One of the primary objectives of any film is to create a fictional world, an alternate universe for you to transport to for two hours. It should be a believable world - up to a point. The audience is there to escape, not look at the world onscreen and decide it's the same ol' world they live in every day.
Many "flavors" of this alternate, fictional world exist in the horror genre, but more often than not, horror attempts to create a world where the evil seems to be present before anything evil is actually seen on screen. The writing, set design, cinematography, and music coalesce to make an otherworldly stage on which the director and actors play out the drama. This atmosphere of dread is not easy to create, but when a film gets it right, even if other aspects of the film fall a bit short, I'm captivated.
In this spooky installment of Overlooked And Underrated, we list seven films that achieve a wonderful atmosphere of dread primarily through their visuals (cinematography and set design), but are not often discussed by contemporary horror audiences. It is interesting to note that every film on this list is European. Fresh-faced whippersnapper America just can't compete with the creaky spookiness of the Old World.
A student of the occult stumbles into a French village which is under the curse of a demon vampyr. Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, this visually stunning movie was produced just as Europe was transitioning to troublesome sound films. Skittish of the new technology, Dreyer used mostly silent-film technique in making Vampyr - a tactic that, thankfully, bolstered the film's gorgeous, haunting imagery. Vampyr represents the peak of director Dreyer's career. Before it, he was considered Danish cinema's most gifted filmmaker. Unfortunately, Vampyr, which is today considered a brilliant, stunning achievement in horror cinema, was a critical and financial bomb upon initial release - an absolute disaster, actually; and Dreyer's career never bounced back.
THE CITY OF THE DEAD (1960)
College student Venetia Stevenson travels to Whitewood, Massachusetts to research witchcraft, and discovers the town is occupied by the reincarnation of a witch who was burned at the stake. Released in the U.S. as Horror Hotel, this imaginative film features horror legend Christopher Lee. The black and white cinematography is beautifully sinister, thanks to director of photography Desmond Dickinson, whose half-century-long career included lensing Hamlet (1948) for director Laurence Olivier. The City Of The Dead's director, John Llewellyn Moxey, was primarily a television director; his career would later include episodes of Mission: Impossible, Kung Fu, Miami Vice, Magnum, P.I., and Murder, She Wrote.
MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN (1960)
Local women are disappearing one by one, likely thanks to a reclusive sculptor who lives in a spooky old mill where he conducts fiendish experiments. Giorgio Ferroni directed this inventive and creepy Italian horror film, probably the high point of his forty-year career, which often fluctuated between documentary films and spaghetti westerns. Mill Of The Stone Woman was photographed with maximum atmospheric impact by Pier Ludovico Pavoni, who habitually shot gladiator movies, such as Messalina Vs. The Son Of Hercules (1964) for director Umberto Lenzi (Cannibal Ferox).
THE HAUNTING (1963)
Dr. John Markway launches an investigation into the paranormal, settling into an old mansion with a dark past, accompanied by the heir to the house and two women with prior supernatural experiences. Directed by Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Sound of Music, Star Trek: The Motion Picture), The Haunting is probably the most celebrated film on this list. Despite being a much-loved classic, it flies below the radar all too often. Sometimes overshadowed by a passable remake with a terrible ending (released in 1999), Robert Wise's The Haunting is a masterpiece of atmospheric horror. Visually, cinematographer Davis Boulton (Children Of The Damned) knocked it out of the park with this film, expertly sculpting his light and shadow, executing inventive camera angles, and even experimenting with infrared film stock. Boulton worked as a still photographer for 25 years before transitioning over to the moving image one year before he shot The Haunting.
CASTLE OF BLOOD (1964)
On All Soul's Eve, a journalist accepts a bet to spend the night in a haunted castle, where ghosts of the slain inhabitants exhibit the events that precipitated their deaths. Starring Barbara Steele (Black Sunday) and directed by Antonio Margheriti (Cannibal Apocalypse), Castle Of Blood makes a full meal of the dusty, vacant castle location and its dark corners and corridors, ramping up the creepiness and tension before ghost one is ever seen. This film is supposedly based on an Edgar Allen Poe story, and though no such story exists, Poe appears as a character in the movie. Adding to the confusion, Castle Of Blood was later re-made (as Web Of The Spider) again directed by Margheriti, and released in 1971 claiming to be based on a different Poe story that also did not exist.
KILL, BABY, KILL (1966)
At the end of the 19th century, in a small Carpathian village, Dr. Eswai - summoned to perform an autopsy - learns of Melissa, a young girl who was murdered, and her grieving, vengeful mother, Baroness Graps. Also known as Curse Of The Dead, The Dead Eyes Of Dr. Dracula (oddly), and Operation Fear (the film's original title) this chilling thriller was helmed by the master of spooky, otherworldly atmosphere, Mario Bava (Black Sunday). Bava was also an uncredited cinematographer on Kill, Baby, Kill, as he was on many of his pictures. Light, shadow, and color are expertly woven together, making this film as much a beautiful work of art as it is a genuinely creepy tale of the supernatural.
TOWER OF EVIL (1972)
A team of archaeologists arrive on a small island off the English coast seeking hidden treasure, but instead unearth mystery and bloodshed. This unique horror film, directed by Jim O'Connolly, interestingly blends classic creepy atmosphere with attributes of the emerging slasher / exploitation film. The movie is well-shot and spooky, while achieving a more lurid, aggressive edge than most atmosphere-driven horror pictures. Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson (City Of The Dead) is back in action here, again lensing captivating imagery that transcends the inventive, yet flailing, script.