The Sound of Suspense is Sometimes Silence

Yesterday, we took a good look at how Alfred Hitchcock refined the art of cinematic scoring to create suspense in unexpected ways. Today, we're looking at the complete opposite: silence. Most films have some kind of scoring. Even if it's just an opening or closing theme, music is used to establish some kind of frame of reference for the viewer. Young Adult uses a 90s rock song, complete with tape deck and rewind sound effects, to show how the protagonist is trapped in the past. Anna Karenina has an elaborate score timed perfectly with the onscreen action to create a sense of whimsy and melodrama in the story. Original, adapted, or licensed, the origin of the music is not as important as the emotional or contextual reaction to the song.

But what happens when a film doesn't use any incidental music or scoring at all? In the case of found footage horror and low budget thrillers, it's a regular occurrence. Having the characters film the action as part of the film cuts the cost of licensing music or hiring a composer/arranger. There wouldn't be scoring in real life, so why would music suddenly appear in the background in a suspenseful film?

The StrangersThe Strangers is one of the better modern examples of this. The 2008 horror film became a surprise hit because of the unrelenting suspense onscreen. First time writer/director Bryan Bertino took the Hitchcock "bomb under the table" concept to the extreme. The unhappy couple vacationing in the remote cabin have no idea what is going to happen for minutes at a time as we, the audience, see the blood-thirsty strangers circle the house, reach for the phones, and set up their traps. It's amazing the amount of suspense Bertino got out of one scene where the woman is standing in the hallway completely oblivious to the masked stranger staring right at her through the window for well over a minute.

More surprising is how The Strangers uses no traditional scoring to advance the mood. There are plenty of opportunities for wistful ballads and fast-paced chase motifs. The camera lingers on a very subdued moment of despair--the woman takes off the ring her boyfriend tried to propose with and sits down at the kitchen table--with no real scoring. A little music here and there could have gilded the lily and really tightened the film up. As it stands, The Strangers was as shocking and effective as it was in theaters because there was nothing in the film to release you from the suspense.

Funny Games, the original and the remake, used the same concept to much better effect. The films establish themselves as otherworldly--first too picturesque and perfect, then too artificial and gameshow-like--so the normal expectations of life and cinema no longer apply. By the time all hell breaks loose and the bad guys force the upper hand, you don't miss the music. You're too busy trying to think ahead of the characters onscreen to anticipate the end of the film.

The lack of music in a suspenseful film forces the viewer to pay attention to the screen. It means the screenplay and acting have to be tighter than usual because no amount of edits and special effects will distract from such intense scrutiny of characters and story. It also means that you can get your message across with subtlety and suggestion rather than over the top action set pieces.

The Last ExorcismThe found footage sub-genre really uses this to great effect. From the unfocused lens of The Blair Witch Project to the social commentary and character study of Chronicle, the elimination of incidental scoring in this kind of film lets the story breathe. Sure, you have misfires like Cloverfield where the story doesn't evolve enough to maintain interest. But you also have shocking successes like The Last Exorcism, where the silence onscreen allows the director and editor to dictate when you get to breathe again.

If you want to film a suspense story grounded in real lives rather than over the top spectacle, it's worth exploring a score-less film. An action-driven story needs the music to guide the mind to the narrative or emotional takeaway of a scene. A dialogue-driven suspense story or even a slice of life gone wrong concept doesn't necessarily need the extra cross-hairs to align the viewer with the director's vision.

Thoughts on suspense film scoring or the lack thereof? Share them below.

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