10. Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)
Red is not the only colour that can be found in Suspiria. Blue, yellow and other intense colours co-exist inside the film, and succeed one and other, only to add up to the stark psychedelic impression of Argento’s masterwork. But even if other colours make their appearance, every now and then, red is the one that undoubtedly reigns the mise-en-scène of the movie.
One of the reasons behind this plethora of uses of red has to do with the indigenous character of the film: one that has its roots deeply planted inside the horror genre. Anger, fear, blood-shed deaths: they are all reflected on a saturated colour scale.
Suzy is the main heroine that travels all the way from America to Germany in order to be an apprentice in a prestigious ballet academy. What she doesn’t expect to find in her new home, though, is a coven of maleficent witches that infest the infrastructures of the school. Red is everywhere around her.
The walls, the carpets, the lights and various other elements that consist the cinematic environment of Suspiria are painted in the colour that baptises the film in tension, agitation and a constant feeling of an upcoming unknown threat.
11. Bram Stocker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola, 1992)
Red is an organic and vital component that every vampire film that respects itself should utilise. First of all, it reminds of blood that is the source of life of the ageless creatures. Second, it symbolises untamed sexuality that comes hand in hand with the promiscuous seduction strategies that they employ to lure their victims. Finally, it embodies the thin line that divides life from death. All of these features are intrisic of Coppola’s interpretation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
The film starts with a bloodbath: Vlad ruthlessly hacks and slashes his Turk enemies, impaling their bodies in stakes, frenzied in his wrath and fury. When he returns from the battle to find his beloved wife, Elisabeta, he discovers that she committed a suicide after receiving a fake report of his death. Wearing his crimson armour, the brutal warrior denounces God and drives his sword into a cross that starts spilling blood, becoming this way the undead Dracula.
Everything around the Vampire is red: the robe that he wears, the dresses of the women that he enchants, the ”wine” that he drinks. The colour attains a much stereotyped dimension in the film, one that has its roots in the connotations that culture has assigned to it. Most of all, it seems to accompany and ornament everything that is sexually charged.
Dracula, through the magnificent and passionate performance of Gary Oldman, is presented in the film equally as a heated lover, in the quest of finding his long-lost love, and as a beast ready to devour and destroy everyone that opposes him. In any case, Coppola’s vampire film offers a haunting sensual experience that establishes its balance between a heart-felt romance and a ferocious horror movie.
12. Amelie ( Jean Pierre Jeunet, 2001)
Amelie is rightfully one of the cornerstones of feel-good movies. It is a film that emanates positiveness, kindness, hopes and dreams, all of them is a spontaneous and unforced way.
The warmth and optimism, as they are infused in its visuals, owe a great part of their immediacy to the colours that are stratified by Jeunet and his cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel. Red operates as a device that establishes the foundations of all these feel-good elements. It adds up to the cosy atmosphere of the film and secures that there are no gloomy corners left in its frames.
Red marks its domination very early, in the opening sequence of Amelie. In the childhood dream-scape of the heroine, the viewer is introduced to a little girl whose life is filled with red cherries, raspberries and sweaters. The colour, once again, signifies youth, intimacy and cheerfulness as they are present in the memories of the protagonist. Amelie grows older but warmness does not exit her life, no matter if she is alone or not.
The red tapestry of her room, symbol of her inner world, and her vermilion clothes, signs of the impression that she gives to other people, keep on radiating her inexhaustible positive attitude. Jean Pierre Jeunet’s iconic film was probably loved so much because it was painted with the brushes of the colour of love.
13. The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999)
Red is ultimately a visual symbol connected to horror films especially through its presence in blood shedding scenes. This is not the case, though, in Shyamalan’s films where the colour’s shocking value has to do more with a type of fear that is highly psychological and subtle.
The director favours to ornament his horror figures and element with generous doses of red. One can easily remember the chilling and creepy shape of the red hooded creature in The Village that was terrorizing the community of peaceful peasants.
In The Sixth Sense colour red is present in all of these tiny little cinematic objects that are typical of producing a blood-curdling effect. A crimson balloon that is ominously floating in the air, a ruby doorknob that is expected to start turning around in a slow and sinister way, the carmine shirt of a lonely boy that claims to see dead people.
Red is, therefore, functioning inside the film as an alarm of horror and terror. It is the colour that reflexively provokes a shocking reaction to the spectator who agonisingly waits to see when the next creepy ghost is going to show up.
14. Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002)
Zhang Yimou is famous for the virtuosic use of colours that he makes into his poetic films. In addition, he is certainly one of the most recognisable auteurs that Mainland China can brag about. It is known that colour red has a high historical and symbolical significance for China and Zhang Yimou could not avoid its repetitive employment as an icon of the country’s cinematic landscape.
One can hardly forget the over-abundance of the colour in Raise of the Red Lantern where Gong Li is placed into frames that are overflowed with red shades. Hero, however, chooses to utilize red in a different way, through its dialectic relationship with the other dominant colours of its mise-en-scène: green, blue and white.
It is not a coincidence, furthermore, that three of the key members of the team of In the Mood for Love, another saturated poetic film, can be also found in Hero. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung play just another time a couple with an intense love relationship and Christopher Doyle is there to film them in the colour of passion.
Red is the opening colour motif of the film, one that is chosen in the majestic sequence where the two heroes, side by side with Jet Li, defend their calligraphy school from the arrows of their enemies. Red represents the determination to survive, the rebellious spirit of independence and the inevitability of death. It functions, therefore, as the perfect dynamic chromatic opening of a film that is mainly concerned with the power of commitment to a higher cause and the necessary sacrifices that must be made for ultimate freedom.
15. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
Kubrick surely had an obsession with colour red. Just remember the astronaut suits in Space Odyssey, the robe of the mask bearing leader of the masonic-looking ritual in Eyes Wide Shut, the military outfits of Barry Lyndon and -above everything else- the generous amount of blood that is shed in his films.
The Shining, however, showcases a usage of colour red that probably has the highest symbolic position. Most of all, the colour functions inside the film as a warning of a violent supernatural-rooted attack. The young boy is throwing red darts when he sees the twin ghosts for the first time and Jack Nicholson starts getting dressed in a red jacket precisely before going frenzy and attacking his family.
There is also a differentiation of the meaning of the colour, inside the film, that is signified by the different shades that it takes. For example, Jack’s son and wife are occasionally wearing red clothing items whose red colour is bright and vivid. In contradiction, the jacket of the murderous father has a dark red colour that is reminiscent of blood, horror and death.
Furthermore, a closer look shows how the adoption of red by different characters signifies the change of their personality. When Jack starts wearing his jacket, his wife stops using red clothes indicating that she represents an innocence that contrasts his monstrosity. Seeking symbolisms that are constructed through saturated colours inside The Shining is, in any case, a stimulating visual treasure hunt.
16. Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman, 1972)
While Cries and Whispers’ plot is typical of Bergman’s cinematic repertoire, its aesthetics can come as a surprise to the viewer. The reason for that is that most of the visual elements of the film appear in saturated colours, something that have never happened before in the movies of the Swedish auteur.
The narrative of Cries and Whispers revolves around the relationships that are formed between four different women when they gather all together in the house of one of them who is dying of cancer. Agnes is surrounded, during her last days, by he two sisters and her housemaid. This time of crisis will fuel collisions that are going to break out between the women, who facing Agnes’s upcoming death will have to deal with their own mortality, guilt and consciousness.
Red functions perfectly inside this narrative context as it captures all the tension, the pain and the repressed love that is hidden behind the women’s cries and whispers. Bergman himself acknowledged that fact in one of his interviews where he stated that he had ”thought of colour red as the interior of the soul.”
Red, therefore, represents the unstable psyche of the heroines in this film. The curtains, the walls, the furniture, even the crimson blood that comes out of the female body, they point towards the inner world of the heroines in a philosophical quest for deliverance and purification.
17. Tokyo Drifter ( Seijun Suzuki, 1966)
Seijun Suzuki never made a secret of his affinity for not making too much sense. The opening scene of Tokyo Drifter, for instance, is shot in stark monochrome, with only the pieces of a broken toy gun emanating a distinct crimson glow. Decades later, the director went on record in an interview, saying he shot the opening that way ‘simply’ because it looked cool, but the use of colours in the film as a whole is for from that superficial. Most of the characters in this stylistic gangster film come colour-coded.
For most of the film, the hero, Tetsuya, wears a bright blue suit, whereas the main villain, Umetani, sports one that is bright red. Other characters appear too, each with a distinct colour expressed either by their clothes or their surroundings, like the lighting and colours of the locations where that they mostly reside. Interestingly, two characters who we see in less conspicuous attire are later marked in more physical, painful ways.
Throughout the film, the colour red especially is used to insinuate enmity and danger, from something as subtle a red postbox in-between two rivals standing in a white snow-scape to the very lighting of room completely changing in sync with the events on screen.
For the film’s climax, the spectrum changes to absolutes, the bad guys in black and Tetsuya in white, the lighting of the entire room changing as he comes barging in, and the guns start shooting. In the centre of the room stands a hot red heart-shaped sculpture, seemingly being ”extinguished” as Umetani meets his end.
18. Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
The red mac coat of a little girl becomes an object capable of giving birth to chilling nightmares in Nicolas Roeg’s film. It is this clothe that young Christnine is wearing when she gets drown in the pond of her home estate while playing in the nature.
The shocked parents will travel to Venice after the incident, only to get haunted by more appearances of the red coat that will make them violently and repeatedly revisit and even put into question their daughter’s death. Hair-raising supernatural events will succeed one another and the borders between reality and illusion will disappear.
Interestingly enough, the motif of the red mac assumes different shapes inside the film designating the various semantic dimensions that the colour can take. First of all, it symbolises desolation and grief, deep and inevitable as death itself. Second, the unconventional sexual awakening that storms into the couple’s life in a gloomy time of need.
Last, but not least, the joy and blissful oblivion that die just like the young girl does. One thing is for sure: this red mac is going to be remembered forever as a harbinger of scary, mysterious and ominous occurrences.
Author Bio: Angeliki is currently a student in the Master’s Programme in Cinema Studies in Stockholm’s University. She spent hundreds of hours watching Asian films but at the same time she keeps herself up to date with new releases of European and American Indie movies.