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4 Classic Cinematic Techniques for Horror Films

Here's how to get your audience feeling scared visually
Photo of Pennywise

The best horror films can immediately convey a sense of unease or imminent danger—and they do it largely through cinematic techniques. In celebration of Halloween let’s dive into some of the most widely used cinematic techniques in the horror genre. Watch the video at the bottom of this post from Film Riot to see these horrific techniques explained and demonstrated in classic horror movies.

#1 Shadows

Shadows play into a primal fear of the unknown and what might be lurking in the darkness, so it’s no surprise it is one of the most commonly used tools for horror filmmakers. The idea of what could be in the shadows is almost always scarier than what actually is there. Many horror filmmakers will play with this technique over the course of their film to keep their viewers on edge. An extremely popular use of shadows is to shoot the main villain as a silhouette—lighting the background rather than the subject and making the dangerous element feel as if it doesn’t belong in the scene. Another way to use shadows is by casting them on surfaces—a menacing subject approaching their unsuspecting subject or to demonstrate some kind of paranormal activity.

#2 Uncommon Angles

Generally speaking, filmmakers find a lot of freedom to get weird when working within the horror genre and this definitely applies to using uncommon camera angles. The off kilter Dutch angle shot is a commonly used technique for giving your viewers a sense of unease while watching a scene. This angle gives the sense that the world around the character is being turned sideways. The birds eye view is another uncommon angle that gives viewers a feeling that the main characters are being watched by some unseen entity. POV style shots are another popular choice for horror directors. These often communicate the frantic energy of either victim or the villain in a scene.

#3 Uncommon Lighting

Horror is one of the rare genres where actors aren’t lit to look as attractive as possible. Instead, horror directors often choose to light their subjects with much more stylized lighting setups. Common techniques include lighting from below, lighting with a single beam of a flashlight or flickering lights.


#4 Color

Horror directors also have a lot of freedom when it comes to color. Similar to uncommon lighting techniques, horror creators aren’t often concerned with making their characters attractive, so it’s not unusual to see red or green washes of color in a horror film. The use of over the top colors can help communicate feelings of fear and danger to an audience.

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