Brutal Beauty: 10 Visually Stunning Horror Movies You Can’t Unsee
Too often, horror gets a bad rap as a home to mindless teen murder sprees and black cat jump scares. Sure, it can be, and sometimes those can be a lot of fun, but horror has also been home to some of the most innovative, beautiful filmmaking in the history of the medium. There’s plenty of factors to the equation. Horror, on principle, embraces the weird and odd, offering room for filmmakers to indulge their wildest ideas. Then there’s the matter of budgeting, horror is traditionally a low-budget genre, and when costs are low, freedom is high. One pattern that emerges no matter the budget, the filmmaker, or the inspiration, these films tend to be the product of vision and ambition. They’re not the products of studio cash grabs or international forecasts, they’re the films made with passion by an inspired creative team. And of course, they’re all beautiful.
The visually stunning horror film has a proud tradition, dating back to the very first in the genre and it has endured in the century since, each year offering at least a couple exciting new additions. It’s not that making ugly horror movies is easy — making movies is never easy, but finding the place where aesthetic beauty, emotional artistry, and primal fear all come together is a spectacular feat. And it can be accomplished in so many ways. Some horror films are stunning for the creature effects and makeup work. Some boast elaborate costuming or art design. Weirdly, a lot of them are vampire films. Often they are the product of exceptional cinematography and framing, and all of them are the product of gifted filmmakers with decisive vision.
It should go without saying, but this is nowhere near a comprehensive list. I could think of 20 more films that would fit just off the top of my head. Think of this as a starting ground, a conversation starter, and some of my personal favorite horror films to look at, and be sure to sound off in the comments with your favorites.
Dario Argento’s Suspiria is possibly the most iconic and oft-discussed “visually stunning” horror movie ever made. You probably knew it was going to be on this list before you even clicked the headline. Famed for its primary color palette, a stunning accomplishment by the great cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, Suspiria embraced the radical, experimental aesthetic to articulate an expressionist fantasy world that slips through the cracks of logic to become a violent fairy tale fever dream. And Argento demanded that it was all created practically, in the frame, no post-production tweaks allowed. It was worth the hard work. Suspiria endures as a hypnotizing masterpiece and an example of the cinematic feats that can be accomplished when a brilliant filmmaker embraces boldness and spurs on his collaborators to do the same. Be it set design, the iconic prog rock score, or Tovoli’s groundbreaking cinematography, Suspiria is a provocative, sensual film at every turn.
The Love Witch
Anna Biller spent seven-and-a-half years perfecting The Love Witch, taking a hands-on approach to nearly every element of the film, from costuming to set design and, of course, direction. The result is an impeccable looking movie that is the product of a single and singular vision. Dripping with vintage flair and rooted in the power of feminine seduction (not to mention Biller’s prodigious catalogue of cinematic references), The Love Witch conjures quite the enchantment, lavishing in images of sexual fantasy and traditional beauty before skewering them with razor sharp, ferociously feminist philosophy. The film is meticulously crafted, from the tarot card decor to the flick of our heroine’s eyeliner, to create both aesthetic perfection and thematic resonance — in short, to build a cinematic world unlike any other. Biller not only succeeded, she created a film that truly casts a spell; a sultry, aesthetically rich viewing experience that’s impossible to shake when it’s over.
The Neon Demon
Nicholas Winding Refn has a knack for making films that chafe at audiences and The Neon Demon is one of his most divisive endeavors yet. Set in the devouring world of Hollywood high fashion, The Neon Demon opulent and spectacular but it’s also filthy and abrasive, like hearing the click of your stiletto Loubitons on a runway before tripping and falling face-first into a piss-covered roach motel where dreams go to die. And it’s just so extra. The Neon Demon goes there. Whether it’s cannibalism, necrophilia, or the regular assault on the senses with bright, flashing lights and neon-tinged madness, Refn barely lets the audience strap in before he stomps the gas on his wild ride through the pitfalls of Tinseltown.
If there’s someone who knew how to make a fine-looking movie, it’s Stanley Kubrick. Infamous for his obsessive eye and compulsive task-mastering, and revered for the cinematic heights they yielded, Kubrick pulled from the cannon of Stephen King for The Shining and completely reworked the material in his image. Meticulous in every regard, from the logic-defying dimensions of the hotel (a tremendous accomplishment by art director Roy Walker,) to his trademark symmetry and one-point perspective shots, Kubrick crafted a visual masterwork with The Shining. Think about all the iconography created by a single film — There’s the regimented, geometric appeal of the red and orange carpet, the topiary maze, the twins, and then there’s the shocking, visceral moments; Jack Nicholson chopping down a door, an elevator of blood gushing toward the camera, the frozen grimace of Jack Torrence. Dipping into a genre for which he bore no great love, Kubrick created one of the best horror films of all time and crafted a visual portrait of madness and terror so consummate, you need only glance at a few frames to feel the unease.
As a filmmaker, Tarsem Singh has largely operated in the realms of fantasy, fairy tales, and legends, but it’s the realm of dreams that suited him best. With his mind-bending horror thriller The Cell, Tarsem went all-in on the spectacular imagery and extravagant world-building and the slippery dream logic served his stylistic indulgences well, covering the multitude of the narrative sins that have plagued much of his other work. Every key design element is notched up to 11 — the stunning costume work from Eiko Ishioka (who also brought her operatic flourish to Bram Stoker’s Dracula) tends to take center stage, but the art direction, production design, and makeup work are all phenomenal in their own right. Tarsem stacks The Cell with dizzying displays of imagery in every scene, and fueled by the engine of Vincent D’Onofrio‘s almighty creepster performance, The Cell is a genuinely chilling film. At times it becomes more of an experience than a story, but the experience is so bracing and enveloping, and the appreciation for art and artistry is so high, you kind of forget to mind.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
An OG and an all-timer of beautiful cinematic nightmares, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a game-changing movie that set the jagged stage for every other film on this list. Breaking away from the convention that the camera was intended to capture realism, Robert Weine‘s 1920 film has become the text book example of German Expressionist filmmaking (lauded as the first of its kind), but it’s a testament to the impact of the macabre mood and design that stills from the film look just as artful and singular as they did nearly a century ago. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari presents a black and white world of jutting edges and saw-toothed landscapes, a visual prism through which we can glimpse the minds of the mad and murderous. Eerie and unorthodox, the film laid the tracks for the rise of films like Nosferatu, Häxan and The Golem, but even though Caligari‘s effects can be seen far and wide in the spread of horror, there’s never been another film that captured that same slanting landscape, a world built out of skewed angles where men sleepwalk through the chaos.
Ridley Scott makes beautiful movies. Even his most baffling or bombastic films are a sight to behold. But Alien is an exercise in pure filmmaking perfection from start to finish, and while that includes Sigourney Weaver‘s iconic performance as Ellen Ripley, the tight script, expert pacing and slow-mounting tension, for the purposes of this article, we’ll just focus on how the films looks. And that’s incredible in its own right. Scott and his production team crafted a spaceship that’s as cinematic as it is timeless, a maze of corridors and chambers that photograph beautifully while embodying rich and varied environments; be it clean white living quarters, the grimy wet working docks, or the outer-reaches of space from which there is no escape. Working with in-frame miniatures and hand-crafted effects, Alien paints a terrifying image of intergalactic travel from the gothic reaches of Acheron to the sterile, high-tech terrors inside the Nostromo itself. And then there’s the matter of H.R. Giger‘s horrifying biomechanical designs, which have stood the test of time as a some of the most beautifully disturbing creature creations ever invented. Alien may not be flashy, but that doesn’t mean it’s anything less than a beautiful, groundbreaking visual achievement.
Nosferatu the Vampyr
Make no mistake. F.W. Murnau‘s 1922 Nosferatu is every bit as worthy as a spot on this list, but there’s something I find wildly fascinating about Werner Herzog‘s 1979 remake and the process of adaptive interpretation. Murnau’s film famously cribbed from Bram Stoker‘s Dracula before copyright lawsuits forced some tweaks to the material. And in the decades that passed, Nosferatu and the vampiric Count Orlok became icons in their own right, something borne of the DNA of Dracula but separate from it. When Herzog reproached the material some fifty years later, it was with a reverence for Murnau’s film and the copyright to Stoker’s original work. Again, it becomes something borne from the DNA of both, but exquisite in its own right. Thanks to Herzog’s gift for capturing nature’s perilous beauty and the reliably resplendent work of his frequent cinematographic collaborator Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, every beat of the classic tale is rendered with the utmost visual artistry, and Herzog works with his best fiend Klaus Kinski to reinvent the mystique of Dracula into a pale, pathetic creature whose physical presence dominates the screen.
Blood and Black Lace
The great Mario Bava directs every frame of Blood and Black Lace as if it were an oil painting in a high-end art show. He captures light, shadow, color and framing with such an expert eye, every moment looks like it walked out an ornate frame. As the title suggests, it’s also rather violent, one of the finest pieces of Giallo filmmaking, reveling in the technicolor palette, murder set-pieces, and whodunnit intrigue of the genre. As a result, Blood and Black Lace is both lurid and lovely, playing up artfulness and crasser elements in a single stroke. Moments of terror are saturated in bloodshed, eerie mannequins linger in the frame washed in red light, and the kills titillate with Bava’s hyperstylized Hitchcock bent. But the secret weapon behind Blood and Black Lace‘s loveliness is Bava’s staging, with which he found a way to embrace all of the film’s most beautiful and brutal qualities with aggressive tracking shots, pans and zooms, giving the film dimensional life beyond the bright colors and making for a stunning watch.
Let The Right One In
Tomas Alfredson doesn’t consider himself a horror filmmaker, but with his first venture into the genre he created a stunning, masterful work that became an immediate horror classic. On the tail of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Vampire Diaries, Twilight and a general decades-long wave of teen vampires, Let the Right One In shook everything up with a deadly serious and deeply emotional vampire drama. It also happens to be completely gorgeous. Snowy and dim, the film seems to glow with internal life, a remarkable piece of work that put cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema on the map for international audiences long before he became Christopher Nolan‘s new go-to-guy.Alfredson frames his moments of violence with the same reverence he affords his character beats, giving the entire film a consistent depth of beauty that’s deceptively simple. Similarly, Alfredson and Hoytema capture the monsters hidden in the shadows of every day life as easily as the violence of their vampire, treating both as matter of fact and yet somehow spectacular. Rich, textured, and committed to a simple visual language, Let the Right One In mines beauty out of the horrific and horror out of the ordinary.