Colour in Horror Films

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Cinema is a medium defined by the senses, and this is even more evident in the horror genre. This is the place where music, sound design and cinematography can awaken all manner of fear and excitement in the audience.

Locked in by the darkness of the auditorium, a creepy sound effect at a camera angle can heighten the mood of horror felt by those poor souls stuck in their somber prison. As a visual medium first and foremost colour can be a powerful tool for filmmakers. On a surface level, it provides visual pleasure but it can also create deeper meaning through theme and character. At this time of year with Halloween fever in full swing, it’s the perfect opportunity to study colour in horror movies.

Top: A freaky scene from Dario Argento’s “Inferno” (1980).
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Stills from the Hammer Horror classic “The Masque of the Red Death” (1964).

When discussing horror in any capacity one must not overestimate the importance of the British studio, Hammer Films, known simply as “Hammer Horror.” Founded in 1934, it went through varying periods of success until running out of steam in the 70s, only to be revived in the 2000s. Defined by a highly theatrical and expressionistic mood, involving elaborate sets and high-key lighting, it was the studio’s gleeful use of colour that remains one of its lasting legacies. Who could forget the title card for “The Curse of Frankenstein” (1957) scrolled across in a Ye Olde English text, against a blood red back drop? Hammer’s back catalogue is drenched in impressionistic manipulation of Technicolor, one that would make the cast of “The Wizard of Oz” swoon.

In “The Masque of the Red Death” (1964), Gothic legend Vincent Price plays a satanic Prince in medieval Europe. Adapted from an Edgar Allan Poe story, the movie is the perfect example of Hammer’s Technicolor films. Again we see red as the dominant colour, naturally chosen for its connotations with danger and death: Price dressed up in a blood red robe and face paint is a stunning visual experience. Scenes of figures clad in robes, ranging from egg yellow to turquoise and midnight black, standing underneath a dark moor stimulate the senses and excite the eyes precisely because of the way the filmmakers artificially exploit the effects of colour. The film taps successfully into our voyeuristic tendency within horror cinema: to gain pleasure through watching scary or disgusting scenes. Colour here enhances and intensifies this experience.

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The colour red utilised in the horror film “Don’t Look Now” (1973).

Another horror classic which successfully deploys the colour red to inflame the senses is “Don’t Look Now” (1973). The Venice set chiller, which revolves around a couple losing their daughter in a drowning accident, is painted in many shades of the colour. We see it first in the credits as a wave of red paint is splashed across the image of a church, creating clear religious connotations in the process. It reappears throughout the course of the film; in the bright red mac that the daughter wears and most freakily in the closing scenes. Here the Dad, John (Donald Sutherland) chases a hooded phantom in red through the streets of Venice only to find horror at the end of the hunt. Red here is linked not only to a primordial sense of fear but with a fairy tale aesthetic: the red figure bears a clear resemblance to red riding hood from the classic fairy tale.

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All the colours of the rainbow in “Inferno” (1980).

There is one director who really knows how to use colour in horror and that’s Italian filmmaker Dario Argento. His movies from the 70s and the 80s are fluorescent carnival rides, and in his impressive repertoire there are a few titles that stick out for their inspired deployment of colour. “Inferno” (1980) is a deliciously twisted tale of an ancient prophecy and witches’ curse as a poet in New York tries to solve a centuries old curse involving three wicked sisters. The film is coated in Argento’s usual Technicolor beauty as walls are lit in deep shades of blue and shades of pink land on terrified victims. However, it’s “Suspiria” (1977) that marks Argento’s true genius with colour. Set in a German Ballet School, run by an ancient cult of witches, the production design and cinematography of the film is a blaze of multi-coloured mastery: lurid pink walls and interiors and character’s faces cast in dark blue tints. Argento illustrates vividly just how important colour can be to a Horror movie director. It can stimulate so many senses in the viewer and can be linked to any number of themes and motives.

Images © respective film studios.
Christopher Smail

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Christopher is based in the UK, the former assistant editor of Illusion magazine.

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November 1, 2013 Cinema Color Special Feature