Lumbering weirdos in hockey masks and pizza-faced serial killers have their place in the world of horror, but body-count movies can quickly wear out their welcome if you aren’t a slasher-film lover. Sometimes the greatest menace is something we can really get lost in, visually — like the atmospheric halls of a haunted house and the unexplained dangers lurking in the dark. In celebration of those films that lure us closer with their breathtaking set designs, rich palettes, and captivating images, here is a visual chronicle of horror cinema’s most stunning films.
Suspiria Directed by Dario Argento, 1977
Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock
I decided to intensively utilize primary colors — blue, green and red — to identify the normal flow of life and then apply a complementary color, mainly yellow, to contaminate them. A [horror] film brings to the surface some of the ancestral fears we hide deep inside us, and Suspiria would not have had the same cathartic function if I had used the fullness and consolatory sweetness of the full color spectrum. To immediately make Suspiria a total abstraction from what we call “everyday reality” I used the usually reassuring primary colors only in their purest essence, making them immediately, surprisingly violent and provocative. This brings the audience into the world of Suspiria.
The Company of Wolves Directed by Neil Jordan, 1984
It’s a pubescent girl’s dreams and fantasies told by a cautionary aunt played by Angela Lansbury. It was designed like a fairy story—little villages in the woods. We did it all in the studio, even the exteriors. We were trying to develop something which was the fantasy of a child, a dreamworld with its own reality. We had very complex forced perspectives, what we call dioramas so that you had specific views. Can you remember the little village down there and the church up on the hill? It was different from anything else coming out at that period. It needed a magical feeling about it because it was magic. Remember the wolf coming out of the guy’s mouth? I always regard Neil’s scripts as a form of poetry.
Anton’s instincts and talents were for those heavily designed expressionistic movies that were being made at the time. Anton created an adept way of creating a village and a series of forests using trees on rollers. We built a forest that could be transformed into another forest into another, until it became an endless forest even though we were only shooting at two stages in Shepperton [Middlesex, England].
The Shining Directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1980
The first step was for [production designer Roy Walker] to go around America photographing hotels which might be suitable for the story. Then we spent weeks going through his photographs making selections for the different rooms. Using the details in the photographs, our draughtsmen did proper working drawings. From these, small models of all the sets were built. We wanted the hotel to look authentic rather than like a traditionally spooky movie hotel. The hotel’s labyrinthine layout and huge rooms, I believed, would alone provide an eerie enough atmosphere. This realistic approach was also followed in the lighting, and in every aspect of the decor it seemed to me that the perfect guide for this approach could be found in Kafka’s writing style. His stories are fantastic and allegorical, but his writing is simple and straightforward, almost journalistic. On the other hand, all the films that have been made of his work seem to have ignored this completely, making everything look as weird and dreamlike as possible. The final details for the different rooms of the hotel came from a number of different hotels. The red men’s room, for example, where Jack meets Grady, the ghost of the former caretaker, was inspired by a Frank Lloyd Wright men’s room in an hotel in Arizona. The models of the different sets were lit, photographed, tinkered with and revised. This process continued, altering and adding elements to each room, until we were all happy with what we had.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 1992
When I shot Dracula with Francis Ford Coppola there was a scene where Keanu Reeves is sitting at a desk writing a letter, and Dracula (played by Gary Oldman) is behind him, leaning over his shoulder. And you see Dracula’s shadow on the back wall. And this shadow moves as he moves, but at one point the shadow has its own life and tries to strangle Keanu Reeves. It puts its hands around his neck and strangles him. But it’s just a shadow. Today you would do that digitally because it’s a lot easier, although more expensive. But what we did in 1992 was use a second Dracula actor behind a screen and project his shadow off the first Dracula. The second Dracula actor, who wore an identical Dracula costume, had a monitor to watch every move that the first Dracula (Gary Oldman) did. And he matched each move exactly until the point when his shadow appeared to take on its own life. The effect was challenging in a way, but it was easy and adventurous, and it looked great. It was also not expensive. We did a lot of in-camera special effects on Dracula. In my first meeting with Coppola he said, “Our role model for this movie is the 1922 Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau.” So we tried to do as much in the camera as possible. We did things like double-exposure and dissolves in the camera, and we ran the film backwards for special shots.
Nosferatu the Vampyre Directed by Werner Herzog, 1979
Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock
Nosferatu Directed by F.W. Murnau, 1922
Murnau was everywhere and did everything himself when he was making a film. The preparation used to take up all his time for a year beforehand. All this while he would keep aloof from any distraction. . . . He used to live each part, experiment with every possibility of the plot, draw up a mental picture of the sets, and perfect each detail of the whole with the greatest care, always asking himself what was the best way of presenting it by means of the camera lens. His knowledge of all aspects of the theatre and art in general enabled him to initiate sets himself, and to direct in person the work of the designer. For he was his own designer, his own artistic director, and even his own studio manager. He was his own cameraman, he knew how to manage the lighting and do his own editing. He himself used to suggest the main elements of the score to the composer. He knew exactly what he wanted. He wanted perfection, and each finished film was the result of meticulous care. He brought to the cinema a culture, a knowledge of production, a sense of artistic beauty and of lighting which until today have known no equal.
Black Sunday Directed by Mario Bava, 1960
[Bava was] very quiet, very intimate, very low-key, very one-to-one. He wasn’t at all highly-charged like most Italian directors — very feverish, you know. He was warm and delicate with us. . . . This was his first film, and he was trying to direct and be cinematographer at the same time. Also, he was deathly ill, as was everybody else. We were all dying during the shooting of Black Sunday. It was freezing! We shot for three or four weeks in December; there was no heat, and it was one of those arctic Roman winters. Everyone had some terrible virus and we were totally asphyxiated by all the dry ice! It’s just as well that the film was dubbed later, because everyone was utterly nasal.
Blood and Black Lace Directed by Mario Bava, 1964
Maybe it is because I am fearful by nature, but the fact is that I find the horror cinema very exciting. Maybe it is a way of getting revenge on the fear I sometimes feel… who knows… In any case, all my fantasies, hallucinations, my dreams while eyes shut and while open they are always horrible. I adore my granddaughter, but in my dreams she always appears crippled, mutilated, with a missing foot. There is a regular character in my nightmares, that on the other hand fascinate me, a violinist that is serenading his lover using as cords the nerves of his own forearm previously gaunt. This morning I found in the interior of a book, still closed, a letter a friend of mine sent me ten years ago; we had fought during that time and in order not to read unpleasant things, I had put it away without opening it. A few months ago I found out that this friend, of whom I had not seen again, had died: now, therefore, it seems as if I have received a letter from beyond and… Brrr, I immediately burned it.
Don’t Look Now Directed by Nicolas Roeg, 1973
The script has a life separate from itself and chance can never be excluded. The church we eventually used was Nicolò dei Mendicoli (St. Nicholas of the Beggars) and things fell into place after this location was secured — they were actually restoring the church itself at the time. You can see a poster outside declaring ‘Venice in Peril Fund’. [Also]… the incident where the scaffolding collapses under Sutherland’s character — the scaffolding was already there.
Venice is full of [traps]. It’s very familiar in many ways from posters and things, and certain sections have become iconic places, and they can be used — or not used — for the right scene. It was a feast of riches there. . . . Venice is a trap that doesn’t let you see its face.
Repulsion Directed by Roman Polanski, 1965
I shot Repulsion in a way that felt right to me. The film taught me a lesson about just how far one can go with realism. To express Carole’s mental universe I employed all kinds of clichés. I love cinema, especially its magical elements, but this wasn’t a subject that lent itself easily to the medium. I wanted to bring off something that was artistic and not just technical. I made this film for myself.
Repulsion was difficult to shoot, mainly for technical reasons. I had a set built with a ceiling but it was very uncomfortable because we were filming during the summer and the studio was very hot. I was very careful about representing reality and we spent a lot of time on the details that would conjure up the right atmosphere.
The Bride of Frankenstein Directed by James Whale, 1935
Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock
Eyes Without a Face Directed by Georges Franju, 1960
Psycho Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1960
Kwaidan Directed by Masaki Kobayashi, 1964
My main intention was to explore the juxtaposition between man’s material nature and his spiritual nature, the realm of dream and aspiration. I wanted to create a drama which dealt directly with the spiritual importance of our lives. I also enjoyed conveying the sheer beauty of traditional Japan.
Hour of the Wolf Directed by Ingmar Bergman, 1968
You know Hour of the Wolf? It’s not a very good picture, but it’s a very personal picture. What I talked about was the demons, the friends who become friendly, and started to destroy that man. I think it had very much to do with my own fear of them — but I will never let them do that. I wrote Hour of the Wolf in a very quiet room. I never have any sun in the room where I write. I was sleeping in this room too, and after a few week I had to stop. The demons would come to me and wake me up and they would stand there and talk to me. It was very strange.
Peeping Tom Directed by Michael Powell, 1960
I tried to go beyond the ordinary horror film of unexplained monsters, and instead to show why one human being should behave in this extraordinary way — it’s a story of a human being first and foremost. That’s why I had my own son play the central character as a child [and played the child’s “sadistic” father]. I felt it gave the whole thing greater truth than if we had a routine child actor. . . . [Karlheinz Böhm’s central character Mark] was a figure to disturb an audience by asking to be identified with, understood.
Vampyr Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932
Carnival of Souls Directed by Herk Harvey, 1962
Photo by Herts Lion/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
Possession Directed by Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Possession was born of a totally private experience. After making That Most Important Thing in France, I went back to Poland to get my family (which at the time was my wife and my kid) and bring them to France. I had two or three interesting proposals to make really big European films. But when I returned to Poland I saw exactly what the guy in Possession sees when he opens the door to his flat, which is an abandoned child in an empty flat and a woman who is doing something somewhere else. It’s so basically private. Now I can go back to it many years later, but even the dialogue in certain kitchen scenes and certain private scenes is like I just wrote it down after some harrowing day. So it’s amazing how such a private thing became a kind of icon. You know Adjani got the prize at Cannes for this film, she got the Cesar which is the French Oscar and 14 other prizes in many festivals. Please believe me, it’s mentally very disturbing to see that your very private little film became something in which so many people recognize something of themselves. Thirty years later I’m still thinking about it. . . . It stems again from the simple fact that I was living in Paris and I went to see Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. It’s an extremely well acted and brilliant film, but I left the cinema feeling empty. I went out and I said, All right, the analysis is perfect. It’s cold, it’s brilliant, like always. But so what? I was walking the streets I remember, it was raining and I said look, the beauty of the stories that we are telling our children is the moral at the end. That is to say that there is always something fantastic by the end of the story. So they walk along the pavement and they go into the house. . . this is the first floor, this is the kitchen, blah blah, but what’s in the attic? And I was thinking, okay, in my little story what attic does it really have? If I go up the stairs out of the realistic realm and into the fantasy, the science fiction, what is the fairy tale? What is the bad fairy tale at the end? So I went to the attic and I found a monster.
Vampyros Lesbos Directed by Jess Franco, 1971
I think death and sex go together. If you shoot about sex in a funny way, it’s different. But when you are doing sex in a serious way, death is always around.
Mad Love Directed by Karl Freund, 1935
For atmosphere, Freund looked to a past that he had helped to make, steeping Mad Love in German tradition rich in dark, brooding imagery. Before the picture even begins, the ominous shadow of Dr. Gogol (Peter Lorre) passes over the opening titles. Suddenly a fist draws back and knocks out the glass on which the credits are printed, setting the stage for what is to follow — a miscellany of sinister shadows, oblique angles, staircases, and reflections.
Requiem for a Vampire Directed by Jean Rollin, 1971
During the shooing of Le Frisson, I met Lionel Wallmann. He was an American in charge of selling the film to foreign countries. We became friends, and he asked me, “Why don’t we try to raise the money for a film together?” I wrote a screenplay, he found money and arranged something with Sam Selsky. The result was Requiem, a little film made with almost no money. I like it very much, because I tried something different. I think there is no dialogue in the film for the first 40 minutes; I wanted to create the ultimate naive film, to simplify story, direction, cinematography, everything. Like a shadow, an idea of a plot. Later, I made an even more extreme film in that mode, called La Rose de Fer (The Iron Rose, 1972). I wanted to make a film that was like a fairy tale told by someone at a campfire, invented as it was being told. I wrote the script without a plan, without construction, and that’s also the way I shot it.
I had some ideas and put them in the screenplay for no special reason. First the clowns, then the motorcycle, and the idea of the girls playing piano in the cemetery. The first vision I had was two clowns playing piano in a cemetery. I have never seen that in a film before and I wanted to see it, so I just wrote it in. Afterwards, I reused the image of the clowns in other films as some sort of quotation. I like that; I often make references to my earlier films. It connects dreams and stories like a construction system and the audience can make their own thing out of it.
Häxan Directed by Benjamin Christensen, 1922
As in his previous films, Christensen invented techniques to bring his aesthetic vision to the screen. For the spectacular scene of witches flying over the countryside, the director was dissatisfied with shooting from a moving train. Instead, his technicians constructed an enormous model town on a giant carousel, which held more than 250 houses, each about six feet high. The carousel was turned by 20 men. The witches (more than 75) were filmed separately by a moving camera that tracked past them as an airplane engine generated wind. These shots, according to Tybjerg, were combined “using an experimental optical printer designed by Christensen’s cameraman.”
The Black Cat Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934
The Black Cat also featured a clever on-screen gimmick. As was the custom in many films of the early 1930s, the opening credits featured close-ups of the stars and featured players. For Karloff in The Black Cat, Universal selected a shot of Poelzig playing the organ and seen from the back — as if to keep the audience in suspense as to Karloff’s latest cinema face. Bela Lugosi received a traditional close-up, and a very handsome one.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Directed by Robert Wiene, 1920
Wiene is fond of the iris shot, which opens or closes upon a scene like an eye. This makes the point that we are looking and are privileged to witness events closed to other people. He also sparingly uses a device of superimposing words on the image to show Alan feeling surrounded by voices. Wiene’s closeups lean heavily on Caligari’s fierce and sinister scowl, the dewy innocence of Jane, and the wide-eyed determination of Alan. The Somnambulist is not very expressive — he certainly lacks the charisma of Frankenstein’s monster, who in a way he inspired — and is most often seen in long shot, as if the camera considers him an object, not a person.
The sets are presented, as they must be, in mostly longer shots, establishing their spiky and ragged points and edges. The visual environment plays like a wilderness of blades; the effect is to deny the characters any place of safety or rest. It isn’t surprising that the Caligari set design inspired so few other films, although its camera angles, lighting and drama can clearly be seen throughout film noir, for example in the visual style of The Third Man (1949).
Night of the Demon Directed by Jacques Tourneur, 1957
The appearance of the creature in Curse of the Demon still generates controversy among the film’s admirers today, splitting them into two camps. Those that believe the film’s effectiveness is seriously damaged by showing the demon and those who believe the creature is a welcome and terrifying addition. Among the naysayers are Carlos Clarens, author of An Illustrated History of the Horror Film, who proclaimed the special effect “atrocious” and a “monumental blunder” and the film’s original screenwriter Charles Bennett who was so outraged by Chester’s creative changes that he once said, “If [Chester] walked up my driveway right now, I’d shoot him dead.” On the other hand, Danny Peary, in the first of his three Cult Movies books, wrote “I believe most critics dislike the demon for no other reason than they know it was studio-imposed…I am in favor of this vile creature as big as a house and ugly as sin…It’s the scariest monster in film history as far as I’m concerned (no matter that others think it ludicrous).” Even respected film historian William K. Everson approved of the demon’s appearance, calling it “such a lulu that it lives up to the fearsome descriptions of it.” And, in all fairness, the dragon-like creature was modeled on 3,400-year-old woodcut prints from demonology books according to Tourneur.
Yet, regardless of whether one is pro or con on the visualized demon, it is hard not to be seduced by Tourneur’s depiction of a shadowy fantasy world where perceptions are often shaped by a fear of darkness; Ted Scaife’s cinematography certainly exploits this with scenes framed in pitch black darkness illuminated only by passing car lights or flashlights.
Horror of Dracula Directed by Terence Fisher, 1958
That is a case of lighting which is very interesting [when John Van Eyssen’s Jonathan meets Dracula for the first time]. It had to be that way and Jack Asher lit it for me that way. It was obvious that the audience was going to laugh when Dracula made his first appearance. So I showed him in silhouette. I didn’t expose what he really looked like. I didn’t show his features, only a silhouette. When he came down the stairs his features became visible and the laughter stopped. I loved going to the cinema to see their laughs stop. It’s true. It was fascinating.
The Hunger Directed by Tony Scott, 1983
Photo by Mgm/Ua/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
I’d been given Flashdance and it really was, “Fuck, what am I going to do with this?” Adrian Lyne had got The Hunger and was like, “What the fuck am I going to do with this?!” So we swapped scripts. A week after, he said, “My daughter’s been watching this thing called MTV.” He said, “I’m going to do an MTV movie of this piece of shit.”
I stole from Nic Roeg, for performance and for style, and I stole from Helmut Newton’s erotica. His pictures tell a story. They’re always erotic and sexy and perverse and strange and fucked-up. I showed the girls (Sarandon and Deneuve) what I wanted. And they were a bit, erm, long faces. So I did a lot of body-doubles. A lot of the sex in there is around the mouths and the faces. When you get down below it gets porno if you’re not careful. I used a lot of smoke and so on. That was really the influence of my commercials. A lot of smoke, backlight, the occasional billowing curtain. Well, a lot of billowing curtain. It got slammed for being esoteric and artsy. It got fucking killed. It took me three more years to get another movie after it.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death Directed by John D. Hancock, 1971
He hired Zohra [Lampert] and I, and we were just dyed-in-the-wool actors. So that’s what he got. We never did any work other than that. We were just always studying and working and doing the best we could. John picked us and we were simply doing our best acting. You do that no matter what the genre is. He responded to what we gave him and we responded to whatever he gave us. Really, we didn’t have any overall view of the genre at all. We were just trying to make that script come to life.
The Masque of the Red Death Directed by Roger Corman, 1964
As the Corman name started to mean something, he was entrusted with higher budgets, and set to work on a more ambitious series of projects — eight period adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe between 1959 and 1964, all but one of them starring Vincent Price. Marked by striking use of colour and the wide screen — The Masque of the Red Death (1964) was even shot by Nicolas Roeg — they proved his mettle as a horror director, and hold up eerily well, as the definitive film versions of Poe.
How does he feel about contemporary horror films? “The cycle of horror right now is more explicit than when I was doing horror films. Indirection used to be the word. We suggested, we implied the horror by the cutting, camera movements and storyline, the horror was built up and built up. Now you’re more likely just to cut somebody’s hand off, and blood spurts across the screen, and you get horror that way. I think that will start to fade. I’ve been around long enough to see cycles start, build and come to an end. One director cuts off someone’s hand at the wrist, the next at the shoulder. It just gets gorier and gorier. The audience will react and turn away from this.”
Blood and Roses Directed by Roger Vadim, 1960
The final great setpiece is a dream sequence reminiscent of the work of Cocteau. The dream is Georgia’s and is presented in black and white with color vividly intruding in two instances. The first is of Carmilla with a white scarf around her neck from which spurts crimson blood. The dead Lisa swims by the window and Georgia follows her by opening the window and diving into the water — wandering past dancers at the estate, a gateway to the real world (with color and a man on a horse carrying a woman), a corridor with many women, and finally two nurses escorting her to an operating room with all the nurses wearing bright ruby gloves. There she sees Millarca as the surgeon and Carmilla as the patient on the operating table. The two women seem to embrace and spin as Georgia wakes up screaming.
The cinematography is by Claude Renoir, who worked with Renoir on The Golden Coach and The River, and later shot Spirits of the Dead and Barbarella for Vadim, as well as the James Bond adventure The Spy Who Loved Me. The great costumes, including that haunting bat mask, are by Marcel Escoffier, and Juan Andre and Robert Guisgand handled the memorable production design.
Hausu Directed by Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, 1977
I had only directed independent movies (which had already been shown in Hollywood and San Francisco as Japanese underground films with the catch phrase, “Much better than Doris Day!”) and I was not interested in making commercial movies. But after making successful TV commercials for Toho, the most famous studio in Japan, one of its producers asked me to write a screenplay.
At the time, only Toho’s directors could make movies for the studio, but I asked my 11-year-old daughter Chigumi, who never watched Japanese movies, what kind of movie she would like me to make. She was combing her long hair after bathing, and said, “It would be fun if this mirror ate me.” So I made up the story about seven girls who get eaten by a house using her imagination and my experience from the war. Toho liked the scrīpt, but no directors wanted to make it. Nothing happened for two years, so besides filming TV commercials I began making comics, writing novels, pressing records, putting on fashion shows, and creating a radio drama of . The program became popular with young kids, so Toho had to work on it, made me the producer, and decided for one time only, they would let me, a director from outside of the studio, make the movie. And I was like, “Okay, I will make a TV commercial for Japanese movies!”
Toho was very good at special effects in movies like but for I handled all of them. It was mainly optical effects, and it was my first try at video composition. I approached it like my personal work, so warmth was the point. My concept was to express the stage of progression in video composition, and I didn’t expect perfect results. The progress was heated, but the results were cold, and I strived for reality rather than realism. It is more fun when a magician fails.
Under the Skin Directed by Jonathan Glazer, 2013
Much of the film was shot with a camera called a OneCam, which we built to make this film. We needed a camera that was small enough to hide, but had the quality that we needed to project and do the visual-effects work. It didn’t exist, so we built it. We built 10 cameras. Sometimes we used two, sometimes we used 10. We shot much of the film like that, where we could build the cameras into the dashboard in her car, or hide them in street furniture to watch her walking down the street, and not alert the general public that there was any filming going on at all. Much of the film was shot covertly like that.
Trouble Every Day Directed by Claire Denis, 2001
DENIS: The only film I’ve ever walked out of was [Pasolini’s] Salò. It took me three times to watch the whole thing. I think I always stopped at [the scene of] eating the nails. The first time, I had to leave! I came the week after to see the film [again], and I knew this scene was going to assault me. I said, “I will close my eyes and I will stay this time.” But I had to leave again. The third time, I made it.
DALLAS: Is it as hard to film violence as it is to watch it onscreen?
DENIS: No, it’s not easier. When we filmed the scene of Vincent Gallo attacking the little maid at the end of Trouble Every Day, we were all suffering. But it’s a completely different pain, because the suffering is [about being] sure that the scene is not going to affect the actors. It’s to protect them from suffering, or being too exposed. Like in Bastards, when Lola Créton is walking naked in the streets. I know the blood is fake, but my fear was to protect her. I didn’t want her to be exposed.
Kiss of the Damned Directed by Xan Cassavetes, 2012
The story for me centers on these people going through these experiences and fighting battles within themselves. I was basically following that, and not as conscious of making a horror film. What I focused on more was of primal nature vs. moral/intellectual nature. These themes ran through the whole film and how they relate to love, family, and society; how much can you control, what you can accept, and not denying who you are.
What I tried to get made before wasn’t in the prism of a genre movie. It very much appeals to me to make a movie that’s within a genre because it gets rid of the hoity-toity ideas surrounding what you’re making. This isn’t an auteur film that’s trying to be fancy. I’m following the rules of the genre, but I’m doing my own thing within it. I like being a part of that and at the same time being a part of nothing.
I only want to be an artist and be enthusiastic and search for the movie I want to make. I like answering to myself.
Let the Right One In Directed by Tomas Alfredson, 2008
I’m not a horror filmmaker at all. I’m mostly famous for doing comedy and stage work in Sweden, really — I’m totally ignorant about horror films in the world. I just went into this work 100 percent, and tried to do it as sincerely as possible. Nowadays, I don’t look upon films for professional purposes at all. I go to cinemas now and then as just an ordinary guy. I try to [look at] art or listen to music to inspire myself, but I didn’t look at other horror films for this work.
Horrors of Malformed Men Directed by Teruo Ishii, 1969
In The Horror of Malformed Men I included his story “The Human Chair” for example, which is originally very short. You can’t pad that out into a feature-length film without creating something very boring, so I combined it with other stories. I think that this is the right way to approach it. Also, in my case, I didn’t have many occasions to adapt his writing, so I figured I would include as much as possible whenever I had the chance. There are simply too many wonderful stories of his that I would like to adapt and too few opportunities to adapt them.
The Boxer’s Omen Directed by Chih-Hung Kuei, 1983
If flying heads with dangling entrails seems crazy, then the rest of The Boxer’s Omen is complete madness and not in the realistic, conventional bloodshed way of 300. Some of the effects, like felt-cloth spiders and worms and a giant rubber alligator, are almost on par with an Ed Wood-level of amateurism. The mechanism of their artificial movements are relatively well masked but they all tend to look like very cheap stuffed animals being poked and prodded into motion from off screen or perhaps from fishing line.
Kuen displays a fascination with brightly-colored organic goop, like a mixture of inflating balloons, various gummy-like objects and glossy thick liquid that comes in unnatural primary colors. The only thing that makes this stuff at all disturbing or gross is the implied act, be it a head ripping itself off from a torso or a mummified female corpse being revived from within a dead (and fake) alligator’s slimy, gut-filled belly. Kuen seems determined to freak out his audience with the most disgusting and vile imagery imaginable, even though an imagination is exactly what’s needed to accept most of it as even remotely convincing.
Les diaboliques Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955
As Terrence Rafferty writes in his excellent essay that serves as the liner notes for this Criterion edition of the film, Clouzot’s attention to the neorealist chaos of the environment lends the thriller tropes an unusual credibility that can’t even really be found in much Hitchcock. Hitchcock was an expressionist, while Clouzot was somehow a realist and expressionist in roughly disconcertingly equal measure. The boarding school is portrayed with the stressed and rumble-ready textures of a real school, yet it also appears to exist in a realm of otherworldly myth that’s particularly embodied by the creepy pool into which Christina and Nicole eventually decide to dump Michel’s body. The tedium of murder seems to be conveyed in unusually specific terms, such as the logistics of lifting a chest containing a body up into the back of a car, a moment that’s been ripped off by subsequent films hundreds of times, while other scenes make sense only in symbolic fantasy terms, such as the classic moment where Michel slowly unexpectedly rises out of the cold bathtub.
Dead Ringers Directed by David Cronenberg, 1988
Photo by ITV/REX/Shutterstock
Rampo Noir Directed by Akio Jissoji, Atsushi Kaneko, Hisayasu Satô, Suguru Takeuchi, 2005
Rampo Noir is a reminder of many of the things that attracted many of us to Japanese exploitation cinema in the first place: its unabashed eroticism, its remarkable visual inventiveness, and its willingness to plunge into the dark realms that so many other movies fail to explore. Unfortunately these aspects may well prove problematic in getting the film screened more widely, because it also presents us with some pretty strong images to take home, all the more shocking in a film of this budget and scale. Rampo Noir received an R-15 certificate back in Japan, though I doubt other countries’ censors are going to be quite so lenient.
Still, with the waning J-horror boom, characterised by high-concept plotlines and a gloomily restrained mise-en-scène, currently running on empty, Rampo Noir‘s hallucinogenic approach to narrative and visuals is nothing short of invigorating. While its frequent forays into the boundaries of bad taste mean we’d all be advised not to hold our breath waiting for the Hollywood remake, the vivid imagination of Japan’s literary master of the macabre [Rampo Edogawa] has rarely been served better.
Onibaba Directed by Kaneto Shindô, 1964
Through the 1950s and 1960s, Shindo remained an imaginative cinematic stylist with a penchant for striking imagery and an interest in formal experimentation. In Children of Hiroshima, he visualised the bombing in an intense montage sequence inspired by Soviet silent cinema. The Island, made without dialogue, conveyed its meaning solely through the body language of the actors, the sound effects and music, the use of landscape and the position of the camera. In Onibaba and Kuroneko, his flamboyant direction was complemented by Kuroda Kiyomi’s stunning chiaroscuro cinematography and Hayashi Hikaru’s menacing scores.
—Sight and Sound, 2012 22 (7), pages 42-45
A Tale of Two Sisters Directed by Kim Jee-woon, 2003
When I’m planning a film I tend to listen to music first, it fuels my imagination. With A Tale Of Two Sisters I found myself listening to lots of slow, sad classical music. . . . I tend to listen repetitively to music as a working process, but it can often change dramatically, as it did with I Saw The Devil.
Jigoku Directed by Nobuo Nakagawa, 1960
Both in and out of Japan, much of Nobuo Nakagawa’s reputation rests on the atmospheric and very stylish horror films he churned out for the short-lived Shintoho studios in the late 1950s and early 1960s, most famously The Ghost Story of Yotsuya and his magnum opus Jigoku. These earned him the nickname “the Terence Fisher of Japan,” referring to the man who around the same period established the equally ambient and set-bound house style of Britain’s home of horror, Hammer Studios.
Island of Lost Souls Directed by Erle C. Kenton, 1932
Although the attempt to horrify is not accomplished with any marked degree of subtlety, there is no denying that some of the scenes are ingenously fashioned and are, therefore, interesting. The general effect of the film is enhanced greatly by Mr. Laughton’s urbane impersonation. The ghoulish surgeon is for the most part calm and earnest in his strange activities, but when he leads the way to his house on the small mysterious island, he wields a whip on the hideous muttering group of creatures, explaining to a refugee from a ship that he learned to crack the big whip in Australia. In one sequence the ape-like creatures are asked several times by Dr. Moreau, “What is the law?” And they reply: “Not to eat meat; are we not men? Not to run on all fours. Not to gnaw the bark off trees. Not to spill blood.”
Viy Directed by Konstantin Ershov, Georgi Kropachyov, 1967
Viy is an unusual and exotic experience for Western viewers, for whom witches are not the prototypical supernatural villain, but most will quickly feel comfortable inside the film’s recognizable folk tale structure. The story is impeccably told; Kuravlyov’s seminarian, who begins with a mischievous frat-boy brashness but ends up bullied and harried by both Cossacks and witches, is an eminently fallible but very likable comic-turned-tragic hero. Varley’s nameless and mostly mute witch is eerily pretty, and manages to create a tremendous sense of menace simply by grasping blindly at the seminarian while he’s hidden from her view inside the holy circle he has drawn on the chapel floor with chalk. The special effects aren’t always seamless (although you may wonder how some were achieved), but they are always artful and elegant, and their artificiality is an asset, creating a universe that’s far more otherworldly than it otherwise might be. (Think of the difference between Willis O’Brien’s dreamlike and iconic stop-motion animated King Kong and Peter Jackson’s photorealistic but forgettable ape). The gibbering gray demons that threaten to swarm over the hero in the exhilarating climax are as unforgettable an assortment of ogres as you are likely to see on film.
Antichrist Directed by Lars von Trier, 2009
Whenever I try to use genre, I have a tendency to create a mixture. A lot of people would say this isn’t a horror film. But I did start off wanting to do a horror. The good thing about a horror film is that it allows you to put all kinds of strange stuff in there.
I took a look at some horror films before I made Antichrist, and yeah, there are a lot of different ways of telling the story. It was very refreshing to see the Japanese horror films for example.
I looked at Dark Water, and I also looked at The Ring, which were very good. I also saw Audition, which has a lot of killing and splatter.
There was no pleasure in doing this film I made myself write 10 pages of script every day. The only way to get out of bed was to make this decision and stick to it. When it came to filming, I was not mentally capable to hold the camera and shoot. I was helpless like an old man in a wheelchair. It was a humiliating way to work.
The Cell Directed by Tarsem Singh, 2000
I think what all of us in the art department have appreciated since the film’s release is the fact that the educational level of art was noticed. Many times the American audience is not given enough credit for understanding high concept art. I think Tarsem realized that this wasn’t true, that we could make a film with this kind of imagery and that people would get it. They’d know they’d seen things similar to this and were pleased to see a film that was brave enough to show it.
On The Cell, [the studio] would say, “What if we took all this out?” I’d say don’t. I initially wanted to do action inside the head, but the kind of action I had in mind… when The Matrix came out, it was too similar. I said, “No, I don’t want to do that now. I want to do opera in the head.” They said, “No, you can’t do opera, because the last person who did opera in the head was Francis Ford Coppola, and it was a real disaster. Americans don’t like opera.”
We came up with him having a problem with the character masturbating over dead bodies while suspending himself on chains. By the time I finished shooting that, I said we could have him come out in the third act wearing a tutu, and people would feel sorry [for him] and nobody would laugh. When we showed it to the studio, they said the scene was too much. When they cut the scene, people started laughing during the third act. The scene was there to tell them to be scared of this guy! Every time we tried something theatrical and operatic, in a serious movie, people started laughing and pointing fingers. I said, “Okay, let him do something nasty, so people will shut up.”
The Haunting Directed by Robert Wise, 1963
I didn’t see it, but I hear it was terrible. I’ve had many people tell me over the years, “Mr. Wise, you made the scariest film I’ve ever seen, and you don’t show anything. How did you do it?” It’s all by suggestion, where, in the remake, I’ve been told that everything is shown. I cannot imagine how this could be as effective.
I’ve been accused by some of the more esoteric critics of not having a style, and my answer to that always is this — I’ve done every genre there is, and I approach each genre in the cinematic style that I think is appropriate and right for that genre. So I would no more have done The Sound of Music in the thinking and approach that I did in I Want to Live! for anything. So that’s why I don’t have a singular mark but I justify that by saying that it’s just because of the number of genres I’ve done and the cinematic style that’s proper for each one. That’s in my view, of course.