Charles Derry's: The Suspense Thriller

Charles Derry is the point man in regards to cinematic suspense. The Wright State University film professor's written work is a hot commodity in Hollywood. So hot that his book The Suspense Thri

Feb 28, 2002 at 2:06 pm

Charles Derry is the point man in regards to cinematic suspense.

The Wright State University film professor's written work is a hot commodity in Hollywood. So hot that his book The Suspense Thriller: Films in the Shadow of Alfred Hitchcock, originally published in 1988, has recently been reissued because of high demand from directors, writers and others in the film industry consulting it to construct a quality thriller.

The book is a how-to guide: the who, where, what and, most importantly, why behind the genre, and an invaluable resource that details a plethora of suspense thriller films beyond those popularized by film legend and master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock.

At a young age, Derry knew there was something special about the suspense thriller. "As far back as I can remember I was interested in movies. The very first movie that my parents took me to was at the Hippodrome Theatre in Cleveland and I went to see an old reissue of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves," he says. "I just remember being obsessed with the witch and her poison apple and whether she was going to be successful in her quest."

That obsession followed Derry up through his college years as a student at Northwestern University.

After completing his first book about contemporary horror films, Dark Dreams, he was struck by the similarities in the use of suspense between the horror and suspense thriller genres.

He was also struck by the fact that the topic was untouched by academia.

He began many years of research and a PhD thesis on the subject that eventually became The Suspense Thriller. It was the first book of its kind to analyze the popular, yet misunderstood, genre of the suspense thriller.

What particularly drew Derry into the realm of the suspense thriller was the psychological impact that films have upon viewers.

"How is it possible that we can go to a movie which on some level creates anxiety for us, yet on another level somehow seems to be pleasurable at the same time?" Derry asks.

His research led him to the work of psychoanalyst and psychiatric theorist Michael Ballint. Ballint worked quite extensively on the concept of the thrill. Basically, he wanted to know why some people enjoy putting themselves into dangerous situations and why others avoid them like the plague.

Ballint found two contradictory attitudes concerning people's relationship with the thrill. "Either you don't like them and you surround yourself with objects to protect yourself from the world," Derry explains. "Or you do like them and you don't have very many objects. You're constantly putting yourself in the context of open spaces and finding ways in which you feel unprotected against things that would attack you."

Derry notes that Ballint's theory relates directly to the suspense thriller genre. "All suspense thrillers, basically, are working out what is the proper psychological dynamic between our relationship to thrills ­ how we balance the objects and safe things in our life which give our life continuity and the new adventures that come out of the void."

"The idea is that for the typical human personality, it's appropriate for us to have a balance between these two tendencies. There's enough retaining of the comfortable objects that we aren't killing ourselves everyday, but also not to become so agrophobic that we're afraid to experience life and go out and find new adventures."

Throughout the book, Derry gives multiple instances where filmmakers use this innate human psychological tendency to their advantage in regards to the plot, dialogue and mise en scene of their suspense thrillers.

A prime example is the 1967 Audrey Hepburn classic Wait Until Dark. Hepburn plays a blind woman who surrounds herself with comfortable objects that allow her to manipulate and maneuver through her darkened space. Her comfort is soon violated when intruders violate the space.

The suspense thriller's cultural immediacy is unique in comparison to other genres as well. "We are looking at our own world ­ a world which is not alien to us." Derry says. The suspense thriller is almost always contemporary taking place in the exact time period in which the film is released unlike genres like the western, science fiction or fantasy that are often linked to a specific time period. The audience finds themselves looking into the lives and experiencing the situations of people that are just like them.

Different types and sub-genres of the suspense thriller emerged as Derry conducted research for his book. "There are six to seven sub-genres of different kinds of thrillers. Within those sub-genres the rules are surprisingly rigid and the films are a lot more formulaic than one might have guessed. So many films are similar once you crack the code," he says.

Derry chronicles these different sub-genres and gives each a name that could be the title of a suspense thriller itself from the thriller of murderous passions to the thriller of acquired identity to the innocent-on-the-run thriller. It's his extremely comprehensive breakdown of the genre that has made the book such a staple of the filmmaking community.

But Derry didn't plan it that way.

"I didn't expect it to end up being so workable as a how-to book." he explains, "but oddly enough my book really can be used as a guide on how to write a thriller, screenplay, novel or short story which takes on the thriller form."

When asked if he would like to revisit the suspense thriller genre by updating the book with recent films, he's emphatically clear about his choice. "No, I don't need to talk about recent suspense thrillers,"he says. "In general, I don't think there have been that many interesting ones made recently - you could probably count them on two hands. The ones that have been created are a bit sophomoric and less complicated than the classic period of filmmaking."

Of course there are exceptions.

The Oliver Stone epic JFK, Anthony Minghella's Talented Mr. Ripley, and Christopher Nolan's Memento are three recent films that Derry considers to be up to par with the classic suspense thriller.

"JFK is a very ambitious film; visually arresting and fits together like a puzzle," he notes. "Memento is a film that has probably challenged its audiences more than any film in the past ten years. It will go on to be a classic on the level of films like Chinatown and North by Northwest."

Another reason for Derry's reluctance to return to the suspense thriller genre has to do with a shift in focus for the professor. "I've gotten interested in a different genre: melodrama and soap opera; shows where people are shown having their jobs and rich, full personal lives. I'm currently finishing a book on the television show Thirtysomething" he says. "I've also become interested in how issues of soap opera and melodrama make their way into the daily comic strip."

The reissue of The Suspense Thriller: Films in the Shadow of Alfred Hitchcock suggests a possible resurgence of classic suspense thrillers from Hollywood is eminent. The book's unrivaled all-encompassing scope is a god-send for fan or practitioner looking for cinematic guidance and knowledge.

CHARLES DERRY signs and discusses The Suspense Thriller: Films in the Shadow of Alfred Hitchcock Friday at 7 pm at Books & Co. in Dayton.