Subverting Suspense with Lovely Molly

I first watched The Blair Witch Project six years ago, viewed in several parts on YouTube while I killed some time in the study lounge of my university residence. I’ve made a point of watching it at least once a year ever since, and the impression it left on me has only grown. It was then, and remains to this day, the single scariest film I’ve ever seen, one I will recommend to any up-and-coming horror buff at the drop of a hat, and actually one of my top five all-time favourite movies.

In spite of the overwhelming critical acclaim it received and the huge dent it made in the box office, Blair Witch never really launched any careers—at least not any big name ones. Heather Donahue went on to feature in the Steven Spielberg-produced sci fi miniseries Taken, as well as guest star on an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia; Joshua Leonard has made a name for himself in mumblecore films, chief among them Humpday; Michael C. Williams has mostly made appearances in indie and low-budget horror flicks. As for one of the film’s directors and co-writers, Daniel Myrick has continued to take his stabs at the horror genre, none of which I’ve seen.

However, his partner-in-crime Eduardo Sánchez has made at least one significant contribution to horror cinema since. As with everyone else involved with Blair Witch, he hasn’t yet made it to the A-list, but back in 2011 he directed and co-wrote Lovely Molly, starring Gretchen Lodge as the eponymous character, the late Johnny Lewis as her new husband Tim, and Alexandra Holden as her sister Hannah. It is, on the surface, a fairly basic tale of a woman on her own in her haunted childhood home (Editor Daniel: Really, Dan? Is that really basic?), but Sanchez and company manage to craft a subtle little film that relies on implication and extrapolation as much as Blair Witch does and plays around with and even subverts suspense in a really interesting way.

Suspense is a cornerstone of horror. Nearly every successful scare in the genre works because the author or filmmaker has put their audience on edge and made them expect the worst. Not only is that tension a wonderful way of immersing your intended audience, but the sense of release after the worst has, in fact, come to pass can actually be really enjoyable, very much like a psychological form of stretching. A suspenseful moment in fiction typically follows the rising and falling action you’d see in the plot of a film, play or novel, which is pictured below in “Freytag’s Pyramid,” named for the German playwright and novelist.

Suspense works the same way, albeit on a micro- rather than macroscopic level: you have Exposition, establishing the protagonist or supporting character’s current situation; Rising Action, wherein a threat or concern is introduced and built upon, either with or without that character’s knowledge; the Climax, in which the character is attacked, put in danger, or even killed; finally, there is the Falling Action and Denouement, which deals with the fallout of the suspense and the resulting damages and sets up the next moment of suspense.

For a fairly typical example of suspense in a horror film, here’s my favourite scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho:

For those who are unable to watch the clip, Martin Balsam’s character, the private investigator Arbogast, checks out the Bates’ house, hoping to find and confront Norman Bates’ “Mother.” As Arbogast climbs the stairs, a door near the upper landing slowly opens, establishing to the viewer that someone suspicious has the drop on the PI. Still unaware, Arbogast reaches the second floor, only for Mother to glide out of the bedroom and slash him across the face, sending him backpedaling down the stairs to his eventual doom. The scene ends with Mother stabbing the detective off-camera.

Of course, you can only use this formula so many times before the audience eventually adapts and spoils the tension, so wise writers and directors make their own adjustments. Since the late ’70s, it’s become common for horror directors to interrupt that tension-building pyramid with a false scare or by introducing an element that puts both the relevant characters as well as the audience at ease, which makes the genuine scare that follows all the more effective: like a smack to the back of the head, we just don’t expect it. If you were to map this suspense like before, the start and stutter might make Freytag’s Pyramid look more like Freytag’s EKG. A false scare might be a cat leaping through a window while the protagonist is on edge, like in the opening scene of Friday the 13th, Part II. The feigned sense of ease is easier shown than described, like in the best moment from John Carpenter’s Halloween:

If I can gush for a minute, the way Michael Myers stands there and just watches, breathing heavily while taking in the aftermath of what he’s just done, is truly that movie’s finest moment.

But with Lovely Molly, Sánchez handles his suspenseful moments in an entirely different fashion. While there are a few typical jump scares, Lovely Molly takes a step to the left at several key moments and avoids resolving the built-up tension entirely! I’m not even talking about cutting away right after the climactic moment occurs—in some of these cases, there isn’t a climax. The suspense builds and builds and builds, but before we see what happens the movie advances to the next scene. If you were to map this as with the other cases, it wouldn’t be a pyramid so much as a series of separate diagonal lines.

This contributes to the at-times oppressive atmosphere of the film in a huge way. Superficially, Sánchez deprives us of knowledge. The audience doesn’t know what has occurred during these key moments, so when the film picks up again we’re forced to guess based on the information we’ve been given. Not only does this play off basic human psychology—a lack of knowledge exacerbates fear, and has as far back as the Stone Age—but it turns the usual character-audience dynamic on its head. Suspenseful moments frequently employ dramatic irony, where the audience knows something the characters don’t: there’s a monster creeping up on them, a time bomb is hidden somewhere in their home, etc. The longer a character doesn’t know about the threat at hand, the more nervous we feel. In Lovely Molly’s case, Molly Reynolds actually knows more than we do. It puts the viewer in an oddly submissive role, rather than one that is receptive yet detached.

Perhaps more importantly, Sánchez’s subversion of suspense keeps the audience from feeling any of the release one might have in the aftermath of a tense moment. When he cuts away from the building action and resumes with the next scene, we’re able to exhale but not in any way that’s remotely satisfying. The tension grows, the wool is pulled over our eyes, and the next thing we know we’re in another place at another time. We’re out of immediate danger but we’re not actually any less worried. As someone with anxiety, I’ve often spent long periods worrying about God knows what, all the while waiting for that other shoe to drop, so to speak. That shoe could be as light as a feather or so heavy the sound of it hitting the floor might be loud enough to make me jump, but in the end I’ll be happy I won’t have to wait any longer. Lovely Molly is an hour and forty minutes of Eduardo Sánchez dangling that shoe in front of my face, and by the time the credits roll he still hasn’t dropped the damn thing. I’d be mad at him but I can’t help but appreciate his approach.

You’ll notice that while I’ve used scenes from Psycho and Halloween I’ve neglected to describe the specifics or any of the smaller plot points of Lovely Molly, and for the better. Doing so would be giving you too much information and thus going against everything Sánchez intended. I highly recommend seeing it: it features a truly awesome performance by Gretchen Lodge, wonderful sound design that makes use of infrasound—a neat sonic oddity that I might delve into at a later date—and one of the most horrifying images I’ve seen in horror cinema. And it’s positive proof that at least one of the minds behind The Blair Witch Project still has it.

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