Cinematography and more importantly, lighting has always played a vital role in the horror film genre. Since the advent of motion pictures, horror was one of the very first genres to emerge . Edison’s Frankenstein, Melies’ Haunted Castle, Feuillade’s Les Vampires. Atmospheric lighting was in its infancy , but the seeds had been sown.
It was with the German expressionist filmakers of the 1920’s that lighting came to the forefront: The dream sequences in the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The now iconic images of Nosferatu‘s shadow creeping up the steps as he stalks his victims. Lighting was the key element that established the look and feel of these classic horror films .
Almost a hundred years have passed since their debut yet new audiences are still discovering these films. They feel the same thrill and wonder that those 1st audiences felt. These films set the bar for future generations of filmmakers and established the look and feel of the horror genre. Their influence can not be overstated. They heavily influenced US silent films such as The Phantom of the Opera and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
In the 30’s and 40’s Universal Studios oversaw the Golden Age of Horror. Master craftsmen of the Hollywood studio system helped to create the iconic monsters of filmland; Frankenstein, Dracula, The Invisible Man, The Mummy, and The Wolf Man. Mention any of those names and the first image that comes to mind will be of one of the Universal Monsters. As film noir , with it’s heavily stylized lighting, came to the forefront, horror films such as Cat People and the Isle of the Dead reflected that style.
With the rise of color film in the 50’s, came the age of Hammer Studios in England. Hammer utilized heavy saturation in color- red especially! Blood was seen in color for the 1st time- oftentimes in copious amounts Hammer’s blood was redder than red can possibly be. Hammer also used heavily stylized, non realistic color washes to establish mood.
The 70’s saw a shift in horror tastes. Hammer’s reign of stylized Gothic horror gave way to graphic violence and ultra realism. Just as Western culture entered a darker period and television brought the Vietnam war into our living rooms , so horror fans wanted a reflection of the times. Iconic horror films of this time had a gritty reality never seen before in film-The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, The Last House on the Left. The monsters were no longer supernatural beings. They were now our neighbors and ourselves. Even the Exorcist, while a supernatural story, was presented in documentary styled realism. The Devil took up his residency in suburban DC.
In the 80’s lighting again became stylized and became intertwined w/ an increase in special effects and prosthetics. The original Poltergeist (directed by Texas Chainsaw’s Tobe Hooper) set a new bar when it came to practical lighting effects. The Nightmare on Elm Street series especially took lighting and special effects to levels never seen before. Each film surpassed the previous installment in dream imagery and nightmarish worlds.
Since the 90’s horror has seen a return to grisly, ultra- realistic lighting techniques. The Scream, Saw, and Hostel franchises have reestablished that “horror” is the banal reality of man’s inhumanity to man. Graphic, hyper realistic violence is the menu of the modern horror audience. “Torture Porn” has been the major trend in horror since the new century began.
As for the future ? If the cycle continues, lighting in horror will come full circle. Horror enthusiasts predict audiences will eventually tire of the ‘torture porn’ industry. We can expect a return to heavily stylized, phantasmagorical lighting. The iconic 1920’s -40’s horror films will continue to influence modern horror filmmakers. Grab your crucifix , pitchfork, and torches folks – the Monsters are coming !