Night and Day

From Raspberry World – Volume 1, Issue 3 (October/November 2006) If it accomplishes nothing else, the Internet can certainly be a dandy source of inspiration. Kicking around recently on the Internet Movie Database, looking for information on Gojira (1954), the original Japanese film from which we, in ’56, got Godzilla, King of the Monsters, I happened across a forum thread spouting about what a keen idea it would be to release both versions in glorious color, and who else thought that was a marvy notion?

Personally, I don’t think that would be a good idea.

I’m not, out-of-hand, against colorization. For a long time, I was, but that’s because, for a long time, colorization sucked, if I may use so unscholarly a term, and evidently I can, because I just did. There was no room in the world for Laurel & Hardy doing a soft-shoe in blurry watercolor, The Maltese Falcon in pastel. Still, though I will be pilloried for saying so, some films are better served by color – Topper (’39, Constance Bennett, Cary Grant, Roland Young) was, in my wise and all-knowing opinion, perked up a bit by color enhancement. In fact, I think Hal Roach would have filmed it in color, if he hadn’t blown his budget on three of the days top stars (well, two top stars and one top character actor) and some really dandy effects for that period.

On the other hand, some filmmakers have deliberately made their pictures in B&W, when they certainly had the budget (and studio pressure) to work in color. Peter Bogdonovich, for one, has made several Academy Award winning features in B&W, The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon springing immediately to mind. After the success of Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks pretty much had carte blanche, but made Young Frankenstein “in glorious black and white! (No offense…)” More recently, the amazing Sin City was in B&W, with a little (or a lot) of red strategically splashed here and there. Mostly, this is an artistic choice, designed to evoke a certain era, or a particular mood, or both.

This is now, I’m talking about, understand. Before Bogdonovich, Hollywood had pretty much stopped making B&W features by the mid-’60s even drive-in theaters had stopped booking them. (As an aside, I think Bogdonovich has earned a place in Heaven for bringing B&W back to the movies.) Back in the day, however, even when color was an option, it was often far too expensive, except for the occasional studio epic, like The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind or the 1943 remake of Phantom of the Opera, with Claude Rains. But color wasn’t invented for such epics – there’s an impressive color sequence in the original Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney. That’s 1926 and there’s the Phantom, disguised as Poe’s “Red Death”, sweeping down the enormous staircase of the Paris Opera’s Grande Salon… Silent films had had tinted sequences for years, and in the late ’20s/early ’30s, there was a two-strip Technicolor process, as seen in Doctor X (1932) and Mystery in the Wax Museum (1933), and several other features. So color was around, if anyone could afford it or someone with a new process was willing to experiment and allow its use cheaply.

Still, as you might have noticed, most films were made in B&W. Therefore, the makers had to be creative in their, er, creation. If color wasn’t available, you had to make your film visually interesting. Some of that can be done with camera angles, but a lot can also be done with lighting. Check out the film noir of the ’40s and you’ll see plenty of examples of both.

Why this long lecture about the history of color film, when I started talking about a 1950s giant-rubber-monster movie? Mainly, because it’s not the movie you think. Gojira is significantly different from what played in the U.S., running about 20-minutes longer, with an additional 20-minutes of footage that was excised to a). downplay the anti-nuke sentiment and b). include Raymond Burr. There’s a lot more atmosphere and a lower carnage ratio, and B&W helps that. In a manner of speaking, it illustrates what Boris Karloff always said about terror vs. horror – “It’s what the audience doesn’t see that scares them. They can do a thousand times worse things in their minds than we could ever come up with or get away with on screen!” He and many others since then, disdained horror as simply a revolting display for shock purposes.

The difference between B&W and color is the difference between terror and horror – terror is menace, rising out of what’s murky and/or shadowed, not having a clear picture of what’s coming at you; or what you THINK is coming at you. There’s suspense, mood, atmosphere.

In color, and especially in colorization, everything’s so much brighter, vivid and right before your eyes. You see what’s coming for you in all it’s gruesome glory, and it’s a shock, but once the shock is gone, you have to work a lot harder (creatively OR as an audience member) to sustain the threat, if there is any threat left.

Let’s say: You’re alone at night, on a foggy, seemingly deserted street. There’s been nothing on the TV or radio or in the newspapers to suggest that anything is amiss in the world as you know it. Maybe you’re waiting for a bus or a taxi you called 45-minutes ago. (If you’ve ever been out in the fog at night, by the way, you might have noticed that it sucks all the color out of everything you’re looking at.) So, you wait, and suddenly, in the distance, you hear someone moaning, faintly. Because of the weird stuff fog does with acoustics, you can’t really peg which direction it’s coming from. But it’s getting closer. Not only that, you now hear the sound of dragging footsteps, scraping along the gravel. To make matters worse, the moaning noises now seem to be overlapping one another – echoes? Or is it a group? You glimpse, down the street, faintly, someone walking painfully in your direction – there might be someone behind them, you can’t tell, so you stand up to get a look in what light there is from the single, miserable, flickering streetlight. Now the moaning is all around you, there are people in the fog, and they don’t look good, you can’t tell how many, they might even be coming out that alley across the street and you think it might be time to just walk home, taking the shortcut, so you turn to scamper away, and there’s one of them right behind you…

Most people in that situation – or even making the emotional investment just WATCHING that situation – will have vertical hair around the time it occurs to them that they’re hearing more than one person. And sure, there will be a zing at the sight of that individual who slipped up behind them so slyly, but they were scared long before he turned up.

It’s a lot harder to be scared of things you can see clearly. Yeah, being chased by Leatherface or werewolves or whatever is scary, but they’re known quantities and can be dealt with. Couple good shotgun blasts’ll fix Leatherface, and some sort of silver weapon or straight-up decapitation will sort out any werewolf in the business.

Atmosphere is so important. If you look at most of the successful horror/terror/thriller movies (ever made!), you’ll see that nearly all the most effective (i.e., scary) scenes and sequences take place at night or in a place of very low visibility. There’s stark contrast in the light and shadow – almost like black and white.

 

K.C. Locke

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