The basic definition of any horror film may be centered around its monster character, and the conflict arising in the fantastical and unreal monster’s relationship with normality – as represented through a pseudo-ontic space constructed through filmic realism – provides the necessary basic terms for its (filmic) existence. (David J. Russel,1998)
This definition takes into account what John Clute refers to as “strange stories” (or what Hartwell refers to as the psychological metaphor in horror) where the story is about a progressing deviation from normality. In Triangle (2009), the main monster of the story is the story itself – the flow of events – which focuses it on the estrangement that horror tends to do. What makes it especially effective was the use of the point-of-view of a single character. The audience learns about the “big picture” of the story at the same pace as the main character’s. The effect is that the audience can relate to senses of estrangement and entrapment felt by the character, which I think is a hallmark of a good horror film. Some films tend to give away the big picture too early and rely too much on jump scare to incite horror; however I think even jump scare is most effective when the audience do not see them coming, not even the possibility of them happening (through the guise of normality). The downside of providing the audience the bigger picture (through a revelation unknown to the main character) is that it makes the audience think that it knows better than the character and the subsequent events will not invoke fear as they do pity. Triangle, however, puts the audience and the character on the same level, which is why I found it scary, despite it not having too much gore or jump scare.
This is why I think that Triangle invokes a more “pure” kind of horror – one that is not mixed or obscured by disgust or shock. It was scary just because it was weird, unfamiliar, and abnormal to the point where even the audience does not know how to respond to it. Perhaps this is the peak of the effect of what Russel was referring to as the conflict between the monster and normality. Consistent with horror genre’s nature as a “strange story”, the fear invoked by Triangle is primarily because of estrangement. To put it more romantically, the monster in Triangle victimizes the audience as it does the characters.
On a superficial level, Triangle establishes itself in the horror genre (via trope-based or tradition-based approach) through the use elements we typically observe in horror movies (e.g. haunted ship, death, psychological disturbance, etc.). Beyond that, the film establishes itself in the genre by highlighting the fundamental nature of horror: that it estranges. It does so not only with the character, but also with the audience. By doing so, I think it brilliantly establishes itself in the horror genre per the effect-based approach. However, beyond the strategic control imposed on the audience’s perspective, the film also estranges the audience through the unorthodox use of familiar horror film elements. Case in point: The most prominent material element of the film that brings it close to the “familiar horror” is the serial killer that would have been the monster of this film. The film estranges the audience by making the serial killer the victim (or vice-versa). In a slasher film, the sympathy is typically with the victims and the serial killer is the “enemy”. With Triangle, however, how must one respond to the victim being the serial killer? I would even expect someone to ask, “Is it even relevant?” seeing that this element had been set aside at some point. This characteristic of the movie not only obscures normality and ethics, it also confuses the audience in that they end up not knowing which attitude to take while consuming this horror film. It estranges the audience on a more fundamental level to the point where it seems that like the film itself has a monstrous characteristics that clashes with the established normality for the horror genre.
Finally, this movie establishes horror film as a “tale of fate”. Typical among the characteristics of the horror genre is that the victims are brought in a state of helplessness (or lack of freedom) before the monster. Jess, as the victim, found herself helpless in breaking out of the tragedy where the flow of events endlessly loops into itself. I (as part of the audience) have, at some point, given up in trying to look for a way for how Jess could overcome that monster. I think this is what makes Triangle a good material to start with in a discourse on the genre. On top of involving the audience in the weird tale experience, it plays around with the familiar elements of horror film, repressing or subverting them, to highlight the essence of the genre.
Janovich, M. (2002). Horror, The Film Reader. London: Routledge.