A good horror movie understands how to overwhelm the senses
— even when the thrills and chills are of the minimalist kind. From elaborate sound design to committed, blood-curdling performances, or the perfect display of gushing blood and the sound of a prowling monster, or a score that frays nerves as every shadow and flickering light double as warnings, the elements must have your appendages trembling, your heart pounding.
Great horror needs more than just a scary premise, more than just the mere hint of what is under your bed or just out of the corner of your eye. As is the case with Jordan Peele in his latest film, Us, many of the greats understand the lasting power of intelligently utilized color in film.
Read below for what The Young Folks considers as the best examples of color usage in horror.
Production designer Michael Seymour and art directors Roger Christian and Les Dilley build and design the sets using their collective experiences in creating commercials during Ridley Scott’s early career. What resulted was a “lived-in look,” or as he called it at the time “heavy-metal look,” with the ship Nostromo looking like it once was pristine white but has been haggard by long throws of travel in space. And despite looking as though it was designed in the ’70s, the muted tones of the Weyland ship are still believable to modern viewers. This is juxtaposed by the fallen alien vessel on LV-223, or the erotic, organic textures of the eggs, the facehuggers, or the final Xenomorph whose presence devolves the Nostromo’s own color tones to the same dimly lit, almost-living corridors in the film’s most suspenseful sequences. To determine the use of color in Alien is to estimate its lack thereof, as the eeriness of the set design and creatures is reflected by what little light can allow the characters to make their way out of (or into) danger. With the original illustrator’s hand-crafted structures, Alien will always be seen as a masterclass in directors having the utmost faith in their artists throughout the filming process. (Evan Griffin)
Crimson Peak (2015)
Color isn’t just part of the title in Crimson Peak — it’s practically a character itself. In Guillermo del Toro’s Gothic horror film, the young aspiring author Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is clothed in the innocent white and yellows befitting of her status as a living symbol of a hopeful, ready-for-progress America. In contrast, her suitor-turned-husband Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his decaying dwelling come swathed in dark green and black, which can be equal parts alluring and frightening. His world is a Europe frozen in time, where the aristocracy that once ruled is barely clinging to power, and is in danger of being swallowed — something the red clay that could revive the Sharpes’ fortunes (and grants their home the moniker Crimson Peak) has been doing. In a world where past sins haven’t birthed ghosts so much as bloody ghouls who threaten to reveal hidden crimes, the blonde Edith is literally a bright spot trying to cope from dark forces that are out to consume her. (Andrea Thompson)
The Descent (2006)
You can almost smell the colors in Neil Marshall’s spelunking horror — the blue that permeates the surface generate a chill, the yellow all over the rocks are musky and the crimson pools at the cave’s heart are spewing a most-rotten stench. As with the director’s other films, the hues are vivid, most notably the red of the blood that would 110-percent spill. They also allow the suspenseful factor in protagonist Sarah Carter (Shauna Macdonald)’s journeys downward and upward to breach all preconceived threshold, making this to-hell-and-back trip one for the memories. Speaking of which, that little bit of night-vision green for the women’s first encounter with the Crawler? Genius stuff — it introduces a color that tosses our senses, which all the times prior have been adapting to the caves’ aesthetics, off-balance. (Nguyen Le)
Get Out (2017)
Get Out, the blockbuster that marked director Jordan Peele’s first foray into the thriller genre, is at its heart a story about the nature of racism in America. It’s fitting, then, that the colors red, white, and blue are used as motifs throughout the film. Our hero Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) wears a blue shirt while his secretly devious girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) wears a red-striped sweater; when they sit next to each other, the image recalls the American flag, symbolizing the conflict and unrest in the country. Later, at a party that is later revealed to be an auction for Chris’s body, Chris retains his blue garb while every guest around him sports a snatch of red. The contrast makes a subtle statement about tension along party lines in the U.S. In the film’s chilling finale, Rose wears a blindingly white button-up shirt, evoking ideas of purity and colonization. These details show that not only is Peele great at coming up with shocking twists — he knows how to harness the thematic potential in all a film’s artistic elements. (Brittany Menjivar)
The Guest (2014)
A peculiar entry to the “horror” genre that plays more with the impending doom trepidation of a good thriller than straight horror tropes, The Guest is stylized to the point of aloofness, keeping the audience at arms’-length at all times. Regardless of the chilly atmosphere, the film shines with ingenuity in its use of color and cinematography, with a pallet of warm blues and imposing reds that drip off the screen, utilizing even the iciness of Dan Stevens’ eyes as a way to pierce through the screen. Director Adam Wingard and cinematographer Robby Baumgartner share a visionary eye for allowing color to invade the frames to the point of normalizing the events that transpire until everything is thrown into disarray and with it the imagery. (Ally Johnson)
The Invitation (2016)
In Karyn Kusama’s bleak and sorrowful The Invitation, nothing is what it seems. A meditation on haunting grief and visceral trauma, the film is hardly short on visual motifs that echo the tumult the characters endure. The coloring and the reliance on red — from the blood that pours from the ill-fated dinner guests to the ominous lanterns that blink in the night as they’re raised — is a perfect, tangible and exposition-free depiction of the horror that lays in the past, present and future. The dread is seen before it’s experienced. (Ally Johnson)
It Follows (2015)
The color palette of It Follows can be described as Technicolor as it combines both muted and exaggerated primary colors to represent the various shades of sexual intercourse. Throughout the movie, our main character Jay (Maika Monroe) is seen swimming in various scenes since water itself is a stand-in for her previous sexual encounters.
We first meet Jay as she’s swimming in her backyard pool, which foreshadows the revelation that Jay lost her sexual purity in her own home, likely due to abuse from her father. The metaphor is that Jay’s sexual history and traumas surround her, and she takes the color with her almost everywhere, including through blue clothes (and a blue hospital gown).
Blue water even gets tainted by red blood at one point, symbolizing the way STDs can poison meaningful sexual connection, and throughout the film we see the “It” stalker dripping with messy, disgusting water to represent grotesque adult sex as it’s perceived by teenagers. The color blue isn’t meant to represent virginity (that would be white in most cases), but rather sexual immaturity and the risk teens face when having casual sex before understanding the basics and complications of consent. (Jon Negroni)
From the opening moments of Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1965), we know that colors will take center stage in this film. The opening shots see drops of brightly colored ink in close-up as they dissolve into water: black twisting like a scarf of midnight, red churning like rivulets of blood, and blue collapsing like pieces of broken sky. Here is a film that presents itself to its audience as one self-conscious of its artifice, much in the same manner as tokusatsu, all the while reaching for a deeper, melancholic aura scarcely afforded to media involving actors in rubber costumes.
The four ghost stories making up this anthology all center around characters crossing the border between our world and the next, whether it be a blind musician stumbling into the palace of a dead emperor’s retinue or a woodcutter discovering a yuki-onna in the woods. Time and again Kobayashi juxtaposes his worn-down, lived-in sets with flashes of bright color — usually red — to denote the numinous: a bright banner in a snowstorm leading lost villagers to their doom, a blanket covering the skeleton of a forgotten widow, and calligraphy ink written on an acolyte’s body to protect him from evil. It wouldn’t be until the rise of the Italian giallo maestros that horror cinema would see color used to such perfect, unsettling effect. (Nathanael Hood)
The Love Witch (2016)
Just as one does not simply walk in Mordor, one does not talk about the use of color in horror without giving love to The Love Witch. Failing to gush about the gorgeousness of Anna Biller’s bewitching horror comedy would be like Jonathan Van Ness not using “gorgeous” at least once per sentence or J.K. Rowling not retroactively altering the Harry Potter canon at least once per day. A love letter to the Technicolor film technique of the ‘60s, The Love Witch makes use of candy hues at all turns: the bright blue that dusts witch Elaine’s (Samantha Robinson) eyelids, the apple red that forms halos around her many male victims, the sugar-creams, mustard yellows and cobalts of the young witch’s wardrobe, and the rainbow wonderment that is her apartment. For as many moments The Love Witch looks like it’s ripped from a hippie’s Woodstock trip, it also evokes the rich primary colors of Piet Mondrian’s famous works. If you’ve yet to fall for The Love Witch, prepare for your eyes to widen at the sight of Elaine lying supine on a hand-pulled, ketchup-and-mustard-colored pentagram rug just as much as they will when watching her spin spells dressed up in shades of pink. (AJ Caulfield)
There are many ways in which Mandy could’ve been a lesser film. The moody, intensive and atmosphere-heavy vigilante horror film could’ve been a derivative, shlocky and hopelessly bland tale of revenge and injustice that would’ve found ample company with the shockingly copious number of direct-to-Redbox movies also starring Nicolas Cage. But Mandy, quite thankfully, is never that. A blessing for those who, like me, worship under The Altar of Cage, the sophomore film from writer-director Panos Cosmatos is a lush, gorgeously realized and aesthetically divine work of splendor. A mood piece through-and-through, Cosmatos takes painstaking efforts to have the colors on-screen reflect the heightened sense of tranquility and then terror that befalls our grief-stricken characters. The plentiful use of purple and blue at the beginning reflect the pulpy-yet-peaceful lives of Red Miller (Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), two loving loners who prefer their peace and quiet in their mountain-based estate. But when the outside terrors creep their way into the fold, particularly through vivid dream sequences which put the viewer on edge before the real nightmares begin, the film transitions into a bloodbath of red and black — reflecting the anxiety and avenging anger that flows mightily through our once-careless protagonist.
A man who once lived at ease, Red (fitting enough name) is now driven to fury and vengeance when a great tragedy is witnessed before him. Though simple by design, Mandy is a visual story that can be communicated effectively from a distance. Through its plentiful use of stark colors, you can easily gauge what happens at any given moment. But the attention to detail given by our rising auteur is what makes it great, and what could’ve been a plain, by-the-books tale of lust and retaliation is given its bold, beating heart through its efforts to make you feel the intense feelings which pulsate and push through our lead character. (Will Ashton)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Dreams are typically meant to be glowing, picturesque fantasies with shining colors emphasizing what people desire the most. For all the times horror movies have used the darker side of dream sequences to build dread, Wes Craven gave nightmares some real character with his 1984 slasher classic. Not only did Craven give a physical manifestation to nightmares with the iconic Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), he also used color to differentiate dreams and reality. Most fans know of Freddy’s boiler room, drenched in dark red lighting and black shadows that seem as dangerous as Freddy’s glove. There’s also the actual dream sequences of the movie that usually take place in the dead of night as dark blues and blacks fill the frame, making Freddy’ famous red and green sweater stand out even more. Red and blue pop up in different doses throughout the movie, like the blue head cushion and towel in the famous bathtub scene or the teal wall that stretches as Freddy creeps on Nancy while sleeping. And of course there’s Johnny Depp with his breakout performance: watching his red blood spew out of his bed onto the ceiling like a modern-art masterpiece. (Jon Winkler)
The Shining (1980)
A medley of misery, madness and all that falls in-between, there’s no shortage of interpretations when it comes to director Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. A devastating portrait of egotism and addiction, abuse and mangled self-image and dysphoric sense of self, The Shining, even without the abundance of striking imagery, would’ve been worth watching for the artistry that remains past the visuals. The symmetrical framing, dizzying set design and hyper-vibrancy all add to the terrifying lunacy that follows our leads to every delusional step. (Ally Johnson)
In combination with the set and sound design, Suspiria delivers an atypical experience that few horror films to date have even come close to capturing, with last year’s remake not coming even close to capturing the essence of the original. The reason Dario Argento’s film has achieved permanent Hall-of-Fame status is because he uses his bold color choices as a way to give Suspiria more of a real world feel. We are meant to be reminded that evil can exist within and behind the brightness and beauty, which is a terrifying, sobering truth some of us aren’t prepared to hear. (Jon Espino)
The Thing (1982)
The Thing, directed by horror master John Carpenter, is a grizzly, grotesque picture that’s as mentally tumultuous as it is visually nauseating. An abrasive attack on all senses, Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey never rely on cheap tricks when it comes to shock value or repulsive body horror, instead creating a forceful claustrophobia with a color pallet bleached by snow until it’s rained on by oppressive heat, fire and blood. There’s no moment of reprieve in The Thing that manages to both engross you with stunningly, stomach-churning images while simultaneously willing you to tear your eyes away from the unfolding nastiness. (Ally Johnson)
The Village (2004)
M. Night Shyamalan is no stranger to colorplay, but in his sixth film he places this particular feature center stage. Although it doesn’t take long before we discover that in this (ahem) 19th-century community red means dread and yellow equals mellow, the remaining primary color — blue — is also just as emphasized albeit seldom mentioned. It’s a perfect notion, really, as the hue’s cool nature evokes neutrality, or the place where you are both distant from and yet part of the tragic truth defining the film’s universe. To have this color seen on our leads Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) is honestly a chef’s-kiss decision as both of them aren’t like any other in The Village in appearance and in thought. Check out what’s on Ivy’s dad (William Hurt), too, as the film goes on. Also, strictly from a visual standpoint, blue still stands out greatly, a mark on the scenery that would drape itself in the mist’s grey, the fields’ green, the leaves’ brown, (at times) oppressive red and (always) shielding yellow. And did you know that the film’s d.p. is our photography savior Roger Deakins? (Nguyen Le)