Back in the day, scary movies made frightened viewers cover their eyes. Today, younger audiences know better: They cover their ears.
Try it yourself: Find a trailer for a recent horror movie on YouTube, then watch it both with and without sound. Likely what you’ll find is as the trailer mounts toward a fright, so does the soundtrack until the scare, when it becomes a speaker-rattling blast of noise. Muffle the sound, and you’ve got a series of visuals that don’t say ‘boo!’ until the final moment.
However, this isn’t the sole domain of trailer editors. It’s also become a staple of modern horror movies, including the hit adaptation of Stephen King’s “It.”
“It” features a terrifying character/supernatural force, disgusting hard-to-look-at-gore, spooky atmospherics that rely on bold production design and cinematography (Chung-hoon Chung’s lighting is extraordinary), and a script that incorporates both human drama and comic relief. Unfortunately, when it comes to the scary bits, it’s all about the sound while the visual storytelling goes MIA.
Copyright: © 2017 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC
After establishing the terrifying Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), the sewer- and shadow-dwelling clown who’s making the town’s children disappear, director Andy Muschietti repeats the same patterns in delivering scares. When the film’s young heroes draw near to Pennywise, composer Benjamin Wallfisch’s score cues the audience that our protagonists are in danger. The music causes us to look in the dark parts of the frame to prepare for what’s around the corner. The music, accompanied by Paul Hackner’s sound design, becomes louder and increasingly shrill until Pennywise emerges and they combust.
Pennywise is a tremendous horror character, made particularly creepy by Skarsgård’s devilish performance and first-rate makeup and prosthetics. In his dialogue scenes with the children, it’s clear that he’s a powerful force meant to be feared. But when that menace becomes real, the scenes lean on a cacophony of shrill sounds and shaky, sped-up images in which Pennywise’s movements warble with CGI augmentation. We hear the unleashing of chaos and mayhem, but Muschietti’s camera doesn’t capture it.
It’s not even accurate to call these “jump scares,” which requires drawing the audience’s attention elsewhere so you can surprise them. It’s more like an assault you’ve been keyed to anticipate. Sound and music that grows faster, louder, and more discordant forces anticipation to grow, until it combusts like shattered glass.
Horror has always been a director’s playground: Camera movement builds suspense, editing patterns control how the viewer experiences the action (often through a vulnerable character) and precise compositions build a world that is increasingly unstable, frame by frame. Perhaps more than any genre, sound design and score are key tools to guide the audience’s experience of a scene. While a great John Carpenter or David Cronenberg horror film also has an effective score, you could watch them without sound and see their carefully crafted visual foundations.
Take this example of the pool scene in Jacques Tourneur’s “Cat People.” It has genius sound design, that supports how light, framing, and editing are used to create an ominous, lurking presence.
Tourneur’s low-budget classic (in today’s dollars, around $2 million) used the camera and sound to create a sense of the supernatural force without even showing it. “It,” budgeted at $35 million, doesn’t have the same financial restraints in bringing supernatural frights to life. And while the film has real production value and does an impressive job of building the world of this small, haunted New England town, digital audio tricks and CGI gimmicks can never effectively replace the power of a director using the tools of cinema to carefully guide how the audience experiences an unfolding scary scene.