I have this book, donkey's years old—1991—called Cambridge Advanced English, written by Leo Jones. The topic of films, shows, and concerts is dealt with in chapter 3 but there's a problem, it's a student's book without answers, and there is no list where students can select answers from. Moreover, I gave it as homework to a private student of mine who's coming tomorrow. I have worked out all the answers (in capital letters) except for this particular one:

  1. Horror films like A Nightmare on Elm Street depend on spectacular SPECIAL effects rather than a subtle ___________.

It's driving me potty, I want to say dialogue, but can dialogue be subtle? The term screenplay was one of the answers, so it can't be that. No term can be used more than twice.

  1. Superman 2, DIRECTED by Richard Lester, was the SEQUEL to Superman the SCREENPLAY was co-written by Mario Puzo, who wrote the The Godfather.

Below are answers which I cannot reuse with "subtle"

  1. A really exciting movie depends on good LIGHTING (photography), good EDITING (the way the film is cut with perfect timing so that each SHOT surprises you), and exciting STUNTS (car chases, fights and falls).

  2. It was hard to follow the PLOT because there were so many FLASHBACKS to scenes that had happened earlier

I'm not 100% convinced by LIGHTING, is that the right term to use here? Is there a better one? Regardless, the one really bugging me is Q.3, it goes without saying, the term must be related to films/movies.

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List of terms, in italics, which I have already used: game (shows); soap (operas); (crime) series; full-(length) animated (film); produced (by), special (effects); (a subtle) _____ ; directed (by); sequel (to); screenplay (was co-written); (good) lighting; (good) editing; (each) shot; (exciting) stunts; (a Dolby stereo) sound system; (the) technology / facilities (to take advantage of this); (sub-)titles; (may be) dubbed; (played the) role; co (-star); (Jack Nicholson) stole (every scene); (Italian-American) co-production; (shot on) location; (received a lot of) Academy Awards/Oscars; (was) overrated; (follow the) plot; flashbacks (to scenes); (the names of the stars and the) film / producers; (opening) credits; (complete) cast (of characters); played (them); (film) crew; (all the) extras; (new) production (by); sets (were designed).

Q. What can be inserted after ‘a subtle’ to contrast with ‘spectacular special effects’?

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    Why can't 'plot' be re-used? Or the (near-) synonym 'storyline'? May 13, 2017 at 8:18
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    I'm struggling not to close-vote a question asking 'What showbusiness- / movie-related word, not including A/B/ ... /Y, fits sensibly into the sentence 'Horror films like A Nightmare on Elm Street depend on spectacular SPECIAL effects rather than a subtle ___________.'? How does this benefit the general audience? Isn't the site Xanne suggests a more appropriate site to ask this on? May 13, 2017 at 11:01
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    @EdwinAshworth Do you think this question is off-topic for a website about the English language? I supplied research/answers, I provided context, the exercise comes from an English language book, advanced level, I've explained why the same word cannot be used twice, and I'm also asking for a little help from my "friends". The indefinite article in "a subtle" makes the question also more interesting and useful, in my view. You are free to disagree of course.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 13, 2017 at 11:07
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is too narrowly scoped. May 13, 2017 at 12:42
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    I like this question, and am amazed that it is stalled at +2/-2. (Only one person other than me upvoted it ??!!) The challenge of finding a word in a particular field makes it harder but no less relevant than a less constricted question. The phrase that popped into my mind -- "subtle creepiness" is, I'm sure, not what you are looking for, but it seems to fit the early and mid stages of "Get Out".
    – ab2
    May 15, 2017 at 3:46

4 Answers 4


I'm guessing that the Cambridge Advanced English Teacher's Book (ISBN-13: 978-0521336987, ISBN-10: 0521336988) will offer a definitive answer. It seems that there are some used copies available online.

I've also found a site (here) which appears to have "borrowed heavily" from these books. The questions listed match those in the Student's Book -- if the answers that are listed came from the Teacher's Book, then the author intended:

  1. Horror films like A Nightmare on Elm Street depend on spectacular special effects rather than a subtle plot.

  2. Superman 2, directed by Richard Lester, was the sequel to Superman. The script was co-written by Mario Puzo, who wrote The Godfather.

  3. A really exciting movie depends on good camerawork, good editing (the way the film is cut with perfect timing so that each scene surprises you) and exciting stunts.

  4. Modern films have a Dolby stereo soundtrack but not all cinemas have the equipment to take advantage of this.


  1. It was hard to follow the plot because there were so many flashbacks to scenes that had happened earlier.
  • Good find! But does that mean that plot is used twice, contra the apparent directions?
    – 1006a
    May 15, 2017 at 18:39
  • These answers are probably not the "official" ones - at least not all of them. For example, #2 should be: "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first feature-length animated film" - not "cartoon film". Still, ... May 15, 2017 at 21:24
  • @michael.hor257k I believe that at the time, they were animated cartoon films, having evolved from "static" drawn cartoons into animated cartoon shorts, and finally a feature-length cartoon film. I do agree that I would certainly say "animated film" these days, but if anything "cartoon film" is more specific, as animation encompasses other techniques such as stop-motion. This "ancient" article seems to be pretty comfortable with both terms. Maybe we should start a gofundme to send a teacher's copy to the OP?
    – A C
    May 16, 2017 at 3:37
  • @AC What do you mean by "at that time"? The book was first published in 1991. And 1987 is not "ancient". The vocabulary was the same then as it is now. -- P.S. The article you cite seems to be comfortable with a lot of informal/jargon words, e.g. talkies. When it switches to a formal tone, it says clearly "a feature-length animated film" (para 3). May 16, 2017 at 6:49
  • @michael.hor257k I meant in 1937, when the term "cartoon films" would have been describing a literal reel of film with an animated cartoon on it. I only mentioned the 1987 article because it's a lot closer to being contemporary with the 1991 book than we are today, and that was a very formative period for Western animation. (And yes, I know 1987 isn't really ancient, hence the quotes. Kidding aside, it IS pretty old for an internet find -- IIRC in '87 I was using pre-internet BBS systems). Anyway, just saying that I can believe it WAS the intended answer, though today I would prefer yours.
    – A C
    May 16, 2017 at 12:48

Here's my answer, revised and reposted.

What @Scotty Colby might have meant was good cinematography.

A really exciting movie depends on good CINEMATOGRAPHY (photography), good EDITING (the way the film is cut with perfect timing so that each SHOT surprises you), and exciting STUNTS (car chases, fights and falls).

IMO, lighting is not a synonym for photography. Cinematography, on the other hand, is.

Someone who's in charge of lighting won't be fiddling around with how that ligthning will be depicted on the actual film, the way a cinematographer will.

Then, you sentence might indeed be:

Horror films like A Nightmare on Elm Street depend on spectacular SPECIAL effects rather than a subtle lighting (speaking of a mixture or effect delicately complex and understated).

  • 1
    "...depends on a subtle lighting..." Can we say this? Without the indefinite article, it works much better.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 13, 2017 at 7:59
  • @Mari-Lou A There has been a thread which addressed the use of a/an with non-count nouns (search for 'sunlight'). It is not ungrammatical / unidiomatic per se (a subtle light filtered through the trees) but it doesn't work here. May 13, 2017 at 10:00
  • The link contains some nice visual explanation of what constitutes "good cinematography" Many thanks for resolving that particular dilemma. +1 for Scott Colby and your answers.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 13, 2017 at 16:01
  • Yes to cinematography, but No to a subtle lighting. The rest of the exercise looks like it lives up to the label "advanced English", but a subtle lighting is neither generally idiomatic nor a specialized Hollywood term.
    – 1006a
    May 13, 2017 at 17:20

I think I have it.

Horror films like A Nightmare on Elm Street depend on spectacular SPECIAL (or VISUAL) effects rather than a subtle SOUNDTRACK.

Music in horror films help create mood, tension, and suspense. A subtle soundtrack, which also includes sound effects and narration, would not rely on shrills, screams, or melodramatic musical scores to create a sense of impending doom. On the contrary, less is more, as Janus Bahs Jacquet mentions in the comments below.

According to Cambridge Dictionaries, the term soundtrack is countable, and it means:

noun [ C ]
the sounds, especially the music, of a film, or a separate recording of this:
- The best thing about the movie is its soundtrack.

Lastly I checked the collocation, there aren't many written instances of "subtle soundtrack" on the Internet, but I did find these two instances

A "subtle" soundtrack makes audiences rise

With so many special effects and dramatic moments the Batman trilogy has become known for, fans might not notice the one thing that ties it all together: the music.

“A good film composer will enhance the dramatic message of the film,” said Harry Bulow, head of the School of Visual and Performing Arts. “After you watch a two-hour film you say, ‘Wow, that went by fast!’ That’s what you want.”

Source: The Exponent; Jul 20, 2012

and a review mentioning the music in Alien

This soundtrack is all about suspense. The movie it accompanies is a very slow build in true 70s fashion, and the music moves at a similar pace. […]

The highlight of the score is the main theme, again edited heavily from the composer’s original intention to be far more subtle and ominous for the titles, but then settles to a simple melodic passage of lone brass. It is a soft, melodic piece of music that speaks of the void and loneliness of space. It is this initial pace of the film and the soundtrack that makes the later half so terrifying even when the soundtrack starts to evaporate to a more modern, stark, harsh reality…of everyone being munched by an alien.

Source: Sabotage Times

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    I was just about to suggest that—I just saw the picture from the book now, and soundtrack was the first thing that came to mind. The subtleness of horror soundtracks in particular is that at the most tense and crucial moments, there is often little or no music at all. The technique of simple silence is indeed a very subtle way of hinting at horror-shock scenes. I'm not sure special effects is necessarily the best option, though: to contrast with soundtrack, I would probably go with visual effects instead. May 13, 2017 at 12:05
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Thanks. It came to me in a light-bulb moment. Could you do me a favour? What says you about "good cinematography" and "good lighting" which fits better in your opinion?
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 13, 2017 at 12:10
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    @michael.hor257k That's not the intended meaning of the sentence. It is supposed to say that unlike some horror movies (like Paranormal Activity), which rely very heavily on the subtleties of the soundtrack and only occasionally employ advanced special visual effects to create tension, films like Nightmare on Elm Street are the opposite: they draw heavily on special effects and don't rely nearly as much on sound cues. May 13, 2017 at 12:13
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    @Mari-LouA Cinematography fits better with the ‘clue’, I think, but both are reasonable. May 13, 2017 at 12:14
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    I think if you contrast visual effects with the score or soundtrack as @JanusBahsJacquet suggests, this makes sense. Visual makes more sense than special for horror movies, anyway, since effects aren't necessarily very high tech (especially back in 1991); they often run more towards just fake blood and gory makeup.
    – 1006a
    May 13, 2017 at 17:30

For Q5, I might say that "a really exciting movie depends on good filmography cinematography (photography)..." rather than "lighting." (Here, I'm using "cinematography" in the second sense listed in the linked source.)

Q3 poses difficulty to me, too. Perhaps "mise-en-scene" fits the bill? The sentence is so general, though, that I would not fault even a professional filmmaker who couldn't choose what the author thought was correct. In the worst case, you could grade your student on her ability to explain why her answer would be appropriate or why she couldn't find a perfect fit, just as you have here.

  • I've just been checking as well and I agree that the sense I seem to be using is not supported. See my edit (will be made momentarily) for an alternative. May 13, 2017 at 7:20
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    Answer withdrawn. Comment added instead. This does seem like the way to go. Check Wikipedia's article on cinematography for further info. Then, your sentence might indeed be: Horror films like A Nightmare on Elm Street depend on spectacular SPECIAL effects rather than a subtle lightning (speaking of a mixture or effect delicately complex and understated).
    – m.a.a.
    May 13, 2017 at 7:26
  • I agree with @m.a.a.'s view on using "subtle lighting" in Q3 as a contrast to special effects, now that lighting has been freed up by switching to cinematography in Q5. May 13, 2017 at 7:29
  • @m.a.a. my main question is about subtle ____. "good lighting" is acceptable to my mind, I don't think it's wrong, I was just slightly concerned, niggled, not 100% convinced but "subtle lighting" does fit. But how would that relate to horror films? Scott's answer has mise-en-scene, which doesn't fit.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 13, 2017 at 7:30
  • @Mari-LouA to me, "lighting" does not equate with the hint of "photography." That may be my own bias as a theatre lighting designer, however... May 13, 2017 at 7:32

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