Ten terrifying films with haunting cinematography

Are you brave enough to watch all of these films with the lights out?

Are you brave enough to watch all of these films with the lights out?

Ooh, it's Friday 13th! Unlucky for some, they say..and Halloween is just around the corner!

I decided this month to take a break from the usual subjects and compile a list and share some links to some of my favourite scary films just for a bit of fun. Now, there are many horror film lists out there but this one has a slightly different angle. I won't just be focusing on what has scared the living daylights out of me (which of course is crucial to a good horror film) but I'll also be commenting on how tension and suspense has been created through the cinematography in these particular films.

So, if you're looking for some creative inspiration for your next film project or just fancy switching off and giving yourself a good scare - here are my top picks for films to watch this month with haunting cinematography.

1. The Haunting (1963) Directed by Robert Wise, DOP Davis Boulton

Lets get started with a good old haunted house horror and what better film to begin with than this terrifying outing from Robert Wise. They say there's an evil presence in Hill House and scientist Dr. Markway sets out with a team to investigate. This film proves that sometimes less is more. What is particularly scary here is the power of suggestion - what you can't see and what you are able to hear. 

Cinematography wise this is a picture devoid of colour with striking, bold, black and white photography utilising a lot of hard light to create deep shadows and pools of light. Adding to this there is some excellent camerawork and composition. Low angle wide shots of the uninviting mansion against a moody sky,sudden dolly track ins and outs (including a brilliant mirror reflection trick) and at times intense handheld camerawork to support the characters as they begin to think they're going mad. Lastly - and my favourite scene - there is some incredibly precise lighting coupled with detailed art direction and disturbing sound design as one of the women in the house sees the outline of a sinister face in the wall of her bedroom. Terrifying stuff.  

2. The Changeling (1980) Directed by Peter Medak, DOP John Coquillon

Sticking with the haunted house theme, the Changeling (not the Angelina Jolie film) is about a composer in mourning who rents a secluded mansion after his immediate family die in a horrific car accident. Reflecting on his experiences, he soon comes to realise that he might not be alone as a presence here doesn't want him around. After some investigating it appears there is more to the history of this house than meets the eye.

Moving into colour, this film is heavily desaturated and uses lots of browns and greys to symbolise how the lead is feeling; drained and lifeless. Coupled with some creeping tracking shots, unsettling handheld camera and the odd carefully used POV shot, there's enough to send shivers up your spine. Bearing in mind this was made decades before Go Pros even existed and film cameras were fairly sizeable, some of the shots in my scariest scene below are quite impressive for the times and no doubt terrifying.

3. The Shining (1980) Directed by Stanley Kubrick, DOP John Alcott

Moving from houses to hotels now and it wouldn't be a good Halloween film list if it didn't include this gem from the legendary Stanley Kubrick. For those of you have somehow not managed to get round to watching this yet (shame on you!) this horror is based on the Stephen King novel and stars Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, a writer who along with his wife and son are tasked with looking after the Overlook hotel during the winter season while it is closed. In the middle of the Rocky Mountains miles from civilization, Jack starts to, erm, lose the plot a bit. 

Although the film is widely known for Jack Nicholson's electrifying performance and its unsettling location, the cinematography for me is particularly chilling in the steadicam work. Long, drawn out tracking shots feature heavily, from following Jack's son around the hotel corridors on his trike to Shelley Duval running into the maze to escape her terror. These scenes prove that sometimes longer takes with fewer cuts can really add tension and suspense as they draw the viewer in to the horror unfolding. For the best example of this, with a scene that still gets me even after the tenth viewing, checkout my scariest scene below.


4. Innkeepers (2011) Directed by Ti West, DOP Eliot Rockett

Sticking to hotels, but moving down in size and moving forward in time. Innkeepers is a low budget horror about frustrated hotel worker Claire's last few days at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, before it closes its doors for the last time. A slow burner but nevertheless an excellent example of a modern day horror which excels in building suspense. Claire, along with her colleague Luke, investigate the mystery of a woman who supposedly died in the hotel many years ago. This happens to coincide with one or two strange guests checking in.

Once again it's all about the slow moving camera here, sometimes not cutting for a while as is demonstrated perfectly in my scariest scene below. Having longer takes at times can allow the viewer to focus on the sound design, with Ti West sometimes choosing to reduce the sound to almost silence. What's more, the use of cyans in much of the film's night scenes adds to the unsettling atmosphere as well as deep shadows, particularly in the basement. Sorry, did I mention that there's a dark basement that the characters know is a bad idea to go in but they go in anyway? If you can be a bit forgiving for some of the illogical character decisions, you'll actually be glad they did visit as when you have a scene with not much more than torchlight you do start to get a little bit creeped out. Worth a watch! 



5. Julia's Eyes (2010) Directed by Guillem Morales, DOP Oscar Faura

Moving across the pond and into Europe now. Julia's Eyes is a terrifying Spanish horror that focuses on - you guessed it - Julia, who is gradually losing her sight. After the sudden apparent suicide of her twin sister, Julia believes that someone is responsible for this and sets out to find out who murdered her. Warned of 'men who live in the shadows', Julia starts to feel a strange presence around her, becoming increasingly fearful for her life.

There's much to love about this film but where the cinematography really excels here is in it's framing and composition. There are moments when it chooses to not show you things so at times giving us the feeling that we, the audience, can see no more than our protagonist and therefore rendering us partially blind too. The best example of this is during a scene where Julia - wearing a bandage over her eyes after an operation in an attempt to restore her sight - is taking refuge in a nurse's apartment. Whilst the nurse has left the room, Julia hears the voice of a girl who says the nurse isn't who they say they are. The camera is framed in such a way on Julia that it doesn't show the face of either the girl or the nurse as they speak to her in separate rooms throughout the apartment. In some moments we can see their outlines but the lighting deliberately leaves their faces in shadow for mystery. One of these characters is lying about who they say they are, putting Julia in immediate peril and as a result this keeps her and us guessing about who should be trusted and as a result makes for an incredibly tense scene. Unfortunately I couldn't find a clip of this to share with you, so you'll just have to check out the whole film instead and see it for yourself!  



6. Rec (2007) - Directed by Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza, DOP Pablo Rosso

Sticking with the Spanish horrors, REC is a great film for those who love the found footage genre. Admittedly, found footage is not everyone's cup of tea, but this is certainly one of the most highly regarded in the genre. For fans of the Blair Witch Project as well as critics of that film who wanted to see a bit more action, REC focuses on a journalist making a documentary about the fire brigade one night in Barcelona. A routine callout leads the crew to an appartment block that suddenly becomes quarantined, with no way out. Something is spreading in here and it's spreading quickly. 

Long, shaky handheld takes are the main trait in this genre but it works particularly well here due to the combination of this with the production design. You really feel like you're watching something that has genuinely happened and in real time too. The appartment block feels cramped and claustrophobic, supported with many underexposed areas of the image. The use of nightvision also adds to the terror, alongside some impressive sound design.


7. The Orphanage (2007), Directed by J.A. Bayona, DOP Oscar Faura

Oh, go on then; one more Spanish horror. They are good at them after all, and this is the only DOP in my list to have been listed twice! Returning to a more traditionally made feature (from the same Producers as Julia's eyes), the Orphanage focuses on Laura, her husband and her son Simon who inhabit the old orphanage where she grew up, with plans to turn it into a school for disabled children. Simon starts talking about his imaginary friend 'Tomas' and things start to get a little creepy, particularly when Simon disappears off the face of the earth.

Three things really do it for me in this film, cinematography wise. Firstly, the colour palette. Heavily desaturated imagery (seeing a theme here?) with deep shadows and overcast skies set a pretty bleak tone here. Secondly, the super 8 footage - very much in stark contrast to the general look of the film with a sepia tone instead, yet still in the analogous realm. And thirdly, one scene in particular which relies on one long extended shot with no cuts, coupled with no music and barely any sound at all. You can watch it below.



8. Black Christmas (1974) Directed by Bob Clark, DOP Reginald H. Morris

Black Christmas is about a group of sorrority girls who start receiving mysterious phone calls from a stranger after one of them is murdered. As one of the first true slasher films to inspire the likes of Scream, this is a film you really don't want to watch alone!

It's all about how the light is shaped here. Hard light sources create deep shadows, carefully shaped to hide the identity of the killer but showing just enough to creep the living bejesus out of you. This is all supported by handheld POV shots from the eyes of the killer with unsettling sounds of his deep breathing and the gobbledeegook that he spouts. To really sum up the terror created from this film and an example of some of my favourite horror lighting, I only need two words: the eye!



9. Don't look now (1973) Directed by Nicolas Roeg, DOP Anthony Richmond

Don't look now is about an architect, played by Donald Sutherland, mourning the death of their daughter after an accident at home. A few months on and whilst staying in Venice with his wife as he renovates an old church, a mysterious stranger in a cafe starts speaking to them about their daughter, causing them to relive their nightmare and embark into a new one.

The film's photography shows Venice in a different light; not the beautiful, warm streets and canals frequented by the tourists. Instead, it shows a darker side of the city. A maze of unsavoury alleyways, dimly lit and quiet. Even during the daylight scenes, much of the beautiful architecture is sapped of colour, with lots of greys and browns. Finally, the colour red is really symbolic here - as this was the colour of the coat their daughter was wearing when she died. Coupled with the predominantly desaturated backgrounds and analagous colour palette, when Sutherland begins to spot someone in the alleyways bearing a likeness of his deceased daughter, the colour red becomes increasingly striking and haunting.



Lastly, here's one to keep your eye on..

10. Twenty Twenty-Four (201?) - Directed by Richard Mundy, DOP Nick Barker

Twenty Twenty-Four hasn't actually been released yet so I'm afraid you can't watch it in full this Halloween, although it has been doing the rounds on the festival circuit for a few months now. Nevertheless, it's one that you'll definitely want to keep your eyes on as an upcoming British indie flick. Strictly speaking, it isn't a straightforward horror film. It would be more accurate to describe Twenty Twenty-Four as a mysterious, psychological thriller with a touch of horror and even sci fi for good measure. In the mean time, you can check out the trailer and some of the official clips from the film where you'll see evidence of some truly skin-crawling cinematography.

Roy, played by Andrew Kinsler, is the sole human occupant of Plethura, an underground bunker designed to protect future inhabitants from the coming nuclear disaster. But when war breaks out 'up top' and he becomes locked in, he becomes increasingly isolated and starts to question whether he's really alone or if he is going mad. The claustrophobic facility is captured with slow, creeping tracking shots and gradual push ins, along with numerous security camera feeds, giving the impression that someone is always watching him. To support this - cold, clinical, desaturated images show the character being sapped of life. He hasn't seen sunlight in a long time, after all. Lastly, the strong use of greens in the grade create the impression of 'decay', of which Roy's mind is arguably in such a state. To keep up to date on screenings and release dates for the film check out the website here.

To sum it all up..

All of these examples share a common trait that, in my opinion, make for scarier horror films than any of the typical Hollywood gore-fest outings such as the Saws and Hostels that we're all so familiar with. That trait is effective sound design. Without carefully realised sound design and sometimes opting to cut back to minimal or no sound, none of these films would be scary at all, despite the photography looking so good. Go back and rewatch all these trailers and clips again but this time turn the sound off. Suddenly you'll find they have no impact and the cinematography doesn't achieve anything alone.

The important thing to remember here is that the cinematography, whilst a very important part of the process of filmmaking, is most effective when it is in sync with the other departments. The best cinema is the result of strong collaboration and this should never be forgotten if you're embarking on your own creative projects.

So there you have it. Whether you're checking out something new or rewatching some classics (you might get a sense of déjà boo!) I hope you enjoyed this post. If you feel like I've missed any crucial films off this list, do speak up!

Thanks for reading and I hope this Halloween you have a spooktacular time!


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