filmmaking

5 Silent Films You Can (and Should) Watch for Free on Youtube by Keith LaFountaine

Whether you’re studying them in college, or you’re seeking them out on your own free time, silent films are important part of film history. Not only that, they present a unique perspective on film language and filmmaking in general - a perspective that, while antiquated, is unique and not easily found in modern cinema.

The upside is that most silent films are able to find online freely, due to the fact that many of them are in the public domain. Here are five silent films you can watch on YouTube for free right now (and I highly recommend you do so).


5. METROPOLIS

1927 || DIRECTED BY FRITZ LANG

Considered by many to be the last German Expressionist film, Metropolis is a sweeping sci-fi story that encompasses everything from a story of working people uprising against elites to a traditional love story, this silent film epic sets itself apart with unique and dynamic visuals. The final thirty minutes of the film are a wonder of kinetic editing and precise composition, both of which help create the sense of urgency and panic that envelops the final act of the film.

Even for those who wouldn’t typically watch a silent film, this German masterpiece is worth your time.


4. A PAGE OF MADNESS

1926 || DIRECTED BY TEINOSUKE KINUGASA

One of the earliest horror films ever made, this Japanese silent film was lost for forty-five years. Defined by a supremely creepy and unique aesthetic, and using fascinating editing techniques that help elevate the suspense and horror of the story, this fascinating film has sadly not been seen by many people. Yet, it’s one of the best silent horror films out there (and there are a few to choose from), and deserves your attention if you’re ever in the mood for a moody, silent film.


3. THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG

1927 || DIRECTED BY ALFRED HITCHCOCK

For fans of HItchcock, this silent film will definitely be of interest. Not only can you see trademark elements of the filmmaker Hitchcock would become — his trademark editing style for instance — but The Lodger is also unique from a visual standpoint. Its usages of deep blue tints to represent the outdoors, contrasted by the harsh sepia of the scenes that take place in the lodge, and the purple tones that color the scenes between certain characters all imbue the film with a unique sense of character. It’s enthralling to watch and fun to analyze.


2. NOSFERATU

1922 || DIRECTED BY F.W. MURNAU

Nosferatu has long been one of my favorite horror films for a number of reasons. Its gorgeous camerawork, the harshness of its lighting, Max Schreck’s chilling performance — all of these things help propel this silent film to immediate “classic” status.


1. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI

1920 || DIRECTED BY ROBERT WIENE

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is often considered to be the first horror film ever made, and its easy to see its influence on modern cinema. Through the lens of German expressionism, this world is distorted and strange, surreal and horrifying. The narrative is well-written and leads to a few surprises that were revolutionary when it came out.

I still love watching this film today; it never gets old.

Suspense vs. Shock: Why Jump Scares Are Ruining Horror Films by Keith LaFountaine


I. The Difference Between "Shock" and "Suspense"


There is no terror in the bang, only the anticipation of it.
— Alfred Hitchcock

Which of these short films is scarier?

Both of these projects use a similar film structure (one uses Polaroids, the other uses light) but both have a similar payoff.

Except, they don't.

See, Polaroid uses "shock" to scare you. Sure, it builds suspense, but the payoff of the film is that moment where the monster is revealed -- where the music cue sounds loudly and the monster appears in a tight close up, growls, and then disappears. This is something we have come to expect from our horror films; we know these moments as jump scares. They are moments designed to overload our system with stimuli which triggers our "fight or flight" response. It's the same reason why, in all of those vines, that parents jerk when their child screams at them in the car. Our body is instinctively reacting to a possible threat.

Lights Out is different. It, too, builds up the suspense. It pushes it to an unbearable limit. For three minutes we only see the shadow of this specter. When our protagonist peeks out from under our bed covers, we are on the edge of our seats -- we are waiting for the jump scare. And then it doesn't happen. The woman looks relieved. She looks over at her light and sees the monster (as do we) for a split second before it turns off the light. This isn't a jump scare though -- there is no loud music, no horror screaming, nothing we usually identify with the typical horror film. Instead, it is just an image that is, for some reason, terrifying.

The differences between these two films perfectly illustrate the difference between shock and suspense.

Hitchcock famously explained the difference between "shock and surprise" *(as he called it) which also points to the inherent differences between these two methods of fear. Here, he explains it in a way that pertains to his own filmmaking (he never really made a "horror" film other than Psycho, so he's explaining it in the context of a thriller like North By Northwest).

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed.
— Alfred Hitchcock

What Hitchcock is essentially saying is that the effectiveness of "suspense" comes with the immersion of the audience, whereas the inefficacy of a jump scare, or "surprise" derives from how short it lasts. The most memorable horror films of all time are the ones that truly unnerve you, that stay with you long after the credits roll, whereas we forget about other horror films once we leave the theater.


II. The Definition of Horror


The safest genre is the horror film. But the most unsafe – the most dangerous – is comedy. Because even if your horror film isn’t very good, you’ll get a few screams and you’re okay. With a comedy, if they don’t laugh, you’re dead.
— Roger Corman

It's important to make a small detour here to mention a simple fact: horror (that being what scares people) has changed.

Films weren't always littered with jump scares and "shock" storytelling. Instead, they focused on atmosphere and sound design to really sell how tense a situation is. One needs only to look at this scene from Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, The Shining, to see this at play.

Kubrick sets up the scene by giving us all the information we need: at this point Jack is crazy; he has his ax and he is dangerous. Then we hear the sound of Dick Halloran's voice calling out from the hallway of the hotel. So at this point we know something is going to happen between the two of them. 

And then we get a beautifully suspenseful tracking shot that is just over 60 seconds long where we follow Halloran down a long hall littered with openings for Jack to appear from. We keep waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and then...the payoff. And when the payoff happens the initial attack does not have harsh musical cues to shock the viewer; the music only comes once we see the ax in Halloran's chest. 

Just compare this scene to the opening scene of Andy Muschietti's film IT from last year.

In this scene, within the first minute, we get a jump scare. What is the jump scare doing? Accompanying the opening of Pennywise's eyes. In other words it is a needless inclusion of "shock" with little to no suspense; it is specifically designed just to get you to jump.

The rest of the scene is relatively creepy, thanks to a neat lighting trick with Pennywises's eyes and the performance itself. But, when I saw the film in the theater, that moment ruined the scene for me. It didn't stop there, either; the film is full of cheap jump scares that force the horror. Nowadays, though, if you showed people IT and The Shining the vast majority of them would say that IT is the scarier film.

Horror is a subjective genre; what some find scary others find funny. However, this speaks to a cultural shift in terms of what people find scary and how horror films are made. Modern horror films, the good and the bad, have embraced "shock" over "suspense."

Is it so surprising, though?


III. Money Talks


Strategically, horror films are a good way to start your career. You can get a lot of impact with very little.
— Peter Jackson

The movie theater enhances all types of horror. We're stuck in a large, dark room with a huge screen and an impossibly loud surround sound system and we're shown creepy imagery and haunting music -- of course we are going to be scared by films like IT. Because of this, these kinds of films (along with The Conjuring, Insidious, etc.) gain a reputation for being terrifying and scary. In turn, they make money. Producers notice in this and they invest in the same kinds of films. The cycle repeats.

I wanted to test this theory and see if this was a valid theory as to why we have seen this sudden outcrop of jump scare horror films. Therefore, I Googled "scariest films of the 2010s" to see what audiences considered the scariest horror films of the past eight years. I then checked the box office returns of these films and cross-referenced it with their approximate budget. The results aren't that surprising, but validate what I'm talking about.

Revenue of Modern Horror Films Compared to Budget

Out of all of these films, which are generally positively regarded among audiences, only one of them doesn't utilize the "shock" style of horror filmmaking. That is Jordan Peele's film Get Out. The rest of them, though, utilize this tactic.

The other interesting similarity between these films: who produced them. The Conjuring, The Conjuring 2, and It were all produced by New Line Cinema. Get Out and Sinister were produced by Blumhouse. Insidious was produced by smaller production companies but was directed by James Wan (who also directed The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2.)

So in addition to the nature of horror changing, you have a small group of production companies and filmmakers controlling the majority of mainstream horror films. Because, while not as well regarded as these films, let's not forget that James Wan alone is attached to the Saw franchise, all of the side projects associated with The Conjuring (including Annabelle and The Nun), and all of the Insidious films. That's one man who is, directly or indirectly, connected to 9 of the highest grossing horror films released recently and an upcoming horror film that is sure to make a lot of money. Oh, and he's also produced the feature length version of the short film we watched to begin this, Lights Out.

Put simply, this is a lot of money and a lot of influence put in the hands of one director who has a very distinct style of -- you guessed it -- using jump scares and shock to sell his horror. And while other production companies have jumped into the ring and have been successful (A24 being the most obvious example with the success of films like The Witch Green Room, It Comes At Night, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Hereditary) they are more the exception to the rule, especially when it comes to audience approval.


IV. Does Quality Really Matter?


There’s a very specific secret: It should be scary.
— John Carpenter

Many people may be thinking Keith, I don't go to horror movies to get "immersed"; I go to horror movies to be scared. To some extent, I can understand this argument. As much as I hate jump scares, I can't deny that they work -- people like them. The films people see nowadays, which are riddled with them, are considered terrifying while the more thoughtful, suspenseful horror films I prefer are often given the label "psychological horror" as though to downplay the scares they can offer. So does quality really matter?

At the box office it definitely doesn't seem like it. This year the film Truth or Dare, produced by Blumhouse, was released. It has a whopping 14% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 4.7/10 on IMDB. And yet, despite that, it made an impressive $87 million, far exceeding its measly $3.5 million budget. Truth or Dare isn't alone, either. In 2017 alone there were three horror films audiences and critics abhorred that made a profit at the box office: The Bye Bye Man, Rings, and Jigsaw.

Some of this can be chalked up to our enjoyment of "brain candy" films -- the kinds of films where you don't need to really think about what's going on. It's important to recognize that the reason we keep getting these films is that they are cheap to make and we keep paying for them.

Does quality really matter when it comes to horror? I would argue yes. Because, putting aside our motives for buying a ticket to the newest horror film, we still want to see a good movie. We still want to feel like we got what we paid for in the theater.


V. Where Do We Go From Here?


Everybody’s making horror films and, to me, not especially well. I don’t know if it’s [due to] the corporations taking over studios or what it is. But it really calls for some young filmmakers to come in and just do something from their hearts.
— Wes Craven

I know that this seems like a very cynical way to view horror films. If "jump scares" are reducing the efficacy of actual tension, and if a small group of filmmakers and producers are controlling the type of horror film we are watching, then how can quality horror films ever get produced or see the light for day? More specifically, what if I want to make a horror film? Is it even possible to make one nowadays that doesn't utilize this shock style?

The answer is yes! In fact, A24 is leading the way for really intellectual, thought-provoking, jump-scareless (or jump-scare lite) horror. Films like It Comes At NightThe Witch, The Babadook, and Hereditary are garnering a lot of critical praise and making a decent amount at the box office. Other independent films, like It Follows, are also making waves with critics and audiences.

The issue is that a lot of people aren't used to this kind of horror style. Since 2000, and even a little bit before, the vast majority of horror films produced by large companies have utilized the shock style. This has effectively made us Pavlov's Dog ("Horror's Viewer" if you will). When we hear the sound get quiet and when we see constant shots between a character and an empty space we automatically know what is coming; we brace ourselves for the loud noise.

What a lot of independent horror films are doing is using this to their advantage. They are building suspense to an unbearable level, knowing full well that we are bracing ourselves for something to happen, and they are not giving us that payoff. That makes those scenes much scarier. It also lasts longer than a jump scare would, making it more effective; it sticks with us longer.

So what is the future of horror?

Well, I would argue the future of horror is what it always has been: young filmmakers and independent cinema. Films like A Nightmare On Elm Street and Halloween weren't massive productions with huge budgets. They were small, independent efforts from young directors. These directors had a lot of creative freedom and through their creativity (both in terms of their filmmaking and how they allocated their budget) they created some of the best examples of tension and suspense in the horror genre.

Jump scares are not the worst thing in the world. They can be used effectively. The goal of suspense and horror is not to hide the bomb from going off (using Hitchcock's example). Instead, it is just to make the moments leading up to it effective.

I'm hopeful for the future of horror films. I think that we will get to a point where suspense becomes the dominant horror technique again. Once that happens, horror will, again, reinvent itself through young filmmakers and the indie scene. 

In the meantime, I'll just have to put up with jump scares and put my money towards higher quality examples of horror, as will we all.

The MPAA Needs to Go. Here's Why. by Keith LaFountaine

WNHvxMz.jpg

We have all seen this image before. It begins before the vast majority of trailers released in the United States. Most of us take it for granted -- it doesn't mean much to us when we are in the theater. Even the rating system itself is taken for granted. Every now and then we may scratch our heads at it, but the average moviegoer doesn't analyze the rating system.

And yet, this private company (this will be important later) is the keyholder for a film's success in theaters.

I think it's time we drastically re-invent our rating system in the United States and do away with the MPAA once and for all.

 

Firstly, it's important to understand that I am not saying we shouldn't rate films. Quite the contrary. We have always had rating systems and censorship boards in place since film's inception.

In 1909, the New York Board of Censorship was created to dictate specific standards of morality for films being released. This spread to other states, who did the same thing, eventually becoming known as the National Board of Censorship. However, its name was changed to the National Board of Review to avoid the term 'censorship.' They still acted as a censorship board, though, as producers would submit films for review and adhere to the changes the Board requested.

The Board's goals ultimately changed, though, around 1930. They began focusing more on championing art and reviewing films than dictating what sort of moral fiber should be present in filmmaking standards. The National Board of Review still functions to this day, but its film commentary and awards (as seen in Screen Magazine) became its primary goal.

The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was created in 1922. It quickly took responsibility for creating industry standards for ethics and guidelines, ultimately coming up with the Motion Picture Production Code.

The Motion Picture Production Code was implemented from 1930 to 1968. There were a strict set of guidelines filmmakers had to follow in order to be in good standing with the MPPDA. They included the following:

"Don'ts & Be Carefuls":

  • profanity (including words like God, Lord, Jesus, Christ, hell, damn, and other curses)
  • Suggestive nudity (including on-screen nudity and silhouettes)
  • drug trafficking
  • inferences of sex perversion
  • white slavery
  • sexual relationships between white and black folks
  • mention of venereal diseases
  • scenes of childbirth (on-screen or silhouetted)
  • children's genitalia
  • ridiculing the clergy
  • offending any race, creed, or country

Also in the code was a list of things where "...special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized."

This included:

  • using the flag
  • avoiding any unfavorable mentions of other countries' religion, history, institutions, etc.
  • arson
  • using firearms
  • theft, robbery, safe-cracking & the dynamiting of trains and buildings
  • brutality and gruesomeness
  • committing murder
  • smuggling
  • actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishments of crime
  • sympathy for criminals
  • attitude towards public people and institutions
  • sedition
  • cruelty to children and animals
  • branding people or animals
  • the sale of women, or a woman selling herself
  • rape, or attempted rape
  • one night stands
  • men and women in bed together
  • deliberate seduction of girls
  • the institution of marriage
  • surgical operations
  • the use of drugs
  • titles or scenes dealing with police
  • excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one is a criminal.

Seem ridiculous? That's because many of the things in the Motion Picture Production Code were ridiculous. Films had rules where kisses could only last for three seconds, and the act of flushing a toilet could not be filmed. Things that seem excessively trivial today (one night stands, drug use, interracial relationships, nudity, profanity, etc.) were strictly enforced for over thirty years!

The Production Code eventually stopped being enforced, but only because a rating system was being formulated. Unsurprisingly the MPPDA renamed itself the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) and created a new rating system. And here we are today.

 

So what's so wrong with the rating system? It seems pretty straightforward, right? Well, it is and it isn't.

Let's start with the things that make sense. Firstly, it makes sense to categorize films that are okay for children (G & PG) and films that are not (PG-13 & R). It also makes sense to divide these films by their content -- things like blood, sex, profanity, etc. would not be expected in a film marketed for five-year-olds, while it would be expected in a film marketed for adults.

For films that only adults should see (meaning a kid can't see them with a parent/guardian), the MPAA created an NC-17 rating.

So far so good.

Now here's where things get weird. The MPAA is a private organization. It claims that it does not censor films because the rating system is strictly voluntary -- films can be screened without being rating, or with extremely adult ratings 

However, the vast majority of theaters refuse to screen unrated films and films with NC-17 ratings. This means that if you submit your film for review by the MPAA and you receive an NC-17 rating, your film will not get sold in theaters. Additionally, if you reject the rating and submit the film as unrated, your film will not get sold in theaters.

So you end up with two choices: either you re-submit your film to be rated again, or you cut out the things the MPAA mentions and re-submit your film to be rated again hoping they will lower the rating.

A very famous example of this, as was seen in the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated (which I highly recommend) is Kimberly Pierce's film Boys Don't Cry. When Pierce submitted the film to the MPAA for a rating they returned it with an NC-17 rating in part due to a female orgasm that "lasts too long." When Pierce called the MPAA to ask what was wrong with that particular scene she says the MPAA responded: "well, we don't really know but that's offensive."

Another famous example is Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1. During the fight at the House of Blue Leaves, the reason why the film becomes black & white halfway through is that the MPAA wanted to give it an NC-17 rating when the entire scene was in color. By changing it to black & white the MPAA re-evaluated their decision and gave it an R rating.

So what you have with the MPAA is, like with the National Board of Censorship, a de-facto censorship organization. They have a team of screeners who decide the ratings every film gets. Without those ratings, filmmakers don't have a chance to end up in theaters nationwide. So while they claim the entire process is voluntary, and therefore not censorship, they have created a system where filmmakers and production companies can't function without them.

And (unsurprisingly) the MPAA is just as ridiculous with their standards as they were when they were the MPPDA and were enforcing the production code. Female sexuality (ranging from explicit nudity to showing a female orgasm) often gets an NC-17 rating right away while violence, blood, and torture will get R ratings. If you say fuck more than once in a film you automatically go from PG-13 to R. In fact, there are some films that are rated R only because of their curse words (words, I should add, teenagers are already using on a daily basis in their personal lives).

 

So what do we do? Well, while I suppose it's not practical, what we should do is scrap the MPAA.

Firstly, as has already been detailed, it acts as a de-facto censorship board with ridiculous standards. It is not a voluntary system for directors who want their work to be seen (which is everyone) and it tampers with creative vision. In other words, the system is already so corrupt that trying to alter it would be just like the MPPDA changing its name and creating a new system.

Secondly, the ratings do not protect kids. This is their main goal, and yet more parents are bringing their kids to rated-R films every day. I remember sitting in the theater when Logan was playing and seeing parents file in with their six to ten-year-old daughters and sons. So if the system isn't "protecting children" what is it good for?

Finally, the MPAA rating system has often revealed itself to be sexist and homophobic, often giving films that deal with female sexuality and same-sex relationships much harsher ratings than films dealing with male sexuality and heterosexual relationships.

If you need a clear example of this, just look to Ghostbusters where Dan Akroyd's character gets oral sex from a ghost. That was rated PG. Boys Don't Cry had to fight against an NC-17 rating in part because of a female orgasm that went on longer than the MPAA liked.

 

Now we can't have total anarchy, either. I don't subscribe to an "anything goes" style system. But a new system needs to be built from the ground up. Maybe by directors; maybe by filmgoers. Regardless of where it comes from, though, it should not be shrouded in secrecy and held to complete privacy like the MPAA is. People have the right to know what is in the films coming out -- it can help them decide whether or not they want to see it. But the focus should not be to deter people from going to see films. It should be to excite them.

Just ask yourself this question: would you still have gone to see Kill Bill Vol. 1 if it had an NC-17 rating? If the House of Blue Leaves sequence had been fully in color? An NC-17 rating, or the lack of a rating, shouldn't bar someone from participating in the theater experience. The MPAA makes it so those filmmakers cannot have that experience, though, unless they bend the knee and obey their (often) ridiculous wishes.

That is why the MPAA needs to go.