Horror is a genre often associated with the disgusting and vile, as opposed to anything approaching the aesthetics of beauty. In fact, one could argue that many films of the genre focus on the destruction of the concept: a once beautiful house falls into decay and becomes haunted, a gorgeous young woman is disfigured or destroyed by the forces of darkness, even institutions such as marriage (which should be positive) are oft corrupted by evil and betrayal. In short, anything seen as aesthetically valuable and pleasing in mainstream thought is annihilated.
There’s something to be said about horror as iconoclasm, especially in the context of the ongoing “culture wars.” From the “video nasties era” and “Satanic Panic” to today’s weird repeat cultural obsession with Satanic conspiracy in all aspects of culture that they conveniently disagree with, horror has responded in a reactionary way. Whether it goes far enough even is debatable, but that’s not the focus of the article today.
Today, we’re looking at those films which buck the norm and have a sublime sense of beauty about them or at least a unique and pleasing aesthetic vibe that contrasts greatly with the horror of the story and the aesthetics of the genre as a whole.
DISCLAIMER: As with all lists going forward, all of my choices are subjective and personal to my own experience! It’s possible that if you think a film should be here, that it would fit, but I just haven’t seen it or didn’t enjoy it personally. Art is a personal thing, and my dislike of something isn’t a condemnation of anyone else’s like or love of something.
Also these aren’t in hierarchical order, I just kinda threw em all on there. They all fit the prompt!
Love Witch (2016)
The Love Witch (2016, dir. Anna Biller) has a richly vintage aesthetic that does a wonderful job of throwing the viewer out of time and having any sense of surety or balance on when the film is actually taking place. Set in modern-day southern California, the film follows a recently widowed young witch on her increasingly unhinged journey of using spells and magic to get men to fall in love with her.
One of the last movies to be filmed on 35mm Technicolor to invoke the most iconic horror films of the 60s and 70s, The Love Witch also leans into the vintage aesthetic through costuming, set design, and makeup. The vibe is so immaculately convincing that the inclusion of modern elements such as forensic DNA analysis throws the viewer off via a sense of anachronism–despite the film fully taking place in the 2010s!
In addition to that, the film is steeped in feminist analysis with Biller confirming that The Love Witch uses camp as a genre staple to examine the inherent narcissism of the femme fatale trope. The witch Elaine is the dissection of Biller’s deep dive into women’s self-help books wherein she noticed a common theme of advice: never love a man more than he loves you. Biller examines the logical if over-the-top conclusion of obsessive love at the consequence of loss of self, and does so in such a beautiful way that it’s almost easy to overlook some of the more viscerally disgusting elements of the film, particularly the murders.
Suspiria (1977), (2018)
Look, I know that the two Suspirias have such vast aesthetic disparities that it’s almost a cop out to judge them on one bullet point. But….both pretty. That’s it. That’s the entire argument, and no I will not be taking counterarguments at this time. Both the original Dario Argento film and the “reimagined” update directed by equally Italian director Luca Guadagnino have entirely different aesthetic sensibilities while both injecting a sense of otherworldly beauty into the world of witches, occult, and dance as artform.
The original film was shot using anamorphic lenses to emphasize the set pieces. The color theory of the 1977 version is the truly iconic element of it though, which the use of imbibition Technicolor prints only enriched. It was one of the final feature films to be processed in Technicolor, using one of the last machines available in Italy. In addition, the set pieces themselves contribute to the film’s aesthetics in a massive way; dripping with colors like everything else, every room of the Tanz Dance Akademie has a sinister vibe to it, even if it is only the setting for “safe scenes.”
In contrast, the 2018 version of Suspiria uses color sparsely and with deliberate intention, particularly the rich red that Argento used as a primary thematic color in the original film. By taking the film and placing it in more modern times, without it being contemporary, Guadagnino uses the gloomy brutalism and stark utilitarian designs of Soviet occupied East Berlin to make the pops of color…well, pop! The updated film is also more brutal, but still sticks to this aesthetic choice of rationing red; one of the most upsetting moments of violence in the film contains no blood (or so little that my brain didn’t register it upon viewing).
Despite seeming to be aesthetic opposites, the two versions of Suspiria are actually two partners in an odd waltz of visuals, and I couldn’t discredit either in favor of the other.
Blood and Black Lace (1964)
The fashion industry is cutthroat, a well-known fact if the two fashion based horror films on this list are anything to go by. The OG fashion house horror though, is Blood and Black Lace directed by Mario Bava, another master of the giallo horror film. One could describe the film as a mass market crime thriller novel cover come to life, with a pulp sensibility grounding the film amongst the otherwise glamorous world of haute couture.
Whereas Suspiria (1977) created a genre-defying style for a giallo horror, Bava’s Blood and Black Lace worked more as genre-defining. Even Martin Scorcese would credit the crime noir horror as being foundational for his future directional and aesthetic choices.
Helter Skelter (2012)
Based on the manga of the same name by Kyoko Okazaki, Helter Skelter follows the story of Ririko, a supermodel who has undergone head to toe plastic surgery to stay on the cutting edge of her modeling career. However, her body soon begins to break down, causing Ririko’s mental state to do the same. As police close in on a potential medical trafficking ring behind the dangerous and deadly plastic surgeon’s office, an unhinged Ririko begins lashing out at other women who present themselves as rivals.
The film is saturated in bright colors and rich with symbolism surrounding beauty as industry. Without the same preachiness found in lesser horror films, Helter Skelter asks its audience to consider: how complicit are we as consumers in the gradual destruction of the influencers we’ve commodified?
The Company of Wolves (1984)
Fairytale reimaginings have a large following, particularly fans of dark reimaginings. Company of Wolves is a 1984 British gothic fantasy horror film, directed by Neil Jordan, which was adapted from the fairytale reimaginings of British literary icon Angela Carter. The story tells Red Riding Hood with more sympathy for the wolves, reminding the human viewers that we are not above monstrosity ourselves through a series of acted out parables.
The set and costume design beautifully mix the delicacy and femininity associated with fairytales while still incorporating the darkness and harshness of the gothic and beastial, sometimes in very creative ways. The wedding reception with the wolves is one of the most iconic images from the film and beautifully summarizes its overarching aesthetic.
While I tend to roll my eyes at anyone who says Ari Aster’s 2019 horror film Midsommar was so unique because of its use of broad daylight horror (Texas Chainsaw Massacre anyone?), that isn’t to sell its aesthetic beauty short. Aster has a way of setting a scene that makes it very clear why he’s one of the most watched and applauded new directors in the genre.
Going well beyond just the choice to film in daylight, Aster chooses to take the bright and happy aesthetics of the Scandinavian countryside, mix them with bright colors and lurid floral pieces, and still give us one of the most intense and visceral works of the last several decades. The way the film shifts from dull and dire at the beginning to almost neon brightness by the finale camouflaging the sinister ending with the scent of smoke and flower petals.
The Cell (2000)
What can I say about director Tarsem Singh that hasn’t already been said or wouldn’t devolve into a Mean Girls-inspired Regina George praise segment for the director?? He has some of the most iconic looks of film based on storyboards alone, with a visual sensibility that rivals (if not surpasses in some ways) that of Alejandro Jorodowsky.
While this film is often overlooked due to the presence of Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn in the starring roles, it is still powerfully a Singh film, utilizing the film’s narrative to create extraordinary visuals for the dreamscape Lopez’s psychiatrist enters to psychoanalyze Vince Vaughn’s killer character.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992)
I couldn’t overlook this film: between the well planned storyboarding and direction of Francis Ford Coppola, the iconic costume design of Eiko Ishioka, and the amazing team behind the set production and photography, it’s no wonder that the film is looked to as the second most iconic Dracula film, behind on the 1931 adaptation which introduced the world to stage actor Bela Lugosi.
The film defined an aesthetic for any gothic horror film to follow, as well as many other films both as homage and parody. Without it, we wouldn’t have a ton of media or at least not the same way we ended up getting it. For that alone, this film’s aesthetic is iconic!
What can I say about Mandy besides “psychedelics sure are a thing”? Not that director Panos Cosmatos was on them during filming or during any part of the process, just that the entire two hour run time of the film feels like everything those old anti-drug PSAs warned me about. The vivid colors of the film swirl chaotically around staging and set design that feels straight out of surrealist art pieces. Is the movie any of the things critics claim regarding interpretation? Maybe? I’ve seen it three times, and I sure don’t know!
But it’s so pretty and chaotic and almost dadaist in the level of nonsensical yet compelling visuals, that one almost doesn’t care what else can get out of it. Beyond that: what each viewer gets out of it will be different but due to the anarchy of it all. The only agreed upon premise? A mad drug lord brutally kills Nic Cage’s character’s wife, who then embarks on an apocalyptic, blood-soaked journey of revenge.
The Color Out of Space (2019)
I’d ask what it is about Nic Cage that lends himself to such unhinged films, but I have long ago decided that Nic Cage just does what he wants and I respect him for that artistically even if some of his decisions in and out of film are questionable. However, I have to say his decision to work with infamously deranged auteur filmmaker Richard Stanley on his return to the director’s chair? Inspired. Especially considering how utterly perfect the ensuing adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s standalone horror novella The Color Out of Space actually ended up being.
The special effects and the aesthetics are pure Lovecraft, adapting the insanity of the indescribable perfected by that weird ole racist Rhode Islander who took his phobias and prejudices and somehow still defined a genre. What was previously thought to be unfilmable came to vivid life on screen in a cosmically terrifying and beautiful way, and it needs more recognition than it currently has.
One could argue that there are other more visually stunning or unique German horror films, both of this era and afterwards. However, there’s something almost ethereal about the filmmaking aesthetic of Vampyr, the whole film feeling like a dreamscape punctuated by moments of nightmare.
It defined the aesthetics of horror for decades afterward even into the modern day with the camera tricks it utilized. Film in general, really, was changed with the unique for the time ways that actors were framed by principle photography and lens tricks.
The Village (2004)
Okay so, hear me out. Hear me out. Is the movie actually that good? Not really. The twist isn’t terrible, but so much of the movie relies on lazy writing and outright ableism (a terrible trope that permeates so many of Shyamalan’s films) that I can’t actually praise it overall as I have the others. But visually? It’s a gorgeous movie, and probably the most visually interesting of any of M. Night’s films.
With the rich color symbolism, unique costuming, and interesting framing (which admittedly falters in the ending), it’s probably the most “film” instead of “movie” of the director’s oeuvre, which is why the disappointing twist ending and the ableist tropes that continued to plague his works are so disappointing.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014)
Ana Lily Amirpour directed this modern Iranian feminist take on the vampire legend with such a unique vision that many who view it can recognize some of the specific shots without any other context. The girl in hijab riding a skateboard under stark streetlights, the antagonist guy driving a car with his cat just hanging out in the backseat, focus on putting everyone’s eyes in the most sharp focus possible–even the cityscape of the fictional Bad Town is full of character.
Despite being in black and white, the film oozes a vitality normally only associated with use of vivid colors, and it’s to the point I truly believe that color would have made the film overwhelming because of how powerfully framed Amirpour’s shots and vision are. That she throws in many cultural touchstones such as music posters, record sleeves, and recognizable-yet-not cosmetics add to the uncanny valley vibes of the real-world adjacent Bad Town.
The Neon Demon (2016)
The Shining (1980)
Don’t Look Now (1973)
Vampyros Lesbos (1971)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
What do you all think? Do you agree with these choices? Disagree? Have additions that I may not have thought of? If you would like to discuss it, leave a comment! I’d love to hear from y’all!