Horror movies rely on various elements to become truly great. A gripping screenplay, believable screams, and special effects are only a few of them. To convey mood and tone, there is a need to think about the cinematographic elements of the movie. The light placement in a shot, the color palette, the framing of the actors, and the camera movements can hinder or help the storytelling. Especially in horror movies, because they highly depend on all the elements being right to be able to create a terrifying experience.
In the past 20 years, horror has evolved and changed, which is a natural part of a genre that is so popular. There have been distinct types of horror movies that rely on cinematography in different ways. Guillermo Del Toro’s horror fantasy, Pan’s Labyrinth, uses color to help the audience understand where the characters are: reality or in a dream. The movie received the Academy Award for Cinematography in 2007. The artsy A24 horror movie Saint Maud uses low saturated colors to contrast with the violence of the blood, as well as to represent the seemingly boring life of a religious fanatic who sees everything as strictly right or wrong. This attention to cinematography infiltrated television as well; there are beautifully crafted TV shows like the horror series of Mike Flanagan, such as The Haunting of Hill House and Midnight Mass, available to stream on Netflix now.
In order for a horror movie to become more than merely a film but nightmare fuel, every element has to be perfect. Here is the best cinematography in horror movies of the past 20 years.
8 The Ring
The Ring, the American version of the 1998’s Japanese horror classic, Ringu, had to be on this list. A movie that took the original story and updated it with icy cinematography, epic landscape shots, and blueish film coloring, Gore Verbinski’s The Ring was still able to surpass its contenders and make itself remembered decades after it was released. The editing of disturbing images with occasional found footage elements, the close shots of the characters, and even Samara herself created such a unique film that is still a fan favorite after all these years.
7 Goodnight Mommy
This is definitely one of the most disturbing recent movies available to watch. The German horror film contrasts its bright and considerably colorful cinematography with a dark and twisted story. From the way the narrative is shot to how the characters are positioned in the frame, every photographic choice makes the experience of watching this film even more unnerving. Goodnight Mommy is for the core horror fans only, people who want to venture into a completely terrifying and disturbing experience, with an ending unlike anything they have ever seen.
In the second horror feature of Academy Award winner Jordan Peele, Us takes racial themes and social criticism (not uncommon in his body of work) to the slasher genre. Using intriguing scenarios and shots of people and objects that may not make sense initially, Peele utilizes his filmmaker’s knowledge of mood and tone to deepen this dark story. From the somber coloring, the emphasis of red, and the visually appealing carnival setting, every shot brings the story closer to the audience.
5 The Babadook
The Babadook‘s director Jennifer Kent utilizes cinematography to convey her scary film’s metaphor for the problems of its characters, namely guilt, grief, and depression. The dark gray walls of the house, combined with the dark-colored clothes the characters wear, all help flesh out the numbness felt by the characters in her story, enhancing the metaphors the director wanted to create. Kent plays with a lot of negative space (parts of the screen where it is pitch black and nothing can be seen) to enhance the horror and the possibility that the monster could be anywhere. This, combined with a lack of unnecessary horror jump scares, leaves the audience paranoid as to what will happen next – just like the characters.
Mandy‘s bright colors, violent scenes and unnerving horror creates a world that could have only been made by Italian director Panos Cosmatos. The concepts of heaven, hell, and vengeance are explored through incredibly thought-out cinematography that is not quite what an audience would expect from a horror movie, with surreal images and slow-motion movements through vividly colored scenes. Some critics describe the film as psychedelic or hallucinogenic, and both terms are completely right. With bright saturated colors (reminiscent of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon), Mandy masters its atmosphere through visuals.
Unlike most horror movies, Midsommar takes advantage of an element most would say could hinder the element of fear in a story: sunlight. A movie that is set (almost) entirely during the day, Midsommar didn’t need dark corners in corridors to be horrifying. The second feature film from horror director Ari Aster, the narrative about a pagan cult uses pastel colors and long takes to make sure the audience sees every terrifying element there is on-screen, and it’s impossible to look away. Beautifully crafted, Midsommar broke a lot of genre norms but was still able to deliver a disturbing and scary story.
2 The Witch
The Witch immediately takes the viewer on a journey to the past. The abrupt editing and low saturated colors transport the audience to a dark story of witchcraft in the woods, with a haunting and extremely obscure final scene. Director Robert Eggers’ first feature film is already considered a horror classic due to his ability to terrify the audience with a perfect combination of setting, soundtrack, and script. But it’s his attention to cinematographic details and the visual framing of the characters that shows an already great director, even back in 2015 when the film was released. This movie’s cinematography (especially Eggers’ frequent usage of the tableaux vivant throughout his conclusions) is similar to another great example of a recent horror movie, Antichrist by Lars Von Trier.
1 The Lighthouse
Another Robert Eggers film, The Lighthouse, is a masterpiece of cinematography, a narrative set in black and white that has so much nuance it captures perfectly the deranged state of the characters. The movie was highly praised by fans of the genre and critics alike, and was nominated for Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards. Eggers is clearly a director who cares about cinematography, positioning objects and subjects perfectly in his frame to create a high-contrast nightmare which perfectly uses black and white to entrap his two characters in the dark, maddening mood and feel of the movie.
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