Light and Dark

Another set of Halloween thoughts:

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A scene from The Black Cat (1934) : Boris Karloff standing center,                                              Bela Lugosi in profile at right.

I was reading Richard Brody’s paean to The Black Cat , the Universal horror film starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, in their first pairing, and I began to think about my preference for black and white in horror films, and indeed the special place black and white holds in macabre art.

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A print by Jorge Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913)

In horror, it seems to me, color is a drawback. In film, two-color Technicolor and, later, Eastmancolor, provided a limited palette that lent an air of unreality to film, but limited the depth of black – an underlying flatness detracted from the scenes. Three-strip Technicolor was expensive, and required large amounts of light. For eerie settings, black and white was the most evocative. Color brings out the red of blood, but gore is not horror; horror is closely tied to the implied, the suggested, rather than the explicit. This is why I have little interest in any horror film made after 1950, and none at all in any made after 1970. (Well, there are a smattering of exceptions, but those lie outside the standard genre requirements.) Aside from the strictures of the Production Code, filmmakers better understood that fear comes from the unknown. Blood, in black and white, is the same color as shadows.

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A scene from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Atmosphere is important in creating a mood of fear. My old post on The Expressionist City is useful here, as Expressionism, in its cinematic form, runs from silent film into the 1940s. Its peak came in1920, with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which took the dreamlike distortions of Expressionism and put them in motion. Though Expressionist elements endured for decades in watered-down forms, the last masterful production in the style is Robert Florey‘s Murders in the rue Morgue (1932), which borrows story elements and facets of style from Caligari. James Whale‘s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) creates its own unique brand of Expressionism, perhaps because Whale did not employ as many German emigres, who brought Expressionism more directly to the screen. Karl Freund, the masterful cinematographer, went from German films such as The Golem and Metropolis, to Hollywood horrors such as Dracula and Murders in the rue Morgue. Whale’s crew leaned more heavily toward Englishmen, and was highly affected by Whale’s own imagination.

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Guernica, by Pablo Picasso

In fine art, Goya‘s Black Paintings are telling, but the monsters of his etchings are more fantastic and telling, in my opinion. Jorge Guadalupe Posada gave marvelous life to skeletons in his etchings. Picasso‘s Guernica (1937), arguably his greatest work, is virtually devoid of color. Fear of the dark is nearly omnipresent in human experience, closely tied to fear of the unknown. Although modern filmmakers may have the latest in makeup and CG effects to draw on, they little understand that it is what might be there that is most frightening. True horror can be found in the world outside, in war and suffering. Horror as entertainment is a different animal entirely, and one that requires subtlety, artistry, and skill.

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