreme special effects and retreaded plot points. The following movies are some of my favorites.

Carl Dreyer’s 1932 Vampyr is the godfather of unorthodox horror stories. Relying heavily on creating a confusing, dreamlike tone, and heavily influenced by the dark paintings of Francisco Goya for the overall look of the film, Dreyer created a movie ahead of its time in terms of style, but confounding to audiences in 1932. Dreyer’s inexperience writing dialogue led him to produce his first sound film using minimal dialogue and inserting intertitles into the action. The result is a film appearing old-fashioned and sluggish next to its contemporaries in the 1930s.

Some of Dreyer’s techniques were unseen at the time. He placed a heavy piece of gauze in front of the camera for certain scenes, giving the film a diffused look. At the time, these scenes came across as unintentionally incompetent. Compounding Dreyer’s problems was the delayed European release of Vampyr for the sake of releasing the Universal classics Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). These films shrouded Vampyr’s release. Dreyer suffered a nervous breakdown, in part due to the stress the toll of Vampyr took on his career, but he left us with one of the most fearless horror films ever produced.

Nicoles Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now is an unlikely classic about a couple, Laura and John Baxter (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland), who are forced deal with the death of their daughter while living abroad. Laura seeks comfort in the company of a psychic, but John is at first skeptical of her abilities and later becomes suspicious of her motives. The film starts off with a straightforward narrative structure. But the storyline becomes unreliable. The psychic is shown to be untrustworthy. John becomes obsessed with a figure stalking him in the streets of Venice resembling his daughter. The film is bizarre enough until at one point toward the end of the film, the storyline laps itself and creates a ripple in the timeline, a plot point that has likely more than once been discussed in a café after a screening.

The film has been compared to Spanish surrealist Jorge Borges’s short stories. Borges was the master of labyrinthine plots which lead the reader down unrealistic, but often satisfying, conclusions. The end explanation of Don’t Look Now has also has been the subject of repeated parody, but it is rare that anyone can claim they saw it coming.

Like many genre tropes, horror conventions can limit a story toward a predictable ending. Italy is home to a cannon of innovative horror films challenging narrative convention. The international success of low-budget horror in the mid- to late-sixties created an industry in Italy similar to how low-budget westerns gained an international fanbase. Directors like Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and Lucio Fulci created fear through unnatural lighting schemes, foreboding music, and more extreme gore than had been allowed at the time. Bava’s landmark film Black Sabbath (1963) put Italy on the map for horror imports (and acted as inspiration for naming the seminal metal band). Well into the seventies and eighties, narrative convention took a back seat for many Italian directors.

Perhaps the most notorious of the Italian horror movies, Susperia (1977) is a disjointed story about a ballet student arriving at a prestigious dance academy only to discover the school might be run by a witch. Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) experiences unsettling situations like maggots falling from the sky. Her unpleasant encounters are explained away by the faculty of the school as hallucinations. The film was shot using an anamorphic lens. The lens shoots widescreen pictures on standard recording media. This technique distorts the film in different ways, most commonly light distortion that elongates streams emanating from light sources. This anomaly has become an artistic standard in film to depict situations like exhaustion, time changes, and hallucinations. Susperia’s set design includes many primary colors, imposing a nightmarish quality to the film. Susperia expounded on the visual vocabulary of horror and confused audiences with unorthodox storytelling. J. Hoberman of the Village Voice called it a “movie that makes sense only to the eye (and even then…).”

Japanese horror directors have also traditionally experimented with point of view and time structure. 1999’s Audition has caused seasoned horror directors to say the movie is hard to watch. Audition, directed by Takashi Miike, is the story of widower Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) who attempts to get back into dating by holding phone auditions under the guise he’s casting a film role. Actress Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina) attends the audition and it seems Aoyama’s plan is successful when they spend the night together.

But Asami is an intense girl, and when Aoyama can’t get her off of his mind, he discovers she is not who she claims to be. Aoyama is eventually tortured in the film.  A dream sequences showing him arriving at home throws a kink in the timeline of the film. From here, another dream sequence begins. And so continues for the last third of the film sequences within sequences, confusing the timeline. It’s a jarring and challenging film to follow for a while, but the effect coupled with the brutality of the actions on screen create building anxiety. Known as one of the most brutal films ever made, it is likely the confusing dream sequences are not the primary audience deterrent at play, but the surrealism the dreams create shows that striving for skewed narratives.

A favorite film of mine with a loose ending is Session 9 (2001), a film mostly written to take advantage of decaying remains of the Danvers State Mental Institution in Danvers, Mass. Although there is a solid narrative at play, the motives steering the behavior of members of a group of HAZMAT workers remains relatively obscured. Has someone been possessed? Gone mad? The film has garnered some negative criticisms for toying with the audience, but the small cast sequestered in an empty lunatic asylum adds a “whodunit” quality to this creepy film. There are many cues as to what is affecting the unlikely suspects, but in the end, it is largely left to speculation.

The suspicions in this film are purposefully shifted several times. As one worker becomes interested in an old case file, it seems we are being set up for a ghost story. But as another member of the party disappears, it’s up to an unreliable narrator to explain his whereabouts. The movie eventually wraps in a way where it doesn’t take a lot of digging to find holes in the logic, but the movie plays by its own rules and does a great job utilizing the decaying building as a conduit for fear and anxiety. The atmosphere created by shooting in a disused asylum and strong performances make the film rewarding, especially if you consider it may, in a way, all have happened.

You can only chase someone around with a knife for so long until it becomes pretty obvious what’s going to happen. There’s nothing wrong with a simple plot, but there will always be a cache of directors pushing the envelope, successfully or unsuccessfully, towards the abstract. For without this type of experimentation, horror would die in the woods like so many teenagers. These movies suggested here inspire exploration off the path of bland storytelling. There’s nothing wrong with being in the mood for a chase through the conventions of horror, but exploring may bring about scares you didn’t know were in you. Or at least encourage you to give a director a break once in a while if you don’t quite follow what they’re doing.


Billups Allen graduated from the University of Arizona with a major in creative writing and a minor in film. He lives in Memphis, Tenn. where he publishes Cramhole zine, contributes regularly to Razorcake, Lunchmeat, and Ugly Things, and writes fiction.