Think about the last few movies you’ve seen, and think about color: Adventure movies are all cool and blue, fast metallics and flashes of red-orange. Dystopias are gray smoke and dirt, and horror calls to mind dark nights and blood reds (and actual blood) to create the tense fearful atmosphere we come to expect. But horror also unabashedly does with visual imagery what many other genres will not do, whether for fear of losing money (and lets be real: Most horror is not a cash cow), or fear of alienating the audience (again, not the biggest concern in a genre that features tree rape in one of it’s most classic films), which is deviate from expected color themes and imagery to craft something even more unsettling than an abandoned old house or hostel.
Oftentimes I joke that my favorite type of film is “people trapped mysteriously in a room together movies” and part of that falls into one of my favorite contrasts in horror: Clean, white rooms or clean-cut families providing a conflicting backdrop to the acts of violence that will undoubtedly occur. The most evident of this is in these “people trapped” films: The Killing Room, Breathing Room, House of 9, among others. They provide almost scientifically clean areas in which atrocities take place, creating a canvas for horror that can make even cliche actions seem that much more difficult to watch.
Take the trailer for two comparatively similar films, such as the aforementioned Breathing Room and the dark and dirty Nine Dead:
Sean Hall tells us that “stories always change in the telling” and while both these movies ask their trapped characters “why are you here?” it’s in the telling that makes one better than the other: The visuals in one are powerful in their contrasts–the darks, lights, and reds, make up a story that is lacking in the dull consistency of Nine Dead‘s cinematography. But there is more to this contrast than relying on setting and cinematography. For this, we look to Lucky McKee’s films, Sick Girl, and, in particular, The Woman: McKee (and by proxy Jack Ketchum, who wrote the film) gives us clean not only in setting, but in characters. The Woman features the Cleek family, who, for all intents and purposes appear to be not just normal but a good All-American Family. They are the family you expect to have atrocities committed against, not the ones to be committing the atrocities: But that is what make the film successful.
The power in horror lies in unchecked fear, tension, and the things we do not expect. To seen beauty and light intermixed in our deepest fears is unexpected, and often unused in big-budget Hollywood horror. It’s powerful, and it is, to some extend, perfect.
On a final note, reflect back to a film we are all probably familiar with: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The setting of the “games” is a lush forest hidden under the same dystopian filters of the previous movie. But how different, how powerful, could things have been if it opted for the unexpected and gave us this tropical forest in full Caribbean Cruises-esque color as the backdrop for brutal murder? The answer is very, because there is something wonderful about the brutal beauty of color, and unexpected light in the face of the darkest realities.