First, it's Halloween.
Second, I recently got to talk to super talented DP James Kniest about how he became a horror DP and how he filmed the new Mike Flanagan series The Midnight Club. (It’s a Netflix show where eight terminally ill young adults tell scary stories, and Kniest went on a tour de force of film references to create it, using different different aspect ratios, spherical, anamorphic, full frame, and Super 35, all on the Sony VENICE.)
It got me thinking a lot about horror cinematography. Like, the inherent mechanics of camera placement and lighting that makes the viewer feel so scared.
I’ve been thinking about the best “horror” genre films (using the term loosely) that have really standout cinematography in particular. I would love to know what others think or would recommend, from a cinematography perspective.
Here's my shortlist, in no particular order:
The Birds, 1963
Sure, everybody usually thinks of Psycho as Hitchcock’s best horror flick. But I’m making a case for The Birds. I mean, the story itself is literally ridiculous. It’s just a flock of birds, and that’s supposed to be scary? Well, it’s all about the cinematography here…showing us the creepy perspectives of the birds, and making us feel purely through camera placement how we cannot escape the birds. Leslie Robert Burks, A.S.C. was the cinematographer, and I read that he collaborated quite a bit Hitchcock, so their shorthand must have helped immensely.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, 2014
An Iranian black and white 2014 indie film about a lonely vampire. It’s an unforgettable atmospheric world from from first time filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour, that was promoted as “the first Iranian vampire Western.” The film was exquisitely photographed by DP Lyle Vincent with cinematography that many count as a some of the most beautiful b&w ever.
The Love Witch, 2016
This film is a wonderful essay in lighting psychology and color symbolism from filmmaker Anna Biller. It’s about a young witch who “loves men to death.” I once talked to Biller, who described her DP, M. David Mullen, as a genius who she trusted carte blanche to shoot on 35mm and create an almost uncanny look of 1960s cinema.
The best sci-fi horror there ever was, cinematographer Derek Vanlint brought Ridley Scott’s two-camera anamorphic film to life. And it was Vanlint’s first big film as DP!
An American Werewolf in London, 1981
Horror-comedy just might be the hardest cinematic genre to pull off, and it also happens to be my favorite. (Dare I say the best of the genre?) An American Werewolf in London is to me the best example. How can you go from atmospheric fog on the moors to hilarious London cinema to bittersweet transformation and resolution? The film was recognized when it came out for it’s special effects (werewolf transformation) and is considered something of a B movie. But if you look at the lighting, and how the tone is able to shift so seamlessly from moment to moment, while staying true to the world of the film, you’ll see the great work of DP Robert Paynter along with director John Landis.
OK that's my list.
Anyone have any other scary movies with beautiful cinematography to recommend?
I've never seen A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and The Love Witch (I'll add them to my watch list), but the other three are definitely worthy of being on the list.
My own list of most cinematic horror films would have to include The Shining, the original Halloween, Zombie Land, and Young Frankenstein. Although, I guess it is debatable whether the last two are horror or comedy, but, either way, they look GREAT!
My vote for worst . . . Blair Witch Project. Unwatchable, in my opinion.
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