More than nearly any other film genre, lighting is a crucial aid in creating mood in horror movies. Often, light is used in close- up shots to heighten emotions, show the possible importance of objects or people and to create an atmosphere of fear or impending doom. An excellent example of this is the famous poster for William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. This iconic poster shows the image of a priest standing before the home he is about to enter illuminated by light shining from a window. Cinematographer Owen Roizman knew a great deal about light as it relates to the horror genre and expertly demonstrates this knowledge in this classic movie. What are other movies in this genre that make excellent use of lighting? Here are a few of our choices.
- The Phantom Carriage (dir. Victor Sjöström, 1921): Even without the aid of modern technologies like wireless DMX, this Swedish movie directly influenced the Seventh Seal and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. This movie creates the illusion of wandering ghosts by using superimposition and doubled exposures long before CGI was invented.
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (dir. Robert Wiene, 1920): A German Expressionist classic, Dr. Caligari adeptly uses light to illuminate twisted cityscapes, spiraling streets, and nightmarish forms.
- Nosferatu (dir. F.W. Murnau, 1922): This groundbreaking horror film was made in the silent era and has built a cult following. The film utilizes natural lighting to illustrate the case, landscape and other objects. Cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner also used stop-motion photography and other techniques to create the feeling of dread.
- Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1960): The famous shower scene featuring Janet Leigh is said to have required 78 camera setups and seven days to film. The film’s cinematographer – John L. Russell – used fast motion and reverse shots to simulate the knife piercing Leigh’s abdomen.
- The Shining (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1980): Cinematographer John Alcott used low-angle points of view to emphasize the main character’s feelings of isolation and paranoia. He also borrowed from the aforementioned The Phantom Carriage.
There are many other excellent examples of how cinematographers must adapt according to the genre in which they are working. Horror is among the most emotive of all genres. Today, cinematographers and theater lighting directors have at their disposal sophisticated technologies such as Strand dimmers to help them. However, the goal remains the same – to engage the viewer using lighting techniques that also propel the story and the characters.