Jean-Luc Godard’s claim that all you need for a good film noir is “a girl and a gun” could just as easily be applied to the thriller. Indeed, in the case of Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery, you don’t even require a particularly good looking woman and you can safely substitute the revolver for a sledgehammer.
That the thriller genre spans films as contrasting as The Sum Of All Fears (a nation-spanning political drama with a huge cast and a nuclear explosion) and Misery (basically two people in a room) says much about the diversity of the thriller. To suggest that so varied a genre could be governed by laws might seem naïve. However, put any thriller under the microscope and you’ll discover that a degree of their success hinges upon certain rules which, while not quite golden, are sufficiently sturdy to tarnish the work of those who choose to ignore them. That said, suspense cinema is so mercurial that it is sometimes those who decide to strike out on their own that tap into tension in its purest, most nerve-wracking form.
i) Don’t be a snob when it comes to your source material - When it’s producing serious drama, Hollywood is big on adapting critically-acclaimed novels. Look at the world’s great thrillers, though, and you’ll find they’re often based on texts so pulpy, they resemble rotten fruit. Take Alfred Hitchcock, who transformed Daphne De Maurier’s so-so short story The Birds into a substantial suspense picture. Likewise, while Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games and The Sum Of All Fears don’t represent a clear and present danger to your intellect, the fact that they look like small beer besides Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy hasn’t prevented John McTiernan and Phil Alden Robinson from turning them into strong treatise on tension.
ii) Embrace the unthinkable - The thought of a film becoming a cause celebre is the worst nightmare of most producers. But a sequence such as the octopus eating in Oldboy and Mr Blonde’s aural surgery in Reservoir Dogs can work wonders in a thriller - the infamy helping to get pulses racing as the audience anticipates the scene’s arrival. The moment in Assault On Precinct 13 where the young girl gets something more than she bargained for when she goes out for ice cream functions upon similar lines. Said sequence also anticipates…
iii) Embrace the unexpected - This might not sound like particularly profound advice given that we’re talking about thrillers. Should you choose to study suspense cinema closely, you’ll often find the films succeed because they do things that would be frowned upon in conventional pictures. Just look at the impact of Janet Leigh’s murder in Psycho. Killing off your leading lady halfway through a picture sounds insane, but it’s a fantastic move if you’re hoping to up the ante. After all, if you’re prepared to butcher your star, who else might get the chop? You can see similar thinking at work in Patriot Games, where Patrick Bergin (a biggish name at the time on the back of Sleeping With The Enemy) bites the bullet early on, so leaving then unknown Sean Bean to carry the load on the bad guy front. Strange casting decisions can also help to create a sense of unease. When Christopher Walken - a man who has ‘weirdo’ on his passport as his profession - popped up as the hero in David Cronenberg’s adaptation of The Dead Zone, moviegoers the world over leapt to the conclusion that the villain must be a real badass. When it turned out that the bag guy was in fact that nice Martin Sheen, their curiosity became more insatiable still.
iv) If in doubt, look to Britain - If the Western was America’s gift to the world, the thriller is the province of us Brits. From Wilkie Collins’s The Woman In White - the first genuine suspense novel - through to the fiction of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and the films of Alfred Hitchcock, we lead the world in bringing on palpitations and inspiring cold sweats. So, if you’re in need of inspiration, the UK is incredibly rich in source material. Alex Garland - himself an accomplished suspense author - certainly took advantage of the country’s rich cultural heritage when he borrowed the plot outline for 28 Days Later from John Wyndham’s acclaimed sci-fi thriller The Day Of The Triffids.
v) Keep it credible… - Authenticity is the thriller’s best friend. Stalkers (The Fan), kidnappings (The Clearing), spousal and child abuse (Mortal Thoughts and Domestic Disturbance respectively), race crimes (A Time To Kill) - sure, it might not be the stuff of everyday life but such terrible things do occur in our world, and since they represent most people’s worst fears, they’re an easy way of getting the adrenalin flowing. And if you story doesn’t seem especially realistic, there’s no reason why it can’t look credible. Take 28 Days Later where the use of digital cameras gave the picture a fuzzy CCTV/home video appearance that helped ground the truly fantastic story in something approximating reality.
Vi) Or not as the case may be - A man who can see the future of those he comes into physical contact with (The Dead Zone), a police station in Los Angeles that doesn’t have an arsenal big enough to bring down a herd of elephants (Assault On Precinct 13), a film in which the world’s fortunes hinge upon Ben Affleck (The Sum Of All Fears) - hold some thrillers up to the light and they seem almost transparent. But if a tale is well told, if the actors are fully committed to the piece, and if the tension is so unrelenting the audience is biting its nails down to the knuckle, believability can go and take a long walk around the block.
The Tunnel is available on Blu- ray and DVD (Acorn Media)
The Tenant is available on Blu- ray and DVD (101 Films)