space, suburbia and architecture: constructing tension in film

“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

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. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

Alfred Hitchcock’s distinction between suspense and surprise can be applied to the architecture of film. Here is a guided tour through architectural features that manufacture and encourage tension, a blueprint of a cinematic dream house, orienting its components through noteworthy film stills.

corridors

Corridors are seldom occupied. In the empty space and junctions they create, they become a means to keep moving, or escape.

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The Shining (1980)
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The Shining (1980)
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The Shining (1980)
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The Shining (1980)
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The Shining (1980)

rooms

The lack of windows and seemingly garish design promote the confinement of rooms and ability to ostracise an audience in A Clockwork Orange. The camera angles are invasive and uncomfortably close to interactions that feel altogether private or perverse, relocating the audience to a position of intrusion and discomfort as a framework for their anticipation.

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A Clockwork Orange (1971)
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A Clockwork Orange (1971)
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A Clockwork Orange (1971)
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A Clockwork Orange (1971)
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A Clockwork Orange (1971)
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A Clockwork Orange (1971)
lounge
A Clockwork Orange (1971)

staircases

Suburban staircases are continually and gradually icons of deterioration in The Exorcist. Visually allegorising a descent into possession, the crab-walking scene is one of the more memorable moments from what is still heralded as the scariest film to date. Separated from scenes that are far more graphic and perverse, the staircase scene is terrifying for its very banal setting. We are lead to believe that we are safe when we leave Regan’s bedroom, but even the safe spaces in the house become infiltrated.

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The Exorcist (1973)
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The Exorcist (1973)
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The Exorcist (1973)

bathrooms

Through the networks of water and noise, entities are carried to the outside world and inward.

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Psycho (1960)
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Psycho (1960)
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Psycho (1960)
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The Shining (1980)
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The Shining (1980)
Slither
Slither (2006)
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IT (2017)

open plan spaces

Paradoxically, open spaces are a symbol of claustrophobia in Sleeping with the Enemy. The wide shots of the spacious beach house, its floor length windows and modern interior design add to the film’s sense of emptiness and the psychological claustrophobia that manifests between episodes of violence. What seems easier to escape from, at least seemingly easier than a cellar as one classic site of entrapment, becomes impossible. Psychological claustrophobia, as manufactured here by the risk of escaping a violent man, is what distorts the idea of open space as freeing and emancipating, and is instead demonstratively empty and tormenting.

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Sleeping with the Enemy (1991)
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Sleeping with the Enemy (1991)
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Sleeping with the Enemy (1991)

the closet

Childhood psychological fears of monsters and darkness play into the role of the closet in the cinematic dream house. Often, the closet is where an entity resides to then be unleashed and wreak havoc, in The Grudge, the closet dweller retreats, taking those who peer inside.

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The Grudge (2004)
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The Grudge (2004)

the attic

Both a place to escape to and a place that is difficult to escape from, the attic’s function is dual and conflicting. Its moments of relief and its resurgence of tension and confinement occur within moments of each other.

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Sinister (2012)
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Sinister (2012)

doors

The Conjuring franchise use doors as a way to visually demonstrate paranormal movements, but also, as the house grows more unrelentingly ‘possessed’, the doors themselves seem to physically confine the family indoors.

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The Conjuring franchise
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The Conjuring franchise
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The Conjuring franchise
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The Conjuring franchise
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The Conjuring franchise

windows

Windows create tension for their very literal and visual function to preview an interiority or exteriority. To see inside a building, or for this view to be blocked or hindered, is very symbolically connected to the idea of darkness vs light. The windows are metaphorically connected to the ways we physically watch film, we cover our eyes from what we can see and we are caught off guard when tension obstructs our vision.

If necessary, windows are a means to escape. Thus even their size in a room impacts our sense of tension and our prediction for the likelihood a protagonist is able to escape, how sealed their fate is. In Mother! windows are a way to see what’s coming before there is a knock at the door.

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Mother! (2017)
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Mother! (2017)
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Mother! (2017)

the treehouse

Hereditary’s treehouse is extremely allegorical, as a location for grieving, and by the end of the film, as a site of ritualistic sacrifice and worship. Two of the films major themes, mourning and ritualistic satanism, connect only here, at the bottom of the garden amongst ominously fake looking trees that resemble one of Annie’s models.

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Hereditary (2018)
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Hereditary (2018)

using space: wide shots and reflections

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Suspiria (1977)
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Suspiria (1977)
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Black Swan (2010)
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Carrie (1976)
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It Follows (2014)
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A Clockwork Orange (1971)
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Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
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Requiem for a Dream (2000)
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Requiem for a Dream (2000)
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Get Out (2017)

How the camera is positioned in relation to these spaces is the second motion in the construction of tension. Suspiria and Black Swan, similar in their subject matter, use reflective surfaces and mirrors for distortion and conflicting focal points. It Follows uses wide-shots of dark industrial and suburban locations as traps for ‘it’ (the following, morphing entity that orients the narrative) that challenges its audience to find a focus point to latch onto for safety. Either way, there is an exercise of predicting where in our vision is safest, or most thrilling, to look.

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