Most modern Horror movies depend on a pretty manipulative modus operandis (from a cinematic point of view) to grab its audience: jump-scares. There’s nothing wrong with jump scares per se, they’re often the best part of an otherwise forgettable film. But the tough fact is that the overly-reliance on this easy to use but hard to master technique has overruled any other tactic of creating horror.
One of those dying methods to convey horror is atmosphere. Creating atmosphere and ambience isn’t easy: you need to right set of visual cues and smart cinematography to conjure up the correct amount of dread and sense of space. The score can’t be overburdening either: it needs to complement the action, suggest rather than outright tell what the viewer should be feeling.
The actors also need to be charismatic enough to convey their emotions across the screen; you can’t just cast the prototypical big-breasted blonde to scream her lungs out while the rest of the characters die around her.
These are some of the cornerstones for creating an immersive and enveloping atmosphere, but they’re not the only ones. Because of this, you’ll either find them on films made by master filmmakers or in very cult-y and underground movies from the most varied eras of cinema.
As such, these movies also span more than pure, unrestrained horror: some mesh drama, sci-fi and other genres to create a unique setting to the film. It’s this kind of craft, this kind of attention to detail and peculiarity that distinguish them from the rest of the pack.
This is a list and analysis of some of the most atmospheric horror movies.
20. The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)
Bagpipes and establishing shots. That’s what introduces the viewer to Summerisle, the setting of this 1973 folk horror film. When devout Christian Sergeant Howie learns of the disappearance of a young girl, he flies into town so he can investigate her disappearance. From the moment he gets there, however, he is confronted with something much worse than a missing child: a different religion.
From paganistic rituals to shameless public orgies, Howie must deal with opposing views and conflicting opinions in order to solve what looks more and more like a murder. The antagonist (Lord Summerisle!) is played by Christopher Lee, and the film is very much considered a vehicle for his acting chops and star power.
Howie must then resist primal urges like the seduction of the barkeeper’s daughter, because sex out of the bounds of consecrated marriage is against his Christian values. The good sergeant’s played by Edward Woodward, who goes toe to toe with Christoper Lee; both providing the great contrast that separate these two very different ideologies and philosophies.
The Wicker Man has an incredible sense of setting, punctuated by some hauntingly beautiful musical interludes that add to the magical wonder one would feel in a place as strange as Summerisle. Add some erotic imagery, a pinch of graphic content and an unforgettable ending, and you get this overlooked cult classic that has since then influenced countless other films.
19. Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)
Most of David Cronenberg’s early body horror films are owners of a disturbing and twisted atmosphere. Like John Carpenter, he has such a sprawling filmography that films like The Fly or The Brood could also fit on this list, but Videodrome takes the cake. It does because, more than any of those, it also has a thriller-esque temperament that contributes to its paranoia-clogged ambience.
Max Renn (played by James Woods) is a sleazy cable TV station owner looking for constant edge-pushing content, like hardcore pornographic films and extreme violence. On his pursuit for a program that surpasses any of the current series on his channel, he finds a pirate broadcast of the hyperviolent torture show Videodrome. He then becomes entranced with its contents, unable to stop watching the transmissions even when his body starts to twist and change, both physically and mentally.
This 1983 body horror flick is one of Cronenberg’s most intellectually challenging works, sporting acute social commentary that, as usual, was highly controversial, utterly prescient and ahead of its time. Television controls us and turns our subconscious inside out. How can we know we’re not being mentally controlled? And if we do know, do we fight it? Do we even want to? Cronenberg poses these questions and more with his particular dark humor, explicit sexual scenes and gore.
18. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
Let the Right One In is already a modern classic. It could be even argued that it was already one when it was first released in 2008. A Swedish vampire horror film sprinkled with coming of age nuances and romantic qualities, it’s mostly known for being the vampire flick in the same year that the first Twilight series movie was released.
It hasn’t the melodramatic plots of the latter, nor its soap operatic and uneventful characters; instead working deeper to the core of what it means to be a vampire, its repercussions, and the broader notion of the protagonists’ emotions.
Even though it has very literal buckets of blood and is a shock-kill ridden horror film, director Tomas Alfredson has been reported as saying he wasn’t concerned with horror conventions or even vampire movie narrative beats, instead focusing on the principal characters’ relationships. Perhaps that’s the reason the film has such a strong sense of setting and ambience: it tells the story of a 12 year old boy who develops a friendship with an androgynous vampire child in Blackberg, a suburb of Stockholm, in the early 1980s.
That sense of setting can be felt in the playground where the two children, instead of playing, talk endlessly about their own existences and purposes in a nonsensical world; to the bar where the boy’s neighbors gather.
Let the Right One In is a chilling portrayal of abused childhood and of an unyielding need to skip straight into adulthood and to an autonomous life.
17. 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002)
With a low-budget approach (the film’s production costs were around 8 million dollars) that evokes high-budgeted, thrill-filled filmmaking, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is credited with reinvigorating the zombie genre of horror fiction, which could never quite pick up its pace after George Romero’s 1985 Day of the Dead. With olypmic-fast zombies and a brooding post-apocalyptic setting, the film breathed new life into the genre.
When animal activists release a group of chimpanzees that are undergoing experimentation, a rage-like virus is released that collapses society. Cillian Murphy’s character Jim wakes up from a coma only to find out the world he knows of is gone, and he must adapt to the new circumstances under the constant threat of a zombie attack, or a scavenger fighting him for highly valuable resources.
Featuring a strong cast (Brendan Gleeson, Christopher Eccleston) and evoking cinematography full of dutch angles and bravura filmmaking, it’s simultaneously a horror film and a character study about humanity, good and evil, and the actions people take when pushed to the brink of their existence. From the initial opening shot to the ambiguously hopeful ending, 28 Days Later is a visually impressive horror film.
16. Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter, 1987)
Prince of Darkness is one of John Carpenter’s earlier and least appreciated flicks. The case could be made that 1978’s Halloween or 1982’s The Thing would be a better fit for this particular list, but Prince of Darkness has such a singular eeriness and surrealism that merge to create a most peculiar atmosphere.
When a priest asks the help of a physics professor and his students to research a mysterious cylinder containing a swirling green liquid, strange happenings arise. Homeless poeple become murderous thugs; disgusting worms close the windows shut, and the Devil himself may be abound on the abandoned church where the study is being done.
The film, despite its glaring lack of emotional tension, remarkable characters or any real narrative thrust, has a few great moments that mostly involve discussions about theology and surreal imagery with all sorts of bugs and body decomposition. The haunting score and green-tinged cinematography adds to a general feeling of unease that’s the best part about the film.
It even has some interesting things to say, as it creates a parallel between the Devil and our own reflection in the mirror, as if the human psyche is inherently corrupt and evil. All in all, a haunting film about coping with religion and humanity’s darker impulses.
15. The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo Del Toro, 2001)
Before he was propelled to the mainstream blockbuster brand of filmmaking, Guillermo Del Toro was known for his idiosyncratic, independent horror films such as 1993’s Cronos. His third film, The Devil’s Backbone, is a part of this phase of his career.
After having a hard time with the studio mandated Mimic, Del Toro was only able to return to filmmaking with the help of his friend Pedro Almodóvar, whom acted as producer in this 2001 venture.
The film’s set in the late 1930s in Spain, days before the end of the Spanish Civil War. Our protagonist, 10-year old Carlos is left in an orphanage after his only parent is killed in battle, and starts having strange visions of a mysterious apparition he can’t identify.
With a distinct visual style that’s particular to Del Toro’s filmography, The Devil’s Backbone is more than an exercise in style, being considered the director’s most personal film.