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Deconstructing horror

Mind control, fake blood on the table at UCCS

The Ring is guaranteed to freak.
  • The Ring is guaranteed to freak.

As part of UCCS' Halloween festivities, master storyteller and writer John Stansfield will join independent film producer and director of film studies Robert von Dassanowsky for "Scary Stories: Storyteller meets Filmmaker." Stansfield will present tales from literature and folklore, while Dassanowsky will discuss horror's fabrication in film.

The Independent recently spoke with Dassanowsky, 2004 Carnegie Foundation/CASE Professor of the Year for Colorado, regarding the dialogue.

Indy: How is horror constructed in film, related specifically to audience manipulation?

Dassanowsky: Horror uses all of film's information channels: artistic, technical and performance. They're all choices intended to create a mood. Scopophilia is the human desire to watch, to construct knowledge, even identity, based on what we see. The horror filmmaker knows how to play on this impulse so it becomes a personal experience. Technical aspects such as camerawork, editing and sound can heighten or lessen the audience reception of what is supposed to be "scary."

Indy: How will your look into film horror correspond with John Stansfield's presentation?

Dassanowsky: A good horror film has to have good storytelling as its basis, or it will just be a grab bag of clich images, which we all saw happen to horror films at each phase of their development through the decades. John's understanding of what makes a story well-constructed, compelling, identifiable and haunting also applies to a good horror film.

Indy: From Hitchcock to Jaws, and modern flicks like The Sixth Sense and The Ring, has the horror genre improved or gone downhill?

Dassanowsky: Hitchcock is the unreproducible master. Although so many have tried to imitate him, most are doomed to failure. Hitchcock understood the delicate balance of just how much information to give the viewer, and how much to let the viewer decide for him- or herself. That always personalized the terror. He was responding to the films of the 1950s -- which were based in Cold War fears of atomic fallout and Soviet mind control -- by being more subtle and visceral.

Later films have presented us with static images of horror that are repelling or agonizing, rather than thrilling or scary. A bucket of fake blood is only that. It's revolting, but not much more. Nevertheless, that phase brought with it a sense of freedom to horror cinema that it hadn't had under the past censors. ...

More recently, American horror films have been influenced abroad, particularly by Japanese media arts [The Ring], and by the postmodern crisis of reason -- that anything can be a truth [The Sixth Sense].

I think there's audience demand for something more stimulating than the usual exploitation flick. With a greater latitude of what can be presented on television and in video games, a greater horror-audience sophistication has evolved. It's a curious reversal of the obnoxious dumbing-down of general entertainment films that has plagued American cinema of late.

Indy: What's your favorite horror film?

Dassanowsky: I have a favorite from every decade, from the nightmarish German expressionist Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to the classic monster films of the 1930s and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

-- Matthew Schniper


"Scary Stories: Storyteller meets Filmmaker"

UCCS, Kraemer Family Library (third-floor apse), 1420 Austin Bluffs Pkwy.

Thursday, Oct. 27, 7-9 p.m.

Free; for more, call 262-3295.

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