8 Beautifully Shot Horror Films That Changed Cinematography Forever
Today in Zeferino Professional Lighting we want to talk about some of the best killer films in history. Cinematography is of course one of the most important elements of a horror film. With their game-changing technical innovations, surreal imagery, and the power of subjectivity, these 7 masterpieces changed the course of cinematography—and the horror genre—forevermore.
The Phantom Carriage (dir. Victor Sjöström, 1921)
This Swedish film has widely influenced directors throughout cinema history—most notably, Ingmar Bergman, whose film The Seventh Seal pays direct homage to The Phantom Carriage, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which features multiple thematic and visual similarities, such as the famous ax scene. To tell the story of a ghostly coachman who comes to steal the souls of the dead after the clock strikes midnight, director Victor Sjöström and DP Julius Jaenzon employed double exposures, at the time a highly innovative special effect. The superimpositions were layered up to four times, providing the illusion of ghosts wandering in and out of the film’s elaborate sets. Each “ghost” was lit differently with a filter. Jaenzon followed them with a hand-held camera that was capable of exceptionally deep focus—highly unusual for the time—made possible with studio lighting. The film also features complex narrative structural elements, such as meta-flashbacks (or flashbacks-within-flashbacks) that diverge from stories as they are being told, fusing past and present into one ethereal reality.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari(dir. Robert Wiene, 1920)
Considered the quintessential work of German Expressionism, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the story of a deranged hypnotist who uses a sleepwalker to commit murders. Cinematographer Willy Hameister used no-frills camera work to emphasize the film’s elaborate hand-painted sets, featuring twisted cityscapes, spiraling streets, and nightmarish forms. The sets were designed with distorted perspectives—they feature not a single right angle—in order to create a disorienting and unhinged world. Shot entirely in a limited studio space, each set was restricted to 20 feet in width and depth. In addition to its fantastical use of set design, Robert Wiene’s film bears significant historical importance; Dr. Caligari can be seen to represent the brutal German war regime, while the sleepwalker stands in for the common man who shows deference to a murderous authority.
Nosferatu(dir. F.W. Murnau, 1922)
Not only is Nosferatu a seminal horror film, but it is also one of the most influential films of the silent era—and one of the first major public cases of intellectual property law. Because it was based on Bram Stoker’s original Dracula novel (though with character names, setting, and plot details changed), the Stoker estate sued for copyright infringement. The court ruled that Nosferatu was indeed a derivative work and ordered all copies of the film to be destroyed, but one print had already been distributed worldwide. Unlike the Expressionist techniques achieved in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with studio lighting and elaborate sets, Nosferatu was shot almost entirely on location; the natural environment of the castle, landscapes, and town were contrasted with unnatural lighting. Cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner introduced camera tricks to the mise en scène—several shots were printed in reverse-negative, while other scenes were under-cranked, and still others utilized stop-motion photography, such as in the film’s most famous shot, in which Count Orlock pops out of a coffin.
Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
Hitchcock’s famous shower scene was so complicated to shoot that it required 78 camera setups and seven days to execute. The bathroom set was built with collapsible walls in order to maximize the usable camera angles. Cinematographer John L. Russell used a fast-motion reverse shot to give the impression of the knife entering Lila’s abdomen. He also made use of a wide variety of subjective close-ups throughout the film, such as Lila’s hand pushing open a door, which served to enhance a sense of immediate danger for the audience.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (dir. Tobe Hooper, 1974)
Another notable low-budget sensation, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was filmed with $300,000 and mostly unknown actors cast in central Texas, where it was shot. Cinematographer Daniel Pearl shot on 16mm with an Eclair NPR 16mm camera, using fine-grain, low-speed film that required four times more light than modern digital cameras. The film’s final shot, in which Leatherface swings his chainsaw with primal fury in the early morning light, has become one of the most iconic in cinema history.
The Shining (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
John Alcott ‘s cinematography emphasizes isolation and paranoia with unsettlingly cold, symmetrical imagery. It’s stunning throughout, but it will go down in the history of cinematography for its innovative use of Garrett Brown’s Steadicam. Riding on a wheelchair to capture Danny’s low-angle point of view as he rode on a tricycle through the halls of the Overlook Hotel, Brown honed his operating skills by repetition; on the first day of the shoot, Kubrick had him do 30 takes of a traveling shot in the lobby. The technique was most famously used for the hedge maze chase, for which he built a variety of special mounts.
Halloween (dir. John Carpenter, 1978)
To create what may be one of the scariest opening scenes of all time, John Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey took a chance on what was, in 1979, the newest technology: theStedicam. Then called the Panaglide, the device allowed the camera to be fitted to a camera operator for far-ranging and unbroken shots. “It was a new technology that we learned to use by the seat of our pants,” Cudney remembered. The opening scene, which was written over three pages as one fluid shot, had to be captured on one shooting day due to budgetary restraints. “We couldn’t have done it without the Steadicam,” Cundey continued. “There was no other piece of equipment that would have been able to go across the street, look into the house, go into the kitchen, up the steps, into a bedroom, and back down again.”
Blair Witch Project (dirs. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999)
Though Cannibal Holocaust was technically the first film to use the found footage technique, The Blair Witch project built upon its foundation to a horrifying degree. The co-director and cinematographer Neal Fredericks, who was tragically killed in a plane crash at age 35, chose to employ found footage because it served the film’s pseudo-documentary narrative, allowing for a radical first-person perspective. The cinematography is shaky and entirely handheld; oftentimes, the actors look directly into the camera. Though filming only lasted eight days, the film took more than eight months to edit. Shot for next to nothing, it eventually grossed more than $250 million, rendering it one of the biggest independent box office successes of all time.
“Blair Witch didn’t need to be lit, so he didn’t light it,” Sanchez said shortly after Fredericks’ death. “It didn’t need a camera operator, so he didn’t operate. What he did do was make sure those actors knew everything they could and had everything they needed to keep shooting, to keep getting those images into the camera.”