In preparation for this blog-a-thon I have been thinking for days about suspense in the movies and I now know exactly what makes it work.
Take the scene in John Carpenter’s The Thing in which Kurt Russell has tied up everyone, taken blood samples, and then poked each blood sample with a hot wire. He has reasoned that if one of them is really the Thing in human form, then every part of it can live on its own, be capable of shape-shifting, and so on. Even a blood sample from the Thing will have a survival instinct and should try to evade a hot wire. One by one he pokes the wire into a petri dish of blood. Poke… sizzle. Just plain blood. Poke… sizzle. Just plain blood. If he finds one that’s not just plain blood, what will it do? What will the tied-up “person” do when revealed to be the Thing? The scene is enormously tense because we don’t know whether something is going to happen, or what it will be when it does. That’s suspense.
Hmm, come to think of it, maybe that’s not suspense. I’m remembering now that when I saw Batman Begins, my heart was pounding like a triphammer in the scene where young Bruce Wayne exits the opera with his parents into a dark alley. I knew exactly what was about to happen, and I desperately didn’t want it to. Maybe that’s what suspense in film is all about: letting the audience see the bad thing coming before the characters see it. This was Hitchcock’s usual approach, so there must be something to it. It’s the same dread I felt as Matt Damon’s son was winding up to jump into the swimming pool in Syriana.
But then how to explain the even greater tension in similar scenes in Schindler’s List and Pan’s Labyrinth — scenes in which a sympathetic character is at the mercy of a psychotic military commander pretending at kindness that you know can explode at any second into depraved cruelty? We don’t know what horrible whim is about to be indulged, we just know that it’s gonna be bad, real bad; and there will be no escape for the victim, and no repercussions for the psycho. In these cases the evil is all too credible — the psychopath is recognizably human, not a cartoon; and the victim is someone in whom we’re invested, and with whom we identify. Maybe the secret of movie suspense is simply to depict fully realized, three-dimensional characters in bad situations.
This would certainly explain why the suspense in parts of Maria Full of Grace was so unbearable. People say “the suspense was unbearable” and they don’t mean it literally; but I do. I literally had to stop the movie because I was so keyed up and fearful of what would happen next. More than once. Why? The peril in which Maria places herself in that film is no greater than that endured by hundreds of other heroines in hundreds of other movies; in fact you could argue it’s much less. But the vérité style of the film, the simple and sympathetic depiction of an ordinary person in desperate circumstances, and the unflinching portrayal of a nerve-wracking ordeal combine to make an excellent film almost unwatchable.
Then again, maybe you can have suspense without such close identification with the characters. Consider the scene in Aliens where Ripley and Burke and a few surviving Marines have barricaded themselves in a room, rifles at the ready, while a motion sensor shows a veritable army of aliens closing in on them. Nothing against the writing or the performances in that film, but I don’t think it’s character that makes that scene suspenseful. You just know shit’s coming, which brings us back to the first point I was trying to make. (The scene ingeniously ratchets it up a notch when the motion sensor paradoxically shows the aliens already inside the room, even though the door is still barricaded. When the characters realize the aliens must be in the suspended ceiling, there are a few moments of even more suspense as one of them climbs up to poke a tile out of the way and have a look.)
So there you have it. Movies create suspense when you know something bad is about to happen, but you don’t know what. Except when they don’t, in which case they create suspense by letting you know exactly what’s coming. And if they don’t let you know exactly what’s coming, or even whether anything is, they can still create suspense by building real characters and suggesting that something might.