The week has just begun – it’s Monday, get out there and terrorize that village… err, attack that work project with the tenacity of a laboratory engineered superhuman.
By Ariel Fisher
When people talk about German Expressionism and The Legacy of Dr. Caligari, folks tend to think of the genre as smoky bars, jazz, and dangerous dames, but it’s actually far more complex. With its roots firmly planted in German Expressionism and Horror, Film Noir can be traced back to a microbudget studio film from Weimar Germany that would completely change the face of cinema – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Featuring Werner Krauss as the titular Caligari, the film follows the not-so-good doctor and his future-telling somnambulist sideshow act, Cesare, as they perform in a small German village. But just as soon as they came to town, the murders started, and no one can tell if it’s Cesare or Caligari that’s to blame.
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The Birth of German Expressionism
Referred to by Pauline Kael as “one of the most famous films of all time”, the 1920 silent film is widely considered one of the first feature-length horror films ever made. It also marked the beginning of German Expressionism, a genre born out of an oppressive studio system following the end of the first World War. Its trademarks were expressionistic sets, makeup, and costume design all used as a rejection of Western tropes while depicting a wildly distorted reality for emotional effect.
German Expressionism and The Legacy of Dr. Caligari, In one fell swoop, Caligari gave birth to two of the most dramatic and stylistically unique film genres in history. The hyper-stylized sets meant to evoke a sense of madness were partially created out of necessity due to budgetary constraints, with most structures painted on angularly-cut flats. This innovative and industrious technique would become standard practice for both Horror and Noir, where angular lighting and harsh shadows could be used to hide a lack of finances.
More Noir, Thanks to Dr. Caligari
A great many Noir films actively engaged with horror thanks to the influence of Caligari. Titles like Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953), Cat People (1942), The Lodger (1944), Diabolique (1955), and Night Of The Hunter (1955) straddled both genres, creating visually stunning horror masterpieces. Many of the original Universal Monster films took directly from the visual style of Caligari, such as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). But its influences didn’t stop there. Well into the 1960s and beyond, films like Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Exorcist (1973), Jacob’s Ladder (1990), and The Babadook (2014) would pull from Caligari’s legacy for their visual and thematic tropes.
Nearly 100 years after its release, Robert Wiene’s German Expressionist film about the horrors of the mind remains one of the most significant achievements in film history, with Film Noir and Horror to show for it.
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We’ve turned our lens onto the great, gorgeous horror movies of the past. Here are 16 utterly gorgeous horror films, and what made each of them so great.
Near Dark (1987)
This vampire Western centers around a pack of wild, roaming vampires and the small-town farm boy they’ve recently abducted.
“Despite the fact that the plot sort of implodes in the last 30 minutes, Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 Near Dark is an otherwise worthy watch. With the help of Tangerine Dream’s brooding score and Adam Greenberg’s big-sky cinematography, Bigelow easily convinces the viewer that nasty stuff lurks in the wide-open spaces of the American West. In this case, an RV full of drifter vampires, which includes a method-acting Lance Henriksen and Bill Paxton as cinema’s finest Nosferatu asshat.” – Cyriaque Lamar Editorial Manager of Cracked.com
The Descent (2005)
The female-led film focuses on a strong pack of spelunkers and adventure junkies, who descend into an unmapped, Appalachian cave only to discover horror. Director Neil Marshall used the space (and sometimes lack thereof) to his advantage, trapping the audience in their own claustrophobic terror. But there’s also no lack of expansive, blood-tinged cave shots that hit you with the type of dread one would face while looking out into hell itself. A beautiful hell.
“The Descent works (and plays) not only with movie imagery, but with the stuff of myth and dreams as well. It evokes hellish visions, from famous paintings (Goya’s Black Paintings, Fuseli’s The Nightmare) to gothic gargoyles and Dore’s engravings for Dante’s Inferno. These almost subliminal references help drive The Descent, and give it a powerful mythic energy. It grasps when and how to draw upon these images to create just the right tone of hallucinatory fear, and set it reverberating in your head. The movie’s not pretentious or derivative, it’s just uncanny about knowing what to borrow and how to use it.” – Roger Ebert
The Fog (1980)
If you haven’t seen this movie, please do so, because even the succinct summary of this bonkers horror movie is wonderful and like no other: “Legend says that Antonio Bay was built in 1880 with blood money obtained from shipwrecked lepers but no one believes it. On the eve of the town’s centennial many plan to attend the celebrations, including the murdered lepers.” The lepers CAME BACK!
“It’s funny; John Carpenter has become a “Master of Horror” mainly through films with claustrophobic elements: people trapped in an Arctic base or an old church, Laurie Strode hiding from Michael Myers in increasingly small spaces, etc. – but one of the most striking shots in his career is also possibly one of his most wide open. It’s from his 1980 cult fave The Fog, and it’s nothing more than a horror-free (and daytime!) shot of Adrienne Barbeau walking down the endless path to the lighthouse where she works, with the sparkling Pacific Ocean filling up his customary widescreen frame. There’s something so gorgeous and yet ominous about the image that it remains one of my favorite moments in the film and his career as a whole; it’s almost worth watching the film for no other reason than to appreciate it.” — Brian Collins BadAss Digest writer, and a horror movie (a day) watcher.
The Hunger (1983)
Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, and Susan Sarandon are all in a vampire movie — but it’s really so much more than that.
“The opening credits to The Hunger, ostensibly a music video for Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” is the finest thing Tony Scott ever did. (Sorry Maverick and Goose, go peddle your Cold War paranoia elsewhere!) The color saturation, jump cuts and loping, demonic bass against that sprinkling guitar scratch – the kind of music that only got played on the far left of your FM dial – was one hell of a way to start a movie. That this opening scene, which is schizophrenically intercut with the “beginning of the actual movie,” got as much VHS rewind play as the film’s later Deneuve-Sarandon lovemaking says quite a bit.” — Jordan Hoffman, Critic for The Guardian & New York Daily News.
Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Guillermo del Toro sets up a ghost story from the POV of a young boy trapped in a haunted orphanage.
“This is a movie about ghosts, about the things that refuse to get left behind. And director Guillermo del Toro hammers that point home with agiant bomb that sticks in the school’s courtyard — a reminder that death is always present. Plus, it’s spooky as hell.” — Marc BernardinDeputy Editor at Playboy.com
The Strangers (2008)
Possibly one of the greatest “He’s right behind you!” home invasion horror flicks.
“The visual charm of Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers, which boasts a mostly unappealing color palette and a setting so limited as to be choking, is all in the framing, which is impeccable and makes for a series of scenes so well made that they’d make stills suitable for literal framing, as long as you like portraits of murderers and victims adorning your walls, and who am I to judge?The first appearance of the film’s main masked killer was foretold throughout the film’s marketing, appearing in both both posters and trailers, but that doesn’t dilute its terrifying power when it finally happens in the film. Suddenly, a boring suburban tableau is transformed into a crackling scene of powerful, terrible beauty, crisply framed and filled with horrific possibility.” — Kate Erbland Entertainment Journalist
Let The Right One In (2008)
The original, not the remake (which is also quite beautiful in its own right) reworks the classic vampire story with children.
“Let the Right One In makes all other horror movies look like a joke. The constant transgression of hollywood to heavy hand everything made these days just produces an onslaught of mediocre movies. What people forget is that a horror movie is made by showing the audience as little as possible, and the entirety of Let The Right One In is just that. The beginning of the film establishes an older man murdering someone and performing a ritual-like procedure on the dead body when a poodle finds him and begins barking loudly. The whole scene is shot on a long lens in one shot and is blocked like a scene on the stage. It plays out in three colors amidst the snow covered woods. The trees are a light flesh color brown and the ground is white. The actors in the scene are wearing flesh colored clothing, and the dog that enters is a white poodle. The murderer wears a red scarf and the victim bleeds red blood. The scene uses one light to illustrate the location and action occurring. What makes the films amazing is it’s minimal storytelling- but what makes the movie beautiful is it matching minimalism in cinematography.” – Nicholas Stango Associate Master of Video at Gawker Media
Black Narcissus (1947)
” When British filmmaker Michael Powell, who’d trained with Hitchcock, met Hungarian screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, who’d come to London to escape Nazis in Paris, one of cinema’s most enduring collaborations was born. Their 1947 Black Narcissus is a slow-burning, undeniably erotic thriller about nuns in the Himalayas, rendered in Technicolor that contrasts the nuns’ white habits (repression ahoy!) with pops of startling vibrance. The film won Oscars for cinematography and art direction, the merits of which are amply demonstrated in its final scene, a genuinely scary clifftop clash that’s spooky, gorgeously-composed eye candy at its finest.” —Cheryl Eddy, Senior Editor io9
The Cell (2000)
Tarsem Singh’s trip into the mind of a serial killer took the dreamscape to the next level. There’s yet to be a film to top this film’s visual splendor — and flippant disregard for physics, sound, life, and reality because you’re inside someone’s mind. And to top it all off, it’s stunning. Who knew the inside of a character so foul could be so horrifically wonderful? But it is — The Cell catapults the audience inside the mind of a monster… and you kind of want to stay. Especially when the villain descends his massive stairs with a cape (attached to his skin) that also drapes across the walls of his opulent throne room.
“John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher is prototypical, though its aesthetics remain unmatched. In a subgenere known for its crassness, Halloween remains a paragon of taste. Elegant in composition and camerawork, Halloween’s look renders lurid, b-movie material into art. It makes watching senseless murders make sense, starting from its blindsiding first scene, in which we watch young Michael Myers’s first murder through the eye holes of his Halloween mask.” —Rich JuzwiakSenior Writer Gawker
What starts off as a Yakuza hit story turns into something much, much darker.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
“Rosemary’s Baby’s turned-up creep factor is largely due to the way Roman Polanski directed the characters through the apartment, showing how encroaching domesticity can be utterly horrifying. In this scene, Minnie Castavet pays Rosemary Woodhouse a neighborly call, but the way he swept the camera from the peephole-viewinto the home and through the hallway is ominous: she’s complimenting Farrow on her homemaking, but the deeper the duo descends down that hallway (ugh, the HALLWAY), the worse trouble you know she’s in. The butterscotch tones of the shot underscore the beautiful feeling of sunny normalcy, calm before the storm (aka being raped by Satan and conceiving his spawn).” – Julianne Escobedo Shepherd Culture Editor Jezebel
Two female vampires are on the run from an immortal boys’ club. Together they take refuge in a barren, off-season beach resort town and feed. Neil Jordan’s blue-grey and red hues really brought out Moira Buffini’s words (Buffini adapted her play for the film). The recurrence of these two gorgeous colors not only looks fantastic; it also really helps play into the life-versus-undead-life conflict the two mains are facing, from Saoirse Ronan’s Red Riding Hood look to her blood-streaked face in an elevator. But my favorite spectacle of color hit early in the film when the two women tiptoed through sleeping blue cabbages, trying to find a new place to hide out. It’s just shockingly gorgeous.
Before there was the American Ring, there was Ringu, the tale of the VHS tape that was also a murderer. It was great, and it was scary, and it sparked a whole lot of copycat US films.
“I may be alone (lol rimshot), but I think even the footage of the well by itself in Ringu is rather beautiful. As Sadako emerges from it, it’s almost like a slow, traditional dance and the sound design making it even more like a standalone art piece.” – Katie Hasty Executive Managing Editor of Hitfix
The Shining (1980)
A movie so beautiful, not even Stephen King (the author of the film’s inspiration who famously loathed Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation) could deny its mouth-dropping spectacle of symmetry and color. Quoted in Stanley Kubrick, a Biography (by Vincent LoBrutto) King said:
“There’s a lot to like about it. But it’s a great big beautiful Cadillac with no motor inside. You can sit in it, and you can enjoy the smell of the leather upholstery – the only thing you can’t do is drive it anywhere. So I would do everything different.”
Not necessarily a compliment, but we’ve all seen this film. It’s gorgeous. And not even King could side step that.
A film so gorgeous, almost every single contributor above asked us, “Is Suspiria taken? I want it… No… Wait, that’s too obvious.” Because yes, Dario Argento’s horror film Suspiria is an absolute masterpiece of color and contrast.