The ARKOFF Formula, Part 3: 'Kill Colorfully and Often'
'The ARKOFF Formula' was a model B-movie mogul Samuel Z. Arkoff (1918-2001) designed all his films around. This old post by Bill Cunningham brought this paradigm to my attention, and it has great value for microcinema filmmakers. This is another part in a series of articles elaborating on this formula. Also see Part 1, 'Action Them 'til They're Dizzy', Part 2, 'Revolutionary Scenes Get Talked of', Part 4, 'Tell the World about Your Picture!', Part 5, Fantasy is what Audiences Spend Money for' and Part 6, 'Foreplay is as important in Dramaturgy as in Bed'.
'K' is for Kill
To some extent, we are all thrill seekers. Getting close to death (but never really dying) excites people and makes for a memorable experience. Movies are the same way. It's amazing that a film can create such feelings of suspense or dread, that you literally squirm in your seat or cover your eyes. We know the movie is completely artificial, yet we buy into it, and worry for the poor sap stepping into the foreboding passageway. We fear for the character because, if done right, that character is us.
Sympathetic Characters are More Valuable than Robots
It's a horror movie cliché that generic types are set up just to be chopped down. A guy/girl you've never seen before is wandering (or having sex) in a place no one in their right mind would be. A masked killer appears and whacks them in half (perhaps after a brief chase). You feel nothing other than a slight shock of the killer popping out from behind a tree/corner. True suspense is created when we see a developed character in jeopardy. Since we know this person, we care about their plight and want them to escape the killer's blade. If you do decide to off them, the power of that moment is a hundredfold compared to that of the standard no-name that gets impaled.
Be Creative in your Killing
This may sound morbid, but like anything else in your production, you want your deaths to be unique. Try things you've never seen, but want to. I'll go back to Psycho (1960) again. Not only was the shower scene a masterpiece of murder, but so was the death of the detective played by Martin Balsam. Remember the overhead shot when he gets stabbed, then "falls" down the stairs? Shocking and inventive. And both deaths were characters we felt we knew, and cared something for.
If you don't Kill, Come Close
Of course you can't kill your protagonist right of the bat (something Psycho also turned on its head), but you can knock them around quite a bit. Put them through the ringer and make your audience think they will die. One thing I really liked about Die Hard (1988) was that John McClane was not an unscathed action hero, but got the crap kicked out of him. So did Dirty Harry (1971). Threatening death can almost work as well for you, if you can convince the audience that it's possible. Since we're working with microbudgets, we can't cast big stars, and can use our obscure cast to our advantage. No one is a name, so no one is safe.
Leave Something to the Imagination
I know I'm going to draw opposition for this point, but I'm not a fan of the gory death scene. Showing less gore actually serves two useful purposes. First, there is no picture you can show a viewer that is more horrifying than what is conjured up in their mind. Again, in Psycho, you never see the knife penetrate a victim (or do you?), but you sure feel it. Second, you'll save a ton of money in blood, prosthetics and makeup personnel by leaving the goo out of it. Of course, this may be one main reason you're making your film (and Mr. Arkoff would be proud), and nothing I say will sway you. Even if you do go this route, remember that overuse of effects can make your end result look fake, taking the viewer out of the experience. Restraint is a good thing.
I love experiencing suspense, but even more I love creating suspense in others. Hanging the Grim Reaper (or letting him do his deed) over a beloved character (or characters) will get those eyes covered and seats squirmed in.