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  • Michael Rickard II

"Cinema's Secrets to Suspense and Tantalizing Thrillers"

Filmgoers looking for a good scare need not go to a horror film as there are all sorts of scares to be found in the genre known as the suspense film aka the thriller. However, what exactly makes for a good suspense film? Like the horror genre, the suspense film is defined largely by the characteristic of the emotion they cultivate in the viewer, in this case suspense. Unlike the horror film, suspense films are grounded in reality. “Horror films frighten us but, deep down, we know that they could never happen; suspense films unnerve us because we realize that such unbalanced predators could exist” (195). The suspense film terrifies its audience with its real-life situations involving courtroom dramas, whodunits, psychos, men and women in peril (victims), political thrillers, competitions, and erotic thrillers. These situations provide plenty of material for suspense.

Graves and Engle discuss the goal of suspense films “The success or failure of suspense films is determined by their ability to create and sustain tension. And although most film plots, hearkening back to Aristotelian dramatic rules, involve conflict and the mounting of suspense to a climax, some movies are clearly tailored to exploit and exaggerate suspense to a climax, some movies are clearly exploit and exaggerate suspense and tension above all else” (192). Since tension is a natural part of the dramatic process, it’s no surprise thrillers often crosses over into other genres. Western thrillers, film noir thrillers, and science fiction thrillers.

The courtroom drama provides dramatic possibilities with the question of whether justice will prevail, whether it’s a civil case or a criminal case. The film Twelve Angry Men looks at the intensity of the jury process with one lone juror arguing for his fellow jurors to rethink what they believe is an open and shut case. The element of corruption adds another layer of suspense as audiences wonder whether justice will prevail. In the film The Verdict, alcoholic attorney Frank Galvin fights for justice for his client against powerful lawyers and a biased judge. In Runaway Jury, the audience is kept on the edge of their seats as they wonder whether a jury consultant’s crooked practices will sway a case. In The Social Network, the suspense of the courtroom drama is built up by a series of flashbacks showing Mark Zuckerberg testifying at different depositions involving Facebook. The director intercuts these scenes with flashbacks of Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook. While the audience may know how Zuckerberg’s case was resolved, the film keeps the audience in suspense as they compare each witnesses’ story to the events presented.

The whodunit is a natural for suspense films with a person trying to solve a mysterious crime (often a murder mystery but not always). Detectives from books have made an easy transition to film such as Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, two characters that continue today. In The Social Network, the audience must solve the mystery of who built Facebook and whether Zuckerberg agreed to share its profits with investor Eduardo Saverin.

Psychotic men and women are often found in thrillers, terrorizing people with their ability to work the system and elude the police. What can be particularly sinister about psychotic characters is their ability to blend in as a normal person. One way to build suspense is to show the audience that there is something not right while onscreen characters are unaware. This was used effectively in Shadow of a Doubt where a serial killer takes refuge with his small town relatives until the killer’s niece discovers her Uncle Charlie hides a dark secret. The film Misery depicts the cruel lengths a crazed fan will go to when she discovers her favorite fictional character is going to be killed by its author.

The Social Network’s Mark Zuckerberg is presented as a self-centered remorseless individual. Is he a psychopath? He isn’t a violent killer like traditional film psychopaths but he does match Graves and Engle’s description of someone, “…usually ingenious and wily, increasing our enjoyment of watching victims, police, or vigilantes ultimately outsmart them and end their dreadful perpetrations” (196). While Mark Zuckerberg controls Facebook, he is forced to pay the people he tried to cheat out of receiving credit for helping him create his company, giving the audience a sense that justice has prevailed.

Just as films have adapted literary detectives, so have they brought in literary villains, ranging from Sherlock Holmes’ arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty to the more recent Hannibal Lecter. Films have also included depictions of real-life “psychos” including Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (loosely based on the life of killer Ed Gein). It can be argued that Mark Zuckerberg serves as a real-life villain in The Social Network with Zuckerberg’s friends and classmates trying to prove he took sole credit for the Facebook.

A man or woman in peril is another characteristic of the suspense film. Peril comes in many forms ranging from hostage dramas (The Petrified Forest, The Desperate Hours, and Dog Day Afternoon) to an innocent man or woman falsely accused of crime. The legendary Alfred Hitchcock used the wrong man theme in many of his films, beginning with The Lodger and continuing through classics such as The 39 Steps and North By Northwest. Filmmakers can intensify the suspense by putting characters with disabilities in peril. For example, Jimmy Stewart’s character J.B. Jeffries finds himself targeted by a killer in Rear Window, trapped in a wheelchair due to a broken leg.

The political thriller uses the drama of politics as a backdrop for suspense. Political suspense films range from Casablanca and its tale of an expatriate torn between reuniting with the woman he loves or helping an important political figure flee the country. In Notorious, a spy and his agent are thrust into a situation where they must stop fugitive Nazis from acquiring atomic weapons. In The Manchurian Candidate, a group of soldiers are brainwashed with one of them groomed for high office to take over the government. The film The Parallax View blends America’s spate of assassinations in the 60’s with a story of shadowy group masterminding political assassination. Thrillers can also follow true stories such as All the President’s Men, the story of how the Watergate scandal was exposed by two reporters.

Competitions are a natural source of suspense as audiences wait to see if a character succeeds in their endeavor. Just about any competition can be used ranging from chess (Finding Bobby Fischer), bicycle racing (Breaking Away), pool hall showdowns (The Hustler and its sequel, The Color of Money), hockey (Slapshot and Youngblood), and even curling (Men With Brooms). Films showing competition often involve more than the competitive event itself. They can explore the dynamics between a competitor and those around him (or her), whether it be a teammate, rival, friend, or lover. It can be argued that rowing is used as a subplot in The Social Network, mirroring the competition of rowers Cameron and Tyler Vinkelvoss and their battle with Zuckerberg over creating Facebook.

The erotic thriller is a twisted take on the traditional romance with a man or woman finding the person they are involved with hiding a dark secret, often putting them at risk. The film Suspicion features a wife who fears her husband is out to kill her. In other films, there is no question the husband is a killer as Humphrey Bogart’s characters prove in both Conflict and The Two Mrs. Carrolls. Strangers on a Train featured a complicated plot involving two men who agree to murder the person making their lives miserable. Hitchcock’s thriller played around Hollywood censors with one of the characters having a homosexual crush on the other. Later films such as Black Widow and Basic Instinct featured women as killers who seduced then slayed their mates. The erotic thriller focused on the dangers of one-night stands as seen in Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me and the thriller Fatal Attraction.

Graves and Engle distinguish the importance of plot and how it is developed, in creating an effective suspense film. “In order to produce the desired climactic payoff, the plotline must be paced carefully, reveal information judiciously, and build and sustain just enough-but not too much-tension and suspense” (192). It is a careful balance as the filmmaker does not want to bore the audience or create so much suspense that the payoff does not deliver. The Social Network succeeds in keeping the audience in suspense, not so much as to who will win the fight over Facebook but in revealing the events that led to the creation of Facebook and the ensuing destruction of Zuckerberg’s friendship with Saverin.

Work Cited

Graves, Mark and F. Bruce Engle. Blockbusters: A Reference Guide to Film Genres. Greenwood, 2006.

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