Horror can ostracise people: they can’t handle the chills, the thrills, the often physical reaction what’s on screen can draw out of the person sitting in the audience. The subject matter can be polarising, people often wanting to escape the realities of the current world by diving into a fantasy one. It can be hard to do that when what you’re watching is designed to terrify you. Yet horror, as an art form, can also be beautiful. And much of that comes down to the masterful work of the cinematographers.
Arguably the underrated MVPs of horror film production, the cinematographer can take something from a slasher to a classic a la Dean Cundey’s work on Halloween. Pioneering the use of what was cutting edge technology at the time – the Steadicam – he and John Carpenter were able to craft one of the most chilling openings of any film ever made. And that was way back in 1978. The late seventies were the pioneering years for beautiful horror, with the neon colour palette of Dario Argento’s Suspiria coming only 12 months earlier in 1977. Italian cinematographer Luciano Tovoli was less than a decade into his career when he worked on one of the most instantly recognisable horror films in pop culture. Using everything from tissue paper to mirrors to light the actors in the very specific way that makes the film so unique, Argento and Tovoli also worked with Technicolor to adjust the negatives in post-production and enhance what was shot even further. It laid much of the groundwork for Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon from last year, which followed similar themes of female power and the deadliness of women. Yet unlike Suspiria, it was a woman’s eye behind the camera as DOP – Natasha Braier – who also created the visceral dystopia of The Rover. While the script contains many flaws and the performances range from understated to underwhelming, what can’t be argued is the strength of Braier’s eye and her ability to wield a unique visual style.
Following beautiful horror of the late ’70s and early ’80s – which included The Shining, Picnic At Hanging Rock and The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre – the focus began to shift within the genre. Larger casts, larger stories and larger budgets seemingly took over from the patient and thoughtful filmmaking that had come before it as we moved into the world of long and enduring franchises. Yet The Neon Demon was just one in a long line of recent horror movies who have placed an increasing emphasis on their visual styling. Wolf Creek and its sequel did that thing Australian genre films do so well when they’re set in the environment: make a character out of the landscape. The Guest – which teetered between action and horror – embraced its eighties inspired palette, while It Follows revelled in the terror of everyday suburbia. Jonathan Glazer’s lo-fi creeper Under The Skin saw he and cinematographer Daniel Landin custom build cameras for the film, giving viewers an unrestrained view into the world of the extraterrestrial female as she prowled Scotland.
In what we’ve seen of horror in 2017 so far, we’ve already been inundated with exquisite cinematography. A Cure For Wellness had an abundance of issues, yet they paled alongside the craft of cinematographer Bojan Bazelli. Working with director Gore Verbinski previously on another gorgeous horror – The Ring – Bazelli created frames that were almost luscious and exuberant in what he was able to pack into them. Across the pond Ruben Impens has been making waves after his Black Mirror episode Men Against Fire was followed up with feminist French cannibal film Raw. Perhaps nothing has made more of an impression this year than Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out, which has delighted genre fans and horror newbies alike. Peele’s socially charged message was in good hands with Aussie Toby Oliver, who’s not only on awarded cinematographer but one who is skilled when it comes to crafting visual horror thanks to his work on Wolf Creek 2, Lights Out, Incarnate and many more. This informed perspective took the sunken place from thematically terrifying to genuinely scary and with Oliver working on four horror films all scheduled for release in the next year and a half – including Insidious 4 – the future of beautiful horror is in good hands.
Maria Lewis is a journalist and author previously seen on SBS Viceland’s The Feed. She’s the presenter and producer of the Eff Yeah Film & Feminism podcast. Her debut novel Who’s Afraid? was released in 2016 with the sequel – Who’s Afraid Too? – out now. You can find her on Twitter @MovieMazz.