Continuing our onslaught of horror features in the name of Halloween (here’s The 15 Best Found Footage Horror Films Ever; Best Horror Films of the 1970s; Best Horror Films of the 1980s; The 25 Best Foreign Language Horror Films Ever and there’s much more to come), today we celebrate an element that often gets overlooked in genre films: the look. Through meticulous production design and foreboding cinematography, the imagery in a horror film illuminates the fear of the unknown and the psychological tremors felt by the humans (or non-humans) to a level that can make us whimper just that bit louder or feel our blood run just that bit colder.
At its core, an effective image reflects the narrative’s message and externalizes characters’ innermost demons. Perhaps more than any other genre, horror films rely on these techniques to create the atmosphere that animates these movies. Without them, no amount of spooky music and scary sound effects will do the experience justice.
We’ve sifted through the genre’s history and come up with 15 exemplary films that we think demonstrate the best that horror aesthetics can offer. As befits such a broad category, there’s a wide-range of sub-genres and different approaches here: foreign films, black-and-white efforts, influential classics and contemporary cult films-in-the-making.
“Let the Right One In” (2008)
Vampire narratives have some of the deepest roots in the horror genre, and there are numerous films from previous decades that almost made this list (Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1930s masterpiece of mood “Vampyr,” for one), but we wanted to shine a warmly-lit spotlight on Thomas Alfredson’s venerable coming-of-age-cum-love-story “Let the Right One In.” Shot by Hoyte van Hoytema, whose work here helped skyrocket him to DP fame, this Swedish horror is set in the desolate suburbs of Stockholm and follows fragile 12-year-old Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) who befriends Eli (Lina Leandersson), a young vampire. While mysterious murders plague the community, the two feel the pull of a love borne of loneliness during the harsh winter. Hoytema somehow manages to make the pale, fluorescent lighting in the film have a warm, unsullied effect: evoking the innocence and emotional connection of the two leads. Scenes of horror are gracefully captured (note the sunbeams that combust the patient in the hospital bed), while the standout pool sequence is the epitome of visual sophistication; keeping viewers underwater long enough to shock in the most gloriously subtle of ways. Read this revealing article about Hoytema’s experience on the film.
“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920)
Even a few years shy of its 100th anniversary, this evergreen masterpiece of German expressionism still retains the power to widen the eyes in awe. A fable steeped in mysticism, fugue states, foreboding nightmares and dark psychoses, ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ is the story-within-a-story of a crazed hypnotist (Werner Krauss) who commits murder through a somnambulist (Conrad Veidt), as told by the increasingly dubious narrator Francis (Friedrich Feher). It’s the silent era’s quintessential example of visual storytelling, most certainly in horror and possibly beyond. The design of the film, which is in deeper debt to the brilliant innovations of the sets and stages conjured up by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, rather than Willy Hameister’s cinematography, is the source of the picture’s immortality and the reason why no film class dares to exclude it from its syllabus. Painted streaks of light stab like daggers with their pointed edges, bizarrely twisted doorways and passages curve like snakes, and the flood of directional light drains every corner of realism to emphasize the theatrical shadows that grow evermore twisted inside Francis’ mind. Thanks to its legendary style and innovations in setting and lighting, ‘Caligari’ has influenced a legion of film noirs and horrors.
“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974)
It’s the ugly duckling in this list, but the visual canvas of Tobe Hooper’s incessantly terrifying ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ has a touch, slash and rusty chainsaw swipe of the iconic about it. The maniacal Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) flails on the road with his power tool, as the Texan sun sets on the horizon, is an image steeped in dread and surely a contender for Most Beautiful Shot You Never Want To See Again. DP Daniel Pearl worked on a super low budget and shot the slasher on 16mm, giving it its all-too-real feel. The grainy texture veils the story of five hapless friends who run into a deranged homicidal family with a raw look, creating a furiously unsettling atmosphere —whether in bright daylight or down in the hellish basement where Leatherface impales his victims on meat hooks. The production and art design crew also deserve props for turning real animal carcasses into furniture and adding more deranged nuances to the characters and their lifestyle. If there’s any genre where monstrous aesthetics can be considered alongside the beautiful and ornate, it’s horror.
It often goes unnoticed, but the gritty, gray, subdued look of David Fincher’s serial killer horror film is a vital part of its massive appeal, and it’s also integral to understanding John Doe’s (Kevin Spacey) malevolent raison d’etre. Drenched in merciless rain, rotting from the inside out like the city it’s based in, ‘Seven’ has a grimy aesthetic that sets a perfectly unsettling atmosphere throughout most of the film. In her excellent essay on the subject, Amy Taubin puts it best: “Fincher brings forth an acrid vision of post-industrial decay —all dank greens and browns, the light filtered through pelting rain and yellow smog. The walls are peeling, the dust is thick, the clutter is out of control.” Through his collaboration with DP Darius Khondji and production designer Arthur Max, Fincher infuses his dark subject matter with a sickly, pallid aesthetic, where even daylight appears to be diseased. It’s the perfect visual representation of John Doe’s methodical mind-fucking and his biblically gory and psychologically disturbing spectacles of death.
“Hour Of The Wolf” (1968)
The only officially classified horror picture in Ingmar Bergman’s eminent body of work (some argue that “Persona” qualifies unofficially) continued one of the strongest director-DP relationships in film history. Coming at a creatively volcanic time in Bergman’s career, “Hour Of The Wolf’ is the story of a melancholic painter (Max Von Sydow) whose mind slowly begins to unravel in front of his pregnant wife (Liv Ullmann) as he experiences visions and nightmares and recalls childhood traumas that may or may not be real. As one of film’s truly great cinematographers, Sven Nykvist saturates ‘Wolf’ with gruesomely austere imagery: the couple’s eerie reflection in the water as their boat approaches the island, a conversation about silence at night where Von Sydow uses matches to illuminate his stoic countenance, and the shots that make up the final descent into madness. It’s Bergman’s most terrifying depiction of his most personal themes, visually accentuated by his closest collaborator and working in concert to make up one of most visually arresting horror films of all time.