Q: Discuss the scare power of Alfred Hitchcock. How would he implement those same tactics in today’s film industry?
A: I believe one of Hitchcock’s greatest challenges (and accordant delights) would be contending with the new-millennium horror-parody craze that desensitized audiences to classic scare tactics. As I see it, speaking with Hitchcock himself is the best way to explore this topic in a manner befitting his personage, so I invited Hitchcock’s ghost to my home. An edited and condensed transcript of our exchange is reproduced below.
I reposed on my couch before the witching hour — surrounded by candles of course — and the ghostly appearance of Alfred Hitchcock followed this casual summons. He brought a gracious, grandfatherly presence into my living-room. After Hitchcock had a seat, we discussed his afterlife — his acquired friendships and hobbies. When he offhandedly referenced the Wayans Brothers’ Scary Movie franchise, I started my agenda — eliciting his opinions of the horror-parodies that descended from his filmography.
LW: People take you quite seriously, as is warranted by your work, but you’re also very funny. In your 1972 interviewwith The Dick Cavett Show, it’s obvious that you have incredible comedic timing. I hope this doesn’t offend your craft, but I’ve often thought of your work as not only horror, but horror-parody. Your films made certain that horror and humor remain together.
AH: It’s hard work to offend a dead man, but no, that doesn’t bother me at all. If I’m remembering correctly, in that interview you’ve mentioned with Dick, I blurred those genre lines of comedy, tragedy, and horror. Yes, I remember it quite well. I’ve long enjoyed that American idiom of laughing people being “in stitches.” The phrase understands the sweet admixture between pain and pleasure that I channeled in my work.
LW: Yes, I loved your comparison of horror-thrillers to rollercoasters — how horror movies thrill in the same way these amusement rides do, by making us quite afraid within a safe, low-stakes environment. “Dipping our toes in the cold waters of fear.”
AH: Exactly. If people can’t escape fear itself, they want, at least, to feel in control of it. The horror-genre offers an escape from our powerlessness, or how small we are in the face of doom. We can’t always stop the horrors of our lives, but we can have good laughs at the expense of some poor fools who make all the wrong decisions. We can enjoy a draught of self-righteous pity for she who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
LW: Do you despise the Scary Movie films for ridiculing that desire? I noticed some disdain when you mentioned it earlier.
AH: Ha! I’m not that extreme in my tastes. I only aim to focus on quality things. The Scary Movie films and other parodies of the like aren’t all terrible. Just terribly redundant. The world already knows horror is a bit silly, but that observation seems to be the only conceit of these parodies — what else have we got to say about the genre? As I see it, there must be subjects more provocative, more worthy of an artist’s time than “horror is a bit silly.”
LW: So, to broach the question that brought us here tonight… How would your tactics change if you were directing and screenwriting horror in 2020? Do you think, as I do, that horror-parodies like Scary Movie and Scream desensitized audiences to the scare tactics in your films — namely your intimate murder scenes?
AH: I’ve always been adaptive in filmmaking, and audiences are likewise adaptive in their fear. If I were to make a film today, my subject matter and technical vantage would change to meet the times. I wouldn’t have much else to worry about, as I don’t think audiences are immune to intimate violence — they just need it reframed. Viewers can always be frightened. Filmmakers need only identify the underbellies of those fears.
LW: What new fears have we gained?
AH: Not new ones. The same ones of before, but aged. Matured. It’s not the sight of the blood, of the knife, of the cadaver or the fact of death that titillates you all. You’ve seen so many slasher films, and become aware of so much death around the world that feels like a fixture of life at this point. What scares you all, now, is the mutilation of your bodies, and to no longer be desired by people. To be betrayed by what you considered yours, and lose everything. To have your past wrongdoings catch up with you, as a manifestation of your guilt or lack thereof.
LW: So twenty-first-century horror isn’t so much about physical death as it is about social death. Being a loser, not being on top, not being believed or esteemed…
AH: Yes, and so on. So if I wanted to make you young ones jump in your seats, though I would have hoped to retire as a man of over 100 years… I would take things a step further than that Jordan Peele fellow. Smart as he is, he spares viewers too much. He doesn’t get close enough to the horror of what you’ve called ‘social death’ in his ‘social thrillers.’ Again, there’s this issue of redundancy. Horror is already social, so one need not get bogged down by that ‘social’ signifier. There’s so much more to focus on…. Peele doesn’t allow his characters to be as… disturbing, disgusting as we need them to be. Horror can’t be in its full wonder until we see the beasts’ underbellies.
LW: He’s not messy enough.
AH: He reveres his actors too much. And perhaps he’s too precious with his scripts. For actors and scripts, I say this: A director must toil over them both until they function in the story’s absolute best interest. That’s the fun part for me, the compliance. You work them and work them until they’re lacquered facsimiles of the story you imagined. Too many filmmakers stop at “good enough.” What rubbish. Stretch things as far as they can go.
LW: Isn’t that a harsh work ethic?
AH: Whatever one calls it, it’s a necessary tactic for picturemakers who want their films to sing. If one’s cast and crew isn’t prepared for that kind of industry, perhaps they aren’t the right group. If you have your way, swap those problems out until all of the pieces settle into a masterpiece.
LW: My last question for you regards the strain of class commentary I’ve detected in your work — I was glad when you brought up Jordan Peele earlier, because I think you have that interest in common. How have you approached the horror of economic strife in your films?
AH: Oh, I make wealth horrendous by having the rich characters be very shiny and nonchalant. They’re “put-together” in the sharpest sense of the phrase… The horror there is in how unaffected the rich can be about their sins. I make poverty horrendous by defining the squalor, the physical and mental chaos that ensues in not having one’s needs met. Rope (1948), Juno and the Paycock (1930) and my unfinished Number 13 (1922) are fine examples of this.
*Many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films can be streamed on Peacock TV
ESSAY: ‘Production Methods Compared’ by Alfred Hitchcock (1948)
TEXT / VIDEO: ‘Alfred Hitchcock Talks Suspense And Story In 1966’
AUDIO: Alfred Hitchcock Interviews (2016)
BOOK: After Hitchcock: Influence, Imitation, and Intertextuality, edited by David Boyd & R. Barton Palmer (2006)