The Camera as Menace: Horror’s Unique Cinematography

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The appeal of seeing what you’re not supposed to.

As a genre, horror films have a cinematography all their own. They have to, because more so than any other genre horror needs you the viewer to identify with the protagonist and take on their trials as your own. The surest way of accomplishing this is by subjective camerawork like perspective shots, tracking shots, wide shots that take in the entire atmosphere of a scene, and extreme close-ups that reduce the world to a single person’s single emotion, usually terror. You can’t just tell a story in horror, you have to relate an experience, which includes not just the plot points but the emotional points as well, the sensory shocks and adrenaline spikes, the sweat, the goosebumps, the breathlessness.

If you look at the best horror movies ever – Psycho, The Shining, The Exorcist, Alien, A Nightmare on Elm Street to name a few— you’ll find several commonalities of cinematography that are geared towards recreating the onscreen experience in an audience, foremost among them the films’ voyeuristic leanings. Great horror is a secret, it’s something we’re not supposed to know, not supposed to see, it is a collection of unimaginable nightmares our psyches should be too fragile to handle: homicidal maniacs with matricidal origins, haunted buildings that augment our worst traits until they drive us insane, demons possessing innocent children, extraterrestrial predators beyond our capabilities to defeat, burned men with sharp fingers slicing through the protection of our dreams.

These are things not meant for telling, so in their telling there is an inherent thrill, a sense of partaking in something we should not, something illicit and untoward, something sinister. The most effective way in which horror directors and cinematographers accomplish this is through how they tell the story visually, which is often a step or two ahead of how it’s being told narratively.

In the following video made for No Film School by Nelson Carvajal, the unique cinematography of horror is examined in terms of intent and execution. It reveals the method behind the best kind of onscreen madness, as well as a genre-spanning intelligence in design that as Carvajal notes “goes deeper than just camera tricks and wizardry.”

Films and their Directors of Photography:

Psycho (1960)
DP: John L. Russell

The Shining (1980)
DP: John Alcott

The Exorcist (1973)
DP: Owen Roizman

Vampyr (1932)
DP: Rudolph Maté

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
DP: Michael Ballhaus

Suspiria (1977)
DP: Luciano Tovoli

Halloween (1978)
DP: Dean Cundey

Silent House (2011)
DP: Igor Martinovic

Repulsion (1965)
DP: Gilbert Taylor

Alien (1979)
DP: Derek Vanlint

Let The Right One In (2008)
DP: Hoyte Van Hoytema

The Phantom Carriage (1921)
DP: Julius Jaenzon

A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
DP: Jacques Haitkin

It Follows (2014)
DP: Mike Gioulakis

Nosferatu (1922)
DP: Fritz Arno Wagner

The Fog (1980)
DP: Dean Cundey

Jigoku (1960)
DP: Mamoru Morita

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
DP: Daniel Pearl

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist