Horror has deep roots in cinema, harking back to the first silent shorts and trick films, before continuing to evolve into the phenomenon it is today. While style and horror aren’t mutually exclusive, most horror movies are so concerned with atmosphere that the visuals often rely on tropes that can begin to look the same. Additionally, horror’s association with the macabre often means movies are shrouded in darkness, with set design and costumes sometimes barely visible onscreen. This banality renders highly stylized horrors even more visually impressive, with some holding their impact 100 years later.
Here we break down 15 of the most stylish horror movies ever made.
Director: Dario Argento
It’s no surprise that Suspiria is on this list. Dario Argento’s singular vision is often associated with “giallo all’italiana” — a sub-genre of Italian-produced thriller-horror movies that were mostly made between the 1960s-80s — though it’s technically not a traditional giallo film.
Suspiria’s exaggerated set design was offset by a rich Technicolor palette that was inspired by the expressionist visuals in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The film’s lush aesthetic was complemented by an equally rich score from prog-rock band Goblin. Nearly 50 years on, Suspiria is a cult classic and still one of the most stunning horror movies ever made.
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Last year saw a remake from Luca Guadagnino, however, he was adamant that his version was an homage to the original rather than a direct retelling. Interestingly, Guadagnino forwent the original film’s lurid color palette and opted for a bleak “winterish” effect full of muted tones. Thom Yorke composed the film’s score, his debut feature film venture, while Tilda Swinton delivered standout performances as various characters. The movie even served as inspiration for Jun Takahashi’s AW19 collection for UNDERCOVER, titled “Suspirium.” If that’s not an indication of style, then we don’t know what is.
Blood and Black Lace (1964)
Director: Mario Bava
On the topic of giallo, Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace is a seminal film in the genre, playing a pivotal role in giallo’s development. It concerns a masked killer who murders fashion models. Bava himself was a big influence on Dario Argento, not to mention American directors such as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and others. Additionally, we have Blood and Black Lace to thank for essentially creating the Hollywood slasher genre as a whole, where a masked assailant stalks and hunts down unwitting women before gratuitously murdering them.
The Shining (1980)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
The Shining succeeds thanks to Kubrick’s nuanced vision and Stephen King’s horrific source material. From the Overlook Hotel’s idiosyncratic-yet-common decor (that carpet, that bathroom) to its characters’ normcore-before-it-was-actually-a-thing style, The Shining is a visual study on banality gone wrong; a sentiment that’s echoed in the film’s plot about a regular man who becomes a caretaker and is subsequently driven mad.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Director: Roman Polanski
Based on the novel by Ira Levin, Rosemary’s Baby tells a sinister story of satanism dressed up to fit the Upper West Side. The movie captured the zeitgeist of late ‘60s style as much as it did social themes including women’s liberation. Alongside then-trendy mod clothing, Rosemary’s Baby is remembered for Mia Farrow’s signature pixie crop and New York’s notorious Dakota building.
The Neon Demon (2016)
Director: Nicholas Winding Refn
Not a traditional horror by any means, The Neon Demon is a dark look at modeling and the fashion world, and society’s obsession with beauty and youth. It’s no surprise then that the mise-en-scene often resembles high fashion editorials. The film may have left audiences divided but there’s no denying it’s a strong recent foray into stylized horror.
Director: Tara Subkoff
Written and directed by actress, conceptual artist, and fashion designer Tara Subkoff, #Horror revolves around cyberbullying among a group of pre-teen girls. Aesthetics are clearly a high priority for Subkoff, with the film’s Connecticut mansion and luxe styling choices very much deliberate, even if they are loosely tied to the narrative.
Dead Ringers (1988)
Director: David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg’s body horror about twin gynecologists with a penchant for mutilating women’s bodies is a surprisingly stylish affair. From all-red operating theater garb to chic ‘80s silhouettes that wouldn’t be out of place on the Balenciaga runway, Dead Ringers is as fashionable as it is bizarre.
The Hunger (1983)
Director: Tony Scott
An erotic vampire horror starring David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon? Yes, please. The Hunger has been criticized for putting style over substance, but when your stellar cast looks this good — dressed in peak ‘80s trends, no less — it’s a little more forgiving. Nevertheless, The Hunger remains a cult classic and one of the most stylish vampire movies ever made.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Ford Coppola’s vision of the Dracula legend is iconic in a multitude of ways. It excelled in showcasing the vampire genre’s camp and creepy aesthetic, but also took it to a place of high-artistic merit complete with serious acting talent (never mind Keanu Reeves’ weak performance). It even won three Oscars, making it the only Dracula adaptation ever to do so. What’s more, it redefined cinematic tropes in the genre, giving us retractable fangs and vampires turning into bats, among other things.
American Psycho (2000)
Director: Mary Harron
Patrick Bateman is perhaps the best dressed serial killer ever to grace the screen, or page, be it that the movie is based on Bret Easton Ellis’ dark satire. And thankfully Mary Harron’s cinematic vision did the character justice, showing off his luxe life of ‘80s excess, from his stark, design-filled apartment to his sleek wardrobe. Even the people in the film are beautiful – Christian Bale is the epitome of a handsome psycho, while Chloe Sevigny, Reese Witherspoon, and Jared Leto all play their roles to perfection.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Director: Robert Wiene
What’s more surprising than recognizing the crossover of stylish horror films is the fact that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, widely considered to be the first true horror film, is one of the most stunning. Steeped in an abstract German Expressionist style, the film featured distorted sets that convey terror even without any action. The silent film is a landmark in cinema and the horror genre, and has influenced everything from 1930s American horror movies and film noir to the theater.
Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi
This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning J-Horror. House is a horror comedy that centers around a group of schoolgirls who travel to one of the girls’ aunt’s house, only to be picked off one by one by the evil house. It’s absurd and beautiful, and feels like something Alessandro Michele would commission for Gucci’s fashion campaigns.
The Cell (2000)
Director: Tarsem Singh
The Cell was a defining movie at the turn of the century, not only for its stunning visuals and crossover fantasy-horror genre, but for helping cement Jennifer Lopez’s acting career alongside her musical success. J-Lo plays a psychiatrist who enters the mind of a serial killer in order to help save his latest victim. The plot was deemed too similar to The Silence of the Lambs, but The Cell’s elaborate dreamscapes and costumes are still considered iconic.
Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
Director: Werner Herzog
Made as an homage to F.W. Murnau’s seminal 1922 silent film Nosferatu (which, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, is one of the earliest horror films), Werner Herzog’s retelling focuses less on German Expressionism but doesn’t forgo beautiful, haunting visuals in the process. Murnau’s original is essentially a take on Count Dracula’s story, with elements changed to avoid copyright. Herzog was able to reincorporate aspects of Bram Stoker’s story in his version as it had by then passed into the public domain.