Conventional wisdom holds that horror is a genre reliant on intimacy and claustrophobia, and that in cinema both of those needs are better served by a relatively narrow aspect ratio than by a wider one, so the majority of theatrical horror films in the widescreen era (1953-present) have been produced in either Academy Flat (1.85:1) or European Flat (1.66:1), rather than in Scope ratios (which hover around 2.35:1). Those wider ratios are assumed to be most appropriate for big epic movies, more about spectacle and awe than about individual experiences and emotions.
But some horror filmmakers have found that a wider image can provide an ominous sense of space – space awaiting something to fill it – or that showing the entirety of a room can demonstrate just how enclosed it really is, increasing rather than undercutting a sense of claustrophobia. For instance, while open space on the audience-right side of the screen suggests an area into which characters can escape, open space on the audience-left side – even if it is logically space into which the characters could flee – feels limited if the right side of the screen is occupied. Careful composition can make a wide open space feel as confined as a closet.
And that wide screen might expand space to the sides, but it can also be seen as contracting space at the top and bottom. Extreme close-ups in Scope pictures are particularly tight and can be quite effectively nerve-wracking.
Below are examples from ten horror movies that I feel made excellent use of scope aspect ratios to contribute to the tension and terror.
The Fly (1958)
Director: Kurt Neumann
Cinematography: Karl Struss
In 1958, color and widescreen presentation were pretty rare features for a sci-fi/horror movie, and certainly helped contribute to The Fly’s box office success.
The Haunting (1963)
Director: Robert Wise
Cinematography: Davis Boulton
Robert Wise was an A-list director, and his interest in adapting a work by an author as popular as Shirley Jackson encouraged the studio to finance a much more lavish production than most supernatural horror movies of the time.
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Cinematography: Yoshio Miyajima
In the 1960s, supernatural horror wasn’t as thoroughly ghetto-ized a genre in Japan as in the West, so it’s not surprising that this anthology picture– which scored an Academy Award nomination for best foreign film – was helmed by one of the country’s top director/photographer pairings.
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cinematography: Michael Reed
The majority of Hammer’s horror output from the 50s through the 70s was shot in the relatively narrow European Flat ratio, so their few excursions into Scope stand out all the more.
The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)
Director: Roman Polanski
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
This was Polanski’s first shot at a lavish, big budget production, and he chose some of England’s most talented craftsmen to bring his vision to life; Slocombe had already been dp’ing for nearly three decades when he shot The Fearless Vampire Killers, but today he is probably best remembered for his later work on the first three Indiana Jones movies.
Deep Red (1975)
Director: Dario Argento
Cinematography: Luigi Kuveiller
Like there was any chance Argento wouldn’t make it onto this list?
Director: John Carpenter
Cinematography: Dean Cundey
Carpenter and Cundey’s meticulous framing and use of negative space are a big part of Halloween’s overpowering atmosphere. There’s a reason Cundey would not only go on working with Carpenter, but would also shoot movies for Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis and Ron Howard. A lot of credit has to go to camera operator Raymond Stella and his outstanding panaglide work, as well.
Director: Ridley Scott
Cinematography: Derek Vanlint
The wide frame is used alternately to contain the entire cast in long shots for naturalistic ensemble interaction; to suggest the vast loneliness of space; to give a sense of the scope of the alien vessel; and to emphasize the size and shape of the various narrow, claustrophobic spaces that make up the interior of the Nostromo.
Director: Wes Craven
Cinematography: Mark Irwin
For Craven’s first venture into Scope filmmaking, he and Irwin (who had plenty of genre experience himself) used the frame to create tense compositions which constantly suggest danger lurking just outside the frame, or highlight threats just beyond the characters’ view.
Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
Director: E. Elias Merhige
Cinematography: Lou Bogue
Shooting in Scope was an interesting choice for a story set during the production of Nosferatu (1922), which was, like all movies of its day, shot in the Academy Standard ratio (1.33:1). However, in addition to allowing for some striking, painterly compositions, this choice allowed the movie to distinguish between the “real” world seen in Scope and the (literally) narrower world seen through the eye of the camera.
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