Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Horror Lexicon #1 The Stay Awake Shot

As I've often written, the horror film possesses a visual vocabulary all its own.  At the basis of this vocabulary or lexicon, is film grammar, the agreed upon language filmmakers deploy to vet their cinematic narratives.

Director Tobe Hooper explains further (in Jeffrey Horsting's Stephen King Goes to Hollywood, New American Books, 1986, page 20):

"Brian De Palma actually coined a phrase, 'film grammar,' which refers to the way particular shots are put together by particular directors in order to tell the story....You build sequences, such as a shot of someone coming through a doorway who looks at a table across the room.  On the table, there is a dagger, and as the subject approaches the dagger, the camera dollies back across the long room with the subject approaching the table.  And cutting to that person's point-of-view, which would be a moving shot traveling toward the table, getting closer and closer to the dagger...that's grammar."

Film grammar is the basis upon which all (good) films are constructed, and certain compositions or "sentences" of film grammar are virtually guaranteed to make audiences feel specific emotions or feelings.  You are already familiar with this lingo, at least sub-consciously.  A high angle shot (looking down) makes our heroes look small...vulnerable.  A low angle shot (peering up), makes a villain seem huge and menacing.  A subjective point-of-view puts us inside the body and eyes of a specific character.  Hand-held camera-work makes the action feel more immediate and urgent, and so forth.

In this new type of post here, called "The Horror Lexicon," I'll be spotlighting and examining the horror film's distinctive visual language, the language we all understand, at least psychologically.

I've written previously about the "Stay Awake" genre convention in Horror Films of the 1980s and Horror Films of the 1990s.  In those two instances, I catalogued at least 125 instances of this particular visual in 1980s and 1990s horror cinema.   A favorite of director Brian De Palma (Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Raising Cain), the "Stay Awake" shot represents a visual shorthand for post-traumatic stress, and the fall-off ofter a crescendo of highest dramatic intensity. 

The "Stay Awake" shot (named by me after a very bad 1987 film called The Stay Awake) is what I term "the trademark" composition of the once-popular rubber-reality horror film.  The Stay Awake  shot most often (but not universally) features a close-up of the beleaguered protagonist, all sweaty and bothered, awaking from a traumatic dream, usually on a bed or in a sofa.  You will see the shot frequently in A Nightmare on Elm Street films, which explicitly deal with nightmares.

The Stay Awake shot often arrives immediately after a horror film has tricked us with a sequence in which the protagonist appears to be in inescapable danger.  At the moment of greatest jeopardy and terror, we suddenly cut to the Stay Awake, as the protagonist comes to conciousness from the disturbing phantasm.  We have been tricked by the harrowing action too, and identify with the character's relief (and fast-breathing, perspiring demeanor).  The Stay Awake composition builds an important link between protagonist and audience. It portends universality (we've all had bad dreams), and we've both, in this instance, been tricked.

Many directors and film scholars have compared the act of watching a movie to dreaming, only with our eyes open.  The Stay Awake shot seems to be a self-reflexive, mirroring of this dynamic.   We're actually watching a character on screen dream within a dream, as we are observing the larger dream of the film itself.

Sometimes, the Stay Awake shot is a movie's final, climactic sting (think Carrie [1976], Dressed to Kill [1980]), and sometimes, when a director is being exceptionally playful or mischevious, the audience is treated to a double Stay Awake (a second dream within a dream; as in the case of Prince of Darkness [1987].)  Sometimes, the awaking figure clutches dream wounds, further evoking a feeling that the dream was physically dangerous.

Below are some well-known post-dream, post-traumatic "Stay Awake" shots of the horror cinema.  Again, consider how here one shot alone has become part of horror's communal language, a critical part of the horror director's quiver.

The Stay Awake a la Cameron: Aliens (1986)

The Stay Awake a la John Carpenter: Prince of Darkness (1987)

The Stay Awake a la Tobe Hooper: Lifeforce (1985)

The Stay Awake a la Brian De Palma: Dressed to Kill (1989)

The Stay Awake a la Neil Marshall: The Descent (2006)

The Stay Awake a la Mark Pellington: The Mothman Prophecies (2002)

De Palma redux: Carrie (1976)

See also these prominent examples: Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984),  George Romero's Day of the Dead (1985), Alan Parker's Angel Heart (1987), Sam Raim's Evil Dead 2 (1987),  Ken Russell's Lair of the White Worm (1988) Don Coscarelli's Phantasm 2 (1988), Mary Lambert's Pet Sematary (1989), Kathryn Bigelow's Blue Steel (1990), Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder (1990), Richard Stanley's Dust Devil (1992), Taylor Hackford's The Devil's Advocate (1997) and David Koepp's Stir of Echoes (1999).


  1. Great look at this, John. Wonderful examples, too.

    "... and sometimes, when a director is being exceptionally playful or mischevious, the audience is treated to a double Stay Awake (a second dream within a dream"

    Another instance of a famous 'double' dream (or rightly, nightmare) is in John Landis' 'An American Werewolf in London' when David Kessler is in the hospital (after the bite, but before his first transformation). Thanks for this.

  2. I think that JC threw us for a double stay awake shot in "In The Mouth of Madness".

  3. Hi guys,

    Great additions to the Stay Awake and horror lexicon. I had forgotten, Le0pard13, about the American Werewolf in London (1981) example, but your description brings back memories. And Trent, I think you are also right about In the Mouth of Madness.

    For me, Carrie and Dressed to Kill are two end-of-movie stay awake shocks that just really stay with me. They're positively electric. You leave the theater feeling you've just been juiced...