The 1980s were arguably the most defining decades for horror. While censorship was still much stricter than it is today, filmmakers in the 80s were able to show much more on screen than they could in the last golden age of horror. Because of these more lax rules, the imagination could run wild.
Horror movies were eventually taken a lot more seriously, which many of the decade’s great filmmakers enjoyed. Some of the genre’s most unique and compelling cinematography actually comes from scary ’80s horror films. as a source of inspiration by cinematographers of all genres. Today, we’re taking a look at the ’80s horror films that had some of the best cinematography of the decade.
seven The Evil Dead (1981)
Sam Raimi excels at enhancing stories through stellar visuals. The director brought his unique style to the world of superheroes with the Tobey Maguire-directed film Spider Man movies and, more recently, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The director has honed his skills in the horror genre (which fans hope he’ll return to for his next film), and this is especially evident in his original masterpiece, diabolical death.
Tim Philo serves as the cinematographer for this classic, and his visuals mixed with Raimi’s direction helped cement The evil Dead like a cultural hit. The film was low-budget and therefore had an almost amateurish feel. That works in this movie’s favor and gives it a creepy, almost found feel. There are plenty of great shots, but the POV shots of unseen evil flying towards its next target are nothing short of iconic. The cinematography of this film helped define Sam Raimi’s style and was later used to bring to life some of the most beloved comic book films of all time.
6 Aliens (1986)
James Cameron’s 1986 sequel to Ridley Scott’s terrifying Extraterrestrial earned his own living. The sci-fi horror film is known as one of the best of the ’80s genre, and for good reason. One of the main elements is aliens‘distinct visual sensation. The late cinematographer Adrian Biddle took the world imagined by James Cameron and brought it to life in a way that still holds true today. In addition to Stan Winston’s stellar effects, Biddle’s camerawork takes viewers on a terrifying yet fantastical journey to another planet.
The film is tonally different from the first, as it focuses a bit more on action than on Extraterrestrial. It shows in the cinematography, giving it a unique, yet similar feel. The camera moves as if the viewer is on a mission, which makes things even more terrifying.
5 The Fly (1986)
Shocking new heights were reached for body horror in the 80s. One of the favorites of this subgenre was David Cronenberg’s remake of Fly. The film has a completely separate life from the 1958 original, and much of that is due to cinematographer Mark Irwin. Irwin’s camerawork gives the film an almost polished look for the first part, and an unnatural grimy feel when the transformation begins.
Convincingly filming an ominous, gradual transformation is no easy task, and yet Irwin does it spectacularly. Every gooey detail is shown in full view, and almost nothing is left to the imagination. The horror in this film taps into the subconscious fear of insects and aging that plagues many, and the camerawork ensures that Cronenberg capitalizes on that fear.
4 Hellraiser (1987)
Clive Barker’s Bloody Classic hellraiser has some of the most gruesome moments in all of horror. These disturbing scenes were the skillful work of cinematographer Robin Vidgeon. The film’s camerawork uses minimal lighting to bring the classic to life, and it works in more ways than one. The scenes in a very shadowy room where a skinless and bloodthirsty person hides will make everyone feel the primal fear of the dark. While the human world scenes are bad enough, when the story shifts into cenobite territory, a new layer of fear is added.
The franchise may have gone off the rails, but the original film remains one of the scariest stories ever filmed. Barker’s imaginative writing and directing mixed with Vidgeon’s camerawork and incredible ’80s character and special effects design are the key elements that cemented this film in horror history. The blows in hellraiser still gives even the most hardened horror dog nightmares.
3 The Thing (1982)
Dean Cundey is the man behind The thing’s Stellar camera work. Cundey has worked with Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis but is no stranger to the horror genre, having been a frequent collaborator with director John Carpenter, and this film might very well be his finest work. As Fly, The thing is one of the champions of raw special effects in the body horror genre, with bodies that literally transform and crumble. The film is set in a remote Antarctic research base, and isolation is the key word.
The camera work really makes the viewer feel like they’re trapped as a shape-shifting alien prowls the grounds. There are many elements that make The thing a horror masterpiece, and the cinematography is one of the most important. Sometimes the camerawork doesn’t work because of what’s been shown, it’s because of what’s not shown.
2 A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Wes Craven’s legendary classic freddie has become so iconic for a number of reasons. As with any great film, the camera work was one of those reasons. Cinematographer Jacques Haitkin had to bring Craven’s vision to life on a limited budget. This was done with a horror movie’s best friend laying plans. It’s one thing to show the nightmarish world with imaginative visuals, it’s another to show the terror of knowing something is lurking. Freddy’s presence is felt even when Robert Englund (seen recently on stranger things) is not on the screen.
Haitkin managed to make the audience feel like the Springwood Slasher was in every scene and then shock them when he actually shows up. While these moments are arguably the most important, the nightmares and death scenes are just as impressive. No one is likely to forget Glen’s bloody death or seeing Tina dragged along the ceiling. This film is rightly the stuff of which nightmares are made, and Jacques Haitkin deserves some of the credit.
1 The Shining (1980)
Comparing Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the brilliant to other movies when it comes to cinematography almost doesn’t seem right. John Alcott was the cinematographer on this classic film, and had worked with Kubrick three times before (winning an Oscar for Barry Lyndon), he therefore knew how to please the director. While many fans of the book, including Stephen King himself, think the film is a bad adaptation, there’s no denying the impact of the camera work. As The thing, the shiny perfectly encapsulates the feeling of isolation and dread, making expansive environments (a vast hotel, like the vastness of Antarctica) feel somewhat claustrophobic.
From the legendary opening shot to Jack’s final shot through the hedge maze, each frame is an individual masterpiece. There’s little to say about this film that hasn’t already been said (whether in an interview with Alcott for American cinematographeror an excellent essay in sense of cinema); it’s a masterclass in suspense and cinema. While Kubrick, Jack Nicholson, and Shelly Duvall all deserve credit for the film’s success, John Alcott shouldn’t be overlooked.