Case Study 1 – Cat People (1942) Sound Design Technique

Image result for cat people

Introduction

Val Lewton’s horror classic –  Cat People (1942) is a low-budget, B-movie from RKO Radio Pictures. This is where the famous ‘Lewton Bus’ effect originates from; where audiences anticipate a monster or some sort to leap out but instead, something completely harmless like a cat, or in this case – a bus, and yet, still manages to achieve the startle effect and frighten the expected audiences. This is also commonly known as the jump scares of modern horror movies.

The genius and innovative creative aspects of drawing upon audience’s imagination from Cat People were mostly out of necessity, this is true in both the ambiguity of visual and audio content of the movie. Considering the restrictive nature of working with a limited budget, Val Lewton had used these limitations to work greatly to his advantage rather than something that confined him, creatively.

Sound Design

The presence of the nonlinear sounds in horror movies that Daniel Blumstein (Blumstein, Davitian and Kaye 2010) suggested in his 2010 research are evidently prevalent in the soundtrack of Cat People. These nonlinear sound effects of animal sound effects are abundant throughout the movie, especially the first 12 minutes of the film. These sounds are heard and are almost present in every scene leading up to the pet store. During the pet store sequence, this is where a simultaneous eruption of this nonlinear sound effects are in full cacophony, a suggestive troubled feeling we share from the animal distressed calls.

The clever and effective use of sound design at beginning of Cat People immediately taps into the human biological evolution of innate danger signal from the low-frequency sound of the panther growling, at a subconsciously level, instantly seizing the audience’s attention. In addition, a very faint, yet distinctive growl can be heard as Naval construction designer Oliver Reed (played by Kent Smith) approaches Serbian Irena Dubrovna (antagonist played by Simone Simon) for the first time, signifying to Oliver and more importantly, the audience that Irena should be approached with great caution. This faint growl can also be heard during Oliver and Irena’s interaction only when Irena is spoken to – the sound design here can be seen (or heard) as indicative or early revelation of Irena’s antagonistic nature.

Stalk Sequence: Lewton Bus

There are two fundamental sequences during Cat People that elicited the emotional arousal of fear through tension and suspense within audiences, and without them, I honestly doubt the movie would have worked nearly as well as it does.

The Famous ‘Lewton Bus’ effect originated from the scene shown below, and it is an effect horror movie of today still utilises, purely based on its effectiveness. There a several reasons why this original jump scare technique is so effective in the Cat People. First off, the stalk sequence itself demonstrates Lewton’s masterful use of sound technique of over-exaggerated reverb and the use timing to build tension, at an agonising level; the use of reverb on the more pronounced antagonist (Irena) footsteps gradually becomes heavier, as it simultaneously gets louder, giving the illusion the hunter is indeed, closing in on its prey. The lack of any musical input leading towards the ‘Lewton Bus’ technique was another major factor to why this effect is so impactful, this absence of music was intentionally left out for quite a substantial amount of time, without the audiences realising it. In fact, the last time music was present was during Irena’s interaction with Oliver at the stairway at around 32 minutes of the movie, and the music were then reintroduced again at around 42 minutes of the movie; the reintroduction of music here is of mysterious and ominous nature, setting the mood and tone for ‘Lewton Bus’ effect. The lack of any musical substance for a such a long period would mean that the audience has already acclimatised to the quietness of the movie. And finally, this is of course followed by a one of the loudest part of the film – the roaring bus pulling up, in dire need of an oil change. The reason why this was the first of its kind is because audiences back then, typically expecting the creature to pounce out and therefore, to be finally revealed. However, this was not the case, leaving audiences guessing with ever growing tension and suspense.

The Classic Stalk Sequence – Lewton Bus (MrDeliaiaframe 2011a)

The Swimming Pool Sequence

The swimming pool sequence is another stalk sequence, a rather short stalking sequence but a stalking nonetheless, where Alice Moore (played by Jane Randolph) is backed into the swimming pool room with no likely route of escape. Here, Lewton’s ingenious use of a swimming pool’s natural environment is impeccable, accentuating Alice’s desperate cries for help, cries that reverberated in a tiled insulted room. It is worth noting that Blumstein’s research suggestion of nonlinear sounds is at it’s most prominent during this swimming pool sequence, voices that are pushed beyond its normal range.

The Classic Swimming Pool Sequence (MrDeliaiaframe 2011b)

Conclusion

Although almost all movie enthusiasts or general moviegoers anticipate these jump scares within modern day horror movies, film makers favour incorporating this sound technique in their films time and time again. Making us feel acclimatised and almost numb, purely from over-exposure. Hence, the term ‘cheap jump scares’. However, as this case study has brought me back to the origin of the startle effect, it has drastically changed my view of implementing the use of this particular sound technique within my soundscape. It is difficult to point out at this stage of where to implement this technique as scripting for the soundscape has not yet began but as it stands, I will follow Lewton’s subtle dynamic approach of a period of quietness, or monotonous and gradually building a soundscape towards this semi-dramatic finale.

There are, of course advantages and disadvantages of using this sound technique within my binaural fear inducing soundscape. With the binaural aspect, direction of source will also need to be considered and investigated. The advantage of using this technique is that there is a vast ocean of horror movies with different variations of this technique to explore, by examining other films that have utilised this technique and further explore why this technique was more effective and memorable in one horror movie compared to another. The disadvantage is, of course, the aforementioned fact that it has been over-used and may prove to be ineffective, if the technique is not executed or handled properly. Further specific case studies are definitely required.

References

Blumstein, D.T., Davitian, R. and Kaye, P.D. 2010. Do film soundtracks contain nonlinear analogues to influence emotion? The Royal Society.

Cat People. 1942. [horror film]. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. New York: RKO Radio Pictures.

MrDeliriaframe. 2011a. Classic Pool Scene in “Cat People”. [Online]. YouTube. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zfbGJrAVWUo [Accessed 30 November 2016].

MrDeliriaframe. 2011b. Classic Stalk Scene in “Cat People”. [Online]. YouTube. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DkrsymAhI0U [Accessed 30 November 2016].

Bibliography

Larson, R.D. 2013. Cat People. [Online]. Available from: http://www.runmovies.eu/cat-people/ [Accessed 30 November 2016].

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