There are actually a number of ways in which blocking and stage composition can channel focus, but by far the most important is the attention of the actors themselves. Those antediluvian clumps of brain matter that we’re trying to reach – the ones that are more interested in not being lunch than where to have it – learned through the experiences (or at any rate the success in propagating prior to becoming lunch) of countless generations that when a lot of other people are looking at something, it’s probably a good idea to look at it too. It might, after all, be a lion. If Carol has most or all of the actors onstage looking in the same direction or at the same thing, Alice and Bob will feel inclined to join in – despite their rational certainty that, absent a very large production budget and prior encounters with a witch and a wardrobe, lions are unlikely to be involved.
Guts, giggles and gazumbas
Some things are inherently more interesting to look at than others. Almost any object or person can be made the focus of Alice and Bob’s attention with sufficient care and skill, but certain items and events are apt to draw their eyes and minds even without the aid of the techniques we’ve already discussed. Gory acts of violence are of course one such, but for a number of reasons Carol is likely to wish to treat these as critical happenings in their own right, not devices for manipulating focus in order to set up something else. Impressive but static gore, on the other hand – a loop of intestines hanging from the back of a chair, perhaps, or a pair of lungs set alongside bloodied surgical instruments – can both amplify Bob’s unease and draw his eye without necessarily demanding to be the climax of a scene. The object need not be gruesome, however. If an item, moment of stage business or joke makes Alice laugh, it will have her attention and keep open the gates to the right kind of stupidity. Sex, overt sexuality and nudity have much the same effect. The movie folks know this too, of course. Sam Raimi is perhaps the master of comedy in the service of horror, and not merely alongside it, and this phenomenon may also be a more charitable secondary explanation for the slasher genre’s endless attempts at titillation (the less charitable primary being, “Our target demographic is 17 year old boys”). These three low, primitive, visceral forms of entertainment – horror, comedy and sex – have trod the boards together time and again since Méténier staged En Famille at the Théatre du Grand Guignol in 1898, and for all sorts of reasons I don’t believe this will ever change.
Too much of a good thing
We are drawn to an inescapable conclusion. If Carol is to attain the pinnacle of her profession as a director of theatrical horror she must, forthwith, introduce a sequence in which David and Emily make whoopee by torchlight while facing in the same direction and then perform an elaborate pratfall when they slip on a strategically located liver (fava beans and chianti optional) in order to ensure that Alice and Bob are suitably surprised by the car crash sound effect that will shortly be coming from just behind them.
These devices are all, in and of themselves, comparatively simple and obvious. None is unique to horror or to theatre, much less to horror theatre. But a very great deal of a director’s work in this genre consists of carefully selecting, arranging and combining these elements, dragging Alice and Bob by the mesencephalon to exactly where they need to be. When it’s done right, the result is a raw, gut-twisting experience that could never have survived the journey through lens and film and projector, created with the fine control that might at first seem impossible without a camera and a cutting room.
For full details and listings, please visit the London Horror Festival website