Since the dawn of cinema, black and white started off as the go-to medium, to be replaced by color and then only opted for as an artistic choice from there forward. Looking back at everything from Der Golem, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Nosferatuinto The Outer Limits' and The Twilight Zone's regular spooky additions, the black and white medium doesn't allow for any distractions and, when talking about horror, it gives an opportunity for its villains to stalk and chew the scenery with even more of a focus on their menace.
While some may view it is as limiting (and are occasionally right to think so), a black and white feature when used correctly is scaled back and simplistic. Its visuals come first as a priority and don't require color to tell you how good they are, and emphasize framing, lighting, and angles without the manipulation of color. When challenged by those with a closed mindset of black and white thinking, these movies remain defiant proof that color isn't the only way to scare.
8 The Lighthouse (2019)
A film from indie darlings A24, the only modern movie on this list is something to behold. The Lighthouse‘s lack of color and choice of boxed-in frames and small aspect ratio is intentionally claustrophobic for its audience, as if the characters physically need to stretch their arms out and push the frames away. If Smell-o-Vision existed, you could practically smell the stench of seagulls and barnacles reeking from this lurid hole, and the black and white imagery is essential in this.
Robert Pattinson as the younger assistant and Willem Dafoe as a curmudgeon lighthouse keeper are irresistibly good in a movie that feels like, at the time of release, it could foresee the social isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic (and our following year trapped in confined bickering) coming down the lens of its telescope.
7 House By The River (1950)
Following a murder, House By the River (based on the 1921 novel of the same name) follows the dumping of a body in the river neighboring the titular house, as each scene seems to get worse and worse for those involved. As a meditation on men and their acts of violence, this is a film with characters that become all the more desperate as they approach the credits. Props to Louis Hayward's performance and an escalating sense of selfishness that constantly evolves. As the screws tighten, coupled with the heat and the setting so close to the river captured perfectly by the black and white photography, this becomes an exhausting watch.
6 Onibaba (1964)
Onibaba is such a simple ride, made even more so by its choice of black and white. Patience is the word of the day here, as shots linger on grass swaying in the wind and rivers on hot days, with its scares coming late in the running. A mother and her daughter-in-law rob and ambush soldiers in the day, until the younger woman becomes distracted by the returning soldier who she begins a relationship with.
As the story develops, we are treated to a thrilling cat and mouse pursuit as the mother toys with demons, in a bid to trick those around her. This is a movie that feels like a story told to scare children, deeply rooted in a kind of fairy tale mythology and the simple but emotional drama of Japanese Noh theater. As night inevitably comes in this picture, it's the film's quite literal darkness (in stunning black and white) that remains its most chilling takeaway. An incredibly entertaining addition to Japanese film.
5 Freaks (1932)
So much of Freaks has remained visually memorable, in this tale of one-upping and revenge that is ultimately very sad. Focusing on a circus troupe, for better or worse the film's main cast are all people with physical disabilities one way or another — but the film never looks down upon these characters, instead putting them front and center and positioning the one able-bodied person that features in the piece as the villain. Freaks‘ visuals, and its rain soaked finale, sticks in the memory for a long time after. Today's American Horror Story series would go on to take major cues from this defining cult classic with some of the most haunting black and white imagery of any film.
4 Dracula (1931)
Based on the Bram Stoker novel, Dracula is a classic tale focused on the almighty count. The great gothic movie tropes that would become staples of the horror genre are all on show here, with bats, castles, and scared villagers making up this world, all filled with black and white fog and moonlight. Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi, is simultaneously terrifying, charismatic, and sexy all at once here.
Watch one of the scariest images in film history here as the derelict vessel reveals a maddened Renfield (Dwight Fry) below decks, smiling at the sunlight and chuckling as he knows that his master is about to be set loose. While Christopher Lee's Hammer iteration certainly deserves its place, Legosi is the OG Dracula for us.
3 Seconds (1966)
In the highly influential body-swap horror SecondsHamilton believes his friend has died, only for him to return entirely out of the blue claiming that he has an entirely new face and identity given to him by the mysterious “Company.” Disenchanted with his own life, Hamilton follows up and agrees to a new life of his own, quickly realizing it's just not that simple…
So much of Seconds‘ imagery is just nightmarish and all shadows and disturbing close-ups, from its very opening title sequence to the actual surgery scene, shot in a warped way from fisheye lenses. Watch as the incredibly handsome Rock Hudson loses his mind here, as Seconds forces itself on the cranium in a movie forever begging for a rewatch.
2 Psycho (1960)
Controversial at the time, over 60 years later, Psycho comes off as relatively tame horror-wise now. Down to its incredible pacing and refusal to descend into pure schlock with a steady hand from great director Alfred Hitchcock, this picture remains so eerily important. Brutal and murky all at once, and with enough twists and turns to keep the story so electric, the shower scene remains still such a talking point for its tremendously voyeuristic ideals; if it wasn't for the black and white cinematography, it simply wouldn't have worked. Spoofed to Heaven and back since, Psycho is still absolutely vital and iconic in every single way.
1 Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Night of the Living Dead is the seminal zombie movie, from which every other zombie movie could only follow. Famed for its low budget, straightforward focus on characters, and its brilliantly brave casting of a person of color in the lead role at the time, Night of the Living Dead is important both on screen and off. And it hasn't aged a day. Still so tight, and incredibly terrifying visually at points thanks to its high-contrast black and white photography, Night of the Living Dead would be followed by Dawn of the Dead in 1978. A color version of Night of the Living Dead does also exist, but is a great example of a movie not being improved by the advent of color, with the choice of the black and white original's bloody scenes coming off like gleaming ink in the light.
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