A poetry of dread – that’s what the best in this business can conjure with the right framing, movement, stillness. Whether it’s Dick Pope creating that just-off feel of bucolic 1950s Idaho for The Reflecting Skin or Owen Roizman forever narrowing the screen, our gaze and our options in The Exorcist, the cinematographer is horror’s true master. Mike Giolakis kept us looking around us and behind us to see where the monster might be in It Follows. John Alcott (The Shining), Chung-hoon Chung (The Handmaiden) and Mo-gae Lee (A Tale of Two Sisters) haunted and mesmerized us with color, movement and atmosphere. Has anybody done it better?
Here are our nominees for the best cinematography in horror.
5. Kwaidan (1964) – Yoshio Miyajima
Gorgeous. If you’re looking for something theatrical, a true marriage between cinematography and set design, Masaki Kobayashi’s Oscar nominee Kwaidan delivers the goods.
Yoshi Miyajima lenses four different ghost stories, each almost entirely shot on highly decorated sound stages, and what he captures is the feeling of make believe that gives each story the sense that it is being told, being embellished for your spooky enjoyment.
Each story is given its own look, its own personality. It’s bold and memorable filmmaking, and an absolute sight to behold.
4. Antichrist (2009) – Anthony Dod Mantle
Whether it’s the utter poetry of the opening tragedy, the claustrophobic dread of the middle section, or the lurking menace of the final reels, Antichrist is an absolute treasure trove of emotional manipulation.
At times, Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography feels at odds with the actual content on the screen—particularly in Act 1. But mining for beauty in pain is one of many ways director Lars von Trier succeeds in surprising and horrifying with this film.
Mantle finds a terrifying beauty in ugly thing von Trier throws at you, and the end result is a mesmerizing and brutal work.
3. Nosferatu (1922) – Fritz Arno Wagner
We needed to pay our respects to some of the earliest and most memorable work in cinema. Why F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu? Because nearly 100 years later, there are still images that haunt your dreams.
Fritz Arno Wagner (who also lensed Fritz Lang’s glorious M) capitalizes on the unseemly, vermin-like look of Count Orlock (Max Schreck, genius) with creeping silhouettes, lurking shadows, and camera angles that emphasized his hideousness.
Whether it’s the shocking rise from the coffin, the shadow on the staircase, or the image of the sole survivor of the ship recently decimated by “the plague,” Murnau and Wagner’s images are as evocative today as they were in ’22.
2. The Lighthouse (2019) – Jarin Blaschke
The atmosphere is thick and brisk as sea fog, immersing you early with Oscar nominee Jarin Blasche’s chilly black and white cinematography and a Damian Volpe sound design echoing of loss and one persistent, ominous foghorn.
Director/co-writer Robert Eggers follows The Witch, his incandescent 2015 feature debut, with another painstakingly crafted, moody period piece. The Lighthouse strands you, along with two wickies, on the unforgiving island home of one lonely 1890s New England lighthouse.
Salty sea dog Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) keeps the light, mind ye. He also handles among the most impressive briny soliloquies delivered on screen in a lifetime. Joining him as second is one Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson)—aimless, prone to self-abuse, disinclined to appreciate a man’s cooking.
1. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) – Guillermo Navarro
In 2006, Guillermo Del Toro’s masterpiece may have somehow been overlooked as Oscar’s Best Foreign Language Film, but at least the Academy had the common sense to notice Guillermo Navarro’s cinematography.
He manages to create an atmosphere equally imaginative and bitterly realistic, something befitting a child’s logic. Like a fairy tale, the screen blends the magical beauty of good and evil. His vision is as hypnotic as it needs to be, as childlike as we need it to be. It’s beautiful, innocent and utterly heartbreaking.