Biosuite - Unsound

Peter McCaughan gets hooked up to the machine - literally - to experience Emotional Response Cinema

The notion of adding something extra to the regular cinematic experience is almost as old as the medium of film itself. Over the years, viewing innovations have taken many forms, with varying degrees of success.

In 1960 Hans Laube invented 'Smell-O-Vision', a system that released various odours into the theatre during the movie's projection. The idea being, of course, that the viewer would be able to 'smell' what was happening on screen. Unsurprisingly, the system was a flop and made its one and only appearance in a specially made and hilariously titled film, Scent of Mystery.

Legendary B-movie auteur, William Castle enjoyed more success with his cinematic gimmicks. The most famous, and interactive, of these was in his 1959 horror film The Tingler, a creepy tale of a spinal parasite that kills its host unless it is destroyed by screaming.

Near the end of the screening, the projector appeared to break and Vincent Price's unmistakable voice filled the theatre, warning the audience that The Tingler had broken loose into the cinema and that the audience better 'scream for their lives'. At the same time, buzzers hidden under certain seats were activated, and planted 'fainting' audience members were carried out in stretchers.

A more recent attempt to broaden the appeal of the movie theatre is the re-emergence of 3D. Although this idea has been in operation since the 1950s, improvements in the necessary technology have meant that it has enjoyed a commercial revival of late.

Unfortunately, however, mainstream Hollywood output is now over-saturated with movies that all too often rely on mediocre 3D rather than focussing on fundamental issues such as narrative, casting or direction.











Despite all of these attempts at increasing our viewing pleasure, in my opinion there has yet to be an innovation in this vein that has truly redefined the cinematic experience. That is why the Biosuite screening at Queen's University's Sonic Arts Research Centre - part of the Belfast Film Festival - interests me so much.

A collaboration between Northern Irish production company Filmtrip and San Francisco-based technology company BioControl Systems, this screening is a world first and promises something entirely out of the ordinary: Northern Ireland's first taste of Emotional Response Cinema.

The premise is as follows: a ten-minute horror film, entitled Unsound, will be shown in the Sonic Laboratory at SARC, and certain members of the audience will be connected to the impressive machinery via electrodes.

As the viewers' heart rates and galvanic skin response fluctuate, what they will see on the screen and hear through the 360 degree sound diffusion will also change accordingly, ensuring a one-off cinematic experience unique to each audience member. Director Gawain Morrison refers to it as 'DJing in the cinema, with emotions'.

From the moment I arrive for the screening, proceedings feel distinctly futuristic. We are ushered into the Sonic Laboratory, most of the audience in quiet awe at the set-up: a huge screen, with giant speakers on all four walls. The limited number of seats rest atop a wire mesh floor, below which are yet more speakers and a complex computer system. This is the most sophisticated of three similar systems around the world.

I am lucky enough to get one of the seats hooked up to the machinery. As electrodes are attached to my fingers I am handed a consent form. This is to confirm that I am happy for my data to be recorded and that I understand how I am being monitored. The electrodes on my left hand monitor my GSR (in layman's terms, my sweat) and my right hand my heart rate.

As the projector is fired up, we are told a little about the film, which was shot specifically for this Biosuite screening by Filmtrip. We are also told that the movie will indeed be altered depending on the emotional response of the 'wired in' members of the audience, specifically the audio content and scene selection.

The film itself is clearly designed to manipulate the audience into evoking a strong emotional response. It is a disturbing tale of a widowed old woman, living alone, who appears to have an intruder in her house. The short is full of jarring sounds, jolting screams and at points, visceral violence.

I am no stranger to scary movies - not to brag, but it takes a lot for a film to unsettle me. Yet, during this creepy tale I find myself feeling increasingly shaken. Being 'wired up', I feel so much closer to the antagonist than I normally would - in a way I am responsible for this woman's safety. The effect is much more engaging than even the most spectacular 3D effects.

After Unsound, the impressed audience are invited to stay around to watch 1981 sci-fi classic Scanners, the first of a different David Cronenburg film to be shown each night of the Biosuite run. It is the perfect choice, given that the director's work is intrinsically linked to the intertwining of the psychological and the physical.

Whether or not Emotional Response Cinema will break through to the mainstream remains to be seen. The only thing that disappoints about the experience is the fact that I don't know which particular aspects of the film have been affected due to the audience and which not, but I suppose this is part of the charm.

Emotional Response Cinema could conceivably alter not only the way we view films, but the way we think about them and rate them, offering a much more personal experience than 'regular' cinema.