A film poster can make or break a movie for discerning audiences before it even hits the theater. In the case of horror cinema, cheap thrills and jump scares are often pushed into the marketing spotlight. But there’s a unique visual history when it comes to horror films and their posters that is incredibly diverse and, on occasion, stunningly beautiful. In the spirit of the spooky season, here are the posters that captured our imaginations with amazing artwork and creative designs.
The Cat and the Canary (1939) Directed by Elliott Nugent
There’s the low key lighting, eerie music, and secret passages — all utilized to fullest extent to accentuate the chiller aspect of the piece.
Blood and Roses (1960) Directed by Roger Vadim
The picture is consistently beautiful to look at, and an admirably restrained fusion of eerie mood and haunting music. If the beauteous Mlle. Vadim’s nocturnal prowlings seem familiar, her director-husband relies on low-key suggestion for the mayhem. Best of all, Claude Renoir’s superbly pastoral color photography of the Roman foot-hills, with their stately poplars and gnarled olive trees, and a truly imaginative use of the ancient Hadrian’s Villa as a key backdrop, spice the plot with strange, antiquated pull. Just as becoming, harshly, is one surrealist montage in black and white.
The Shiver of the Vampires (1971) Directed by Jean Rollin
For me, it’s impossible to make “gore” without emotion. If there is no love, passion, there is no film. For example, in Raisins de la Mort, one of the best parts is the head cutting with an axe. The poor guy has to chop the head, but at the same time he says, “I love you.” It’s gory, but it’s also full of pathos.
Lips of Blood (1975) Directed by Jean Rollin
Reveling in Gothic, supernatural themes, Rollin hallmarks include nude, predatory female vampires, atmospheric, misty cemetery settings, barren and windswept beaches, a singular surrealism to the cinematography, and wistful, haunting music scores which never overwhelm.
Suspiria (1977) Directed by Dario Argento
Impressionistic films are very important to me. I remember when I was in the famous film museum in Munich – it’s very important, one of the biggest in the world – and they were having a retrospective of my films. Every morning, I would go down to the basement where they had a small room where you could watch films and I watched impressionistic films, very rare films that almost nobody had seen. I spent wonderful days there! I also saw expressionist films — The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, which was the only colour-tinted copy from the Murnau institute. The colour was marvellous and unique to this copy as it was coloured by hand at the time. It was like a treasure and I was so proud to see these films. I also discovered something like Nosferatu, which had marvellous use of angels. It was all very inventive and not ‘real’ — they didn’t shoot these films on the street or on location, they invented everything.
Inferno (1980) Directed by Dario Argento
Argento undervalues his material but set pieces are glorious enough that the film’s plot contrivances can be forgiven.
The House of the Devil (2009) Directed by Ti West
The weird thing about this movie is that most of my influences didn’t come from other movies, but came from personal experiences. When we made House Of The Devil, we lived in this hotel [The Yankee Pedlar in Torrington, Connecticut]. And we made this satanic movie out in the middle of nowhere, but weird stuff would happen at the hotel. The whole town was obsessed with it being haunted; the people that worked there were obsessed with it being haunted. Cast and crew started believing it was haunted. So I wrote a movie about the experiences we had making that movie.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Directed by Roman Polanski
I had only seen her on the cover of Life [speaking of star Mia Farrow]. To be honest, I was not enthusiastic about her until we started to work. Then I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that she is a brilliant actress. This is one of the most difficult woman’s parts I can imagine.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935) Directed by James Whale
Whale based the film’s look on the stark shadows and jagged tilt shots of German Expressionism (from such horror films came the look of film noir in the 1940s).
The Brides of Dracula (1960) Directed by Terence Fisher
It’s no good to have an artist trying to make a film without the knowledge of the abc of the mechanics of filmmaking. It’s no good either to know the mechanics of film making, without having the artistic impulse. You must have both of them together. They’re complementary. You can’t say one is more important than the other. They’re both essential.
Possession (1981) Directed by Andrzej Zulawski
Cinema is a thief. It’s a bizarre coincidence because of its chemistry: It’s theater with physical interventions through the camera etc. in order to be cinema. It is absolutely awkward and unexpected. But what is normally expected is to show, as with Plato’s allegory of the cave. Why we want to show things, I don’t know. Why kids want to play, I can’t say. This is just basically, very profoundly in our nature. So cinema, when coming into existence, stole — or borrowed, if you want — everything around: painting, literature and music, theater, vaudeville, grotesque, pantomime. Whatever you want! So cinema is a bastard. And that’s why I love it so much.
Szamanka (1996) Directed by Andrzej Zulawski
Something in between Last Tango in Paris and In the Realm of the Senses. If anyone can cinematically explore as well as evoke primal lusts and needs coupled with psychotic obsessions, it’s Zulawski.
Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) Directed by Werner Herzog
I do not need to see the vampire films of the future. I still know [Klaus] Kinski will be the best, at least for four or five centuries.
Eyes Without a Face (1960) Directed by Georges Franju
Vampyros Lesbos (1971) Directed by Jess Franco
I feel that cinema should be like a box of surprises, like a magic box. And in that world, anything is allowed to enter, as long as it’s always treated with a spirit of “Pop!”. Not in the spirit of “Now you understand the problems of society in 1947.” No, I don’t give a shit about that. I think cinema should be like magic, a surprise, that’s all. That’s why, to conclude, I love movies . . . and stories.
Don’t Look Now (1973) Directed by Nicolas Roeg
Films occupy whole sections of your life — all my films have a stamp of my life in them. My films seem to mirror life in how they develop — the child prodigy doesn’t always have the final say.
The Birds (1963) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Peeping Tom (1960) Directed by Michael Powell
Vampyr (1932) Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
Carl Dreyer’s art begins to unfold just at the point where most other directors give up.
Carnival of Souls (1962) Directed by Herk Harvey
Cat People (1942) Directed by Jacques Tourneur
This is a weird drama of thrill-chill caliber, with developments of surprises confined to psychology and mental reactions, rather than transformation to grotesque and marauding characters for visual impact on the audiences. Picture is well-made on moderate budget outlay.
The Hunger (1983) Directed by Tony Scott
What makes The Hunger so much fun is its knowing stylishness, which Mr. Scott, who makes his theatrical film debut here, has brought to movies from a career in commercials and documentaries. Here is a film that, for once, is appropriately served by fast cuts, overlapping dialogue, flashy camera work, wildly fashionable clothes and decor so elegant that only mythical creatures could sit around in it.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) Directed by Robert Wiene
The first thing everyone notices and best remembers about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the film’s bizarre look. The actors inhabit a jagged landscape of sharp angles and tilted walls and windows, staircases climbing crazy diagonals, trees with spiky leaves, grass that looks like knives. These radical distortions immediately set the film apart from all earlier ones, which were based on the camera’s innate tendency to record reality. The stylized sets, obviously two-dimensional, must have been a lot less expensive than realistic sets and locations, but I doubt that’s why the director, Robert Wiene, wanted them. He is making a film of delusions and deceptive appearances, about madmen and murder, and his characters exist at right angles to reality. None of them can quite be believed, nor can they believe one another.
Kwaidan (1964) Directed by Masaki Kobayashi
It unfolds like the most beautiful nightmare imaginable. Using stylized sets, bold color schemes, and langorous, lingering direction, Kobayashi weaves supernatural tales both creepy and profound, eerie stories that also explore the relationships between men and women, the subject of justice, and the pull of history.
The Innocents (1961) Directed by Jack Clayton
Clayton brilliantly uses slow dissolves to create ghostly superimpositions, and the harmless squeals of bath-time fun, or squeakings of a pencil, suggest uncanny screams. The most disturbing scenes take place in daylight: Quint’s appearance in the garden is heralded by the sudden silencing of the birdsong. It’s a moment that makes your blood run cold. The whole film does that.
The Black Cat (1934) Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
The staging is good and the camera devotes a proper amount of attention to shadows and hypnotic eyes. There are also some good workmanlike screams from the various imperilled beauties.
Kiss of the Damned (2012) Directed by Xan Cassavetes
I only want to be an artist and be enthusiastic and search for the movie I want to make. I like answering to myself.
Les diaboliques (1955) Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
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 Haunting (1963) Directed by Robert Wise
The picture excels in the purely cinematic departments. Davis Boulton has employed his camera with extraordinary dexterity in fashioning a visual excitement that keeps the picture alive with images of impending shock. As photographed by Boulton, the house itself is a monstrous personality, most decidedly the star of the film.
The Devils (1971) Directed by Ken Russell
Dead Ringers (1988) Directed by David Cronenberg
Freaks (1932) Directed by Tod Browning
Freaks is not a picture to be easily forgotten. The reason, of course, is the underlying sense of horror, the love of the macabre that fills the circus sideshows in the first place. Tod Browning, the director, has brought all of it out as fully as possible, trying to prove that the “strange people” are children, that they do not like to be set apart. But they know they are, and in the sideshow is a spirit of mutual protection that holds if you injure one of them you injure all.
Shock (1977) Directed by Mario Bava
Movies are a magicians forge, they allow you to build a story with your hands. Who knows… at least, that’s what it means to me. What attracts me in movies is to be presented with a problem and be able to solve it. Nothing else; just to create an illusion, and effect, with almost nothing. that’s the best thing about it.
Island of Lost Souls (1932) Directed by Erle C. Kenton
There is, to say the least, plenty of subtext to the film, a mad swirl of the Darwin- and colonialism-stoked anxieties of the time that looks ahead to the potential horrors of modern technology. Directed by Erle C. Kenton, otherwise best known for his work with Abbott and Costello and overstuffed, later Universal horror films like House Of Frankenstein, the film is also deeply unsettling on an almost biological level.
Mahal (1949) Directed by Kamal Amrohi
This is a very historic film in hindi cinema, as it’s one of the first to deal with the story of reincarnation, Mahal (Mansion) is said to have been the inspiration for many later films based on Reincarnation such as Madhumati, Kudrat etc. This movie is also said to have made Madhubala and Lata Mangeshkar superstars. The story begins about a haunted mansion where a tragic love story is said to have happened between the lord of the mansion and a woman. The woman is said to haunt the mansion with cries about her lover.
Thirst (2009) Directed by Chan-wook Park
In this film, the biggest element is the moral downfall of the central character and the suffering that he goes through. So compared with other vampire works, it probably lacks the romanticism. In order to bring the moral aspects of the story to the fore, you need to remain very cold and approach it in a very realistic way, and that’s what sets it apart from other vampire films. Even if it’s not a vampire film, in a contemporary film, if the film is emphasising the moral aspects of the story, you may find that it’s old-fashioned. But somehow the moral emphasis and aspects make my films feel fresher.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) Directed by Robert Fuest
I don’t play monsters. I play men besieged by fate and out for revenge.
The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) Directed by Roger Corman
Mr. Price still hams it up, front and center, but these low-budget shockers generally evoke a compelling sense of heady atmosphere and coiled doom in their excellent Gothic settings, arresting color schemes and camera mobility.
Daughters of Darkness (1971) Directed by Harry Kümel
Delphine Seyrig’s silver lame presence and Harry Kumel’s evocative direction make this an above-par vampire tale. . . . Daughters of Darkness is so intentionally perverse that it often slips into impure camp, but Kumel and Seyrig hold interest by piling twists on every convention of the vampire genre.
The Mummy (1932) Directed by Karl Freund
The Mummy was directed by Karl Freund, the genius cinematographer who filmed Metropolis and Der Golem in Germany before filming Dracula and Murders in the Rue Morgue for Universal. It has often been said that Freund’s presence on the Dracula set was a stronger influence than that of its director Tod Browning. Freund’s trademark liquid camera movements, although few, provided Dracula with some if it’s highspots. The same camera work beautifully frames some of The Mummy, especially in the earlier scenes.
Let Me In (2010) Directed by Matt Reeves
The film is remarkably similar in tone and approach to Let the Right One In, and it is clear that the American writer-director, Matt Reeves, has admiration for the Swedish writer-director, John Ajvide Lindqvist, who made the original. Reeves understands what made the first film so eerie and effective, and here the same things work again. Most U.S. audiences will be experiencing the story for the first time. Those who know the 2008 version will notice some differences, but may appreciate them.
Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind (1978) Directed by José Mojica Marins
A cut-and-paste job of Coffin Joe movies consisting of the most odd and horrific scenes from previous Coffin Joe movies, and some deleted scenes usually involving more nudity, strangeness or evil, all wrapped together inside a weak movie about a man who is deliriously obsessed with Coffin Joe, thus providing the excuse to splice together all of these scenes as dream sequences. An interesting touch that predates New Nightmare is to bring in Jose Mojica Marins himself to try to cure the man but, as you can imagine, this isn’t a real movie.
The Phantom of the Opera (1925) Directed by Rupert Julian, Lon Chaney, Ernst Laemmle, Edward Sedgwick
The film’s chief strengths lay in the elaborate, atmospheric production design and the catacombs of the Phantom’s lair that reside underneath, and in Lon Chaney’s makeup and performance for the title role.
The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013) Directed by Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani
Deliberately mixing fantasy, reality, doppelgängers and spatial relationships, the film disorients and spooks like the works of David Lynch. Yet it’s more stylized than atmospheric, with split-screens, extreme close-ups and dramatic lighting recalling the films of Pedro Almodóvar. Above all, its gratuitous graphic gore and exploitative nudity are unmistakably giallo.
The Captured Bird (2012) Directed by Jovanka Vuckovic
The Captured Bird does what a horror film should do. That is to say, it makes your skin crawl and devours a tiny piece of your soul; all this as it postulates a warped beauty about the destruction of all things innocent. Jovanka Vuckovic’s handsomely produced short pays homage to Lovecraft by way of its imagery, but diverges from the Miskatonic Master in that its own ‘forbidden knowledge’ — that which exists just beyond the boundary of familial safety for the pretty young girl — is far more feminine in nature.
Onibaba (1964) Directed by Kaneto Shindô
As twist-of-fate face-offs go, the climax Shindo conjures up is a night-of-the-shrieking-souls showdown composed in couplets of pure pulp poetry, with desire pitted against terror and beauty eaten alive by repulsion, all of it capped by a ferocious final chortle into the void. What linger long after the film is finished, however, are the sorts of God-or-the-devil questions that Shindo peppers throughout; questions that he has posed across his career and to this very day.
Messiah of Evil (1973) Directed by Gloria Katz, Willard Huyck
Messiah is also one of the few horror films to employ fine art as a leitmotif, a layering more often found in the Italian gialli (particularly the films of Dario Argento) which would inspire the slashers. Hyuck and director of photography Stephen Katz bathe the actors in primary reds and blues (blood colors denoting saturation and cyanosis) and stage one tense confrontation in a puddle of spilled oils.
The Vampire Lovers (1970) Directed by Roy Ward Baker
There’s a simmering sexuality running rampant through this film, and while Roy Ward Baker may hide lesbian kisses behind candelabras and the like, he makes no bones about showing ample bare bosoms (and even a bit more than that on occasion), pushing the envelope ever so slightly and creating a different kind of shock value than that which typically accompanies horror fare.
The Legacy (1978) Directed by Richard Marquand
Perhaps surprisingly, The Legacy was directed by Richard Marquand, who would enter the annals of science fiction legend a few years after this film when he helmed Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi. Marquand stages the set pieces (i.e., the death scenes) in The Legacy with a fair amount of flair, and also exploits some lovely English countryside when the film ventures outside for a couple of scenes.
The Black Cat (1934) Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Director Edgar G. Ulmer began working in movies with directors such as Murnau and Fritz Lang, and though he later worked in quickie low-budget films and genre films, he brought some of their visual flair with him. And thus The Black Cat is more than meets the eye.