As a horror fan, I live and die for visually striking, beautiful horror films. It doesn’t matter what subgenre of horror it is or how gory it is—I love beautiful horror. The more provocative, the better. I can’t look away from a film like Suspiria or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I wouldn’t even if I could because I love the delicious contrast between watching something scary when it’s in a bold, ornate, artistic cinematic language.
Many horror films don’t bother with a strong, unifying visual concepts, so I find it refreshing when a film achieves a distinct cinematic style and tone. It’s even better when that distinct cinematic style transforms the horrors on screen into something gorgeous and compelling.
A beautiful horror film is special. A keen grasp of color and form and composition add layers of understanding to the story. An inspired eye deepens my apprehension, heightens my terror, and distills my horrific realizations into an unforgettable viewing experience. A beautiful horror film makes me wish I’d taken more film classes in college.A beautiful horror film scratches its way into my brain where it makes a permanent home.
A little while ago, I shared a list of my favorite beautiful horror films. The list included classic horror films with almost universally praised aesthetics, like The Shining or Let the Right One In. Lately, I’ve decided the time has come to publish an additional list including more of those visually magnificent films I love so much.
For this list, I’ve put together an eclectic group of beautiful horror films ranging from a noir-inspired B-movie to a French horror classic to last year’s prettiest and most disappointing movie. Here they are, in chronological order, resplendent and unsettling.
Cat People (1942)
In addition to being a neglected early horror classic, Cat People is a really good example of the seductive, enticing power of the noir visual style. Using it in a horror movie was a wonderful choice, one that underscores and bolsters the narrative themes of the film.
Cat People makes much of the film noir playbook—isolated framing, stark composition, harsh shadows, strong contrast, careful costuming, and disorienting angles—to add depth and nuance to the protagonist’s sexual dread and simmering jealousy. Over the course of the film, the characters move through alternating and opposing spaces of light and dark, at times caught in webs of shadows known as chiaroscuro. However, the famous pool scene is a study in the power of suggestive shadowing and dim lighting, forsaking the clear lines of chiaroscuro for a murkier look.
You never actually see the monster in Cat People. You don’t need to. In true expressionist style, the monster is depicted in the sinister and foreboding atmosphere baked into every frame.
I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
Don’t expect any disorienting camera angles or the desaturated color palette commonly associated with modern zombie movies. I Walked with a Zombie reflects a quieter kind of beautiful horror, when zombies were mindless slaves trapped by powerful magic and dreadful secrets lurked in the shadows. After all, the horror of this film lies in the lingering evils of slavery, which seep into the lives of everyone in the film whether they acknowledge it or not. As one character explains to the protagonist, “Everything seems beautiful because you don’t understand.”
The film has a powerful grasp of hypocrisy and hidden wickedness, portrayed by the romantic realism of the film’s plantation setting, which is pointedly at odds with the history of slavery on the island and the racism the white characters engage in. I Walked With a Zombie’s aesthetic is overwhelming melancholic, soaked with deep blacks and grays, with punches of a flimsy white costume or a persistent flame to ward off the darkness. If one chooses to look beyond the lavish visual style, full of rich darks and ornate sets, one cannot escape the sense of dread, which grows from seeds planted long ago.
Blood and Roses (1960)
In this very loose adaptation of LeFanu’s classic gothic horror novella Carmilla, the aesthetics of Blood and Roses steal the show. The film serves up all the colorful opulence and confident elegance expected of a mid-century French lesbian vampire horror film, but with some unexpected surprises. A beautifully shot fireworks scene is both dazzling and introspective. Carmilla’s exploration of her grand ancestral ruins is draped in eerie mist and punctuated with a sagging cross. The famous dream sequence is, by far, one of the coolest things I’ve seen on film in a long time, inviting the viewer into a nightmare of desaturated black-and-white scenes, surrealist imagery, and the expert use of a single color.
Eyes Without a Face (1962)
There’s something about a masterfully shot, black-and-white French horror film that always gets under my skin. Eyes Without a Face is no exception. I was haunted by its sad and sensual cinematic language long after I had finished it.
The film’s approach is cloaked in a realism that, counterintuitively, transforms its subjects into something otherworldly, like a fairy tale gone rotten. The look of the film is rich and deeply contrasted, offering deep blacks and hazing shadows, pure whites and dazzling lights. This visual contrast underscores the film’s narrative, which is brimming with characters caught between their intentions and the consequences of their actions. And at the center of it all, clad in voluminous white and floating through the soft gray halls of her mansion prison, is our poor fairytale princess, slowly going insane behind your mask.
Translated from Japanese as “Ghost Stories,” Kwaidan is a collection of four separate films that each interpret a traditional Japanese ghost story. Each one has its own narrative themes and reflects those elements with a distinct visual style and tone, from the muted despair of “The Black Hair” to the surreal color palette of “The Woman of the Snow.” The film’s imagery is at once strange and archetypal, inviting and chilling. What results is a theatrical and poignant exploration of the power of the past.
If you haven’t seen this film, you need to watch it as soon as you can. It’s an excellent film, and while it’s not necessarily scary, it’s plenty creepy due to the visuals. If you need further convincing, Kwaidan won the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1966 Academy Awards. Definitely a legend among beautiful horror movies.
The Devils (1971)
Inspired by the real-life story of hysteria that gripped the French town of Loudon in 1634, The Devils is an extraordinary film. I could write pages on the visual style, but the setting really stands out to me. It becomes its own character. The filmmakers completely rejected the idea of a historically accurate depiction of Loudon in favor of a modern, white-tiled city. Many scenes, especially those involving the cloistered nuns, make liberal use of the striking and monochromatic environment. The choice to build sets with low ceilings, sharp lines, and graceful curves creates compelling forms and shapes. Characters are products of the environments, shaped and bent and broken by forces stronger than they will ever be. The nuns, in particular, spend much of their time in a minimalist and abstract space, reminiscent of modern prisons. Their shocking departure from decorum is reflected in the change of setting.
The film also makes strong use of composition, gliding between shots of near-perfect symmetry to pensive scenes that seem abstract until you look closely and discover something entirely disturbing.
Modern and stark, the setting lends The Devils a timeless quality. After all, the film’s stance on power and those who would abuse it is still relevant.
Michael Mann has always been a sucker for style, from the romantic naturalism of The Last of the Mohicans to the neon veneer of lights of Miami Vice. In Manhunter, the criminally underappreciated adaptation of Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, Manhunter creates a disorienting effect by switching between stoic, measured shots and angular, jerky shots, moving the viewer in and out of character viewpoints. This effect is furthered by the use of color, where certain colors dominate the visual tone of the movie and literally cast a certain light on how the viewer is to understand certain scenes. (While Mann has never met a blue filter he didn’t love, it does actually does have a narrative purpose in Manhunter.) With the clever use of negative visual space, contrast between minimalist white and lurid colors, and intimate camera position, Manhunter creates an air of unease and corruption over pristine prisons and grimy motel rooms alike.
Additionally, Spinotti and Mann framed certain scenes to draw attention to the act of viewing—a television in the foreground, character watching each other, a victim with mirrors laid over her eyes and mouth. Such composition lends gravity to Manhunter’s themes of voyeurism and the consumption of visual violence.
Dead Ringers (1988)
David Cronenberg is, of course, a horror legend known for his jarring and disturbing body horror films. Dead Ringers, while very much a Cronenberg film, is a marked departure from his usual story-telling methods. This film is less overt and more restrained but no less unsettling, due in large part to sophisticated visual currents flowing throughout the film.
The color scheme is the most striking aspect of Dead Ringers—the film is dominated by reds and blues, grays and whites, with only passing flashes of yellow or green. This approach makes for an interesting visual duality that reflects the competing personalities of twin protagonists Eliot and Beverly and the dueling motivations that tear at Beverly’s sanity. I was struck by the shapes and lines Cronenberg captured with careful framing and composition. Heavy lines cut the picture in half and separate characters. Exaggerated curves replicate embraces and wombs. Of course, the seamless integration of the twins on screen (both played by Jeremy Irons) is a technical triumph. It really does look like two different people on screen together.
The result is an endlessly fascinating and terribly sad exploration of detachment, co-dependency, and sinister psycho-sexual forces.
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Made back when Tim Burton wasn’t phoning it in and Johnny Depp wasn’t playing the same character over and over again, Sleepy Hollow was proof the genre could turn out a solid horror film that was both a love letter to gothic sensibilities while retaining the kind of gore and dark comedy audiences love.
I’ve always been a huge fan of Burton’s gloomy whimsy, but I especially love how Sleepy Hollow showcased his style and visual tone in a more mature, realistic way. It doesn’t overwhelm the movie or steal the show, but it does add a lovely atmospheric gloss to the whole film that is at once lustrous and brooding. Between the gray fog hanging over the characters to the startling splashes of bright red blood to the marvelous Burtonesque costuming and set design, Sleepy Hollow is a bold and gothic fever dream.
(Also, the art history nerd in me loves that the film’s nature scenes were clearly influenced by the Hudson River School of a paint. If the Hudson River School had been dreary as hell.)
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
I couldn’t very well leave Pan’s Labyrinth off this list. I mean, it won an Oscar for Cinematography! It’s one of the most obviously beautiful horror films.
Guillermo del Toro conceived Pan’s Labyrinth as a child’s inner dream world polluted by the evils of war and the bad men who perpetuate strife, like a more sorrowful and terrifying Alice in Wonderland. Together, del Toro and his team were successful not just in creating an innovative and lush visual concept for the entire film, but in breathing life into those concepts on film. Every scene is stylized with calibrated use of color, light, and texture. Del Toro went so far as to create a “color-code” that strictly dictated what colors could be used and kept a book of his visual concepts on his person at all times while on set. The sets are wonderful, intricate and encompassing and dripping with detail. The creature design is brilliant and scary.
The result is a film so elaborate, sad, and poignant that you can’t separate the visuals from the narrative itself. You have to see Pan’s Labyrinth to comprehend the story.
The Neon Demon (2016)
While Neon Demon wasn’t a strong effort when it came to things like plot progression or character development, The Neon Demon absolutely killed it visually. Drawing heavily from Suspiria, The Neon Demon is a sumptuous film, drenching the screen in iridescent color and flashes of glittering light. The steady hand and sharp eye of cinematographer Natasha Braier is the best part of the film—whether she’s capturing a stark audition room, a dreamy nightclub, or a grungy motel, everything is framed and depicted with impeccable and lavish taste.
And like Suspiria before it, much of the emotional punch and psychological gravity of the Neon Demon comes from the visual language of the film, which provokes an array of reactions from disgust to lust to confusion to horror. Despite my feelings about this movie, I will never get over how much I adore the film’s aesthetic.
What do you think? Any other beautiful horror films I should include in Part 3? Let me know!